Xian Film Studio, from where action dramaThe Swordsman in Double Flag Town (1991) originated, was known throughout the 1980s as a place where film directors could try out new ideas. The studio played a significant role in the development of the fifth generation of Chinese filmmakers, such as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige.
By the time The Swordsman was released, the fifth generation had already made a name in China and beyond. But it’s still a highly unusual film to have emerged from a state-run studio at the time.
The film, directed by He Ping, merges tropes from westerns – specifically Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy and Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon – with the Chinese cinematic style of the time, and rural Chinese culture. The director blends them so successfully, he almost invents a genre.
The film is nominally a wuxia – a martial-arts or sword-fighting film – and was the first of its kind to be made in China since 1949, but it bears little resemblance to other martial-arts films, and seems to purposely isolate itself from them. The fighting is limited to high-speed flashes of action and the denouement is shrouded in dust.
The son (played by Gao Wei) of a great sword fighter arrives in a dusty village to claim the child bride his father had arranged for him before his death. However, things don’t go as planned for the unkempt young man – the villagers dub him Little Pigtail and the marriage plans stall. But then his fiancée (Zhao Mana) is assaulted by a bandit’s brother and in trying to save her he discovers he has inherited his father’s sword-fighting skills. He kills the brother, attracting the wrath of the bandit. An expertly drawn-out finale, reminiscent of the standoff in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, pits the youth against the bandit.
Shanxi-born He is as anomalous as his film. Movies run in the family – his mother starred in The Bridge (1949), the first film to be made after the establishment of the People’s Republic – but, unlike his peers, he didn’t study filmmaking. His first job was logging film at the Beijing Science and Education Film Studio, and he worked his way up from there.
His fascination with the Chinese western continued unabated and he followed up The Swordsman with the less successful Sun Valley (1995) and the bigger but unconvincing Warriors of Heaven and Earth (2003).
The Swordsman in Double Flag Town will be screened on October 9 and 16 at the Hong Kong Film Archive, in Sai Wan Ho, as part of the Chinese Film Panorama 2016.