The Fate of Lee Khan (1973 Hong Kong 105 mins)
Source: Prod Co: Gam Chuen Prod, Dir, Ed: King Hu Scr: King Hu, Wong Chung Phot: Chun Tsing-Chan Martial Arts Dir: Zhu Yuanlong (Sammo Hung Kam Bo)
Cast: Roy Chiao, Xu Feng, Bai Ying, Han Yingjie, Tian Feng, Li Lihua, Angela Mao Ying, Helen Ma, Hu Jin, Shangguan Yan’er
The Valiant Ones (1975 Hong Kong 107 mins)
Prod Co: Gam Chuen Prod, Dir, Scr, Ed: King Hu Phot: Chun Tsing-Chan Mus: Yun-Dong Wang
Cast: Bai Ying, Xu Feng, Roy Chiao, Wu Jiyuan , Sammo Hung Kam Bo
The Fate of Lee Khan and The Valiant Ones were the inaugural productions of King Hu’s own production company that he established after making A Touch of Zen (1971). Hu began shooting both films back-to-back in 1972 under a deal that the director struck with Golden Harvest. The studio would distribute the films but Hu would own the rights to The Valiant Ones while the studio would own The Fate of Lee Khan. It was said that Golden Harvest opted for The Fate of Lee Khan, which was released in 1973, because they felt it was more commercial than The Valiant Ones. Characteristically, Hu, who was well known for his tardiness in completing his pictures, took his time with The Valiant Ones, which was only released in 1975.
Both films are companion works sharing similarities in plot and structure. They are both ensemble pieces featuring large casts; both belong to the wuxia (Chinese knight-errant) genre – a costume action genre revolving around swordplay that was in 1972 already eclipsed by the kung fu picture with its focus on boxing and kicking. Both narratives are anchored by the bare bones of a plot concerning Chinese patriots fighting against a foreign enemy. The Fate of Lee Khan is set in the period of the Mongol Yuan dynasty as it faces collapse due to the revolt of its Han Chinese subjects led by General Zhu Yuanzhang, who eventually overthrew the Mongols and founded the Ming dynasty. The movie describes how a group of mostly female patriots loyal to Zhu works together to foil an attempt by the Mongol warlord Lee Khan to obtain a strategic map from a traitor within Zhu Yuanzhang’s camp. Lee Khan’s rendezvous with the spy is to take place in Spring Inn, located in the middle of a wasteland in Shaanxi province, northern China (the Chinese title translates as “The Incident at Spring Inn”). The Valiant Ones is set during the Ming dynasty in the reign of the emperor Jia Jing whose rule was affected by corruption and the problem of Japanese and local pirates wreaking havoc on the southern coastal regions. A small group of soldiers, under the command of an iconoclastic general, Yu Dayou, are given a special mission to destroy the pirates. The soldiers are joined and aided by a taciturn couple: a sword-fighter (known as the “Whirlwind”) and his knight-lady.
Hu presented plenty of action and exuberant humour in both films but having already pioneered the prototype of the ‘new school’ wuxia movie in such films as Come Drink with Me (1966), Dragon Inn (1967), and A Touch of Zen (1971), the director took the opportunity to further expound on the ideal of chivalry and valour upheld by knights-errant, and to expand on the principle of violence as a means to an end (the end in both cases being a broad nationalistic cause, either to restore Han rule or to repel foreign invaders from China). The two films are important in at least one other respect – they showed how Hu adapted to an environment where everyone else was forgoing the sword-fighting wuxia form to concentrate on making “boxing and kicking” movies (as Hu’s colleague Zhang Che described the kung fu genre). Hu was conscious of how the wuxia genre had changed as a result of the rise of kung fu. Both films are more forthright examples of martial arts cinema than A Touch of Zen ever was (and it’s a pity that the Cinémathèque could not include this film and Hu’s other key work, Dragon Inn). Hu’s action scenes have an air of jubilance about them, displaying a comprehensive range of the martial arts with an intermixing of swordplay and fist fighting.
The Fate of Lee Khan is Hu’s only film to feature stars by the brim-full (which is indicative of its intrinsic commercial worth, leading Golden Harvest to retain its ownership of the film). Apart from Hu’s standard repertory company (actors who have appeared in previous Hu films, including Roy Chiao, Xu Feng, Bai Ying, Han Yingjie, Tian Feng), Hu worked for the first time with two female stars, the veteran Li Lihua and the newly famous Angela Mao Ying (whose exploits as a black-belt exponent of the Korean martial art Hapkido propelled her into stardom: she made a film of that very same title). Li Lihua plays Wendy, the proprietress of the Spring Inn. Wendy is what fiction writers would call a ‘great female of the times’ – a woman of the world who deftly combines sex and patriotism to achieve lasting fame or notoriety (Li was well into middle age in 1972 but her performance retains the spunk of her younger days as an alluring screen goddess). The Spring Inn, which functions as a restaurant and casino, is a front for her secret activities as a member of the Chinese underground agitating against the governing Mongols. It is also of course the meeting point where Lee Khan will meet his spy to obtain the vital map. Her mission is to liaise with other resistance fighters at the inn (who will appear in various disguises) to intercept the traitor and stop him from passing the map to Lee Khan (Tian Feng).
Li’s is not the only “great female” presence in the film: she is supported by five other female stars, four of whom (Angela Mao, Helen Ma, Hu Jin, Shangguan Yan’er) play Li’s underground associates passing off as waitresses in the Spring Inn. Each of the associates possesses a shady past – Mao is a pickpocket, Ma a highway robber, Hu is a street performer, and Shangguan a con artist – but they are all motivated by the cause of restoring Han sovereignty over China. The fifth female star, Xu Feng (Hu’s arch heroine in A Touch of Zen), plays the female villain of the piece: Lee Khan’s sister, Wan’er. All the females are adept fighters. In fact, The Fate of Lee Khan is Hu’s only film with so many female fighters. The women alone form a marvellous stock company, giving the film much of its indomitable energy and spirit. Of all the action directors, Hu was the most sympathetic to women. It was he who virtually created the image of female stoicism in the martial arts cinema – this in contrast to his colleague Zhang Che’s emphasis on “staunch masculinity” (yang gang), a principle which would dominate Hong Kong’s action cinema for over twenty years. In Hu’s pictures, one sees women as the epitome of cool, taciturn heroines every inch the equal of male heroic stereotypes from Gary Cooper to Bruce Lee.
The antics of Wendy and her female associates make up an exhilarating first half of the film. The action is situated entirely in the interior set of the Spring Inn where the girls wait upon customers, a gallery of colourful rogues and clown-like characters. This may well be the best section of The Fate of Lee Khan, showing Hu’s mastery of mise en scène and his artful use of interior space (as a true auteur, Hu not only directed his pictures but also acted as production designer, editor and costume designer). The inn in Lee Khan is quite literally a cavern where the action takes place on intersecting lines of tables as the female protagonists cruise from one table to another. The tables and chairs are themselves used as marvellous props, as for example, in the scene where a gambler caught cheating tries to run away by bouncing from table to table (this effect was obtained from trampolines – a typical device used in many King Hu pictures). Lee Khan is in fact the most mature of Hu’s inn pictures (the series of pictures where Hu locates his action within traditional Chinese inns).
While the first half of the film comes across as a delightful ‘entertainment,’ the dramatic properties of the picture come into their own in the second half, signalled by the appearance of Lee Khan and his formidable sister, Wan’er. The Mongol Lee Khan is characterised as an intelligent and cultured man (for example, he and his sister enjoy a rendition of Guan Hanqing’s Farewell Ode, performed by Han Yingjie who plays the itinerant beggar-performer). On a sub-conscious level, Lee Khan wins over our sympathies even though he personifies evil. Conversely, one of the heroes, Cao Yukun (Roy Chiao), Lee Khan’s adjutant, arouses our distaste for his betrayal of his master (Cao turns out to be an undercover agent working for the rebels). Because of this, the film somewhat undermines its own dialectic on the struggle between good and evil, and the final battle loses the tragic dimension present in all of Hu’s climactic battles. The battle itself still retains the stock ingredients of ferocity and excitement.
For Hu’s summation of valour and the nature of heroism, one must turn to The Valiant Ones. The picture is conceived as a series of action tableaux, ostensibly denoting Hu’s interest in military strategy and his sheer enjoyment in directing or constructing every variation of action choreography. The picture hardly prepares us for the realisation of Hu’s tragic vision of honour, courage and valour. The plot is indistinct; it unfolds with a sense of adventure and humour. The action scenes seem to spring willy-nilly from the opening narration after the picture’s historical context is put in place and the plot is set in motion. In the beginning, the cast of characters are like shells: sketched outlines conforming to generic types who become characters only because their human instincts and qualities are defined through action. The Valiant Ones is an intriguing picture for this reason. On the surface, the film seems determined to focus on action for the sake of action, like the majority of pictures in the martial arts genre. As it moves from one action scene to another, we learn more about the characters from the way they fight. The Valiant Ones therefore works on the principle that character stems from combat – the idea that one can only know the other’s true character through fighting (which is the basis of one of the film’s most memorable sequences – the test of skills of the taciturn swordsman Wu Jiyuan and his wife, played by Bai Ying and Xu Feng, in the pirates’ lair).
The action choreography in both The Fate of Lee Khan and The Valiant Ones was the work of Sammo Hung, who then went by the name of Zhu Yuanlong. I have already mentioned the fact that Hu was aware of how fighting styles in the martial arts genre had changed, from the focus on sword-fighting to kung fu fighting. The Valiant Ones is the more significant film of the two in regard to the question of how Hu readapted the standard swordplay format of the wuxia picture by incorporating styles of unarmed combat. Sammo Hung’s role as a bridge between the two forms is, I believe, crucial. However, Hu himself had to accept the idea of bridging wuxia and kung fu, and not only by making his protagonists lose their swords during a fight and continuing the combat with their fists. First, the director had to find a theoretical basis. Thus he conformed to the classical idea that unarmed combat was the highest form of combat, and that practitioners of the martial arts who had acquired such skills were people of high rank, if not of high character. Thus, the Mongol chieftain Lee Khan in The Fate of Lee Khan and the pirate chieftain Xu Dong (Han Yingjie) in The Valiant Ones are fighters who have achieved the highest skill such that they do not need to use swords in order to prevail over those who do. In this way, Hu’s incorporation of kung fu styles is integrated with character portrayals, and the action becomes multi-dimensional.
In the climactic combat scenes in The Valiant Ones, Xu Dong, whose forte is the flying kick, is matched against Yu Dayou (Roy Chiao), who must use his hands to ward off Xu’s successive kicks. This is contrasted with the final sword-fighting combat scene between Sammo Hung’s Japanese pirate Hakatatsu and Bai Ying’s swordsman, the ‘Whirlwind’ – one of the most intense sword-fighting action scenes ever put on film. This sequence, a tour de force of editing and action choreography, together with the Bamboo Forest sequence in A Touch of Zen, stands as the apotheosis of martial arts cinema. They provided the inspirational blueprints for many action scenes in martial arts movies down the years: the most glaring is Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and its tribute to the Bamboo Forest sequence; I should also mention Tsui Hark’s The Blade (1995) and its tribute to the final sequence in The Valiant Ones. The highly charged presence of Sammo Hung in The Valiant Ones and his martial arts directing credit was Hu’s recognition of the newly emerging kung fu trend and the rise of a new generation of stars and behind-the-scenes artists in the genre (The Valiant Ones employed not only Sammo Hung, but Yuen Biao and Jackie Chan also worked on the film, appearing in bit roles).
Time has bestowed a special kind of magnificence on The Valiant Ones. While it is not usually referred to in the same breadth as Hu’s masterpiece A Touch of Zen, it is not a less personal work. In retrospect, it was really Hu’s final bow in the genre: the picture ends in mourning, for example, and though it isn’t immediately apparent, there is an overriding sense of emotional burn-out which would have made it difficult for King Hu to make another wuxia picture that would equal its achievement. In fact, he never did. Hu’s career went into decline during the ’80s. He directed a minor wuxia segment in the film The Wheel of Life (1983) and was set to make a comeback as the director of Swordsman (1990) but walked out of the film citing the interference of his producer, Tsui Hark (who eventually completed the film himself with the help of three other directors). King Hu died in 1997.