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)
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.
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)
“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.”
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.
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).
“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.