Between July 14-18, Vancouver’s film society Cinematheque screened the two best Wuxia films from King Hu (1932-1997), a prominent director born in Beijing and based in both Taiwan and Hong-Kong. The reception of the two films, A Touch of Zen (1971) and Dragon Gate Inn (1967) was warm enough that the theatre scheduled further screenings on the BC Day long weekend.
Hu’s Dragon Gate Inn follows the very basic elements of wuxia: moralist themes (despite the hardboiled violence), martial arts house style, fighting against tyrants, deeds of chivalry, struggle and sacrifice for a justice and order, as well as personal and civil righteousness. Wuxia films generally depict these elements through the warrior-philosopher archetypal figure of Xia or Ruxia (Confucian Knight) who symbolise the Chinese of knight-errantry, an ancient Chinese concept that has been passed down through fictions and real historical records thousands of years ago.
Sima Qian’s Records Of A Grand Historian (written over two thousand years ago) identifies Yi (righteousness), Xin (trust), Gong (meritorious service), Jie (tidiness) and Rang (tolerance) as the main ethical principles guiding the behaviour of Xia. The motivating principle behind the knight-errant’s mission to do good deeds and to act is a sense of altruism. Wuxia heroes all aim at achieving one final goal: attaining harmonious balance between Wen (civil values) and Wu (military values) dialects for the sake of a utopian society based on justice, order, and fairness.
Set in the Ming dynasty, the recurring themes of invasion, foreign hordes, and corrupt officials, have led many critics to draw parallels to the contemporary struggle between a benevolent order and despotism in China. Despite the film’s obvious tendency towards fantasy, the details, personalities and plot twists are grounded in real historical incidents of the Ming dynasty, further strengthening the historical parallels for critics. For example, in his article “History, Nation and Politics in King Hu’s Dragon Gate Inn and A Touch of Zen,” film scholar Stephen Teo explores the political undertones of both films and how the tyrannical figures from history may be seen as reflections of the contemporary China’s current government (find the article here). For example, there are scholars who have argued that the resurgent dictatorship of Xi Jinping, the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and President of the People’s Republic of China in 2012, with no freedom in the world, on the net, and in the press is a modern example of ancient dictatorships reflected in films as such.
The film’s plot is a simple one. It begins with narration explaining the eunuchs’ rise to power and their control of two departments of state: the dongchang (Eastern agency of the Emperor’s secret service) and the jinyiwei (the Imperial Guards). The minister of war Yu Qian receives an order to fight against Cao Shaoqin, the head of dongchang and the eastern agency’s forces. Yu Qian’s three children are banished to the Dragon Gate, a military outpost guarded by enemy troops. Fearing future revenge from Yu’s children, Shaoqin sends his minions to assassinate the children as they go on their journey to exile, but a lone swordsman intervenes to save the children. The rest of the narrative proceeds as a series of separate arrivals of opponent forces to the Dragon Gate and the various situations of combat between the two sides.
Despite the story’s apparent simplicity, Hu’s infusion of Beijing Opera elements to the dominant wuxia setting takes the film to a whole new level. For example, the operatic style is apparent in the opening scenes where the eunuchs of the dongchang are introduced. They appear on screen moving rhythmically to the beat of traditional opera music, similar to the grand stage entrances of classic operas. Throughout the film, the choreographed advance of opponents in action sequences to the accented beat of the ban (wooden board that typically recurs in Beijing Opera) render the characters as “stock theatrical types” rather than real-life human beings, Stephen Teo observes. These synchronised movements result in awkward pauses in the opponents’ fightings, suggesting Hu’s operatic effect.
Dragon Inn was the first film in which Hu included theatre staging into his cinematic style. The separate arrivals of individuals and groups to the inn, in fact, is more like a series of fragmented set pieces, almost theatrical stage entrances. These set pieces unfold seemingly without a story to thread them together. As writer Tang Wenbiao has noted, the film is suggestive of the anti-narrative structures of French new wave master Jean-Luc Godard.
This interest in theatrical tactics gives an aura of fantasy to Hu’s subsequent wuxia films. However, superficial elements of opera and wuxia were not the only concerns of the director. In addition to the aesthetic creativity that Hu achieved through the infusion of the two genres, he found the most economical means to express meaning through theatrical fight conventions.
The main message of this film, like most wuxia plots, is that the power of the chivalric hero is only as great as his or her moral accomplishment. In Dragon Gate Inn, the heroes fight against the forces of totalitarian power and for the cause of a just minister. They make great sacrifices that determine the moral dimension of their violence and by doing so, they reach the balanced harmony between wen and wu and become one step closer to achieving the just society they aim for.