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Celluloid poems on the Wuxia tradition


"HERO" IS the best film of its kind since "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon". What is the "Crouching Tiger" kind of movie, though? It's the `Wuxia Pian', roughly translated from Mandarin as `film of martial chivalry', a celebrated but little known genre of Chinese martial arts movies.

More about Wuxia Pian later. Let's look at what makes "Hero" special. Right after Ang Lee's masterwork, there were several movies trying to imitate it. Nothing, of course, could match Lee's poem. For that's what it is: a shining poem. "Hero" is the first film in the Wuxia tradition that is at least able to evoke "Crouching Tiger".

Directed by Zhang Yimou, it picks up on a strand suggested by Lee's film — the kinship between sword fighting and calligraphy. ``It's basically the same skill," one of the characters informs us. The narrative in "Hero" feels like a Taoist tale. Seated before a great king, a legendary assassin called Nameless (Jet Li) has come to collect his reward for defeating three equally legendary warrior-assassins — Sky (Donnie Yen), Flying Snow (Margaret Cheung) and Broken Sword (Tony Leung - strange to see these two in a martial arts film after watching them in Wong Kar-wai's "In the Mood for Love").

The king asks him to narrate how he came to accomplish this great feat. Nameless tells his story and the king (just as we do) listens to the tale. Each action set-piece here faintly echoes "Crouching Tiger". One in particular stands out: the king sends his finest archers to attack a calligraphy school because Flying Snow and Broken Sword teach calligraphy here.

Nameless has also come here looking for these two shining warrior-calligraphers. He finds both of them steeped in drawing. Fascinated, he watches them work as they draw-write the word sword 20 different ways.

Meanwhile, the students at the calligraphy school — mostly women — flee as the archers shoot a rain of arrows at them. The old master of the school calmly steps out of his room and tells his fleeing students, "They may destroy the school but not our culture. Now you will see the essence of our culture." And he sits down calmly and begins drawing.

The students also begin drawing as the arrows hiss and strike all around them. Flying Snow grabs her sword and runs up to the roof to fend off the arrows. Nameless joins her and together they deflect thousands of arrows with their swordplay. Strangely, Broken Sword chooses to stay inside, continuing to ferociously draw. The students begin to draw with even greater concentration. Not one of the whizzing arrows touches them. In the same breath that Nameless and Flying Snow defeat the archers, Broken Sword finishes the drawing.

Stunned, Nameless tells him: ``Great calligraphy.'' And Broken Sword answers: ``Great swordplay''. ``But you never even saw me fight,'' exclaims Nameless. ``I could not have drawn otherwise,'' comes the answer.

When "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" first came out it astonished everyone. Everyone except the Chinese, that is. They had seen all this before — perhaps not crafted as beautifully. To my astonishment, I discovered only recently that many amazing things in "Crouching Tiger" are inspired by and taken from the conventions of the Wuxia Pian. Wuxia (wu - martial arts, xia-knight errant) is rooted in mythical China where vagabond warriors skilled in martial arts acquire supernatural powers to be able to fight for `yi' or righteousness.

The woman warrior is central to the Wuxia tradition. The hero or heroine was concerned with duty, obligation, honour, sacrifice and renunciation. There is the Wudan style of fighting which stands for inner strength and the Shaolin style, which is outer strength.

The Wuxia mythology, says film scholar David Bordwell, began as stories in novels and Chinese opera, and finally became cinema. "Burning of the Red Lotus Monastery" (1922) featured for the first time acrobatic Wuxia warriors, stunts with wirework, flying daggers and 300 martial artistes.

In "The Jade Bow" (1966), the hero and heroine pursue Ninja-like assassins over rooftops with astonishing fluidity. Feels familiar? (Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) pursuing Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi) in "Crouching Tiger").

Here's another one: "A Touch of Zen" (1971), a swordfight in midair atop a bamboo forest with the Wuxia warriors perched delicately on spindly bamboo branches! (Li Mu Bai {lcub}Chow Yun Fat{rcub} fencing with Jen in "Crouching Tiger").

Tsui Hark's "Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain" (1983) and Wong Kar Wai's "Ashes of Time" (1994) ``are poetic meditations on the Wuxia tradition, as old fighters brood about their wasted lives, mourning their youth and lost loves.'' And in fight choreographer Yuen Yo Ping, the Wuxia tradition found its contemporary master.

Some Chinese film critics and filmmakers said Ang Lee had not made a great film — just a skilful one that reworked the old conventions. Perhaps. But it is a great feat to be able to embody an entire cinema in one film. All its emotions, its history, its conventions, its style, its genius in one single work! To take all the poetry that has gone before you, the poetry of your childhood, and make a poem from it. And then to present it to the world in a way that the world would understand and be dazzled by it. That's something, isn't it?

If you don't think that's hard, that it takes a special genius, you only need to look at Bollywood and how there isn't one single contemporary film that has embodied everything Bollywood stands for. Our heritage — whether we like it or not — is the masala genre. Over decades of movie watching we've come to be inexplicably moved by its conventions. It's more than just familiarity — there must be something deeply Indian about this six-song formula.

Jaded as we are, we still surprise ourselves by crying in these movies. And ever since a few Bollywood movies have been doing well at the world box office, our filmmakers have been trying to make that one great Bollywood film that will sweep the world. At first we thought (mistakenly) "Lagaan". And then we thought it has to be "Devdas". To see how "Devdas" failed not only with us but with a foreign audience as well is to see how great a task it is to take the best our movies have had to offer and enshrine it in one great work. Ang Lee did that for Chinese cinema in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon". He is cinema's great Wuxia warrior.

PRADEEP SEBASTIAN

(pradeepsebastian@hotmail.com)

Visuals by Netra Shyam

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