The Romance of the Book
and Sword/Princess Fragrance
Reviewed by James Chang
Cast list:(all of them are mainland actors)
Da Shi Chang---Emperor Ch'ien Lung
Zhang Duo Fu---Chen Jia Lo
Liu Jia---Green Paulonia, sister of Fragrance
Yu Li---prostitute named Jade
A Yi Nu Wa---Princess Fragrance
This is a forgotten film. Why? It is difficult
to say, but perhaps the “wire-fu” flicks of the 90s outshined it. But did
we really have chivalrous kung-fu masters upholding justice among the common
people? What was Chinese politics and history really like?
This film is by no means perfect. It is flawed
and yet at the same time it is a powerful and compelling political drama
disguised as a Wuxia/Kung Fu film. Within the three-hour running time,
we are shown a myriad of different political and social conflicts. There
are conflicts and struggles between the Manchu and the Chinese (Han ethnic
group), between the central government and the minority tribes, between
the government officials and the secret societies known as Triads, between
feudal landlords and the peasants. It is presented on the scale of an Eisenstein
epic. Director Ann Hui depicts the hypocrisy of the 18th-century Chinese
government and the stubbornness, self-righteousness as well as selfishness
of the so-called 'folk-heroes' that goes far beyond anyone’s wildest imagination.
The film is divided into two parts – ‘The Romance
of the Book and Sword’ is the first section and ‘Princess of Fragrance’
follows it. Although the Wuxia novels of author Louis Cha were fictional,
the historical background and the locales are generally based on fact.
The entire film, under the meticulous direction of Hui, was painstakingly
authentic and elegant. Everything is so refined, from the magnificent scenery
of the Chien Tang River's Tide, to the deer hunt of the Imperial House,
the nighttime battle at the riverside of the roaring Yellow River, the
banquet on a clipper ship on the serene lake of Hangzhou, to the pebble
lane in Suzhou, to the duel on the Pagoda of Six Harmonies. This film has
brought out the smell of the Chinese soil. Very few Hong Kong films can
touch me in this manner.
In the second part (Princess Fragrance), everything
is so exotic and very novel to me ---the endless desert, the Mosques and
the vestige of ancient cities. Every single scene was carefully and lovingly
photographed by Bill Wong. Sometimes the cinematography is exhilarating,
sometimes it is gloomy while at the other times it is pale and bleak –
but it always faithfully tracks the emotions of the characters.
It is the story of two brothers. Emperor Ch'ien
Lung (1711-1799) of the Ching dynasty, who visited southern China six times,
was not a Manchu*, but instead he was Han (Chinese) (of course it's just
story) and his brother, Chen Jia Lo, was the chief of the Red Flower Society.
This was a secret society whose only wish was to overthrow the Manchus
and restore the Ming Dynasty. While the Emperor was traveling in the south,
Chen attempted to persuade him to expel the Manchus and restore China to
At the very beginning of the film, we see an
old lady sitting onshore sighing to herself and watching the tide on the
Chien Tang. She is Madame Chan, wife of an arch chancellor. Emperor Yongzheng
(1678-1735), a childless tyrant, stole their eldest son, who was later
proclaimed the Son of Heaven, the Lord of Ten Thousand Years, the Master
of All China, his imperial majesty the Emperor Ch'ien Lung in 1735.
The film then takes us to the bleak and barren
deserts of Xinjiang where two Muslim tribes were fighting for a scroll
of the Koran. They were provoked into killing each other by the central
government, so that none of them would be strong enough to rise against
Ching's sovereignty over this vast realm. Chen hoped he could co-operate
with them to overthrow the Manchus.
From this point on though the first part of the
film is not well structured and paced. The director somehow lost control
of the film, but she still manages to include many poetic shots and impressive
scenes. We have Manchu and Red Flower swordsmen dueling on a clipper –
fighting to the death in front of the Emperor while he drank, chatted and
laughed with his brother and the enemy. There are reflective images of
Chen Jia Lo strolling and meditating along the loggia of his estate, as
he has to contemplate over and over about the destiny he would soon be
facing. Hui presents an interesting moral dilemma to the audience when
she has the two brothers debating with each other in front of the rising
tide; the Emperor questioning the necessity to overthrow the Manchus as
he persuasively argues that most Chinese lead better lives under their
rule than they did under the Hans. Chen persists in arguing for the expelling
of all 'barbarians' out of China. Finally, there is the legendary scene
of the battle in the Pagoda of the Six Harmonies between the Ching infantry,
artillery and the Red Flowers. It was interesting to note the conflict
between Manchu and Han (Chinese) officers in the army.
An audience like me can definitely be attracted
by its theme ---- one's sentiments towards his fatherland and his brother
as well as all the struggles provoked by it.
In the second part of the film (‘Princess Fragrance’),
Chen goes to Xinjiang to help the Muslims to wage a war against the Ching
government that will hopefully lead to the independence of Turkestan and
the weakening of Ching. There he meets Princess Fragrance, the daughter
of a Muslim Chief, who was renown for her ravishing beauty and scent (from
eating flowers) and they fall in love with one another.
The images continue to be stunning and breathtaking.
I was astounded by the great desert in front of me on the screen that seemed
to have no end, the vast grasslands of Mongolia, the mysterious labyrinthine
medieval city and the battles between Muslim horsemen and Ching cuirassiers.
Finally with the aid of the Imperial foot guard
and artillery, the Chings won the final victory and Fragrance, the then
fiancée of Chen, was captured and presented to the Emperor. Interestingly,
the brothers kept on writing to each other during the war and the Emperor
promised to help Chen to restore the Ming dynasty. He told Chen of his
military plans against the Muslims, and then sent generals he disliked
into traps set up by Chen and the Muslims in which they were killed. Though
engaged to Fragrance, Chen persuaded the Princess to marry his brother
for the sake of peace and the overthrow of the Manchus. She married Ch'ien
Lung with tears in her eyes.
On the very day in which Ch'ien Lung promised
to restore the regime of Han, all 'heroes' of the Red Flower Society were
invited to watch an “ice soccer” game in the Imperial Villa. There all
of them are shot by the Imperial Grenadiers on their skates with muskets.
One of these 'heroes' threw his sword at the Emperor, and it was ironically
smashed aside by an army officer of Han origin. At this very moment Princess
Fragrance cut her throat.
This is a tragedy. Every character in here
is filled with emotions - their love for their nation, their homeland,
their brothers and comrades and their loved ones. However, they had no
way to express it. It was as if they were all in a huge desert of emotion.
In this epic, everything was stone-cold which is shown by the images of
the tide beating the shore, the sunset above the Yellow River, the gloomy
dawn, the meditation in the loggia, the lonely shadows on the desert and
the final parting of the lovers on the snowy ground. In the first part,
we have thousands of roaring rivers symbolizing the rise and fall of emotions,
in the second half everything is dead---the desolate desert, the bleak
and snowy wilderness, only a single trace of emotion can be found in the
underground streams of the ancient maze. The end, the massacre on ice,
was the final cry of all emotions and sentiments.
It was a story of betrayal and hopelessness. The
fate of Fragrance has smoothly brought out the feminine agony of the director.
Fragrance was a sacrifice of the paternal society. In her world a woman
can never handle her own fate. She loves Chen Jia Lo, she was willing to
sacrifice her life for him, she trusted him and yet he betrayed her ---
he was neither able nor willing to save her from Ch'ien Lung, the man who
slew her father and brothers. Compared to his loyalty to his fatherland
and his comrades, she was nothing. She was naive and had a strong belief
in the magic of amour and the director finally proved that even the love
between two human beings is something one can’t depend on. In this sense,
Chen Jia Lo is not portrayed as a righteous person at all. He is not a
hero, but an anti-hero. However, Chen's image in this film could still
be considered as a positive one. This is mainly because although Ann Hui
originally wished to analyse his selfishness and incompetence, writer and
novelist Louis Cha glorified his image in both the original novel and the
It was a very serious and painful experience to
watch this flawed yet powerful drama. Politics, history, racial crisis,
rebellion and human sentiments, everything was presented in front of the
viewer in an imposing manner with the grandeur and magnificence of an epic.
Political and Historical Interpretation
It was an omen; two years after the release
of this film on June 4th 1989, thousands of students and civilians were
shot in the same manner in front of the Tiananmen gate, the gate of ' Heavenly
Peace’ - the gate of the former imperial palace. This is Chinese politics.
One can see how hypocritical and treacherous Ch'ien Lung was --- in his
office, there was a huge engraving with the following words on it ----
' JUST AND HONOURABLE '.
The rebels were destroyed but I have no pity
for them. Why? Look at these men, look at Fong Sai Yuk and Wong Fei Hung
(I have always stressed that Wong was an enemy of the revolution who supported
the Ching in real history.)**. They were proclaimed to be heroes, yet it
was them who suppressed the peasantry the most. They were known as Gentry
--- gentlemen of arms. That's why they dared not wage a revolution, not
even a rebellion, fearing that the grass-root population would one day
replace them, they were afraid of true democracy. That's why they only
organized secret activities, which can do NO harm to a strong regime like
Ming or Ching. To overthrow a dynasty, one has to count on either the bourgeois
or the peasants (we don't have working class in China). Ming was destroyed
NOT BY THE MANCHUS, but by the rebellion lead by a PEASANT in 1644. Ching
was overthrown by a new-born class of Bourgeois in 1912.The gentry didn't
really care about the lives of the masses, they only wanted to restore
the Ming ----an even more barbaric and cruel regime. They were destroying
the prosperity and stability of the Chinese society.
On the other hand, the Manchus were NOT FOREIGNERS
in China. Early in the 1400s, Manchuria had been PART of the MING Empire.
One cannot say ' I don't want you to be the head of state because you belong
to a minority group or another province.' Besides, look at poor Princess
Fragrance, she was no Han, so why should she be sacrificed for the sake
of Chen's selfish ambitions to restore the Ming. How about Chen? I really
wished to know whether he had committed high treason by helping the Chinese
Muslims to gain 'independence' as the Chinese Muslims has been subjects
of China since 1260.
Ming was known for its cruelty and Ching was
renown for its hypocrisy. It already controlled the thoughts of the people
using Confucian doctrines - so how can you overthrow it when you're standing
on the same ground. Chen, Wong and Fong, they were also part of the feudal
class, therefore, they're not able to fight Ching's tyranny by using any
means of new philosophy. There is no difference between Ch'ien Lung and
Chen, except that Ch'ien was at a much higher position in the pyramid of
the ruling class.
Some have questioned this historical interpretation,
correctly stating that one should not use 21st century eyes to judge 18th
century people, however, considering the French Revolution also took place
during that period, and the Chinese did have revolutionary philosophers
in the 17th and 18th century, we can point out the limits of Chen ----
his hands were tied up by his social status.
It has been said that Ann Hui used the Manchus
to represent the British in HK and China to symbolize HK - as some Hong
Kongers who knew nothing of their homeland stated, 'since the British have
been so good to us, why should we return to China ?' " 'This is ridiculous!'
stated Ann Hui ' Comparing situations which are completely different is
My rating for this film : 8.0
*Manchu was a nomadic tribe who dwelled
in the Northeast region of China, along the River of Amur (Heilongjiang).
After defeating the peasant rebels in 1644, they became masters of China.
They did not practice kung-fuas they regarded it as useless on the battlefield.
They practiced horsemanship and archery instead. The leading actor, Da
Shi Chang (1940-), nominated for best actor award at the HKFA, was a Manchurian
educated in the USSR and was an expert in both sports.
**Wong Fei Hung was expelled by the Joint
Gov't of Nationalist and Communists in 1924 for leading an anti-revolutionary
riot. Kuan Tak Hing MBE.(1906-1996) has also protested Tsui Hark's production
of OUTIC 2 for depicting Wong as a revolutionary.
Finally, I would like to point out that
I have NO particular distaste for kung fu films, and the very well filmed
Once Upon a Time in China is high on my top ten list of HK films. Besides,
I'm also a fan of the Wong Fei Hung in the movie!