Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Monday, December 21, 2020

The Swirling Mists of Chu Yuan: 70s Shaw Brothers Wuxia on Prime: SENTIMENTAL SWORDSMAN (Trilogy) HEAVEN SWORD AND DRAGON SABRE (1&2)



There are seemingly hundreds of old Shaw Brothers kung fu and wuxia films on Prime, enough in fact you can find a whole sub-school of them that fit your exact likes for your own massive bender. Me, I avoid the "Shaolin" ones, full of sweaty young bald dudes smacking each other and going through their callow revenge/shame-training montages in bright exteriors, with nary a female marital artist in sight. These are usually dubbed, often badly, with the same nasally Brit doing half the characters. I prefer the more esoteric "swordplay thriller" wuxia, from Shaw Brothers, in Cantonese with gorgeously-lit nights rich with elaborate decor, expansive sets, swirling mists, and strong female characters as deadly as their male counterparts, or more so. The best and weirdest are ussually directed by Chu Yuan (aka Yuen Chor) you know it's one of his when an old woman might triumph in a fight to the death with three experienced male martial arts heroes, as in the climax of The Proud Twins). The Chu Yuan output can be uneven, but generally come stocked with dazzling swordplay, wire-aided spins, jumps and kicks, recurring characters, period fantasy garb where everyone is dressed like gossamer princesses and plots that avoid corrupt governments and peasant exploitation in favor of cool supernaturally-tinged mysteries, where all the food is poisoned by smiling princesses and "Devil Grandma" and everyone is challenging each other to duels over magical weapons and hidden kung fu manuals as the plum blossoms shed their snowy petals in a slow, regular rain against the gorgeous soundstage night sky. Heroes wander from one beautiful background to another as they seek to level up against the one or two ranked swordsmen left to challenge their skills. There's seldom any vengeance to seek beyond some ancient grudge of the hero's teacher or parents passed on to the next generation. The battles tend towards almost Leone-level cool (Leone is clearly a big influence on Yuan, to the point that in many films hero Ti Lung walks around in a Clint Eastwood pancho) and Hawks-level gallant, wry professionalism between foes. Rather than duplicating some past reality, Yuan's wuxias snake through a land of mysticism, strange invincible light-shooting weapons, with colored Bava-style gel lights running through vast impeccably-lit soundstages that seem to stretch out to the infinite and--during magic hour shots created by a blazing visible circle of orange studio light--create a rarefied neither/or space that, to me, evokes the essence of my favorite dreams.

Also, they've probably never looked better than they do now, via Prime's seemingly endless collection of HD prints coming in on the Celestial Pictures distribution label. Since Shaw studios cranked out so many of these, they wisely kept all their sets seemingly mostly standing, connected to each other so they often seem to occur in the same netherworld of ornate plum blossom-filled gardens, temple ruins, secret lairs all aglow in foggy green and purple gel spot lighting, waterfalls, cliff face alcoves, little green water pools in the rock, meditation chambers, secret caves, ancient ruins, bamboo forests, indoor/outdoor restaurants, brothels, gambling dens, palace reception halls, booby trap-filled hallways, clan meeting halls, thief-filled roadside inns, and mystical fox ghost dens. While the more fight scene-centric Shaolin films seem to forego beauty in the name of athleticism, the Chu Yuan swordsman thrillers all keep the focus on the beauty, the strange characters, droll wit, and elaborate charade-style plots where one mystery reveal tops another, and every setting has its own colorfully-named gang of killers waiting in ambush. Swordsmen heroes uncover elaborate assassination plots, protect invincible clan weapons, search for lost siblings, discover long-missing kung fu manuals (and attain the mystical powers therein overnight), and above all, seek vengeance the one opponent who can finally give them a real challenge to their acquired skills. Some of these champions and villains have chi of such power the practitioner glows red and shoot rays of light out of their palms. They can all jump straight up two or more stories, do endless midair flips and super high kicks (via unseen wires) and all regularly take mid-fight breaks for bits of conversation confessing elaborate crimes, making grand threats, and/or professing innocence and being set up before resuming rounds of high-wire swordplay and kung fu combat.



Here are some of my favorites (all on Prime), and of course, check out my round-up of more fantastical supernatural based wuxias from my last big wuxia bender: Wild Wild Wuxia!

 THE SENTIMENTAL SWORDSMAN 
(1977) Dir. Chu Yuan (aka Yuen Chor)
***
Sentiment is not always a plus in the martial arts world, or so the bad guy--the evil Plum Blossom Bandit--says to the venerable ace swordsman hero Chi Lu-hsiang (the venerable Ti Lung) after praying on his sense of honor and loyalty. Now in self-imposed exile from his wealth and lady love, the venerable Chi Lu just coasts around for ten years, knocking back jugs wine, pontificating with Taoist realizations in that unique 'talking to the air' Ti Lung way, and slowly getting a Doc Holiday style consumptive cough. Since he's ranked the #3 best martial artist in the world he has to duel constantly; he prefers to gaze wistfully at the plum blossoms, or watch the world go in fitful fights and boasts behind his back at the bar. He drinks because his one true love wishes she was with him instead of the husband she has, the friend Chi Liu gave his everything to out of gratitude ten years ago. Or is that --like many alcoholics (myself included)-- he'd rather drink to to numb the pain of losing his only love than get the love back, even if she's right there, pining for him in lonely solitude. If that sounds like Geoffrey Firmin to you, then, cheers, old man! It maybe sounds like me, too. Or any drunk.

Cool characters include Lin Xanier, the whore of martial arts world,  offering to marry the man who finds and kills the Plum Blossom Bandit. She's contrasted w the modest beauty of the sad, sober creature Lin Hsin-ehr (Li Cheng) pointlessly sweeping up this empty courtyard, for no conceivable reason, waiting for Chi Liu to return to his home, the beautiful estate he gave up out of his woefully misguided sentiment.  



The ironies compound: despite the title, Chi Lu doesn't even carry a sword, preferring to parry with his fan. He bats his opponents around, blocks strokes with his fan (folded), and when things get tiring, just whips it open, wizzing some of the darts out of the folds, killing his foe instantly via at least one to the neck, the opened fan bearing the words: "Little Li's Darts That Never Miss." Who would want to duel with a guy who does that? Isn't that cheating? Either way, he's doing a lot of killing with those darts --a bunch of martial arts social climbers have been duped into thinking he's the Plum Blossom Bandit (who throws poison plum blossom darts and dresses like a pink ninja). Luckily a young bumpkin wanderer-- the irrepressible Ah Fei (Derek Yee)-- shows to cover Chi Lu's back. Other bad guys include a fake plum blossom bandit, a despicable old member of the 'Seven Incredible Men' who poisons Li's wine, and a doctor who notes that "Nothing is better than drinking to death" and then cures Master Li with another glass of wine! You were poisoned by wine and the cure is more wine! "Why would trivial matters such as life and death get in the way of drinking?" Lu gets it; he keeps drinking though his consumptive coughing (or is it an ulcer?). Whatever the reason, he doesn't let it stop him. Go for it, bro!

Under Chu Yuan's direction, the rich atmosphere and expansive shadowy, mist and water-enshrouded indoor/outdoor sets keep the eye continually seduced, like cold wine down a parched throat after walking out of the hot sun into a chilly lounge, with just the right amount of wit, mystery, exotic atmosphere, emotional sweep, and Sergio Leone-style cool dude posturing to keep one's attention.

Cons: There are two too many draggy moments between Li and his "past in the past" philosophy as he refuses to even talk about how why he gave away his wealth, woman and house ten years ago. Another rarity: lots of exterior shots -- a relative rarity in the Yuanverse-- as they walk to Wudang Mountain to see if Li is the Plum Blossom Bandit. We get lots of long shots of these traveling heroes in dwindling numbers walking all the way to Wudang, and not eating for many days  (they keep running into the Five Poisons Kid, who manages to poison everything in advance of their arrival). Fights are all on the soundstage but occasionally cut to outside (and there's a comparative lack of mist and moody atmosphere compared to the other two films in the trilogy, though still plenty compared to any non-Yuan).


THE RETURN OF THE SENTIMENTAL SWORDSMAN
(1981) Dir. Chu Yuan (aka Yuen Chor)
***1/2

"There is no truth in the marital arts world - only dead people, gold, and fame"

Correctly considered one of the few sequels better than the first. Laden with swirling mists and plum blossom evenings ("they've bloomed too soon," notes Ah Fei "and will die sooner.") it has an almost mystical reverence for alcohol coupled to savvy awareness of the process of alcohol addiction (and evocations of Rio Bravo and My Darling Clementine). Rather than any Plum Blossom bandit (the masked pink ninja villain of the first film) it's the real plum blossoms that count here, seen at night, under softly falling snow, amidst tiny waterfalls and glowing lanterns, with mist rolling over the ground. The beautiful plum blossom trees of his estate being in bloom in in fact what lures ever-drinking and coughing titular swordsman Chi Lu (Ti Lung again) back home, where his lady love still hopes he'll come back to live finally. But Chi Lu is also looking for trusty Ah Fei, who's been missing from the martial arts world for awhile. Where did he go? He's cohabitating with that slutty martial art groupie Lin Xanier (Linda Chu) and has become a tranquil nonviolent early-to-bed health nut, spending his days counting the plum blossom blooms, blinded by love and tranquilized by the drugs she spikes his tea with at night so he falls asleep way early and she can sneak down to the whorehouse and whoop it up with the head of the Money Clan! Once he finds out, heartbroken Ah Fei plunges into alcohol addiction and winds up imprisoned in the Money Clan's brothel, groveling around on the carpet for a drink as the prostitute's laugh and pour wine in his face. We're reminded of the opening of Rio Bravo, especially at the climax when Tung Li's lady love brings Ah Fei his old clothes and sword after he's finally sobered enough to join his old friend in a duel at Summit Mountain. The duel is set at dawn, and the Money Clan leader's golden robe looks great in that artificial early light as the red sun pierces through the mists and trees, the sky gradually getting brighter as the duel wages on, 


While the echoes of Rio Bravo are clear, there is also evidence of Chu's familiarity with the Sergio Leone westerns: various Morricone-esque electric guitar and weird rhythmic strains erupt on the during big duel squaring-off staring contests. There's also a nod to the numbering system with each martial artist ranked fourth or fifth and all trying to climb the top and go up against #1, or at least the next person up, evoking the yakuza films of Seijin Suzuki. What a world! As with the first Sentimental film, there might be one too many frustrating melancholy exchanges between Chi Liu and his glum platonic love, but the scenery is gorgeous and Yuan knows how to parlay the need for fighting and position jostling amongst martial artists into an endlessly fascinating series of sword battles --Leone-like exchanges of midnight cool, honor and last words amidst the blossoms. Fights on a silent flowing stream, each fight better than the last. More slow motion than one might expect for a Shaw Brothers film. But hey.



----

PERILS OF THE SENTIMENTAL SWORDSMAN
(1982) Dir. Chu Yuan (Yuen Chor)
****

Perils of the Sentimental Swordsman skips the mopey romantic sudsy drama of the previous two films and works as a stand-alone adventure, with Ti Lung's consumptive wanderer Chi-Liu pretending to turn outlaw in order to infiltrate the 'Ghostly Village,' an apparently transdimensional extradition-free settlement accessible only via a disappearing cloud bridge! It's one of the coolest of all Chu Yuan's Really Cool Places, evoking the fox ghost realm in Full Moon Scmitar (1979) coupled to Bat Island (seeable in another Chi-Liu Hisiang stand-alone adventure, Legend of the Bat (1978- not on Prime but there's a non-HD DVD). The first thing the Charon-like guide shows you after you arrive is the liquor store ("Hell's Cellar --do you need to buy any wine?") so you know I love this film. His fame ensuring he gets handed a gorgeous little pad, with a servant ("this is a blanket"), Chi-Liu has to find his contact amidst the new neighbors: a mincing gay stereotype, a foxy siren known as "The General," and a wild gambling lunatic played by the irrepressible Lo Lieh. Turns out the masked 'phantom' who runs the place is organizing a revolution out in the real world, so they can all come back to 'Earth' without fear of incarceration. 


The thing is, who is a spy for the current throne and who isn't? People try and confess being a spy to out each other, so who can you trust? Meanwhile some ghosts fly around in an immaculately green-lit mist-shrouded haunted ruin atop a nearby hill.  Spending a night up there on a bet, Lo Leih does the Costello monster comedy bit, quaking with fear while being gaslit by the ghost stealing his food one bite at a time, etc. with Chi-Liu as the Abbott. Great stuff. The sword fights are okay but it's really the spooky elaborate beauty of the sets and eccentric characters I vibe with; the always dark or at dusk/dawn inner/outer mist-enshrouded otherworld of the Ghostly Village and the colorful never-ending parade of villains, like scruffy elderly rogue named Dugu Fei, aka "the Handsome Loner," known also is "the one who disdains his kinfolks." And this time there are no exterior shots or even daytime shots. Everything occurs from dusk to dawn, aka the time of ghosts, eddying through the gorgeous swirling mist like whirling vape-nados. 

-----------------

HEAVEN SWORD AND DRAGON SABRE
HEAVEN SWORD AND DRAGON SABRE 2
(Dir. Chor Yuen AKA Yuan Chi)
*** 

Good luck keeping up with the byzantine plot of this strange two-part affair, especially since it kind of starts in the middle of some probably massive novel by Louis Cha (the Prime blurb lets us know it's also a popular TV serial). If you read the whole thing in advance I presume you wouldn't be scratching your head as we whizz past one crazy fight scene after another. If not may help to have seen The Battle Wizard first, as it borrows a lot of the same elements, like the hero finding a special oasis halfway down a cliff where the hero mends his wounds and finds ancient power in eating or drinking the blood of glowing toads, red frogs or giant pythons, and Hsueh-Erh Wen as a snake-handling venom-loving girl, and kung fu manuals that impart instant super power. This time we follow a dashing young hero (Tung Shing-Yee) this time seeking to find out who's behind his foster father going crazy after an evil monk killed his family and sewn seeds of dissent against the Ming clan with all the other kung fu schools.  The two titular magic blades are--when brought together--possessed of some dynamic magic but really don't figure that prominently. Mostly there's poison, antidotes, hair-raising rescues, and strange deals, interrupted weddings and people once thought friends becoming bitter enemies and vice versa. 

As with most of these Celestial Shaw Brothers films, one of the unique aspects not often found in western action genre is the prevalence of female led-fighting clans like the Er Mei (the female counterpart to the Shaolin Temple). At Er Mei they keep their women sharp by forbidding all sexual contact with men, and they take an especially dim view of pregnancy. Here the Er Mei clan is led by a rigid white haired old super Buddhist nun with super deadly kung fu schools, who kills the girls who transgress, and eventually passes the reins to the secret love of the leader of the Ming clan, which makes his rival in the other clan super jealous, and around and around. 

The first film flows much better as the focus stays on young Tung-Shin Yee, curing himself from a Buddha's palm wound inflicted on him while a child, growing up under the protection of a renowned pharmacist who tries every cure in the book to keep him alive. All this will lead him to the promised land, eating the red frogs, finding the secret manuals, saving and taking over the Ming clan and getting to the bottom of all the grudges that have led to the Ming Clan being unfairly blamed for all sorts of calamitous behavior. The result, everyone watches various duels at the Gang Ming Summit showing off what they know, and the good don't kill the losers, that's how you know who's good. 


At the end, even the villains may well take note of the power of the Buddha by renouncing their past, shaving their heads and joining the Shaolin monks in humble contemplation of the Amanita Buddha. Glory to Amitabha. I kind of like that kind of ending as it vibes with my own saving through the power of AA. Glory to the higher power as you understand it. 

All is emptiness...



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