Up until my first afternoon at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), I hadn’t seen a movie in 7 days—not any kind of accomplishment, personal or otherwise, but a distinct lag and notable context for this correspondent—and this cine-hiccup brought a fresh perception to the discordant pleasures in, of all things, the first entry in the foundational Hong Kong wuxia serial from 1949, The Story of Wong Fei-hung (here, Part 1: Wong Fei-hung’s Whip that Smacks the Candle).
Blinking back my fatigue (no film, and especially not a creakily surviving (digitized) print from before the second half of the 20th century, should be viewed after extensive travel and the bewildering geographic-administrative logistics of first-day navigation of a film festival), what I saw wasn’t so much film as television (let us not forget: two cinematic mediums). Wong Fei-hung crisply but awkwardly shifted, scene by scene, in tone and dramatic contents in this first entry in the episodic series, dolloping with wooden, micro-budget aplomb a little for this audience, a little for that, from the sincere righteousness of original Wong actor Tak-Hing Kwan espousing ancestral continuity in his martial school to the mincing melodrama infusing the film’s less, shall we say, ethical moments (ethics being what drives the majority of action and violence in Hong Kong martial arts).
Despite using what must have been a 20 year old sound recording equipment—making for remarkably jarring yet shockingly prescient and pre-Godardian audio jumps from sync-sound dialog to the energy of spliced in late 19th century Wagnerian classical music—the constant semi-pivots of this single episode look forward to channel changing’s homogenization of all elements on TV into a singular jerky flow addressing all people with all things, forward even to the 1990s and 2000s revelation of South Korean cinema’s tonal gymnastics (cf. Bong Joon-ho), which may be an example of cinema absorbing lessons from home broadcast viewing.
Or maybe The Story of Wong Fei-hung is simply looking backwards to silent serials, where a film could be uncomplainingly all things for all people, before the stagnation produced when industrial pressures re-defined early cinema into something more standardized and consistent. The elements are pleasurable and plentiful even if the connective tissue between it—the mise-en-scène—is stuck at a rudimentary, pre-Feuillade-ian lack of metaphysics and suggestion to draw shadowy meaning between spaces and movement in a world of upright fighters and endless small city thugs. We jump without worry (TV-style, again?) from documentaries—of a lion dance and, sporadically, Shaolin practitioners illustrating their prowess—to the usual wuxia flatness of genre conventions (the student itching for a fight, the rumble mania that has been with all East Asian cinema seemingly since the dawn of time, mobs likewise always on the prowl for an affront that may lead to the pleasures of a manly brawl), and Wong-Kwan himself juggling serene-masterful righteous attitude with justified, sprightly action.
The action itself, of the kind King Hu would revolutionize about 15 years later, is dated only if you are looking for realistic violence or a poetry of violent grace—what you get instead are records of rehearsals for dance under the guise of action, choreography not as “action choreography” but simply and unpretentiously the loose arrangement of bodies in interacting motion. Yet even we the violence crazed get our fair dose, as the episode generously gives doses of romance and humor: the film will unexpectedly shift from normal coverage of the martial arts dance floor of a villain’s living room and go for an exciting, vérité from-the-rafters shot, exploding as a precursor to the tenacious inventiveness inside confined studio (and genre) settings of 1980s Hong Kong productions.
IFFR is only showing one of who knows how many episodes of this famed series, and what with Part 1 ending with a cliffhanger—holding us at bay waiting to find out not whether the unbeatable Wong will win or lose but rather with what measured combination of restraint, quick-release fists and kicks, and worried, wide-eyed glances at the escalating tensions of an ethical situation will he triumph—I realized I would rather just tune in and out of The Story of Wong Fei-hung series than see any real films.