Monday, March 02, 2009
The Tiger Killer v. The Golden Lotus, Part 3: Li Han-Hsiang

The story of Wu Song the "Tiger Killer"; and Pan Jinlian the "Golden Lotus" (because of her tiny feet), has been told and retold, again and again. Especially by director Li Han-Hsiang, who has obsessively directed no less than four films about the subject.

Also see: Part One | Part Two

Li Han-Hsiang is, along with Chang Cheh, one of the most important and defining directors at Shaw Brothers studio. It was Li who convinced the Shaws to try costumed drama, and Huangmei opera, to great success. If he hadn't, the studio might not have become as famous as it is today. Run Run Shaw eventually also put him in charge of props and costumes, a logical choice to anyone having seen his films. He is, if nothing else, a master of art direction. When his films fail to completely engage the viewer, or the story somehow fails to reach expectations, which is quite often the case with Li's films, the gorgeous design is at least never in question. He left Shaws in 1963 for Taiwan, but his career foundered there and so he returned in the early seventies. But by then, the trends that he began for Shaws in the 60s were over. No one wanted to see Huangmei Opera anymore. So instead, he was tasked with making soft-core erotica. Sometimes historical, sometimes not, sometimes made as short story anthologies. In each case he brought the same care to dressing the studio sets as he did to undressing the stars, if not more so. In fact it must be said that for erotica, his films are not very erotic. Sometimes the films are like watching people making out on Antiques Roadshow or something. One of his better erotica films is his 1974 adaptation of the CHIN PING MEI, titled THE GOLDEN LOTUS [1].

THE GOLDEN LOTUS opens immediately with Pan Jinlian (played by Shaw Brothers starlet Hu Chin at the peak of her career, this being one of over a dozen films she appeared in this year) dropping the rod on the head of Ximen Qing (Yeung Kwan), signaling that the focus of this tale will be on these two characters, rather than the Wu brothers. Surprisingly, a baby-faced young Jackie Chan plays the pear vendor here, giving the film some additional interest for Hong Kong cinema buffs -- certainly it is nothing like any of Chan's subsequent work. The first half of the movie covers the affair of Pan Jinlian and Ximen Qing, and the poisoning of poor elder Wu (played here as kind hearted simpleton by Chiang Nan). The second half continues with the story of the Ximen household, as he marries Jinlian and subsequently seduces Chingmei (a maid of the household, played by Chan Ping), and his neighbor's wife Li Ping-er (Tien Ni). These are the three titular heroines of the CHIN PING MEI: Pan JIN(CHIN)lien, Li PING-er, and ChingMEI. Surprisingly, Li Han-Hsiang puts the story together in such a way that Wu Song is completely excised from the picture.

Hu Chin with Yeung Kwan on top, from The Golden Lotus

With no Wu Song, Pan Jinlian is the heroine of the film, if anyone is, as Ximen Qing is simply repulsive and Madame Wang, the matchmaker next door, becomes the outright villain who schemes Ximen Qing into Pan Jinlian, blackmails her to remain there, then orchestrates elder Wu's horrible murder.

The movie does well consolidating many of the early episodes of the sprawling book into an easily digestible hour and a half. For the first time, we see Chapter 27 of CHIN PING MEI brought to the screen, the "Drunken Orgy under the Grape Arbor". Apologies to sensitive readers who have made it this far: I'm omitting a lot of the detail, but kinky is a mild way to describe what comes next:

He then took off [Pan Jinlian]'s embroidered shoes, unwound her foot bindings, and amused himself by using them to suspend her two feet from the grape arbor overhead, so that she looked just like "A Golden Dragon Extending its Claws". [2]

They then proceed with the position "Inserting the Arrow Upside Down." That's when the maid, Chun Mei, arrives, and he begins chasing her around, laughing, and drinking wine, until he remembers Pan Jinlian is still tied up in a very compromising position and decides to play "Shooting the Silver Goose with the Golden Pellet":

Thereupon, he reached into the bowl of ice water for a jade-yellow plum and pitched it at the orifice of the woman's vagina.

When he gets tired of that, he takes a nap for a couple hours, then wakes up, fishes a plum out of her, feeds it to her, then finally applies his special aphrodisiac and finishes up.

Li Han-Hsiang gets some major credit as a director for filming this scene in such a way that it would probably pass for PG-13, today. Though, it isn't particularly erotic nor pleasant: it wasn't until reading the book that I realized that Pan Jinlian was supposed to be enjoying the experience.

Are we having fun yet? "Orgy in the Grape Arbor" from The Golden Lotus

THE GOLDEN LOTUS marked the first time that the famous director would attempt to bring the story to the screen. It would not be the last. The making and remaking of this story would become a lifelong obsession. In 1982, when Li Han-Hsiang decided to take another stab at the story, he approached it from the SHUI-HU ZHUAN side and made THE TIGER KILLER (1982) [3].

THE TIGER KILLER does something very novel during the opening credits: it steps back to an earlier time to show us the Wu brothers relationship before the events of the classic tale. Here we find that their parents died, and elder brother is raising Wu Song on his own while selling wheat cakes on the street. When he sells some cakes to a breastfeeding woman, he asks her to breastfeed baby Wu Song, whom he has tucked away under his table, in exchange for payment. The elder Wu is heartbreakingly kind, and takes every abuse rather than cause trouble. We see how wise this is when as a young boy Wu Song gets angry and starts fighting with the kids who are surrounding his brother and calling him names like "Three-inch Mulberry-bark Manikin". They end up smashing up the alley and the wheat cake vendor must take responsibility for the damage. In desperation, he finally gets a temple to take in the young boy.

Wu Song, all grown up, as played by Ti Lung in The Tiger Killer

When the younger brother returns a man, as Wu Song, the Tiger Killer, the strong, handsome hero, you can see he adores his elder brother, who was after all his father and mother, too. Elder Wu loves him right back, and when happy slaps his legs with his hands, smiles all the time, and even hops up and down. Basically, he is completely adorable. The elder Wu is played by veteran Shaw Brothers actor Ku Feng, in the role of a lifetime, with twisted teeth, an angry mole on his forehead, and always walking hunched over and crouched down. Its obviously artificial, but Ku Feng sells his appearance so convincingly that it doesn't matter a bit. Ti Lung plays Wu Song, and again the casting, and the performance, is pitch perfect. This time around Li Han-Hsiang teased actual motivation out of the classic story, and created convincing, compelling characters out of theatrical archetypes. Even Pan Jinlian (Wang Ping) is somewhat sympathetic; the abuse she suffered before her marriage, and the fact that the marriage itself was arranged as a punishment, is certainly responsible for some of her behavior. Unfortunately for her Ku Feng is so likable that the first time she even just looks at him with disapproval you pretty much hate her guts anyway.

Ti Lung and Ku Feng as brothers in The Tiger Killer

In THE TIGER KILLER, for the first time in adaptations of this tale, the events depicted connect in thoughtful and satisfying ways, enriching the original text. So when Wu Song is promoted to assistant constable in the village, his first task is to punish a chicken thief, who instead he gives money to so that he can start selling pears. So, when the pear vendor sees what is going on, he feels a responsibility to tell the elder Wu because of the kindness shown him by the younger. And again, later, when Wu Song is sent to the capitol, it turns out that it is Ximen Qing who recommends him to be sent there, to clear the way for his wooing of Pan Jinlian. In this way bridges are created between all the traditional story elements. In many of the other adaptations, these bridges are created crudely, through the use of voice-over narration, if at all.

Of the four attempts Li Han-Hsiang made at bringing the story to the screen, this is by far the best. Best acting, best script, best directing. Even the director's usual claustrophobic, intricate, village street sets are offset for once by expansive outdoor scenes that are not stagebound. There is even -- for the first time -- a real tiger! Well, not in close-ups. But still!

This wasn't the first time Ti Lung as Wu Song fought Ximen Qing at Lion Restaurant -- that same scene -- which ends this picture, actually plays as the opener of 1972's DELIGHTFUL FOREST. It is the perfect film to watch immediately after THE TIGER KILLER, even though it was made ten years earlier (Ti Lung looks pretty much the same).

The law of diminishing returns is now firmly in place but we must forge boldly ahead anyway. In 1991 Li Han-Hsiang returned to the source material a third time with GOLDEN LOTUS: LOVE AND DESIRE [4], but he focuses the now firmly soft-core porn action on Ximen Qing's wooing and conquest of Li Ping-Er, and on catching Pan Jinlian having sex with one of his servants, and her subsequent punishment: all events which take place in the CHIN PING MEI later than the Wu Song story that is the primary concern of this article.

The movie begins in an interesting way, first by showing books and woodcut prints of the CHIN PING MEI, then showing old Li Han-Hsiang himself directing the opening scene of the film. One of the actors in period costume talks briefly on his mobile phone as he waits for the scene to begin. But the concept of drawing back to show the artifice of the picture disappears after this opening scene, and what remains is depressingly banal. The tragedy of Li Han-Hsiang's creative output is complete: from lavish Huangmei Opera films and sweeping historical dramas, to naughty but mild sex comedies that still at least show the hand of a master of art direction if nothing else, to at last, cheap "Skinemax" filler with little redeeming quality. There's no delicate way to say it: the film is ninety minutes of tits and whips.

Pan Jinlian, fit to be tied in Golden Lotus: Love and Desire

But you can't say that Li Han-Hsiang is a quitter. Because not three years later he was back at it again in his fourth attempt, this one called THE AMOROUS LOTUS PAN [5], not to be confused with the 1963 Huangmei Opera version of the same name. Once again, the focus is on the Wu Song/Pan Jinlian story, and once again, Li Han-Hsiang develops a new angle, by taking a fresh look at the attempted seduction of Wu Song by Pan Jinlian and asking, "What if it had pretty much succeeded?" This time around, Wu Song gets drunk, Pan Jinlian slips him a roofie, and then humps the hell out of him while he lays there unconscious. He wakes up just enough to enjoy the end, in a sort of half awake/half sleeping dream, and then he wakes up and realizes what he's done...

Another way this version takes a unique approach is to begin at the end of CHIN PIN MEI, when Wu Song is released from prison, and he hears what has happened in flashback -- that Pan Jinlian became a wife of Ximen Qing, that Ximen Qing died of aphrodisiac overdose, that Pan Jinlian was sold back to Ms. Wang to sell to the highest bidder while she continued her escapades with just about anyone who happens by. Wu Song makes the arrangements to get her out, and pays Ms. Wang and Pan Jinlian back in full, but even then, the act of stabbing Pan Jinlian is just another form of penetration, suggesting Wu Song's weak character and submission to her desires. Huang Mei-tsing delivers a powerful performance as Pan Jinlian: very sexy, very willful, addicted to sex, yet despite her corruption, somehow nearly as sympathetic as some of the more innocent Pan's of films past.

Pan Jinlian, assuming the position once again in The Amorous Lotus Pan

So there are redeeming qualities to this, the last of Li Han-Hsiang's adaptations, one of the last movies he made before he died of a heart attack while shooting a TV series a couple years later. But something needs to be said about the sex scenes in this one. I thought the "tits and whips" aesthetic of the last was as kinky as you could go, but this time Li pulled out all the stops. Much of the sex is non-consensual, and in fact, the male participant not even conscious (at least twice). We are encouraged to watch when she allows the elder Wu to (unsuccessfully) pleasure her on their wedding night while she is reading a book. At one point, a glory hole is employed (if you're not familiar with the term, please don't google it while at work), and even a comparatively normal lovemaking scene has to include Ms. Wang, greedily watching every move with an abacus in hand, hoping to charge per type of sexual act.

And finally, we get to Pan Jinlian's most attractive feature to the men of the era of CHIN PIN MEI: her feet. Her "Golden Lotus", her tiny feet. Why are they so tiny? Foot binding, of course. The art of mangling and disfiguring a woman's foot from birth so that she looks attractive to men. The ultimate foot fetish culture, Qing dynasty pornographic books listed 48 different ways of playing with women's bound feet [6]. As disturbing as foot binding was, perhaps equally disturbing is Li Han-Hsiang's eroticisation of the practice. In all four of his films described in this essay, there is at least one scene in which the camera lingers on Pan Jinlian's tiny bound feet while onlookers drool with pleasure. It's part of the books and worthwhile to include in the movies, I understand that -- but it's the weird way the camera lingers on the bound feet that unsettles me, as if I as an audience member was also expected to delight at the sight. Each film tries to outdo the other in this, and at last, the extreme is reached in THE AMOROUS LOTUS PAN when Pan Jinlian uses her bound feet to play with the nipples on her masculine lover's chest.

So sexy?

The progression of Li Han-Hsiang's adaptations of CHIN PIN MEI uncovers a serious structural problem with the work in terms of future adaptations: when it comes right down to it, it's porn. Earlier adaptations needed to tell the story creatively, to avoid either the graphic bloodshed of the WATER MARGINS version or the raw pornography of the CHIN PIN MEI. But as the years have progressed, barriers of what can be shown on screen have come down, so that now, everything is on the table. And the more nudity, the more sex, the more difficult it is to pay attention to any kind of meaningful storyline. This is why Shakespeare is rarely performed in the nude. You'll get full houses for it, sure, but will anyone remember any of the lines?

But if you don't take the route to more nudity, more sex, what else is there? Art?

Yes. Art and Sex, part four of this essay, coming next Monday.

[1] THE GOLDEN LOTUS is available on DVD and VCD from yesasia.com. [Back]

[2] Quoted from The Plum in the Golden Vase Volume 2: The Rivals. [Back]

[3] THE TIGER KILLER is available on DVD and VCD from yesasia.com. [Back]

[4] GOLDEN LOTUS: LOVE AND DESIRE is available on DVD and VCD from yesasia.com. [Back]

[5] THE AMOROUS LOTUS PAN is available on DVD and VCD from yesasia.com. [Back]

[6] There are plenty of resources on foot binding, NPR did a good radio summary of the issue and interview with one of the last surviving foot binders here. [Back]

Published March 02, 2009 in Essays and Commentary | Comments (0)
Monday, February 23, 2009
The Tiger Killer v. The Golden Lotus, Part 2: The Early Movies

The tale of Wu Song the "Tiger Killer"; and Pan Jinlian the "Golden Lotus": a story of love, violence, murder, lots of sex, and an angry dwarf. It is little wonder that the story has attracted the attention of filmmakers from generation to generation. Here, then, are the earliest cinematic adaptations of the famous story.

To read the first part of this essay, click here.

The Movies

Before the story was a movie, it was an opera, and many of the early cinematic versions of the tale are adapted directly from the Chinese Opera stage. The operatic version of the tale stays strictly on Wu Song's side and is adapted from THE WATER MARGINS. Perhaps the earliest filmed version was released by Qinghua Film Company in 1948, titled WU SONG'S ADVENTURE AT THE LION PAVILION [1]. The "Lion Pavilion" is the pub near Lion bridge where Wu Song finds and dispatches Ximen Qing. There is no surviving print of this version, nor of the one released just a year later by the same Film Company, WU SONG'S BLOODY FIGHT AT DOUBLE PAVILION. According to the newspaper advertisements for this later version [2], the entire episode is actually a trap planned by the enemy "Commander Cheung" to trap Wu Song, which pretty much seems to invalidate all of the moral lessons of the story, but nevermind.

In 1955 we see the other side of the story for the first time in CHIN PING MEI, a Shaw Brothers production directed by Wang Yin and starring Yamaguchi Yoshiko, aka "Li Xianglan", a Manchurian-born Japanese actress who "collaborated" with the Japanese as an actress for several wartime propaganda pictures. After the war she was considered by many to be a traitor and lumped with others such as the puppet Manchurian princess Kawashima Yoshiko. However, she was a great singer and her songs were very popular. [3] CHIN PING MEI was her first film in Hong Kong.

CHIN PING MEI begins with Pan Jinlian (Li Xianglan) story, and how she was married off to Elder Wu (Wu Jiaxiang), but despite the title, does not tell the CHIN PING MEI version of the tale, but rather stays with THE WATER MARGINS version to the bloody end, nor does go beyond the confines of the Wu Song storyline to tell anything else of Ximen Qing (who is killed by Wu Song at the end, in another clear signal that CHIN PING MEI is not the source material). Unfortunately, it is unknown at this time whether this film, or the other two abovementioned films, survive in any format.

The first film version that still survives dates from 1956, titled WU SONG'S BLOODY FIGHT ON LION'S TOWER [4]. It starred the legendary martial arts actor Kwan Tak-Hing, who went on to great fame as Wong Fei-Hung in a series of almost 100 films about the folk hero. Kwan Tak-Hing's first bout with fame was as Wu Song, in stage performances of this tale. He was so popular in the role he was declared "Wu Song's reincarnation." [5], so a film version was inevitable.

Kwan Tak-Hing and Fung Wong Nui in Wu Song's Bloody Fight on Lion's Tower

The 1956 version opens with Elder Wu (Tang Kei-chen) and Pan Jinlian (Fung Wong Nui) at home, him tripping over his own feet, her looking disgusted and bored. It is one of several such scenes which provide the audience with a sympathetic portrayal of Elder Wu and gives us an idea of what his home life is like. Later, Pan Jinlian is reading a book while he busily sweeps the stairs, nothing more than her servant.

Wu Song (Kwan Tak-hing) arrives in town a hero, having slain the tiger, and quickly runs into his elder brother and moves in with him. The movie takes its time showing Pan Jinlian's multiple attempts to woo the hero, none of which have even the slightest effect. Indeed, Kwan Tak-hing plays Wu Song as such a stiff, and gives such obvious cues that he is not interested, becoming still as a statue and staring straight ahead whenever she starts to act playful, it becomes hard to believe she would bother. But she does, and then later is wooed herself by the playboy Ximen Qing (Chan Kam-tong), leading to the deadly finale.

This is not a Cantonese Opera on film, it is a dramatic version of the story with some songs, not more than four. Each song is subtitled so the audience can sing along. The songs are quite short and take up very little of the running time. While most of the cast have modified their performances to fit the confines of a cinematic drama, Kwan Tak-hing swaggers and shouts as if trying to make sure the back-benchers can hear him. In fact, the difference between his performance and everyone elses is so strong as to sometimes be comical. He has only one volume level, and that is VERY LOUD.

The highlight of this adaptation is the last ten minutes or so of the film, when the ghost of Elder Wu visits Wu Song, he learns of his brother's murder, he forces confessions, and at last, kills Ximen Qing at Lion's Bridge. This segment follows the events as described in THE WATER MARGINS, including the coroner's kept evidence of the bribe and the blackened bone. However, upon Pan Jinlian's confession, she takes a knife and kills herself, rather than the more gruesome end the book describes for her. This is the only way it could work given Kwan Tak-hing's portrayal of Wu Song, so upright and heroic that it would simply never do for him to kill a woman, no matter what she has done.

The next version of the story comes three years later in 1959, in WU SONG FIGHTS THE TIGER [6]. Perhaps I'm not the only one who noted the incongruity between Kwan Tak-hing's performance and everyone elses, because in this adaptation, practically the entire cast of the 1956 version returns, without Kwan Tak-hing in the title role. Instead, Wu Song is performed by Sun Ma Si-tsang. Ironically, now that the one who still behaved like he was on stage is out of the picture, this version is a strictly stage-bound Cantonese Opera adaptation, complete with all of the exaggerated moves, accompanying music, and singing that goes with it. The sets are like stage sets, and used in the same manner: the set of Elder Wu's house, for example, includes the doors leading to the outside. Scenes taking place outside of the house occur there, then once the doors are opened and the home entered, the actors move quickly around to the side and front of the same doors and play the indoor scenes in the same location. The director indulges in a few special effects, such as a backwards jump to make it appear that Wu Song has jumped a great height, and makes cuts to allow for close ups and stunt doubles, yet otherwise the film is in every way a live production preserved on film. To highlight the theatricality, the movie opens with a shot of Wu Song framed by the procenium arch of a theater. The camera moves in, the arch disappears from the edges of the frame, and the movie begins.

Sun Ma Si-tsang and the tiger in Wu Song Fights the Tiger

Sitting down to this version of the story, I fully expected to like it less than the 1956 version, but to the contrary, I found it far superior as entertainment, due partially to the innovative use of flashback to tell the second half of the story. Rather than spend a lengthy amount of time on the wooing of Pan Jinlian (Fung Wong Nui) by Ximen Qing (Chan Kam-tong), and Elder Wu's eventual murder and cover-up, we see only the first meeting of the two lovers, and Mrs. Wang's clever idea. Then suddenly -- wham -- Wu Song is returning from his trip and his brother is dead. Wu Song begins interrogating various people, starting with the apple cart vendor, who tell what they know, and we go back in time to watch the events unfold in parts, as Wu Song moves from the vendor, to the coroner, then to Mrs. Wang, and finally to Pan Jinlian who doesn't get a graceful suicide this time out, but is instead dispatched with extreme prejudice by the vengeful Wu.

The fight at Lion's Tower is highly stylized but benefits from this stylization -- instead of watching poor martial arts, we are treated to marvelous Cantonese Opera stage fighting, with flips and rolls so slowly and methodically performed that I'm glad I didn't watch this when I was younger, otherwise I would be practicing the moves endlessly in imitation.

Another advantage the 1959 version has is that it extends the boundaries of the story -- beginning with Wu Song fighting the tiger, and ending with his trial before the magistrate and banishment. The highlight of the film is as the title suggests: Wu Song Fights the Tiger. Wu Song staggers about in a drunk while the tiger flips and pounces and rolls. The tiger costume is very artificial but quite good. Ultimately, the broad theatrically of this version of the tale is its greatest asset.

In 1963, Shaw Brothers decided it was time for them to make another version, and released THE AMOROUS LOTUS PAN [7], in glorious color. In Mandarin, rather than Cantonese, The Amorous Lotus Pan still retains its operatic style, substituting Cantonese Opera of the previous versions with the new and wildly popular Huangmei Opera style. From the wood block and cymbal crashing of Cantonese Opera to the lilting sounds of Huangmei Opera, from black and white to color, and perhaps most dramatically, from the focus on Wu Song in the title to the focus on Pan Jinlian, this version sweeps out all the cobwebs and creates something entirely fresh and exciting.

Huangmei Opera emerged as a popular cinematic style in 1959 with Li Han-Hsiang's The Kingdom and the Beauty. As with all styles Shaw Brothers helped popularize, they quickly saturated the market with like films. The years 1962-1964 were the peak years of the Huangmei Opera genre, with THE LOVE ETERNE from 1963 its most popular representative.

In this version of the tale, Elder Wu (Huang King), Wu Song (Paul Chang Chung), and Pan Jinlian (Diana Chang Chung-wen) are all deeply sympathetic characters. Let's face it -- Pan Jinlian got married to a hunchbacked dwarf whom she hates, and that's no fun at all. The traditional tale, however, describes her as an insatiable harlot. Not so, here. Instead, she simply falls in love with Wu Song at first sight. She woos him, and is rejected, and plunges into a pit of despair. In anger at Wu Song's highhanded refusal to recognize her plight, she decides she will fool around with Ximen Qing (Pai Yun) a bit, who has been scheming with Lady Wang (Hung Wie) to get in her bed. At that moment, she is trapped by the two schemers, and forced to continue the liason. So now, Pan Jinlian is trapped in two loveless relationships. When Elder Wu finds out and is injured by Ximen Qing, she is more remourseful than ever. Ximen Qing and Mrs. Wang, however, want him dead so that he won't tell Wu Song about the affair. She refuses, but they trick her into feeding her husband poison when she asks them naively for medicine. Her hands now red with blood, she must continue to do as they say in fear for her own future. In the end, when Wu Song confronts her, she asks the assembled neighbors to forgive her, as it was all because she fell in love with the younger Wu. She dies in the end, but the revenge is hollow and unsatisfying, a tragedy. "If you will not love me," she says, "at least let me die by your hand."

Diana Chang in The Amorous Lotus Pan

Surprisingly, this film, which still follows the contours of the story as it unfolds in THE WATER MARGINS but adds sympathetic depth to Pan Jinlian as (and really, beyond how) she is portrayed in the CHIN PING MEI, is scripted by Chang Cheh, the godfather of the masculine martial arts film. Before that, however, he was a film critic and a lyricist, and both skills are displayed here in the strength of the songs and the recognition of and improvement over previous versions of the tale. In sharp contrast to expectations the name "Chang Cheh" evokes -- especially regarding the marginalization of female characters -- Pan Jinlian in THE AMOROUS LOTUS PAN is the most sympathetic version of the character, ever. Her most heinous crime -- poisoning her husband -- is done without her complicity, here. But, there are other, more stereotypical Chang Cheh elements in the film as well. Ximen Qing is made over to be something of a martial artist, he hangs out with his men watching them train with swords and staves. The ending of the film, in which Wu Song crosses Lion's Bridge to confront Ximen Qing, would not be out of place in the new "Action Era" films he would direct himself in a few short years. Wu Song hacks and slashes his way down the street, at one point embedding a butcher knife into an assailants face in a particularly gruesome manner. And at last, a beheading does take place, this element of the original tale being included here for the first time. Of all the versions of this tale made before or since, THE AMOROUS LOTUS PAN remains one of my favorites.

Shaw Brothers continually repackaged the old stories to fit the latest trends. After Huangmei Opera faded, Chang Cheh inaugurated a new "Action Era", featuring strong male leads, bonding in battle and dying for honor. THE SHUI-HU ZHUAN was a natural for adaptations for stories of this type, and during this period Chang Cheh directed THE WATER MARGINS (1972), ALL MEN ARE BROTHERS (1972), and DELIGHTFUL FOREST (1972), all of which draw on tales from the classic novel of warrior brotherhood. Although Wu Song appears in most of these films, they cover different, later, episodes in his career. Of the four, only DELIGHTFUL FOREST is relevant to this article, and only just, as it begins with Wu Song (Ti Lung) murdering Ximen Qing at Lion's Bridge Restaurant, then proceeds to tell the tale of what happens after his branding and banishment.

If the defining trend of the early sixties was Huangmei Opera, the late sixties and seventies the action film; then one of the trends of the early seventies was soft-core erotica. Strangely, both the refined Opera trend and the coarse erotica trend were started by the same person, director Li Han-Hsiang, which just goes to show what I've always believed, that the line between Opera and porn is very thin indeed.

But to find out what happens next, you will have to read the next part of this article, to be published next Monday.!

[1] aka Mo Chung's Adventure at at the Lion Pavilion. See page 218 of the HONG KONG FILMOGRAPHY, VOL. II, published by the Hong Kong Film Archive. The English titles listed in the Filmography almost always romanize "Wu Song" as "Mo Chung." To be consistent, this article uses the more appropriate "Wu Song" instead in all cases, regardless of how the movie is listed in HKFA publications. I'm stubborn that way. [Back]

[2] As described on page 400 of HONG KONG FILMOGRAPHY, VOL. II. [Back]

[3] More Yamaguchi Yoshiko info available over at her wikipedia page. The movie itself is described on page 110 of the HONG KONG FILMOGRAPHY, VOL. IV. [Back]

[4] WU SONG'S BLOODY FIGHT ON LION'S TOWER is available on VCD from yesasia.com. Alas, there are no subtitles. [Back]

[5] This juicy little bit of information came from this movie's entry in the HONG KONG FILMOGRAPHY, VOL. IV, page 183. [Back]

[6] WU SONG FIGHTS THE TIGER is available on DVD and VCD from yesasia.com. No English subtitles. [Back]

[7] THE AMOROUS LOTUS PAN is available on DVD and VCD from yesasia.com. [Back]

Published February 23, 2009 in Essays and Commentary | Comments (2)
Monday, February 16, 2009
The Tiger Killer v. The Golden Lotus

Among all the stories of lovers, heroes, and villains that populate the great classical novels of China, how many have the distinction of appearing in more than one? Only one. The tale, told in two of the novels, which concerns Wu Song the "Tiger Killer"; and Pan Jinlian the "Golden Lotus" (because of her tiny feet), the adulterous wife of his elder brother. The story, told and retold in the novels, is repeated again frequently in film. Here, then, is the full story.

[NOTE: This article is not intended for younger or more sensitive readers, and contains profanity, violence, and sex.]

The Texts

The story of Wu Song appears first in the SHUI-HU ZHUAN (aka The Water Margins; first popularized in English by Pearl S. Buck as All Men are Brothers, which is not a translation but a new title of her own devising), an epic novel about imperial corruption balanced by heaven sending down 108 demon stars, who become righteous outlaws against injustice. In this vast, sprawling novel, Wu Song makes a strong impression early on, but after his story is told, blends into the background for much that remains. He first appears in Chapter 23, and his story continues through Chapter 32. Over the course of his adventures, he is lauded a hero, promoted to Captain of the Guard, then becomes a murderer, and finally a fugitive, before joining up with the other outlaws of the marsh. The part of the story that concerns us here, of Wu Song, his elder brother, and his brother's wife, is told in Chapter 24 - Chapter 26.

These three chapters become a cornerstone of the later novel CHIN PING MEI (aka The Plum in the Golden Vase, alternatively titled The Golden Lotus). Here, the story expands from three chapters to ten, and focuses on Pan Jinlian, the adulterer, instead of Wu Song the hero. The main character of the novel is actually Ximen Qing, a swaggering pervert of an official who gathers up lots of women in indecent ways, and over the course of 100 chapters deflowers, debauches, buys an aphrodisiac from the personification of a penis, and finally gets his comeuppance in the end, dying graphically and horribly from an overdose of the ancient Viagra. In the sprawling scope of the novel, Pan Jinlian is but one of his conquests.

The two accounts are similar in many ways (and indeed, in some passages copied verbatim), but told with a different emphasis. The story in THE WATER MARGINS follows Wu Song, and we learn what becomes of him after the tale, while in CHIN PING MEI we see the story from Pan Jinlian's point of view, and learn what becomes of her afterwards. What follows is an outline of the story, from both sources. I've used as my english language sources THE TIGER KILLERS, book two of the Water Margins translation by John and Alex Dent-Young [1], and THE GATHERING, volume one of the Plum in the Golden Vase translation by David Tod Roy [2]. These are my favorite versions of these stories in English. Young and Young's translation of THE WATER MARGINS is a great read, and very thorough, but lacking in scholarly rigour. Roy's translation of CHIN PING MEI is quite simply the best translation of any ancient Chinese text I have ever read in my life, period -- though be warned, only three of the five planned volumes of David Tod Roy's translation have appeared to date.

The Tale

The two sources for the story share much in common, but also diverge in several crucial moments. As was expected, THE WATER MARGINS takes more time to explore the character and motivation of Wu Song, while CHIN PING MEI details further Pan Jinlian and especially Ximen Qing, who becomes the central character of the story following the events described here.

Regardless of source, the tale can be divided into five parts: 1. The Tiger Killer, 2. The Temptation, 3. The Affair, 4. The Murder, and 5. The Revenge. The largest discrepancy between the two sources is in the fifth part, The Revenge. More on that later. But now, the story begins:

1. The Tiger Killer
This part of the tale is told best in THE WATER MARGINS. Wu Song has greatly overstayed his welcome at Chai Jin's mansion, hanging on for a year, abusing the staff, and coming down with malaria. A chance encounter with Song Jiang, "The Opportune Rain," a righteous and respected official, does much to restore his health and spirits, and so he leaves for home, apologetic for his behaviour before. On his way, he gets completely knock-down wasted on wine -- 18 bowls when ordinary folks pass out after 3. Then, thoroughly knackered, he heads into Jingyang Pass as the sun goes down. The innkeeper pleads for him to wait until morning because of a fierce tiger in the area. Wu Song responds:

"Balls! I tell you, if there really is a tiger, it doesn't scare me. What you want is to get me to stay in your house so you can come in the middle of the night and rob me of my money and my life. That's why you're trying to intimidate me with some tale of a fucking tiger!"

He leaves the innkeeper fuming, only to come upon a government sign an hour up the pass warning of the tiger as well. Too embarassed to go back, he decides to head up the mountain anyway, where naturally, he runs smack into the man-eating beast.

Interestingly, Wu Song's character is much kinder in the CHIN PING MEI, and seems to climb the mountain trail out of bravery, not out of foolish drunkenness.

He dispatches the tiger with some effort, then heads on his way when some hunters appear and he tells them what happened. They don't believe it, even when he points out that he's completely covered with blood. So he leads them back up the mountain to show the dead tiger (Again, the CHIN PING MEI story is simpler -- the hunters see him defeat the tiger with their own eyes). He is led to the town of Yanggu at the base of the pass and heralded as a hero. He is given a cash reward, which he distributes among the hunters. Impressed, the magistrate quickly appoints him head of the guards. Wu Song accepts the position, cancelling his plans to go home.

There are hundreds of different versions of this part of the story, quite outside the scope of what we are attempting to cover here. To get an idea of the variation, visit the Research Database for the Wu Song Project.

2. The Temptation
This part of the tale is almost identical in both versions. Wu Song bumps into his older brother, who has also moved to this town. Elder Wu, nicknamed "The Three Inch Poxy Midget" [or the "Three-inch Mulberry-bark Manikin"] is a homely dwarf who gets by selling wheat cakes. He implores Wu Song to move in with him, and he agrees. Only trouble is, Elder Wu is married to Pan Jinlian, a ravishingly beautiful and talented young woman who despises him.

How the dwarf and the beauty were married is barely mentioned in THE WATER MARGINS but elaborated on at length in CHIN PING MEI. To summarize quickly, she was a servant girl in a rich old merchant's household. He had his way with her, his wife found out, he married her off to Elder Wu who rented a storefront from him because he was nearby and he could sneak over and continue to copulate with the girl whenever Elder Wu was out. This is how "Such a fine piece of mutton ended up in the mouth of a dog". Finally, the rich merchant died (a "venereal chill"), and his wife drove Elder Wu and Pan Jinlain away. They moved to Yanggu, and so ran into Wu Song.

Pan Jinlian immediately takes a shine to hunky Wu Song, and tries to get him drunk and seduce him at every opportunity. He finally tells her off and leaves, warning her:

Don't ever dare behave in that disgusting manner again...[or] I swear to you this: even though my eyes tell me you're my sister-in-law, my fists won't care!

Pan Jinlian tries to trick Elder Wu into believing his younger brother took a pass at her, instead of the other way around, but he doesn't fall for it. Wu Song moves out.

A few months later, Wu Song must leave to accompany a caravan to a distant city. He visits his brother and sister-in-law before he leaves, suggesting that he leave to sell wheat cakes late and come home early, and close his shutters and lock up right away so no trouble happens. He also suggests to Pan Jinlian that she try not to act like such a hussy, which pisses her off greatly. In the end, Wu Song leaves, and his brother does as he recommends. And now, the trouble really begins.

3. The Affair
Pan Jinlian, while closing the blinds one day, drops the rod on the head of a passerby, who happens to be the sexually insatiable Ximen Qing. He gets an eyeful of the beauty and can't stop thinking about her.

Enter next door neighbor and teashop owner, Mrs. Wang. She sees his thoughts and realizes that she can make a lot of cash from him if she can make his dreams a reality. So she coaches him, for a fee, in the art of wooing, and concocts an elaborate plan by which he can have a tryst with the lady Pan. But it will only work, she warns, in one of my favorite colorful bits of the story, if Ximen Qing has the "five prerequisites:

"He must have the looks of Pan Yueh, the member of a donkey, the wealth of Teng Tung, the youth and resilience of a 'needle in a wad of cotton', and plently of leisure. Only if you have all these prerequisites, which are known for short as 'looks, member, wealth, youth, and leisure,' can you hope to consummate such an affair."

Needless to say Qing is "equipped" for success, and her plan goes off without a hitch. Soon the two are happily coupling every day in the teahouse while Elder Wu is out selling his wheat cakes.

This idyllic moment for the two clandestine lovers comes crashing down for them when a young fruit seller by the name of Qiao stops by the teahouse to sell Ximen Qing some pears. Mrs. Wang refuses to let him in, shouting:

"You cocksucking little monkey! You think you can come farting around my place, do you?"

They verbally abuse one another, and she beats him until he leaves. Qiao, in anger, decides he is going to go tell on them to Elder Wu.

Elder Wu can scarce believe what he hears, so they concoct a plan together to come upon them in the act. Their plan works, and Elder Wu catches them in the same bedroom together, scrambling to get dressed. Unfortunately for him, Ximen Qing is very adept in martial arts and he kicks the midget right in the solar plexus, nearly killing him.

Wu the Elder is in bad shape and can hardly get out of bed, his injuries are so acute. Now, Pan Jinlien gets ready for her trysts in front of him, putting on powder, fixing her hair, and going out, and he can not even lift a finger.

4. The Murder
Now the lovers start to worry -- what happens when Wu Song returns? His brother will spill the beans, and they'll both be dead. Ximen Qing is in a panic, but the crafty old woman Wang has another idea -- poison her husband, bribe the coroner, bury the corpse. When Wu Song comes back, what can he do? What Pan Jinlien does after that is none of his business. The two lovers agree and Pan takes some arsenic back home, mixes it with Elder Wu's medicine, and gives it to him. While he doubles over in agony, she grabs the bedsheets and suffocates him with them. He bleeds all over the place, leaking graphically out of all his orifices. Pan panics a bit, but Mrs. Wang comes by and helps her clean up the mess. Ximen Qing bribes the coroner, they cremate the corpse, and that's it, mission accomplished, and soon they are shagging up a storm just like before.

Here, the two versions of the tale begin to diverge. In THE WATER MARGINS, the coroner, Uncle Ho, is disturbed by the bribery attempt and resolves to keep the silver given to him as evidence, along with a couple pieces of bone that he pinches from the crematorium. The bone is completely black, evidence of the poison in Elder Wu's body. He keeps the bones with the silver and waits for Wu Song to return.

In CHIN PING MEI, on the other hand, the coroner is corrupt as the rest and no evidence is kept. Meanwhile, Ximen Qing finds out about a rich widow, and quickly buys her and adds her to his house. He couples with her night and day, clean forgetting about Pan Jinlien, until finally Jinlien in her despair arranges for Mrs. Wang to bring Ximen Qing back. They reunite, and after the 100 days mourning have elapsed, Ximen Qing brings her into his house, where she must find her place in the heirarchy of women already there.

5. The Revenge
Finally, Wu Song returns and discovers his brother is dead. He is suspicious, so he spends the night in front of his brother's spirit tablet. In the night, his brother's apparition appears and laments, "I had a terrible death!" He goes round, gathers evidence, and presents it to the magistrate, who is heavily bribed by Ximen Qing, so the case is thrown out.

What happens next is strikingly different in the two narratives, though many differences have already crept in. For example, in THE WATER MARGINS, when Wu Song returns for the first time, shouting "Sister-in-law, it's me, Wu Song!", Pan Jinlien and Ximen Qing were going at it upstairs and

[Ximen Qing] shit himself when he heard Wu Song shout. He fled at once, out the back way and through Mrs. Wang's."

On the other hand, in CHIN PING LIN, Pan Jinlien has already entered Ximen Qing's household, and neither are around to see Wu Song's return, though they certainly hear of it.

Now, the ending as described in THE WATER MARGINS goes like this: When Wu Song's case before the magistrate falls through, he heads back to his brother's house, and invites all the neighbors over, including Mrs. Wang. He also requires Pan Jinlien to be there. Once he has given the neighbors wine, he asks them to be witnesses, and he viciously beats Jinlien until she confesses her crime. The gig is up, and Mrs. Wang must also confess. Afterwards, he forces Jinlien, who has begun wailing, to her knees in front of his brother's altar. Then:

Wu Song pulled her over backwards and planted both feet on her shoulders. He tore the clothing from her breast and -- it's slow in the telling but happened in a flash -- with one slash of the knife he opened her up. Placing the knife between his teeth he plunged both hands inside and tore out the heart and liver and placed them on the altar. Then, wham! one more blow cut off the head. There was blood everywhere.

Afterwards, he goes looking for Ximen Qing, severed head in hand. He finds him at the wineshop near Lion Bridge, and flings Jinlien's head in his face. Then he picks Qing up and throws him off the balcony, to smash head first into the street below. Wu Song retrieves his head as well, then surrenders himself at the magistrate, heads in hand and Mrs. Wang bound beside him.

Under the extreme circumstances, everyone is inclined to be lenient towards Wu Song, even though he committed murder. Instead of the death penalty, he is branded a criminal, forced to wear a cangue, and exiled to Mengzhou. Mrs. Wang, on the other hand, is not so lucky:

...she was brought out and paraded through the streets...to the marketplace, where she was hacked to pieces.

And so, in THE WATER MARGINS, the evildoers are punished by the righteous hero. This contrasts sharply with the way the story ends in CHIN PING MEI, which goes like this: When Wu Song's case before the magistrate falls through, he tries hunting down Ximen Qing and learns he is at the wineshop near Lion Bridge. He rushes over, but Ximen Qing sees him coming on the street and jumps out the back way. The official that Qing was eating with, Li Waiquan, refuses to answer Wu Song's questions, so Wu Song picks him up and tosses him out the window, then runs down into the street and kicks Li "square in the crotch," finally killing him. Wu Song is taken prisoner, and exiled to Mengzhou. Ximen Qing and Pan Jinlien have a laugh over his troubles, then he tries to get a threesome going and she gives him a blowjob:

[Ximen Qing] Bent his head in order the better to savor,
The marvelous sight as it went in and out.
She sucked audibly for some time, until
Their lewd excitement was redoubled.

Ximen Qing does finally get his comeuppance, roughly seventy chapters later, when he dies horribly from an overdose of aphrodesiac. Then toward the end of the novel, after many episodes, Wu Song buys Pan Jinlien from the Qing household and disembowels her. The go-between in this transaction was once again Mrs. Wang, who gets decapitated for her troubles.

Love, violence, murder, lots of sex, and an angry dwarf. It is little wonder that the story has attracted the attention of playwrights and filmmakers.

For part two of this article, about the early film adaptations, click here.

[1] The complete translation is in five volumes, available at amazon.com: The Broken Seals contains the first 22 chapters, followed by The Tiger Killers, which contains the story above described, then The Gathering Company, Iron Ox, and The Scattered Flock. The first three are excellent, the last two are however slow going and the way the authors chose to handle all the names begins to grate on the nerves. Still, you won't find a better nor more complete translation. All quotations from THE WATER MARGINS in this article are excerpted from these books. [Back]

[2] As of this writing, only the first three volumes are out and available at amazon.com: Key to this story are Volume 1: The Gathering, which contains this story, and Volume 2: The Rivals. All quotations from CHIN PIN MEI in this article are excerpted from these books. [Back]

Published February 16, 2009 in Essays and Commentary | Comments (0)
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
China Town Recommended
Directed by Shakti Samanta
1962 | India

CHINA TOWN opens like any number of "Yellow Peril" Hollywood B-movies from the 30's: The classic "Oriental Riff" kicks off while the opening credits appear like chopsticks. Sometimes I wonder if movies are set in Chinatown just to enable a perverse desire on the part of the director to sink into these tired cliches. But CHINATOWN almost immediately steps ahead, as the opening song transforms into a delightful Ravi song picturized on everyone's favorite item-number dancer, Helen, playing the bar girl Suzie (Wong?). And then: two Shammi Kapoors, one good, one bad, prefiguring the classic DON.

Bad Shammi is a gangster named Mike who has an opium addiction, treats Suzie like trash even though she loves him, and has a number of annoying mannerisms, especially a dismissive whistle and hand gesture that I am greatly relieved never caught on in the real world. He also makes dramatic pronouncements about himself in the third person, like "Time moves along with Mike, not the other way around."

But he gets caught by the police, who then haul in good Shammi, a singer named Shekhar, who was trying to woo Rita (Shakila), the daughter of a rich man who despises idle crooners. When Shekhar takes over for Mike in the gang, his girlfriend thinks he is a criminal after all, but meanwhile Shekhar's mom reveals that he had a twin, and that they were separated at birth. Could the criminal be his long lost brother? Sweet lord, it's a Bollywood film, of course he is!!!

Shammi Kapoor films are usually bright and fun films filled with songs and romance. China Town has its share of both but puts a dark noir on top. The stakes keep rising, until finally Mike's shoemaker -- its hard to explain, but the gang seems to have its own shoemaker -- finally puts it all together, leading to a melodramatic, action filled climax.

Opium dens and Chinese gangsters seem a strange fit in an Indian film, but the picture takes place in Calcutta, which is in fact the only Indian city to have its own Chinatown, one with a long and rich history. The Chinese filled jobs that the locals were unwilling to take (just as they did everywhere), in this case, work in the "unclean, low caste" leather industry, among others. There were also plenty of Chinese gangsters and opium dens.

On top of everything, the movie was released in 1962, the same year as the Sino-Indian war. During this time, many Chinese left India, and those that stayed were suspected of aiding the enemy and some even sent to internment camps. That this film, depicting thuggish, suspicious Chinese, was released in this year was just one more way that the enemy was dehumanized. Comparing how poorly Pakistani soldiers come off in today's Bollywood films, though, the Chinese get an exceedingly fair shake here (and Helen is meant to play the sympathetic Chinese girl Suzie, which mines a whole different stereotype, but nevermind).

But: I love the movie anyway, from the wonderful performances of Shammi Kapoor and Helen, to the Chinese-inspired soundtrack, to the terrible "yellowface" makeup worn by some of the supporting cast. It's got enough Shammi for fans of his usual antics, and enough serious to not turn off viewers unused to Bollywood conventions.

Published October 29, 2008 in Country - India , Genre - Chinatown , Rating - 3 stars , Year - 1962 | Comments (0)
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
An Empress and the Warriors Not Recommended
Directed by Ching Siu-Tung
2008 | China
| Hong Kong

For a little while, there, Chinese movies once again had international audiences, the size of which they hadn't seen since Bruce Lee. For that, they had to thank Ang Lee's Croutching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and Zhang Yimou's Hero (2002). In addition the mainland market was for the first time wide open, provided that films were made as "co-productions" including mainland cast members, and did not concern themselves with banned politically charged topics like, say, letting the bad guy get away at the end of a movie, or showing supposedly real supernatural events, or, I don't know, mentioning Tibet. So what better way to rake in cash in both the international and mainland markets than to create a big, slick, epic, historical action picture? But the boom years are over. Chinese cinema forgot to diversify their portfolio, and the epic market has crashed. And burned. Or, if not the market as a whole, certainly, AN EMPRESS AND THE WARRIOR did. And considering the next big upcoming epic film is directed by John Woo, I can only assume the slide to mediocrity is all but complete.

That's not to say there may still be some good epic movies to be made. Battle of Wits (2006), for example, was superb. It is simply that no one will care.

Look at the attention paid here to bring to life ancient China, with each character's armor individually crafted, and each main character with their own specially distinct sword. The image is lovingly color-graded in post production, to give it that glossy "expensive-movie" glow. Almost the entire cast plays their roles as if they were making something as profound as Shakespeare, and as visually exciting as Lord of the Rings.

Ah, but it just isn't so. The direction, by the legendary action choreographer and Director Ching Siu-Tung, is perfunctory. I waited through the entire film hoping to see an interesting angle, a new way to stage an entrance or develop a dramatic scene, but it never came. I believe that a person could actually assemble this film, shot for shot, out of movies already made. Let's see -- slow motion horse's hooves, galloping through water -- found it! And what have we here: oh! Applying medicine to a woman who is very shy about the violation -- yes, yes, here! And so on, and so on.

Though the direction is disappointing, the story, such that it is, must out of all elements be the one that wears the dunce cap. Kingdoms at war, King dies, wants to pass Kingdom on to orphan general Muyong Xuehu (played by Donnie Yen) instead of his blood relative, not realizing that will lead to civil war (apparently a bit of an idiot King), so princess (Kelly Chen) assumes the throne instead. She gets attacked, then is mended by peaceful man Duan Lanquan (Leon Lai) living on the outskirts of civilization. They fall in love, she advocates peace instead of war, complications ensue.

The trouble here is in the moral conception of the world. War = bad? Peace = good? Maybe. But this isn't explored in any detail, it is just assumed. Compared to the political complexity of Battle of Wits, this movie is simply moronic.

It looks good, though even this strength turns against the film when we are taken to Duan Lanquan's peaceful home, which overspending by the Production Design department has made it look like it was built by the Swiss Family Robinson, or maybe the set from the Spielburg misfire Hook (1991). It is utterly ridiculous, and yes, while the princess is there, he also invents a backscratcher and a hot air balloon.

There are some good moments to be had. The cast is entirely competent, and though as expected Kelly Chen never quite convinces, she isn't completely horrible, either. And in the end, Donnie gets an action scene that would have made Chang Cheh proud (when reassembling this film out of previously made films, look for some Chang Cheh/Ti Lung films for this part). And it may be more enjoyable the second time around, once the expectations game has been played out. Then again, I can't really envision watching the movie a second time, considering there are no additional layers or subtext to the film. You'd be better off going back to watch a more complex historical love story, like House of Flying Daggers (2004). All style and no substance leaves AN EMPRESS AND THE WARRIORS feeling old, tired, and spent, like the Chinese historical epic genre as a whole.

Published October 28, 2008 in Country - China , Country - Hong Kong , Genre - Epic , Genre - Historical , Rating - 1 star , Year - 2008 | Comments (0)