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]

Posted by Peter Nepstad on February 23, 2009.

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Comments

Really fun article. Wu Song is one of my favorite recurring characters in Hong Kong film. Would it be presumptuous to assume that this article will finish with a review of My Way's recent The Forbidden Legend: Sex and Chopsticks?

I eagerly await the next entry.

Posted by: Justin at February 24, 2009 01:28 AM

I'm glad you're enjoying it! Sometimes I wonder if I'm the only one this crazy. As for "Forbidden Legend"...coming soon! (If you'll pardon the expression)

Posted by: Peter Nepstad at February 25, 2009 01:18 PM
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