Thursday, March 21, 2013

King Hu and the Art of Wuxia: Dragon Inn and All the King's Men

This is one of those series that makes me think that I really should have a membership at the Harvard Film Archive. They have them every once in a while, and it's always a very pleasant surprise - you pick up the schedule, knowing that what's coming is a fairly deep dig into the more obscure corners of world cinema and visits by avant-garde short filmmakers who merge documentary techniques with actually scratching the 16mm film - if you've got somewhat more mainstream tastes, it's often a case of picking and choosing. And then, every once in a while, they'll do two weeks of something that interests you.

I jest about the obscurity of what the HFA shows, because I'm glad there is a place where this sort of deep dive happens - if you want to go more mainstream, the Brattle is right down the road. Because, after all, a series of eight wuxia films from forty years ago, even if it is what gets me excited to come down there is probably not going to move the needle for a lot of others.

Kind of a shame. I'll let the HFA's program do the talking about why King Hu is exciting and important, because they know a whole heck of a lot more about the subject than I do, but I can at least vouch for the prints I saw last Friday night - they were pretty fantastic; the print of Dragon Inn was brand new (as is the A Touch of Zen print that ran last Saturday and this coming Saturday), and I believe they mentioned All the King's Men was from Hu's personal collection, managed by UCLA, as were some other prints. In short, these look really excellent, and I'm looking forward to seeing four more this weekend.

As an aside, reviewing these can be frustrating - IMDB doesn't have a lot of names filled in, the Asian movie databases tend to focus on more recent works, and doing a general web search yielded a lot of works that had the same name both in English and Mandarin (apparently there was a popular and completely Chinese TV show called "Tian xia di yi" a decade or so ago). I couldn't even find any other reviews to scour for names like I could with Dragon Inn. In the end, I was glad I took this picture between films:

"All the King's Men" poster photo IMAG0308_zps52f13426.jpg

... Because that was the best way to link at least a couple noteworthy characters with the actors who played them.

Long men kezhan (Dragon Inn)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 March 2013 in the Harvard Film Archive (King Hu and the Art of Wuxia, 35mm)

1967's Dragon Inn (Long men kezhan in Mandarin, also known as "Dragon Gate Inn") is kind of a big deal. It's the first film that director King Hu did in Taiwan after leaving Shaw Brothers, in many ways jump-starting that country's film industry. It's been remade and referenced, and its DNA shows up in many movies beyond Hu's "inn films". And most importantly, it's a terrific wuxia film in it's own right.

Minister of Defense Wu Chien has just been executed, thanks in part to lies spread by eunuch Tsao Shao-chin (Bai Ying), who controls both the secretive Eastern Agency and Palace Guards. The Emperor has allowed Wu's family to live in exile, but Tsao figures this will just lead to revenge, and when the first attempt to assassinate them fails, he dispatches the agencies' top swordsmen, Pi Hsiao-tang (Miao Tien) and Mao Tsung-hsien (Han Ying-chieh) to Dragon Gate, when the Wus will cross into Mongolia. They commandeer the local inn, but others also arrive ahead of the Wus: Hsiao Shao-tzu (Shih Chun), a friend of innkeeper Wu Ning (Cho Kin) is first, and then travelers Mr. Chu (Hsieh Han) and Ms. Chu (Polly Shang-kuan) - and the more justice-minded new arrivals have considerable skills with the sword themselves.

That's a lot of information being dumped on the audience for a relatively simple story, especially for Westerners who don't know the sort of politics that went on in Ming Dynasty China, but King Hu lays things out quite clearly after the initial narration. Yes, there are a lot of characters running around and some things are not going to be obvious (Ms. Chu is dressed as a man and this apparently fools most of the characters), but there aren't as many betrayals and double-crosses as later entries in the genre would pile on as twists, and the sides line up as a pretty straightforward good-versus-evil fight rather than a load of competing factions.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

Tian xia di yi (All the King's Men)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 March 2013 in the Harvard Film Archive (King Hu and the Art of Wuxia, 35mm)

Palace intrigue in old China... A secret mission... A master thief. All the ingredients for a martial arts epic, except, well, no, that's not what this is at all. Period melodrama? Closer, but it's really more of a dry black comedy.

It's the 10th century BC, the emperor (Tien Feng) is not well, and the medicines he is receiving from con artist "Immortal Li" are in reality only making him worse. There is a man in a nearby kingdom, "Divine Physician" Chang Po-chao, whom it's said could cure his epilepsy, but the only way to bribe the head of the border guard is with a new work by painter Wei Yu-pi. He, meanwhile, wishes to be paid in jade, in fact with a specific piece, which requires a thief. But Ting Yu-yu, the best in the area, claims to be retired, though his daughter Li-ting (Cheng Pei-pei) seems enthusiastic. And for the sake of secrecy, the archivists originally sent to recruit Chang don't even know it's on behalf of the emperor!

There are other things going on as well, but All the King's Men ("Tian xia di yi" in Mandarin) is basically a slowly-rolling snowball of a comedy, picking up characters and entanglements until it's got enough momentum to crush anything in its path. It's not necessarily the type that announces itself as such, though; where a lot of movies of that ilk will pick up a broadly-played fool and a great deal of slapstick at some point, this one continues to work bureaucratic slight of hand almost right to the end. It's a comedy of manners that seldom goes for the really big laughs to punctuate its steady stream of little ones. It could probably use more outright farce, actually, but it's at least not so dialogue-dependent that those of us who don't speak the language are trying to squeeze the gags out of subtitles.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

No comments: