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Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is likely to become the first Chinese swordplay film to reach a mass audience in the West, but in China – as in Japan, whose samurai exports are more familiar in the U.S. – swordplay epics, along with kung fu films, are a rich staple of cinema culture. The spotty availability of films made prior to the early ’80s has limited our selection below:


Come Drink with Me (1965) – King Hu’s first great success is less expansive – both in time and space – than his later films, but just as exhilarating, and combines song and dance-like movement with hard-edged martial arts action. Also highly recommended are Hu’s harder-to-locate films Raining in the Mountain (1979), A Touch of Zen (1971), The Valiant Ones (1975) and Dragon Gate Inn (1967).

The Deaf and Mute Heroine (1971) – In this film directed by actor Wu Ma (Chinese Ghost Story, Peking Opera Blues), the titular heroine (Helen Ma), a deaf-mute, compensates for her hearing impairment by wearing reflective metal arm-shields that give her a rear view in battle. Once again, the real conflict here is between two women, Ma and a sultry villainess.

The Sword (1980) – Young director Patrick Tam was definitely under the influence of Hu in this New Wave epic whose amazing final battle ends with a stroke of beautifully excessive violence.

Swordsman 2 (1992) – Produced by Tsui Hark and directed by Ching Siu-Tung (who was responsible for the action choreography in Tsui’s masterpiece, Peking Opera Blues), this wild combination of farce, action, and romance, starring Jet Li, has claim to being the quintessential representative of New Wave commercial cinema.

Dragon Inn (1993) – Produced by Tsui Hark, directed by Raymond Lee, and choreographed by Ching Siu-Tung, this remake of King Hu’s 1967 classic makes an instructive comparison with the original. More accessible and modern, it gooses up the story with more humor; yet its breathlessness is not necessarily an improvement on Hu’s more deliberate and perhaps more suspenseful pace.

Bride with White Hair (1993) – Directed by Ronny Yu and shot by Peter Pau, this is one of the most visually sumptuous films to emerge from H.K. or anywhere else during the ’90s. This hypercharged variation on Romeo and Juliet, starring Leslie Cheung (Farewell My Concubine, A Better Tomorrow) and Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia (Swordsman 2, Peking Opera Blues), uses exciting fight scenes and swordplay as window-dressing for what is essentially a serious romance about trust and betrayal.

Ashes of Time (1994) – Art-house favorite Wong Kar-wai (Chungking Express) attempted a complete/deconstruction/reassessment of the genre with this lavishly produced riff on a popular novel that had already been filmed several times. Gorgeously photographed, the result nevertheless borders on the incomprehensible. Still, it has Christopher Doyle’s cinematography, Sammo Hung’s action direction, and an amazing all-star cast.

The Blade (1995) – Wong Kar-wai’s critical success in the West must have driven Tsui Hark crazy; right after Ashes of Time came out, he directed this revisionist take on Chang Cheh’s 1967 One-Armed Swordsman. In a much more coherent way than Wong’s film, it reinvents the genre, eschewing much of the King Hu-inspired grace that inspired Tsui in his earlier films. In its opening scenes, The Blade announces that it will be realistically and disturbingly violent. Despite that, this is a consistently fascinating film that smashes most of its genre’s conventions.

Back to Martial Artist: Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon


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