The Martial Arts World Is Not Friendly, Chinese Martial Arts Culture Needs Self-Nourishment
--Exclusive Interview with Director Xu Haofeng

In the Chinese film market where big data and big IP are popular right now, director Xu Haofeng is a bit different from others. He said that things he interested in are not the same as the common sense of modern people, and that’s why he directed “The Sword Identity”, “The Master” and “Judge Archer”, which have earned him a lot of fame in the international film industry. At the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival, he again won the Best Director award of first Asian Brilliant Stars by virtue of “The Master”. Now, his fourth director work “The Hidden Sword” will be released soon. This film tells the story of anti-Japanese battles at the Xifengkou on the Great Wall, which took place in the 1930s and 1940s, depicting the legendary Chinese swordsmanship and the chivalry of Chinese swordsmen. Under director Xu Haofeng’s insistence of no substitute, special effects, or wire support, Xu Qing, Chun Xia, Zhang Aoyue, Huang Jue and other famous movie stars underwent strenuous training before rendering wonderful Chinese martial arts in the film. The film is expected to be released in end-2017.

Chinese Film Market (CFM) magazine had an interview with Xu Haofeng in Berlin. Xu’s martial arts films have distinctive styles, embodying Xu Haofeng’s understanding and rendition of this world. Director Xu Haofeng does not talk much about data or the market. Like an old-style scholar, he pours his heart into the culture he adores, and his words are meaningful with a long aftertaste.


About “The Hidden Sword” 

Q: Your films are characteristic of distinctive Xu’s martial arts style. Have starring Xu Qing and Chun Xia undergone some special training for “The Hidden Sword”?

Xu: We have given official Chinese qualifications training and swordsmanship training to our actors and actresses. Chun Xia and “Chinese Dance King” Zhang Aoyue received special training in this regard, which was of significant encouragement to Chun Xia. Xu Qing was directly trained by martial arts masters from Shandong.


Q: When you use the film to express symbolic things, such as abstract “chivalry” “personal loyalty” and “style”, how did you deal with them?

Xu: I did not deliberately make these things some kind of Western-style symbols. These things are for the purposes of providing images, so I simply used Eastern metaphors. Sometimes you will discover that a person’s life and his state are just like a copper pot at a corner in his house. That’s why there are often sticks, sabers, bricks or small animals in my films; they are metaphors for life or the state of existence.


Q: Will the new film “The Hidden Sword” carry on the essence of martial arts culture embodied in your previous works, or will there be another cultural representation?

Xu: The values and paradigms of older Chinese generations are greatly different from those of Westerners, Japanese people, and even today’s younger generations. Different values directly divide people groups, this is what I really interested in.


Q: Now there are a lot of films with anti-Japanese theme, what really makes “The Hidden Sword” stand out?

Xu: I reckon it is unwise to simply interpret the film as hatred between two nations caused by war. Why there was such a large-scale war in history? In fact, both the Chinese and Japanese sides acted like playing chess, having their own long-term plans. There are both visible and invisible histories. The latter means something that has been planned for a long time but failed to materialize. I wish to dig up these things in my anti-Japanese film.

The historical facts I am interested in are quite different from the common sense of present people. Take Chinese people’s national dress code for example. Some history books and critical films reckon that Chinese people’s clothing was very rough at that time, meaning Chinese people could not afford to wear good clothes. But the fact is exactly the opposite, China’s Hebei province was a rich place in that era, even richer than most of the northeastern region. Photos of my elders show that they all wore suits in their youth. And then there is a common sense: Japanese people in that era were highly westernized. Therefore, the degree of westernization and sophistication in Chinese people’s clothing was neglected. As a matter of fact, Chinese people are much more creative. Take China’s cheongsams for example. They are not derivatives of Manchu clothing; instead, they were created by Chinese fashion designer by referring to the evening dresses of western ladies.


Q: What is special about the production of this film?

Xu: In the lens syntax, this film still attempts using longer lens to increase the feeling of documentary; some actions seemed very simple, but there are a lot of very subtle changes, so subtle that human eyes may not discern them. For example, an actor makes a total of three movements, but in fact there are two invisible movements, so that these two visually lost movements should be rendered with sound; so long as the sound effect is in place, these three movements can be perceived. It equals to recreating a person’s holographic visual in the film.

For instance, when two metal things collide in the film, the sound is not necessary generated by bumping two metal pieces together. This is the skill of creating dynamic effects. When producing films, I now treat dynamic effects as music. When people are fighting, there is a melody and rhythm of music in the scene. As to documentary things, I try to make the sounds like ambient acoustics.

Q: What is the most difficult part in making this film?

Xu: The difficulty of making this film lies in designing actions, because the process of filmmaking is still very emotional. When working with my cameraman, I need to explain the lens length and angle for a certain established martial arts design, so he will concur in the selection of a particular lens; otherwise it will be difficult for him to comprehend. And action designs need to reflect the personalities of characters. Sometimes when I discuss scenes with the actor or actress, he/she may not have right insights; in that case, I just skip the scene and go on to the next action scene, discussing what movements he/she might have, how he/she will hit his/her opponent. By asking he/she to review communication with other people in the previous civil scene, I can immediately help he/she find the feeling, So in filmmaking the civil scenes and action scenes can indeed influence each other.


About Xu’s Martial Arts Films

Q: As all three of your previous films are of martial arts theme, what are the similarities and differences between your films and Hong Kong Kung Fu films?

Xu: Hong Kong Kung Fu films effectively retain the old-style qualities of Chinese men in Peking Opera. Strictly speaking, the biggest feature of Chinese people in the ROC era resembles those found in Peking Opera. Now that the Peking Opera has declined, it has exited completely from the life of young and middle-aged people. As a result, the image of Chinese people, especially that of Chinese men, has lost the touch of Peking Opera. Hong Kong films assimilated the wisdom and glamor of Peking Opera, inheriting the aesthetics regarding martial arts arrangement and lens arrangement from those years of Xianfeng Emperor in Qing Dynasty. Regrettably, I was born in the 1970s, so I don’t have contact with these old schools. I am only familiar with the martial arts of security and escort system, which later evolved into the military officer system. I think this is the essential difference between my films and Hong Kong Kung Fu films.


Q: You said before that you want to build a new type of Chinese martial arts film viewing mode. Can you elaborate on it?

Xu: It refers to the values. Since a lot of martial arts films only sell a simple value of punishing the evil and commending the virtuous, or borrow values from Hollywood films, in which a boy grow up and become successful in the end. I reckon that China’s reality is now unprecedentedly complex, so I try to show in martial arts films interpersonal relationships and values that are closer to social reality.

The difference between a nation and other nations is that their interpersonal relationships are completely different, and there is a trade-off concept in interpersonal relationships. When the values of two people are different, the choice regarding a matter and reasons behind it will be different.


Q: What is the martial arts world in your eyes?

Xu: The martial arts world is not friendly at all! Intrigues abound in the martial arts world. It is indeed a world of swindlers. In the traditional Chinese society, saying a person is from the martial arts world means that the person is with chivalry and the spirit of brotherhood. But in the past, such a comment meant that the person was a swindler. What is the spirit of brotherhood? It exists in the social strata with more stable life, or in the security and escort bureaus. It takes a stable life and certain social identity for a person to act in the spirit of brotherhood.


Q: The western magic fiction Harry Potter is recognized by the world as a part of the popular culture. In your opinion, how can China’s martial arts culture expand its own influence?

Xu: The martial arts culture was recognized by the world three decades ago. Now we need to think about how to carry it forward. It now appears that in the past decade we have been “making wedding dresses” for Hollywood, as our first-class martial arts filmmakers have been making money for Hollywood. In the past decade, we were in a state of being squeezed. We have not been feeding and nourishing ourselves. If you want to maintain the influence of martial arts culture, I believe it is important to refuse the temptation of money, say no to some broader sales system, and put more efforts in originality.


Q: What do you think of the phenomenon of using special effects in most of today’s martial arts films?

Xu: At present stage, Chinese people do not have much advantage in making special effects, while Hollywood has been cashing in on this for more than a decade. But I do not think the combination of Chinese filmmakers and Hollywood system is productive. History shows that the combination of Japanese filmmakers and Hollywood system has resulted in the overall depression of Japanese native films, and the Japanese cinema lines are screening Hollywood films year after year. So I am now vigilant on the entry of Hollywood capital into Chinese film industry.

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