to China for
June 6, 2002
By Franklin Harris
When he needed inspiration for the "Star Wars" saga, the first place George Lucas looked to was Asian cinema.
Lucas has long acknowledged Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's 1958 masterpiece, "The Hidden Fortress," as an influence on the first "Star Wars" film, and when he began work on the prequel trilogy, he again turned east for ideas.
In particular, he looked to 1993's "Moon Warriors," directed by former "Marital Law" star Sammo Hung and starring two thirds of the "Heroic Trio," Anita Mui and Maggie Cheung. (The final third is Michelle Yeoh of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" fame.)
You can see the influence not only on Lucas' stories but also in his action sequences.
As "Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones" demonstrates, light- saber fights have come a long way since Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader's relatively genteel duel aboard the Death Star. Yoda's clash with Count Dooku in "Attack of the Clones" has more in common with the frenetic yet intricate swordplay of Hong Kong's wuxia films.
Broadly speaking, there are two sub-genres of Hong Kong martial-arts cinema.
The first, and the best known in America, are kung-fu movies, which became popular here during the '70s, thanks to the star power and skills of Bruce Lee and a young up-and-comer named Jackie Chan.
Kung-fu films may feature spectacular stunts and some wire work, the latter especially in films like Jet Li's "Once Upon a Time in China" series, but they take place, for the most part, in the real world.
Wuxia movies, on the other hand, are Hong Kong's answer to Western sword-and-sorcery epics, with just as firm a literary tradition to back them. Just as modern fantasy cinema begins with either J.R.R. Tolkien or Robert E. Howard, modern wuxia films begin with Chinese fantasy novels first published in the early 1900s.
Roughly translated, wuxia means "martial-chivalric," and wuxia stories inevitably revolve around individualistic swordsmen, owing loyalty only to their own honor, who right wrongs as they see them.
Chow Yun Fat's character from "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," Li Mu Bai, is a classic example of a wuxia-style hero.
Wuxia warriors rely not only on their martial arts skills, but also on psychic powers that we in the West regard as almost magical.
The most obvious supernatural power wuxia heroes possess is the ability to defy gravity. This is called "weightless leaping." In "Crouching Tiger," director Ang Lee depicts his combatants as gliding through the air in almost a ballet, but most Hong Kong filmmakers send their heroes and villains hurtling across the screen.
Wuxia films gave birth to what some fans call "wire fu," because the actors are suspended on wires during the airborne fight sequences.
In a case of circular inspiration, famed Hong Kong director/producer Tsui Hark decided to create a wuxia movie with "Star Wars"-like special effects. The result was 1983's "Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain." (Miramax plans to release its sequel, "Zu Warriors," this year.)
"Zu" revived the genre, and led eventually to director Andrew Lau's 1998 breakthrough, "Stormriders."
Combatants in "Stormriders" don't just leap and wave swords around. They hurl energy blasts at one another, control the elements and stop time.
In one over-the-top sequence, a character rips off his own shattered and useless arm so that he can keep fighting.
Wuxia heroes also have total control over their own bodies. In another of Lau's films, "The Duel" (2000), a secret agent is able to force the poison he drinks out of his stomach and spit it into the faces of his enemies.
If the Jedi of the first "Star Wars" trilogy are Force-wielding samurai, then the Jedi of the new trilogy are wuxia warriors in space.
So, while you wait for "Star Wars: Episode III," you might want to check out some of Hong Kong's recent cinematic exports. Because Yoda and Mace Windu only think they're the baddest warriors in the universe.