The Eleventh Son by Gu Long

If you want to read professionally translated wuxia fiction besides the work of Jin Yong and are not Chinese literate, you have two options: the almost laughably verbose Blades from the Willows by Huanzhulouzhu, or Gu Long’s The Eleventh Son, which is written almost entirely in short hand. Gu Long was a contemporary of Jin Yong, and while Jin Yong adaptations ruled the wuxia film and television offerings of the nineties, Hong Kong and Taiwanese film makers of the seventies and early eighties adapted Gu Long with wild abandon. Shaw Brothers studio director Chu Yuan set off the Gu Long spree with successful adaptations like The Magic Blade, Killer Clans, and Swordsman and Enchantress. The last is an adaptation of the subject of this book review.

The plot centers around Xiao Shiyi Lang (literally “The Eleventh Son” of the title), who gets mixed up in a plot to steal the “Deer Carver” saber, an extraordinary blade in the care of the “Six Ideal Gentlemen.” But the real meat of the story revolves around the love triangle built between Xiao, unfairly referred to as the “Great Bandit,” Lian Chengbi, the leader of the Ideal Gentlemen who have it in for Xiao Shiyi Lang, and his beautiful wife, Shen Bijun. Xiao absconds from the search for the blade before it is recovered, and in the process ends up saving Shen Bijun from the villainous “Little Mister,” who not only stole the blade, but killed one of the ideal gentlemen and burned down Shen’s ancestral home, framing Xiao for the whole mess.

After saving her life multiple times, Shen finds herself caught between her duty as the wife of the cultured and respected Lian Chengbi and her sense of justice. Lian and his associates intend to kill Xiao Shiyi Lang regardless of his innocence or his efforts to save Shen’s life. Her growing feelings for Xiao, his barely concealed feelings for her, and the quickly revealed corruption of the leaders in the “martial order” complicate Shen’s situation further.

Gu’s themes are drawn rather broadly and he has no problem interjecting himself in expository passages. The story makes Xiao into a sort of martyred free spirit, a noble vagrant victimized by the hypocrisy of an upper-class in the martial order who seek to control everything through duty, coercion, or simple lies that nobody bothers to question. We witness Shen Bijun caught in her duty to her husband, who is as close to true gentleman that anybody described in the novel seems to get, and her love for Xiao Shiyi Lang, to whom she owes a degree of loyalty and not just because she loves him. Lian is not a horrible person, but he is neglectful and a part of the unjust confederacy of martial artists that wants to do away with the righteous Xiao because he is powerful enough to endanger their schemes. But Shen’s own sense of righteousness will not allow her to be unfaithful to her husband or to abandon Xiao.

And besides the personal drama, Gu draws a martial order controlled by a sub- Nietzschean puppet master who fancies himself beyond not only conventional morality, but humanity. He claims to be a god, and the novel spends an extended interlude illustrating one of his ludicrous methods of controlling people and conditioning their behavior. There’s a sort of free will versus determinism argument happening in these chapters, which reflect a similar conflict happening in the rest of the plot: the conflict between Xioa’s free-spirited wandering and the duty of the martial world, between Shen Bijun’s duty and her feelings.

It’s a shame that Gu’s characterization falters after the first act. Xiao, who Gu casts very well as a lovable rogue in the early portions of the story, is a sad-sack drunk for much of the rest of the novel, and is thoroughly unlikable. Shen is much too fragile and helpless, which, when contrasted against the other female characters in the novel, is presented as something of a virtue. Xiao seems to enjoy her neediness; it’s almost seems to be what he loves about her. I’d consider that a character flaw, but Gu sentimentalizes helplessness and victimization -- alcoholism too.

Gu Long was famously alcoholic. Drank himself to death, in fact. He also had notorious affairs and two illegitimate children. I find it difficult not to read Xiao as a stand-in for the author, a handsome, impossibly stoic, unusually intelligent, superbly masculine, painfully misunderstood stand-in. The author is tied up in knots of self-pity regarding women and duty and alcohol. It seems we’re reading his wish-fulfillment fantasies. This leaves something of a bad aftertaste, as it becomes increasingly clear that it is the author, rather than his protagonist and narrator, who is tied up in knots about women and sentimental about his addictions.

The plotting gets a bit unclear as well. As soon as Xiao abandons the search for the Deer Carver, the narration does too, although a careful reader will realize that the plot-line is actually wrapped up once the villain and his motives are revealed.

But for all that, The Eleventh Son is fantastic entertainment, owing much to Gu’s idiosyncratic style. I mentioned the film adaptations of Gu’s work, and it seems to me that his writing style lends itself well to cinema.

Watching Chu Yuan’s adaptations, and the Taiwanese films of directors like Cheung Paang-Yee, I thought there would be a touch of Mervyn Peake in Gu’s writing. Chu Yuan makes the martial world a sort of urban-wonderland, thanks to the artifice of Shaw set design and studio shooting, in which ancient China seems like a giant urban sprawl beset by occult martial clans and mad schemes concocted by conniving mad geniuses hiding behind the scenes. Of course, there’s also the films of Li Chia, in which Gu’s martial world is one driven by interpersonal drama loosely hanging on the machinations of conniving mad geniuses, set in a quaint, bucolic Chinese countryside.

Both are actually valid interpretations, as Gu draws everything in short-hand. His setting is a barely defined ancient China, of which era I couldn’t rightly tell you. There are no sprawling descriptions of scenery or internal monologues. The narration takes place in short paragraphs of equally short declamatory sentences. A typical example:

"Shen was so outraged that her fingertips went cold. She couldn’t keep from lifting her head—

She had been too embarrassed to look at Xiao, but when she looked up, she naturally turned her eyes to his face.

She found his face ghostly pale, his eyes full of pain, and the corners of his eyes twitching uncontrollably.

Xiao was clearly enduring serious anguish.

He wasn’t a man who would reveal his pain easily."

If it seems like this is a “see spot run” style of writing, take my word that it belies a pretty sophisticated sense of pacing. The style makes for a very quick read, and the short-hand also works when characterizing minor characters, with which Gu demonstrates a real flair. I don’t know what it would look like in the context of the setting, but when Gu describes a character as “dressed like new money,” it gets the point across.

Less impressive are authorial intrusions which offer “insights” into human nature. “Dying is a painful thing for most people,” Gu informs us. Well yeah. Most examples are about on this order. Very often Gu uses the authorial position to extol the virtues of drinking, about which I think I’ve already rendered my opinion.

If I sound like I’m down on this novel, I assure you that it’s actually very entertaining. The best aspects are the good bits of characterization, the wacky prose style that works in spite of itself, and the bizarre plot points that tie themselves up in a round-about manner. And if there is something pitiable in the nature of the melodrama, it is equally heartfelt, and therefore compelling, so long as the reader can muster his or her sympathy. The Eleventh Son is an odd thing. It clearly fits into a generic category, but it is also a very personal and idiosyncratic. I have a feeling that “idiosyncratic” is the best available word for Gu Long, his style, and his work.

Sadly, this is still the only Gu Long novel available in English from a mainstream publisher (there is a self-published translation of Gu Long’s The Flower Guarding Bells, available from Lulu). I’d really like to read more of Gu’s work, as I don’t get the impression that all of it is so transparently masturbatory. Rebecca Tai’s translation is actually very good compared to the amateur work available on the internet, and I have heard from those who have read Gu Long in Chinese that she very well captures his style. I’d love to read the sequel to The Eleventh Son, as this volume ends abruptly, and right when the characters start to become interesting again.

Of all the wuxia that I have read (admittedly not a lot) this is easily the most personal and the most uniquely expressed vision of the martial world. And that curries a lot of favor, in spite of my misgivings. I devoured it in two sittings.


Drunken Dragon (Chui Chung-Hing, 1985)

I’ve a habit of reviewing things out of order. Drunken Dragon (aka Exciting Dragon), one of those wonderful movies that became available thanks to Toby Russel’s defunct Rarescope DVD label, is something of a coda to a series of movies orchestrated by the Yuen Clan. For those not familiar with the expansive world of Hong Kong genre film, the Yuen Clan refers to the progeny of the great Simon Yuen, a Mainland Chinese immigrant and Peking Opera practitioner who made a name for himself in the film industry as a performer and fight choreographer in the golden age of Cantonese language serials, directing action scenes in Wong Fei Hung movies and playing a villain in countless films. He used his position to place his sons in roles as stuntmen and bit-players, and they eventually worked their way up to leading roles and action-directing positions in the seventies and eighties.

The most famous member of the clan is Yuen Woo-Ping, world-renowned now as the action choreographer for influential American action films like The Matrix. But before he became the go-to guy for Hollywood’s ersatz martial arts cinema, he directed a series of classic kung fu movies, pushing the boundaries not only of traditional, old-school fight choreography in a series of films starring Jackie Chan and Hwang Jang-Lee; and he pushed the limits of wire-work, good taste, and sanity with a four-part series of mostly unrelated films starting with The Miracle Fighters.
These films (The Miracle Fighters, Shaolin Drunkard, Taoism Drunkard, and Young Taoism Fighter) feature more or less the same elements: broad slapstick and situational comedy, Taoist magic that figures heavily in the fight scenes, bizarre imagery that usually combines practical effects with virtuoso physical performance, and Woo-Ping’s brother Yuen Cheung-Yan in drag as an old lady. While the majority of the production work on these movies was done by Yuen family, a certain Chui Chung-Hing worked on the script for Shaolin Drunkard, his first writing credit. Chui worked mostly as a stunt-man and actor up until this point, usually in small parts in classically styled kung fu movies. I assume that it was his experience with the Yuens that inspired him to direct his own film, and Drunken Dragon, his first directorial effort, is an unofficial addition in the genre that can only be described as Yuen Clan movies.
The film starts with a gang of villains, Tung Fu (Phillip Ko Fei in a fright wig) and his two minions, attacking a Buddhist monastery in search of some sort of magical McGuffin. The priest guarding the item defends it from inside a boat that he rows across the floor, apparently crippled in a previous fight. Tung Fu’s assistants, a big guy with a flame-throwing candle on his head and squirrely guy who likes to throw saw blades around, transform themselves into a sort of human go-cart, with the saw blades acting as wheels of death and the flame-throwing candle as jet propulsion system, and proceed to kill the monk by sawing through his boat and his leg-stumps at the same time. Tung Fu thinks he has what he came for, but the chest in which it’s contained is locked, and trapped, and only the Seven Star Armor can protect whoever tries to open it. So Tung Fu sets off to find the Seven Star Amor.

At this point, the movie shifts to a new location, where Gao Jia (Suen Kwok-Ming) and his Granny (Chiang Sheng in drag, playing the part normally reserved for Yuen Chueng Yan) await the arrival of Gao’s fiancĂ©, Miss Tiger (the... uh, rather full-bodied Chow Mei-Yee). Miss Tiger arrives and is roughly twice the size of Gao Jia, pugnacious to a fault, and prone to solving problems by beating the crap out of the offending party. Miss Tiger manages to make an enemy of the town bully, who nearly botches a magic ritual Granny performs while trying to cure a townsperson of a magic poison. But Granny’s Seven Star Armor protects her, and the ritual comes through as a success.
Unfortunately, Tung Fu has already arrived in town, and finds out about Granny’s secret possession. Gao Jia, meanwhile, is getting tired of his friends teasing him about being a kept man. He is a talented practitioner of martial arts, but Granny is better, and Miss Tiger more frequently employs her own considerable kung fu. After losing a brutal fight with Tung Fu’s gang, Granny sends him to train with her old classmate, Ko But Lee.

Ko holds a grudge against Gao grandfather – he was in love with Granny, but she didn’t choose him. He’s less than willing to train the grandson of the man she chose, but after hearing that Gao’s grandfather is dead, he thinks that he can win Granny’s affections, and relents. So Gao Jia begins training with Ko, whose home is outfitted with odd almost steam-punk (bamboo-punk, in this context?) style technological innovations, and whose training methods involve reflex training with huge wooden mallets, strength training involving the breaking of rocks with a sledge-hammer, and endurance training involving a cart which is reigned to Gao, and on which Ko sits, reading and smoking his huge pipe.
Gao Jia returns to town for Granny’s birthday, only to find that Tung Fu has already killed her, although he hasn’t found the Seven Star Armor. That’s because Gao Jia took it with him for training. Tung Fu, Gao Jia, and Ko But Lee fight it out, but Tung Fu bests them. So Gao Jia returns with Ko for more intense training, and Tung Fu comes for the armor. Revenge is taken; the end.

The interesting thing about Drunken Dragon is how it sort of shifts from its initial Yuen Clan inspired weirdness to a standard, if especially brutal, kung fu movie. By the point that Gao Jia actually starts to train seriously for revenge, the film plays out like a condensed version of the typical Hong Kong kung-fu pic: train, then fight. And while The Miracle Fighters climaxes with orgiastic weirdness, Drunken Dragon’s final fight scene is typical of the era, with fast-paced fighting and dangerous looking stunt falls through furniture and staircases, no Taoist magic or tricky gadgets or even wire-work in sight. It’s a great fight, but it’s almost a let-down given the wild creativity on display in the film’s opening.
While the film does showcase some mean-spirited humor – when Miss Tiger runs to great Gao Jia, the film jump cuts to a POV shot of a pig running at the camera – there’s some sweetness there too. Gao Jia confides in Granny that he really loves Miss Tiger, and doesn’t really mind that she’s so big, since she loves him too. And Leung Kar Yan as Ko But Lee effectively renders his character’s love for Granny, even though the majority of his performance is scenery chewing and mugging. It’s a reprise of his role in The Miracle Fighters, and he’s as gloriously over the top as he was in that film.

But I think that Drunken Dragon can best be viewed as an experiment for Chui Chung-Hing, rather than a Yuen Clan rip-off. Chui would go on to be a major player in the glut of Taiwanese made fantasy movies of the eighties, directing Hello, Dracula, action directing Chan Jun-Leung’s Child of Peach, helming its sequel, Magic of Spell, and capping off the movement in 1990 with his ludicrous fairytale film, Twelve Fairies. All of the visual panache of those films has its roots here, in Drunken Dragon. And even without that, there’s some brilliant fight choreography happening here, which should sate the action hounds out there.
Worth a watch, this one, and the DVD can be had for cheap.


Conan: the Brobarian

Here’s my real problem with Conan the Barbarian: it’s called Conan the Barbarian. I find this problematic, as the title immediately recalls the John Millius film from 1982, but more importantly, I find the title problematic because the film only barely resembles the literary creation which it purports to adapt. This too reminds me of the 1982 film.

But I was expecting that, and entered the film hoping that it would at least be a fun diversion, like the movies that came in anticipation or in the wake of the Millius Conan -- movies like The Sword and the Sorcerer. In that respect, I think that a lot of people will like this film. It’s gratuitously violent and self-consciously politically incorrect. The film is intermittently silly; so silly, at points, I suspected its tongue firmly planted in somebody else’s cheek.

Conan the Barbarian features a non-plot comprised of premises borrowed from other fantasy films – not even from other fantasy stories or novels. Its narrative events are set-pieces, all. Dialog, what little of it is there, is often badly conceived and delivered worse. Visual elements are lifted whole-sale from other films. Khalar Zym and his daughter Marique, the film’s villains, travel in a boat carried across the land by slaves and elephants, in a similar manner to what Werner Herzog staged without the benefit of cgi in Fitzcarraldo. The Cimmerians have a race where each contestant holds an egg in his mouth and tries to reach the finish line without breaking it, as also seen in the Kevin Reynolds directed Rapa Nui. A forest set carriage chase is set up and plays out rather like a similar chase scene in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. A character is tied to a wheel like the one in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, again, with similar results.

It’s all familiar. It’s all stuff that people generally like.

Imagine if somebody tried to make a Conan film based on a few plot synopses of Howard’s stories, the knowledge that the character had become a comic-book staple, and a few viewings of the classic with AH-Nold. That’s what this is like in terms of fidelity to the source texts. The less said about the disparity between the literary Conan’s treatment of women with this film’s Conan, the better.

Does this sound less like an actual review – that thing in which I tell you what was in a movie, and then tell you what I thought about it – than it does the ineffectual ranting of a wanky fan? It does. But please understand: I never intended to write a proper review of Conan the Barbarian. I meant to write something like what Theodore Dalrymple did in 2009 on the occasion of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, and again in 2010 with Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.

I intended to write a tribute to the author. It would explain his importance to the fantasy genre, how his life reflects certain aspects of depression era Texas, how he understood something about civilization that was as pertinent in the twentieth century as it is in the twenty-first. And I would illustrate that last point with a quote from Theodore Dalrymple's Our Culture, What’s Left of It: “The fragility of civilization is one of the great lessons of the twentieth century.” I really, really wanted to end with an assurance, as Dalrymple did, that no movie, however bad, could sully the writing of so accomplished an author.

But I can't. The writing may not be sullied, but it does little good when people use a bad film adaptation as evidence for why they shouldn’t bother reading it. I cannot assure anybody that this Conan the Barbarian will not perpetuate stereotypical complaints made about Robert E. Howard's supposed sexism, no matter how different this movie is from his writing, or how different his writing is from those people's assumptions. People will use this film to further push Howard into the ghetto of critical antipathy, labelled, at best, as puerile "for-boys" wish-fulfillment. At worst, that ghetto also bears signs that say "racist" and "misogynist."

Did I like anything about Conan the Barbarian? Yes. I though Jason Momoa did a fine job with a bad script. At some point during the re-writing process, somebody saw fit to sneak in references to actual Robert E. Howard stories. We find out, for instance, that the events of the film happen after the events of “The Tower of the Elephant!” A couple of bowdlerized lines from some of the stories can be heard. And as far as dude-bro entertainment goes, this hits the right notes. As in: there’s blood’n’titties.

Call it something else, fellas. Bronan: As on the Tin. That’s my pick.


Those Were the Days (Dick Cho Kin-Nam, 1997)

Between 1995 and 2000, six different Hong Kong films used the same official English title. “Those Were the Days” indeed.
It seems odd to me that this particular Those Were the Days would be so under-seen. I’d think the presence of Shu Qi would be a selling point. But the film’s subject is rather arcane to most western viewers, whose familiarity with Hong Kong films usually starts in the seventies and very often ends there to boot.
Those Were the Days boasts an inspired premise. Wong Ching Wai, a famous “post-modern” HK film director, attends an awards ceremony and reunion in honor of the region’s old Cantonese film industry. He then proceeds to insult the honored guests, saying that the sixties were the “dark ages” of Hong Kong film. The God of Movies takes exception to his remarks; as punishment, he sends Wong back to the sixties. The God of Movies instructs Wong that he must make a film that at least one person actually enjoys if he wants to make it back to the nineties.
Law Kar Wing as Kwan Tak Hing; The genuine article on the right (courtesy of Kung Fu Cinema's Electric Shadows)
Wong finds himself in a studio, lassoed into acting as an extra in what is obviously a Wong Fei Hung serial shoot. After screwing up a take, a mortal sin in a time when films were made with a single camera and shot entirely in masters, he gets chased around the studio. After hiding in a dressing room, he stumbles into a fast friendship with up-and-coming Cantonese actors like Lee Kei, Tse Yun, Ching Bo Chu, Siu Fong Fong, and Walter Ngau Tat-Wah. Wong, with his knowledge of the future, manages to push his new friends in the direction of success, with the help of his VCD player and pirated movie discs.
The little details the movie captures are part of its appeal. (Image courtesy of Electric Shadows)
It’s pretty obvious that Wong Ching Wai is an analog for Wong Kar Wai, and that Ching Bo Chu is Connie Chan Po-Chu and Siu Fong Fong is Josephine Siao Fong Fong. Depending on how familiar the viewer is with the breadth of Hong Kong cinema, the humor is either baffling or uproariously funny. Everything from wuxia serials (Buddha’s Palm in particular) to “Jane Bond” films to Wong Fei Hung episodes gets parodied ruthlessly, as do the actors that appear in them. Hong Kong actors of that era developed signature mannerisms and inflections, which the film explains in irreverent and highly unlikely ways.
Maggie Cheung Ho-Yee as Connie Chan Po-Chu. Good casting, I think.
And if 60’s era gets parodied ruthlessly, the parodies of Wong Kar Wai’s films are even more viciously funny. When Wong gets his chance to direct, we’re treated with Days of Being Wild, Happy Together, and Ashes of Time (!) done in 1960’s style.
Shu Qi as Josephine Siao Fong-Fong.
But for all of that, the humor is really of a gentle and sympathetic sort. As a character based comedy, Those Were the Days is much too broad and silly to be taken seriously. The characterization, from both the script and the cast, is done entirely in short-hand. It’s very slight, but as a parody, it’s so dead on that for the initiated, it works.
The casting is inspired, to boot. Dayo Wong dons dark glasses, a cigarette, and an attitude for the role of Wong Kar Wai. Cheung Ho-Yee, Shu Qi, and Monica Chan look great in sixties attire. Francis Ng as Patrick Tse is at his usual hammy best. And in one of the few performances that nears mean-spirited, Lee Kin-Yee (a dude) as Lydia Shum stand-in Fei Fei goes even further over the top than growling, scowling Law Kar-Ying as Kwan Tak-Hing.
The look of 1960's Canto-serials is pretty well replicated.
The only thing I wished for was the presence of the actors being parodied. Even without that, this is the sort of referential nostalgia that is rarely done well. Those Were the Days offers little for the casual fan of Hong Kong cinema, I think. It was made for an audience that grew up watching the films of Chan Po-Chu and Walter Tso in the theater or on HK television. But for those of us who willingly watch un-subtitled VCDs to catch glimpses of that bygone era, Those Were the Days is the best kind of loving tribute.
And Wong Jing gets skewered, which, in spite of my unabashed love for Kung Fu Cult Master, is just lovely. And did I mention the sixties fashions? Yeah.