The Fallen Idol -- Zhang Che in Retrospect
by Tian Yan
Working under the studio system, a director with a box office hit is
often assigned to make films in the same genre until his name is
synonymous with it. In Hollywood, John Ford represents Western, Billy
Wilder: Comedy, Vincente Minelli: Musical, Douglas Sirk: Melodrama.
Zhang Che is such a case in Hong Kong. Ever since the success of Tiger
Boy in 1964, he has been making Martial Arts films.
Interestingly, Zhang has maintained the wuxia formula in his
non-wuxia pian. Be they historical dramas (The Assassin, The Heroic
Ones, The Boxer Rebellion), tales about juvenile-delinquents (The Young
Generation, The Generation Gap, Friends), musicals (The Singing Thief),
social dramas (Dead End, The Delinquent), adaptations of classic (The
Water Margin), thrillers (The Singing Killer) or fairy tales (The
Fantastic Magic Baby, Na Cha the Great), they all ended up belonging in
the same format. There is no sign of him giving up the wuxia pian genre,
either: The Ghost, released in Hong Kong in 1983, is reminiscent of
Vengeance, made at the peak of his career in 1970.(1) Reportedly, The
Heroic Ones from Shanghai, his latest, is another martial arts
feature.(2) Twenty years ago, Zhang created a sensation with his violent
tragi-romantic wuxia pian, promptly becoming one of the major directors
in town. Today, his name is nearly forgotten, fading out alongside the
genre that had put him on the map.
Yet Zhang continues to produce martial arts movies with a
determination that can be best described as "curious." Persistance,
especially for those involved in visual arts, is usually a welcomed
gesture. It means continuous refinement of a style under self-imposed
restrictions. For reasons ranging from personality to commercial value,
directors of the older generation are obstinate in choosing their
projects: Li Hanxiang focuses on lavish court-dramas and folklore, Tao
Qin has a keen interest in melodramas. King Hu, specializing in wuxia
pian with a historical background, emerges as one of the purest stylists,
consistently polishing and expanding the same style from film to film.
But Zhang's persistance has little to do with aesthetics. In many cases,
it functions merely as personal indulgence and an assurance of the box
office.(3) When the tragi-romantic wuxia pian genre is replaced by other
trends, his films move into a dead end, and they no longer trigger the
imagination of the audience.
Liu Jialiang and Tang Jia, with occasional collaborator Chen Quan,
are the martial arts instructors in Zhang's early films. After Liu's own
directorial debut with The Spiritual Boxer (1975), the roles of martial
arts instructors in Zhang's films are taken over by Lu Feng, Jiang Sheng
and Guo Zhui. Fight scenes designed by Liu and Tang are forceful, with
concrete and vivid details emphasising the agility of the fighters. The
climactic moment, usually a decisive duel between between good and evil,
is filmed in long takes in a semi-documentary style. It is best
exemplified by the Shaolin series Zhang made between 1974 and 1975.
This technique allows the actors to show off their martial arts
skills to the full extent, and is imitated by numerous kung-fu films.
Two variations of the style emerged in the mid-seventies the first,
represented by Liu's films, stretches the documentary element. The
images serve as illustrations of a certain boxing style from a certain
school -- a direct descendent of Zhang's Shaolin series, with more
dramatic and intensified effects. The other variation is employed
extensively in kung-fu comedy, with its emphasis on acrobatic movements,
cleverly manipulating props and situations to achieve comical effects.
Later, in the late seventies, wuxia series became enormously popular
on television. Advanced electronic technology helped push the diplay of
martial arts to a new realm: a world of superhuman and superpower.
These changes did not seem to affect Zhang Che, who continued to
direct his films in exactly the same style that he established earlier.
Five Element Ninjas (1982), which features a host of exotic weapons
similar to those seen in The One-Armed Swordsman (1967), proves to be a
deja vu that offers nothing fresh. Shaolin Rescuers (1979), a kung-fu
comedy imitation, turns out to be unfunny and stiff due to Zhang's poor
knowledge of Cantonese humour. Two years ago, he adapted five of Jin
Yong's wuxia novels: The Brave Archer Part I to III, The Brave Archer and
His Mate and Ode to Gallantry. Apparently, they were produced in the
wake of the television series based on the same books. However, Zhang
stays true to himself, uninfluenced by trend and fashion.
Fight scenes serve as centrepieces in King Hu's work. But unlike
Zhang, who also features fight scenes as high points in his films, Hu
either reads new meaning in them or experiments with them. They might
function as an exercise of montage (A Touch of Zen), an amalgamation of
theatre and cinema (Anger, The Fate of Lee Khan), a struggle of power
(Raining in the Mountain), or a formation of war strategy (The Valiant
Ones). They are not merely form, but also content. Zhang, on the other
hand, treats his quite differently. His fight scenes serve but one
purpose: to stimulate the senses. With nothing substantial thematically
to fall on, they appear dated as soon as the design of the fights go out
Other fatal weaknesses are evident in Zhang's work. Since his early
days as a director, he has been criticized for his unrefined technique
and sloppy narrative structure. He declares in an interview: "I never
plan the shots . . . and I don't believe in planning them, either."(4)
About the authenticity of costume and hairstyle in period dramas, he
says: "I ignore research totally . . . it is deliberate on my part . . .
in my opinion, one should do what one pleases."(5) He also admits his
flaws: "I am not a cool and practical planner who works things out in an
orderly fashion. This failing results in the inconsistency of my work.
Sometimes they are good, and sometimes they look coarse."(6)
These remarks, however candid they may be, cannot be accepted as
valid reasons for lenient criticism. In fact, Zhang's "disorderly
fashion" has taken on an irritating air since the late seventies.
Chinatown Kid, made in 1977, is a perfect example. Though a large part
of the story takes place in San Francisco, the film was shot in the Shaw
studio. The few inserted shots of San Francisco are stock films, and the
exteriors were shot on the streets of Hong Kong. Even the interesting
recurrent theme -- the fatalistic tragedy of a social climber -- cannot
mask the unforgivable sloppiness of the production. After Chinatown Kid,
almost every film by Zhang is shot in the studio, and the production gets
gradually worse. The apparent decline can no longer by explained by his
Zhang's achievement and his contribution to Hong Kong cinema cannot
be overlooked, though. From the mid-sixties to mid-seventies, his
enormous output has made him one of the major local directors, who, in a
decade, directed well over seventy features. Almost single-handedly, he
started the trend of the so-called New Wuxia Pian and the Shaolin Kung-fu
films. The former was so popular that it catalysed the rise of the
Mandarin cinema, which ultimately replaced the Cantonese cinema. His
most important "contribution," however, remains the pioneering of a
male-oriented/dominated ideology in Hong Kong cinema. At the same time,
he is responsible for putting such prominent male stars as Wang Yu, Jiang
Dawei [David Chiang], Di Long [Ti Lung] and Fu Sheng in the spotlight.
The male dominated-ideology was considered "macho" at the time.
Zhang's is a cinema of masculinity. It is packed with action scenes
notorious for their detailed depictions of gory disembowelments and
dismemberments, predominated by a sense of individual heroism. His
"hero" is either a proud and misunderstood loner who is doomed, or a
rebellious youth full of energy which turns out to be destructive. It is
exemplified by the roles Wang Yu plays in two of the early works, The
Assassin (1967) and The Golden Swallow (1968).
In the former, which is set in the Warring States, Wang plays Nie
Zheng, a most typical example of Zhang's energetic youth whose ideal is
to offer himself to the country. He is made doubly frustrated when
circumstances forced him to become, of all professions, a butcher. When
he is asked to assassinate the evil Prime Minister Han Kui by the
latter's opponent Yan Zhongzi, obviously to avenge a personal grudge,
Nie's life seems to take on a special meaning. Since Nie understands
perfectly well the fatalistic nature of his mission, Zhang's depiction of
his heroism thus has a strong self-destructive tone. When Han is killed
in the climactic scene, Zhang combines cinema and theatre techniques to
create a stunning effect: as the background is darkened, Nie turns his
back, disembowels, disfigures and blinds himself. His action is seen as a
martyrdom in which self-destruction is the ultimate fulfilment of the
In The Golden Swallow, Wang plays the arrogant Silver Roc who
secretly admires Golden Swallow (Zhang Peipei). To get her out of
seclusion, he commits a series of murders in her name. But his action
results in endless misunderstandings. When he dies in the final scene,
with four daggers implanted in his chest, he fails to even utter his
love. In another scene, he writes a poem to express his loneliness and
pride. Zhang dissolves into a white backdrop with the poem written in
blown-up calligraphy, and Silver Roc stands in the foreground. The image
reminds one of the blackening technique in The Assassin. These two
scenes are exemplary of their stylistic experiments which, unfortunately,
were submerged in the commercialism of Zhang's later works. The two
characters played by Wang continue to appear in Zhang's films, and they
are best personified by Jiang Dawei and Di Long, two of Zhang's most
gifted actors. In nearly every film, Zhang projects a similar sentiment
"made complicated by a mixture of anger, despair, repression and
anarchism"(7) onto these two characters. The fact that this kind of
emotion was considered novel and unique at the time, particularly in
wuxia pian, is understandable. Although he has never refined his
technique in blending form and content into a style, his films,
nevertheless, carry a strong personality that is unmistakably Zhang's.
However, as critic Zhen Ming points out, Zhang's heroes "are often
selfless and righteous in the early films. But later, they become
ultra-individualists, and eventually, self-indulgent maniacs. In The
One-Armed Swordsman, Wang Yu loses his arm and retreats into the
wilderness. He returns later to avenge his foster father. The theme of
The New One-Armed Swordsman (1971) is similar, but revenge for a friend
is only an excuse for Jiang Dawei -- the real reason being the revenge
for his lost arm. In The Wandering Swordsman (1970), the hero is an
exploiter. He kills the villains for a personal pledge, but not for the
well-being of the public. In a memorable scene, he suddenly appears from
the tree top, offering the impoverished farmers money to pay rent, then
promptly disappears in thin air. Like characters in fairy tales, he
emerges more as god than human. The hero in The Deadly Duo (1971) is
also unrealistic. He proves his existence as a hero by dying foolishly.
Whereas in Boxer from Shantung (1972), the downfall of the hero begins
when his heroic image is spoiled by his selfishness. His later fights
are all justified for his own advantage. From here on, Zhang's heroes
are caught in the dead end of individualism. Both The Delinquent (1973)
and The Generation Gap (1973) put the blame of the heroes' misdeeds on
society. To conclude, Zhang's heroes are merely pseudo-romantics, their
repression simply a form of self-indulgence with suicidal tendency."(8)
One last interesting element of Zhang's films is the depiction of
male bondage [the writer meant to say "bonding, one guesses, but perhaps
this was a Freudian Slip on the writer's part?]. The homosexual
undertone, though at times repressed and lenient, is detectable.
Sometimes it takes a drastic turn, materialising in vulgar and grotesque
display -- most notably, in the many scenes that feature the heroes,
always with a protruding weapon in the stomach, spilling blood as if
ejaculating. Such repression surfaces in the most perverse manner in
Heaven and Hell (1980), in which Zhang dresses almost every male as a
transvestite. They wear heavy make-up, and the costumes look like
mini-skirts. This gay ideology, though bizarre at first glance, becomes
pointless and trite very soon, since Zhang fails to develop any variation
or progression. He always employs the same actors, uses the same
technique, and utilizes more or less the same narrative structure.
Judging from this point, he is no more than a fallen idol -- if, indeed,
he had ever acquired such a status.
Zhang left Shaw Brothers ten years ago to form Chang's Film Company,
a satelite company of Shaw, in Taiwan. He produced the series of Shaolin
films there, beginning with Heroes Two in 1974. [return to article]
The Heroic Ones from Shanghai [aka Shanghai 13?] features five
generations of Zhang's "godsons" -- actors who were first given major
roles by him, and who became popular. The "family tree" reads as
1st generation: Wang Yu.
2nd generation: Jiang Dawei, Di Long, Chen Guantai, Wang Zhong.
3rd generation: Fu Sheng, Qi Guanjun [aka Chi Kuan Chun].
4th generation: Guo Zhui, Lu Feng, Jiang Sheng, Luo Mang, Sun Jian.
5th generation: Cheng Tianci, Long Tianxiang, Qian Xiaohao. [return to article]
Between 1972 and 1973, Zhang was credited as director or co-director
on seventeen and half films. Reportedly, he actually acted as supervisor
on some of them, but due to his popularity, he was credited as
co-director. [return to article]
Law Kar, "Romanticism and the Box Office," (Hong Kong, Ming Pao
Monthly, No. 63, March 1971), pp. 102, 103. [return to article]
Zhen Ming, "An Analysis on Zhang Che's Films" (Taiwan, Influence
Magazine, No. 13, April 1976), pp. 30, 31. [return to article]
The embrace: Zhang Che's Blood Brothers (1973) is the only film in his
oeuvre which depicts strong heterosexual love relationships and
conflicts. At the same time, these relationships are expressed in the
form of a "forbidden love." Jing Li (first photo) averts her gaze when
Di Long touches her in a symbolic expression of their doomed love. In
the Four Riders (1972), Di Long and Chen Guantai both direct their gaze
to the off-screen space and are thus bound in a relationship of heroic
In The Duel (1971), Jiang Dawei and Di Long start off as friends, become
enemies, make up as friends again, and die together fighting evil. This
is a fairly standard theme in Zhang's work. Both men are often killed
also by being pierced in the stomach. In this case, the kill is in the
shape of a bamboo pole and a knife, and shot in slow motion to emphasise
the shuddering of the body -- either in pain as death comes, or in the
ecstacy from the liberation of repressed desire.