HK Cinema - 1928

The following article was written by Zhu Hong for the Straits Times and was posted in the Asian Film NewsGroup.

HOLLYWOOD director Steven Spielberg may be the person who has combined most successfully cartoon characters with real actors in a movie. But who started such a practice? I dare say it was pioneered by China's mythological swordplay movies. In 1928, when Walt Disney first created Mickey Mouse, China's movie circle had already figured out a technique which used cartoons to create special effects for swordfighting scenes.

A swordfighting scene between two actors was first shot. The film was then superimposed on a cartoon film showing clouds, mist and flying swords. When screened, a flying sword effect would be seen. Such films may seem comical now, but they were a major breakthrough in the cinema industry then. They were such a big hit with the audience that they started a trend in the making of mythological swordplay movies.

The movie which sparked off the craze was Hue Shao Honglian Si (Burning Of Red Lotus Temple). Because of its immense popularity, the film company made it into a series of 18 movies. Other movie production houses also jumped on the bandwagon and made similar films. As a result, numerous temples in China were "burnt" on the big screen. The story of Red Lotus Temple was adapted from the fiction novel, Jianghu Qi Xia Zhuarl (The Tale of Extraordinary Swordsmen). There was an interesting anecdote behind the adaptation.

The director, Zhang Shichuan, on his way to the toilet one morning, saw a stack of swordplay novels on his son's bed.
He was about to scold him for neglecting his studies, but his stomachache forced him to answer nature's call first. He took one of the novels into the toilet to read. He was so fascinated by the story that he make it into a film.

The movie was an enormous hit and made a lot of money. People said half in jest that Zhang had found a gold mine in his toilet. Author Mao Dun said of the movie in an essay: "If there were any China-made film which has any effect on the feelings of the masses, it was Burning of Red Lotus Temple."

The local factions within China's rural communities often fought to protect their own interests or over family feuds.
The Tale of Extraordinary Swordsmen is a supernatural swordplay story about the violent clash between peasants of Hunan's Liuyang and Pingjiang counties over a pier. Both parties hired highly-skilled pugilists to help in the fight. The movie was adapted from the most exciting part of the novel. Red Lotus Temple, a villains' den, was full of traps. A commander had been captured and locked in the temple. Several martial arts exponents rescued him after much trouble. Then they razed the temple.

The film shot actress Xia Peizhen to fame and put her in the league of stars such as Hu Die and Ruan Lingyu.

But the government later imposed a ban on supernatural swordplay movies for affecting the mental health of citizens. Thus, actress Xia switched to acting in romantic movies but was unsuccessful. Her acting career was finished. She became a dance hostess and was thrown into prison for taking drugs.

Red Lotus Temple not only promoted an advance in movie-making techniques, it also initiated the use of the unique subject matter of swordplay in Chinese cinema.

Until today, whenever there is a slump in the movie industry, a good swordplay film would usually reverse the situation. Look at Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Tsui Hark, who have triumphed with swordplay movies.

The book The Making of the Martial Arts Film - As Told by the Filmmakers and Stars states "The flying swords and other gadgets of martial arts novels were first seen on screen courtesy of The Burning of Red Lotus Temple (1928), produced by Shanghai's Mingxing Film Company. The film pioneered a wide range of local special effects such as flying swords, palm power, and leaping through windows using the technique of reversing the film to create the impression of levitation. At the time, crude wires were used to haul actors up hundreds of feet into the air so that they could perform flying feats through mountains and woods. These techniques have influenced later generations of filmmakers working in the kung fu and swordfighting movies"