Monday, April 23, 2012

Pole Position

The second night of the Shaolin Film Archive's showing this week featured Dan Halsted showing a slide show documenting how he found four tons of kung fu in Vancouver. The story he tells has a lot of fun asides, but none is more entertaining than the customs trouble Halsted encountered when trying to bring his find into the United States. Customs officials got it into their heads that he was bringing pornography into the country based on the fact that one of the prints he found was for Dirty Ho. I know, right? It totally sounds like porn. It's not. It's a pretty awesome kung fu movie starring Gordon Liu and directed by Chia-liang Liu. I kind of wish Halsted had brought Dirty Ho with him, because it would be in my top five Chia-liang Liu movies along with Tiger on the Beat, Drunken Master II, My Young Auntie, and Mad Monkey Kung Fu. Instead, he brought Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1984), his own personal favorite. I can't really argue with the choice even if it's not in my own pantheon, because Eight Diagram Pole Fighter has everything you might want from a Chia-liang Liu movie: Gordon Liu, Kara Hui, a kick-ass cameo by the director (himself a revered martial artist), and final reel that is so brain-burstingly awesome that you walk away from the movie wondering if your eyes really saw what they just saw. And if, for myself, I find the story itself a bit of a jumble, I'm willing to admit that there are extenuating circumstances.

Eight Diagram Pole Fighter opens with the women of the Yang family puzzle over the meaning of a prophesy that tells them that of the seven Yang sons, only six will come back to the family after a battle with the invading tartars. Which of their brothers will return? The battle itself is a massacre. The Yangs have been betrayed by the social-climbing Pan Mei, who is conspiring with the Tartars to bring down the Sung dynasty and install himself in power. Unfortunately for the Yang women, they've misread the prophesy. Of their menfolk, only Yang son number six returns from the battle, and he's been driven mad by his need for revenge. Another Yang, number five, survived as well, but he never returns to his home. After escaping the Tartars, he takes refuge at a Buddhist monastery where he is reluctantly accepted. The master of the monastery journeys to the Yang home to let them know that number five is alive (hoping that they'll come take him off their hands), but he's waylaid by the Tartars on the way back to the monastery. The eighth Yang sibling, a daughter, ventures out to find her brother, but the Tartars follow her, capture her, and use her as a means of summoning number five out into the open. Number five, for his part, has been trying his hardest to keep to the Buddhist way of keeping all life sacred, and to this end has adapted the lethal Yang spear techniques into a new pole-fighting technique. Armed with his new kung fu, he takes the bait...

There's a serious structural problem with Eight Diagram Pole Fighter: the movie was originally intended as starring vehicle for Fu Sheng, who plays the crazed Yang number six. He's the center of the prophesy that opens the movie, after all, and his unquenchable zeal for revenge would seem the ideal engine for a kung fu epic. Unfortunately, Fu Sheng died during production, and the filmmakers had to remount the story by hiving off another survivor from the massacre at the beginning of the movie. It's an uneasy fit, and once the movie gets into its third act, it forgets almost completely about the number six son. It's a different movie in its third act than it is in its first, though that's not necessarily bad. The opening battle scene is kind of weird. It has a theatricality to it that ties the film more closely to Peking Opera than most of Liu's movies, and that theatricality isn't of a piece with the theatricality of the last act of the film, which looks forward to some of the more hyperactive kung fu movies of the dawning HK New Wave. The film has one foot in the past and one foot in the future.

Eight Diagram Pole Fighter is darker than most of Liu's movies, too. One of the director's hallmarks is the amiable good nature of his films--many of them are outright comedies--and there's none of that here. This is a deeply nihilistic movie, in which its hero finds that he has no place in the temple, but he can't go home, either. He's a man uprooted from the world by the end of the movie. The final frame of the film, when Gordon Liu turns his back on Kara Hui and wanders into an uncertain future is unusually bleak. It's almost as if the director is tempering the admittedly spectacular final action sequence with a Buddhist commentary on the futility of violence. There's an irony to be had in that, if that is indeed what Liu had in mind. In most other respects, this is very much a Liu movie, though: including the struggle to be a monk, the baroque training devices used in the Shaolin temple (in this film, a number of wooden wolves), and an emphasis on training sequences. The arc of Yang number five's story is a lot like the story one finds in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Liu does like his exotic weapons, a tic that goes back to his days as a fight choreographer on The One-Armed Swordsman. In this film, he invents a new kind of bendy pole that gives our heroes fits. There are also a variety of more conventional weapons, including the title weapon, a simple pole. Liu also likes to give his leading ladies something to do, which benefits Kara Hui. Her character is very much a part of the big battle at the end of the film, and not just as a hostage. She kicks some unholy ass, though perhaps not as much as the ass kicked by Gordon Liu's character.

Seeing the climax of this film with an audience was a rare pleasure. That's a part of moviegoing that I don't know that I can adequately communicate. This makes me sad. I'm sad, too, that I won't be able to do this again any time soon. I'll go back to seeing my kung fu late at night on my television, I guess, but it just won't be the same.

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