Zhang Che in Retrospect
by Tian Yan
From the 8th Hong Kong International Film Festival
Working under the studio system, a director with a box office hit is often assigned to make films in the same genre until his name is synonymous with it. In Hollywood, John Ford represents Western, Billy Wilder: Comedy, Vincente Minelli: Musical, Douglas Sirk: Melodrama. Zhang Che is such a case in Hong Kong. Ever since the success of Tiger Boy in 1964, he has been making Martial Arts films.
Interestingly, Zhang has maintained the wuxia formula in his non-wuxia pian. Be they historical dramas (The Assassin, The Heroic Ones, The Boxer Rebellion), tales about juvenile-delinquents (The Young Generation, The Generation Gap, Friends), musicals (The Singing Thief), social dramas (Dead End, The Delinquent), adaptations of classic (The Water Margin), thrillers (The Singing Killer) or fairy tales (The Fantastic Magic Baby, Na Cha the Great), they all ended up belonging in the same format. There is no sign of him giving up the wuxia pian genre, either: The Ghost, released in Hong Kong in 1983, is reminiscent of Vengeance, made at the peak of his career in 1970. Reportedly, The Heroic Ones from Shanghai, his latest, is another martial arts feature. Twenty years ago, Zhang created a sensation with his violent tragi-romantic wuxia pian, promptly becoming one of the major directors in town. Today, his name is nearly forgotten, fading out alongside the genre that had put him on the map.
Yet Zhang continues to produce martial arts movies with a determination that can be best described as "curious." Persistance, especially for those involved in visual arts, is usually a welcomed gesture. It means continuous refinement of a style under self-imposed restrictions. For reasons ranging from personality to commercial value, directors of the older generation are obstinate in choosing their projects: Li Hanxiang focuses on lavish court-dramas and folklore, Tao Qin has a keen interest in melodramas. King Hu, specializing in wuxia pian with a historical background, emerges as one of the purest stylists, consistently polishing and expanding the same style from film to film. But Zhang's persistance has little to do with aesthetics. In many cases, it functions merely as personal indulgence and an assurance of the box office. When the tragi-romantic wuxia pian genre is replaced by other trends, his films move into a dead end, and they no longer trigger the imagination of the audience.
Liu Jialiang and Tang Jia, with occasional collaborator Chen Quan, are the martial arts instructors in Zhang's early films. After Liu's own directorial debut with The Spiritual Boxer (1975), the roles of martial arts instructors in Zhang's films are taken over by Lu Feng, Jiang Sheng and Guo Zhui. Fight scenes designed by Liu and Tang are forceful, with concrete and vivid details emphasising the agility of the fighters. The climactic moment, usually a decisive duel between between good and evil, is filmed in long takes in a semi-documentary style. It is best exemplified by the Shaolin series Zhang made between 1974 and 1975.
This technique allows the actors to show off their martial arts skills to the full extent, and is imitated by numerous kung-fu films. Two variations of the style emerged in the mid-seventies the first, represented by Liu's films, stretches the documentary element. The images serve as illustrations of a certain boxing style from a certain school -- a direct descendent of Zhang's Shaolin series, with more dramatic and intensified effects. The other variation is employed extensively in kung-fu comedy, with its emphasis on acrobatic movements, cleverly manipulating props and situations to achieve comical effects.
Later, in the late seventies, wuxia series became enormously popular on television. Advanced electronic technology helped push the diplay of martial arts to a new realm: a world of superhuman and superpower.
These changes did not seem to affect Zhang Che, who continued to direct his films in exactly the same style that he established earlier. Five Element Ninjas (1982), which features a host of exotic weapons similar to those seen in The One-Armed Swordsman (1967), proves to be a deja vu that offers nothing fresh. Shaolin Rescuers (1979), a kung-fu comedy imitation, turns out to be unfunny and stiff due to Zhang's poor knowledge of Cantonese humour. Two years ago, he adapted five of Jin Yong's wuxia novels: The Brave Archer Part I to III, The Brave Archer and His Mate and Ode to Gallantry. Apparently, they were produced in the wake of the television series based on the same books. However, Zhang stays true to himself, uninfluenced by trend and fashion.
Fight scenes serve as centrepieces in King Hu's work. But unlike Zhang, who also features fight scenes as high points in his films, Hu either reads new meaning in them or experiments with them. They might function as an exercise of montage (A Touch of Zen), an amalgamation of theatre and cinema (Anger, The Fate of Lee Khan), a struggle of power (Raining in the Mountain), or a formation of war strategy (The Valiant Ones). They are not merely form, but also content. Zhang, on the other hand, treats his quite differently. His fight scenes serve but one purpose: to stimulate the senses. With nothing substantial thematically to fall on, they appear dated as soon as the design of the fights go out of style.
Other fatal weaknesses are evident in Zhang's work. Since his early days as a director, he has been criticized for his unrefined technique and sloppy narrative structure. He declares in an interview: "I never plan the shots . . . and I don't believe in planning them, either." About the authenticity of costume and hairstyle in period dramas, he says: "I ignore research totally . . . it is deliberate on my part . . . in my opinion, one should do what one pleases." He also admits his flaws: "I am not a cool and practical planner who works things out in an orderly fashion. This failing results in the inconsistency of my work. Sometimes they are good, and sometimes they look coarse."
These remarks, however candid they may be, cannot be accepted as valid reasons for lenient criticism. In fact, Zhang's "disorderly fashion" has taken on an irritating air since the late seventies. Chinatown Kid, made in 1977, is a perfect example. Though a large part of the story takes place in San Francisco, the film was shot in the Shaw studio. The few inserted shots of San Francisco are stock films, and the exteriors were shot on the streets of Hong Kong. Even the interesting recurrent theme -- the fatalistic tragedy of a social climber -- cannot mask the unforgivable sloppiness of the production. After Chinatown Kid, almost every film by Zhang is shot in the studio, and the production gets gradually worse. The apparent decline can no longer by explained by his "intentions."
Zhang's achievement and his contribution to Hong Kong cinema cannot be overlooked, though. From the mid-sixties to mid-seventies, his enormous output has made him one of the major local directors, who, in a decade, directed well over seventy features. Almost single-handedly, he started the trend of the so-called New Wuxia Pian and the Shaolin Kung-fu films. The former was so popular that it catalysed the rise of the Mandarin cinema, which ultimately replaced the Cantonese cinema. His most important "contribution," however, remains the pioneering of a male-oriented/dominated ideology in Hong Kong cinema. At the same time, he is responsible for putting such prominent male stars as Wang Yu, Jiang Dawei [David Chiang], Di Long [Ti Lung] and Fu Sheng in the spotlight.
The male dominated-ideology was considered "macho" at the time. Zhang's is a cinema of masculinity. It is packed with action scenes notorious for their detailed depictions of gory disembowelments and dismemberments, predominated by a sense of individual heroism. His "hero" is either a proud and misunderstood loner who is doomed, or a rebellious youth full of energy which turns out to be destructive. It is exemplified by the roles Wang Yu plays in two of the early works, The Assassin (1967) and The Golden Swallow (1968).
In the former, which is set in the Warring States, Wang plays Nie Zheng, a most typical example of Zhang's energetic youth whose ideal is to offer himself to the country. He is made doubly frustrated when circumstances forced him to become, of all professions, a butcher. When he is asked to assassinate the evil Prime Minister Han Kui by the latter's opponent Yan Zhongzi, obviously to avenge a personal grudge, Nie's life seems to take on a special meaning. Since Nie understands perfectly well the fatalistic nature of his mission, Zhang's depiction of his heroism thus has a strong self-destructive tone. When Han is killed in the climactic scene, Zhang combines cinema and theatre techniques to create a stunning effect: as the background is darkened, Nie turns his back, disembowels, disfigures and blinds himself. His action is seen as a martyrdom in which self-destruction is the ultimate fulfilment of the self.
In The Golden Swallow, Wang plays the arrogant Silver Roc who secretly admires Golden Swallow (Zhang Peipei). To get her out of seclusion, he commits a series of murders in her name. But his action results in endless misunderstandings. When he dies in the final scene, with four daggers implanted in his chest, he fails to even utter his love. In another scene, he writes a poem to express his loneliness and pride. Zhang dissolves into a white backdrop with the poem written in blown-up calligraphy, and Silver Roc stands in the foreground. The image reminds one of the blackening technique in The Assassin. These two scenes are exemplary of their stylistic experiments which, unfortunately, were submerged in the commercialism of Zhang's later works. The two characters played by Wang continue to appear in Zhang's films, and they are best personified by Jiang Dawei and Di Long, two of Zhang's most gifted actors. In nearly every film, Zhang projects a similar sentiment "made complicated by a mixture of anger, despair, repression and anarchism" onto these two characters. The fact that this kind of emotion was considered novel and unique at the time, particularly in wuxia pian, is understandable. Although he has never refined his technique in blending form and content into a style, his films, nevertheless, carry a strong personality that is unmistakably Zhang's.
However, as critic Zhen Ming points out, Zhang's heroes "are often selfless and righteous in the early films. But later, they become ultra-individualists, and eventually, self-indulgent maniacs. In The One-Armed Swordsman, Wang Yu loses his arm and retreats into the wilderness. He returns later to avenge his foster father. The theme of The New One-Armed Swordsman (1971) is similar, but revenge for a friend is only an excuse for Jiang Dawei -- the real reason being the revenge for his lost arm. In The Wandering Swordsman (1970), the hero is an exploiter. He kills the villains for a personal pledge, but not for the well-being of the public. In a memorable scene, he suddenly appears from the tree top, offering the impoverished farmers money to pay rent, then promptly disappears in thin air. Like characters in fairy tales, he emerges more as god than human. The hero in The Deadly Duo (1971) is also unrealistic. He proves his existence as a hero by dying foolishly. Whereas in Boxer from Shantung (1972), the downfall of the hero begins when his heroic image is spoiled by his selfishness. His later fights are all justified for his own advantage. From here on, Zhang's heroes are caught in the dead end of individualism. Both The Delinquent (1973) and The Generation Gap (1973) put the blame of the heroes' misdeeds on society. To conclude, Zhang's heroes are merely pseudo-romantics, their repression simply a form of self-indulgence with suicidal tendency."
One last interesting element of Zhang's films is the depiction of male bondage [the writer meant to say "bonding, one guesses, but perhaps this was a Freudian Slip on the writer's part?]. The homosexual undertone, though at times repressed and lenient, is detectable. Sometimes it takes a drastic turn, materialising in vulgar and grotesque display -- most notably, in the many scenes that feature the heroes, always with a protruding weapon in the stomach, spilling blood as if ejaculating. Such repression surfaces in the most perverse manner in Heaven and Hell (1980), in which Zhang dresses almost every male as a transvestite. They wear heavy make-up, and the costumes look like mini-skirts. This gay ideology, though bizarre at first glance, becomes pointless and trite very soon, since Zhang fails to develop any variation or progression. He always employs the same actors, uses the same technique, and utilizes more or less the same narrative structure. Judging from this point, he is no more than a fallen idol -- if, indeed, he had ever acquired such a status.