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Friday, December 24, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

"Wire-fu" flicks: Pouncing public, hidden treasures

Seattle Times DVD writer

Theatergoers astonished by the aerobatics and swordplay of "House of Flying Daggers" should know a couple of things: Ancient Chinese people couldn't really fly, and the movie is part of a martial-arts subgenre that's been around for generations.

Critics are doing spinning crescent kicks (and not just Rex Reed) over director Zhang Yimou's spectacle, whose highlight is a gravity-ignoring action set piece in a bamboo forest. But many of those who contributed to "House's" impressive 88 percent positive rating at the Rotten Tomatoes Web site (www.rottentomatoes.com) as of Wednesday probably looked down their noses at "wire-fu" as a guilty pleasure before 2000's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

Why all this new respectability?

That smash from director Ang Lee ("The Hulk") gave most Yankee viewers their first taste of the martial-arts subgenre whose actual name is "wuxia" or "wuxia pian" (Mandarin for "martial arts heroes films"). Lee did for those flicks what Steven Spielberg did for adventure serials with "Raiders of the Lost Ark": distilled their essence, added a budget and a gloss. For instance, Zhang Ziyi's restaurant brawl may have been inspired by a similar scene in 1966's "Come Drink With Me," just as a bamboo forest showdown in 1969's "A Touch of Zen" likely influenced the one in "House of Flying Daggers."

The essence: Unrealistic, often balletic, action that employs wire work for the acrobatics (hence "wire-fu"). Folkloric settings. Superhuman virtuous heroes. Mystical energy wielded for fighting. Just add monks and stir. And if they tip into ridiculousness, it helps to imagine how American superhero movies translate to other audiences. It's the flip side of the coin whose other side is the more realistic and brutal kung-fu fighting that Bruce Lee typified.

"That was the fusion film," Scarecrow Video's Norm Hill says of "Crouching Tiger." "It fused the fans that already knew about these genres with mainstream people that had never seen anything like this before, and that bridged the gap for 'Hero.' "

Released in the U.S. in late August, the magnificent "Hero," starring Jet Li, became the biggest foreign-language film debut, at $17.8 million its first weekend. Telling conflicting stories about the would-be assassins of a Chinese tyrant, that film combined the eye candy of fantastical action and elegant cinematography with a stronger philosophical element — two warriors playing out their battle in their minds before exchanging a physical blow, the understanding of another's fighting style through his calligraphy.

"Wire-fu" wonders


Here's a short list of some wuxia essentials; if a title isn't widely available through a major distributor (noted in parentheses), check out Scarecrow's imports, online at www.scarecrow.com.

"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (Columbia Tristar, 2000, PG-13)

"Hero" (Miramax, 2004, PG-13)

"The 36th Chamber of Shaolin" (1978)

"A Touch of Zen" (Tai Seng Entertainment, 1969, unrated)

"Swordsman" (Tai Seng, 1990, unrated)

"Swordsman II" (Tai Seng, 1991, R)

"Swordsman III — The East is Red" (Tai Seng, 1993, unrated)

"Come Drink with Me" (Tai Seng, 1969, unrated — VHS only)

"The Bride with White Hair" (Tai Seng, 1993, unrated)

"Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain" (Tai Seng, 1983, unrated)

Mark Rahner, Seattle Times DVD writer

Hill points out that Seattle has been at the forefront of wuxia's U.S. infiltration. For instance, Scarecrow screened "House of Flying Daggers" at the Seattle Art Museum a month ahead of its release to celebrate the launch of its new movie guide. And while import tapes and discs have always circulated from little shops in the International District and any Chinatown, the Seattle International Film Festival "was one of the first places to play these things to a non-Asian audience with 'A Chinese Ghost Story' (1987) and 'Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain.' (1983). At that point, none of us had ever seen films like that before."

Wuxia flicks had been around since the '20s and peaked with the legendary Shaw brothers films of the '60s and '70s. Since then, Vietnam-born filmmaker Tsui Hark has been the preeminent keeper of the flame with the "Zu" films, titles more familiar to Americans such as "Iron Monkey" (released stateside in 2001) and many others.

But Western filmmakers have shown wuxia's influence both subtle and blatant:

• In "The Matrix" series ("I know kung fu!"), with the suspension of physics laws in Neo's virtual world.

• Progressively more with the Jedi knights in the "Star Wars" films. Dig those lightsaber battles, and the Jedi ability to move things with the power of The Force.

• Direct homages in Quentin Tarantino's two "Kill Bill" volumes, from the opening "Shaw Scope" logo to The Bride's lessons at the cruel hands of Pai Mei (Shaw brothers veteran Gordon Liu, aka Chia Hui Liu of "The 36th Chamber of Shaolin").

• John Carpenter's vastly underappreciated 1986 "Big Trouble in Little China," with Kurt Russell (in John Wayne mode) stumbling into a mystical martial-arts war.

• And outside of film, there's wuxia's influence in hip hop culture, most visibly with the Wu-Tang Clan (who, in a roundabout way, contributed to Xenon Entertainment's DVD release of the old Wu-Tang chop socky flicks that inspired the rap group).

Says Hill, "It's very interesting now, because these films have directly impacted American cinema. All of a sudden, James Bond can leap from a 30-story building and land on a motorcycle and take off. They have changed the American action picture, no doubt."

But why the surge of interest in the genuine article? Hill believes it has to do with their strong fantasy component diverting us in hard times. Thomas Weisser, editor of Florida-based "Asian Cult Cinema" magazine, says the rise of "House," "Hero" and "Crouching Tiger" are just a natural progression in America's thing for action cinema.

"They add a sense of authenticity to a genre that Hollywood has long cannibalized," Weisser says. "Ang Lee was able to tap into the 'romance' of the genre and create something new from essentially something old, something that would appeal to an American audience."

Does all this add up to renewed interest in the original movies? Yes and no, Weisser explains.

"Certainly new audiences are finding this genre ... but they are finding it only as an extension of the current American fad for action films. The old audiences who grew up with the wuxia films [and the rest of the Shaw Bros fare] are somewhat turned off by the 'commercialization' of the genre. For example, as good as 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' may have been, the traditionalists are quick to dismiss it as 'Wuxia-lite' by saying, 'It's just a clone of King Hu's "A Touch of Zen." ' "

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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