Wonders of Wuxia
It may be flawed but the wuxia genre still packs a punch.
FOR the past two months, I lived the life of an addict. I would be awake until the wee hours of the morning, my eyes red from feeding my habit. My mind would often plot to get my next “fix”, and I’ve spent an unseemly amount of money on my addiction.
My “crack” of choice: wuxia TV series.
If you’ve seen the movies Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) or House Of Flying Daggers (2004), you’ll have an idea about the genre. These dramas, usually set in ancient China, revolve around martial arts heroes (called xia) who live by a chivalrous code of conduct. Because these heroes have cultivated great “internal strength”, they are capable of impossible feats such as jumping or flying great distances, freezing people with a touch, and surviving falls off cliffs (an amusingly common occurrence in wuxia dramas).
I was a young girl when I first got hooked. Back then, I lived in Johor Baru and we received TV transmissions from Singapore which aired lots of wuxia dramas in Mandarin. I would often sneak downstairs, breaking my family’s “no television after 9pm” rule, to watch sword-wielding heroes flying around tree tops.
I was fascinated by the intricate stories, the strong, feisty heroines, the heroes’ strict adherence to honour, loyalty and filial piety. Plus, the men looked really dashing in flowing robes and long hair!
Then, when I was 13, my family moved to Kuala Lumpur. Not many wuxia series were aired or sold in Malaysia then, and those available were in Cantonese (without English subtitles), a dialect that till this day sounds as alien to me as Russian. So, over the years I lost touch with the genre, enjoying it only in spurts when a rare wuxia movie graced our cinemas.
But a few months ago, I stumbled on a few wuxia TV series in Mandarin, and the floodgates reopened with a vengeance.
I devoured as many titles as I could find, often watching them without English subtitles with my half-baked Mandarin. (I am now ever so grateful that my parents made me take Mandarin classes in primary school, even if I was a terribly inattentive student.)
Watching wuxia dramas when your grasp of the language is shaky is almost foolhardy as the Mandarin spoken is formal – akin to Shakespearean English, if you may. For example, there are many ways you can say “I”, and how you address yourself will give clues to your status, job and even mood – fascinating! But it certainly gave me a headache as I often had to watch the telly with my Chinese-English dictionary next to me.
After a decades-long abstinence, I was amazed by how much wuxia TV series have improved in quality, and how China is now making the best wuxia dramas. (In the 1980s and 1990s, Hong Kong ruled the genre.)
While Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou sparked global interest in wuxia with their films Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero (2002) respectively, my theory is that wuxia TV series got a boost when China director Zhang Jichong started adapting wuxia writer Louis Cha’s works. He began with The Smiling, Proud Wanderer (sometimes called State Of Divinity or The Swordsman) in 2001 and then The Legend Of The Condor Heroes (2003), Demi-Gods And Semi-Devils (2003), Return Of The Condor Heroes (2006) and Heavenly Sword And Dragon Sabre (2009).
Although not all viewers were happy with his interpretation of Cha’s writings, he certainly set the standard for all wuxia dramas with his big-budgeted, high-quality productions. The costumes were detailed and faithful to the era, the martial arts choreography is down-to-earth and realistic (to a point, this is wuxia after all) and he made full use of China’s treasures – its mountains, forests, lakes, and ancient buildings and monuments. And when these weren’t sufficient, he would build large “film cities”, such as the 110mil yuan (about RM50mil) city with Song, Western Xia or Liao buildings in Dali, Yunnan, for the filming of Demi-Gods And Semi-Devils (source: bit.ly/iZoece). The film city is now a tourist attraction.
Zhang Jichong’s remake of Return Of The Condor Heroes has lavish scenery and sets, and launched China heartthrob Huang Xiaoming’s career. Huang plays the hero Yang Guo opposite Crystal Liu Yi Fei as his teacher and lover Xiao Long Nu.
After being spoiled by such devotion to authenticity, it’s a challenge to watch older Hong Kong wuxia series, where studio sets were heavily used and costume designers had a strange fondness for shiny fabrics and pastel-coloured outfits. (TVB’s latest wuxia offering, Relic Of An Emissary – currently showing on Astro on Demand (Channel 901), Monday to Friday, 8.30pm – has an interesting story, but its poor production quality is simply distracting.)
When done well, wuxia dramas are incredibly engrossing, addictive and beautiful to look at. When done badly, it can look painfully corny and may turn people off. Rare is a wuxia drama where “wire fu” isn’t overly used. Bad CGI reigns (2009’s Chinese Paladin III – ouch), and don’t get me started on some of the costumes (I have bad memories of 2006’s Da Ren Wu’s (Hero) spandex outfits).
Producers also seemed afraid of trying anything new. Because it is far more expensive to produce wuxia series, it is perhaps unsurprising that a popular story is remade over and over again.
Many wuxia series are based on the works of modern wuxia’s three greatest authors: Hong Kong’s Louis Cha (or Jin Yong), Taiwan’s Gu Long and China’s Liang Yusheng; Cha’s works have probably seen the most adaptations. There are 1976, 1983, 1988, 1994, 2003 and 2008 versions of Cha’s The Legend Of The Condor Heroes alone.
However, recently China producers have taken to producing wuxia with time-travel elements or that are based on video games, so things may be changing.
While the genre may be flawed, wuxia truly has a lot to offer viewers – it is a fantasy genre unique to Chinese culture, and it gives viewers special insights into Chinese values and mores. It’s too bad that wuxia series are so difficult to obtain, especially in the West. And if they are available, only a select few incorporate English subtitles.
Malaysians are lucky as we have access to them via TV channels or video stores. But still, a large number of these do not have English or Bahasa Malaysia subtitles. One wonders if it’s because there’s an assumption that the genre is so niche that only Chinese-speaking people will appreciate it. That can’t be further from the truth. One can see fans from around the world discussing wuxia TV series on Internet forums. So the potential for it being enjoyed by a global market is not to be underestimated.
I suppose until there’s a “wuxia wave” akin to that of South Korea’s Hallyu (Korean wave), its wonders will be limited to the Chinese-speaking world. What a pity!
Elizabeth Tai recommends ‘The Smiling, Proud Wanderer’ (also ‘Laughing In The Wind’) 2001, ‘Meteor, Butterfly, Sword’ 2010, ‘Relic Of An Emissary’ 2011 (if you can get past the tacky studio sets) and ‘All Men Are Brothers’ 2011, which is available in the stores with English subtitles.