Tuesday, August 19, 2014


Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate (WHOG) 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. 

This review contains many spoilers.

This is part of my Cheng Pei-pei review series. You can see my other reviews of her movies here: Come Drink With MeGolden SwallowBrothers Five,The Lady Hermit,The Shadow WhipThe Golden Sword, The Thundering Sword and Dragon Swamp 

I don't think Lo Wei gets his due sometimes. That seems to be changing somewhat in recent years and hopefully continues. While no King Hu, his movies always seem to hit the right notes for me and Raw Courage is no exception. The film is a highly entertaining adventure, that has a steady pace and well done fight choreography featuring a large number of combatants. But the story itself is also engaging and epic. It draws on the familiar, a quest to save the true heir to the imperial throne, and it executes it well, using starkly drawn characters to make you care about the outcome. Above all I think the pacing is exceptional. In wuxia, where there is the need to weave story and combat, that can be tricky. I found this had exactly the right mixture of swordplay, storyline, humor and drama.

It is also a simple tale and the the whole thing feels like it orbits around this simplicity. While I have seen some criticisms of the simple plot structure and the sometimes redundant plot elements, I watched it twice in a row to see if my initial impression was flawed and I came away greatly appreciating the simple approach it takes. 

Raw Courage
Raw Courage was released in 1969 by Shaw Brothers Studio. It was directed by Lo Wei, with action choreography by Little Unicorn and Simon Chui Yee-Ang. The film stars Cheng Pei-pei (Xiuyi), Yueh Hua (Zhou), Ng Fung (Zhenxiong), Tien Feng (Yancang), Poon Oi-Lun (Huajiao), Lee Sau-Kei (Old Monster), Ou-Yang Sha-Fei (Mrs. Bai) and Yeung Chi-Hing (Old Beggar). 
Emperor Jianwen hands his son to Shangguan

The film opens with the fall of Nanjing and Emperor Jianwen, second ruler of the Ming Dynasty following a conspiracy by the Prince of Yan (who becomes The Yongle Emperor). As his city is taken, Emperor Jianwen passes his infant son to Hero Shangguan of the Black Dragon Society and asks him to keep the child safe. Calmly the emperor awaits his doom and instructs his remaining loyal ministers to flee for their lives. 

Some time later the Prince of Yan has become The Yongle Emperor and is consolidating his hold on power using a group of warriors led by Yancang to enforce his will in the martial world. The group (briefly called The East Sea Gang in the subtitles), under the direction of emperor's chief Eunuch, goes to Black Dragon headquarters following rumors that the former Emperor's son is hiding there. They promise Chief Shangguan wealth and power if he simply hands over the child. Shangguan rebukes them and tells the guests to leave. Yancang's right hand, Huajiao, reprimands the chief, saying he should fear the consequences if he refuses. Shangguan's daughter, Xiuyi becomes furious at this and demands they conduct themselves politely. 

As Yancang's prepare to leave through the courtyard, Huajiao lights off a signal (a sort of hand held firework) which alerts soldiers surrounding the Black Dragon Society to attack. A huge battle ensues and it is unclear who will win, when Huajiao hits Chief Shangguan with one of her poison darts, forcing him to retreat with his daughter and his senior disciple, Jin Zhenxiong. They hide in secret passages below the headquarters, where Chief Yancang tells Xiuyi to leave him behind as he is dying, go to his sister and take Emperor Jianwen's son to safety with his brother and their counterpart in Quanzhou, The White Dragons. Initially Xiuyi refuses, wanting to stay and fight to the death beside her father but he tells her to do so would be unfilial and unpatriotic, then kicks her aside as Zhenxiong presses her to leave and perform her father's final request. This is a tear-filled scene that works really well and gives us a sense of the main characters' virtues and loyalties.  
Chief Shangguan Poisoned by Huajiao's Dart

Xiuyi and Zhenxiong make their way to the child. After handing them the baby and the former Emperor's seal, Xiuyi's aunt commits suicide because she knows her presence will just slow them down and put the prince in danger. They depart but are attacked by soldiers as they try to make their escape to the south. During the fight a beggar in a tree leaps down and comes to their aid, helping them drive their attackers off. After the fight their savior tells them simply to call him Old Beggar. Upon hearing that they plan to head south to find the White Dragons, Old Beggar says they are too unskilled to make it on their own, and that they should go to a nearby city and meet Mrs. Bai who will instruct the hero Zhou Feiyun to help them. Stealing one of the soldier's horses they head south.
Farmer (Zhou), Xiuyi and Zhenxiong 

On their way they stop at a small cabin in the wilderness. There they meet a bumbling farmer who offers to share his table with them for the evening and serves them some of the most delicious looking stewed goat meat to appear on film. It was actually striking how enticing the meal looked, and that is a rarity in some of these older wuxia movies. The farmer is kind and timid, and cowers when Zhenxiong demands he give them his clothes (which they need to disguise themselves in the next city). As they take the clothing off his back, the farmer asks why they repaid his kindness with such cruelty and Xiuyi offers an apology. Zhenxiong says he will trade him their horse for the clothes, which doesn't satisfy the farmer, but it is the only deal on the table. 

Xiuyi and Zhenxiong arrive in the next city, where they must pass through the gates posing as local farmers. Just as are passing through, after having sweet talked the guards, the baby cries and the alert is raised. However the farmer they had robbed also arrives at the gates and creates a ruckus, screaming that he has just been robbed. This disturbance allows the heroes to escape and find their way to Mrs. Bai. They follow Old Beggars instructions but are intercepted by a singing beggar on their way to the address at Muzi Alley who warns them through song that a trap lays ahead. They ignore his instructions and are are attacked, causing the beggar (who we later learn is Little Beggar) to flee. 

After a difficult fight they manage to break away, and Little Beggar points them toward an alley way, which they duck into. He then points their pursuers in the opposite direction and takes them to Mrs. Bai's current residence (Mrs. Bai is played quite convincingly by Ou-Yang Sha-Fei). There they meet Mrs. Bai's niece, Nui Nui and are told that the new emperor had her evicted. She wants revenge and agrees to help. 

Back in the city, Yancang and his men interrogate the farmer, learning that his assailants were carrying a baby. They release him and he goes to Mrs. Bai's house where he is revealed to be Zhou Faiyun. Xiuyi and Zhenxiong apologize for taking his clothes and he accepts with good humor, then says he will help escort them to the White Dragons. 

Mrs. Bai, LIttle Beggar and Nui Nui escort them to the edge of the city, where the newly formed trio departs for their next check point. The Emperor has set up a number of these and they are an important part of the plot, where the heroes have to pass through several narrow areas that are heavily guarded in order to reach their destination in the south. 

Mrs. Bai then instructs Little Beggar to retrieve his master (Old Beggar) and returns to her home with Nui Nui. There they encounter Yancang and his men, who were having Zhou Faiyun followed. We don't actually see the fight, but when Old Beggar and Little Beggar arrive after, they find Mrs. Bai dead and Nui Nui seriously injured. This was an effective decision in my opinion, because I imagined all kinds of scenarios where the great Mrs. Bai faces off with Yancang, Huajiao and the others. It also lent weight to Mrs. Bai's death. 
Mrs. Bai and Nui Nui face Yancang

Xiuyi, Zhou and Zhenxiong arrive at their next check point, trying to masquerade as mourners for their mother (which I thought was an interesting choice since it mirrors Bai's death, something they haven't learned about yet). Again they almost make it trough but a dog catches the baby's scent and the alarm is sounded. A massive skirmish unfolds with dozens of participants. The heroes easily fend off their opponents now that they've added Zhou to their ranks, and the guards back off, with their commander summoning Yancang because he knows the trio is too powerful for his men to handle on their own. 

The three heroes take shelter in a cave, as it rains. Zhou convinces them they should press through the rain to get a lead over their pursuers. Pointing out that Yancang and his men will likely take shelter from the rain as well. It takes some convincing but they eventually relent. At this point, it is clear there is a love triangle emerging between Zhou, Xiuyi and Zhenxiong, with the latter becoming increasingly jealous. 

Some time later, the baby comes down with a fever and Zhenxiong reprimands Zhou for talking them into traveling through the stormy weather. Zhou takes them to Doctor Ko, in the next city. Unfortunately Doctor Ko and his wife are crafty and working with the new Emperor. The Doctor betrays the heroes and Yancang arrives with his thugs at the doctor's residence for a marvelous swordplay scene.

At doctor Ko's, the heroes fighting skills prove superior, so much so that Yancang and his men decide to ask Huajiao's master, Old Monster, to help them. This is classic wuxia where skill level is absolute and in the face of a greater opponent you must either improve your own kung fu or find a stronger ally. 

Yancang and Huajiao ply Old Monster with drink, food and women, offering to let him marry Xiuyi if he helps them. Old Monster is a blue faced master with heavy appetites and no moral scruples. He is the perfect counter part to Old Beggar. Convinced by their offers, Old Monster agrees to work with them and they plan to ambush the heroes at an upcoming dragon dance festival in one of the cities on their way south. It is not immediately clear from the subtitles why his face is blue, but he does mention living in a cave so it could have to do with that (or there is an assumption in the genre I am simply missing and will say more about this below).
Old Monster

After they flee from the battle at doctor Ko's, Xiuyi, Zhenxiong and Zhou happen upon a cabin deep in the snowy mountains. The residence have all been slaughtered and left naked. When Xiuyi asks Zhou who did it, he simply says "It is wartime, this is unavoidable." At the cabin the heroes get a much needed respite and we see the jealousy between Zhenxiong and Zhou reach a peak, as it becomes clear Xuiyi is falling for the latter.

When the snow clears, the group continues on and arrives at the festival where they disguise themselves and talk their way into being part of the dragon dance parade. During the celebration, Yancang, Old Monster, Huajiao and their men attack the parade and the heroes flee. They nearly make their escape but Yancang guards an important pass, so Zhou creates a distraction allowing the other two to make it through. 
Trio in Disguise

In a grueling battle with dozens of men and the three evil warriors, Zhou is nearly defeated by Old Monsters, whose Kung Fu is too powerful for him, and he plunges off a cliff, leading the villains to believe him dead. 

Expecting to rendezvous with Zhou in a nearby forest, Zhenxiong and Xiuyi wait and wonder whether he is still alive. Zhenxiong confesses his love for Xiuyi who gently redirects him, saying she is promised to fulfill her father's will. This seems only to fill Zhenxiong with undo optimism. Zhou then arrives and tells them he survived a fall down the cliff when his clothes caught on a branch. 
Standing before Siwen of the White Dragons

Finally they make it to the temple of the White Dragons, Xiuyi exchanges a secret signal and gets an audience with her uncle's nephew, Siwen. In the audience she shows him her Black Dragon seal, which combines with the White Dragon Seal to form a key. Siwen's mood changes and he laughs. It becomes clear he may have evil intentions as he tells them to give him the baby and imperial seal. When they inform him they were instructed to hand the child to her Uncle directly, he says that the Uncle died. Siwen is now head of the White Dragons and plans to become emperor himself. He demands they give him the child and imperial seal. When they refuse, the White Dragons swarm and attack at the directions of Siwen. 

This is one of the best fight scenes in the movie and I will go into more detail about it below. In the end, the heroes survive and Zhou kills Siwen. They take the key from him and use it to open an underground lair that reveals a massive horde of treasure. 

In the lair, the three argue over what course to take next. Zhou suggests they raise a rebellion using Xiuyi as the leader and figurehead. Zhenxiong seems tired and worn down, wanting to give up. The exchange clearly has more to do with their affection for Xiuyi than their situation and results in a duel between the two men. Zhou wins but spares Zhenxiong as Yancang and his men arrive in the lair. 
Old Beggar Arrives to Defeat Old Monster

When the two sides clash, it is obvious the heroes can't beat the kung fu of Old Monster. Zhenxiong is impaled against a rock and it seems the other two will be next when Old Beggar arrives with Nui Nui and Little Beggar, reversing the tide. The two great masters face off, and Old Beggar spears Old Monster in the back with his staff, killing him. They then cut down Yancang, Huajiao and the rest. 

After the battle they thank Old Beggar, who apologizes to Zhou for giving him such a dangerous mission. They decide the best course of action is to take the child north to King Ling of Nancheng, who has a reputation for bravery. The film ends with them in a caravan heading to King Ling. 

Epic Wuxia
Raw Courage is an epic adventure with large scale combat and wide range of locations. Like The Golden Sword, the film spans great distance, and treats the viewer to wilderness, city and snowy mountains. I think it has all the elements of a great Wuxia movie. 

This is is a wuxia movie that has all the trappings of the genre and for that reason resembles a full wuxia television series more than some of films. I think this is largely because it has all the major stock characters. Old Beggar, Mrs. Bai, Nui Nui, Little Beggar, Zhou, Xiuyi and Zhenxiong feel like a complete team or family. And they area balanced out, to some degree by counterparts in the East Sea Gang. It is not perfectly symmetrical but it still seems to be the intention. 

There is a lot of mirroring in the movie actually, not just between the main heroes and villains but between scenes and between organizations like the Black Dragons and White Dragons, or characters like the good emperor and the Yongle Emperor. I think this was intuitional. One interesting contrast is the difference between Xiuyi who is filial and obeys her father's orders and Siwen who follows the letter but not the spirit of uncles' wishes (it is a bit unclear from the subtitles in my version if this is his uncle or his father). 

There is also plenty of humor sprinkled throughout Raw Courage. One of my favorite scenes is when Little Beggar tries to warn them through song about the trap set by their enemies at Mrs. Bai's former address. Lo Wei makes good use of music in his movies, and in each of the Cheng Pei-pei films I've reviewed that he has directed there has been at least one musical performance. This one was striking in its wit and its use of rhythm. 

The battles are large scale with lots of fighters involved. This can appear chaotic, and certainly the movie lacks the precision of Lady Hermit or Come Drink with Me, but it is still well done. In some ways I like these kinds of swordplay scenes better than those with fewer participants because the broader frame gives you the complete picture of peoples' movements. Again if you pay attention to stuff like footwork, it is still quite impressive in my view. In terms of aesthetics it doesn't appear as stylistic, but still quite athletic. This isn't the pinnacle of wuxia swordplay but it also isn't as weak as I've seen some folks say. I found much of the combat captivating.
White Dragons Circle the Heroes

Also because of the large scale fight scenes, it makes excellent use of the mass choreography. Particularly in the battle between the trio and the White Dragons, where the enemies are a swirl of white surrounding the heroes, then at the command of Siwen, encircling them individually like schools of fish in the ocean. I've seen things like this in later movies, but I believe this is one of the earlier films I've ever seen this sort of movement in and it was enchanting to watch. It was a beautifully organized scene. 

This is also a movie where it is clear you are dealing with wuxia heroes who are so skilled they can defeat dozens of troops on their own. This is firmly entrenched in the assumptions of the genre, where powerful heroes stand apart and are the artillery of bigger political players. So it isn't enough to have 10,000 guys, The Yongle Emperor needs powerful men and women like Tancang and Huajiao to stop the heroes. 

In terms of gaming this has a lot. Hiding a prince from usurpers and escorting him to safety is a standard trope in fantasy RPGs and so much of this would work for that sort of campaign. The hidden lairs, the characters, and all the rest just scream RPG to me. So I highly recommend Raw Courage for gamers on the look out for inspiration. 

In the end, I think this is a very strong movie, quite well done. 

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