Heroic Grace is under way at the Walker, and I lined up to catch the first two in the series: The Five Venoms (Wu Du) and The New One-Armed Swordsman (Xin Dubi Daowang). By no means do I consider myself a kung fu film afficianado – and really I didn’t know anything about the genre before walking in to the cinema. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself…
The story of this girl and her kung fu actually starts in London, January 2001. I was in the UK on a study abroad program for art, architecture, and theater. One evening I ditched my classmates at some contemporary theater I don’t remember and caught the tube to a small theater that was hosting a screening of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I had been following the hype on this film for a few months, and despite my dislike of martial arts films at the time (just thinking of every goofy Jackie Chan film to come out of Hollywood made me shudder), but I was determined to see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon because Ang Lee had laid his magic hands on it, and that was the only reason I needed.
At first I was really put off by the martial arts sequences – they seemed fake to me. I thought, No one can run on rooftops like that, or fly around, who are they kidding? But I had missed the point. A valuable lesson I learned later when watching so much Japanese film was: suspend disbelief and enjoy the story. And as the film continued the fight scenes grew on me, I fell in love with the characters, I was stunned by the beautiful scenery, and by the time I walked out of the theater I was a little bit embarrassed for giving Jackie Chan such a hard time. Golly gee, this martial arts stuff isn’t so bad!
I was thinking a lot about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon when I headed in to The Five Venoms. I read some of the program notes about the elaborate fight sequences, narrative methods, and other bits about the martial arts film heyday in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. I was particularly interested in director Cheh Chang and the themes of chivalry, brotherhood, and loyalty that were recurring in his many, many contributions to the genre. One thing about this director that caught my attention was that in Hong Kong it was a not-so-secret secret that Cheh Chang was gay. Put in context, it becomes really entertaining to see him cast every dashingly handsome martial arts star he could find in Hong Kong. (I was particularly smitten with the Snake character in Five Venoms. So cute!) Not to mention the long, meaningful glances that said cute martial arts stars would cast at each other as they declared their loyalty, or plotted an elaborate scheme for vengeance.
The New One-Armed Swordsman was another treat. In watching the elaborate fight choreography, I paid close attention because I wanted to know where something like Ang Lee’s critically acclaimed film could come from. Yeah, I know I’m oversimplifying, but when it comes to the fight scenes, Hong Kong martial arts films clearly set the stage for films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to come along later…or Hero….or House of Flying Daggers, for that matter.
What I enjoy so much about film screenings at the Walker is that more often than not they draw the kinds of audiences that are not looking for passive entertainment, but rather are invested in the whole cinematic experience. In watching these films, hearing the gasps and giggles and applause of the audience is as much a part of the film for me as our gorgeous heroes on the screen kicking ass and taking names.
Never before have I been more certain that cutting class is a valuable right of passage for every student.