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Going to the Source: Kung Fu Hustle and Its Cinematic Roots at the 29th HKIFF
Martial Arts Morality 1/1 - Page 4
Info
Author(s) : Gina Marchetti
Date : 5/5/2005
Type(s) : Analysis
Food for thought
 
 Intext Links  
People :
Bruce Lee
Sek Kin
Movies :
Enter The Dragon
Huang Feihong : The Invincible Lion Dancer
Huang Feihong : The Invincible Lion Dancer
Story Of Huang Feihong (Part 1)
The Story Of Huang Feihong, The Part 4: Death Of Liang Huan
Lexic :
Lion Dance
Hung Gar
Jiang Hu
Wong Fei-hong
 
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Another moment that brings the narrative to a halt in The Story Of Wong Fei-hung : Part I and seems to add little to any understanding of the plot involves the singing of a ballad about the bitterness of working in a house of prostitution by an old blind man. Again, the performance takes up considerable screen time, and the spectators on screen seem enthralled. Given the film initiates Foon and the viewers into the world of the jiang hu, the “rivers and lakes,” that make up the Chinese martial arts universe, this moment takes on pedagogical significance. The martial, “wu,” hero exemplifies the virtues of brotherhood and sexual restraint. Therefore, the brothel should be off limits. However, Foon has difficulty putting aside his old habits and ends up in trouble because he cannot control his libido.

In contrast, Wong Fei-hong appears to be absolutely prudish. In one scene, wounded, Wong takes refuge in the room of a single woman, who cares for him, and hides him from his enemies. When his savior becomes flirtatious and asks to have a closer relationship with him, the master tactfully, but clearly embarrassed, rejects her romantic advances; however, he accepts her as a fictive/adopted relative. Rather than romance, the bond between them involves interdependence and mutual responsibility. Still learning, the lascivious Foon ends up in a snake pit with a damsel in distress. The contrasting relations the master and pupil have with women provide a moral lesson on conduct within the Confucian martial arts world. While patrilineage, tutelage, and brotherhood play major roles, Hollywood romance and sexual desire take a backseat—available on screen through a lament sung by an old blind man rather than the charms of a beauty (who only has a few brief moments to sing a few bars for the audience). In fact, Leung Foon, in contrast to Master Wong, does not succeed in the martial arts world, and his character dies in the fourth installment of the series, The Death Of Leung Foon (1950).

In the other installment from the series screened at the festival, Wong Fei Hong : The Invincible Lion Dancer (1968), Kwan Tak-Hing has grown into his role. He plays Wong as an established member of the community, instructor to the military, and conscious of his role as representative of the government. By this time, “Under the General's Orders” had become the Wong Fei-Hung theme song, and the comedy that formed part of the fabric of the first 1949 installment has become a major element by 1968. Produced the year following Hong Kong's infamous riots, inspired by the Cultural Revolution across the border, which represented many people's discontent with the colonial administration's corruption and ineptitude, the appearance of Wong Fei-Hung as an official within a culture in which corruption and “guan xi” (connections for personal advantage) are endemic speaks to the times. The plot revolves around Wong's desire to be rid of the expectations associated with “guan xi.” The film begins with his wish not to celebrate his birthday, since it would be a public occasion for gift giving or bribery. However, his pupils and an army of beggars do not allow him to avoid the occasion, and, because a mutual friend organizes the meeting, Wong must also entertain a corrupt merchant and rival martial arts master, played by Sek Kin (Shih Kien), who may be best know outside of Greater China as Han in the Bruce Lee vehicle Enter The Dragon (1973), but, within the Chinese speaking world, as the major rival to Wong Fei-Hung in the popular film series.

A practitioner of Northern Shaolin, Shek Kin provides a contrast to the Southern-inflected techniques used by Kwan Tak-Hing. In this particular film, the rivalry begins with a gift—an expensive ring given to Wong for his birthday with the expectation that the official will turn a blind eye to the villain's nefarious triad activities. Two blind sisters also perform at the party, playing the er-hu (two-stringed instrument played with a bow) and zheng (zither). The sisters (who aren't blind, but must perform on the streets to feed their orphaned brothers and sisters) have avoided paying protection money to the triads. The pair becomes the bone of contention between the rival masters, and Wong Fei-Hung literally must fight to return the ring that obligates him to the villain.

The film has moved far away from the 1949 version of Wong Fei-Hung as a master in need of instructing the audience, recruiting disciples, and proving himself worthy of emulation. There is no hint of an improper sexual relation with the sisters, no demonstrations of “authentic” Hung Gar forms, and no need for an extended explanation of the master's lineage. Rather than beginning with a lion dance, Wong Fei Hong : The Invincible Lion Dancer ends with one that does not hide the martial elements of the performance, but unveils them for the spectators and culminates with the bloody death of the villain impaled on a blade at the base of the bamboo posts used for the lions. The grounded master of The Story of Wong Fei-hung : Part I ascends to the heights to display his mastery over his opponent as well as himself—since the villain's death shows the end result of a “guan xi” relationship gone awry—and Wong has freed himself of any hint of corruption.

At one point in the film, Wong Fei-Hung tries to reason with his opponent by appealing to the fact that both men are part of the “jiang hu” and should be able to come to an understanding. However, Wong lives in an imaginary past when martial arts masters and triad bosses could claim a common ancestry in the destroyed Shaolin temple and a common enemy in the Qing. At this point, Wong has become an official member of the Qing military bureaucracy, and his martial roots tie him to the state rather than to the underworld. With Hong Kong recovering from the 1967 riots, the point seems clear—the state, the underworld, and other anti-government forces cannot occupy the same ground, and the martial hero must be recuperated as an exemplar of national legitimacy within the capitalist colony rather than the communist mainland.

 
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