I’ve come to the conclusion that the Wuxia genre is the Chinese equivalent of the Superhero and Western genres all in one. While the genre has been around since 300-200 B.C., and evolved from the action sections of classic novels like ROMANCE OF THE THREE KINGDOMS, the first official Wuxia novel is probably THE WATER MARGIN, written in the Ming Dynasty. The basic premise of the genre involves a lone wandering swordsman who serves no master or king (not unlike the mythic gunslinger of the Western) but follows a code of his own, almost a Robin Hood character who defends the weak against corrupt leaders, despots and kings. It’s a surprisingly progressive genre in its advocacy of toppling corrupt leaders and small wonder that Wuxia novels were constantly being banned throughout China’s history, including in the Communist regime.
The Wuxia genre as we know it now is due largely to the 20th Century iteration of the genre in the form of novels written by authors like Louis Cha (aka “Jing Yong), Gu Long, Liang Yusheng, Wen Ruian and Huang Yi, who mainly lived in Hong Kong and Taiwan, who added mysteries and romance into the stories. More importantly, the movies adapted from their books. Wuxia movies have been around since China’s Silent Movie Era in the 1920s, incorporating the theatrics of Peking Opera into the action sequences and carried on through Hong Kong’s quota-quickies in the 1950s before Shaw Brothers Studios introduced colour and widescreen to the genre, which is how most people now remember them from childhood, and then Tsui Hark revitalized them with updated production values and political undertones in the 1980s and 1990s. The reason Wuxia stories are like superhero stories is because of the ethos of swordsmen and fighters attaining mystical powers through martial arts, which is justification for all the wire-fu flying through the air. And they were often fighting against some would-be despot trying to attain Ultimate Power like any supervillain. Hardly sounds different from any superhero story, doesn’t it? That’s why it was easy for Johnny To and Ching Siu-Tung to translate the Wuxia movie into a superheroine movie THE HEROIC TRIO back in 1997 without missing a beat to cash in on the darkly campy trend as established by Tim Burton’s Batman movies.
One thing that makes the Wuxia genre unique is that it’s the only popular adventure genre in the world that features from the start female fighters and swordswomen who are as strong as the men as if it was the most normal thing in the world. Every other genre – noir, mystery, samurai, action thrillers – only began to feature strong heroines as an exception or after Feminism made some headway in the 1960s. Louis Cha’s stories featured romances between swordsmen and swordswomen who go on to spawn entire generations of warriors that last through several epic novel series. In fact, the first heroes of Wuxia movies were played by women because male performers thought acting in films was slumming, which is ironic since women were banned from performing in Peking Opera from the mid-18th Century and only finally returned in the 1870s.
The Chinese government lifted the ban on Wuxia movies and books not long ago, which partly explains why China is finally producing their own rather than just importing them from Hong Kong. The other reason is that CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON made the genre palatable for international arthouse audiences rather than just local Chinese people in Asia, and the producers saw the possibility of making box office coin in the West, though there are still plenty of movie and TV productions made solely for local consumption that no one in the West will ever see. Prestigious A-list movies geared for import, however, need to be more sophisticated in their scripts on top of higher budgets. Tsui Hark’s recent DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERIOUS OF THE PHANTOM FLAME is a recent example of this new approach, with its more knowing, postmodern take on the genre as it mixes in political allegory with murder mysterious, though Tsui Hark had actually done the same thing with his first movie THE BUTTERFLY MURDERS back in 1977. DETECTIVE DEE is really an attempt to revitalise the genre by updating its sensibility to the 21st Century. Another new attempt to breathe new life in Wuxia movies is the John Woo-produced REIGN OF ASSASSINS.
Here, Michelle Yeoh plays a member of an order of assassins who tires of the life and goes into hiding with a new identity and falls in love with a humble messenger who has no idea about her old job. However, since she alone knows where the remains of a dead monk are hidden, her former colleagues hunt her down because their leader believes the monk’s holy corpse will grant him ultimate power and wisdom. What’s interesting about REIGN OF ASSASSINS is that it leaves out any conscious layer of political allegory and symbolism in favour of a character-driven story. Each of the assassins that come after Michelle Yeoh are as odd and colourful as any comic book supervillain: there’s the killer with elaborate devices and weapons lend him a magician’s theatricality, the charming killer who fights dirty, the recently-recruited psychopathic femme fatale who thinks murder and sex are two great tastes that taste great together. Michelle Yeoh trying to protect her civilian husband as he discovers her real identity is the kind of plot you find in a Hollywood action thriller while the hyperreal action sequences are pretty much up there with any comic book movie.
Like DETECTIVE DEE, REIGN OF ASSASSINS was scripted by a Taiwanese writer, and their perspective tends to be different from that of a Mainland Chinese writer – they feel less pressure to make approved political messages in their stories. If you look hard, you might interpret REIGN’s heroine’s struggle to escape her past and live a normal life as political, her evil assassin cohorts could be read as representatives of an old repressive regime, but it doesn’t feel intentional. Tsui Hark tends to wear his political enquiries on his sleeve but REIGN’s concerns feel entirely personal rather than overtly political. The fact that it was passed by the Mainland Chinese censors for release there is an indication that they didn’t think the movie was potentially harmful in any way. Its direct take on romance and sexuality is also more modern and contemporary than you expect from Wuxia movies, so you could read the movie as a allegory on the present, as most movies set in the distant past tend to be these days.
Now the bad news for anyone in the US who might want to see this movie: it’s been picked up by the Weinstein Company. Since Miramax used to buy up loads of Chinese action and Wuxia movies and not bother to release them, it’s a complete toss-up when or if REIGN OF ASSASSINS will be come out in America. Lionsgate UK have it for British distribution so it’ll probably show up in the cinema this year. And you can already order the DVD and Blu-Ray from yesasia.com or your local Chinatown shop if you don’t want to wait.
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