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The Heroic Tradition - Chinese Martial Arts Costume Epics

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

Although since they first opened their doors, Chinese cinemas have been ringing with the clash of swords, the righteous battle cries of noble, exquisitely garbed heroes and the evil laughter of beard stroking, cape swirling villains, of late the clamor has been particularly loud. Indeed, audiences at home and abroad would be forgiven for thinking that China's cinematic output consists for the most part of martial arts historical costume epics. Certainly, almost all of the country's big name and internationally lauded directors have tried their hand at the genre, even those perhaps better known for arthouse and humanistic cinema. The budgets for these films have grown ever bigger, packing in more and more stars, extras, flamboyant costumes and lavish sets, affording the form a glamour and prestige that has seen its ranks swell alarmingly.

All this of course leads to the question as to why such films have become so unassailably popular and why the genre, despite the obvious risk of over familiarity, only seems to go from strength to strength at the box office?

Perhaps the most obvious reason for the continuing success of the genre is cultural, with films drawing upon long standing classic tales and history. Chinese cinema to an extent grew from an operatic and literary tradition, based mainly around martial arts and the heroic wuxia form, and as such costume epics are a natural extension of this. Directors have an incredible wealth of popular stories and texts to make use of, with novels such as Romance of the Three Kingdoms and The Water Margin having endured since way back in the fourteenth century. It also helps that these books tend to span vast volumes, and so although they have been adapted for the screen countless times through the years, there always remains plenty of scope for reinvention. Of course, modern literature has also been adapted, with the works of martial arts novelist Jin Yong such as The Legend of the Condor Heroes and Sword Stained with Royal Blood having provided the inspiration for many films and television series.

As a result, the epic form has been popular throughout the years as part of Chinese culture, and is by no means a modern phenomenon. This can be seen through the library of Shaw Brothers productions, typified by the likes of The Water Margin and All Men are Brothers, along with many other adaptations. Although the genre to an extent disappeared through the 1980s and 90s, replaced with often bizarre and comical wuxia films in the scatological Hong Kong style of the time, interestingly, many Chinese directors are now remaking these earlier films or offering new versions of the original sources, with Come Drink With Me having inspired Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Blood Brothers having been reinvented by Peter Chan as The Warlords. As budgets climb towards the stratosphere and advances are made in filmmaking techniques and special effects, it is only natural that more and more stories and indeed films will be revisited with the tools now available to fulfil their grand visions.

Another reason for the proliferation of martial arts epics that should not be overlooked is the fact that politically they are safe bet for the Mainland Chinese market, generally espousing traditional values and not tackling any controversial themes or sensitive issues. This has been especially true of late, with Chinese censors being notoriously zealous at cutting films and with numerous directors and performers receiving censures even bans. Recent examples have seen contemporary drama Lost in Beijing being pulled from cinemas despite having already being shorn of its sexual content, director Lou Ye being banned from filmmaking in China for five years for his politically themed Summer Palace, and actress Tang Wei, star of Ang Lee's acclaimed Lust, Caution having been blacklisted as a result of her role apparently "glorifying traitors." With such threats hanging over their heads, it is little wonder that many Chinese directors and indeed financiers choose to stick with costume epics.

All this aside, as with any cinematic form, the main reason why costume epics continue to proliferate is simple - they are commercially successful. Often defying the critics, these films have almost unfailingly proved to be box office smashes domestically, with recent releases such as The Warlords, An Empress and the Warriors, and Three Kingdoms all having repeated the success of the likes of Hero, The Banquet, and many others. It is particularly important to consider that this comes at a time when Hollywood films are being increasingly aggressively marketed in Asian countries, and as such this level of continuing home-grown success is only likely to generate more productions hoping to ride the wave. International interest has waned since 2000 when the multiple-award winning Crouching Tiger became the first Asian film to truly conquer the Western box office, wracking up an incredible US$214 million worldwide, and fewer and fewer costume epics are being picked up for international release, but a few do still manage the money-spinning feat of overseas distribution.

With all of this in mind, it is easy to see why the popularity of the genre exploded following the miraculous success of Crouching Tiger. The film provided an attractive model, not only through its financial and critical achievements, but also for its prestigious production values and top drawer cast which included Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, and Chang Chen alongside old genre favorites such as Cheng Pei Pei. Rescuing the form from the silliness of the preceding two decades, the film brought back a certain dignity, with themes of heroism, righteousness, and sacrifice coming firmly to the fore. What is perhaps less obvious, though more interesting, is that although to the casual viewer the films which followed in its wake may look like a homogenous lot, the genre itself has developed in the following years, going through several different phases.

Initially, martial arts costume epics post-2000 followed the Crouching Tiger formula closely, being filled with graceful, balletic visuals, exquisite costumes, and with touches of fantasy and myth. The genre's second key release came a couple of years later with Hero, from acclaimed mainland director Zhang Yimou, who at that point was best known for character dramas such as Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern. The film boasted an even more sweeping historical scope, and big name stars in the form of Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Donnie Yen, and Zhang Ziyi, with gorgeous cinematography by Christopher Doyle. It was a massive domestic success, and won multiple awards around the world, as well as notching up an impressive US$53 million in the US, marking it as the third most successful foreign language film to date.

With this, the die was cast and the genre's popularity exploded, with filmmakers desperate to get in on the act. Established as a top box office draw, more and more funding appeared, with productions becoming increasingly grandiose and prestigious. As with Hollywood blockbusters in the West, martial arts costume epics became event films, and unsurprisingly, their focus shifted to capitalizing on aspects that would hopefully bring in even wider audience, such as expensive sets, costumes and special effects.

The next few years saw a rush of genre films by respected directors hitting screens, including Zhang Yimou's Hero follow-up The House of Flying Daggers, Seven Swords from Tsui Hark, (who has during his long career been responsible for his fair share of costume epics, including Once Upon a Time in China, Green Snake, and The Blade to name but a few), The Promise from Farewell My Concubine director Chen Kaige and The Banquet from Feng Xiaogang, who had previously been associated mainly with biting social satires such as Cell Phone. Although there was a great wealth of talent involved, the genre saw a definite dip in quality, with films being criticized for their hollow obsession with visual splendor, and for being designed with international audiences in mind. Despite this, and although all failed to find the same kind of success overseas as Crouching Tiger, with Western critics being equally scathing, all were massive box office hits at home, pulling in previously unseen amounts of money and setting in stone the genre's appeal.

The martial arts costume epic arguably reached a pinnacle of sorts in 2006 with Zhang Yimou's Curse of the Golden Flower, an almost impossibly gorgeous production overflowing with bright colors and gaudy period detail (not to mention the cleavage of the female cast). Although well received critically and another highly profitable money-spinner, the film, was a definite a ne plus ultra of the form, and clearly something fresh was needed.

The same year, a different proposition did appear in the shape of Jacob Cheung's A Battle of Wits, starring Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau along with acclaimed Korean actor Ahn Sung Ki and then upcoming starlet Fan Bing Bing. While still very much a costume epic, the film, which was set during China's Warring States period and was actually based upon a manga comic, did feature a notably different look, being much rougher, dustier and less colorful. Similarly, although it still worked in plenty of battle scenes and martial arts, it had a more thoughtful and philosophical anti-war theme, which Cheung just about managed to balance with the usual righteous heroism.

The genre was effectively transformed in 2007 with the release of Peter Chan's blockbuster Warlords, a remake of the Shaw Brothers production Blood Brothers. A gritty anti-war epic, the film was a contemplative affair, and was in many ways the anti-thesis of Curse of the Golden Flower. Of course, at the same time Chan was careful not to neglect the need for audience-pleasing heroics, battle scenes, and star power, bringing together Andy Lau, Jet Li, and Takeshi Kaneshiro. Bloody, intelligent, and above all, dusty, the film scored big at the box office and went down well with critics, proving that the genre need not only produce empty visual feasts. Interestingly, it also demonstrated that the costume epic genre could still offer directors the chance to work in social commentary and even some historical revisionism, through a more realistic and morally complex approach rather than employing the usual larger-than-life heroes and villains.

The film certainly proved that audiences were receptive to more grounded costume epics, and genre excitement reached fever pitch with the announcement that John Woo would be returning from Hollywood to direct his own Three Kingdoms set piece of historical revisionism, Red Cliff. A massively budgeted, all star production which is to be split into two parts for release in Asia, the film focuses upon the battle at the titular location which proved to be a major turning point in Chinese history. With the trailer and footage screened at Cannes having raised anticipation levels even further, there is not doubt that the film represents not only the genre's biggest outing to date, but also perhaps potentially the first Asian release likely to challenge for the international crown of Crouching Tiger.

Inevitably, with the film undergoing a lengthy and apparently troubled production, it has already been beaten to the screen by a couple of imitations, firstly the awkwardly titled Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon. Directed by Dragon Squad helmer Daniel Lee, the film sees Andy Lau donning historical costume yet again as the legendary general Zhao Yun, backed up by international beauty Maggie Q and the one and only Sammo Hung. Although not displaying the same level of realism as Warlords, or allowing the cast to get quite so down and dirty, the film is still a step away from the glamorous epics of a few years back. However, the focus is very much on the entertaining battle scenes, attempting to pack in glorious spectacle and perhaps hoping to steal, or at least borrow a little of Red Cliff's coming fire.

The same is true of An Empress and the Warriors, which was directed by Ching Siu Tung. Given that the director actually worked on the action scenes of Warlords, Curse of the Golden Flower, Hero, and others, and that current martial arts favorite Donnie Yen is present, it comes as no surprise that the film is filled with action and adventure. Unfortunately, it is also a rather silly affair, not least thanks to the casting of pop princess Kelly Chen in the titular role, and suffers from an uneven tone. As such, although entertaining in its own way, the film is unlikely to even be mentioned in the same breath as Red Cliff, not that this in itself is necessarily a criticism.

More than anything, what Three Kingdoms and An Empress and the Warriors clearly show is that with Red Cliff and its likely all-conquering success just around the corner, viewers can expect to see much, much more of the same, and that the costume epic is certain to be the predominant form of Chinese cinema for some years to come.

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Published June 23, 2008

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