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Photo of the day: Zhang Yimou and the Return of Wuxia

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This week’s photo theme is Unsung Heroes of Kung Fu — we’re shouting out lesser-known legends of kung fu cinema to expand your mind beyond Jackie, Jet, and Bruce.

We’re reaching the end of this week’s photo theme now, and you, dear reader, must be brimming over with newfound martial arts film knowledge (if you’re not, click that link above and stock up on some esoteric dinner party facts). If you’ve been paying attention, you might remember that time in the ’70s when everyone got bored of cheap flying effects and supernatural camera cutscatalyzing the switch to a more realistic sense of martial arts action.

Actually, that genre of flying martial arts superheroes has its own name, wuxia, and shouldn’t be confused with the more worldly sort of kung fu flick. Picture Drunken Master, which follows Jackie Chan chasing girls, getting into neighborhood scraps, and trying to dodge his dad’s punishments. That’s a kung fu movie. Now picture Hero, with Jet Li running across lakes, and having swordfights in the sky with ancient Chinese assassins. That’s a wuxia movie. Wuxia movies were once all the rage — they spoke directly to the traditions of Chinese culture, and were considered incredibly exciting in the early days of film, back when the visual treat of a moving picture was already enough to grab viewers. But soon enough, audiences stopped being captivated by that kind of old-school special effects, and the focus shifted to martial arts films with more of a connection to the real world.

Hero (2003) trailer. Please excuse the dated “movie trailer narrator voice.”

This is a lengthy way to get to the point, but here it is: Zhang Yimou changed all that. He’s our last photo for this week, as the man who, more than anyone else, revived the wuxia genre for modern day audiences.

At this point in the wuxia arc, it would be wrong not to mention Ang Lee’s tour de force, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. The film was nominated for ten Academy Awards, and proved the genre could hit home with an overseas audience. With that in mind, Zhang Yimou directed Hero, targeting an international viewership. Audiences fell in love with the balance of action, romance, and cinematic beauty, all channeled through this exotic medium of China and kung fu.

Hero received sweeping critical praise and a 95% score on Rotten Tomatoes, so it’s not surprising that Zhang continued to push forward with his wuxia renaissance. In 2004, he gave us House of Flying Daggers, which also received over-the-top enthusiasm from critics. Curse of the Golden Flower continued in the same vein in 2006.

Zhang Yimou did more than anyone to define the tragic beauty and lush visuals of modern wuxia. We have to give him thanks for these films, which are all worth watching over and over again.

Adan Kohnhorst
Adan Kohnhorst is a Shanghai-based writer, producer, and multimedia artist, and the Associate Editor at RADII. His work has been featured in publications such as Maxim and the Chinese-language StreetVoice, and he’s an active member of the hip-hop and DIY music scenes in Shanghai, NYC, and Dallas. He learned Mandarin in high school so he could train at the Shaolin Temple, but now just uses it to interview rappers.