A wuxia curio: The Delightful Forest (Chang Cheh & Hsueh Li Pao, 1972)

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The Delightful Forest is a Shaw Brothers wuxia film that probably won’t win over anyone new to such things. It’s one of several movies the studio made based on the epic Chinese story The Water Margin, a tale easily long enough to support all of these. While the first, The Water Margin (also directed by Chang Cheh and Hsueh Li Pao in 1972) involved a huge cast of characters, TDF focuses on just one of them, acting as a prequel.

Wu Sung (Ti Lung) is renowned for killing a tiger with his bare hands. When he also kills his sister-in-law and her lover, to revenge his brother’s death, he is imprisoned. He is aided by the prison owner’s son, Shi En (Tien Ching), in return for ridding the town known as The Delightful Forest of the brutish Chiang Chung (Chu Mu). Getting rid of Chung isn’t so easy when he has a corrupt official on his side.

While The Water Margin is a film long enough to do its plot justice, TDF feels stretched out, moving slowly, with little sense of tension. Moreover, Song is not a complex character, and his superhuman feats are often rather silly. For most of the film, there’s no doubt he’s going to win every battle.

TDF’s strongest aspect is Lung himself. One of Shaw’s best martial arts stars, he’s pure class, strong both at acting and in action. He wrings everything he can out of the role.

This film is curious for a couple of other reasons. The soundtrack is taken straight from Morricone’s spaghetti western scores. That’s not uncommon for Chinese films of this era, but the tracks are used badly here. Meanwhile, it’s a laugh seeing Ching in this role – he tends to play sneaky characters (including in The Water Margin!) and it’s quite a change for him to have some moral fibre here.

Although most of the fights in TDF are not inspired, and there’s a couple of jarring edits, the last battle is excellent in its own right. It takes place in a wealthy household, with Song fighting Chung, two beaurecrats and a host of guards. Chang Cheh films often show their heroes fighting their way through hundreds of extras, but this is more believable in such close quarters. The fight unfolds with elegance and brutality. It’s a shame that the story has been so thin, without developing any emotional investment.

Song could quite plausibly not walk away from this fight. However, the film ends with him donning the monk’s disguise that the character wears in The Water Margin and its sequel, All Men Are Brothers. And so, TDF fails as a standalone film, ensuring that completionists are its best audience.

Enter Yuen Biao: Knockabout (Sammo Hung, 1979)

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Yuen Biao had worked as an acrobatic stuntman in Hong Kong films throughout the 1970s, and finally made his mark as a leading man in Knockabout, Sammo Hung’s fourth directorial effort. Biao plays Yipao, close friend of Ka-Yan Leung’s Tipao. The two are con-artists who are frequently bested by Fat Beggar (Hung). They attach themselves to a skilled master, Silver Fox (Lau Kar-Leung), who turns on them when they discover that he’s a wanted murderer. Yipao must get on Beggar’s good side to learn the skills he needs to defeat Wu-Tai.

This film is simply aiming for action and comedy, with no goal other than to entertain. The comedy may make or break it for the viewer: it’s non-stop, over-the-top slapstick all the way. Plot doesn’t matter, with breaks between fights rarely lasting more than a few minutes. The characterisation is also quite basic and, rather damningly, none of the characters are especially likeable.

The martial arts is not impressive at the film’s beginning, reflecting Yipao and Tipao’s inability to defend themselves. It’s well over an hour into the film before Biao’s skills truly shine through, with the Beggar training him in cruel and unusual ways before the two of them launch into a lengthy battle with Silver Fox. The uses of a jump rope during the training and a rope of thorns during the final fight are unmissable. Biao is capable of amazing feats and his timing with mentor Hung is fantastic.

Biao is confident and charismatic as a leading man, pulling off the comedy on the same level as Leung (a more experienced, but usually more serious actor). Kar-Leung is funny in a different way as Silver Fox – he walks around with a self-serious, slightly sad expression, looking like a mopey 70s singer-songwriter. His character’s shift into pure evil makes no sense, but he’s still fun to watch. Hung, however, is highly irritating as the Beggar, pulling endless face twitches in every scene.

Anyone with a low tolerance for slapstick martial arts will not enjoy Knockabout. Nonetheless, the skill shown by Kar-Leung, Hung and, especially, Biao in the last half hour is something special, and the most enduring aspect of the film.

Impermanant, recursive: Ashes of Time Redux [Dung che sai suk] (Wong Kar Wai, 2008)

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The story behind Ashes of Time and its Redux release in 2008, 14 years after it was originally made, is a little complicated. Suffice to say that you don’t need to know it, or be aware of how the film compares to the rest of Wong Kar Wai’s oeuvre, to appreciate Ashes of Time Redux in and of itself. This film ostensibly centres upon Ou-yang Feng (Leslie Cheung), a man who acts as an intermediary between swordsmen and their clients, but the story onscreen requires patience to understand – something that definitely is worth trying to do.

Ashes of Time Redux is structured around the Chinese Almanac, divided up into seasons. This ties it into the natural world, the passage of time, and the inevitability of fate. The film was shot in an isolated desert area, which gives it a constant sense of liminality, its characters on the edge of existence, surrounded by inhospitable and indifferent landscapes. The seasons move in patterns that are unaffected by human passions and hopes.

The characters’ lives are at once impermanent and timeless. The past recurs with a power that diminishes the present; a man narrates his own death; we see a woman’s story long after she has died; and we are told in a brief caption, without emotion or context, that in years to come two of the people we have been watching will fight a fatal duel.

Although this is a wuxia film, the first fight scene occurs so late that it’s easy to forget the genre. As it happens, the scene is more psychological than physical, bound up in natural elements as well as one character’s divided soul. It’s an improbably beautiful moment and each subsequent fight scene, while not as powerful, is deeply concerned with emotion as well as action. Water, light, and earth all feel vital to these scenes. The characters are inseparable from their world.

Ashes of Time Redux is an intangible, restless film. Its beauty lingers but the hearts of its characters prove to be elusive as windborne sand. It’s one of Wong Kar Wai’s most little known works – but I’ve found that it’s not a bad one with which to start.