Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Friends of 4DK: Oriole the Heroine by Durian Dave

Weak... so weak... head crossing... eyes spinning... knees curdling... blood trembling... Must... post... but can't... But wait... what's that on the horizon? Coming to the rescue, it's none other than Durian Dave of the dynamic Soft Film blog, bringing us a  fascinating post about one of the great heroines of classic Hong Kong cinema.

More than 40 years before Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Cheung, and Anita Mui knocked the socks off Hong Kong movie fans with their wuxia-superhero mashup The Heroic Trio (1992), there was another trio of stylish crimefighters kicking ass on Hong Kong’s silver screen. If you listened to last year’s Infernal Brains podcast about the “Jane Bond” films of 1960s Hong Kong, you might remember us talking about a certain Oriole the Heroine and her trusty sidekicks.


Born in 1948 in the pages of the Blue Cover Detective Magazine, Oriole (or Wong Ang) was a modern-day version of the xiadao, the righteous thief of traditional wuxia stories. The original stories published in Shanghai were patriotic spy thrillers set during the war of resistance against Japan. After the communists came to power, the magazine’s publisher fled to Hong Kong and continued publishing the Oriole stories, which proved so popular they were reissued as stand-alone editions and reprinted frequently. Over time, the stories evolved: Chinese gangsters replaced the Japanese villains; the plots became more complex and bizarre; and the writing style became more cinematic. The first official adaptation, Oriole, the Heroine (ca. 1957), came from Shaw Brothers. Two years later director Ren Pengnian and kung fu divas Yu So Chow, Wu Lizhu, and Yam Yin made a series of four films, the last of which was The Story of Wong Ang the Heroine (1960).


REN PENGNIAN got his start in 1919 at the motion picture unit of The Commercial Press, where he made what is believed to be the first Chinese film with choreographed fight scenes, Robbery on a Train (1920). He also directed the earliest feature-length Chinese film, a true-crime thriller called Yan Ruisheng (1921). Although he made everything from comedies to melodramas, Ren ended up devoting his career to action movies. In 1928 he and his wife Wu Lizhu founded the Yue Ming Studio and made films together up until the 60s. SWAH can be considered a last hurrah from the couple that pioneered the contemporary action film in Chinese cinema.


YU SO CHOW as Wong Ang aka Oriole the Heroine. The daughter of Peking opera master Yu Jim-yuen (who taught the Seven Little Fortunes), Yu So Chow grew up behind the stage and by her teens was an accomplished performer specializing in female warrior roles. (Check out this clip of Yu performing with her father.) Her fighting skills alone qualified her for the crown of wuxia queen, which she proudly wore during the 50s and much of the 60s, yet I suspect it was her beauty and glamour that cinched the title. Throughout her career — from her screen debut The Double Pistol Heroine (1949) to her rare non-fighting role in Bachelors Beware (1960) — Yu So Chow possessed a cool attitude and style that found perfect expression in the character of Wong Ang.

WU LIZHU as Wu Nga. Before Yu So Chow there was Wu Lizhu, who made a name for herself as the “Oriental Female Fairbanks” in silent serials such as The Northeast Hero (1928-31) and Mistress of the Spear (1931-32). Besides traditional wuxia and kung-fu films, Wu and her husband Ren Pengnian also made patriotic films such as Greedy Neighbors (1933), Female Spy 76 (1947), and Bloodshed in a Beseiged Citadel (1948), as well as the Occidental swashbuckler Lady Robin Hood (1947). When Wu returned to the screen in 1959 to make the first of four Wong Ang films, she was 52 years old. If it’s true you’re only as old as you feel, then judging by her performance in SWAH, Wu Lizhu most have been feeling pretty young indeed.

YAM YIN as Heung At. The daughter of Yam Yu-tin (who in 1927 was the first-ever credited martial-arts director), Yam Yin starred in some 130 kung-fu and wuxia movies throughout the 50s and 60s. Although her popularity never matched that of Yu So Chow, she was a mainstay of the Wong Fei-hung series. That she never wore the crown of martial-arts queen probably had more to do with Yu So Chow’s innate regalness than a lack of qualifications on Yam’s part. Her fight scenes in SWAH show that Yam possessed an intense physicality uniquely her own.

SHEK KIN as Chiu Yee-kong, leader of the Diamond Gang. If you don’t know Shek Kin, then you don’t know Hong Kong movies. Long before his memorable turn as Mr. Han in Enter the Dragon (1973), Shek was already the epitome of villainy to Hong Kong moviegoers. “Bad Guy Kin”, as he was affectionately called, made more than 500 films in a career spanning six decades. Although SWAH doesn’t showcase his considerable martial skills, Shek proves that sometimes all a villain needs is a nefarious smile, a good cigar, and a trap-door dungeon.

There is no credited fight choreo- grapher for SWAH, but with stunt masters YUEN SIU-TIN (left), LAU KAR-LEUNG (right), and KWAN CHING-LEUNG (not pictured) all appearing as members of Shek Kin’s Diamond Gang, you can be sure the action is top-notch. Yuen Siu-tin is best known for his iconic role as Jackie Chan’s sifu in Drunken Master (and also as the father of Yuen Wo-ping). Less known is that he got his start in movies in 1930 working as a stunt man and choreographer on the films of Ren Pengnian and Wu Lizhu. The late Lau Kar-leung needs no introduction. Suffice to say that before he helped revolutionize the martial-arts genre at Shaw Brothers, he honed his chops in Cantonese cinema. Kwan Ching-leung, a disciple of Yu So Chow’s father, may not be as famous as Lau, yet he contributed greatly to the modernization of martial-arts movies with his choreography in such wuxia spectaculars as The Snowflake Sword (1964) and The Six-Fingered Lord of the Lute (1965). (For more about the groundbreaking work of Lau and Kwan, see my review of Connie Chan’s Lady Black Cat films.)


Before the fists start to fly, the first thing that impresses about SWAH are the fab duds of Oriole and her pals. As I mentioned above, Yu So Chow really knew how to rock an outfit. And Wu Lizhu was no slouch either. Throughout her career, she sported a butch look that was never less than cool. Decked out in sweaters, vests, and blazers, capri pants (in plaid and houndstooth), cravats and scarves, our three heroines look so sharp that one scarcely misses the catsuit, mask, and cape featured on the pulp covers (and in the Shaw adaptation).


Of course the main reason to watch SWAH is the fights. The story itself is nothing special and primarily serves to keep the characters in motion. As Jean Lukitsch writes in the just published first volume of Electric Shadows: the Secret History of Kung Fu Movies, “A Ren Pengnian movie really comes alive in the fight scenes.... The characters don’t change; all the dramatic energy goes into the action.” Check out the clip below and judge for yourself. If you like what you see, you can watch the entire film here.

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