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 the Mings.

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 script.
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 merely nonsense.'

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!