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The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake or Jianhu Nuxia (2011)

October 25, 2011 1 comment

Films come in cycles. We’re currently overlapping the centenary of momentous events leading to the downfall of the Qing Dynasty in China. This has triggered the release of the dire 1911, as the Hong Kong/Chinese film industry flirts with historical dramas at or about the Xinhai Revolution. The story of The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake or Jianhu Nuxia reaches its climax in 1907, some four years before the main action. It tells of Qiu Jin who was one of the early martyrs leading up to the Xinhai Revolution and she enjoys a good reputation under the current Chinese regime as a poet, an early feminist and a revolutionary leader. History is one of the more malleable areas of the discourse where each new culture chooses which “facts” it will consider significant in forming the reputation of individuals or past events. Insofar as the successive attempts to overthrow the Manchu government eventually built up enough support to force the abdication of the Qing Dynasty, it’s convenient for the present Government to remember martyrs like Qiu Jin with affection. She was with Sun Yat-sen in Japan, joining the Tongmenghui, and became a pivotal figure when she returned to China, trying to unite the secret societies into a force with sufficient co-ordination to represent a credible threat to the corrupt local governments in the south. She’s a “safe” revolutionary and this has earned her a formal burial site and museum. The theme of this film is rooted in astronomy. Please forgive the mixing of metaphors. Light sets off from a distant star and there’s no telling what life will be like when it arrives at its destination. So this hero’s life is the light setting off. . .

 

In this film, she’s played by Yi Huang who’s been through an interesting period, appearing in Overheard 2 and dying along with the rest of the cast in Treasure Inn. It’s a considerable relief to see her able to carry the role of Qiu Jin with quiet dignity and some flair when it comes to the fighting.

Huang Yi as Qiu Jin armed, dangerous and dressed as a man

 

So, if we take the story in chronological order, our hero is born into a still largely feudal China where women are considered little better than chattels. To satisfy male abstract notions of beauty, women were required to bind the feet of their daughters and to stay indoors to ensure the whitest possible complexion. Qiu Jin persuaded her progressive father to treat her as a son. She therefore learned to read, write, ride and fight. Poetry and martial arts may not seem a good combination but, in this film, she’s shown as devastating with the written word as she was with the sword. Unfortunately, parental permissiveness only goes so far and, when the right family came along, she was married off to Ting-jun (Kevin Cheng). He didn’t exactly get what he was expecting, but they did contrive to produce two children before she tired of his womanising and disappeared off to Japan to improve her education. In this, she was funded by a rich woman sympathiser Pat Ha. There she met her cousin Xu Xilin (Yu-Hang To) and, together, they delved more deeply into revolutionary thinking, joining the Restoration Society or Guangfuhui. On their return to China, they planned successive uprisings at Anqing in Anhui and in Shaoxing.

Anthony Wong Chau-Sang who is unable to save Qiu Jin

 

As an early step, they established the Datong School in Shaoxing. This was a front for training revolutionary troops. Xu Xilin then bought a position as an official in Anqing where he led an uprising of the police recruits, managing to kill En Ming, the Governor of Anhui Province. Unfortunately, he was forced to move early. This prompted the government to send troops to arrest Qiu Jin. Caught unprepared, the school was surrounded and most students were killed. Qiu Jin was arrested and, despite there being only patchy evidence of criminal activity, she was executed. Anthony Wong Chau-Sang is a sympathetic government official in Shaoxing who tries to save Qiu Jin but he’s overruled by senior official Suet Lam. Fearing more unrest and wanting the maximum deterrent effect, she was beheaded, the punishment previously reserved for men. So, even in the manner of her death, she struck a blow for the equality of the sexes.

Xu Xilin (Yu-Hang Dennis To) being professorial before the fighting starts

 

At every level, this is an inspiring story of a young woman who throws off the shackles of a repressive patriarchy, fights for women’s rights and, as a patriot, fights for her country. Her contribution as a writer, publisher and revolutionary has been matched by few. In general, this film version of her story works reasonably well with director Herman Yau striking a good balance between the history and the need to remain entertaining. But, for me, two problems prevent this from being a really good film. The first is the structure of the narrative. Sadly, I’m old-fashioned and prefer a story to start and the beginning and follow through to a climax at the end. This has an endlessly nested sequence of flashbacks. We start with the battle at the school and then variously move forwards or backwards in time. This is slightly confusing and somewhat annoying. Worse, I think it undermines the emotional power of this hero’s journey from assertive girl to revolutionary leader and martyr to the cause. The second problem involves the fighting. Some of the sequences are brutal and naturalistic. This is as it should be when presenting committed revolutionaries pitched against government troops of questionable morale. But in the sequences involving the Qing military commander Ao Feng (Xiong Xin Xin), naturalism is sacrificed for the modern cinematic version of fighting based on wire work. In any event, there’s some controversy about whether Qiu Jin knew any martial arts. This is not to take anything away from the skill of Yi Huang and Yu-Hang To in their personal martial arts skills. The fights with old pro Xiong Xin Xin are very entertaining in their own right and could take their place with pride in any of the more fantasy-based kung fu films. I simply don’t feel they fit into the tone of this film which, in all other respects, is attempting to be a reasonably accurate historical drama.

 

So there you have it. The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake or Jianhu Nuxia is inspirational and entertaining, but short of being very good.

 

Treasure Inn or Cai Shen Ke Zhan (2011)

For some reason, the summer season is associated with big crowd-pleasing blockbusters. When the sun is beating down and there are so many distractions outdoors, the studios release the films they believe will pull the crowds. In many cases, their choices are really bad. It can just be that the particular script-writing committee and associated focus groups were particularly poorly co-ordinated so the plot emerges in a chaotic state. More often, it’s obvious the cast were only interested in taking the money and finishing as quickly as possible. Whatever the reason, the summer is often the graveyard of the studios’ hopes and expectations.

Nicholas Tse and Nick Cheung finding humour in the moment

 

This year from Hollywood has been no exception. There have been some real stinkers. Looking in the other directions, there have been some good films from Europe and one or two excellent offerings from Hong Kong and China. Well, the mould has now been broken with the arrival of Treasure Inn or Cai Shen Ke Zhan from the remarkably prolific Jing Wong. This just goes to show that, whatever Hollywood can do, Hong Kong can beat if it puts its mind to it.

Huang Yi and Charlene Choi relegated to eye candy roles

 

Welcome to the wacky world of wuxia comedy. When this fires on all cylinders not only is the fighting superb, but the laughs flow as well. Treasure Inn is a classic example of how not to do it. I suppose the starting points for this pastiche were Dragon Inn or Long men kezhan (1967) and Dragon Inn or Sun lung moon hak chan (1992) which are wonderful straight fighting films set in a remote desert inn. So, as a modern director, you pick your targets carefully. This will have the Inn act as a haunt for criminals who auction off stolen goods to the highest bidders, making it a lure to all the best thieves who want the top return on their skills. In this instance, it’s all about a jade life-sized Goddess of Mercy. A gang of raiders hire a criminal mastermind to steal it for them and pass it on at the Inn. Standing in their way is an elite group of police agents led by Captain Iron (Kenny Ho). Also involved are Nicholas Tse and Nick Cheung playing bottom-feeder officers, left to do household chores by their corrupt local officers. When they insert themselves into the investigation, they are accused of being the thieves and then make a break from jail thanks to the efforts of Fire Dragon Girl (Yi Huang) and Water Dragon Girl (Charlene Choi). Needless to say, this pairs off our “heroes” — you can tell this is love at first sight because of the red hearts that burst across the screen when their eyes meet. Yes, some of the humour is that primitive. The other element of romance is between Tong Da Wei as a doctor in love with Ling Long (Liu Yang), the lady who runs the Inn.

Liu Yang floats around showing she's in charge of the Inn

 

Perhaps it’s an age thing but, when I watch a film, I want it to make sense. I can understand why the corrupt local police would want to drive the innocent do-gooders away, but why they would stay in the face of this relentless abuse is unclear. What makes this a problem is that, when the murders and theft of the statue occur, they are fast to insert themselves into the investigation and obviously ambitious to be recruited into Captain Iron’s troop. Later, when accused of being the robbers, we have slapstick torture and then the rescue by the cross-dressing ladies. There’s no attempt at explanation of why one of the ladies should be locked up with our heroes, nor why the three should be sentenced to death without any kind of trial. I suppose we have to have the ladies readily agree to go to the Inn because that’s the way love works in these films. I could go on but you should understand that, except in the broadest of terms, there’s very little logic or consistency of characterisation at work in this film.

Tong Da Wei looking dangerous in a different film

 

I might have forgiven all this and accepted the one or two laugh-out-loud moments as compensation if the fighting had been any good. Sadly, we are into poor cutting to hide the lack of good fighting sequences. You can always tell you’re in trouble when the use of sound as a weapon is so heavily featured with red blades of doom being cast off the guitar strings while a lion’s roar comes back. Even the CGI storm that rages around and eventually destroys the Inn is embarrassingly bad.

 

It’s rare I emerge from the cinema unable to find a single redeeming feature. While accepting that humour often does not cross cultural boundaries, it’s possible this film is aimed at mainland Chinese markets and they will all fall about laughing from start to finish. Certainly, much of the humour is lower common denominator and basic — as in the usual argument about who such suck out the snake venom from one of our hero’s buttocks — so if cultural stereotypes are true, this will make a lot of money. Worse, there’s little passion in any of the three romances to distract us, and the fighting fails to deliver anything entertaining.

 

So even when Treasure Inn is scheduled on terrestrial television, think twice before spending time to watch it.

 

Other films by Nicholas Tse:
The Beast Stalker or Ching Yan (2008)
The Bullet Vanishes or Xiao shi de zi dan (2012)
Storm Warriors or Fung wan II (2009)

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