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Chang Cheh:
Aesthetics = Ideology?

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A Study of the Hong Kong Swordplay Film (1945-1980
105k | 242k
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Alternative title: The Wall
by Jerry Liu

From the 5th HK International Film Festival:
A Study of the Hong Kong Swordplay Film (1945-1980), rev. ed., 1996,
Pages 159-164:

Chang Cheh: Aesthetics = Ideology?
Alternative title: The Wall
by Jerry Liu

"Statistically, myth is on the right."
-- Roland Barthes

To undertake a critical study of Chang Cheh (Zhang Che) as an established auteur raises the concern identified by Peter Wollen: the lack of "a moment of synthesis." It is true that this prolific director has made much available for study; however, the relative absence of thematic variations in his films renders difficult any 'structural analysis; along the lines of auteur theory. At the same time, this poses the question of whether Chang Cheh should more appropriately be regarded as a metteur en scène, whose fascination with death and violence has become fetishistic.

The inclusion of Chang Cheh in Bazin's "aesthetic cults of personality" may not be such an exaggeration, since critical attention has been focussed largely on the notion of romantic individualism which has remained inseparable from the fatal heroes projected on the screen. Certainly as early as Chang's fourth film The Trail of the Broken Blade (1967), a rudimentary set of aesthetics (partially reflected in the characterisation of the protagonist) begins to crystallise and refined to the point of transparency. What seems particularly striking is the consistency with which certain thematic elements recur and dominate the narrative. The extent to which this occurs excludes the possibility of any thematic variation which could generate within Chang's films the tensions they so conspicuously lack. Therefore, any understanding of Chang's works must first involve an elucidation of these recurrent motifs. Moreover, once they are identified and reduced to their essence as denotations, they can be read as a series of connotations which points to the cohesive 'whole.' Here, one finds a deconstruction of texts, a process of linking the signifiers not only to the primary manifestation of signs, but also setting them at the secondary level of signification. An ideological entity may ultimately surface, and perhaps more by association, explain the endless repetition of certain motifs within an extremely confined and stable framework.

Chang Cheh has directed over seventy films in the past sixteen years, and given that all of them in varying degrees fit into the action-drama category, the choice of film references may seem rather arbitrary. While it is arguable as to which are in fact his formative works and/or major pieces, films made before 1973 (with the exceptions of The Blood Brothers (1973) and The Disciples of Shaolin (1975)) in general seem more provocative and, in turn, exemplary for the purpose of this article.

Golden Swallow: the Glamorisation of Death

Golden Swallow (Chang's seventh film, known as The Girl with the Thunderbolt Kick in England and America) was released in 1968 after the commercial success of One-Armed Swordsman and The Assassin. Made during the period when Chang was still subjected to studio interference, the film can nonetheless be seen as one of his most cohesive and significant works. He was initially opposed to the original concept of the script (one can observe that he was fundamentally uninterested in the thematic emphasis centered around the female chararcter), and in the end shifted the narrative in favor of the male protagonist 'Silver Roc'. Played by Wang Yu, 'Silver Roc' is caught in a triangular love relationship under-scored by bloodshed and violence. On aesthetical grounds alone, Golden Swallow appears to exemplify Chang's formative stage, but it already confirms an essential element in his idiosyncratic approach -- the obsessive glamorisation of death.

Although scenes of disembowelment accompanied by virile martyrdom first appeared in The Trail of the Broken Blade, it was not until Golden Swallow that the process was given the greater dimension of apotheosis. Fatally wounded by four spears thrusted into his upper torso, 'Silver Roc' fights on with a super-human degree of determinism. While this persistently recurrent image in Chang's work lends itself to open interpretations hinging on recondite homosexuality, it nonetheless illustrates clearly that death/martyrdom in Golden Swallow signifies for Chang, the very essence of transcendence. Trapped in a material environment of perpetual frustration and evil, 'Silver Roc' can only achieve final release in the form of heroic death, an orgasmic fulfilment of the hidden 'self'. For the repressed individual, there is a fatal inevitability in such an act; already apparent in The Trail of the Broken Blade and proceeds to dominate the narrative in Golden Swallow. The extended final scene in which 'Silver Roc', already severely wounded, insists on meeting his destiny alone, simultaneously elevates individual effort to supreme significance, and transforms the death process into the abstraction of the sign.

More precisely, the denotation here of the protagonist's death becomes the synthesis of a biological consummation and an heroic confrontation with all that is evil. The sign is the process of defying worldly evils through the individual's strong will, a personal triumph anchored in a self-centred embrace of the inevitable. One finds here then, that the persistent recurrence of the death motif/sign in Chang's works (usually acted out by the protagonist) may indeed be rooted in mythology. In one sense, history is halted by the death of the hero since he then ascends to the realm of myth. Seen in this way, it is not surprising that the death scenes, exemplified by The Heroic Ones (1970) and The Blood Brothers, are so meticulously staged and overtly attentive in conveying the extreme physical cruelty and pain faced by the protagonist. For Chang, death is ultimately something to be glorified and glamorised; heroic death is glory and glamour.

The Wandering Swordsman: the Exaltation of Mindlessness

Implicit in Chang's glamorisation of death is the exaltation of the physical, an element thoroughly manifested in The Wandering Swordsman (1969), generally regarded as one of Chang's minor works. While the narrative centres on the adventure of You Xia'er (literally: knight-errant) as he is unscrupulously manipulated into a robbery, redemption materialises in yet another martyrdom/disembowelment, and the film points to the antimony between the physical and the intellect. The Wandering Swordsman, again set in a historically indeterminate period of the martial arts era, contrasts the villainous, scheming gangleader with the virtuous and naive swordsman who relies totally on his instincts. The juxtaposition leaves little doubt as to where Chang's sympathy lies. Indeed, the exaltation of the physical over the intellect in Chang's works hinges on an altered state of mindlessness. The heroic individual blindly submits to the fatal cycle of cause and effect while exercising little control over his own actions, except to conform to certain 'moral' obligations arising from loyalty, friendship, and love.

The extreme passivity and mindlessness of Chang's heroes are typified by You Xia'er (played by David Chiang) whose actions can be read as a series of automatic responses to the situations in which he finds himself. The element of mindlessness, coupled with physical strength, seems so essential to Chang that the heroic protagonists would challenge even the most formidable of forces without any hesitation. They act in accordance with the rather simplistic behavioral code, underlined by a stern sense of obligation. In varying degrees, later works such as Vengeance (1970) and Boxer from Shantung (1972) exhibit the same sense of obligation which becomes increasingly aroused from male bondage. This sense of obligation, and the patterns it follows, renders Chang's heroes generally devoid of any psychological depth and, with few exceptions, the characters remain one-dimensional. Situated in an oppressive microcosm, and driven by superimposed events, they invariably confront destiny in a final outburst not altogether without some form of mindless response, and the result is death.

If Chang indeed appears to propagate the exaltation of mindlessness, then the thematic motif is underlined by a strong sense of commitment. In Chang's case, the denotation of mindlessness not only exists as a mental and psychological state but also represents the very manifestations of heroic actions; and the sign becomes one of submission. Moreover, like death, submission here is also a process, specifically in embracing certain established notions, certain 'moral' obligations which, whether consciously or unconsciously, arouse/demand total commitment. Henceforth, submission abolishes all human complexities and erases dialectics. In its mode of simplicity, it comes to being a myth in itself.

The Blood Brothers: the Mythicisation of Individual Effort

If for Chang, death represents the final apotheosis of the 'tragic' hero, individual effort then becomes the obligatory path leading to ultimate transcendence. Fundamentally an act of self-affirmation for the protagonists, individual effort has always been a central motif underlying all of Chang's heroic figures (in varying degrees, in erupts from the sexual repression of the protagonists, acting as a catalytic channeling of energies). This can be seen as early as The Magnificent Trio (1966) and The Trail of the Broken Blade. The Blood Brothers, one of Chang's most mature and complicated works so far, pushes to the extreme the meaning of individual effort/heroism. Provoked by the murder of his sworn brother Huang Zong Hu by Ma Xinyi (played by Ti Lung) and the adultery between Ma and Huang's wife; the protagonist Zhang Wenxiang (played by David Chiang) single-handedly assassinates Ma, the Provincial Governor. The assassination scene, which occurs during a military parade, depicts Zhang jumping down from a high tower to deliver the fatal blow to Ma, an image bordering on a religious vision of the administration of justice. By comparison, the extended scenes of seemingly endless slaughter by the hero in Chang's previous works, notably in Golden Swallow and the end of Vengeance, distinctly lack the economy and directness which The Blood Brothers exhibits. However, the sign is just as clear; the hero is in the process of being mythicised.

Like death and mindlessness, individual effort ultimately becomes for Chang, an indispensable attribute of heroic figures. It follows quite logically that Chang's heroes are invariably individualists encapsulated in their own universe; the road to apotheosis is a lonely path denied to all but the heroic individuals. Here one finds another simplified mode of expression: individual effort embodies action, and signifies the meaning of heroism. The sign, which acts as the antithesis to collective actions, separates the hero from the rest of the world. The myth lies not so much in the hero himself but in the fabricated world in which heroism can be displayed; or, more precisely, the condition or requirements which underlie heroism that are transformed into the realm of myth. One begins to wonder: where do the myths in Chang's works lead to? The answer lies in the signification.

Connotations: Signification of Didacticism

To deconstruct Chang's thematic motifs into myths is to illustrate in Barthes' terms, an artificially constructed world "which is without contradictions because it is without depth, a world wide open and wallowing in the evident . . ." The question remains: why are the denotations of death, mindlessness and individual effort such essential elements? Or, as aesthetical components, do they signify anything more than simply denotations of thematic motifs? On a theoretical level, such aesthetical elements focus quite logically into an ideological entity which can be, but need not necessarily, interpreted on political grounds. This is a point at which myth enters. In as much as they are artificial constructions, myths inevitably embody didactic overtones through their clarity and simplicity. Within the artificially constructed world of his cinema, Chang's persistent and recurrent motifs are invariably presented in mythicised forms. Didacticism becomes the link between the denotation of thematic motifs and their connotation of signification. What ultimately consolidates his didacticism are the denotative elements themselves, which in turn give meaning to the secondary signification of the connotations.

Indeed, when Chang's encapsulated world of the 'tragic' hero is deconstructed to their essentials, one discovers that there is no tension inherent in the selection and combination of the existing motifs. In the sense that death in Chang's works becomes a manifestation of heroism, the circumstances surrounding the protagonist offer neither alternative nor resistance in witholding him from the pre-determined 'death-wish'. Death ultimately involves little conflict and tension. The hero desires death as much as Chang requires him to die. The co-existing elements of mindlessness and individual effort become instruments for the actualisation of the death process. The denotation is indispensable. From here, the connotations remain just as essential in Chang's works and, in turn, consolidate the effect of their signification. It follows that if the connotations are manifestations of heroism, then signification becomes the totality of Chang's personalised 'ideal'; and didacticism, the projection of the signification.

At the secondary level, signification is derived from the recurrent motifs and becomes an overall embodiment of what seems to be Chang's 'ideal' or aesthetical 'whole'. Like signs at their primary level of meaning, signification in here is also a process, one in which Chang's 'ideal' can be formulated and in turn destroyed/transcended. Didacticism resides in the act whereby each film/process, once initiated, and although unvarying, provides an opportunity of release/fulfilment for the director.

Henceforth, the didacticism in Chang's works is ulitimately related to the mechanism of identification, apparent in the film/audience relationship. Extended scenes underlined by the denotations of death and mindless heroic actions (in the form of mythicised individual effort) are only means by which audiences are encouraged to identify with the films' projected 'ideals'. It is here that the didacticism begins to crystallise but also becomes the obstacle in infusing into Chang's works any variation/opposition which they so markedly lack. For Chang, any thematic opposition might come into conflict with his didacticism, while variations in characters would jeopardise the process of identification. Yet is it precisely the lack of an alternative space where the film can be situated, or a shifting role in which the characters can operate that make Chang's works appear one-dimensional and flaccid.

To question Chang Cheh as an auteur then is to understand his work as an a priori construction, all of which spring from a definite set of aesthetics and a didactic framework which determine their final outcome. The lack of thematic variations is a correlative to his creative impetus, which denies him any degree of complexity otherwise traceable in works of other auteurs.

As to Chang's role as a metteur en scène, one immediately finds in his works the usual arrays of dead bodies arranged below the pedestal of the heroic figure, filling in every empty space in the background and foreground. . . . The territory seems promising for further exploration. All it requires is one heroic effort . . .


Bazin, Andre, What is Cinema?  Vol. 2.  Selected and trans. By Hugh 
     Gray.  Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 

Barthes, Roland, Mythologies, Trans. by Annette Lavers.  New York: Hill 
     and Wang, 1980.

Influence Magazine, Taipei.  No. 13, 1964.  [sic; actually from 1976]

Nichols, Bill (ed.), Movies and Methods, Berkeley and Los Angeles: 
     University of California Press, 1976.

Rayns, T. and Wong, W., Walking Encyclopedia of Cinema, Hong Kong: 
     Shakespeare Press, 1981.

Wollen, Peter, Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, 2nd ed., Bloomington/
     London: Indiana University Press, 1972.
(The author would like to acknowledge the assistance of Roger Garcia in the preparation of this article without whose enthusiasm the article would not be a reality and vice versa.)

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