Goran Topalovic is a founding member of Subway Cinema, the NYC collective that created and launched the beloved New York Asian Film Festival and the Old School Kung Fu Festival, and has written extensively on Asian cinema for magazines like NANG and Film Comment, and is one of the most dedicated and knowledgeable scholars and proselytizers for Asian film I know.
With the new OSKFF opening Friday at the Metrograph Theater in NYC and online this week (more information and tickets available here, including online screenings), with a focus this year on Taiwanese wuxia and its undisputed master King Hu – CSB took a few minutes to chat with Goran about Hu, the OSKFF, and classic Taiwanese cinema.
CSB: This year is a big showcase for King Hu and Taiwanese wuxia cinema in general, and you’re opening the festival with The King of Wuxia, a massive, comprehensive documentary on King Hu. What did you take away from that documentary, and what do you think it has for both hardcore and casual fans?
Goran: You’ll get an appreciation for how much impact King Hu and his films had on a whole new generation of filmmakers – you’ll hear from creators like John Woo and Tsui Hark and Sammo Hung, it’s nice to have it all in one place, and hear from so many of his collaborators and admirers how important he was to them and how influential he was on their development of their own careers and styles of filmmaking, he was a pivotal figure in so many ways. And also learn about Hu’s sheer dedication to his craft and meticulous attention to detail – he really was an artist, he lived for his movies, every detail, from production design to how the inn used in a setpiece is going to be structured.
CSB: Yes, it was fascinating to see his hand-drawn design sketches for costumes, for example, the level of detail he personally got into.
Goran: And he was a big student of history. A scholar, really, of Chinese history and tradition and drew inspiration from those sources. The Ming dynasty was his favorite and a lot of his movies are set during that period.
CSB: Film fans are often familiar with one of his biggest female stars, Cheng Pei-Pei (Come Drink With Me, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), but most are probably less familiar with Hsu Feng and Polly Shang-Kuan, both featured extensively in this year’s festival.
Goran: One of King Hu’s key contributions to the legacy of martial arts cinema is really the popularization of the female knight errant, and defining that archetype for modern audiences and a new generation, and that something that’s been copied, you see it in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, for example. As part of that, he really cultivated these female stars, Cheng Pei Pei and Hsu Feng and Polly Shang. And they all brought their own specific charisma and expressiveness to the different facets of the archetype. Hsu Feng is probably the most present in Hu’s films, but even Angela Mao is there, in The Fate of Lee Khan, before going on to a successful career more in kung fu movies. So these stars he developed not only influenced wuxia, but kung fu films.
CSB: And there’s a continuity, for example, Polly Shang stars in Hu-influenced sidebar trilogy featuring a male swordsman, played by Tien Peng.
Goran: The Swordsman of All Swordsmen trilogy, that’s where Polly Shang really shines. She’s not the lead, but she’s one of the main characters in the series. Dragon Inn was produced by Taiwan’s Union Film, and was a huge box office success, it was really what built Union Film into a major production company. And King Hu was made a production chief, putting him in a position to nurture new talents and set the house style for other wuxia films, including the Swordsman of All Swordsmen trilogy. About half of the films in our lineup are old Union Films productions. There was such a demand for these movies, and of course, King Hu, it famously took him a long time to make a movie, but somebody like Joseph Kuo was much faster. But you could what other directors were doing within the space that King Hu created, adding their own little touches and flair.
For example, I really like The Ghost Hill [the third film in the trilogy], which is so colorful and strange. It’s great fun, very cartoonish, very pop, like the Batman TV show from the ‘60s in a wuxia context. But there’s still a continuity to the house style.
CSB: I was pleasantly surprised by The Ghost Hill, it’s very outré, lots of crazy weapons and traps, it’s very comic booky. But the only film I’d seen by that director (Ting Shan-Hsi) before was Knight Errant (1973) starring Jimmy Wang-Yu, a much more traditional, bread and butter, fisticuffs kung fu movie. I know Joseph Kuo did the first film in the trilogy, but every film in the trilogy was directed by a different director.
Goran: Not everyone could be Hu or even Kuo, most of these guys were more journeyman directors, and at some point stopped doing wuxia and moved on to other genres, they didn’t have the same kind of vision as Hu.
CSB: The OSKFF this year has a lot of deep cuts, what would you recommend for a newbie and for someone more familiar with the genre looking for a hidden gem.
Goran: For the newbie, it has to be A Touch of Zen. It’s really the first wuxia masterpiece, and sets up all the elements that make contemporary wuxia what they are. It’s brilliant, it’s such a mix of genres, a ghost story, and a romance, and a mystery, and a revenge story, and it all leads up to a spiritual, transcendental event. It’s where the Beijing Opera influence and the action choreography are most developed, and it has the brilliant setpiece of the fight in the bamboo forest that’s been copied so many times.
For hidden gems, for us it was a fascinating to see a Taiwanese language wuxia film, in black and white, Vengeance of the Phoenix Sisters. We don’t know as much about the Taiwanese language cinema as we should, and part of that is just unavailability. I think there are a lot of quality works that remain to be discovered. We’re interested in digging deeper into the Taiwanese language film industry as a whole, most of what we’ve been talking about until now has been Mandarin language Taiwanese industry. Who knows, maybe next time we can dig deeper into that industry from the 50s and 60s, it had its own star system and everything.
Thanks Goran, and thanks also to Emma Griffiths for arranging the interview. Edited for clarity.