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FilmsAsia: Asian film reviews
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   Romance of Book and Sword  


The Romance of Book and Sword

Reviewed by Toh Hai Leong

Chinese Title: Shu jian en chou lu
Directed by: Ann Hui
Cast: Ai Nuo, Da Shichang, Zhang Duofu
Language: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong and China
Genre: Sword fighting
Date released: 1987
Runtime: 180 min
Rating: *** (out of four stars)

Ann Hui took three painstaking years in the making of this critically acclaimed The Romance of Book and Sword and its sequel, Princess Fragrance. She has redeemed herself with this first venture into the martial arts genre, after her monumental critical and commercial failure of Love in a Fallen City, an insipid love melodrama set in Hongkong during the Japanese invasion of World War II. She has accomplished what only a few have valiantly tried and failed, namely to create a coherent work of art and beauty. Romance and Fragrance transcends the hackneyed swashbuckling films which concern themselves myopically with tired themes of premier swordsmanship or vengeance.

Based on the highly popular novel of Louis Cha (Jin Yong), the two-part feature totally three hours of fascinating entertainment is set in the middle of 18th century China during the reign of the 5th Qing Emperor, Qian Long. Romance tells the legend of Chen Jialo, an ethnic Han leader of the clandestine Red Flower Society who vows to overthrow the Manchu Qing Dynasty. Fragrance is more of a triangular love story between Jialo and the two pretty minority Muslim Wei sisters, Chingtong and Hesili.Romance opens spectacularly with a striking image of a huge tidal wave building its roaring momentum to smash a wall of water onto the shore - symbol of the onslaught of time and tide (history) that waits for no man. This major theme of man’s insignificance in the face of relentless change in history is echoed by Qian Long on the anniversary of his mother’s death: ‘How dynasties change like waves coming and going.’ As he ends his philosophical musing, there is an image of lapping waves, each following the other, hitting the sand and dying away.

The film also embraces other major themes such as conflicting loyalties and betrayal, which are central to the understanding of its unifying structure.

Ann Hui establishes the flesh and blood bond of Jialo and Qian Long who by an ironic twist of fate are sons of a serving Han Prime Minister in the Imperial Manchu Court. As Emperor Qian Long comes to know that he is Jialo’s long-lost older Han brother, there is no avoiding the issue of divided loyalties.

Each tries desperately and destructively to win over the other in a contest of stubborn will power at the cost of their men’s lives. A larger political stage is set in which the two brothers represent a divided China struggling for a national identity in a period of unrest.Romance evokes a sense of sadness, a feeling of transitory love and fragile emotions that must come to pass. Ann Hui achieves the pervading mood through the judicious use of backlighting. The winter motif, low-key lighting, filters and contrasting interplay of silence and sound. The contrast technique is utilized to its fullest artistry in the scene of the encirclement of the Red Flower leader Yu Wanting and fellow fighters battling the Manchu soldiers, intercut with Qian Long quietly contemplating by the Imperial corridors and enjoying the slight snow fall in the wake of approaching winter (symbol of futility and waste).

The mood of Fragrance is even more pregnant with a foreshadowing sense of doom with the opening shot of Jialo’s back and his horse backlit against the last dying rays of the setting sun amid the haunting music score, the theme music of Romance.

The impossibility of the two sisters’ love for Jialo is played out against the larger whole of the doomed bid of the Red Flower Society to topple the Manchu regime. Earlier in Fragrance, Hesili falls in love with Jialo the moment she glances at him from the pond where she washes her hair. The love is reciprocated but thwarted by Qian Long who sends his army to wipe out the Wei tribe except for Jialo’s captured fiancee Heili and his other love, Chingtong, who is heartbroken, seriously ill and lost in the desert. Qian Long wishes to marry Hesili, and pleads with Jialo to persuade her to agree. In exchange Qian Long will take up the earlier promise to fight for the Han cause. But it is not to be so. The earlier motif of futility and insignificance comes full circle in the poignant scene of Jialo and Hesili spending time together at the Great Wall in the dead of winter before the marriage to Qian Long. In the breathtaking soaring helicopter shot of Jialo and Hesili hugging almost sensually for the last time together, the message is reinforced in the increasing tiny figures lost in the huge wintry desolation.

The love of Hesili for Jialo resonates with a powerful poignance that transcends time and physical existence. So when Hesili ends her life tragically her loss is felt in both brothers’ hearts, especially Jialo who has reciprocated her love though he also loves the older Chingtong.

A comparison of the two films, however, shows the second is not as tightly paced and controlled as the first. Ann Hui compensates for it by keeping the major characters in focus and hints of jealousy between the two women who vie for the same man. Like King Hu’s films, the highly stylish and breathtakingly montage fights, a graceful mix of Chinese ballet and Beijing Opera, are the high artistic points, brilliantly choreographed, shockingly violent at times and always filmed against the realistic backdrop of windswept mountains or sand-blown deserts.Fragrance closes with the finale, reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch massacre in which the whole Red Flower Society rebel group is wiped out except for brokenhearted and defeated Jialo. However, Machiavellian Qian Long is no victor either. As Jialo walks away defiantly and alone in the snow from the scene of his men’s massacre, Ann Hui’s bleak personal vision of man’s vain quest for domination overwhelming the final image of cold desolation. T.S. Eliot’s Hollow Men could well be the fitting epitaph for the two Chen brothers, who seek but do not find.

In the end, Romance and Fragrance are distinguished from any other wu hsiao-pien (gungfu-cum-swordplay) genre films by their contemplative visual bravado, an impeccable sense of martial arts choreography, first-rate whiplash editing, and a wisely reticent screenplay, devoid of superficiality and pretentious one-liners.