Red Heroine

by wjw on September 30, 2008

Tonight’s entertainment was Red Heroine, the oldest surviving wuxia, dating from 1929. The silent film was given a live accompaniment by Devil Music Ensemble, one of a number of groups now touring the country providing music for silent films.

The film opens with the attack of the Tartar Western Army upon the poor but virtuous people of the South. The Tartars are equipped with swords, banners, long hair, and REALLY BIG MEXICAN SOMBREROS.

The Tartars are led by the General, who lounges on a fur-covered couch in a kind of Hollywood villa, served hand, foot, and steely sword by a number of near-naked beauties in bikinis.

As with so many men in this position, he longs for a wife. This will cause trouble later on.

In a nearby village lives the virtuous maiden Yun Mei, inexplicably called Yun Ko in the subtitles, and played by the actress Fan Xuepeng, a popular wuxia star who had quite a long career. She lives with her blind, crippled grandmother and devotes herself to a life of filial piety. When the Tartars attack, the neighboring family, which includes Rich Squire, Pretty Daughter, and Sinister Servant, offer to help her evacuate. She refuses to leave unless Granny can come with her, and granny clearly can’t walk, so Rich Squire & Co. take off on their own.

Next comes the character described in the titles as “Cousinbrother,” a poor but idealistic scholar, played by director Wen Yimin. He carries Granny on his back while Yun Mei staggers under the burden of rather a lot of household paraphernalia.

Behind them, however, a clay pot left on the stove explodes in a moment of heavy symbolism . . .

The Tartars attack. Granny is trampled to death, Yun Mei is carried off to be presented to the General, and Cousinbrother is left to bury the old lady.

Commanding the General’s bodyguard is Teeth, a comic villain with a straggling overbite and an unattractive habit of drooling. He presents the General with the day’s roundup of virgins, in which Yun Mei rather stands out. The General rises from his fur-covered couch, pushes aside his harem of bikini-clas concubines, swaggers up to her and demands . . . HER HAND IN MARRIAGE!!!!!!!!

Or, as the title card has it, “When you to marry General, you will have gold— power— glory!” (English subtitling hadn’t got much better by the 1980s, by the way.)

The steadfast girl refuses, and is carried up to the general’s lair to be stripped and subjected to marriage. Fortunately— as revealed in a subsequent flashback— Cousinbrother had encountered a wandering Taoist scholar, White Monkey, and told him of her situation. White Monkey decides to intervene.

Chinese cinema has a long tradition of wandering masters being played by men with really unconvincing facial hair, and White Monkey is no exception. His hair and beard look less like hair and more like some kind of creepy pale fungus. (The Chinese master in Kill Bill, with his eyebrows that looked as if they were cut from a carpet and pasted onto his face, is a takeoff on this tradition.)

White Monkey rescues Yun Mei from her Fate Worse Than Not Marriage, and takes her off to his hermitage to instruct her in martial arts.

THREE YEARS LATER peace is declared, and the villagers move back to town. Unfortunately the General has established his military camp nearby, around the same H0llywood villa he’d occupied during the campaign.

There follows a rather lengthy plot which I failed to entirely understand due largely to the weird pidgin English used in the title cards, but it comes down to this: Sinister Servant— remember him?— lusts after Pretty Daughter, but is caught by Rich Squire and kicked out of the house. Sinister Servant then goes to the General and tells him that Rich Squire is an enemy spy, and Rich Squire is arrested. The General announces he’ll let Rich Squire go if Pretty Daughter gives him . . . HER HAND IN MARRIAGE!!!!!!!!! Pretty Daughter consents, and she marries the General.

The morning after the wedding night, the General orders Papa killed anyway. Pretty Daughter objects. “Bind his feel!” the General commands— apparently his wedding night was so passionate that his brain is badly effected, so that he mistakes both the sex and body parts of his bride— the bikini girls tie Pretty Daughter’s hands together.

Things are looking pretty hopeless! Who can save them now?

Enter White Monkey, arriving on his ass. During the course of a rather lengthy conversation with Cousinbrother and Rich Gentry’s family, he explains that Yun Mei will shortly arrive to thrash the bad guys. Which she does, waving her sword while flying through the air in an early version of wire-fu. She too engages in a lengthy chat-fest, during which time Rich Gentry is strung up for execution and Pretty Daughter goes into fits. You wonder when she’s going to get around to rescuing everybody. Eventually Yun Mei remembers she’s a superheroine and flies into the General’s compound at about the time we remember that “Yun Mei” means “Cloud Virgin” in Chinese.

A stirring fight scene commences, in which Yun Mei thrashes the Tartar army with the help of a band of revolutionaries that just happen to be in the neighborhood. The Cloud Virgin is pretty ruthless— after kicking the General around his house and down the stairs, she runs his helpless body through and dispatches him.

It has to be said that the kung-fu in this movie isn’t very interesting— the fights resemble a lot of combat in the era of silent film, a lot of flailing around amid scenery that’s too cramped for a good battle. People just hadn’t learned to film fight scenes yet.

At the end, the Tartars are defeated, and Yun Mei hangs around long enough to arrange a marriage between Scholar Cousinbrother and Pretty Daughter, who seems little the worse for wear after her night with the General. In the end, the Cloud Virgin leaps back into the sky and sails off, waving her sword. The End.

It’s not really a great movie, even for the period, but it’s right smack in the Chinese wuxia tradition that carries down to the present day. If you’re into this sort of thing, you’ll like it. But the odds are that you’ll like it even if you’ve never seen a wuxia before.

It wasn’t a happy ending just for the characters in the movie. Fan Xueping worked into the Sixties, though she had to stop making wuxia movies after the Nationalist government banned “superstitious films” in 1931. Director Wen Yimin went on to work with the Shaw Brothers both as an actor and director, often under the Cantonese version of his name, Man Yat-man.

The Devil Music Ensemble provided expert live music, featuring Western and Chinese percussion, synthesizer, guitar, xylophone, a viola tuned so that it sounded Chinese, and erhu. (Hey! The second time I’ve heard erhu in a week!)

Rated four chops (one for the live music). Check it out.

To see if Red Heroine and Devil Music is playing in your neighborhood, check the DME schedule.

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