On the wild world of Taiwanese wuxia.
The 10th Old School Kung-Fu Fest: Swordfighting Heroes Edition plays at Metrograph from Friday, April 21.
Five years after its first half opened in the cinemas of Taiwan, where it was filmed, King Hu’s Ming dynasty-set wuxia opus A Touch of Zen found itself in the unexpected position of competing for the Palme d’Or at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival. Back home, Hu’s three-hour epic, released in two parts, had been a costly box office disappointment, but the reunified A Touch of Zen was given a warm welcome at Cannes, having found an enthusiastic champion in the person of French cinephile tastemaker Pierre Rissient, and became the first wuxia film to be awarded at a European festival, earning a Technical Grand Prize. For a festival audience largely unacquainted with the particular poetics of the wuxia—its heroes routinely taking 30-foot vertical leaps, its musique concrète of clashing steel and rustling silks—one can only imagine how overwhelming the experience of watching Hu’s film, with its magisterial 10-minute bamboo forest fight, must have been.
Today, A Touch of Zen regularly ranks as one of the finest films ever to be produced in what we’ll call Greater China—the culturally connected though politically fractious territories of Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Macao, and the post-revolutionary People’s Republic—and became the subject of renewed interest thanks to its profound influence on Taiwan-born Ang Lee’s Crouching Dragon, Hidden Dragon, an international wuxia sensation that premiered in 2000 at Cannes, where 15 years later Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-hsien won Best Director for his own wuxia, The Assassin.
Hu’s arrival in Taiwan in 1966 undeniably had a seismic impact on the film industry of the island nation, and no discussion of Taiwanese genre cinema in the late 1960s and ’70s can ignore him entirely, but there is much more to the history of the Taiwanese wuxia than the handful of celebrated auteur titles that made it as far as the Croisette. Rather than add to the laurels that have (deservedly) been heaped at Hu’s feet, then, I would like to examine some of the exemplary specimens of Taiwanese wuxia that were flung out in the radius impact of his arrival.
As a fiction form, the wuxia has its roots in the shenguai (“Gods and Demons”) literature popular in the Six Dynasties period (222-589 AD) and the chuanqi prose romances of the late Tang Dynasty, though it is a phenomenon of 20th-century mass media, appearing in its contemporary form shortly after Sun Yat-sen’s establishment of the Republic of China in 1912. The word wuxia, loosely translated as “chivalrous hero,” was originally coined by Japanese writers to describe a particular strain of Chinese stories set in a mythic Middle Kingdom of yore and revolving around warriors well-versed in the martial arts who, in times of chaos and corruption, remained exemplars of the xia code—something akin to the samurai code of bushido, though where the samurai was entrenched in the feudal power structure, the wuxia protagonist was very often outside of or firmly opposed to the forces governing society. By the 1920s, serialized wuxia stories had become sufficiently popular with readers as to become potent weapons in newspapers’ circulation wars, and were at the same time becoming fodder for films being turned out by Shanghai’s blossoming industry, like 1925’s Swordswoman Li Feifei, oft considered to be the earliest Chinese martial arts movie.
A Touch of Zen (1971)
The Republican Kuomintang (KMT) government, relentlessly pushing for the modernization of a China awakening from centuries of feudalism, associated the wuxia with a superstitious past they were eager to leave behind, and periodically banned the publication of wuxia literature and production of wuxia movies, though they continued to be made by the nascent film industry in the colony of British Hong Kong. When the long Chinese Civil War ended with Chaing Kai-shek’s retreat from Beijing and relocation of the seat of the Republic of China’s government to Taipei in 1949, the populations of both Taiwan and Hong Kong were swollen weekly with the thousands fleeing the Mainland, but if the KMT loyalists charted a course for the former Formosa, most of the radio singers, genre scribes, and movie folk saw better prospects in Hong Kong, which would take over from Shanghai as the capital of pop moviemaking in the second half of the 20th century. (The Chinese Communist Party, it may be noted, was no fonder of the wuxia and its individualist heroes than the KMT had been, and for many years the works of popular wuxia writer Jin Yong were banned in the Mainland.)
Taiwan, under Japanese rule from 1895 to 1945, had been valued as an exhibition market for Japanese films rather than as a place for producing them, and along with the paucity of practical studio infrastructure, aspiring filmmakers in the Republic’s first decade in Taipei had to contend with the dictates of a censorious government that, like Mao’s across the Taiwan Strait, viewed cinema mostly as a vehicle for propaganda. During the ’50s, as Hong Kong’s film industry was roaring into overdrive, Taiwan became its single most crucial export market, its audiences making a blockbuster of Li Han-Hsiang’s 1963 Huangmei opera classic The Love Eterne. Taiwan could also be of use as a shooting location, and sweetheart tax incentives from the Taiwanese government did much to lure Hong Kong studios over—for example, Hsin Hwa Motion Picture Company, which imported 12-year-old Josephine Siao Fong-fong, a future superstar, to play in 1960 wuxia production The Daring Gang of Nineteen from Verdun City.
While the wuxia film has never wholly disappeared from screens across Greater China, the mid-1960s marked the beginning of their golden age. Producer Run Run Shaw, whose enduring fondness for wuxia went back at least to the days when his older brother Runje oversaw Swordswoman Li Feifei in Shanghai, had established Shaw Bros. Ltd. As the preeminent studio in the Hong Kong film industry at the beginning of the decade with the opening of their massive Movietown facility in Clearwater Bay. When Loke Wan Tho, the chairman of the Shaw’s nearest competitor, Cathay, died along with several other chief executives in a 1964 plane crash, Shaw Bros. were left an unrivaled force. Run Run, now free to shape trends according to his fancy, had begun to screen Japanese chambara films from Toei and Daei for his staff to study in preparation for his studio’s recommitment to wuxia, and the year after Loke’s death the Shaw Bros. house organ film magazine, Southern Screen, announced a coming “color wuxia offensive” full of “realistic action and fighting that immediately decides life or death.” A year later, that offensive resulted in two decisive victories: Tiger Boy, directed by Cheng Cheh and featuring rising star Jimmy Wang Yu in the lead, and Come Drink with Me, directed by Hu.
Run Run Shaw deserves a great deal of credit for building Hong Kong’s film industry, but the Taiwanese industry also owes him an enormous debt of gratitude, namely because he was so impossible to work under that much of the finest talent in Hong Kong was willing to cross the ocean to get out from under his thumb. Hu, who’d been knocking around as a set director, actor, screenwriter, and assistant director since the late ’50s, had been eyeing the director’s chair for years and blamed Shaw for hampering his ambitions, so as soon as he had a bona fide hit under his belt he formed a partnership with Sha Rong-feng, a Taiwanese producer, to found a new studio, the Union Film Company. Hu’s defection was preceded and perhaps inspired by that of Li Han-Hsiang, for whom Hu had acted as assistant director on The Love Eterne; in 1963 Li had founded a studio of his own, Grand Motion Pictures, in Taiwan, and set to work straightaways building a modern facility in Taoyuan. The Taiwanese film industry on even footing would never compete with Hong Kong’s on even footing, but thanks in no small part to Li, who had the prestige to bring specialists and technicians to his new studio from Hong Kong to verse local DPs in shooting in color and widescreen, by the time Hu arrived it was hardly a backwater.
Hu’s escape from Shaw was an incomplete one, though; Shaw’s cutthroat chief deputy Raymond Chow used connections inside the KMT government to win Shaw the Hong Kong, Macau, and Singapore-Malaysia-Burma distribution rights for Hu’s next four films, siphoning a great deal of profits from Union Film’s first project, his blockbuster Dragon Inn (1967), which began a period of accelerated wuxia production in a Taiwanese film industry that, in the latter part of the 1960s, was producing more films than it ever had before, or since.
The Vengeance of the Phoenix Sisters (1968)
Hung-min Chen’s 1968 The Vengeance of the Phoenix Sisters, a standout entry in the initial wave of post-Dragon Inn Taiwanese wuxia, tells the tale of a trio of sisters scattered to the wind in childhood by the annihilation of their family, then reunited as adults—now keen swordswomen, all—while pursuing individual vendettas against the massacre’s perpetrators. Shot in black-and-white widescreen with actors speaking the local dialect of Minnanhua Chinese commonly referred to as “Taiwanese Hokkien,” Phoenix Sisters was evidently made without the resources available to the big Hong Kong producers, but Chen knew how to turn seeming handicaps to his advantage. Cinematographer Jiu-Chang Huang, lighting night scenes with car headlights in absence of proper equipment, manages to create some moody chiaroscuro effects. The film’s leading ladies—Yang Lihua and Liu Ching, both stars coming from Taiwanese Hokkien opera, and Chin Mei, mostly known for her melodramas—weren’t seasoned screen fighters, but Chen, a much in-demand editor who’d just worked on Dragon Inn, sells the combat scenes with dab-handed cutting, and the trio are so irresistibly charming throughout that one is hardly tempted to complain.
The short-lived New Regal Production Company bankrolled Phoenix Sisters but, perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the most distinguished of the Taiwanese wuxia of the late ’60s and early ’70s came out of Union Film, beginning with Joseph Kuo’s The Swordsman of all Swordsmen, a public sensation upon its release in 1968. Kuo was born in Tainen, Taiwan, in 1935, and had been directing movies, many of them in the Taiwanese Hokkien dialect and made for his own Hongya Film Company, since 1958. I can’t vouch for the quality of these earlier films, or his first film for Union, a 1967 romance called Love is Thicker Than Wine, but Swordsman, Kuo’s first venture into wuxia, undertaken after a close study of Come Drink with Me and Hiroshi Inagaki’s The Samurai Trilogy, sees him taking to the genre like a duck to water.
Vengeance is again the name of the game here; this time the instrument will be Tien Peng, portraying a young swordsman, Tsai Ying-jie, who, after witnessing his family being snuffed out as a boy, has spent 20 years practicing the blade and plotting his payback. He initially makes his way through the five killers as easily as someone crossing items off a grocery list, but then two xia heroes who cross his path, Black Dragon and Flying Swallow, complicate matters. Black Dragon, played by Chiang Nan, is the most celebrated warrior in the land, and wants to duel Tsai in order to prove his superiority; Flying Swallow, played by Dragon Inn’s Shang-kuan, wants to dissuade Tsai from finishing his mission, for unbeknownst to him, his final target is her aged father.
A City Called Dragon, released two years after Swordsman, was another feather in Union’s cap, a sort of fringe benefit of Hu’s notorious perfectionism. The film’s director, Tu Chung-hsun, who was Hu’s assistant director on both Dragon Inn and A Touch of Zen, took advantage of one of the many lengthy lulls during the three-year production of the latter film to shoot a movie of his own using Hu’s cast, including stars Shih Chun and Hsu Feng. The latter was a native of Taipei, a penniless 16-year-old with no experience in either acting or martial arts when Hu cast her in Dragon Inn; she would go on to make a total of six films with the director while becoming one of Taiwanese audiences favorite screen actresses of the 1970s. (Hu liked to make his own stars instead of relying on readymades, and had propelled Cheng Pei-pei to legitimate celebrity in Come Drink with Me; Lee, in homage, cast her in the role of Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.)
An unseen narrator identifies the setting of A City Called Dragon as the year 1131, in the midst of the Jin-Song Wars pitting Han dissidents against the ruling Jin dynasty; as the film opens, Hsu, an agent of Han rebels based in the Taihang Mountains, arrives in “Dragon Town” on a mission to connect with the leader of the city’s undercover Han insurgents and retrieve documents crucial to the rebels’ success, only to discover that a despotic new mayor (Shih) has wiped out his clan and the documents have gone missing. Tu’s particular strengths are a dynamic use of foreground space in framing and an ability to ratchet up tension in a scene with a Sergio Leone-esque isolation of a detail or sound—evident from the moment that Hsu enters the city, where she’s trailed by spy “vendors” and the clack of the bamboo clappers they use to announce their presence to passers-by. The cloak-and-dagger skullduggery in shadow-wreathed sets outweighs the swordplay in the movie by a considerable margin, but Hsu knows how to make a suspenseful set piece—the prison break that revolves around a key smuggled in a cooked fish is particularly good—and the tenebrous final showdown is as satisfying as the twist that precedes it.
The hiatuses on A Touch of Zen that produced A City Called Dragon also made possible Union’s 1970 The Grand Passion, whose director, Yang Shih-ching, was production manager on A Touch of Zen. The similarities don’t stop there: there’s another band of rebels, another missing document—this time a list of names—that the future of the rebellion depends on, another town ruled by a tyrant who instills terror in the populace with his penchant for torture, and another pair of Hu-affiliated actors, this time Shang-kuan and Pai Ying, here playing siblings sworn to aid the uprising at any cost. But unlike Tu, who was working with first-time cinematographer Chow Yeh-Hsing on A City Called Dragon, Yang also got to use Hu’s DP, Hua Hui-ying; Yang and Hua don’t go in so much for Dragon’s funky framings, but they produce some striking images of their own, particularly when the action moves outdoors, as they do in the film’s fantastic final reel.
The Grand Passion (1970)
Looking for a common thread running through the Union Film productions discussed above, one might say that thread is Hu, whose preoccupations with the minutiae of Chinese history and period detail show through even in films made by his colleagues. That’s as may be, but in any case, Union’s 1971 The Ghost Hill is an entirely different animal. The film’s director, Qingdao, China-born Ting Shan-hsi, comes with the requisite Hu connection, having co-written the screenplay for Come Drink with Me and served as its assistant director. Technically, it’s the second sequel to The Swordsman of all Swordsmen, bringing back Shang-kuan as Flying Swallow and Tien Peng as Tsai Ying-jie—but the delirious fever dream that is The Ghost Hill exists in another dimension from that bleak, brooding film, landing closer to the wuxia extravaganzas Yuen Chor made for Shaw Bros. through the ’70s.
The film finds Flying Swallow, Tsai, and Black Dragon (now played by David Wei Teng), reunited, joining forces to go after a blond-bearded villain named King Gold (a plummy Sit Hon) who resides in a fortress called Hell’s Castle where he bathes in boiling oil, lounges among plastic flowers, and schemes to marry the girl (Hon Seung-kam) he has raised as his daughter, sending forth henchmen with names like “Cow Head” and “Black and White” to do his dastardly bidding. In order to reach the King’s royal chambers, our heroes, accompanied for some reason by an army of hobo warriors, must first pass through the 10 Gates of Hell’s Castle, a booby-trapped netherworld where they’ll face steel spikes, snake pits, paper-mâché ice caverns, and massive fire-breathing war machines. The grandly garish sets are courtesy of art director Tsao Nien-lung, also responsible for the studio-bound Jin dynasty China of The Love Eterne, and are bathed in colors found nowhere in nature by cinematographer Lin Tsan-ting, who freely indulges in whip pans, crash-zooms, and pedal-to-the-metal tracking shots throughout, the violence of the camerawork only exceeded by that onscreen. A deceased combatant’s severed head soars an enormous distance to bite his killer on the cheek, and that isn’t the strangest thing that happens in the film by some margin.
The arrival of Hu in Taiwan and the enormous popular success of his Dragon Inn provided an enormous infusion of confidence and talent into a national film industry that had rarely offered much competition to that of Hong Kong dominance, but by the year of The Ghost Hill’s release, changes were afoot that would lessen the cultural dominance of wuxia, Hu’s area of expertise. Lo Wei’s The Big Boss, the first film that Bruce Lee made in Hong Kong as an adult, was released in 1971 by defected Shaw deputy Raymond Chow’s new studio Golden Harvest, and its blockbuster success, along with that of Golden Harvest’s Jimmy Wang Yu vehicle One-Armed Boxer that same year, would lead to a new demand for more earthbound and contemporary martial arts films. (A Touch of Zen opened against Lee’s film in Hong Kong, and was soundly crushed.)
One-Armed Boxer was the first of several films that Yu would shoot in Taiwan; like Hu before him, Yu left Hong Kong to break his contract with Shaw Bros. Hu made two more fine wuxia in Taiwan, The Fate of Lee Khan (1973) and The Valiant Ones (1975)—both shot back-to-back, showcasing the work of the same fight choreographer, Hong Kong-born Sammo Hung, who in a few years, alongside his “little brothers” from the China Drama Academy Peking opera school, Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao, would emerge as such dominant forces in Chinese-language action cinema as to render the wuxia nearly extinct. Li’s Grand Motion Picture Company, meanwhile, would release their last film in 1973, leaving the disappointed founder to slink back to Hong Kong and go to work for Run Run Shaw.
The Fate of Lee Khan (1973)
As should be evident by now, the film industries of Taiwan and Hong Kong have long been inextricably linked, and there are an abundance of figures who move freely between both, like Swordman of Swordmen director Kuo. With a stubbornly independent streak to rival Hu’s, after a short stint with Shaw Bros., he would go on to produce films in Taiwan and Hong Kong under the banner of his own Hong Hwa Film Company, including ’70s grindhouse staples 18 Bronzemen (1976), 7 Grandmasters (1977), and Mystery of Chess Boxing (1979).
With so much talent jetting back-and-forth between the two countries it is worth asking: what, if anything, distinguishes the Taiwanese wuxia from those made in Hong Kong? It’s difficult to say when drawing from a relatively small sample size; Kuo describing the industry in the late ’60s/early ’70s, claims that “of the 230 films produced in Taiwan annually at the time more than a hundred of those were slipshod wuxia films.” But when looking at those produced by Hu or under the Union Film banner, at least, one is struck by the prevalence of women warriors. (The Fate of Lee Khan has a whole quintet of them, including Hsu Feng and Taiwan-born Angela Mao.) Female xia certainly weren’t unknown in Hong Kong wuxia, but when Hu left town, Chang Cheh—whose style has been described as yanggang (“staunch masculinity”)—became the most influential wuxia director in Hong Kong, by default. (Hu’s apprenticeship under Li, who specialized in “feminine” genres like Huangmei opera and wenyi pian melodrama, is perhaps significant.)
Another crucial factor was landscape. Run Run Shaw could build a golden pavilion fit for an Emperor in Movietown or send a crew to the New Territories for a little fresh air, but there were no snow-capped mountains in cramped Hong Kong, and what the Taiwanese wuxia sometimes lacked in production budget, it might make up for in plein air pastoral pleasures.
This suggests a final, crucial difference between these two interlocked industries and the wuxia they produced: Hong Kong just plain had more money to throw around. And though the modest circumstances of the Taiwanese film industry unquestionably resulted in many “slipshod wuxia,” this factor need not have been a disadvantage. Filmmakers working in Taiwan in the ’60s may have had smaller bankrolls and less sophisticated equipment than their counterparts in Hong Kong, but in certain cases this could act as an inspiration. Unable to compete in terms of sheer spectacle, the Taiwanese directors found workarounds to suggest rather than show outright: the crackling cutting of The Vengeance of the Phoenix Sisters, the seductive shadows of A City Called Dragon, the go-for-broke camera acrobatics of The Ghost Hill… If a certain talent for sleight-of-hand can be claimed to be a distinguishing characteristic of Taiwanese wuxia, then Hou’s The Assassin, with its artful obfuscation of fight scenes, might be the most Taiwanese Taiwanese wuxia film ever made.
Speculating on such distinctions amounts to a parlor game, however; the particular political subtexts of wuxia films from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Mainland China—which long ago embraced the once-disdained genre—may vary, but all are individual kingdoms serving the Empire of wuxia and its unifying historical China of the imagination: one nation, under the sword.
Nick Pinkerton is a Cincinnati-born, Brooklyn-based writer focused on moving image-based art; his writing has appeared in Film Comment, Sight & Sound, Artforum, Frieze, Reverse Shot, The Guardian, 4Columns, The Baffler, Rhizome, Harper’s, and the Village Voice. He is the editor of Bombast magazine, editor-at-large of Metrograph Journal, and maintains a Substack, Employee Picks. Publications include monographs on Mondo movies (True/False) and the films of Ruth Beckermann (Austrian Film Museum), a book on Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Fireflies Press), and a forthcoming critical biography of Jean Eustache (The Film Desk). The Sweet East, a film from his original screenplay directed by Sean Price Williams, will premiere in the Quinzaine des Cinéastes section of the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.
The Assassin (2015)