Red Heroine (1929)

Posted in Reviews by - June 20, 2014
Red Heroine (1929)

Between 1927 and 1931, around 400 silent martial arts films were made in Shanghai. This is the only one that remains. As a result, there is a distinct possibility this may be the oldest surviving martial arts film in existence.

It’s a spirited wuxia revenge film, the sixth episode in a wildly popular 13-part serial known as Red Knight-Errant which featured the swashbuckling, high-flying exploits of the Red Heroine, cinema’s first femme fatale. Played with great verve by Fan Xuepeng, she is kidnapped by a marauding flag-waving militia and forced to become a semi-naked sex slave for the troop’s kung fu warlord. But as she’s being stripped of her peasantry, she is quite spontaneously rescued by the Monkey King. With her grandmother killed in the initial ruckus, she decides to learn the “military arts” from the Monkey King and three years later she returns as a superior fighter to take revenge.

As you can tell from the synopsis, the film – and many others of its ilk – helped in no small part to create the tropes associated with the genre today. The fabulously hokey flying sequences and female warriors were mainstays of wuxia literature as much as they were cinematic, and the action was clearly borne of the Beijing Opera stage. The film’s more salacious elements – the mysticism, the fantastical combat, the bikini-clad slave girls – hinted towards a so-called ‘depravity’ which made martial arts films a target for both the Communists and the Nationalists, who banned them for their supposedly denigrating impact on Chinese culture.

But watching it now, the strong female protagonist looks somewhat trailblazing, especially in the final act when director Wen Yimin fully commits to the wuxia fantasy. As to how influential the silent martial arts films of the 1920s were to future generations of Chinese filmmakers is hard to tell. But there are clear thematic and physical resemblances to, for example, King Hu’s wuxia films of the 1960s and Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning 2000 tribute to the genre, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

As a rare asset in charting the birth of martial arts cinema, Red Heroine is not just a curiosity – it is of vital importance.

This post was written by
Editor and creator of Kung Fu Movie Guide and the host of the Kung Fu Movie Guide Podcast. I live behind a laptop in London, UK.

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