Thursday, September 24, 2015

THE EAST IS RED (WUXIA INSPIRATION)

Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate draws on a number of sources for inspiration. I watch a lot of wuxia movies and TV shows, and these have had a big influence not only on Ogre Gate, but on Sertorius and many of my d20 campaigns. I am hoping to share some of my favorite movies and shows in the genre here as we work on WHOG.

Note: I am writing these as a fan of the genre. I am not a movie expert or an expert in asian cinema. These are my own observations based on what I have learned by watching wuxia and kung fu movies, and by reading about them through interviews and books. But my knowledge is quite limited and I am an English speaker. So understand that my commentary comes from this perspective. 

One of my favorite wuxia films from the 90s is Swordsman II (which I reviewed HERE). It is an amazing film and is packed with incredible action sequences. A noteworthy aspect of Swordsman II is Brigitte Lin's role as Dongfang Bubai (called Invincible Asia in the movie). In the original stories, Dongfang Bubai is a man who castrates himself to master the powers of the Sunflower Manual (which contains Kung Fu created by a Eunuch, that can only be performed by a Eunuch due to their particular balance of Yin and Yang). In Swordsman II, Dongfang Bubai was played by a woman (Lin) rather than a man, giving the character a much different interpretation. The third film is called The East is Red, and it focuses almost entirely on Brigitte Lin's Dongfang Bubai. It is a great movie in its own right and I wanted to give it a separate review. 


The East is Red
The East is Red is a Tsui Hark produced movie, directed by Raymond Lee and Ching Sui-tung. It was released in 1993 and stars Brigitte Lin (Dongfang Bubai), Joey Wong (Snow) and Yu Rong Guang (Koo). 

When watching The East is Red, one can almost discount the previous two films. This is a bit of a departure from them, both in presentation and direction. It is a bit more crazy as well, going in some wildly unexpected places. At times it can also be a bit confusing, but it is a movie I've really come to appreciate. 

The plot picks up where Swordsman II left off, in the aftermath of Donfang Bubai's death. It sets the stage brilliantly, with the legend of Dongfang Bubai growing. The land is filled with imitators claiming to be Bubai and she* is even worshipped as a god. A naval officer named Koo goes with Spanish soldiers to Black Cliff (the site of bubai's death). He is there to help them recover a ship but the Spanish General really wants the Sunflower Manual and tries to recover Dongfang Bubai's body. They encounter a guardian who shows them the casket. After they find the body, the General's true motives are revealed and there is a wonderful battle between armored conquistadors with guns and martial swordsman of the Ming Dynasty. Koo is saved by the guardian, who is revealed to be Dongfang Bubai in disguise. When he tells her that she is being impersonated by countless others, Dongfang Bubai decides to return to the mainland and put an end to the imitators. The rest of the movie focuses on Dongfang Bubai's return and the complications that arise from a growing conflict with Koo and the unrequited affection of her former lover, Snow. 

Wild Wuxia Ride
The East is Red is simply a crazy film. It just does things movies don't attempt anymore and isn't afraid to take some interesting risks. Some of these can feel silly at times, though this is by design as it blends humor, action and romance pretty freely. The Japanese wooden submarine vessel may strain some peoples credulity for example and there is a particularly ungainly looking swordfish sequence, but if you accept it and just go with the movie, it works and has some brilliant moments. 

One of my favorite scenes is when the Spanish soldiers witness Koo use his lightness Kung Fu for the first time flying up the side of a wall and they ask in disbelief "How can he fly?". His men explain the notion of Lightness Kung Fu to him and passingly refer to The Martial World. The Spaniards have trouble with the concept and conclude it is a destination. I really liked this unusually direct treatment of the subject. 

The movie is filled with discordant imagery but tied together with red tones. It has everything from the aforementioned Japanese Wooden Submarine to ninjas sailing through the air on kites. They manage a few truly stunning visuals as well. There is a moment when a concubine seduces Snow, only to have her skin pulled off as a strange, almost reptilian, Ninja emerges from the husk. It is bizarre but also genuinely beautiful on the screen.  

Brigitte Lin's performance is magnificent and the movie is almost entirely hers. If the previous film was about her relationship with Linghu Chong, The East is Red is about Dongfang Bubai's search for her own identity. Very much at the heart of the film is the question "Who is Dongfang Bubai?" It is unclear whether we are witnessing her unravel or attain a kind of apotheosis until the end. 

The fight sequences are enjoyable and over-the-top. I think what sets them apart is some of their inventiveness and their willingness to be playful and dramatic at the same time. They definitely tilt toward the gonzo end of the spectrum. One thing I really enjoyed was the guns versus swords early on, and the naval scenarios all work pretty well. We also get to see a lot more of Bubai's threading needles which is a plus. 

The East is Red is steeped in sensuality and bloodshed. It takes things a step further than Swordsman II in some respects. There is almost a Hellraiser-like quality to the balance of pleasure and pain. 

I do recommend The East is Red, particularly for those who saw the other Swordsman films. It is definitely a wild ride and takes the series in a different direction. For gamers I think there is a lot to pull in terms of NPC ideas, factions and a few cool developments (for instance Dongfang Bubai being worshipped as a god in her absence). 

*Bubai's gender is quite fluid in these two movies. Most of the time, the character is referred to with male pronouns but sometimes with female pronouns. The character also moves from one gender to the other at times. It feels like over the course of the films the character becomes more female. 

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