The Film Society of Lincoln Center describes their second survey of Chinese martial arts films, entitled “Heroic Grace,” as such: “While the debut program focused on seminal films in the genre produced by the Shaw Bros. studio during the 1960s and early ’70s, this installment carries the story forward through the ’70s and into the early ’80s, covering that enormously creative period when kung fu entered the popular lexicon in the West.” Certainly, these films do appear to be bridging some form of cultural gap—look no further than Chung Chang-wha’s boundary breaking King Boxer, the film that acted as the genre’s effective entree to Western shores and which appropriates a discordant melody, later referenced by Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill, from Quincy Jones’s Ironside theme—though I hope that the work exhibited here goes a way toward educating its viewers beyond the obvious crossover appeal. There’s a tendency in the Western critical establishment to lump all Eastern martial arts films together under a derisive “chop-socky” rubric, especially given the genre’s current reliance on employing pan-Asian casts (how quickly and easily we let faces and cultures different from our own blend indeterminately into each other). A colleague’s recent review of Chen Kaige’s unjustly maligned The Promise made the mistake of conflating Japanese anime with Chinese martial arts, using the latter to denounce the former when the two forms couldn’t be more different. (If I were to distill it to an essence—writing as one whose knowledge of the genre is more than cursory, but in no way expert—the Chinese martial arts film is heavily concerned with the presence of God, both as conduit and redeemer.)
The two films I previewed in the “Heroic Grace” series are both prime examples of the genre. The aforementioned King Boxer features Lieh Lo as a rural youth sent to study at a big city martial arts school, which is in mortal competition with a rival establishment. Among the film’s many points of interest are a fight shot entirely in chiaroscuro, a revenge-laden eyeball-gouging, and a vicious trio of Japanese assassins who illustrate the spiritualist/agnostic divide separating two cultural views of the martial arts. Prolific director Yuan Chu (aka Yuen Chor) is more or less the subject of a mini-retrospective, with three films in the main program and one (Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan) in the accompanying “Shaw Bros. Classics” series. His 1976 offering, The Magic Blade, is an everything and the kitchen-sink concoction, adapted, as were many of his films, from a novel by pulp writer Lung Ku and featuring Lieh Lo and Lung Ti as rival swordfighters who team up to prevent the deadly Peacock Dart from falling into a variety of wrong hands, most memorably the rotten-toothed, deliciously monikered devil Grandma (Ping Ha). A special sidebar screening of Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers is required viewing for all martial arts aficionados, both for its wondrous action set pieces (especially the opening Echo Game) and the resonant romantic triangle between stars Zhang Ziyi, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau.