Crazy Rich Asians was broadcast on BBC1 late night before Christmas. I think it would have been interesting for it to be on Christmas Day. I missed the film in UK cinemas by accident so I welcomed the chance to watch a release that performed well at the UK box office. What I saw was an accomplished romantic comedy set amongst the super-rich Chinese community of Singapore and Malaysia (many of the locations that purport to be in Singapore are actually in Malaysia). The film is conventional in terms of Hollywood genre titles but also has elements of ‘local’ culture that could help it to appeal to both the Chinese-American and the broader Chinese diasporic audience. It’s an adaptation of a novel by Kevin Kwan, a Singapore-born American author. Having said that, I can see that the film could be seen as offensive to some audiences – especially the other ‘Asians’ who are not rich and not Chinese. Box Office Mojo figures suggest that the film’s main audience was in North America (whereas most Hollywood films now sell the majority of their tickets in the ‘international’ marketplace). It appears to have had only a restricted release in China but has performed well in Australia, the UK and Indonesia as the biggest markets outside North America.
It’s possible to outline the plot without spoiling the story. Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a young woman in New York, is invited to a wedding in Singapore at which her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) will be best man for his old schoolfriend. Rachel is unaware that her boyfriend is heir to a massive fortune with interests across South East Asia. She also doesn’t realise that the news of her relationship with Nick is already spreading through social media networks and causing some concern in Nick’s family in Singapore. Rachel is an Economics professor and a single parent child from a relatively poor background. Fortunately she has Peik Lin (Awkwafina), a college friend now based in Singapore, to act as support so she will not be completely defenceless when she meets Nick’s formidable mother and grandma as well as his wealthy friends.
The ingredients of the romcom are laid out before us with the added element of the difference in ‘family values’ between the Singapore-Chinese and the ‘Chinese-American’ families. The film’s casting is interesting in that three of the principals are played by actors educated in the UK, two of whom have British nationality. In a sense this adds some authenticity to the casting while at the same time creating links between British colonial backgrounds and traditional Chinese families as opposed to the ‘freedom/modernity’ tag associated with the Chinese-American characters. This is most evident in the confrontations between Nick’s mother, played by Michelle Yeoh, and Rachel. Michelle Yeoh was born in Ipoh in Malaysia and developed her career as an action star in Hong Kong cinema after training in the UK, initially as a ballet dancer. She has been arguably the most versatile and successful global star of the Chinese diaspora with major roles in Hollywood films as well as ‘international’ productions. Nick’s older sister Astrid is played by Gemma Chan. The rising British-Chinese star was born in the UK to parents who had both lived in Hong Kong before settling in the UK. Henry Golding as Nick is perhaps the most controversial casting – and, I understand, it was actually a late decision. Golding has a British father but he was born in Sarawak and though he was educated in the UK, he returned to Malaysia when he was 21 and began his career in Kuala Lumpur. The issue for some audiences appears to be his Malay heritage (actually the indigenous people of Borneo) and that he is not Chinese. This in turn refers to one of the criticisms of the film overall which is that the focus on the super-rich Chinese in Singapore means the exclusion of the other two main communities in Singapore, the Malay and the Indian.
Singapore is an interesting setting for this film for several reasons. It is now one of the wealthiest countries in the world having developed its full potential as an entrepôt – a trading and distribution centre – and then diversifying to cover finance, oil refining and electronics as important industrial sectors. It also has a history of ‘strong’ government that has attempted to mould a disciplined and meritocratic society. This has produced high standards of education but also great economic wealth disparity. Two other distinctive features of Singapore are the division between the roughly 60% ‘resident’ population and the remainder of ‘guest workers’. But against this, Singapore is a country that recognises its different communities by making its four main languages equally important in public services. I can’t think of anywhere else where the public transit system routinely presents information in four languages – English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. Crazy Rich Asians is an ‘entertainment’ and the film doesn’t have to explore all the social issues that run through the lives of ordinary Singapore families. On the other hand, a romcom that is built around social class differences and national ideologies about family values does need to be a little careful, I think.
The film’s aim is clearly to emphasise glamour and to this end the different locations used range from the tourist region of Langkawi, the island group in North-West Malaysia, through Penang and Kuala Lumpur to Singapore itself. This is of course a traditional Hollywood ploy. When big budget romcoms are made in the UK, they focus on the tourist parts of London and then other hotspts such as the Lake District, Scottish highlands, Bath, Oxford/Cambridge etc. The same is true of major Bollywood productions that set their narratives in London and attractive tourist centres. The Bollywood connection is in fact something I would like to follow up. This Asian American romcom is similar in several ways to those films which explore the Indian diasporas and the clashes over changing family values. I was reminded of Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice (UK-US-India 2004) and Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (India-US-UK 2001) as films by diasporic directors plus countless mainstream Hindi films. But I wonder if any of these Indian narratives stumbled like Crazy Rich Asians in representing other cultures? I’m referring here to the scene in which Rachel and Peik Lin travel to the Young mansion for the first time (Rachel is not staying with Nick). They find the massive house and extensive gardens in the middle of a wooded area along a private road which the satnav is unaware of (the house is actually in North Malaysia). It’s dark and at the gates of the mansion they are met by two Indian security officers. Awkwafina’s reaction (IMDb suggests that she improvised much of her dialogue) is to freak out at the sight of a dark-skinned man, even to the extent of raising her hands and saying “we come in peace”. She also makes a reference to the area as ‘jungle’. The guards themselves say nothing though their body language is a little strange. I’m not sure if they are meant to be Sikhs (Sikhs have traditionally been over-represented in the Indian armed forces) but they are turnbanned, bearded, dressed in a military type uniform and carrying what look like ancient .303 rifles with fixed bayonets, just as if they have stepped out of a 1950s adventure film.
The film does attempt to represent Singapore culture via a sequence set in a food court with different types of street food and at one point Rachel plays mahjong on a street that looked familiar to me in terms of architecture but then I realised the scene was shot in Penang, Malaysia. In a sense none of this ‘inauthenticity’ matters but I find it irritating mainly because the narrative could have been ‘smaller’ and more realist. I realise that that is not the point of romcoms and so I accept the film for what it is and reserve my disappointment. I thought all the principals were very good in their roles and particularly Constance Wu as Rachel who puts across her character as an intelligent and attractive young woman without being over-glamourised – and she can stand up to Michelle Yeoh in full spate of motherly control. Accents in the film are important and I noted that the Japanese-born Sonoya Mizuno has an impeccable British accent, as did some of the Singaporean actors. The Brits are the bad guys again in a Hollywood film but Nick and Rachel make a winning pair and I had a tear in my eye at the end of the film. I must also give a shout out to Gemma Chan and the sub-plot that she leads which illustrates the different kinds of problems the Young family wealth creates for Nick’s sister.
I understand that perhaps not all of the original novel was used in the film so there may be more to come. The film made a heap of money and that might trigger further films. Crazy Rich Asians is on iPlayer for a further 10 days. It’s a fun picture to brighten up a January day.
Producer-writer-director Eric Khoo has an interest in Japanese culture as seen in his animated film about a manga writer Tatsumi (Singapore 2011). Khoo has also long been interested in films about food and cooking. Ramen Shop is therefore a logical choice of subject for a film which is about national and personal/familial relationships and centred on identity issues.
Masato is a very handsome young man (played by Saitō Takumi who worked as a model in his teens and who is rather older than he appears to be in this film). Masato’s mother was from Singapore where the family lived for ten years before his father took them back to Japan. Lian Mei (Jeanette Aw) died in Japan when Masato was still a young teenager and life with his father Kazuo (Ihara Tsuyoshi) was quite difficult as his father tended to ‘shut down’ after his wife’s death. Masato began to work in the family ramen shop in Takasaki in Central Honshu alongside his father’s brother, a man with a much more open personality. Suddenly one day his father collapses and dies. After the funeral Masato discovers his mother’s diaries which detail her life in Singapore. Unfortunately, they are all written in Mandarin which Masato is not able to read. (We assume that as a child he spoke either English or Japanese.) Masato doesn’t remember much about his childhood but as a chef he has been interested in Singaporean food and has kept up a correspondence with a blogger called Miki in Singapore who sends him recipes and spices. He makes a decision to travel to Singapore to try to find out more about his mother’s past. He also wants to find the secret to making the best ‘pork rib soup’, in some ways the Singapore equivalent of ramen. The narrative will develop with a parallel set of flashbacks as Masato uncovers the history of his parents’ relationship.
When Masato arrives in Singapore he meets Miki and she begins his education about Singaporean culture. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative except to say that eventually Masato finds his other uncle, Wee (Mark Lee) and through Wee he uncovers the family history and answers to some of the puzzles that are in his mother’s scrapbook/diary. Ramen Shop is a family melodrama and in some ways a quite conventional film narrative, but alongside the food angle it has one other important narrative line. Masato’s mother’s family suffered Occupation by Japanese forces in 1942 with various consequences. Masato learns about the War through a visit to a museum in Singapore. I was struck by this sequence, partly because I experienced something similar in New Zealand, in the National Museum in Wellington which at the time I visited was commemorating the New Zealand experiences of 1915 and the abortive landing of Anzac troops at Gallipoli. New Zealand troops suffered heavy losses and terrible conditions in the Gallipoli Campaign. I’ve always seen Winston Churchill as the villain in this instance, being reckless and risking high casualties in his support for the landings (as First Lord of the Admiralty). The Australians and New Zealanders took the events very seriously and Anzac Day is held annually to remember the fallen. As a Brit I felt humbled and shamed in that Museum. There is clearly a Singapore ‘folk memory’ of the Japanese Occupation and for younger Japanese I can imagine that taking on board the prosecution of the Occupation must be an uncomfortable aspect of modern history. There are still questions, I think, about how Japan has dealt with memories of the militarism of the 1930s and the subsequent wars in China and across South and South East Asia. It is ironic that at first Kazuo and Lian Mei must converse in English but I’m still not sure what to make of this.
The search for authenticity in cooking both ramen and pork rib soup acts in the film as a way of exploring globalisation. Part of this is connected to the history of both ramen and pork rib soup which were introduced or more correctly popularised and ‘commodified’ at more or less the same time. Both were Chinese in origin. In Japan around the end of the nineteenth century when the Japanese industrial revolution was developing rapidly, the new army of industrial workers facing early starts and tiring days needed hot food available close to workplaces. ‘Chinese noodles’ in broth developed as a form of fast food with a distinctive method of ‘pulling’ noodle dough by hand and using a form of alkaline water to produce round yellow noodles. Various different forms of broth and meat and vegetables have been developed over time and now ramen are eaten in many parts of the world, famously becoming a staple of student life in their dried ‘cup noodle’ form, for cheap instant meals as well as a popular restaurant option. At the same late 19th century point in the exploitation of the potential of the British colonial possessions of Singapore and Malaya, the day labourers on the docks and in the warehouses of Singapore needed food for energy. The labourers were mainly Chinese migrant workers and the solution to the problem of developing a new ‘fast food’ was to import the idea of pork bone soup from Hokkien China (the region from which many migrants came). This proved successful and the Singapore dish of ‘Bak Kut Teh’ developed in which the soup is always accompanied by traditionally mashed Chinese tea. All of this is recognised in the film script and Masato comes to recognise what it means.
Ramen Shop has not been released in the UK but it has opened in North America and many parts of Europe as well as South-East and East Asia. ‘Ramen’ as such haven’t made the same kind of impact on British food culture, simply because, I think, of the competition from Indian, Italian and other cuisines. Chinese food in the UK was at first dominated by Cantonese cuisine as migrants were mainly from Hong Kong or Southern China. More recently Sichuan food seems to have become important. Has the UK missed out by not getting to see Ramen Shop? I found this an enjoyable and informative film. The script is written by two of Eric Khoo’s long-term collaborators, Tan Fong Chen and Wong Kim Hoh. I think these kind of food-focused stories tend to produce ‘feelgood’ endings and that’s the case here but there is enough drama to leaven the overall effect. Ramen Shop is currently available on MUBI in the UK and I would recommend it.
Hong Kong cinema has not been very visible for me during lockdown so I was delighted to discover ‘Focus Hong Kong’ – part of the Chinese Visual Festival in the UK offering five features with some extras and a series of short films at the bargain price of £8.99 or £2.99 for a single feature. The festival started last night and films are available to stream until 15th February.
I started with this title which promised genre pleasures in the form of an absurdist crime fiction film, a mash-up of gangster film, police investigation, melodrama and romance all laced with violence and humour. My immediate point of reference seemed to be Johnnie To, the legendary director of crime films with a twist, something prompted by the presence of Louis Koo as one of the two leads, Sean Wong, a cool and ruthless gang leader. He’s up against Louis Cheung as ‘Larry Lam’, a police detective down on his luck. The film begins with the introduction of these two central characters. Wong is fleeing from a killing where the only witness appears to be a parrot and Lam is trying to avoid a loan shark from whom he has borrowed money to set up a cat sanctuary. But just in case this might suggest a whimsical tale, writer director Fung Chi-Keung soon flashes back to a jewellery robbery in which, because of police informants, the cops arrive en masse and the robbery turns violent as Wong and his gang escape with the loot. The murder suggests that the loot has gone missing and Wong is looking for it.
The police investigation is led by hard-faced Inspector Yip and Lam is joined by Charmaine a young female officer who we learn only joined the force because she was inspired by Lam’s bravery on a case a few years ago. Wong has gone into hiding and become the tenant of a landlady named Joy whose other guests are a trio of elderly folk. Lam decides that the parrot knows who the killer is, but it seems to discount Wong. It’s a clever script which I don’t intend to spoil any further. I’ll only point out that with crooks, loot, crime victims, police and informers – and a brief appearance of ‘internal affairs’ – there is every possibility of double-crossing and misrecognitions.
The parrot doesn’t appear that often but its role is important. In the Q&A the director explains that he was inspired by his own experience of living with a parrot when he was a schoolboy and the parrot inadvertently (or not!) got him into trouble. The cats don’t contribute anything that I remember and that’s a shame. Overall, however, the excitement of the shootouts and the humour of the situations work very well. There is a hint of romance and some beautiful aerial shots of the city (it’s a Scope picture). I thought the characters were well drawn within the confines of the genre and the performances were all good. If you are a Louis Koo fan you’ll certainly enjoy his performance. I’m not sure it adds up to anything more than a genre exercise but I found it very enjoyable and just the thing for a lockdown pick-me-up. I’ll certainly look out for more films by Fung Chi-Keung.
This is a difficult film to categorise. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but it does mean that the film has attracted some very positive reviews but also some dismissals. It’s a film which requires a viewer to have some idea about the context of filmmaking in China over the last twenty or thirty years. Writer-director Wei Shejun saw his début short film selected for Cannes competition in 2018, winning a ‘Special Distinction’ Award and both that film and this his début feature have featured at festivals around the world. Striding into the Wind is inspired by his own experiences as a film student. He has also clearly learned how to use festival interviews. A Variety interview and his LFF interview see him name-checking various influences and at one point arguing that currently China has no ‘global directors’. He knows how to play the game and there are sections in this film that demonstrates he can make interesting cinema as well. What it all adds up to is something that needs working through.
At the start of the film I thought that I was in for a ‘slacker comedy’ which isn’t really my kind of thing. Zhou Kun with a kind of mullet-cum-ponytail is a student at a film school repeating a year, which means he has plenty of time to spare to help his classmate Tong Shao-jie learn how to become an audio technician. Kun has a job as sound man on a student (or alumni?) film and Tong tags along trying to learn. Kun has enough industry knowledge to be able to correct his tutor who doesn’t seem to have worked since he left the Film Academy. The digs about the Fifth Generation directors being out of touch now and the Sixth Generation making the same kinds of films all the time (comments by Wei in the Q&A) are seemingly drawn from the director’s own experience in film school. Kun and Tong go on to try to develop various other scams to make money and as well as the possible Hollywood genre connections, I thought that at this point that I might have seen similar films from the new Indian Independent Cinema or perhaps from South Korea. After a while though, the buddy movie at the centre of the narrative begins to be displaced by a genuine romance with the appearance of A Zhi as Kun’s girlfriend. She is much more sussed than the two students and is making money as a model/cheerleader/’eye candy’ for promotional events. It’s a waste of her degree in Chinese Literature but she has a plan. She also seems to have a genuine personality and possibly to care for Kun – but will he have the sense to see this? To be fair to Kun, Zhi is prepared to conform and he isn’t. I have to agree with the BFI interviewer (whose name I didn’t catch, there were access problems in trying to view the Q&A a second time) when she suggested that A Zhi (Zheng Yin Chen) has a real presence which makes the romance narrative possible. But will Kun have the nouse to make it work?
The two young men and one woman trio and one or two other elements in the plot made me think of the early Jia Zhangke film Unknown Pleasures (2002). Jia is, I would argue, the leading Chinese auteur in the global art film market. His wasn’t a name that Wei Shejun checked (Hou Hsiao-hsien was mentioned twice). The Jia references increased for me in the closing section of Striding Into the Wind when Kun and Tong Shao-jie travel to Inner Mongolia to complete the shoot of the film they have been working on since the director wants some ‘authentic ‘ atmosphere for his film. This means a shift to the road movie and a series of reflections on the romance of the region (the wind in the grass, the horses etc.) and also the artificiality of ‘tourist’ versions of Mongolian culture. This trip is tied in to Kun’s relationship with the venerable Jeep Cherokee that he buys cheap at the beginning of the film. Kun has always dreamed about visiting Inner Mongolia so the car is central to how he will understand (or not) his own fantasies and sort out what he wants to do with his life.
China has grown so fast as an economy in the last twenty years and it has been difficult for societal changes to keep pace. It’s hardly surprising that young men born in the late 1990s have issues if they try to do anything else other than knuckle down and conform. Kun has problems with his mother a teacher, his father a police officer and A Zhi’s dad, an accountant as well as his tutor. Tong Shao-jie seems almost completely detached from family in the performance by Tong Lin Kai who was discovered as a non-professional by the director and certainly has a presence in the film. I’d like to show this film in tandem with a film like Beijing Bicycle (dir. Wang Xiaoshuai, China-Taiwan-France 2001) which less than twenty years ago shows a similar trio of young(er) people in Beijing trying to cope with a very different city.
Striding Into the Wind is a hybrid comedy/romance/road trip with an element of family melodrama. The narrative is probably too loose and could be tightened, but the players are engaging and there does seem to be a kind of commentary both on contemporary China and on filmmaking. I look forward to seeing what Wei Shejun does next. The film is produced by the Chinese internet giant Alibaba and is showing in North America on festival screens. Unfortunately the promotion doesn’t seem to be using many images or videos so apologies for the lack of illustrative material here.
Edward Yang (1947-2007) was one of the two major figures of the ‘New Taiwanese Cinema’. Compared to his compatriot Hou Hsiao-hsien, Yang completed only half as many films in a career ended by his early death aged only 59. His films have not always been easy to find in the UK, apart from Yi Yi (2000) and the earlier A Brighter Summer Day (1991). These two films are both excellent and available on Blu-ray/DVD, but as far as I know there are no other titles available on disc. For that reason, I was delighted to discover The Terrorizers as part of MUBI’s ‘library’ offer.
I think I have seen the film before, during an NFT season at the time of its release, but if so I remembered nothing. This isn’t surprising. As with some of the early films by Hou Hsiao-hsien, I think I struggled to understand such films at the time. I’m intrigued to discover that among the few reviews listed by IMDb, there is one which claims The Terrorizers as the ultimate ‘postmodernist’ film and that seems a good call for a mid 1980s film. I hadn’t realised that Frederic Jameson wrote a famous essay on Yang, quoted here in a piece by Jonathan Rosenbaum from 1997:
Taiwan is somehow within the world system as its citizens are in their city boxes: prosperity and constriction all at once; the loss of nature . . . What is grand and exhilarating, light itself, the hours of the day, is nonetheless here embedded in the routine of the city and locked into the pores of its stone or smeared on its glass: light also being postmodern, and a mere adjunct to the making of reproducible images.
— Fredric Jameson, ‘Remapping Taipei’, in The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System (1995)
I confess that Jameson offers densely argued ideas for me but I can see that there are some familiar postmodernist concerns in Yang’s films. Rosenbaum argues that four filmmakers are central to a visionary cinema that properly attempts to investigate modernity both in the world and in cinema. As well as the two Taiwanese directors mentioned here he picks out the Iranian pair, Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf. It’s an interesting argument but here I want to just focus on The Terrorizers. In the essay by Jimmy Weaver, linked on IMDb, Taiwan is seen as the ‘hyper-globalised’ city in which accidental collisions and contacts occur in an urban environment rather than causal connections in a traditional narrative. Weaver then focuses on formal questions to distinguish Yang’s filmmaking. In a contrasting essay on Senses of Cinema, James Waters focuses more on Yang’s approach being a response to the end of martial law in Taiwan and the ‘opening up’ of the country, especially to American and other western cultures. Waters titles his essay ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ – a reference to the use of the Platters song in the film. Both these approaches have interesting things to say and can inform our analysis.
The narrative features eight central characters and three or four narrative strands which come together finally in a process of ‘collisions’. The film begins early in the morning in Taipei. A young man rises, looks out of his window and realises that there is a police stakeout across the road. He dresses, picks up his camera and goes out to shoot pictures, leaving his girlfriend dozing after reading all night. Meanwhile a woman awakes after sleeping on a couch. Her husband is dressing for work and they are clearly sleeping separately. She appears to be a novelist. The young man captures images of a girl escaping from the building staked by the police and injuring herself as she jumped. The girl is bi-racial and she collapses on her way home. The novelist’s husband drives to work and comes across more police cars racing to the stake out and then passes the girl on the pavement. When he gets to work, in a medical laboratory, he learns that his boss has died and this will possibly mean he will be promoted. We are 12 minutes into the film and we’ve met five characters as well as a bunch of police with one in charge. He will become a sixth character. Two more are yet to emerge. The novelist and the lab technician each have their own story which also impinges on their relationship. The roles of the girl (referred to as ‘White Chick’), the photographer and the police officer are not yet clear but will eventually introduce three more narratives and then will collide with the story of the husband and wife.
I’ve tried to outline the structure, but I’ve had to go back and replay that opening 12 minutes which confused me at the time and I would need to watch the whole film again to confirm all the aspects of the narrative which I’ve no intention of ‘spoiling’ heree. All that I will say is that the film ends with what seems like a resolution, but then restarts and contradicts what we have just seen.
Making sense of this film means abandoning the simplified cause and effect narratives of classical cinema and embracing what would later become a form of global postmodern narrative over the next twenty years. This type of narrative is all about accidental connections and is often represented by that phrase about a butterfly flapping its wings and starting a chain of events around the world. It is all linked to chaos theory. In this film that moment might be characterised by a prank telephone call made by White Chick when she is bored at home convalescing from her fracture under her mother’s watchful care. Her random phone call precipitates an escalation of one of the main narrative drives in the film. The chaos of the interconnected lives in the film is a signifier of postmodernity. Though each pair of characters know each other, the connections to characters in other pairs is better seen as random.
The 1980s is seen as the decade in which Taiwan gradually emerges from an agrarian past into an urban future and the ‘New Wave’ films mark both the loss of identity of the city dwellers and their consequent sense of isolation. It’s interesting that both Yang and Hou were born in mainland China in 1947 but were brought to Taiwan by their parents to escape the conclusion of the Civil War in 1948-9. Yang was born in Shanghai, the once and future global city of postmodernity. For young filmmakers, the European New Wave filmmakers of the 1950s/60s were important – Edward Yang has explained that he saw many European films in cinemas sponsored by the Kuomintang government in Taiwan as part of their campaign to present the country as the ‘real China’ in the 1960s/70s. Because of this, several commentators have suggested that Yang was influenced by Antonioni, citing both Blow-Up (UK-Italy 1966) and L’eclisse (Italy-France 1962). I can see that there are grounds to make such a connection, but watching the film my own thoughts were more about connections to some of Wong Kar-wai’s work in the 1990s. Wong is often quoted as part of a ‘Second Wave’ of New Hong Kong cinema so his films are perhaps influenced by Yang, especially Chungking Express (1994) and Fallen Angels (1995).
The sense of dislocation and alienation is also worked out in the geopolitical history of the 1980s in which Taiwan becomes more isolated diplomatically after the US recognition of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Taiwan had already been expelled from the UN and so the contradictions of living in a country beginning to prosper economically and enjoying more sense of political freedom (i.e. less sense of repression) are contradicted by a feeling of abandonment by American foreign policy. This must have been particularly difficult for Yang who had trained as a filmmaker in the US. If I want to understand this situation I’m going to have to try to find access to more of Yang’s work. The Terrorizers has certainly encouraged me to do so.
Dragon Gate Inn (a.k.a. Dragon Inn) is one of the best known and most influential wuxia films by the Chinese director known as King Hu. Both this film and the equally celebrated A Touch of Zen (1971) are currently streaming on MUBI. Dragon Gate Inn is also available on separate Blu-ray editions (Masters of Cinema in the UK and Criterion in the US) of the 2013 restoration of the film. I remember these films from the 1970s in the UK in cinemas and later on prints broadcast by Channel 4 and I think I must have seen at least extracts from then but it wasn’t until I bought a DVD of the 1992 remake that I really began to explore wuxia – more of that later.
King Hu was born in Peking in 1932 and attended art school before joining the flow of exiles to Hong Kong in 1949. He joined the Shaw Brothers Studio in 1958 a nd worked in various capacities on the studio’s Mandarin films and came under the influence of the Taiwanese director Li Han-hsiang. Hu directed his own films starting in 1965 and it was his second film, Come Drink With Me (1966) which introduced his update to the wuxia. Soon after this he left Shaw Brothers, moving to Taiwan where Dragon Inn was produced for the Union Film Company – a local producer giving Hu the chance to try out his own ideas.
Wuxia is an ancient Chinese form of fantasy literature that in the 20th century developed in new forms such as newspapers and magazines and, soon after, cinema. The term refers loosely to the idea of ‘martial chivalry’ and the idea that highly trained warriors would roam the country righting wrongs. After 1949 the nationalised Chinese film industry reduced its reliance on these kinds of action genre films and the development of the genre fell to the exilic directors in Hong Kong and Taiwan. There is a suggestion that wuxia began to be influenced by Japanese chanbara (swordplay) and Japanese cinema was accessible in HK and Taiwan. King Hu developed a particularly elegant and ‘open’ style of traditional wuxia in which he maintained roles for female martial artists and staged swordplay in spectacular natural environments, presented in CinemaScope formats and with traditional music scores.
The plot of the film is relatively straightforward. In 1457 AD, during the Ming Dynasty period, the Empire is being controlled by a group of eunuchs in the Imperial Palace who have already framed the Defence Minister Yu as a traitor and executed him. His two surviving children are to be sent to a remote destination in the desert but the Dong Chang ‘Eastern Agency’, in effect a military group controlled by the eunuch Ciao (Ying Bai), has been ordered to ambush and kill the children and their guards. Their first attempt to do so is thwarted by two sibling warriors (Polly Ling-Feng Shang-Kuan and her brother played by Han Hsieh) and the eunuch’s men decide to descend on the Dragon Gate Inn which is the children’s ultimate destination. The Eastern Agency announce themselves as working for the Ministry of Justice, expecting to find some Imperial Guards at the Inn, but they are not expecting the presence of other independent warriors including master swordsman Xiao (Chun Shih) and the innkeeper Wu (Chien Tsao) who turns out to be one of Yu’s warriors. At the inn a series of encounters between the Eastern Agency troops and the four warriors loyal to Yu’s memory escalates and Ciao himself arrives to try to finish the job. The ending may be predictable in that ‘good’ triumphs over evil, but each contest is different and the narrative is gripping throughout.
There are several reasons why Dragon Gate Inn became a massive hit in Taiwan and later Hong Kong (where Shaw Brothers delayed the film’s release to help one of their own films. Whatever you might think of action films and ‘martial arts’ films in particular, watching this film for ten or twenty minutes will convince you that Hu was a master filmmaker. Hu was originally an actor and an art designer before becoming a writer-director. In wuxia the characters are individuated through action and the visual qualities of their performances, including facial gestures and body postures as well as their martial arts skills and athleticism. Hu handles his actors well and he makes excellent use of his resources. There is just one studio set in the film as far as I can see – the inn itself which offers many opportunities for imaginatively-staged action set pieces – overturned tables, staircases, roofs, balconies, balustrades, windows/doors etc. This is then contrasted with the vast open spaces of deserts, mountains and river-beds. The Taiwanese interior offered so much more than the limited spaces of Hong Kong and Hu presents them on screen using CinemaScope ratio (2.35:1) and often extreme long shot framing by Hua Hui-Ying. But what makes him a special director is the ease with which he shifts from extreme long shot to close-up and a whole range of framings. His staging in depth is equally impressive.
Hu’s knowledge of Peking Opera informs the staging of his swordfight sequences and these are presented without the later wire work. Much is achieved by the editing which suggests movement rather than presenting it directly. The final ingredient is the music score by Chow Lan-Ping which is evocative of Japanese as well as Chinese cinema. Put all these ingredients and Hu’s skills together and stand back. You can recognise now that Hu’s masterpieces comes at a particular time in the late 1960s and early 1970s when American, Japanese and European cinema are converging around the Japanese chanbara and Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah’s Westerns (these latter two directors equally drawing on Kurosawa’s work). We might look even further back to John Ford Westerns (which influenced Kurosawa). The isolated inn in the desert is in many ways similar to the Edwards homestead in The Searchers or the inn in Stagecoach, both set in the landscapes of Monument Valley.
Dragon Gate Inn was more than a major hit film, it raised expectations of what a wuxia film could be and without it the later global blockbusters by Ang Lee with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Zhang Yimou with Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004) would not have had quite the impact they eventually achieved. But before that, Hu’s success encouraged the filmmakers of the Hong Kong New Waves with Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time (1994) and Ann Hui’s Romance of Book and Sword and Princess Fragrance (both 1987). I haven’t seen these last three titles but my own introduction to appreciation of wuxia came through films produced by Tsui Hark in Hong Kong and starring action heroes such as Brigitte Lin and Michelle Yeoh. In particular, I enjoyed the remake of Dragon Gate Inn (New Dragon Gate Inn, 1992) with Brigitte Lin, Tony Leung Ka-fai and Maggie Cheung (as the inn-keeper) and Donnie Yen as the evil eunuch. The remake uses standard modern widescreen (1.85:1) and the exteriors are limited by comparison, but the performances and dialogue as well as action choreography make for an entertaining film.
In Taiwan, King Hu is still an important figure in Taiwanese film history and his status was confirmed by Goodbye Dragon Inn (Taiwan 2003) in which the auteurist direct Tsai Ming-liang constructs a narrative around the final screening at a major classic single screen cinema. Only a few fans are present and various encounters take place between them during a screening of Dragon Inn. I do struggle with Tsai’s films but I saw this one in Bradford with a small audience in Pictureville cinema if my memory serves. I wish I’d seen the whole of Dragon Inn at that point. I would have perhaps made even more sense of Tsai’s tribute.
I recommend the Blu-ray by Masters of Cinema (which also includes a DVD version of the film). The extras include a David Cairns visual essay and a newsreel of the films opening in Taipei plus a booklet with pieces by Tsui Hark, Tony Rayns and Edmond Wong. The Criterion release has similar material by different scholars/industry personnel/actors.
(My apologies about names for actors and crew in this posting. The various sources I’ve consulted don’t use either the Wade-Giles romanisation of Mandarin names (as in Taiwan at the time) or the Hanyu Pinyin which replaced it in the PRC in the 1950s consistently and I may have unintentionally mixed them up.
Trailer for the Criterion Blu-ray release: