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Red Heroine
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by Jay Seaver

"Kicking it so old-school it's silent."
4 stars

SCREENED WITH LIVE ACCOMPANIMENT BY DEVIL MUSIC ENSEMBLE: People have been discovering martial arts movies for as long as there have been movies. Jackie Chan and Jet Li made a splash in America during the 1990s, and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" took critics by storm soon after, but fans knew that this was nothing new. Their parents had discovered Bruce Lee, and he had his own antecedents. Once you get much past 1960s Shaw Brothers, though, stuff gets harder to find. The trail more or less stops at "Red Heroine", a wuxia film from 1929, not because it was the first ever made, but because it's the oldest to survive.

Film preservation was a low priority in the early twentieth century, after all - few treated movies as more than disposable entertainment until far too many had been disposed of - and in China, both the Nationalist and later Communist governments discouraged fantastic film of any kind, fearing the superstitious image it projected to the rest of the world (a restriction that held up for some time; last year's The Matrimony was a rarity in being a ghost story from mainland China). So the preservation of Shanghai-made adventures like Red Heroine was even more hit-and-miss, with most of the people who made such films moving to British-controlled Hong Kong, leaving them orphaned. As a result, the image quality of this presentation leaves more than a bit to be desired. The copy currently on tour is a PAL digital file with the left and bottom parts of the image cropped off, and the print it is taken from appears to be warped in some spots.

The movie itself is about Yun Ko (Fan Xuepeng aka Xueming), a poor girl whose village is being overrun by an army from the west. Wealthy merchant Hsia Ching Chong (Hsu Ko Hui) and his daughter Chang Cheing (Wang Chu Ching) offer to take her with them as they flee the invasion, but Yun Ko can't leave her elderly grandmother. Her cousin Chong Che (director Wen Yemin) arrives to help, but it's too late - Yun Ko is captured by Ching Che Mang (Sao Guanyu), the general of the invading army, who tries to take her for a wife. She's rescued by White Monkey (Wang Juqing), an old hermit who offers to teach her martial arts so she can take her revenge. Three years later, that will come in handy - the refugees have returned to their homes, but occupying general Ching Che Mang now has his eyes set on Chang Cheing.

I apologize if the names are a bit mixed up - the intertitles were, as mentioned, frequently cut off, and crappy English subtitles are apparently a kung fu movie tradition that goes back eighty years. The characters are visually distinct enough that the names don't really matter, and include a number of familiar archetypes: The decadent general in his ornate robes, his snaggle-toothed adviser, the martial-arts master with the long white beard (and long white eyebrows, of course). The naked slave girls (well, wearing flesh-colored bikinis that the lighting often causes to blend into their skin) are actually further than HK action movies tend to go these days. There's even some gravity-defying stuntwork as Yun Ko soars through the air and teleports in a cloud of smoke.

The action is good enough that I wish there was more of it. The opening act is in constant motion from the army's approach to Yun Ko's rescue, and the big action finale has Fan Xuepeng looking pretty good, holding off the General's bodyguards even as she's losing weapons and the Tartar army arrives to engage the invaders. It's not the crazy wire work of later decades, but still fairly fast-paced and athletic. In between, the movie slows down quite a bit, with Yun Ko disappearing except in Chong Che's flashbacks while we see what the village is like during its occupation, and the story feels somewhat padded, as Hsia Ching Chong's family takes center stage. Training scenes to keep Yun Ko in the forefront, a staple of later kung fu movies, would not have been unwelcome.

The new score by Devil Music Ensemble keeps things upbeat in the meantime. If nothing else, the soundtrack is an impressive feat of endurance on the musicians' part, remaining high-energy without much of a break for anyone in the trio during the film's full ninety-minute running time. They don't go for a specifically "asian" sound, and do a very nice job reacting to what's on-screen, punching things up during the action sequences and keeping everything moving during the talky middle section. They're not above having a little fun reminding the audience what some of these visuals would later evolve into, either: The buck-toothed "chief bodyguard" gets a few mocking notes when he first appears, and the audience loved the whipping noises they worked in the first time White Monkey breaks out the kung fu.

(If you're reading this in September through November of 2008, Devil Music Ensemble is touring with the movie; check their website http://www.devilmusic.org/ to see when they are playing near you. Other shows may be scheduled at later dates.)

To be completely honest, "Red Heroine" is significant by happenstance rather than design or even merit; it was not the first martial arts feature nor likely the best of the period. It just happens to be the earliest that is still around in its entirety. It's got some weaknesses, to be sure, but fans of the genre should check it out if the opportunity presents itself: Both the movie and the new soundtrack are fun, and it's a chance to see the wuxia film in its embryonic form.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=17971&reviewer=371
originally posted: 09/09/08 14:30:09
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  N/A (NR)



Directed by
  Yimin Wen

Written by

  Xueming Fan
  Yimin Wen
  Shaoquan Zhu

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