Saturday, March 7, 2015


I've been making a point of watching a wide range of wuxia movies while we work on Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate, spanning decades from roughly 1966 to the present. While I have to admit I've long had a soft spot for older martial arts films, one thing that really stands out to me now is the quality of some of these earlier efforts. Even ones I may not personally care for, I can see the importance of. 
Hsu Feng in A Touch of Zen

A lot of people are hesitant to watch these older movies, and I think that is understandable. The image quality is often poor because they were not well preserved and the pacing and editing are very different from what modern martial arts audiences are used to. The last two in particular are quite a hurdle for people. Modern editing techniques enhance fight choreography a lot, and fight choreography itself has made enormous leaps. But like anything else, there is a trade off, and one of the trade offs of slick editing, is you can't always see everything the actor is doing. I am not going to lie, a 1960s Shaw Brothers movie does not look like a Jet Li action film. For one thing, the swordplay is less stylized, though often athletic. But that doesn't mean you should dismiss the earlier films. In fact if you go back and watch them, you'll find it enriches your viewing of more current movies because there are so many call backs to what came before. 
Cheng Pei Pei in Come Drink With Me

Yes earlier movies can be grainy at times, but many of them have been remastered or were well preserved. The ones from the late 60s and 70s that were filmed on sets seem to hold up well for some reason. The Dragon Dynasty DVD series is a great source for remastered classic martial arts movies. 

Films from the 60s and 70s may also seem slower at first. We are accustomed to very efficient editing that removes extraneous material. But one thing you find when you go back and look at older movies (and this applies to all movies, not just wuxia) is the extraneous is rather subjective. If you look at dialogue for example, it has gone through peaks and valleys over the years in terms of efficiency. There is such a thing as too much editing. You find this in music as well. We have gone through periods filled with baroque style frills and technique, but then often experienced minimalist reactions. That doesn't mean the best songs are always simple. It doesn't mean rock music hit its apex in the 90s. I would argue it is important to have a range of approaches and that efficiency is not always a virtue. 
Jimmy Wang in The One-Armed Swordsman

With martial arts movies the same thing applies. I love modern wuxia, and I really love stuff from the 90s, but I also can enjoy the more relaxed pace of an old Golden Harvest or Shaw Brothers flick. If you are accustomed to the new stuff, yes the change is a bit alarming. It is similar to going from a busy life in the city to a vacation cabin in the woods. The pace is maddening at first because your attention span is accustomed to everything moving quickly, but you adapt within a matter of days to the new pace of life. 

One of the advantages of films like King Hu's Come Drink With Me (which at the time introduced a lot of newer and faster editing techniques) is it takes the time to build the story. It helps create atmosphere and establish characters. Another King Hu movie, A Touch of Zen, simply wouldn't work if it picked up the pace. 

I think the biggest thing for most people though is the fight choreography and editing. This is something where I do think there have been many advances. It is hard to deny that a movie like The New Dragon Gate Inn or House of Flying Daggers isn't visually spell-binding in no small part because of the fantastic editing techniques and stylized fight choreography. You will get a lot less of that in an older wuxia movie, but you will still get plenty to feast your eyes upon if you can adjust to the difference. One thing I do when I view the older movies is concentrate more on things like footwork. Lady Hermit is a good example of this, where the movement is captivating and dance-like, but still different from the intensity of stuff that you see today. 
Lily Ho and Betty Pei Ti in
Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan

The other nice thing about these older films, which I've already mentioned, is you can see the actor's entire body and you often get a much better view of what all the participants are doing. That does mean you also get a better view when performances lull or dip, so it isn't without a downside. However I do appreciate being able to see things clearly and not lose sight of what is going on as the action blazes. 

I should point out that the earlier movies (especially before the 70s) have much different fight choreography. It often looks more swashbuckling in nature, and while I find it entertaining, it is worth mentioning so folks are not surprised. 

None of this is to diminish the value of more recent movies. I personally tend to alternate between the two. The point I am trying to make is it is a matter of adjusting to a different style and once you do, you will find it enriches your viewing of modern movies. One strong example of this is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. If you liked that, you'll certainly enjoy watching many of the earlier movies that it made reference to. In many ways it is a highlight reel of the best of wuxia. It is no coincidence that Cheng Pei-Pei makes an appearance in the movie. There are several allusions to films she herself stared in (notably Come Drink with Me but other ones as well like The Jade Raksha and Dragon Swamp). 

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