Like most Americans, I first became familiar with the wu xia style of Chinese martial arts film in 2000, with the release of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Ang Lee’s highly successful and Oscar-beloved epic kicked off a series of wu xia pictures marketed to international audiences including “Hero,” “House of Flying Daggers,” and “Curse of the Golden Flower” (all three directed by Zhang Yimou). I loved these movies growing up for their over-the-top plotlines, wildly entertaining action sequences and lush art direction. “Crouching Tiger” was the first subtitled movie I saw in the theater, and it set me off into foreign films as an intrepid 11-year-old. Yet the handful of these period action flicks that made it to the US in the early 2000s is hardly the whole story.
This year’s New York Asian Film Festival has a special wu xia focus, featuring six films ranging from new releases back to the early 1980s. The genre itself is much older, with films dating back to the 1920s and a roots in literature as old as the youxia stories of the Han Dynasty. The modern form, however, really didn’t come into its own until 1983 with Tsui Hark’s landmark film “Zu: Warriors from Magic Mountain.” The first to use advanced special effects, inspired by American action films of the time, Hark brought bravura effects filmmaking into an already florid genre. For his work, NYAFF is honoring him with the Star Asia Award and showing four of his films: “Zu,” “Dragon Inn” (1992), “The Blade” (1995), and “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame” (2010).
A filmic journey through Hark’s films is a primer on the history of wu xia and its stylistic hallmarks. The surreal “Zu” is the kind of experience you simply can’t see coming, and it rocketed the Hong Kong film industry into the future. Hark brought in special effects engineers from the original “Star Wars” trilogy and “TRON” to create the strange and magical universe he needed for this trippy film. It’s indicative of the direction wu xia filmmaking would go in the coming years, both in its whimsy and its dedication to impressive visual fireworks. There are colored lights flying everywhere, clearly taken from the lightsabers of Lucas’s special effects epic, and everyone does a bit of obligatory martial arts flying. There’s even an aging hero with magic eyebrows that he uses to hold off the forces of evil. The film does seem a bit silly now, but for the most part it’s held up remarkably well and really puts the wu xia films of the last 30 years in context. This is a grand genre that lives for magnificent excess, in every aspect.
“Reign of Assassins,” not technically part of NYAFF’s wu xia focus but certainly part of the genre, is a wonderful example of that willingness to go gleefully over the top in both action sequences and narrative. Writer/director Su Chao-Bin, who will also be in town for the festival, has crafted a marvelous story that falls somewhere between “Kill Bill” and “Face/Off” (John Woo co-directed and produced “Reign”), but with even more intricacy and indulgence. These films are almost Shakespearean in their plotting, with absolutely ridiculous plot twists that somehow seem entirely reasonable in this weird and distant world. The story of “Reign of Assassins” loops around more times than you can count, and includes everything from magic ropes and water swords to face transplants. Yet at every successive absurd revelation, the mood of the film whips us up into the action and keeps us from getting lost. We find ourselves in awe rather than unconvinced confusion, floating in an enchanted and distant universe where anything can and does happen.
Perhaps no one understands how to visually construct such a milieu as well as Hark himself. The man pioneered the genre in 1983, and is now in post-production on “The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate” which will be the first ever 3D wu xia film. You can see the most recent success of his extraordinary eye in “Detective Dee: The Mystery of the Phantom Flame.” The film, which won Hark Best Director at the Hong Kong Film Awards, is the most visually stunning in the focus. Andy Lau plays Dee, an exiled detective recalled by Empress Wu (Carina Lau) to solve the mysterious murders of a number of bureaucrats who have spontaneously combusted. The intrigue grows, involving the palace chaplain (who speaks through a beautiful stag), the head of the Empress’s personal guard and the many officials who are eager to topple the new monarch. Never hard to follow, Hark’s mastery of narrative intricacy has come a long way since the ground-breaking but confusing “Zu.”
Alongside the narrative is the breathtaking assortment of visuals, every sequence beautifully decorated and photographed. The costumes are stunning, especially the Empress’s series of increasingly glorious hats, and the locations become more and more extraordinary as the film progresses. There’s the lushly decorated palace, an underground black market city, a hidden monastery in the mountains and the eventual coronation of the Empress in the shadow of her massive, newly constructed monument. Firing on all cylinders, “Detective Dee” is a brilliant feat of directorial juggling. Hark’s ability to orchestrate the massive scope, dazzling action sequences and convoluted narratives of the genre make him more than worthy of the fest’s Star Asia Award.
NYAFF runs July 1st-14th at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Tsui Hark’s films and “Reign of Assassins” will be playing July 9th-11th.