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Donnie Yen in a still from 14 Blades. The big-budget Chinese movie, and others such as The Lost Bladesman and John Woo’s Red Cliff, updated wuxia films for the 21st century.

From John Woo’s Red Cliff to Donnie Yen in 14 Blades and The Lost Bladesman, how wuxia film tropes infuse 21st century Chinese blockbusters

  • To show a new face to the world, China in the 21st century embraced the wuxia film genre Nationalist and Communist governments had previously banned as backward
  • In blockbusters such as 14 Blades, Red Cliff and The Lost Bladesman, Donnie Yen and John Woo used wuxia film tropes while giving them a modern sheen

Wuxia films didn’t disappear at the start of the 21st century – the genre simply became subsumed into the big-budget “Chinese blockbusters” (daipan) which were then often co-productions between Hong Kong and mainland China.

As Stephen Teo points out in his book Chinese Martial Arts, although wuxia films were banned in China from 1933 to the 1980s – successive governments thought their traditionalist viewpoints sent the wrong message about modernisation – there was a change of tack in the 2000s.

Because of their easily accessible portrayals of Chinese history and culture, wuxia films were rehabilitated and used to promote the new “Brand China” to the world.

Below we look at how three daipan reflect the traditions of wuxia films.

14 Blades (2010)

Hong Kong director Daniel Lee Yan-kong is a big fan of classic Shaw Brothers wuxia films, and it shows. 14 Blades, which stars Donnie Yen Ji-dan, is a typical wuxia film elevated by the high-class special effects and lush production values that a big budget brings.

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The story features Yen as a renegade member of the Jinyiwei, a group of Ming dynasty swordsmen who served as the emperor’s personal assassins. Yen’s character carries a box of 14 swords – eight for “interrogation”, five for executions, and one for committing suicide if a mission goes wrong – and tries to transform himself from an unfeeling assassin into an honourable man.

The film uses many of the tropes of classic wuxia films but adds a modern sheen.

The mechanical box Yen uses to carry the swords reminds viewers of the “secret weapons” that were developed for the genre during the new wave of wuxia films in the 1960s; plot notes such as the presence of a security escort service reflect traditional storylines; a female assassin wielding a chain whip is a facsimile of Brigitte Lin’s Asia the Invincible character, right down to her make-up.
Filmmaker Daniel Lee (left) with Donnie Yen in 2009. Photo: May Tse.
To cement the connection with the past, legends from the Shaw Brothers era turn up in cameo roles, with Chen Kuan-tai, Wu Ma, Fung Hak-on, and Sammo Hung Kam-bo all making an appearance.
The martial arts were choreographed by veteran Ku Huen-chiu, who worked as an assistant to Yuen Woo-ping on a number of films in the 1990s before striking out on his own.

Yen said he took the role because it offered him the chance to play a different kind of hero, explaining that he was interested in the way that the story “transformed a killing machine into a real human being”.

Lee was thrilled that Yen signed up for the role, and noted that martial arts talent had dried up since the classic martial arts movie era.

“It’s not easy to find good actors for kung fu films. You can really tell from the body language, gestures … whether he has received good training or is merely following the choreographer’s moves,” Lee told the Post.

Red Cliff (2008)

Director John Woo Yu-sum’s expensive epic is more of a military and naval battle film than a wuxia film. But martial arts play a role in the large-scale battle scenes, and the film’s connection with the wuxia films of the past is evident.
Woo, who worked as Chang Cheh’s assistant director and made his own wuxia film, Last Hurrah For Chivalry, says he has fond memories of Shaw’s films.

“I miss those days. I miss the Shaw Brothers movies,” Woo said in a video interview with DP/30. “I started out working for one of the great masters, Chang Cheh, and I love the way that he shot all the action sequences.

“The way he shot the actors was dance-like, and the camera movements were so calm and beautifully choreographed. I miss this kind of film. While I was shooting Red Cliff, I did intend to go back to the old ways … I prefer the old ways.”

Chang Chen (left) and Tony Leung Chiu-wai in a scene from Red Cliff. Photo: SCMP

The film is based on a part of the classical novel The Romance of the Three Kingdoms; the naval battle of Red Cliff did really take place.

Woo has said he wanted to depict the fights realistically, but he still makes liberal use of special effects and wirework in Red Cliff.

The combatants are possessed with unlikely strength and accuracy, and can catch spears in full flight and throw them back, or slay an impossible number of assailants like the protagonists of Chang’s films.

John Woo on the set of Red Cliff, alongside actor Takeshi Kaneshiro.

However, Woo departs from the tragic, fatalistic view of life he inherited from his mentor.

“My films of the past were more centred on tragic heroes or lonely hitmen, but as my age has advanced, my perspective on life has become more upbeat,” the then 62-year-old Woo told the Post in 2008.

“I’ve become more optimistic. I think there will always be good people and hope in the world.”

The Lost Bladesman (2011)

Alan Mak Siu-fai and Felix Chong Man-keung’s The Lost Bladesman features some excellent armed combat sequences, and unspools in a style that’s reminiscent of the Shaw Brothers classics.

Choreographed by Donnie Yen, who also starred as the fabled military general Guan Yu, there are many clever scenes featuring wushu stylings – in which Yen is an expert – including a stunning duel in a claustrophobic alleyway involving a spear and kwan dao (Chinese assault weapon).

Yen’s character reminds the viewer of those played by Jimmy Wang Yu, especially as he masochistically takes a lot of punishment – Yen is even stoned by an angry crowd in one scene.
The film is based on the same characters John Woo depicted in Red Cliff, but The Lost Bladesman portrays the villainous Cao Cao more sympathetically. Co-director Chong said that the idea was to explore fraternal bonding, a movie concept invented by Chang Cheh and most notably essayed in his movie The Blood Brothers.
Donnie Yen (right) in a still from The Lost Bladesman.

“We aimed to explore the idea of fraternal loyalty,” Chong told the Post in 2011, and noted that it is difficult to sustain such loyalty today. Indeed, the the film explores how such bonding could be achieved in the past.

In this regular feature series on the best of Hong Kong martial arts cinema, we examine the legacy of classic films, re-evaluate the careers of its greatest stars, and revisit some of the lesser-known aspects of the beloved genre. Read our comprehensive explainer here.
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