Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Fantasia 2004: 8 Diagram Pole Fighter (1984) Hong Kong

Fantasia 2004: 8 Diagram Pole Fighter (1984) Hong Kong
8 Diagram Pole Fighter aka Wu Lang ba gua gun (1984) Hong Kong imdb Directed by Chia-Liang Liu Written by Kuang Ni and Chia-Liang Liu

You can blame Rusty Shackles on this review. I sent him a copy of 8 Diagram Pole Fighter to thank him for the kitty picture that he drew for my girlfriend Bridget so that I could give it her on Valentine's Day. We agreed that I would send him 8 Diagram Pole Fighter and the Korean vampire movie Thirst and I threw in a copy of Wham! Bam! Thank You Ma'am! (signed by Twiggy) from Inter-Species Wrestling, the rather insane wrestling federation that I am powerless Commissioner of and occasional ring announcer for.  (Cheap Pug Department: our next show is Boner Jam in Montreal at Foufounes Electriques on Sunday, March 27th.)

Rather than mailing the package right away, I sat on it for a few days --- a week --- until yesterday. Partly because I am procrastinating asshole, but also because I wanted to watch the films before I shipped them. I watched 8 Diagram Pole Fighter right away, Thirst took a bit longer and I am still processing what I saw in that Korean mind-fuck.

8 Diagram Pole Fighter

I was startled watching 8 Diagram Pole Fighter to realize that I had seen it before during the Fantasia Film Festival. It was from a year when I didn't review any films from Fantasia, but the film was not in the 2004 Fantasia catalog or on the 2004 Fantasia web-site. The only confirmation that I could find that the film played then was a blog post which settled for describing the film as "exuberant". Normally, OCD pack-rat that I am, I hang onto my Fantasia tickets (one of the reasons that I write Fantasia reviews is that for some weird reason afterwards, I feel permission to throw the tickets away) but I don't seem to have a 2004 ticket for the film.

Here is what I think happened. I had a ticket for another Shaw Brothers film, but when the print didn't arrive in time, we got 8 Diagram Pole Fighter instead.

I seem to recall seeing the film in a dreamy haze caused by lack of sleep. (I must have seen it late in the Festival.) I liked it but it didn't make a huge impression me, evidenced by the fact that I promptly forgot about it until I slid it into my DVD player. Fortunately, it is a film with depth that improves the more that you watch it and study it. In reexamining it, I can see why I watched it in a waking dream state. It is a very colourful film that plays like a waking dream, reminding me in a very weird way of Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker. Heresy, I know, but they both have a lush colour scheme and a strange pacing for films that pretend that they are building to something and then give us something unexpected.

Scenes from the very artificially staged opening.
Pole Fighter is odd right from the opening credits, which run during what looks and feels like a Peking Opera recreation of an historical battle. Because it is the opening credits it sort of works, but it really does feel like a sequence from another movie. As Ben Martin puts it , "almost like something out of an old MGM musical."

The opening adds to the film's dream-like feeling. What puts it over the top is the way that the film tries to cram in almost every trope from martial arts until the film feels like it was constructed from left-over bits from a dozen other films. Just off the top of my head the film has palace intrigue, a chief bad guy who is a weird combination of Benedict Arnold and Machiavelli, a prophecy that is misread and comes true in the most tragic way possible, a Chinese family with an "unbeatable" style and a foreign enemy who invent a new weapon designed to neutralize that unbeatable style and a massacre that leaves a family decimated and that's just in the first ten minutes.

Then you throw in one brother on the run (Gordon Chia Hui Liu) who angrily tries to become a Shaolin Monk and who must learn humility from the monks to be redeemed - according to Wiki, the movie is based on the true story of this 5th Yang brother who invented the Yang Ga Ng Long Baht Gwa Kwun (Yang Family 5th brother eight diagram pole) style; another brother (Yang 6) who goes crazy after the massacre (the scene chewing Alexander Sheng Fu); a virtuous mother (Lily Li) who uses an ax given to her by the Emperor to literally kick-ass and finally a sister (Kara Hui) who disguises herself as a boy to try and get a message to her brother in the Shaolin Temple.

Gordon Liu's Yang 5 Angrily Self-Mutilates Himself Insisting That He Must Be a Monk

With so many tropes and archetypes being stuffed into the film, it is only natural that one falls out. The thread that is simultaneously the weakest and the strongest is the palace intrigue strand represented by the film's arch-enemy, Yelu Lin (Wang Lung Wei) who is the father of the Emperor's wife. A great deal of the film is spent discussing getting the surviving Yangs in front of the Emperor to testify against Yelu Lin's treachery. This is a complete red herring and a bit pointless.

Wang Lung Wei as Yelu Lin
What does emerge from this seemingly pointless exercise is one of the most complex bad guys in the history of kung-fu cinema. Yelu Lin has two problems. First, the too-loyal and virtuous Yangs one of whom (Yang 6) killed one of his sons in a kung-fu tournament. Secondly, the Mongols who are threatening to chip away at the Empire piece by piece. In a move of Machiavellian brilliance, Yelu Lin uses one problem to fix the other, offering to step the Imperial army aside, allowing the Mongols to conquer an outlying province in return for the Mongols destroying the Yang family and their army.

This works out so well it is almost like Yelu planned it that way. The Mongols win but take casualties. The Yangs are massacred, but 2 (Yang 5 and Yang 6) escape the ambush. Yelu Lin is able to avoid making good on his promise to sacrifice a province to the Mongols by sending them to chase after the elusive Yang brothers, arguing that as long as they are loose they are a threat to both his position and that of the Mongols. This has the advantage of being true, but it also allows Yelu Lin to distract the Mongols from their ambitions to conquer Imperial land. (It also leads to a fantastic and funny sequence when a Shaolin monk acting as a Yang messenger discovers disguised Mongols in a town and everywhere he runs for help he discovers more disguised Mongols.)

Yelu Lin is evil and he dies as horribly as he deserves to, but like the best villains, he has a seductive and logical argument to explain his evil decisions. Still, his storyline is a bit of an over-stuffed plot thread that distracts from the main storyline.

Part of the reason that the film is so distracted and over-stuffed is that the film was struck by tragedy:
Fu Sheng bought and lived in the late Bruce Lee's house in Kowloon. On 7 July 1983, he was returning home from a dinner engagement at the Clear Water Bay Golf Club. His Porsche 911 Targa, driven by his brother, took the curves of Clear Water Bay Road too fast and crashed into a cement wall. Fu Sheng was rushed to the hospital with serious injuries and died three hours later widowing Cantopop superstar Jenny Tseng with no children. He was 28. He died almost 10 years after Lee had died on 20 July 1973. 
Fu Sheng as the crazy Yang 6

The film was clearly set-up to tell the story of the redemption of the crazy 6th Yang brother. But when Sheng Fu died, the film had to switch its focus to the story of the kung fu style inventing 5th Yang brother. And this shift in focus does save the film in a way, because the Gordon Liu character has a great redemptive character arc, clearly influenced by films like One Armed Boxer.

Like the martial arts school in One Armed Boxer, the Yangs are virtuous Chinese, officially recognized for their loyalty to the Emperor and they practice a martial art which they have perfected (the spear) and at which they can not normally be beaten. Like in One Armed Boxer, the bad guys are foreigners (Mongols) in the employ of rival Chinese (Yelu Lin). The bad guys only win through an ambush and because they are employing techniques and weapons specifically designed to neutralize the Yang's martial arts style by trapping their spears.

This defeat of the spear traumatizes the Gordon Liu character and spiritually cripples him. Partly in shame and partly because it is the only way to neutralize the Mongol weapons, he burns off his spear head, leaving himself with a pole instead of a spear. In a very real sense, by burning away his spear head he figuratively cripples himself in a similar way that Jimmy Wang Yu's characters were literally crippled. This is only reinforced by the sequence when Yang 5 reveals his identity to the head Shaolin monk who refuses to believe that this would-be monk is the 5th Yang brother because he uses a staff not a spear. (His paraphrased reaction is "No Yang would ever cut off his spear!")

Gordon Liu as Yang 5 finally humble and centered

Like a good wrestling card that gets tipped over into greatness by a fantastic main event, 8 Diagram Pole Fighter is a good film that tips over to greatness by a fantastic final fight scene which manages somehow to be a completely satisfying organic ending, but also completely (and brutally) surprising.

Best of all, the ending gives Yang 6 a moment of grace in the midst of violence as the once angry and defeated general becomes a humble and triumphant monk, oddly a better leader in humility than he was in his days as a proud Yang general.

Recommended if you like kung-fu cinema.

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