Tuesday, December 30, 2008

First Kungfu Heroes 'Flew' with Wires and Pulleys

2008-12-29 16:06:31 Shanghai Daily
As early as the 1920s, Chinese films became distinct and popular and most were made in trendy wide-open Shanghai.

China's first wuxia film, "The Burning of Red Lotus Temple"

As early as the 1920s, Chinese films became distinct and popular and most were made in trendy wide-open Shanghai, China's Hollywood and magnet of creativity.

After the first Opium War ended in 1842, Westerners flocked to Shanghai, bringing their culture, and early last century, their films.

"Starting in the mid-1920s, when domestic film makers no longer imitated European and American films, Chinese cinema entered a cruel battle of commercial competition," writes Professor Li Daoxin in his book, "History of Chinese Film Culture (1905-2004)."

At that time, Western movies grabbed the major market share, leaving little space for Chinese films, Professor Li says. To carve out their own market share, Chinese film makers came up with wuxia (martial arts) films, an original genre of Chinese cinema. They were silent films until 1931.

"War and social issues in the early 20th century, together with the Chinese culture of xia (the hero) contributed to the birth of the genre," writes Professor Li. "People hoped that heroes who could fly about freely could also protect the weak and fight against evil."

"The Burning of Red Lotus Temple" (1928) is typical. Directed by Zhang Shichuan, it was based on popular wuxia fiction about a young man who accidentally discovers the secret of the Red Lotus Temple - an mysterious cavern with a disgusting smell.

The film used more than 400 stuntmen from professional martial arts schools. Iron wires and pulleys allowed the actors to "fly" between scenes, creating stunning effects.

"With chase and action scenes imported from Western movies, together with wild imagination inspired by Chinese fiction, the film genre has been quite popular ever since," says Wan Chuanfa, a lecturer in film study at Shanghai University.

Premiered in May 1928, "The Burning of Red Lotus Temple" broke national box-office records and later screened in Nanjing (Jiangsu Province), Guangzhou (Guangdong Province) and elsewhere.

A martial arts stereotype was then born: A young man accidentally discovers a secret or is given special powers for miraculous kung fu. He becomes an omnipotent fighter who rescues the weak and vanquishes evil.

The passion for martial arts continued to this day; "Red Lotus" was screened for three years and had 17 sequels.

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