Saturday, 18 June 2011
The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter
The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter (1984) Dir. Chia-Liang Liu
Starring: Gordon Liu Chia, Kara Hui Ying-Hung, Johnny Wang, Lily Li
By Greg Klymkiw
The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter is often cited as one of the great martial arts pictures of all time and while I won't dispute this proclamation from bigger aficionados of the genre than I, this fella has to admit he wasn't as bowled over as the fanboys. For me, I always found martial arts pictures thrilling enough when the action was hot and heavy, but whenever I saw them, I longed for something resembling characters as opposed to character-types. While I realize all genres are rooted in this form of shorthand, so many of the best pictures rise above and beyond the familiar - taking things to levels that allow for a more enriching experience.
I'll also admit it might be a cultural "thang" on my part, but for me, the preponderance of seemingly stale formulas in the genre of martial arts pictures - formulas that never seemed all that fresh in terms of character, approach and/or storytelling techniques - continue to test my patience, more so than any other genre.
First and foremost, the guiding factor for many Asian martial arts action movies is the notion of maintaining and/or regaining honour through revenge. On the surface, I have no problem with this. Vengeance offers up tons of entertainment value, especially when the violent extraction of an eye for an eye - sometimes literally as in the truly magnificent Five Fingers Of Death - is the very thing that drives the engine of many pictures in this and other genres. And let it be said, loud and clear, that revenge is, for me, the sweetest character motivation of all, but for any picture utilizing it and hoping to work beyond the pleasure derived from salaciously wallowing amidst carnage in the name of retribution, I must selfishly admit to needing a trifle more.
The few times I had any investment in the proceedings of Asian action epics were the pictures of Bruce Lee. He had a great mug that the camera loved, physical prowess in the martial arts that defied belief and he was such a great actor/screen persona, that it was relatively easy to root for him even if the characters he played had little more going on than their desire for revenge. Too many other actors - even if they were skilled martial artists - were bereft of the gifts that made someone like Lee a star persona. He was so rooted in our hearts and minds that even the most rudimentary, derivative plots took on veritable Shakespearean qualities when Bruce Lee commanded the screen.
The martial arts pictures I continue to have the most trouble with are period costume epics. The plots are all variations on the following: One man, family or group defend a particular emperor of a dynasty a long time ago in a land faraway. Betrayal and/or murder lead to revenge and the restoration of order once again. Okay, it's a sure fire formula, but for me, it never works as good drama and is merely the flimsiest coat hanger to adorn with some very cool shit (usually great fight scenes). On occasion there are exceptions to this rule, but they are rare indeed. I also reiterate that it might be some manner of cultural block since there are plenty of genres in the Occident that are saddled with similar attributes and they seldom bother me if the pictures are, at least, well made.
The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter has, in spite of its stellar reputation, the same lack of dramatic resonance for me – the been-there-done-that formula of the plot line detailed above (which is, by the way, essentially the 8 Diagram plot) is what drives the picture into an assembly line abyss for me.
That said, what separates it from many of the rest is just how exceptional the fight choreography and camera coverage of the ass kicking is. It's first rate, as a matter of fact. Any number of fight scenes in this picture, especially the climactic one had me on the edge of my seat with eyes glued to the screen. The placement of the camera(s) is always in the right place at the right time. Camera movement is judicious. Cutting is minimal. Close ups are sparing. Wide-shots are plentiful – allowing us to actually see the stunning fight choreography.
How wonderful all these would have been if there had been something resembling emotional investiture in the on-screen fictional personages involved.
The bottom line is that if you love martial arts, The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter is a four-star picture, but even if you aren’t, it still warrants three stars for one salient reason. The fights in the picture are so stunning that you’ll find yourself, like I did, scanning back to several of them again and again after the initial viewing.
Not surprisingly, I am always happy to watch Akira Kurosawa or John Woo direct action pictures, but they do what most of their Asian colleagues are unable to do – they provide stunning action with great (and yes, often familiar) stories that are replete with first-rate writing and most importantly, characters that are fully fleshed out. While I consider their films to be artistry of the highest order, they often inject and/or pay homage to a pulpy, trashy sensibility to the proceedings. Interestingly, their movies are infused with influence from masters like John Ford, David Lean, Sam Peckinpah, Jean-Pierre Melville and, in Woo's case specifically, movie musicals. (Woo's Red Cliff is a perfect example of a great Asian historical epic - stunning action, great story, etc.)
Many of the rest, while creating their own unique approaches – mostly to action – seem far too insular in their perspective. Their work will often be endowed with the necessary frissons to ensure that the action is fast and furious. but it's the action that takes a front seat to everything else a picture needs to survive both the ephemeral and purely visceral.
In spite of all this, I'm satisfied to report that The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter is magnificent pulp and I'm just as happy to take it over all the recent precious, fully formed historical epics of Zhang Yimou or worse, the overrated Ang Lee Crouching Shih-Tzu Flying Pussy nonsense.
Methinks I doth protest too much. It's a good picture. I just wish it and it's ilk were more consistently fleshed out. Even better than flesh, a nicely marbled hunk of barbecue pork is far more succulent with globs of fat attached to it.
Down with lean. Up with porcine. Pass the soya sauce, please.
The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter is available on DVD and Blu-ray on the Dragon Dynasty label’s series of Shaw Brothers Classics.