Yu Chenghui and THE SWORD IDENTITY
by Gene Ching and Gigi Oh
THE SWORD IDENTITY premiered in China during their auspicious Chinese New Year 2012 rush. Akin to Hollywood's summer rush and holiday rush, the biggest blockbusters are strategically positioned for release during the Chinese New Year holidays in China. THE SWORD IDENTITY stars Grandmaster Yu Chenghui, one of the most venerable martial actors, best known for his role as the villainous Wang Renze in the pivotal 1982 film, THE SHAOLIN TEMPLE. Grandmaster Yu is featured on the cover of our July / August 2012 issue. This film marks the directorial debut for Xu Haofeng, a noted author of wuxia novels, as well as a Taoist scholar and martial artist. Xu has also been the martial arts consultant for the highly-anticipated Wong Kar Wai film, THE GRANDMASTERS, another retelling of the Ip Man legend.
Based on a novella by Xu, THE SWORD IDENTITY is about two travelling swordsmen who aspire to opening a school in a martial village, but there are two problems. First, they wield long curved swords, akin to samurai swords, and non-Chinese weapons are banned in this village. Second, they must challenge the four existing schools successfully.
The first problem is one of cultural prejudice and is easily resolved with a little lesson in kung fu history. In fact, long curved swords exist within the Chinese arsenal, connected to General Qi Jiguang (戚繼光 1528-1588), one of the first scholars to document Chinese martial arts in his essential work, New Annals of Effective Techniques (ji xiao xin shu 紀效新書). The incoming swordsmen in THE SWORD IDENTITY are servants of General Qi, who is already deceased at the start of the film. The Mandarin title of the film is Wokuo de Zhongji (倭寇的磫跡) or "Trail of the Wokuo." Wokuo literally means "dwarf pirates." It is a derogatory term used to refer to Japanese pirates, but also included local Chinese that were in collusion with them. General Qi fought his most significant battles against the Wokuo. It was this conflict that inspired him to develop techniques for the long curved sword. As for the second problem, such challenge matches are the making of great kung fu films.
THE SWORD IDENTITY is a gorgeous film. The sets are worn and textured, with an air of authenticity seldom seen in martial arts movies. The costumes are meticulously researched and of the finest detail. The cinematography is superb, with swooping bird's eye views and luxurious lingering shots of the scenery and costumes. The coupling of Grandmaster Yu and Director Xu promises an extraordinary kung fu film.
And yet, THE SWORD IDENTITY goes a different direction. Most fans will be disappointed because the fight scenes are minimalist. In fact, that's a major plot device. THE SWORD IDENTITY is an insightful commentary upon "flowery" martial arts, something that Chinese styles in particular have been accused of frequently. To call a martial art flowery is to say that it is pretty, but not effective, a damning criticism from those who prize combat integrity. In the film, all of the reigning masters are too rigid in their fighting techniques and are easily defeated by a simple direct attack. In fact, it is so simple that one of the swordsmen manages to teach it to a ditzy dancing girl, who quickly manages to hold off the veteran local masters with it.
Despite the lack of kung fu action, Grandmaster Yu feels it is an important martial film. "The Sword Identity is playing right now," said Yu in Mandarin. "But it has only been viewed by small audiences. They do not understand. Just like reading a book that you cannot understand at the first, with repeatedly readings, you will understand. This is the only 'art film' I've done. It was selected to compete in the 2012 Venice Film Festival. It didn't win, but it received good reviews. The Chairman of the Selection Committee came to China and THE SWORD IDENTITY was the only one to be chosen." THE SWORD IDENTITY has also been reviewed at the prestigious Busan and Vancouver film festivals.
He discussed it, along with several other related topics when he was interviewed by Kung Fu Tai Chi's publisher Gigi Oh in February 2012 in Beijing, just after Chinese New Year.
Trail of the Sword Identity
Grandmaster Yu is most famous for his two-handed sword technique, although his sword is a two-handed jian, which has a straight blade, not a curved one. In THE SWORD IDENTITY, he wields twin spears instead. Yu's thoughts on spear served as a jumping off point for his rapid-fire insights on THE SWORD IDENTITY and the martial arts.
"The shafts (of the twin spears) are made of white waxwood but shorter than normal. A real spear was made of a special wood from Anhui. Nobody uses that kind of wood anymore. It's too heavy. Each weighs 10 to 20 pounds. The wood is hard. It can last long time and withstand much abuse. It is not afraid of the contact from other weapons.
"If you practice spear or staff, you must read Arm Record (Shou Beilu 手臂录) written by Wu Shu (吴殳 1611-1695). There are only two major movements to train in spear: block from the left, block from the right - and there is the front thrust. The thrust is easy to control, but blocking from left or right needs jing (strength or power). It's not because of the weapon is heavy but rather using the taiji jing, the circular and deepest jing. If, after two years of practicing these two movements, your teacher sees your lack of coordination, he will tell you, 'You're not suitable practicing spear. Better just give up and go home.'
"I used a big spear in my next movie, ARCHER LIU BAIYUAN (Jianke Liu Baiyuan 箭客柳白元). It just finished filming and will be released in 2013. In the past, the bow and arrow and the big spear were the supreme weapons of the martial arts training hall. This was because these are the weapons used while riding on horseback and only royal families could ride on war chariots.
"There's a story about Xin Qiji (辛弃疾 1140-1207) of the Southern Song Dynasty. He single-handedly broke the military barracks, cut off the head of a traitor and brought it back safely. How could one person accomplish this? Arrows! Xin scouted the terrain and chose the best horse. After he cut off the head, the enemy found out and gave chase. He shot anyone who got close to him. Every shot found its mark, so finally no one dared pursue him. Xin was a renowned poet, not known for his martial skill. Confucius' father was a fencing master. Confucius was the strongest martial artist in the Lu region. He taught Zilu swordplay. But he never showed off his martial skills. In that era, neijing (internal power) was widely known by everyone. Nowadays, how long does it take a martial artist to acquire neijing? People feel so self-satisfied acquiring only a little neijing. Unfortunately, many of the original techniques are lost today.
"I feel a lot of things are now catering to the foreigners or becoming commercial products. I started in YELLOW RIVER FIGHTER (黄河大侠 1988), the first one. But in the later installments, they added all kinds of nonsense acts like 'silver spear against the throat' and so on, like kid's play. I am too old for that. It is because there are a lot of commercial profits involved. It is becoming a deceptive documentary film. The documentary I would like to make is 'learn' and 'ask.' So after I thought it over, I didn't think I could fit it in anymore. In fact, the real good stuff is not for showing off to others. It is a way of self-cultivation.
"We did not have an action director in THE SWORD IDENTITY. The fight scenes were according to the director Xu's requirement. Xu also practices martial arts. His grandfather is a disciple of xingyiquan. We tried not to show who the attacker was and who the defender was in the fight scenes. Otherwise, it would be like child's play.
"Once, there was a stunt double who trained for six years in tongbei and six years of stunt work. He had a total of more than a decade of kung fu practice. The action sequence was supposed to start with him slicing at my waist with a dao. Then I was supposed to counter it with a block from my spear. But he stopped in the middle of the action. I did not move so he stopped. The director yelled, 'Why are you stopping?' The same thing happened during the second take. He was too embarrassed to say anything. I whispered to him, 'Just throw it at me. I will not let you chop me in half!' So he tried again. The moment when the dao was about to hit me, his weapon stopped and was repelled. 'What happened?' I asked him. I wondered why he could not hold his weapon. We tried again and got the same results. He lost his grip because of my instant fajing (emitting power). I think it is like chopping firewood. When the final chop touches the wood, the force is not the strongest. Maybe he was not accustomed to such strong fajing. Also, the strength of his slice had already passed its peak when it came into contact. The Arm Record says that it's not too late to defend when the staff hits you. You shouldn't just use your arm strength for defense. You need to use kung fu principles like lan (obstructing or hindering 拦) and na (taking or grasping 拿), all these movements, at the same time. This is because in the middle of your action, your goal may change. You change your action through your footwork. It becomes a continuous action. These principles of lan, na and jing are the same as in taiji, xingyiquan and swordplay.
"There are many old kung fu adages that address this. 'No moves and no blocks make an expert.' This means you do not have to parry your attacker. A similar one is, 'Do not move, do not block, only one action; moving and blocking is a crime that brings ten movements.' Most of the time, your opponent is trying to trap you to move; therefore, 'Don't move and you aren't fooled; one move and you are fooled.'
"The benefit comes from adding na into your block. Xingyiquan training often combines blocking with na. Unfortunately, most people don't train this way anymore. It is just like the automaticity you experience when driving a car. Even if you are on the phone, you won't forget how to drive. You can train your muscles to memorize the movements. Then you can complete the task subconsciously. 'Practice your punches a thousand times and they will be familiar.' This process is universal. Practice makes perfect."
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