by HELEN GEIB
Reading about Chinese silent films made me realize how fortunate I am as someone who loves the American silent cinema. Many American films have been lost and there are painful gaps in the record- major films, entire careers of important early artists– but many, many films still exist. I could spend a couple of years in concentrated viewing of just the American silents that have been released on DVD, and those represent only a small fraction of the extant material. In contrast, few Chinese silent films are extant even though the Chinese silent film industry, based in Shanghai, was a vibrant, prolific cinema for over a decade. Chinese film heritage has been almost completely lost to the universal enemies of film preservation, neglect and decay, and the even more potent destructive forces of political suppression and armed conflict.
The rate of survival of martial arts films is a representative case. The genre was hugely popular through the silent era. Yet, subject to hoped-for future discoveries, the earliest complete extant martial arts film was made in 1929, almost at the end of silent filmmaking. It’s enough to make the genre lover weep right alongside the silent film historian.
Red Heroine has a rather curious three act structure: a filial duty melodrama wrapped in a martial arts revenge drama. The heroine (Fan Xuepeng) lives in a small rural village with her grandmother. Her only other relative is a cousin (played by director Wen Yimin) about her own age who is a poor scholar. They along with the other villagers become refugees at the approach of a warlord’s army. The grandmother is killed by the army in an act of casual violence and the heroine is taken to the warlord’s headquarters to become one of his concubines. She is rescued in the nick of time by White Monkey, an old hermit skilled in martial arts. She becomes White Monkey’s pupil to train for the day when she can take her revenge against the warlord.
Those are the events of the first act. The third act is the resolution of the revenge story, as the heroine reappears in the guise of a noble swordswoman known as Red Heroine. She does not appear at all in the film’s middle act. That part of the story is a melodrama about another young woman from the village who agrees to become the warlord’s concubine to ransom her father from false arrest, only to have the warlord renege on his part of the deal. Her rescue in the third act is a happy byproduct of the heroine’s return to the scene.
White Monkey does a little fighting in the first act, but most of the fun is in act three when Red Heroine takes down the warlord and his soldiers with an assist from her master. Don’t look for authentic Chinese fighting styles in Red Heroine. It’s a wuxia film, not a kung fu film. While wuxia and kung fu fall under the same martial arts genre umbrella, when it comes to the action the distinction is much more than the semantic quibble of an ardent fan. Action choreography in wuxia draws on Chinese opera, dance, and wrestling rather than traditional martial arts styles. White Monkey overcomes his opponent with what looks to my untrained eye like judo throws, and Red Heroine fights with two swords in dance-like movements inspired by Chinese opera.
Wuxia fighting includes a fantasy element, and in Red Heroine both master and student show off some cool moves. White Monkey can catch an arrow in flight – and throw it back at the archer. Impressive, but the student surpasses the master in this arena. While White Monkey wanders about the countryside riding a donkey, Red Heroine travels in style. She flies (like Superman, in an interesting precursor to Hong Kong wirework), obscuring her takeoffs and landings in a puff of smoke.
Genre fans may be surprised at how familiar Red Heroine seems. Many recognizable genre features are present: that narrative staple, the revenge plot; the master and student relationship; that noble swordsperson is an equal opportunity profession. There’s even an exploitation element; when the heroine is first taken to the warlord’s headquarters, his concubines strip her naked as the camera cuts between close-ups of her distraught face and the leering faces of the warlord and his soldiers.
There are a few quirks in the costuming. The villagers’ costumes (also the sets and props) suggest the contemporary rural countryside. The costumes of the warlord and his men are harder to pin down; perhaps from some indeterminate point in the past. White Monkey and post-transformation Red Heroine are costumed like the figures from folk tale that they are. The warlords’ concubines are scantily dressed like showgirls from a tacky Shanghai nightclub. It’s a look that has not worn well.
Red Heroine was an entry in a series, although fortunately for today’s viewers the story is self-contained, and it has the feel of a quickly made genre film. It’s entertaining as a genre exercise, but it’s fascinating as a unique window to the genre’s early development.