There is little in the short story “The Magic Sword,” part of the compiled writing of Chinese author Pu Songling known as Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, that sets it apart from any other story in the collection. Written over the course of many years in the latter portion of the 1600s, Pu’s stories explore the world of ghosts, demons, monsters, spirits, and otherworldly folklore, usually with an eye toward tsk-tsking its audience over immoral, non-Confucian indiscretions. “The Magic Sword” takes up just a few pages and relays the tale of a young scholar named Ning who, upon finding himself unable to obtain lodging for the night, takes up residence in an abandoned temple. In the temple, he encounters another traveler, a man named Yin, and later that night witnesses a meeting between a couple mysterious people before being visited by a beautiful young woman named Hsiao-ch’ien who attempts to seduce him. Because Ning is righteous and has a sick wife at home, he banishes her from his makeshift chamber. He learns during a subsequent visit that she is a ghost cursed to prey upon men for her boss demon, and that Yen is a magical swordsman who fights devils. Impressed by the purity of his heart, the ghost implores Ning to help free her from her ghoulish master. From this rather humble story has grown practically an entire film genre, the leading light of which is Ching Siu-tung’s 1987 masterpiece of the Hong Kong New Wave, Chinese Ghost Story.
Green Snake is set in a world between myth and reality. Zhao Wen-zhou stars as a young monk who spends his days hunting down demons and spirits who have crossed over from their own realm into the realm of mortals. Some of them come with malicious intent, but many of them seem only to want to run wild and free in the physical world for a brief time. The monk operates under the notion that the two worlds simply cannot cross paths, harmless intentions or not. The opening scene of the monk chasing an old wiseman who is actually a spider demon through a field as they both run through mid-air sets a beautiful but disturbing tone for the film. It’s incredibly lush and over-saturated with dreamlike color. The hallucinatory beauty seems eerie, however, not at all peaceful, sort of like those old fairy tales where things are actually creepy and sinister.
Tsui Hark’s one modest ambition in life was to forever change the way movies were made in Hong Kong. Just that. A small order, right? The amazing thing is that he managed to pull it off. His work in the early 1980s served as one of the foundations of what would become known as the Hong Kong New Wave — that heady period of filmmaking from the 1980s through to the middle of the 1990s when new filmmakers and new styles of filmmaking were running rampant and turning Hong Kong into the most interesting movie making mecca in the world. It’s no accident that Hark found himself in the middle of this cinematic upheaval, just as it’s no accident that what happened in Hong Kong then so closely mirrored what had happened with American filmmaking in the 1970s. The old guard was puttering along, making movies that were out of touch with what young filmgoers wanted. The hungry new generation was waiting to bust out from under the thumb of their mentors and flood the market with bold new approaches and ideas. And finally it got to the point that the next generation could not be contained. They took control, and nothing was the same again.
I really should write a full review of Tsui Hark’s landmark Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, but until that happens, I wanted to pop in with a few random thoughts and reminiscences inspired by watching it this past weekend at the New York Asian Film Festival. The festival this year was honoring director-producer Tsui Hark, so the line-up was pretty heavy on Hark films — all of which I’d seen before, and all of which I would gladly have watched again. Well, that’s not saying much, because I own them all and do tend to watch them not just again, but again and again. But the thrill of seeing one of Hark’s films on an actual movie screen –his films often being big on eye-popping visual spectacle — is usually too good to pass up no matter what I have sitting at home on DVD.