Heroic Grace: The Chinese Martial Arts Film (Heroic Grace Film Festival Tour, 2003)

Blood Brothers (Shaw Brothers Production, 1973)
Last Hurrah For Chivalry
(Golden Harvest Company Ltd, 1978)

I bought my tickets to the Heroic Grace festival in advance, as I guessed (correctly, as it transpired) that every show would sell out. But proper prior planning can only go so far, and I was stricken with the flu the night I was to see the double bill of Blood Brothers and Last Hurrah For Chivalry. Nonetheless, inspired by the examples in previous shows in which characters let nothing, not a dagger in the belly or a poison dart or a confused gender identity stand between them and their goals, I took Sudafed and went anyway. I mention this because the combination of illness and mind-altering palliative may have affected my perceptions of the films, so you may not want to take my word on them as gospel.

Blood Brothers was directed by Chang Cheh in 1973, and is the most melodramatic movie I have ever seen. I regret to say that I don't mean this in a good way.

Most Hong Kong movies are melodramatic by American standards. Their unashamed, un-ironic displays of people -- even, in fact especially, men -- being emotional is one of their main strengths, often infusing absurd and over-the-top situations with startling and genuine power. John Woo, who was a protégé of Chang Cheh and the assistant director on Blood Brothers, is particularly known for this sort of emotionalism.

If you haven't seen Woo's Hong Kong movies, think of the final scene of Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, with the bloody dying men sobbing and hugging each other on the warehouse floor. In plain dry words, it's embarrassing and silly and fraught with subtext that, depending on your predilections, is either gay or Iron John. On the screen, it's gut-wrenching. Tarantino lifted part of the plot for Reservoir Dogs from Ringo Lam's City on Fire, but that scene is pure John Woo homage.

As for Blood Brothers, all I can say is, the student surpassed the master. It's not an unpleasant viewing experience -- it's actually quite entertaining -- but as my grandmother would say, oy, such drama!

There are two bandits, Brother Two (Chen Guandai) and Brother Three (David Chiang). They attempt to rob a traveling mercenary, but he's a match for them, not to mention smarter and more ambitious. Brother Two's wife (Jing Li) rides in while he's distracted by fighting them and makes off with his horse and money, but he tracks down the three of them and makes them an offer. They join him, at which point he becomes known as Big Brother (Ti Lung.)

The three "brothers" take over a rival tribe of bandits and live happily for a while. But Brother Two is a womanizer who neglects his wife. Sparks fly between the wife and Big Brother, but are unconsummated: Big Brother leaves to join the army. Two years pass, Big Brother becomes a high-ranking officer, and he invites the other brothers… and the wife… to join him. Inevitable and gory tragedy ensues.

Before it all goes down, the brothers trounce the Hair Bandits and other menaces, including uncooperative henchmen. There's plenty of disembowelment and incredibly fake-looking blood, but the fights themselves are neither realistic a la Bruce Lee nor crazily inventive a la Jet Li. But they and the wife spend far more time exchanging fraught glances and brandishing her tell-tale hair ornament, which she tends to lose in incriminating places.

Part of the reason I found this impossible to take seriously was the score. Big Brother shoots the wife a smoldering glance: BOOM WA-WA BOOM WA-WA BOOM! The wife shoots a smoldering glance at Big Brother: ZZZZIIINNG! This may be the most intrusive score ever recorded.

Then there were the death scenes. Every time someone died, they turned a cartwheel or somersault or leaped twelve feet in the air, then rolled over and over and over and over and over, even when they were not on a slope, until they flopped over, did a dance of death, gasped, contorted, sweated, twitched, and occasionally got up to do an encore before they finally kicked it. I kept waiting for them to sing an aria.

Part of the trouble with Blood Brothers was that, paradoxically, it wasn't dramatic enough. The characters were trying to repress their emotions, and so every eyebrow twitch got a crash of cymbals. This mis-match between feelings and their expression ended up making serious moments unintentionally funny, whereas the flamboyant emotionalism of, say, The Bride With White Hair is fully expressed and a match for anything the orchestra can dream up. It did not help that the subtitles of Blood Brothers were even more humorously mangled than is usually the case.

Blood Brothers also contained little intentional humor. The veering between slapstick and high drama that makes Hong Kong movies initially disorienting for Western audiences serves an important purpose. The audience can discharge the impulse to laugh during the pratfalls, and then settle down to take the serious moments seriously. Which brings us to our next film, which does just that: John Woo's Last Hurrah For Chivalry.

John Woo is better known for contemporary films. His Hollywood movies include Face/Off, Mission Impossible II, and others which are best forgotten. His superior Hong Kong films include Hard Boiled, The Killer, and A Better Tomorrow.

His directorial hallmarks are white doves, starring roles for Chow "the coolest man alive" Yun-Fat, passionate but non-sexual relationships between men, and beautifully choreographed sequences of extreme violence, generally involving slow motion and more bullets than were fired in the entire history of the American West.

Until the final ten minutes or so, Last Hurrah For Chivalry has no John Woo trademarks, but instead plays up the conventions of the modern Hong Kong kung fu film: spectacular fight sequences, slapstick alternating with pathos, bizarre flourishes (like a narcoleptic swordsman who's most deadly when he's asleep), and flying villains. There were also several nods to The Godfather, including a threat made by means of a very gory pig head.

Maybe it was the result of being flu-ish, drugged on Sudafed, and watching a double bill which began at 7:30, but the first forty-five minutes of Last Hurrah For Chivalry were entertaining but incomprehensible. At one point two people were dueling to the death and I had no idea who either of them were, let alone why they were fighting. Nevertheless, I will attempt a summary.

Gao (Lau Kong) is marrying a whore (!) at a big family celebration (!) when a guy with a weedy beard and a physique like Bruce Lee crashes the party, accompanied by a horde of white-clad fighters. Almost everyone is killed. Apparently there's a feud going on. Gao is wounded but escapes to the home of a teacher who has a magic sword. Gao nurses his wounds and a desire for revenge. He begs the teacher for the sword, but the teacher says he's not ready.

Meanwhile, the weedy beard guy whiles away the time by beating up his own henchmen; a drunken swordfighter, Green (Damian Lau Chung-yan) is being romanced by a woman, but is more interested in alcohol; and another swordfighter, Zhang (Wai Pak), is having family troubles, from a moribund mother to his sister's insistence on marrying a chubby doofus. A wandering swordfighter, Pray ("If you touch my sword, you better pray.") wants to fight him, but Zhang's not interested.

Gao attempts to hire all three of them, separately, to go after the weedy beard guy. They're reluctant. Somehow this leads to Pray killing a bunch of Gao's men and half-killing his teacher. Gao sics Zhang on Pray, and a stunning six-minute swordfight, which also involves kung fu, a bamboo pole, and a tea stall, ensues.

That's the point where the film really takes off. Zhang and Green go after the weedy beard guy, and the last forty-five minutes of the film are a sequence of well-choreographed and inventive fights interspersed with male bonding, betrayals, and attacks by deadly snakes.

The program notes on Blood Brothers say that Chang Cheh's three protagonists enable him to "indulge his passion for the sadomasochistic display of the male body under duress," but I think they got mixed up with the notes for Chivalry. The entire last hour of the latter was all about men getting burned, slashed, stabbed, bitten, and beaten, with shirts, without shirts, and with shirts in bloody tatters.

The production values and cinematography are unimpressive, and the character's flowing wigs made me think of Blood Brothers' Hair Bandits, but the film bursts at the seams with enthusiasm. It's exciting, funny, inventive, and ultimately moving, and features an exceptionally dastardly villains who reveals flight powers in the last reel, to the understandable dismay of his opponents.

When the previously earthbound villain suddenly leaps into the air and vanishes, the two heroes look up, then at each other. Their "How'd he do that?" expressions are both serious, as they and the audience know now that they're outclassed and may die because of it, and comic, for they and the audience are surprised at this sudden departure from the previously established laws of physics and filmmaking and see the humor resulting from such a violation of expectations.

These moments of subtlety punctuating over-the-top melodrama make the film, and make it a perfect example of early Hong Kong cinema.

[Rachel Manija Brown]

Learn more about the Heroic Grace Film Festival.