There are many Revisionist Westerns and there are many Revisionist chanbara, but there are very few, if any, Revisionist wuxia. While Western and Japanese filmmakers have freely interrogated their national heroic ideals of the cowboy and the samurai, grappling with the former as the blood-soaked harbinger of Native American genocide and the latter as a violent leftover from an archaic and oppressive feudal system, directors in China and Hong Kong have scarcely criticized the image of the martial arts master as a paragon of virtue and self-discipline. The knee-jerk explanation is to blame Communist censors, as they placed notoriously severe restrictions on what Chinese filmmakers could and couldn’t put onscreen for fear of ideological heterodoxy. But there is perhaps an even deeper cause. During the rise of wuxia cinema in the 60s and 70s, China was still grappling from the socio-economic effects of a century of Western colonialism and decades of Communist mismanagement. Mao Zedong’s plan for rapid industrialization known as the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962) alone resulted in between 30-55 million deaths from famine. But in wuxia cinema Chinese audiences could find heroes and a national identity they could rally around. The films were frequently set during times of extreme political turmoil in China’s distant past, particularly chaotic dynastic transitions when decentralized imperial power allowed the rise of barbaric invaders and local warlords. And though the heroes frequently fought for personal glory or self-enlightenment, their enemies were almost exclusively ones wreaking havoc against innocent civilians. Wuxia heroes left unity and justice in their wake, and perhaps more importantly the idea that Chinese culture was inherently noble and righteous, even in the face of foreign exploitation. In the leans years following World War Two, America and Japan could, both literally and figuratively, afford to deconstruct the cowboy and the samurai. But China both couldn’t and wouldn’t do the same for their martial artists.
All of which makes Chang Cheh’s The Heroic Ones (1970) so damned unusual for both its time and genre. Flipping almost every nationalist tendency in wuxia cinema on its head, the film’s loosely based on a fictionalized fourteenth century retelling of real world ninth century events that see ethnic Chinese rulers as the villains and culturally barbarous outsiders as the heroes. The film ends not with unity and triumph but with dissolution and tragedy as the heroes win a Pyrrhic victory against themselves. This irony can be hard to appreciate, what with legendary Shaw Brothers’ director Chang Cheh gracing the film with the look and scope of a Hollywood epic and some of the most gorgeous and gory fight scenes of its era. But the film is an anomaly, and an unforgettable one at that.
Set during the waning years of the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE), the era regarded as the high golden age of Chinese antiquity, the film centers on the exploits of the thirteen generals of Li Keyong (Ku Feng), one of the military governors loyal to the emperor who controlled prefectures for their imperial liege. Keyong and his generals—actually his biological and adopted sons—were Shatou, a Turkic people from the north who frequently found themselves at odds with their Han Chinese neighbors. The film sees the thirteen brothers single-handedly save the imperial capital Chang’an from armed Han rebels, only to be double-crossed by another Han military governor who attempts to assassinate their father out of wounded pride. Despite saving their father, internal divisions rupture the brothers, leading two of their members to defect, savagely murder Li Cunxiao (David Chiang)—the thirteenth, youngest son and not coincidentally the mightiest fighter—and kill four more of their number in armed combat. For the moment, China has been saved from China. But at what cost?
The plot as described may seem simplistic, but as presented by Cheh it’s a labyrinthine tale of courtly intrigue and familial drama like something out of Medici Italy. Backroom deals, flimsy alliances, sudden betrayals—it’s only through very careful writing that Cheh keeps the story from falling into itself as it juggles fourteen principal characters. Not that viewers come for the political machinations of warlords and tyrants; though much of the film concerns the “plot,” The Heroic Ones is a vehicle for some of the most punishing and exhausting fight sequences in 70s action cinema. Many involve dozens and dozens of onscreen extras at a time all fighting at once. In one of the film’s central set-pieces, eight of the brothers invade the occupied Chang’an castle at night to assassinate the usurper Huang Chao (Lee Hae-ryong). But the plan falls apart when two of the brothers—the same that will kill Cunxiao later in the film—pick a fight with the guards so they can win their share of the glory. After they fail to kill Chao, the eight fight their way out of the castle, suicidally barreling their way through hallway choke-point after hallway choke-point, occasionally leaping to the parapets to slay the archers attempting to pick them off. Enemies are impaled on spears, thrown from great heights, and sliced open with swords in a ballet of brutality. Later sequences see the brothers desperately rescue their inebriated father from the palace of Zhu Wen (Chan Sing), the vengeful Han governor of the city of Bianliang who tries to have Keyong killed after being humiliated in a bet by his son Cunxiao. The sequence ends with one of the brothers literally dying standing up after being run-through with multiple swords while guarding a bridge to cover his father’s escape. With its geysers of blood and John Woo body count, the carnage is shockingly visceral; the scene where Cunxiao is drawn and quartered by his jealous brothers would be enough to win the film an R-rating alone.
The film climaxes with an unusual pessimism for wuxia, ending anticlimactically after the final fight without the audience knowing if Keyong and his surviving sons restore peace to the Han people who keep betraying them. History tells us that the Tang dynasty would eventually shatter into myriad smaller dynasties ruled by competing warlords and sovereigns, many of whom would claim the Mandate of Heaven for themselves as the true heirs to China’s dynastic line. Several of these smaller kingdoms were founded by none other than the supposedly loyal Shatou before being reabsorbed into the tumultuous Song Dynasty in the tenth century. It would take the might of Kublai Khan’s Mongol horde to unite all of China under one imperial throne once again. But until then the peace Keyong and his sons fought for would remain a dream. With its nihilistic ultra-violence and downbeat ending, The Heroic Ones is almost Peckinpah-esque in its grim reassessment of ancient China’s cyclical violence and treatment of ethnic minorities. Perhaps wuxia got its Revisionist classic after all, even if it was just for one film.