Wuxia actress Wu Lizhu in the 1930s.
The very first time a filmmaker mixed Chinese martial arts into a movie, into a production designed as a story told on film and not just a record of a staged opera, was about 88 years ago. Part 1 of this series mentioned Ren Pengnian, an early wuxia filmmaker who started out as a bookbinder at the Commercial Press, a thriving publishing house in Shanghai. The Press opened a film production division around 1917-18, making it one of the earliest studios in China. (A comprehensive account of the founding of the Commercial Press studio can be found at The Chinese Mirror.) Ren was known to be interested in theater and drama, so the young employee was recruited to join the fledgling production staff. His training included a period working with an American crew from Universal Pictures, which had come to Shanghai for location shooting. He soon began to direct many of the short two-reelers that made up the earliest output of the Commercial Press production company.
Left: Ren Pengnian, right: Wu Lizhu
Ren proved to be a gifted and visionary film director. His first success was ROBBERY ON A TRAIN (1919), a short film which no longer exists, but is described as having action sequences based on kung fu. Ren made other lost short films in this period, with titles like DEAD GAMBLER (1919) and HAN DA CATCHES A THIEF (1921), which indicate an interest in sordid and adventurous subjects. Later in 1921, he directed the first feature-length film made in China, a true crime story called YAN RUISHENG. (See another Chinese Mirror article here for more information about the making of YAN RUISHENG.) The original crime was covered extensively by the new tabloid-style press. A wealthy playboy had gone bankrupt in the pursuit of pleasure and murdered a notorious prostitute for her jewels. Ren, displaying the unerring instincts of a born showman, cast a real-life friend of the murderer and an ex-prostitute turned “sing-song girl” as the leads. The success of YAN RUISHENG not only opened the door for feature film production in Shanghai, it also revealed a healthy market for exploitation-style movies. Ren dabbled in melodrama in the mid-twenties, but his heart was apparently in action filmmaking. Even his historical dramas featured fight scenes.
In 1927, Ren Pengnian founded his own production company, called Yueming (Bright Moon). Although Yueming tends to be overlooked by historians, it was well known to wuxia fans of the era. A teenaged Walter Tso was inspired by Yueming films to leave Hong Kong and venture to Shanghai, where he got a job as a production assistant at the studio. The athletic wuxia actress Wu Lizhu (Wu Lai-chu) was a frequent leading lady. She was also Ren’s business partner and his wife. When the wuxia serial craze hit China in 1928, in the wake of the hit film THE BURNING OF RED LOTUS TEMPLE, the couple was perfectly positioned to ride the wave. Ren and Wu made wuxia epics like MISTRESS OF THE SPEAR, a six part series from 1931 and 1932, as well as one-shots like THE HEROINE BLACK PEONY, also from 1931. Their greatest success from this period was a long-running series called GUANDONG DAXIA, or NORTHEAST HERO, with 13 episodes made between 1928 and 1931. NORTHEAST HERO is also notable for marking the filmmaking debut of Yuen Siu-tin (Yuan Xiaotian), father of Yuen Woo-ping. In an indication of how seriously Ren took his action scenes, the Peking opera expert was signed by Yueming to choreograph and stunt coordinate the series.
Magazine ad for SARN WOO TOH, starring Wu Lizhu, directed by Ren Pengnian (probably mid-1930s).
Although little is known about Wu Lizhu’s background, she was well respected by knowledgeable martial arts fans of the time. She personified the modern Chinese sportswoman, fit and capable, a dramatic type set in opposition to the passive and pitiful heroines of wenyi, or melodrama. Her stuntwork was impressive enough to earn her the nicknames “Queen of Wuxia Films” and “Oriental Female Fairbanks.” Douglas Fairbanks was the most famous Hollywood stunt actor of the time, but the Chinese wuxia and kung fu actors have always made up in guts what they lacked in budget. None of Ren Pengnian’s and Wu Lizhu’s martial arts films seem to have survived, but I’ve tracked down a couple of dramas-with-combat.
E LIN (aka GREEDY NEIGHBORS, 1933) is a silent Yueming production set in the contemporary period. A carefree, wealthy young landlord is victimized by his neighbors, one of whom covets his land, and the other, his wife. Wu Lizhu plays the hero’s sister, a no-nonsense type who keeps his financial affairs in order. The wife schemes against both husband and sister to transfer his holdings to her lover, while a local official plots to support the other villain in his land grab. There are several well-executed action scenes. The hero’s devoted manservant thrashes the thuggish son of one neighbor after he beats a poor tenant. The sister witnesses the son’s crew attempting to extort a deed from the hero, and she jumps from a second story window (in silk pajamas), chases the gang, and proceeds to kick butt. The existing print of GREEDY NEIGHBORS appears to be missing some footage just before the final confrontation, as the hero begins to realize his predicament, and rallies sister, servants, and tenants to fight the bad guys. They storm the villain’s house, and overwhelm the defenses. The final scene reveals that hero has only dreamed the battle, but he’s finally ready to face his enemies.
The clip in the link below shows that final fight from GREEDY NEIGHBORS. The action is nicely paced, in the form of a narrative with short fights between individuals scattered through the large scale battle. Long shots for group scenes are well composed, with lengthy, complex interactions staged clearly for the camera, which pans very slightly to follow the action. Wu Lizhu frequently uses grappling techniques in her scenes. The action is slightly exaggerated, but is much more realistic than opera fighting. The cast and stunt crew go at each other with gusto. (Notice the scene where the manservant disarms a knife-wielding goon, while boards are thrown at them from offscreen!)
Fight scene from GREEDY NEIGHBORS (1933):
This entry was originally posted on June 17, 2007.
kung fu movie history • Ren Pengnian • Wu Lizhu