Happy Year of the Tiger, everyone.
Though I have no Chinese ancestry or relatives, I was work friends with a Chinese-American student at a digital editing/cameraman job at my college in Florida. Lunar new year celebrations are not limited to China, as there are variations in Korea and I think Japan. I do have a Japanese aunt and through her a Japanese American cousin who now lives in Brooklyn.
Even without any of that background, I imagine there is in truth really no issue in a white dude like me enjoying the most recognized Asian holiday/celebratory period, due to its prevalence in Chinese American communities like Chinatown.
I mean, some might have an issue with it due to it being specific to Chinese culture and as a celebration connected through the family dynamic of that community. At the same time, non-Irish celebrate or partake in St. Patrick’s Day festivities (and not just to get wasted), and as far as I know Jewish Americans aren’t upset if gentiles politely observe some Hannukah festivities.
Basically, it can and does act as excuse for me to do the two things a non Chinese person often does relating to China: eat Chinese food and watch Chinese cinema, especially of the action variety. This year, I have four films to peruse: three from Hong Kong and one proudly American made that is about the Chinese American experience as it was in 1982 and perhaps to some extent still is.
The Victim (Lightning Kung Fu in U.S.) (1980) (HK)
Sammo Hung is a Hong Kong cinema legend that is not as well known as say Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat, Tony Leung, Donnie Yen, Jet Li or Michelle Yeoh. It’s a shame considering how distinctive a figure he is when he does appear in an HK production. Your best chance of seeing the portly yet kung fu-fast actor is when he appears in stuff that features Chan or any of the others mentioned above. The Victim is a Hong Kong dramatic comedy that showcases Hung’s talents perfectly and is decent introduction to him, if you don’t mind VHS quality despite being available on Amazon Prime.
Some time in what is vaguely meant to be either 19th or very early 20th century China, there lives a traveling kung fu enthusiast looking for a new master played by Hung. He finds that potential master in Chun-yau, a humble man who helps out with the occasional bout or rough-housing in his village but tries (emphasis on tries) to keep a low profile with his beloved wife Yuet-yee. He has good reason to.
That somewhat fat but no less quick kung fu wannabe apprentice Chan Wing, after seeing his display of awesome martial arts prowess, immediately wants him to become his master, despite already being very good at it. Chun keeps on saying no and a lot of the comedy comes at Chan being basically a comical stalker at the poor guy.
However, Chun’s complicated past comes back to haunt him in the form of his absolutely evil stepbrother, Cho-Wing, who you already know is evil before he does anything because he’s wearing an eyepatch. He proves that foregone conclusion by trying to rape Chun’s newly wedded wife because hey, what’s his brother’s is also his, right?
The wedded couple flee before they can even honeymoon and now Cho’s thugs have caught up. What are a duo of comic and straight man martial artists to do? The Victim brilliantly toes the line between seriousness and comedic fun despite how often stark the contrast between the two tones featured are.
On the one hand, there is the near breathless energy of how the verbal and physical humor makes the fights to come even more exciting and better yet, worth rewatching. Then, in spite of the overly obviously evil appearence of the stepbrother, his backstory in conjunction with Chun makes if not sympathetic at least understandable, as it was jealousy over his birth father, a Chinese Grandmaster, giving more attention and affection to a ratty orphan on the streets.
It’s obvious stuff made more enjoyable through both the ingredients that make martial arts comedies so bouncy and carefree while also lowering your guard to the darker material in store. Because of the VHS quality I had to view through, the great fight sequences lose some punch that later entries to talk about maintain through better visual presentation. It could even be that the latter films also have better fighting in general and for that reason are easier to access through streaming services.
This is ultimately as good an introduction to Sammo Hung as I can think, especially if you want to experience firsthand without Jackie Chan’s presence to compare to.
Chan is Missing (1982)
It is the early 1980s. The culture that we know of that era is basically just beginning to form with some leftovers from the 70s. Synth, neon and mostly bad hair shall become a new normal. Question is, will every American follow suit and why? Obviously not, just consider the continuing anti-establishment punk culture and that in truth, there are always going to be different kinds of groups who present themselves in different ways, occasionally being colored in by changing times.
Chan is Missing is not just a polite critique of the well-meaning but heavily stereotyped fictional figure of Charlie Chan, a Chinese-American detective who helps out despite his heavily accented Far East voice and endless array of Chinese proverbs to expel. It’s not just a reflection on changing generations within the Chinese-American community and with it changing attitudes.
It’s fundamentally about what it means to be Chinese-American at all, or maybe even just Chinese in the late 20th century. The film’s conclusion ,which is all about throwing its hands up and saying “Who knows?” is not a cop-out, it’s a melancholic admission that the answer really can’t be found. Due to the film’s presence in San Francisco, I’d say us now discovering who the Zodiac killer is or was is more likely to occur.
Another thing that makes the film’s on-the-surface depressing conclusion not really hurt is that the other takeaway is that it is ultimately not that big a deal. It’s not unimportant to filmmaker Wayne Wang and the uncle and nephew duo who become DIY detectives. It’s not important enough that the lives that they’re living should be disrupted by it.
This deep dive into Chinese-American identity, which can be extrapolated as meaningful to the immigrant experience in America as well all stems from how Jo wants to make his nephew Steve a fellow driver of cabs in Frisco. To do that, his go-between, Chan, has to give Jo that license. Suddenly, Chan disappears, hence the title. All through Chinatown San Francisco and beyond, they search and search, all in indie camerawork black and white framing.
Thinking over it, it actually reminds me of the Italian classic depressor L’Avventura, all about a search for a missing person that ultimately ends up getting nowhere and getting nowhere was the whole point. That film was an addressing of Italian sentiment over existentialism and nihilism following the butchery of WW2. Chan is Missing is less heavy and anxiety inducing over its implications, but it’s likely Wang made the comparison if only for the style of film he intended.
All the while, you are treated to a colorless yet still colorful depiction of SF Chinatown 1982, with American ditties being dubbed over and even rewritten with new meaning in Chinese. Whose being assimilated? America or China?
Jo narrates the experience in a way that reminded me of Wallace Shawn’s narration at the beginning and end of My Dinner with Andre of all things, though this is a more personal story in comparison. The second generation Jo’s conflict with third generation and more explicitly American-like nephew Steve is both frustration over the lack of headway in both figuring out where Chan went as well as figuring out who Chan even is.
Despite being a go-between for Jo, the two have never met in person and the film ends with the intent of an anvil and also the impact of an anvil: the sole photograph of Chan he could find has him in dark shadow and blurry, elusive even when he didn’t mean to.
A number of scenarios for who Chan is/was and what he is about is almost akin to Kurosawa’s oft copied Rashomon. He was a Communist sympathizer, maybe he wasn’t. He was a nice guy, he was a prick. He was stodgy, he was open. He was here when he was actually over here. Rashomon is also famously uninterested in revealing to you the truth, because maybe it really can’t be found.
The way the camera moves in relation to Jo’s narrative gives Chan is Missing a really dream-like feel, as if our minds are trying to process the mystery more sluggishly than usual, maybe as a reflection of Jo and Steve’s. It is a definite article independently made movie, and for its purposes does make the proceedings feel more real. It also makes it really hard to tell who is and is not an actor. The truth is that it could be everyone in the movie, save the many streetgoers on the Frisco streets, are actors, maybe the majority were for real.
There is likely a concrete answer to that question. But back to the point of the movie is how much the players and you yourself actually care. Part of the reason Chan is never found is because these two men, none of which are trained detectives, get tired of the chase, find an alternative to their original problem involving a cab license. Some might be bothered that the main characters give up because the audience generally wants a resolution. It’s the American expectation as a cinemagoer. Rashomon was Japanese. L’Avventura was Italian.
Chan is Missing is American, but it’s also Chinese. What you get is the candid experiences, thoughts and expressions of people living in a real place at a real time albeit sprinkling in a fictional conflict. More than anything else, Chan is Missing is a human production. The real question you should be asking is if the act of “giving up” that occurs is laziness, disinterest or pragmatism. And on top of all that, how much does one conclusion bother you, if at all.
A question for us all.
Duel to the Death (1983) (HK/South Korea)
China and Japan have had beef for who knows how long, rarely ever just experiencing a period of “chillness” in relation from what I know.
This Hong Kong/South Korean co-production acknowledges that long ago the people who make up most of Japan’s population (save the Okinawans and Ainu) were descended from China. Of course, as a lot of time passes and I do mean a lot of time, very distinct cultures formed and China and Japan became alien to one another, not without any shared similarities, but hardly enough to matter ultimately.
In the modern context, the most infamous example of China and Japan having, to put it lightly, poor relations was what is officially called the Second Sino-Japanese War that began with Imperial Japan’s invasion of Manchuria and ultimately became part of World War 2. Statistically, the losses overall in the battle over mainland China would at least meet or surpass the Eastern Front between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
It is a major element to WW2 history that is rarely acknowledged in Western media despite its obvious importance. If I had to bet, it’s that taking the side of the Chinese over the Japanese, despite the former being the victims in this instance could come across as Pro-PRC sentiment nowadays even if unintended. Also, America loves Japan now. I’m one of them, Sugoi! As far as I know, the last time an American/ Western piece of media acknowledged that horrifying side to WW2 or the leadup, it was Spielberg’s overlooked Empire of the Sun from 1987.
Everyone is aware that Imperial Japan invaded China mercilessly for colonial intentions. It was that imperialist ambition that would lead to my country one day fighting them island by island, nightmare by nightmare in the Pacific. The 1937 pillaging/massacre of Nanjing/Nanking, often denoted as a “rape”, is the singular event that marks that aspect of shared Japanese and Chinese history as so notorious.
I really, really wish modern day Japan would come to greater terms with what they did in China and WW2 in general, as it is very concerning that Japanese curriculums often avoid or recontextualize in a less damning way their role in that side of history. It reminds me of my own country’s painfully slow and at times denialist approach to our own sins throughout history, not to mention the sins we commit now. No country, no matter how much they deliver cool even remarkable stuff into global culture, should be exempt from that criticism.
Among many other things, Japan gives us great cars, giant monsters, ramen, video game consoles and a wide range of appliances that are so ubiquitous to American life you might not even realize at first that its origins aren’t American. It took me until my teens, like I imagine most people, to realize that many of the cars and most of the game systems we own are from the land of the rising sun. If nothing else, it creates a new exotically “cool” factor, especially when you see them handle American concepts or characters.
Why have I spent an inordinate amount of time on what might be for some of you a heartbreaking history lesson on two major Asian countries? Because that is what Duel to the Death is all about.
Set in the 16th century, a master Chinese swordsman and a master Japanese swordsman have been ordered by their respective governments to take part in a once-in-a-decade duel of honor: a battle to determine which style of swordsmanship is superior. An entire people’s culture, their “face” is put on the line for this duel. As the title already spoils, it ain’t over until someone keels over.
Ching Wan is the Chinese champion while Hashimoto is the champion for Japan. Their own perspectives on honor and what it entails is also what is on the line. Both recognize that regardless of their standard for honor, being expert swordsmen does not guarantee long lives, let alone easy ones. They have come to grimly accept that dying in peace is not in the cards. If their honor is maintained all the same, what’s there to worry about?
Well, how about that both sides are willing to pull some heinous crap to rig the fight? Ching’s master, who is extremely resentful for his school’s waning recognition, makes a dirty deal with the Japanese Shogun to arrange the fight in such a way that both parties will be benefitted in some way. Instead of Ching, he will have his very talented daughter Sing Lam, fight Hashimoto while Ching is caged up while the Japanese send out bonafide NINJAS to kidnap their very best shaolin monks so they can force them to teach their skills to the Japanese.
As you can expect, both swordsmen are appalled at this horribly dishonorable treachery from both their countries. These two designated sworn enemies ironically become brothers in arms to end the conspiracy that has embroiled them both.
The film’s final bout, the much promised “Duel to the Death” is a bloody affair that is breathtaking in its execution and the amount of expert wuxia (wire fu) that is implemented. As cool as the fight between the two is, it is twinged with sadness that it is ultimately a fight only one of them wants. Ching, not having the suicidal level to commitment in maintaining face like Hashimoto, is all too happy to let bygones be bygones once they both stop the conspiracy.
Hashimoto, however, with his brutally taught interpretation of Bushido, wants a fight and he will get the fight he wants. The film at first ends on an ambiguous note, as technically speaking, both fighters are alive when the credits roll. However, when you realize the sheer punishment they’ve given their bodies, with Hashimoto getting punctured in the heart by Ching and Ching in return losing his whole right arm, you realize that both men are not going to make it.
Hashimoto stops the fight when he realizes he needs not deliver a killing blow. He instead sheathes his katana and looks out to the ocean back towards Japan. Both realize that no side will win, both will die, and in truth what honor was actually won that day? They actually did win honor through their foiling of the plot but then ruined it by performing the duel.
Now, unless you’re hopelessly literal-minded, this does sound very much like allegory doesn’t it? As it was in the 1980s and it is no less true in the 2020s, China and Japan remain very cross toward one another. There is some legitimate grievance that I can read from the current politics between the two. Namely, Japan, despite doing its best effort to put on a better image, being no longer conquest hungry for starters and getting along with almost everyone on the global stage, hasn’t done one thing that would possibly make a difference with regards to the Chinese people: apologize for what they did to them between invading Manchuria and World War 2.
Tragically, as mentioned before, Japan has never made any formal apology for their numerous crimes against humanity on the Chinese people. I don’t know if the same is also true of the Korean, Vietnamese and Burmese people or anyone else they victimized, but it is certainly true here. They’re a number of reasons Japan hasn’t apologized, not all of them are related to racism or stubborn nationalist pride. Due to the balance of power shifting after WW2, with China becoming an Authoritarian Communist nation on the Soviet side of the Cold War, suddenly Japan under initial American occupation was on the American side of things, however nominally.
Eventually, sentiments between American and Japan would drastically improve over the coming decades, mostly due to Japan adopting their own form of American economic and political philosophy while China became the second most noteworthy opponent against the West during the Cold war, barring Cuba I guess. True, Nixon opening up trade and a change of policy following Mao’s death would also blunt that, but to this day, America and China have maintained a passive-aggressive attitude towards one another, that itself blunted by a little thing known as economic interdependence.
Japan, despite America maintaining some perhaps too close to home ties such as controversial military bases, has done more its own thing. For a time, in the 80s and 90s, there was actual fears that Japan would overtake Murica’ economically as the greatest financial superpower in the world, though one heck of a crash in the early 90s would dissipate the reality of anything like that remotely coming to pass. To be frank, a lot of that fear-mongering over Japanese economic, corporate domination might have had some ‘ahem’ xenophobic undertones.
The point that Duel to the Death makes is not just that, despite some genuine and not so genuine grievances either nation might have, it is not worth it to mesh out the divide through violence. It was horrifying enough the last time around. While Japan is not a nuclear power (for depressingly obvious reasons), another such conflict would hurt both more than it would help. Why waste good men and women in such a way?
If all the politics and allegory is too much for you, Duel to the Death, like most HK action flicks, can be enjoyed solely on the visceral level. The aforementioned NINJAS that the Japanese use are of the comically supernatural level. Jumping up high, pulling up martial feats that can’t be done with some behind the scenes f/x, being able to run really fast in procession in a manner that would be utterly in line with the Benny Hill theme. There’s also one hilarious moment where some other Chinese warrior walking along the beach is suddenly attacked by NINJAS flying kites. It’s as technically remarkable as it gut-bustlingly silly. If it that were to happen to me, I couldn’t tell you if I would laugh or scream.
There’s also smaller scale but no less absurd battles between those that are not NINJAS like our two swordsmen and the NINJAS themselves. How the lead NINJA dies is both insanely ridiculous and yet another excuse to guffaw once you process what you just saw happen.
Oh and the more realistic fighting not involving NINJAS is pretty great. In other words, politics or no politics, it’s easy to see why this is an exaggerated martial arts/swordsmanship HK classic, the first directed by the man who would one day give us, wouldn’t you know, A Chinese Ghost Story. A must see, unless you’re sensitive to the kind of sword based violence that almost certainly helped inspire Tarantino’s Kill Bill.
Shaolin Temple (1982) (HK)
There were films about Shaolin martial arts before Jet Li’s debut feature in 1982. The legend Bruce Lee showed off the moves in defense of Shaolin tradition in none other than Enter the Dragon itself. Films which had “Shaolin” in the title had been made, some now considered classics of the genre like Lau Kar-Leung’s The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978).
Shaolin Temple affected the genre significantly with one simple act: featuring the real life Shaolin monastery itself for the first and definitely not last time. This being a Hong Kong production, doing so involved filming on mainland China, which as you can imagine might seem risky. I suppose it was possible by the 80s’ due to an evolving change in policy following Mao’s death as mentioned in the Duel to the Death section of this article.
That being said, showcasing the honest to God real monastery (though I wouldn’t be surprised if some interior shots were filmed in Hong Kong) was a real turning point in how the martial arts genre went about representing the cultural aspects of this type of cinema, not just “that’s some sweet moves” aspect.
The success of this movie wouldn’t just make Jet Li into a Hong Kong cinema legend over the coming decades, but it would make the actual Shaolin Monastery into one of China’s largest tourist attractions. Chances are fairly good that if you were to decide on visiting China nowadays (barring COVID and your understandable misgivings due to their censor-heavy authoritarianism, among other stuff), the Shaolin monastery located smack dab in central China would be a strong suggestion given to you.
The story is fairly straightforward which works in the film’s favor both as introduction to Li and to the Shaolin itself. During one of the many terrible periods of civil war that plagued Chinese history, Jue Yuan (Jet Li) loses his father to a ruthless general called Wang Shichong, who upon writing this was based on an actual person of the same name.
After fleeing for his life with help from someone who eventually is revealed to be a rebel leader against Shichong, he is given sanctuary in the Shaolin Monastery, and eventually decides to go through the trials of becoming a Shaolin monk, all for revenge. Of course, the Buddhist monks who run the monastery do not train their students to kill for any reason. In spite of how plausible the moves of a Shaolin monk are in killing someone, only non-lethal violence is permitted, always in defense. Sounds similar to the Jedi code, don’t it?
This frustration over the rules of living a proper Shaolin life under the teachings of Buddha leads Jue to having a frayed relationship with the men he will in time call brothers. There’s also Bai Wu Xia, the beautiful maiden who lives in the monastery due to one of the lead monks being her adoptive father. Like the jedi code, shaolin monks do not take up with anyone in intimate relationships. Again, this is sounding like something our boy Lucas took inspiration from.
Eventually, the war that is transpiring makes it way to the monastery. The monks try their best to stay neutral in the conflict, due to their pacifist belief. Eventually, General Shichong’s methods, all to get a prisoner of his, Jue, pushes the monastery’s beliefs to the breaking point.
Of course, it’s easy to see why the Shaolin beliefs would send very mixed messages, as they regularly train and practice with weapons. Swords, spears, sword-spears, daggers with ropes like what you saw in Marvel’s Shang-Chi last year, you name some cool Chinese weapon, the monastery likely has it.
Of course, the use of some quite sharp weaponry is all in the training and mastery of one’s body and spirit. All to improve yourself, not to take the lives of others. The scenes showcasing the cast’s effortless use of those weapons, especially with Jet Li alone in demonstration, are mesmerizing to watch.
What makes it even more impressive is that there’s no fakery to protect the actors and actresses. Li and the others really are using weapons that if you’re not careful can seriously injure yourself or others, even accidentally kill. That is one major reason behind HK martial arts’ worldwide appeal: the characters and stories are fake, the danger is not.
It ultimately culminates in an epic battle on the monastery grounds between Jue, Bai and the monks versus Shichong’s forces. Not gonna lie, seeing the evil general and his forces approaching the monastery reminded me of the Uruk-Hai barreling towards the Fellowship in LOTR, with Howard Shore’s theme for Isengard blaring in my head.
It’s violent but not as violent as the proceedings in Duel to the Death, which had an almost Sam Raimi level of comic excess to lessen the graphic feel somewhat. Here, it’s much more serious, but not without moments of definite levity, more so in the moments where no one is fighting.
Oh, just a warning. Dog/pet lovers should beware as Shaolin Temple showcases the quite different standards the Chinese have towards canines compared to those living in the States. When you understand the background of that culture, the blow of a set of scenes involving a dog are not as severe. Just remember that from a Chinese perspective, how we view dogs and cats might seem strange even off-putting to them.
Jet Li’s first leading film role is a confident start, a confident beginning to the one post Bruce Lee martial arts actor that might give Jackie Chan pause. Others would also bring up Donnie Yen for example, but I rest my case. Shaolin Temple from 1982 is not just historically important, it’s yet another showcase for the breathless imagination of real often dangerous skills coming up to bat for our entertainment, whether you’re from Asia or not.
Next time: TBD