9/22/11

My Blade, My Life (Chen Ming-Hua, 1982)


Pearl Chang receives a lot of attention from cult movie sites because her most seen movies – the ones widely circulated with English dubs – are more than a bit crazy. She’s an interesting character: a female director and producer in a segment of Chinese language film where the only other women to play major roles were Mona Fong, Kao Pao Shu, and occasionally Hsu Feng; an actress so uninhibited that she very often goes so far over the top that she leaves the rest of her often wild films well below her.

The Pearl Chang movie that everybody, it seems, sees and reviews on their blogs is Wolf Devil Woman, occasionally asserted to be a very loose adaptation of the Liang Yusheng novel that would eventually inspire Ronny Yu’s classic The Bride with White Hair. If this is true, the film itself provides little evidence to believe it. Everything that has been said about it is true. Pearl does slay an innocent bunny, the villains really do dress like Klan members, and the direction is all kinds of brilliantly awful. And Miss Chang’s direction is rivaled only by her performance, a snarly, foaming at the mouth performance.

Pearl Chang’s other widely seen films – widely seen, I would assume, because they received English dubs – are less wild, although they seem to lie well outside the mainstream of even the more fantastical genre films from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Matching Escort, I believe, is meant to be semi-comedic, but the rubber and foam decorated sets are trippy by any standard. And Miraculous Flower, while nowhere near as bizarre as Wolf Devil Woman or Matching Escort, contains some of the most audacious wire work seen outside of a Robert Tai film.

But Chang’s oeuvre is hardly one-note. Her television work, serials like Bodyguards and Angry Sword Kang Hua, would hardly give one the impression that this is the same actress who would grab a defenseless crab, break it open and eat its guts as she does in General Invincible (Cheung Pang-Yee, 1983), more or less in one take. Pearl plays somber characters, respectable swordswomen and proud martial artists, just as capably as she goes over the top. This versatility can be seen in her films too, as in China Armed Escort (Chen Ming-Hua, 1975), King of Fists and Dollars (Chen Ming-Hua, 1981), and in the morose, spaghetti-western and chambara influenced The Elimination Pursuit (Cheung Pang-Yee, 1983).
It is this sort of performance that we see in My Blade, My Life, a wuxia picture in the mode of the more action-oriented Gu Long adaptations. Pearl plays Lu Du Shing, a travelling sword-fighter whose only goal is to kill the famous swordsman, Peerless Swallow.

Unfortunately for Lu, Peerless Swallow is in absentia from the martial world. Everybody is looking for him, including his pretty fianc√©, the heir to a wealthy manor and nominally the leader of its martial arts clan. Without Peerless Swallow around to police the martial order, the less respectable elements raise no small amount of chaos. Peerless Swallow impersonators attempt to wrest control of rival organizations, an apparently religious “Yin-Yang sect” attempts to forcibly convert the unwilling, and the jealous Cheng Chien-Sheng hatches a bizarre scheme to marry himself to Lu’s fianc√© to gain wealth and power.
Lu really just wants to kill Peerless Swallow. Dressed as a man and treated as such (although, in the wuxia film tradition, the disguise is rather transparent to the audience), Lu finds herself in the company of a stranger who calls himself the representative of Peerless Swallow. He is an excellent martial artist, and the only friend that Lu has made in the entirety of her journeys. But he is also sick, poisoned from a previous battle. And as they travel together, his true identity is exposed. He is Peerless Swallow, which will be obvious to the initiated viewer because perennial wuxia hero Ling Yun plays him.

My Blade, My Life plays out very much like a Gu Long pastiche – its plot is much less baroque than the way it is presented – and would be very much typical except that the Pearl Chang plays the lead. As mentioned, her acting is far more subdued than in her more infamous films, but she still gives a strange and – I can think of no better way to express it – uninhibited performance. Her demeanor here is icy, and the character she plays has given up her identity as a woman in order to take revenge. Pearl walks with an unexplained limp, hobbling around until a fight breaks out. Her character is so quick that her opponents die after a single stroke, but when she fights a skilled swordsman, the limp inexplicably disappears, and she bounces off of out-of-frame trampolines or flies about on wires.

The frigid demeanor recalls roles played by Hsu Feng or Angela Mao, but quiet moments between her and Ling Yun’s Peerless Swallow, the sometimes exaggerated limp, and the occasionally brutal fight scenes (Pearl shoves chopsticks into a random mook’s face, in one of the most memorable), bring her character to a more human level than the sort of idealized woman-fighter-in-drag often seen in wuxia pictures of this vintage. Pearl is such a dynamic presence without the snarling and wild gesticulating seen in her other films that it’s almost hard to believe that those are her best known roles. I honestly like this subdued Pearl Chang quite a lot.
Pearl Chang is not the only actor to play against type. Yueh Hua, Chen Sing, and Tsung Hua get roles as minor villains; Lily Li is a ditzy little girl who can’t fight; Cliff Lok plays a jealous, mendacious swordsman – quite a departure from his goofy sub-Fu Sheng comedic heroes.
And My Blade, My Life, for all that it presents a less wacky Pearl as its lead, still puts out a suitable portion of weirdness for those specifically attracted to it. The Yin-Yang Sect’s lair, for example, takes the Yin-Yang motif to highly improbably ends. Not only is the interior evenly split between stark black and stark white, but its members costuming is bisected as well. The leader, played by Yueh Hua going against type, carries the motif to his eyebrows.

If that description does not make it obvious, the makers of My Blade, My Life imbue far more creativity into their product than what is typical in Taiwanese genre-films, and they have a budget to match. Produced by I Film Co., at least a couple of sets will be familiar to fans that have seen the Yueh Hua starring Drunken Swordsman (Cheung Git, 1979). The cinematography from Yip Ching-Biu – who also filmed The Whirlwind Knight (Sek Kin, 1969) and The Dream Sword (Li Chao-Yung, 1979) – is familiar, if less interesting than his previous work.

My Blade, My Life is a really good wuxia picture. That it stars Pearl Chang engenders expectations that differ from its goals, but it is likely more in line with what Miss Chang’s fans expected from her at the time of its release. Those of us who watch these movies as a hobby (and given the effort it often takes to acquire them, it is very much so) often forget that their makers never thought that people on the other side of the world would watch them thirty years later, let alone write about them on a giant information database. Our perspectives become a bit skewed by this distance. My Blade, My Life will serve as a testament to this fact for some, but for others – and I suspect for the audience for whom it was initially made – it is just a really fun little genre excursion.

And boy do I love Pearl’s costume.

9/14/11

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky

You may have noticed that most of my game reviews start out with a recollection of a conversation with my good friend RockManXZ24. We talk about video games a lot; it was a common point of interest when we met in the sixth grade; it continues to be a common point of interest now that we’re adults.

Our most recent conversation about video games occurred just after I finished Persona 4 (which I’ll review later), and just as I was about to finish The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky. He had just finished playing through the demo of Dragon Age 2, and we talked while he plowed his way through twelve-year-old n00bs in Halo 3 multiplayer. Our topic: are Japanese otaku more intrinsically sentimental than American nerds? Our conclusion: possibly, yes.

Few games convey that sentimentality better than The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, with its gentle J-pop theme song and its teenage heroes dancing around their veiled romantic feelings for each other. It is a game cast in the familiar JRPG model, concerned more with telling its story than with introducing the player to complicated game mechanics or micro-managed character progression. This seems, to me, slightly unusual for developer Falcom, as even their recent games, in spite of their cutesy art style, employ fairly sophisticated game mechanics. On the other hand, The Legend of Heroes series began with a fairly rote Dragon Quest clone.

But while the Falcom of old often experimented with their game design – look at their early action-RPG Sorcerian for a wild mixture of side-scrolling action with Wizardry-esque character/party building – the development team now focuses mostly on polishing conventional gameplay to mirror sheen. Ys 7 feels like it could be a remake of a classic Playstation era game, and I mean that as a compliment. Trails in the Sky, while originally released for Japanese PCs in 2004, feels like a classic game that has aged extraordinarily well.
That doesn’t mean that the gameplay is dated – far from it, in fact. The battle system is turn-based, laid out on a grid, much like a tactical RPG. It reminded me a bit of the Korean game, Astonashia Story, or NIS’ Rhapsody (as it was originally released on the PS1), only done properly. The turn system uses random bonuses, and the player can manipulate turn order with carefully timed magic and special attacks to utilize the bonus turns. It makes the battles far more interesting and involved than many turn-based JRPGs.
On top of that is the orbment system. The orbment is part of the character set-up, and it decides which magic attacks the character can use. Equipping a fire or earth element quartz to a character’s orbment will allow them to use a fire or earth spell, and it will also raise their attack or defense, respectively. This allows the player to make a character an attack or support unit as he or she sees fit, and it also helps to mitigate the necessity of buying the sometimes prohibitively expensive equipment available in the game’s shops.
While playing through the game, the player can choose to complete side quests which award money, experience, and items; particularly if the job is well done, as the game grades the player’s performance. But the player can easily forgo the extra quests and focus specifically on the main plot if he or she so wishes. Since fighting enemies awards materials more than experience, it eliminates the incentive to grind, although level-grinding is an option, however tedious.
But, again, the real focus of Trails in the Sky is its story, its characters, and its setting. The very Japanese aesthetic will turn off those who find anime style art and story-telling anathema – it is actually rather trendy to complain about games being “too Japanese” right now – but Falcom has done a great job of evoking that aesthetic without pandering to a certain questionable contingent of Japanese consumers, quite unlike certain other Japanese developers.
 The story follows two teenage kids, Joshua and Estelle Bright, respectively the daughter and adopted son of military legend Cassius Bright, as they become initiated into the paramilitary/mercenary organization known as the Bracer Guild. As they start their careers as junior bracers, Cassius suddenly disappears, and Joshua and Estelle undertake their journey around the continent of Liberl to become full-fledged members of the guild, running into a planned coup against the reigning Queen of Liberl and helping to foil it.
It is actually a very typical plot for this type of game, in which the protagonists start off on a journey of personal interest that eventually folds into a larger conflict with clandestine forces of unmitigated evil. Trails in the Sky does a very good job, it must be said, with not letting the plot get away from itself. The conflict here is local, and stays that way. Too many JRPGs play their cards too quickly and leave the player wondering why a couple of kids are the only ones who could possibly save the world. Here, it is two teenagers with specialized training foiling a plot of national importance with the help of veteran mercenaries and, it is explicitly stated by the protagonists, a lot of good fortune.
And, of course, there are budding feelings of the two main characters. Most of the narrative is played from the perspective of Estelle, a tomboyish type who prefers action to introspection, who is confused by her feelings for her adopted brother. Joshua is cool and level-headed, and more than a bit mysterious. He obviously has feelings for Estelle too, but in typical Japanese fashion, the two can hardly be arsed to actually speak up and tell each other how they feel until the very end of the game. It is to the writer’s credit that the characters do not realize their feelings for each other because Estelle gets kidnapped and Joshua has to save her. In fact, Estelle is never really imperiled; she’s competent and capable, in spite of her hot-headedness. The game treats her and her relationship with Joshua respectably.

That the characters are likable, their banter well written (and excellently translated, thanks to American publisher XSeed), and the pacing well planned help immensely. Fans have often compared playing Trails in the Sky to reading a book, which the game invites not only with heavy amounts of text, but by segmenting its narrative in chapters.
And did I mention sentimentalism, yet? Everything about the game is so sweetly realized that I didn’t want it to end, and since the game finishes on a cliff-hanger it didn’t. I can only hope that XSeed will find an available avenue to publish the next two games (possibly the PS Vita?), as the story here is the main draw, and for once it is actually worth the effort to sit down and read. Trails in the Sky is a great example of the story-telling that made JRPGs so much fun to play when I was younger, an example of the story-telling that the sub-dungeons and dragons western RPGs always lacked. It’s a cheerful journey, rather than a grim clash of good’n’evil.
Trails in the Sky is also a good indication that the JRPG is hardly as stagnant as some have said. It is one of a few recent JRPG releases where I have not tapped through the dialog without paying attention, a high-quality, story-driven game which rewards players for smart playing. I loved it. Falcom is one of the most underrated developers outside of its small, but growing fanbase, and I hope that their development for the PS Vita will garner more attention. Major thanks and good vibes to XSeed for their excellent work in bringing attention to this oft neglected dev team.