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The Swordsman and His Jiang Hu: Tsui Hark and Hong Kong Film


Life imitated Tsui Hark for those of us who worked on this book. Like many of the films the subject of our study produced or directed, this project grew bigger and bigger as we went along. That's partly because the material we gathered on Tsui Hark and his work was so plentiful and so interesting we were compelled to share it with our readers, not unlike the dilemma Tsui often faces prepping for his films. As the book grew, we found ourselves longing for more time and more resources, a situation that has been a way of life for Tsui in his long career. And, like the way Tsui often has to rush his films to meet release dates, we also had to scramble to finish this project. We were fond of joking that we were practicing 'method editing'.

We also developed a greater appreciation of the hardships the Hong Kong film industry had to endure. Preparing for this book - and as part of the Hong Kong Film Archive's Oral History Project - we interviewed over 20 filmmakers. Most have love-hate relationships with Tsui. Hate because he often makes next to impossible demands, making life miserable to those who work with him. Love because those demands are in fact challenges fueled by visionary passion, bringing the best out of them. From seasoned veterans like composer James Wong and editor Marco Mak to (then) upstarts like scriptwriter Liu Damu and assistant director O Sing-pui, filmmakers recount how difficult it had been trying to realize Tsui's ever-changing ideas, using the limited resources of the Hong Kong film industry to achieve effects equal to - sometimes even surpassing - Hollywood. Implicit in their horror stories is the pride of overcoming extreme odds to rise to the occasions.

Although focused on Tsui Hark, this is not an auteurist study. No doubt Tsui is a filmmaker who had left - and continues to leave - a strong individual stamp on his work, but he didn't do it by himself. He did it with the Hong Kong film industry, which, in addition to responding to his challenges, also supported him and grew with him. The intent of this book is to offer a portrait, incomplete as it is, of the relationship between Tsui Hark and the industry.

Tsui Hark is best known for his martial arts films. From his very first feature, The Butterfly Murders (1979), he has been making films regularly in the wuxia genre and many of them are important re-definitions of the genre. Many of his colleagues call him da xia, a term culled from martial arts fiction that loosely translates as 'great chivalrous hero'. Although there is a touch of flattery to the term, it nonetheless conveys the feelings of Tsui's peers that he is a martial arts figure. In fact, martial arts fiction has been an extremely important medium with which the Chinese people negotiate their culture and their lives. The wuxia idea of jiang hu has been used in many an allegorical way to describe modern life. People in various professions are fond of referring to their individual fields as jiang hu. Gangsters, for example, are famously known for using the term to describe the mob world. But what is jiang hu? Tsui Hark himself has in fact poked fun at the notion in Swordsman III: The East is Red (1993), in which a group of Spanish conquistadors discuss it without offering a conclusion. I had written elsewhere that jiang hu can best be described as a subculture, a parallel universe in which martial artists interact. It exists in the physical world but involves a separate set of rules, though what happen in it often have profound impacts on the real world. It is therefore not difficult to understand why mobsters refer to their domain as jiang hu. And the film industry is also one such jiang hu, a world that often operates on its own rules and from which powerful influences are generated.1

There is the famous all-purpose phrase 'Once in jiang hu, one is not free to do what he wants.' But Tsui Hark is no ordinary one. He changed the film jiang hu from the inside and has been mostly free to do what he wants. We prefer to call him a 'swordsman' not only because it's a more ambivalent term than da xia but also because he has a long-time interest in the sword, having done extensive research on the topic throughout the years. From that interest, he has developed many glorious renditions of the weapon in his films, from the Dual Swords of Purple and Green in Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) to the sword shield in the A Chinese Ghost Story series (1987 - 1991) to the jian qi (sword currents) in the Swordsman series (1990 - 1993), culminating recently in the parade of computer generated swords in The Legend of Zu (2001). We also feel it fitting to ascribe the sword to a filmmaker with an obvious fixation on things Chinese. Many had observed that the camera shares certain affinities with the gun, with its attendant psychological ramifications. To record images with a camera, for example, is to shoot them. Although one doesn't usually shoot a sword, Tsui does, what with his obsessions with the flying sword. Also, the Chinese word for shooting images with a camera is pai, which also means 'strike' or 'tab', which can be some of the sword's functions.

Tsui the swordsman is one of the most important figures of the jiang hu that is Hong Kong cinema. He is at once a director, a producer, a professional service provider and a company boss. Each role he plays has been extremely influential. As a director, he is a much-admired stylist who had been widely imitated and a bold innovator who had created several long-lasting trends. As a producer, he is not only a powerful force that imposes his imprint on every work but also someone with a keen eye for talents and a visionary who opens new paths on which other filmmakers eagerly trot. Through the outfit Cinefex Workshop, he offers 'special effects to go', a significant contribution to the industry, especially in the early 80s, when effects technology was scarce and prohibitively expensive. As founder and head of Film Workshop, he is involved in every facet of filmmaking, including the business end. At one time, he also trained potential scriptwriters by keeping them on company payroll, offering regular - albeit informal - classes and allowing them to learn on the job through writing assignments that range from research to draft producing to on-set fixing-up to dubbing rewrites. Taken together, Tsui's different endeavors add up to a profound and long-lasting impact on the film industry.

Tsui's first film, The Butterfly Murders, ushered in the New Wave, a movement that changed Hong Kong films forever. Li Cheuk-to argues in his contribution to this volume, Through Thick and Thin: The Ever-Changing Tsui Hark and the Hong Kong Cinema, that Tsui's later entrance into mainstream commercial cinema represents a reform of the industry by a new generation of filmmakers. Indeed, his first post-New Wave film, All the Wrong Clues (for the Right Solution) (1981), is a lot more than just a box-office success. Produced by the upstart company Cinema City, its glossy package and comics-like storytelling served as a prototype for the high-concept comedies that dominated the first half of the 80s. With Tsui invited into a braintrust that worked on every aspect of creativity. Cinema City would went on to become the most important film company during that period, its collective approach to creativity much coveted and imitated. The film's ambivalent attitude towards Hong Kong's past also captured the audience's imagination. Depicting the then colony's early days with irreverence, it addresses Hong Kong's rising sense of indigenous identity and provided an off-handed way to deal with its troubled history - indeed the right solution with the wrong clues, but also at the right time. Such an approach to escape the past - and, given the '1997 Fear' of the 80s, also the future - would again be widely copied, the most notable example Jackie Chan's Project A (1982).

When it came time for a sequel, Tsui would hand directing chores to Teddy Robin, opting instead to serve as associate producer. All the Wrong Spies (1983) marks the beginning of Tsui's 'hands on yet hands off' mode. According to our interviews with Robin and art director Yee Chung-man, Tsui left a lot of room for Robin to make the film even though it was the latter's first directorial effort.2 Yet the sequel bears the stamp of the first film in both style and story, indicating Tsui's influence. But it's also a vast improvement in production quality over the original, with much more sophisticated photography and, especially, production design. It's as though the Hong Kong film industry had experienced a major growth spurt in the year and a half between the releases of the two films. That improvement is the result of Tsui's strong creative presence, an eye to recognize talent on both his and Cinema City's parts and their audacity to entrust a first-timer with a major project and, again, an industry rising to the challenge. The success of All the Wrong Spies, both commercially and professionally, is a sign that Tsui had become a bona fide industry man.

Tsui kept his hands off All the Wrong Spies largely because he was busy with Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain. It was a monumental effort, not just in its much publicized introduction of Hollywood special effects but also, perhaps even more importantly, in its attempt to integrate Chinese mythology with cinematic myth making. It's also significant that Tsui made Zu right after All the Wrong Clues. While the latter redefines modern history of Hong Kong, the former does the same to ancient Chinese history. Scriptwriter Liu Damu remembers in his interviews and in his essay, Between Wining and Dining: A Scriptwriter's Impressions that Tsui hired writers to conduct research on various aspects of mythology, from flying swords to religious teachings to Confucian tenets. Tsui didn't apply his research meticulously to his story. Instead, he used it to fuel his imagination, shaping it to fit his own brand of storytelling. In a script session transcribed in Liu's essay, Tsui is heard trying to incorporate extraterrestrials into the story of Zu. His intention was to update the Chinese people's imagination, taking Chinese mythology into the Twentieth Century. Sek Kei, in his essay Struggle, Battle, Victory, Buddhism: Tsui Hark and the Force, observes that by reinterpreting Chinese mythology, Tsui had realized in Zu a unique worldview that comprises the heaven, the earth and the underworld. Such an approach would also become extremely influential in many of the Hong Kong films to come. The 80s was a time when Hong Kong was bargaining with its own past and future as well as its place between the East and the West. Tsui's films played a part in both expressing that struggle and dictating it.

Tsui also deserves accolades in the area of special effects. He managed to talk Golden Harvest into supporting him, handing him an almost bottomless budget and leaving a large production team at his disposal. He hired specialists all the way from Hollywood and put together a team that at once trained with these specialists and experimented with uniquely Chinese effects. As Li points out in his essay, Zu was largely responsible for Hong Kong film's giant strides in technological improvements during the 80s. Tsui would go on to develop what he learned in future projects, like the A Chinese Ghost Story series, I Love Maria (1988), the Swordsman series, A Chinese Ghost Story - The Tsui Hark Animation (1997), Master Q 2001 (2001) and The Legend of Zu (2001). Among them, the two series are not only commercial and critical successes but also significant contributions to 80s and 90s cinema. It is in these films that Tsui's experimentation with injecting western technology into Chinese mythology came to fruition. Even more important is his success in using this marriage to express contemporary Hong Kong concerns, like the impending Reunification and the June Fourth Incident. It is no coincidence that these two series also played major roles in Hong Kong films' rise in international recognition. The late 80s and early 90s was a time when Hong Kong experienced at once supreme confidence in itself and profound fear of its future. In significant ways, the artist and the industry, the East and the West, the past and the future coalesced in these series, helping define the last golden age of Hong Kong cinema.

As mentioned earlier, Tsui also established his own special effects outfit after Zu, offering technological services to such films as Happy Ghost 3 (1986), Three Wishes (1988) and A Terracotta Warrior (1990). On the Tsui Hark team's many struggles with technology and the impact of such experimentation on his esthetics, we are regretfully unable to offer coverage here that's close to satisfactory. Due to reasons beyond our control, we were forced to drop at the last moment our intended plan to offer insights in this area. Fortunately, we had conducted several interviews with filmmakers who had worked on Tsui's special effects projects. The chapter From the Local to the Virtual: On Special Effects is our effort to salvage our coverage with a compilation of interview excerpts.

Tsui's relationship with Golden Harvest and Cinema City in, respectively, Zu and All the Wrong Clues also started a pattern of collaboration with large film companies. Since then, throughout his career, both before and after establishing his own company, Film Workshop, Tsui has been forging ties with big companies but seldom becoming a part of them. In addition to Cinema City and Golden Harvest, he had also hooked up with Golden Princess, Win's Entertainment, China Star, Cathay Organization, Columbia Asia and One Hundred Years of Film. At one point or another, he would have arguments with some of these companies3, but he never severed ties with them, as in the case of Golden Harvest and Cinema City. Pitching tents but never pouring foundations, Tsui remained an independent, keeping himself and his company viable while always striking deals with industry powers. That he has outlasted both Golden Harvest and Cinema City in terms of active film production is a sign of his savvy as an industry man.

His Film Workshop essentially plays the role that has come to define Hong Kong - that of the middle party. He teams up with bigger companies like those mentioned above, obtaining support that ranges from financial to exhibition. Because of his reputation and his charisma - Liu maintains that Tsui carefully cultivates his image to enhance his mystique, including bragging about his ability to work without sleep, keeping a goatie and always wearing shades4 - he is also able to maintain creative control over his projects. A tireless workaholic with a fertile creative mind, he is eager to put his ideas on celluloid. As such, he's also an active producer, a role that has left an indelible mark on Hong Kong cinema. One of his most coveted accomplishments as a producer is the remake of the 1967 Cantonese film Story of a Discharged Prisoner. It was an idea he had been entertaining at least since his TV days5; when his schedule became too tight, he gave the project to John Woo. The result is A Better Tomorrow (1986), a film that - as anyone who knows anything about Hong Kong films would agree - changed history.

Another shining example of his role as producer is his collaboration with director Ching Siu-tung, which gave the world the A Chinese Ghost Story series and the Swordsman series. Tsui and Ching are both stylists, but while one is a visionary, the other is a professional. While the former is a Western educated intellectual who conducts extensive research on history, literature and mythology, the latter is a career martial arts director who is illiterate. With the two complementing each other in both temperament and style, the series reach levels of accomplishment seldom, if ever, attained in Hong Kong films. They are the result of an almost magical convergence of factors: an incubation of technological experimentation since Zu, a balance between historical material and high-flying imagination, a boldness to run wild with adaptations of classical sources, an integration of foreign influences and Chinese mythology and a Hong Kong in dire need of entertainment at once cynical and romantic. It was perfect chemistry while the stars were perfectly aligned.

But magic doesn't always happen. In fact, Tsui's illustrious filmography is punctuated regularly with commercial or critical failures that he produced. Titles like The Diary of a Big Man (1988), Web of Deception (1989), Spy Games (1990), King of Chess (1992) and The Magic Crane (1993), Director Gordon Chan, who had worked as a staff writer at Film Workshop, believes that Tsui is such a powerful producer that he often intimidates his directors.6 Only those with a certain status and a whole lot of confidence or whom Tsui trusts - Ching, Woo and Ringo Lam, for example - are able to stand up to him and make meaningful collaboration out of the relationship. The role of Tsui as a producer is an interesting and important topic that can shed significant light on both Tsui Hark and the Hong Kong film industry. Unfortunately, this is another area to which we were unable to devote more effort. As an on-going undertaking, we will continue to interview filmmakers for the Oral History project of the Hong Kong Film Archive. Tapes and transcripts of those interviews will be on file in the Archive and we encourage - in fact, urge - researchers, students or fans to consult them and to make further inquiries in this area.

But we also very fortunate that many filmmakers were willing to share with us their experience with Tsui Hark, including Tsui himself. We are especially grateful to scriptwriter Liu Damu and art director Bill Lui, who also contributed essays to this book, Liu not only writes about his days eating and drinking with Tsui, he also provides a transcript of a brainstorming session, taking us back in time to witness Tsui's mind at work. Several of the filmmakers we interviewed consider Tsui as their mentor, and Liu's remembrances offer a vivid first hand account of that relationship. In addition, Liu also provides several pages of research material he did for Zu, giving us a glimpse of the extensive work that went into that film.

Tsui Hark is a complete filmmaker who is well versed in every phase of the filmmaking process. In addition to directing and producing as well as closely involving himself in writing and editing, the areas directors are likely to participate, he also acts regularly, composes music and sketches storyboards, his drawing illustrating his accomplishments as an artist. (Throughout the book, we have included many of Tsui's own sketches and computer-generated drawings as well as those by his collaborators.) In the essay Sprinkling a Few Leaves of Licorice Root: An Art Director Contemplates the Magic of Tsui Hark, art director Bill Lui remembers fondly Tsui as a creative stimulus who, with his all-round knowledge, pushes his crew to give him what they never know they have.

We had also summarized our interviews with composer James Wong, cinematographer Arthur Wong and editor Marco Mak to provide a multi-faceted view of how Tsui Hark works and how the industry supports him. All three filmmakers consider Tsui an extremely demanding director and they also agree that meeting his challenges had brought out the best in them. Wong and Wong are only a select number of filmmakers who are willing to include critical comments in their otherwise loving tributes. Both think Tsui would be even more accomplished had he been less capricious. James Wong even believes that Tsui's best is yet to come. Tsui Hark is a flawed genius and his art will definitely reach another level when he overcomes some of his flaws.

In the section Talking About Tsui Hark, we have included three Tsui Hark interviews conducted by the Hong Kong Film Archive. Tsui had done lots of interviews throughout his career, but he had seldom sat down for hours to answer questions, like he did with us. The first interview was done in 1996 and the third in 2001, and all three had different focuses. Because Tsui has such a long and complicated career, we feel that these three interviews only scratched the surface of what we want to know about him, but together, we believe they give us a good general picture of that career. We are also looking forward to more interviews with him in the future. In the same section are also two compilations of interviews, one with special effects personnel and the other with scriptwriters. Again, those interviewed represent only a fraction of the filmmakers who had worked with Tsui on these areas, but due to limited time and resources, we were only able to track down a few, though generously talkative few.

We have also included several essays by scholars and critics in the section Tsui Hark Panorama. In addition to Li's and Sek's, we also have contributions from Yeh Yueh-yu, Po Fung and Cindy S.C. Chan, who offer their views on, respectively, Tsui's use of music, his scriptwriting style and his relationship with the film industry. But there are several holes in Tsui Hark's career that we were unable to fill. The role of comic books on his work, the influence of King Hu and Peking opera, the early years of Film Workshop and his films of the mid and late 90s are some of the areas we believe warrant coverage but are unable to because of, again, the proverbial lack of time and resources. But such is the case with the study of Hong Kong cinema and I'm very grateful to the Hong Kong Film Archive for commissioning this project.

I am also grateful to Law Kar for initiating this project. It was his idea to study Tsui Hark's relationship with the film industry. It was also Uncle Kar who asked me to host a Hong Kong International Film Festival seminar on Tsui Hark in 1999, during the preparation of which I came up with the idea of using the notion of jiang hu to study Tsui Hark's work. I would also like to thank Li Cheuk-to, who offered selfless advice and suggestions throughout the execution of this project, and my fellow editor Ho Wai-leng, who came on board midway but tirelessly nurtured this book like it was her baby from day one. Finally, a most sincere thanks to all the filmmakers who talked to us. You are all master swordsmen and swordswomen.

Sam Ho

1 Sam Ho, 'Welcome to jiang hu', in A Century of Chinese Cinema: Look Back in Glory, Hong Kong Film Critics Society (ed.), Hong Kong Film Archive (Hong Kong), 2001, p 41.

2 Interview with Teddy Robin, HKFA Oral History Project, 22 June, 2001; and interview with Yee Chung-man, HKFA Oral History Project, 21, June, 2001.

3 Interview with Liu Damu, Oral History Project, 15 May, 2001; and see Sam Ho and Ho Wai-leng, 'Tsui Hark on Tsui Hark: Three Film Archive Interviews', both in this volume.

4 Interview with Liu Damu, ibid.

5 See 'Tsui Hark on Tsui Hark: Three Hong Kong Film Archive Interviews'.

6 Po Fung and Sam Ho, Interview with Gordon Chan, September 19,2001.



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