And now, grasshopper, you shall learn the ancient art of hitting someone in the head with a wooden pole.
Available in Canada, France, the United States, and perhaps a few other countries. Approximately 110 minutes.
Outside of town, four soldiers approach two mysterious men. The younger of the two men starts to square off with one of the soldiers. In the brief confrontation, the younger man knocks the soldier to the ground. The others attack him, while the fight is not shown, this is the outcome. And only after the fight is over does the older man get up from his spot.
Elsewhere, an elderly man receives a drink from a young woman. Her husband asks the man if he is going to mountains to hunt. No. He is going there to be alone.
The two mysterious men walk down a street of the town and fight with multiple soldiers emerging from openings in the wall. They don’t kill the soldiers, but they do incapacitate them. The older man gets injured, but his shouting “Yi Ho” gets the young man to continue.
The younger man gets to the end of the street and almost gets hit with an arrow. He starts walking backwards towards his companion while a group of archers follow him.
The young man addresses the man who shot his hat. It is a 200-year rule that one who defeats the four schools on Wuyi Lane can open a school. He hopes for the chance. The archer denies him, saying that his form of sword is unfair. He demands that the young man break his sword and leave. The young man starts to lay his sword on the ground, but then snatches it up and runs off.
The archer is the master at one of the schools. The other masters, who appear to be much older, approach him. One of them hands him the sword of the now captured older man, calling it an evil sword. Huh? The archer calls it a great sword. It’s too bad.
On a houseboat on the river, this woman has been dancing for however long for a client. She is getting annoyed; she wants to see the Wuyi Lane fights and young Kung Fu masters. A fight? Why? She says that there is Japanese pirate in the city and the winner gets to fight him. The client asks what would happen if the pirate escapes.
The woman gets fed up. She just wants to watch the fights. The client responds by tossing more money her way. No fight. Just dance. Three other women enter the boat, asking if she is ready to go see the fight. Nope; the client has paid for more dancing. Oh well. Her friends laugh and leave.
The woman notices that the client isn’t even looking at her. What is the point of all this? She throws her tambourine to the floor. The client says that he is not here to watch her dance, but to test her physical strength. Eh? He says that it is so that he can be prepared in case her people invade his country. Her people? Where is she from? Who is this guy anyways?
Wait…is he the young man who wanted to found a school? Well, anyways, the woman claims that her people are nomads with no land. How would they invade his country? I guess that this woman has never heard of Kublai Khan. The young man concedes her point, but doesn’t waiver in his objective…or her assignment. Well, okay. She goes back to dancing.
Well, the fights are underway. Two men are going at it, though they seem to be more weaving around each other than swinging their weapons. The three nomad women complain that that is boring; the two should be at each other’s throats, fighting to the death. One of the soldiers standing by the women tells them that Chinese martial arts is not like street fighting; victory is decided the split-second they clash head-on. The nomad women find this funny. The woman perched on a really high chair above him also finds this amusing.
That “Japanese pirate” turns out to be the older man, who is being held captive by the four masters. They call him Japanese because the sword is Japanese. Is it? It is not curved like a katana. Are there straight Japanese swords? What year is this set anyways? Whatever, fine, it’s Japanese. The young master offers to release the older man if he destroys the sword. The older man insists that the sword is meant to combat the Japanese, as regular swords are no match against them. And since his General Qi had remodeled its length and the method of wielding it, it no longer even counts as a Japanese sword. Now that General Qi is dead and the sword no longer in use, he merely wants to pass on the knowledge and keep the memory alive. The young master is unmoved, but the older man claims that the younger man was General Qi’s last bodyguard and he will not give up. Very well, says the young master. Since the land is at peace, capturing the young man might finally bring a bit of fun back.
The young master goes out to see…are those the same two guys fighting? Well, one of them appears to be about to win when the fight is paused. The Anti-Pirate Chief has arrived with his troops. He seems annoyed that no one told him about the Japanese being in town. He is unhappy that he is still wearing paper armor at almost fifty years old and believes that saving the town from Japanese invaders would lead the imperial court to bestow metal armor upon him.
The four masters attempt to placate him as if he were a child, and it kind of works. So, the Chief leaves, though not before acknowledging Madam Qiu, the woman in the high seat. She laughs and (teasingly?) tells him and his troops to leave her alone.
The other masters discreetly express unhappiness that the young master had told the Chief about the Japanese prisoner. First off, the four of them know that he is not Japanese, but confirmed the rumors just to scare the other one off. And this martial arts contest was just meant to raise disciple morale. Whatever. The young master argues that the best way to crush this young man is to have him branded as Japanese and captured. So, they should stop with this contest and go search for him.
Not realizing that her friends are disappointed that no one is lopping anyone’s head off, the nomad woman screams that she wants to see the fight. The young man offers to show her some moves, and quickly cuts one of the little cymbal things on her tambourine. The nomad woman sulks that she should have never come to China. So, the young man says to her the phrase that the older man had said to him: Yi Ho. She does not know what it means, but saying it makes her laugh, so that is something. He tells her that it is a drill command. And she should continue her dancing. Well, her happiness didn’t last very long. Still, he embraces her as he sees someone passing by the window. Then he tells her to pour wine into the river. Why? He says that it is a test. She is back to being angry, but she passes the curtain and goes outside with the wine pot thingamee.
The nomad woman emerges from the boat to see a bunch of people by the dock. There is Madam Qiu on her chair. There are several martial arts disciples putting up…something. There are her three friends. They call out to her when they see her, warning her that her customer is a Japanese pirate. And her name is Sailan; that is good to know. They try to run to her, but the disciples stop them. Without revealing himself to the people outside, the young man pulls Sailan back through the curtain.
The young man says that Sailan has good body strength. Okay. He asks her if she wants to learn how to fight one on one. Well, I guess that anything is better than dancing at this point. He hands her his scabbard and has her hold it out. He tells her to close her eyes, and wait for the sound of her opponent’s weapon making contact, and then use her full force to pull upwards. Hmmm. That seems easy enough.
Outside, the young master tells Madam Qiu that it is getting late and a woman should be home by now. Madam Qiu scoffs at him giving her orders. The young master notes that Brother Qiu’s reputation remains important even though he is not around. So, she jumps off her chair and walks off with her sheepish-seeming guard. Meanwhile, the disciples escort the three other nomad women away as the older master goes to rest alongside the other masters. I guess that they are all set in for a long night.
Two disciples approach the boat and immediately get knocked to the floor.
Heh. That was Sailan’s doing. She asks the young man what to do now. He merely tells her to continue. He sneaks out the side of the boat and jumps into the water. How no one heard that is beyond me, but no one heard that.
Now Sailan is alone inside the boat. People wrongly assumed that the young man was a Japanese pirate; now they think that she is the Japanese pirate. Perhaps she could just announce herself and surrender herself, claiming to be held hostage and not quite be totally lying. Perhaps the town will show her mercy. Instead, she continues.
The Chief is once again complaining to his men about the masters neglecting to inform him of the Japanese pirate on the boat when they encounter…that very man…definitely not on the boat. It is a five to one encounter and it appears that the young man has lost. The Chief goes over to the young man, intending to tie him up, but the young man manages to subdue him and take him captive. He tells the four other men to drop their weapons. That doesn’t work, so he tells the Chief to tell his men to drop their weapons. That works. He has them walk to the water and jump in. The Chief as well. Oh, and he jumps in as well. And they all start wading or swimming to who knows where.
The man from the mountain paints his white beard black and comes back down to confront the Japanese, since the young ones are no match for him. He meets with a man at a house who gives him something to drink, and recognizes him as Qiu Dongyue, Top Master of Shuangye City. So, this must be Brother Qiu.
Brother Qiu gives the man a…uh…a money. And he goes to see the man’s daughter to give her a money too. The man’s daughter has a child of her own and…wait…is this the same actor who plays Madam Qiu? Well, anyways, she tells him about a fight between her village and another over a drain. Her husband got injured int the fight, so she will have to take on all of the farmwork when spring arrives. She says that her body will become tough and strong like an ox as a result, and she will no longer be pretty.
Brother Qiu gives her a money, so she goes into the house, wakes up her husband, hands him the baby and makes him go outside. She sits on the bed and motions Brother Qiu to come close. She tells him that her family can live on that money for years, maybe even the rest of their lives if they are smart with it. Or…this is the price for sex in the city. She pulls at his sleeve, but he doesn’t budge. He says that he is a martial artist and only wants to do some good. He makes her let go and he walks out. He then throws some more money at porch for her husband to pick up. That broken leg did not prevent him from pouncing on those monies. He thanks Brother Qiu, but Brother Qiu seems to have already forgotten all of them, walking, walking, walking, and practicing his moves.
The four masters had been sleeping, but the laughter of the nomad women has woken them up. They are speaking their own language, so the young master tells one of the disciples to ask them what they are saying. The disciple goes over to the women and they laugh at him. Another disciple goes over and reports back that they are talking about tata. Tata? Destiny. Now the masters start laughing, which briefly unsettles the nomad women. The disciples start to laugh too, though it is unclear whether they understand what is so funny. The young master suggests that they send more men. One of the other masters says that the reputation of the schools will be ruined if more men get injured. Eleven men have been injured already. ELEVEN? Way to go Sailan. The young master repeats his suggestion to send more men. I guess that he overrules the other masters, being from the one school that managed to beat him back on the street. One disciple is about to go gather the troops for another go round when Brother Qiu arrives. And everyone shuts up.
The day has arrived and Sailan wakes up to knock out two more disciples. Not knowing that it is their friend doing the out-knocking, the nomad women mock the disciples for not being smart and sneaking in through the side. One of the masters says that reputable martial artists don’t sneak up on opponents. The women shrug; they tried. Brother Qiu asks the other masters if they had heard of Generals Qi and Yu. Of course. The Japanese invaded the southeastern shores 16 years ago and the two generals came up with ways to push them out. Yu came up with the Yuanyang Formation (mentioned a few times earlier in the movie) and Qi used the Japanese sword. Brother Qiu is more interested in the latter, saying that Qi’s soldiers practiced mostly with rods and received swords only shortly before battle. The technique is based on reacting to shadows and sound. General Qi refused to teach the technique to anyone aside from his men. But Brother Qiu believes that he knows how it works.
Brother Qiu says that they will be a laughingstock if the man on the boat is one of Qi’s men and not Japanese. The young master suggests that perhaps the Japanese learned of General Qi’s rodwork after being defeated and the other masters say that it is not impossible. The young master says that the reputation of the four schools depends on Brother Qiu. So, Brother Qiu approaches the boat. He gets on the deck. He looks at the rod and calculates where the holder is located behind the curtain. He thinks several steps ahead. Then he strikes.
And Sailan knocks him the fuck out.
The movie has a fairly standard premise at first. Newcomers come to a city, hoping to set up a martial arts school, and end up at odds with the existing schools. There are the standard characters. The young disciple and the elder master. The arrogant antagonist masters and their personality-free disciples. The girl in peril. The seductresses. The lady of class. The mysterious sage. Pretty straightforward story…until it isn’t.
I cannot really pinpoint the moment when I realized that this movie was not meant to be taken seriously. There were clues even in the beginning, but one could dismiss all of them. After all, this is not some Jackie Chan/Stephen Chow goof-fest. It has the air of artsy elevateditude and a level of pretentiousness similar to Crouching Tiger and Hero. The humor is dry to the point of not being noticeable, let alone funny…until it is hilarious.
The “martial artists” in the movie all talk big about martial arts. And talk long about martial arts. And talk reverentially about martial arts. It all seems legitimate and honorable and practical. There is this passionate debate regarding technique and weaponry. The battle is not just physical, but philosophical. There is this hyper-intellectualization of movement and timing…all for someone smacking someone else in the head with a pole. And then smacking someone else in the head with a wooden pole.
The “martial arts” in the movie lacks both the wild inventiveness of the former or the heightened grace of the latter. The most martial artsy of the martial arts in the movie comes from men practicing by themselves, showing off to each other, or imagining what might happen. The moves that they make while practicing and displaying may look impressive, but it almost never makes a difference when it comes to actual fights. There is a lot of fancy footwork, with opponents dodging each other without actually trying to hit each other. When there is a hit, then that is pretty much it. Sort of like when a main character hits a mook in a standard martial arts flick. The mook goes down and that is perfectly acceptable…until Brother Qiu gets knocked down, then it is shocking.
All of that talk, all of that philosophizing, all of that intellectualization, all of that passion. All of that, brought down by someone who could barely be considered a rookie after a few minutes of instruction. It all seems ridiculously meaningless. Sort of like when Brother Qiu blackens his white beard to make himself look younger and then act like the mountain has some mystical youth-preserving qualities. It’s all useless nonsense.
We sometimes don’t even see the hits. Or, if we do, we do not really get the level of impact until a couple of seconds later. The editing makes the fights deliberately incomprehensible. Hollywood audiences may have been exposed to something similar this at this time, with the advent of shakey cam and quick cuts. Often that was seen as attempts to cover the fact that there was no fight choreography, that the actors did not know how to do the moves, that the actors were physically unable to do so, that no one in charge knew how to make the actions filmable. Here, it seems like it is deliberately calling attention to itself. Making cuts to closeups of whatever and daring the audience to find significance in what is on screen, overcomplicating what is actually a pretty simple exchange. It is all sound…and shadow. And it’s funny. Like…the movie cuts to this shot in the middle of a fight scene.
While the moment where Sailan knocked down Brother Qiu may not have been the moment where I realized that this movie was a comedy, it did force me to reevaluate what I had seen before. I took notice of the awkward presentation of combat. I started to actually think that having the older masters be interchangeable was purposeful as opposed to thoughtless. The same with Sailan’s three fellow nomads, who often spoken in unison. The way in which honor and reputation overrides simple practicality. The ease in which certain characters can manipulate others to do things over long periods of time. The frequent leaning upon tropes for various characters as shortcuts and shorthand in lieu of actual characterization.
The movie seems to assume that the viewer is familiar with Chinese martial arts movies and, instead of turning the building blocks on their heads, toys with them just enough to throw off the viewer every so often. It leads not to constant belly laughs, but mild chuckles with the occasional chortle.
Now, the philosophizing and debates may be undermined by what is shown on screen, but it is not to completely be dismissed. After all, the main crux of the conflict is not just these newcomers showing up the established schools. It is about whether incorporating foreign elements is acceptable. The four masters have praised General Yu’s Yuanyang Formation, seeing it as the best way to fight back Japanese invaders. On the other hand, they reject General Qi’s adopting Japanese swords into his tactics to fight back the Japanese invaders. They do it so much that they promote (if not start) rumors that the two men who had served under General Qi are Japanese pirates. It seems to be part of mindset of rejecting all foreign things that China. After all, they are the Middle Kingdom, why would they want anything from the barbarians, even something that they can modify? This is a mindset that China seemed to have held until British drug pushers absolutely destroyed the Chinese military in the 19th century. And well over a century later? Well, the Chinese seem a lot less reluctant to ”adopt” foreign items and modifying the models to suit them to their needs. That is the crux of the debate. What is good for one’s reputation and what actually works? What makes for a good show and what is actually of use?
There is also the issue of the martial arts itself. There is almost a sense of democratization of the knowledge. The two men desire to set up a school to spread their knowledge. But when they are denied that opportunity, they try to do it anyways. Sure, the young man may have taught Sailan certain moves for his own immediate needs, but he is still passing down knowledge. Sailan had reluctantly danced for him when he was throwing money at her. But when it came to fending off attackers? She could have rejected him at any time. She could have emerged from the boat and surrendered. But Sailan stayed and continued knocking trained martial artists to the floor. Even a martial arts master. The young man had infuriated her and put her in danger; she had all the reason to turn him in. At the same time, he also demonstrated that he saw value in her that probably no one else did. He bestowed upon her knowledge that revealed a power within her that she probably never knew that she possessed. The power to knock martial arts masters the fuck out with one blow. That has got to mean something…at least to her. In presentation, it looks silly, perhaps deliberately so. Still, the idea of a not even rookie taking on trained fighters and winning…that is kind of inspiring.
If you are in the mood for an alternative martial arts film with an extremely dry sense of humor, this is good one.
WTF ASIA 253: The Man Standing Next (South Korea: 2020, approx. 113 minutes)
Available in Canada, France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the United States, and perhaps a few other countries.
WTF ASIA 254: Buffoon (India: 2022, approx. 117 minutes)
Available in Australia, Canada, France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the United States, and perhaps a few other countries.