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February 8, 2001 Chinese virtuosos are changing our movie world



Film Studies Professor Peter Rist treasures the letter he got from director King Hu.

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj.

by Anna Bratulic

Film Studies professor Peter Rist is waiting for the Academy Award nominations to be announced.

He’s hoping that the success of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the first “serious” martial arts film to gain popular recognition in North America, will be a candidate for Best Picture and not just Best Foreign Language Film. If it is nominated for Best Picture, it will be the first time that an Asian film stands a chance of receiving an Oscar in the top category.

But it’s not so much that Rist is a big fan of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In fact, while ordinary moviegoers were riveted by scenes of bandits scaling walls as nimbly as spiders, of sword-fighters dueling on treetops and of swashbuckling female leads turning their opponents into throbbing pulp, Chinese cinema buffs like Rist have seen better.

Rather, says Rist, recognition at the Academy Awards might, due to the inevitable interest in Chinese films that would follow, give Westerners an opportunity to learn more about the late director King Hu father of the wuxia film genre, of which Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is an example.

“His work now has a chance to be fully understood,” Rist said. “The kind of things that people are raving about in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has always been there with King Hu.”

Hu’s films might still be hard for Westerners to appreciate. For example, there is no romance in his movies; Hollywood always manages to sneak in a romantic subplot, no matter how unlikely.

“[Hu] still might not get there in terms of being recognized, but I think, there is at least a chance that it could happen now. Whereas before, I think there was no chance.”

Apart from film circles in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan, not too many other people had ever heard of Hu, who died in 1997 after heart surgery, and that proved frustrating for Rist, who felt that the Chinese director was grossly under-appreciated.

“I just think he’s the greatest filmmaker,” said Rist. “What do you do about that?”

Well, if you’re Peter Rist, who discovered Hu’s work in 1978, you scour the planet looking for King Hu movies. When he had trouble finding any, he wrote the director himself, and mounted Hu’s handwritten reply in a silver frame as a keepsake. Now, Rist is known to have the most complete collection of King Hu films on video anywhere in Canada.

The word wuxia roughly means fighting and chivalry. “Think Knights of the Round Table with action,” is Rist’s advice.

Hu claimed to know nothing of martial arts himself. The action scenes in his films, he once said, were heavily influenced by traditional Chinese opera. The movements are carefully choreographed to look somewhat like the steps in a complicated dance. The music and sound effects that accompany the action are also taken from Chinese opera.

Rist also sees the influence of landscape paintings in Hu’s cinematography. Misty Chinese country scenes include action shots that are components of a scene rather than the sole focus of it.

“When we look at a Chinese landscape painting, we contemplate the magnificence of the landscape and see the human element as just a small part of that. Of course, that just doesn’t work with entertainment films, so there’s a contradiction between what works as a movie and what we do when we contemplate a landscape painting. But I think King Hu found a solution.”

With his second film, Come Drink With Me (1966), Hu resurrected a genre that was popular in the 1930s, when Shanghai was the capital of Chinese cinema. Despite its popularity, intellectuals and government officials hated these movies and blamed them for putting bad ideas into the heads of uneducated people. They called wuxia films “weird and supernatural knight-errant movies.”

More information is available on King Hu at the following Web site: http://www.horschamp.qc.ca/new_offscreen/24thHKIFF.html. Other articles on Asian cinema can be found at Donato Totaro’s offscreen homepage http://www.horschamp.qc.ca/offscreen/