This is one of several movie suggestions written by students in the Chinese-Language Cinemas class of Winter 2019 (CHIN 3050/FILM 3350). For this “Playlist Project,” students looked for a film of interest not seen in class, watched and researched it, and wrote up their recommendation. More viewing suggestions will be posted each day leading up to the beginning of the new term.
Review written by Madison Dugdale
This is a black-and-white, Shanghai film that is part of the first wave of the wuxia genre (Anderson 2009). It is only one episode of a 13-part series called Red Knight Errant (1930). There are only two episodes that exist and have survived the test of time, including Red Heroine (Rist 2003). It is made by the Youlian Film Company, directed by Wen Yimin, and is filmed in China. The era in which this film is set is not described in the literature or any other sources. This film is about a lower class girl named Yun Mei, played by Fan Xiaoping, who takes care of her blind grandmother. She is taken by the Western army while the army is passing through her village, An Hsi. They take her so that she can marry their general who also has a lot of other captured women. She escapes her captor, the general, with help from a martial artist named White Monkey. White Monkey trains her so that she can take revenge for her grandma who is killed by the army. In the end, Yun Mei saves her friend and her friend’s father whom the general had also captured, with the help of White Monkey.
This film is one of the first silent, wuxia films belonging to the first generation of Chinese films. The film’s themes are taking revenge against those that have wronged you by growing stronger, and putting family before oneself. The Cultural Revolution caused this film to be banned because it is a wuxia film with a female main character (Yeung 2014). Some techniques this film uses are intertitles because it is a silent film, and this allows the viewers to know who the characters are, and what they are saying. Other techniques are the special effects used to make a character supernatural. Examples of these effects is the cloud of smoke to make the character disappear and flying using wires, which can be seen in other wuxia films (Rist 2003). In addition, the camera doesn’t move very much and if it does, it just pans over. When it does focus on a character’s face, their facial expressions are very important, especially since the film is silent. For its time, these classic techniques helped to move the story forward so that it is easy for the viewer to understand and follow.
Even though it is not the best quality and parts of it are cut off, this shénguài film is important because it has survived out of 200 other films of its genre that were made in the 1920’s (Heskins 2004). Peter Rist says that “the level of martial skills on display in the silent films and the action appears to be very dated” but this film is an exception because of the real martial art skills Fan Xiaoping had learned (4). It is a film that represents the beginnings of wuxia which shaped this genre of film later on. This film should be discussed more because of its matriarchal status among the Chinese film industry and its historical importance. Another reason why it is important is that Yun Mei breaks gender role stereotypes by training to be a fighter, which is one of the reasons why it is such a controversial film (Yeung 2014). The female hero is popular during this time in Shanghai films which are also called nüxia or the female knight-errant (Teo 2010). This female character’s popularity continued, not only in Shanghai, but in Hong Kong as well. For its time, this film can be a reminder of the popularity of female knights as the protagonist, Yun Mei, takes on male warriors with her martial art skills. An additional characteristic of female warriors is their lack of traditional femininity. The women that are associated with the evil characters are more sexualized while Yun Mei is liberated from that sexualisation by White Monkey. As Rong Cai says “her chivalric pursuits create tensions in her gender identity, jeopardizing her status in traditional society” (446). In the beginning, the general forces the other women to strip her, making her a sexual object, but at the end when she defeats him, she is dressed in a conservative outfit, making her more masculinized. These characteristics of female warriors are still seen today but some of these warriors are not as conservative as they used to be in older films.
The impact Red Heroine had on future wuxia films is shown through their storylines and characters. There are many parallels between this movie and more well known movies like Come Drink With Me (1966) and The Red Detachment of Women (1961). The character types and plot are very similar, which is shown through the characters of Golden Swallow, Drunken Cat, and Wu Qionghua. The parallel between Golden Swallow and Yun Mei is that they are fighting to rescue someone they know (Heskins 2004). Golden Swallow is fighting to rescue her brother while Yun Mei is fighting to save her friend and her friend’s father. Also, Golden Swallow is helped by a martial artist named Drunken Cat who has supernatural powers. This is just like White Monkey who helps Yun Mei and trains her in martial arts to become the “Red Heroine”. It could even be said that White Monkey may be based off of the well-known Monkey King from the famous novel Journey to the West (1592) because of White Monkey’s rebelliousness when he alone saves Yun Mei. In addition, Wu Qionghua is just like Yun Mei because they are both treated poorly by a man in a high position and they are able to get revenge in the end once they themselves gain more power. A more modern film that these elements can also be seen in is in Ang Lee’s famous film from 2000, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Cai 2004). The female warrior or knight-errant character follows the same themes and traits in this genre. She fights injustice, seeks justice, isn’t shown as feminine, and is loyal to the people she cares about. The popularity of this character type is still seen in modern Hollywood movies today like with female warriors in Wonder Woman (2017) and Black Panther (2018). Based on the legacy left by Red Heroine, it has created the beginnings of empowered women warriors in Asian cinema and beyond.
Cai R. 2004. Gender imaginations in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the wuxia world. Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique.13 (2): 441-471.
Heskins A. 2004. China, film, reviews, wuxia/swordplay: Red Heroine. Easternkicks; [accessed 2019 Mar 7]. https://www.easternkicks.com/reviews/red-heroine.
Anderson J. 2009. A silent Crouching Tiger; made in 1929 and banned in China, Red Heroine has Canadian premiere. Toronto Star; [accessed 2019 Mar 7]. https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.library.dal.ca/docview/439627104?rfr_id=info%3Axri%2Fsid%3Aprimo&accountid=10406.
Rist P. 2003. UCLA’s “Heroic Grace: the Chinese marital arts film”. Trade Journals. 7 (6): 1-9.
Teo P. 2010. The ‘missing’ female knight-errant in Hong Kong action cinema 1965-1971: back in critical action. Journal of Chinese Cinemas. 4 (2): 143-154.
Yeung P. 2014. The secret history of China’s taboo-breaking cinema. Dazed; [accessed 2019 Mar 7]. http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/20076/1/the-secret-history-of-china-s-taboo-breaking-cinema.
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