I’d like to introduce you to a sub-genre of storytelling that, while many of you have probably experienced it, you may not know its name: wuxia. Wuxia is a genre of Chinese fiction that centers around the adventures of martial arts. Stories about martial arts, particularly in China, date back thousands of years, but only rose as a prominent genre in the twentieth century. It applies largely to literature, but in recent years has branched out into everything from comics to video games (Jade Empire) and, of course, film.
Wuxia stories are typically set in ancient China in the times of feudal lords and warring states, when warriors, both hired and rogue, roamed the land. One of the most prominent parallels between wuxia and Western stories is the Code of Xia – the sense of honor and shame among warriors. Liken this to Robin Hood, who uses his considerable intelligence and skill in archery not for self-benefit but rather to “steal from the rice and give to the poor.” Martial artists of wuxia stories do not always follow this path, but they are intensely respectful towards all who deserve it – even when that person may be attempting to murder them. No doubt many of the themes in ancient martial arts stories migrated into Japan and lent themselves to the creation of samurai bushido myths and medieval knightly chivalry before later injecting itself into the image of the gunslinger cowboy.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – A 2000 American-Chinese-Hong Kong-Taiwanese co-production, yep, directed by Ang Lee that went on to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film while being nominated for six others, including Best Picture. It is a story of romance and revenge, the very basics of the genre, set during ancient China and revolving around a sect of martial artists known as the Wudang school. Chow Yun-Fat (from Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End) seeks revenge against the Jade Fox for his master’s murder while his partner and unacknowledged love, Michelle Yeoh (The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor), assists him. Toss in Jen, a young and rambunctious girl of immense fighting ability (Zhang Ziyi, who is actually in all three of the Hong Kong films discussed here), and you’ve got a story filled with martial arts.
The story itself is built off of revenge for a master’s murder, honoring those one loves and respects, or attempting to correct the wrongs of a troubled teen (Jen). What made Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon so popular globally, however, along with the next two films was the incredibly poignant and beautiful cinematography. The characters do not fight, they dance, allowing the currents of the wind, the ground, the water to guide the flow of their movements. At first, seeing characters literally fly into the air is a bit strange, but it only takes a few minutes for the choreography to become mesmerizing and intensely engrossing. By the end of the second act, when two characters exchange blades while dancing atop slim bamboo, you accept everything you see simply because the benefits of watching the amazing scenes outweighs the suspension of disbelief.
This video of the fight scene is English dubbed, which is disappointing because it sounds horrible. You can watch it without sound and still get the beauty of the martial arts.
Hero – Both this film and the next are directed by Zhang Yimou. Hero, 2002, stars Jet Li as an unnamed assassin recounting to the King of Qin (who, historically, goes on to become the First Emperor of China under the Qin Dynasty) how he defeated the three greatest assassins of the land, but things are not always as they seem. A very expensive film, it was also incredibly successful and profitable in China and would be personally brought into American theaters by Quentin Tarantino in 2004. Roger Ebert called it “beautiful and beguiling, a martial arts extravaganza defining the styles and lives of its fighters within Chinese tradition.” Jet Li is also badass, as always.
House of Flying Daggers – Released both in China and selectively in the States in 2004, Flying Daggers is the story of two police captains who attempt to sneak their way into a sect of assassins known as the Flying Daggers. While filled to the brim with martial arts, Flying Daggers is much stronger as a love story. Set in 849 CE, it features a triangle of characters: two men, brothers in arms, and the woman they escort (Zhang Ziyi, who also had a supporting role in Hero), who of course they each fall in love with. Beyond this, the film’s use of color is remarkable. When at the headquarters of the Flying Daggers, located deep within a lush, green bamboo field, all the characters wear flowing green robes. Meanwhile, the climax of the film takes place in the whitest of snowy winters with the combatants clad all in white, making any blood spilt all the more poignant. Yet, at the same time, these films are beautiful crafted while also immensely entertaining to watch.
The entire film on YouTube, free:
Kung Fu Panda – Compared to the last three films discussed, all East Asian features, Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda franchise, currently including two films, several specials and a television program on Nickelodeon, at first seems the odd kung fu series out, but it is actually quite true to its wuxia roots. The original Kung Fu Panda is very openly an homage to Chinese/Hong Kong kung fu films, particularly the post-2000 increase in wire fu martial arts, albeit the animated feature of a complete animal cast is certainly a more kid-friendly comical take on the genre. Yet, it may surprise you to learn that the Jack Black-panda franchise is actually well loved and respected in China and abroad for its authenticity and respect towards cultural traditions. It’s a comedy but it is not mocking towards its subject matter, and it actually quite true towards traditions. Take, for example, how the filmmakers stylize different martial arts fighting styles by the different animals (Crane, Tigress, Mantis, Monkey, Viper) as well as how the films blend the reality of martial arts training with the mysticism of its power. At their core, the Po the Panda films are just like the other wuxia works: incredibly fun with some awesome martial arts to boot.
There you have it, a brief rundown of a sub-genre of film many have probably seen but few recognized. What’s next? Wuxia is incredibly popular in China and East Asia, so these three foreign films are by no means the only examples nor the most recent, but they are the rare three to gain enough popularity to be exported into the States. For our stake, the Kung Fu Panda franchise is highly successful and will no doubt spawn at least one more film, if not more, and American martial arts enthusiasts can only hope producers take the time and expense to import more foreign material. If we can be sure of anything, though, it’s that a strong tradition like wuxia, going back thousands of years into ancient Chinese literature, is in no ways going anywhere anytime soon.