SIFF 2016 Report #2: The Big Road, The Island Funeral, Heaven Can Wait, The Final Master and My Beloved Bodyguard

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Brief accounts of a handful of films from the SIFF’s second week as it rolls into its third.

The Big Road (Sun Yu, 1935) – Something like an amalgam of Our Daily Bread and Mrs. Miniver for the Anti-Japanese War, by which I mean it’s a propaganda film celebrating first the communal virtues of collectivist rural life (the hard work of uniting the nation through literal road-building) and then the bold heroism of that collective as it stands against Imperialist aggression, in the form of the traitorous land-owning, but not land-working, class (relics of Old China, these rulers wear 19th Century clothes, and live in Qing mansions, the feudal system in opposition to the power of the Modern Industrial Worker). It ambles, plotless for most of its length, but it’s accumulated enough power that by the end, as its hero (eight characters combine to form one hero, a communist Voltron) is smashed to bits by advanced machines of war, it resembles nothing less than “Guernica” in its devastation.

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Rise of the Legend (Roy Chow, 2014)

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Every generation gets the Wong Fei-hung they deserve. A fin-de-siècle doctor and martial arts instructor, the real life Wong has been inspiring cinematic incarnations for most of the history of Hong Kong’s film industry. The first was in a series of productions running form the late 1940s to the mid 1960s, where Wong was played by Kwan Tak-hing as the embodiment of Confucian masculine values. Dignified, somewhat aged, even-handed and scrupulous, Kwan played Wong in an astounding 77 films (at least), between 1949’s The True Story of Wong Fei-hung: Whiplash Snuffs the Candle Flame and 1981’s Dreadnaught, which is some kind of a record. A generation of actors and stuntmen, choreographers and directors (most notably Lau Kar-leung and Yuen Woo-ping) got their starts training on the Wong Fei-hung films, which served roughly the same role for Hong Kong action cinema that Roger Corman’s exploitation films did for the New Hollywood. Lau Kar-leung put his twist on the character with Gordon Liu starring as a young student Wong in Challenge of the Masters in 1976 and as a somewhat older man striving after nonviolent resolutions to the deadly rivalries of the kung fu world in 1981’s Martial Club. Yuen Woo-ping and his father Yuen Siu-tien, who also worked on the Kwan Tak-hing series, upended the Wong Fei-hung mythos in 1978 with Drunken Master, in which a young Jackie Chan plays Wong as an impetuous, vulgar, undisciplined youth who is beaten into shape by the eponymous instructor (the elder Yuen), kicking of an era of irreverent kung fu comedy hybrids and launching Chan as a superstar. Tsui Hark revising the legend again in 1991 with his Once Upon a Time in China series, in which Jet Li played the hero with a mix of Kwan’s grace and nobility,  Chan’s youthfulness and Li’s own awkward romanticism. Now, Roy Chow gives us Rise of the Legend, with Eddie Peng playing Wong as a brooding, blood-spattered young warrior, desperately fighting against the nihilistic hell that is Guangzhou’s Pearl River Delta in the late 19th Century.

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Ip Man 3 (Wilson Yip, 2015) and Monster Hunt (Raman Hui, 2015)

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The disaporic film program at the AMC Pacific Place this week features two of the hottest Chinese-language films of the past year: the latest in Donnie Yen’s series about Wing Chun Master Ip Man and the CGI monster-wuxia that took the Chinese box office by storm last summer, breaking records on its way to becoming the highest-grossing local film in the Mainland’s history. The two films represent state of the art variations on the two oldest forms of the Chinese martial arts film, kung fu and wuxia tricked out with digital manipulations and effects, packed with enough celebrity cameos and show-stopping stunts to make even the most generic or implausible story a lot of fun.

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