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Boxing Days

Enlightenment meets whup-ass in martial arts retro

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Heroic Grace: The Chinese Martial Arts Film, Part II
July 12 through 20, Walter Reade

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The sequel series to last year's Walter Reade survey of all things Hong Kong, this mini-retro sticks closely to the Shaw Brothers kung fu epics of the '70s and early '80s, before director-producer Tsui Hark brought his quixotic mixture of reckless care and measured speed to the genre. As before, the odd, childish contradiction between Taoist-Buddhist cognitive discipline and the use of its resulting levels of enlightenment for vengeance and whup-ass is especially notable from a cultural remove. There's also the fascinating way the Boxer Rebellion, the only historical incident in which the dream of martial arts superhumanhood played a significant part, has been exploited in modern movie mythology. The fin de siécle movement has been rewritten scores of times, most popularly by rough-hewn granddaddy Zhang Che, whose many dalliances with the Boxers are repped here by the fanciful The Boxer From Shantung (1972) and The Five Venoms (1978). (Chung Chang-wha's King Boxer, released in 1972 and brought to the States as Five Fingers of Death, igniting the Bruce Lee era, has nothing to do with the uprising and everything to do with hating the Japanese.) Chu Yuan's The Magic Blade (1976), Clans of Intrigue (1977), and The Jade Tiger(1977) return to us a medieval neverland of combating cults, clans, "houses," "schools," lineages, rebel forces, and gangs; the action matures past the emphatic zooms of the '70s to jump-cut montage. But stand back for Lau Kar-leung's Legendary Weapons of China (1982), an almost Tsui-esque Boxer fantasy that piles the daffy plot of a five-hour serial into 100 minutes and offers up the spectacle of a telepathically controlled warrior who rips off his own genitals in midair.

 
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