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Amazing 'Grace': Chinese martial arts films

Five years in the making, a UCLA film festival explores an acrobatic, exhilarating world of movies.

February 27, 2003|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

When I think of Chinese martial arts films, my mind goes not to a director like King Hu or a star like Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee or even to Ang Lee's breakthrough "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," which gave the genre a worldwide presence. I think instead of a waiter whose name I never learned in a hotel restaurant in the Chinese city of Kaifeng, where I spent a few days in the early 1980s.

The waiter did not speak English and, as is often the case in places that deal with foreign tourists, did not seem especially pleased to be taking my order. But when I pointed to a beverage on the bilingual menu, his face broke into a wide smile of instinctive understanding and complicity. For what I'd selected as a kind of unspoken tribute to martial arts cinema was a drink called Shaolin Cola, named after the Chinese monastery that was a legendary repository of secret fighting knowledge.

"Ah, Shaolin," the waiter said, immediately dropping his pad and going into an elaborate comic burlesque of martial arts moves right in the middle of the restaurant, something that made me laugh and him laugh even harder. For the next few days, I ordered Shaolin Cola with every meal, each time eliciting the same moves and the same pleasure at an unexpected shared enthusiasm across a wide lingual and cultural divide.

"Heroic Grace: The Chinese Martial Arts Film," the unprecedented five-years-in-the-making UCLA Film and Television Archive series that opens Friday, is a chance to do many things, not the least of which is to share the joy of these exhilarating films, which bring visual poetry, acrobatics and athletic grace to a fighting world. Joining myth, drama, pageantry, ritual and style to an exuberant physicality of action, they represent pure cinema in an irresistible form.

The series is also an opportunity for even the most washed-in-the-blood fans to see something that's been elusive for two decades: new 35-millimeter prints, digitally remastered and freshly subtitled, of classic films from the library of the colossus of Hong Kong studios, Shaw Brothers. Until the recent sale of their films to Celestial Pictures, the Shaws point-blank refused to have their output screened theatrically overseas; even a personal request by Prince Charles on behalf of London's National Film Theater was, or so the story goes, turned down flat.

Helped by a thoughtful catalog underwritten by the Hong Kong Economic & Trade Office (which is sending many of these films on a 15-city tour), "Heroic Grace" is also an opportunity for those whose familiarity with the martial arts world doesn't go much further than Jackie Chan to fill in the gaps in their knowledge. Everything from "Crouching Tiger" to Hollywood's favorite martial arts choreographers can be put into cultural and historical perspective. Even John Woo, a big-budget studio action director of choice, got his start directing this kind of film, and as catalog editor David Chute reminds us, Woo "has often said that the self-sacrificing gangsters in 'A Better Tomorrow' and 'The Killer' were really wuxia in modern drag."

Wuxia, the Chinese name for this kind of film is usually translated as knight-errant or martial chivalry, a generic catch-all phrase pressed into service because, as one authority puts it, it's "the least misleading of several possible translations." It refers to a hero, or paladin -- think Richard Boone's Paladin in TV's "Have Gun Will Travel" -- who combines exceptional fighting skill with a moral compass that insists he, or she, must always do the right thing.

In fact, it's been one of the characteristics of this world from the very beginning that women are just as likely as men to be possessed of exceptional combat moves. The central delight of these films, whether they feature realistic hand-to-hand kung fu fighting or more magical sword and sorcery duels, is watching individuals with jaw-dropping reflexes and astounding skills holding their own against a dozen attackers or facing off against each other.

Not only do these well-matched adversaries often compliment each other ("You're quite nimble"/ "You're not so bad yourself"), they have so much control of their qi, or life force, that they've acquired powers on the order of flying and directing energy beams that seem to Western eyes to be next door to supernatural.

These paladins operate in a scruffy, hard-scrabble, anarchic universe that shares characteristics with everything from American westerns to Japanese samurai films of the 1960s, a cross-pollination that led to items like "The One-Armed Swordsman," a riff on the celebrated Japanese Zatoichi series.

If you see enough Chinese martial arts films, the genre's conventions start to take on the look of old friends. For instance:

* The protagonists, though they operate in a dusty, Godforsaken world, invariably wear spotless, immaculately pressed clothing that looks like it just came from the dry cleaner.

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