Friday, February 22, 2008

That Ole Devil Called Genre

It's funny where things are headed. First we have Stephen Chow producing the English-language Hollywood live-action version of Dragon Ball, and they have Chow Yun-fat aboard. And now, we have another movie version of Street Fighter coming up, and they have Hong Kong veteran star Cheng Pei Pei. Nice. Well it sure beats having Jean Claude Van Damme and Raul Julia. But who remembers that earlier version anyway?

Cheng Pei Pei was, of course brilliantly utilised by Ang Lee in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, playing the evil Jade Fox. But that's the thing about CTHD; there are no stock characters with clear-cut motivations, unlike your usual wuxia fare. This thought inevitably brings to mind a recent argument I had with some friends when I voiced my admiration of Zhang Yimou's Hero. They,of course, hated the film, and one of them even thought that Zhang was merely trying to make his own CTHD. That's unfortunately a very shallow way of looking at the film.

The main and most important difference between the two films is that CTHD redefines the wuxia genre while Hero simply transcends it. CTHD adopts all the elements of traditional wuxia - the powerful heroes, the authoritative master, the "evil" villain, death and vengeance - only to turn them all on their heads. The catalyst for all of it is Zhang Ziyi's character, star-struck with the romantic notions of the martial arts world, whose actions simply debunk the romantic myth. There is no clean resolution even after the master dies. Instead, there's disillusionment and hopelessness.

Hero, on the other hand, adopts all the genre conventions only to abandon them halfway. It starts off as an exciting revenge film, before stripping itself of the intrigue to address more serious political ponderings. In the end, wuxia becomes only a beautiful costume adorning a starker matter at heart. And that matter also proves to be a divisive point among audiences, with some accusing it of propaganda. But I would argue that Hero is far from endorsing China's political stand. The simple indication lies in the solemn and poignant mood of its ending. Only Jet Li's Wuming and Tony Leung's Broken Sword change their point of view, but Flying Snow remains staunchly convinced of liberation by assassination. And we do not know what exactly happens to Donnie Yen's Sky. There is no jingoistic triumphant end nor flag-waving. Instead, it leaves us to ponder what heroism really means.

Recently, I watched the two-disc anniversary edition of Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven. The film remains as fresh as ever, but I was struck by how similar it is to CTHD. Both films transcend and de-romanticise their respective genres. CTHD has its young upstart, Jen, dreaming of the glorious martial arts life, while Unforgiven's Beauchamp, the writer, pens fantastical tales of frontier bravado told to him by gunfighters. Both quickly have their illusions shattered by the stark reality of death and destruction wrought by violence. Life with sword or gun is never as fanciful or heroic as it seems.

1 comment:

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