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Xixiang ji / Romance of the Western Chamber

Xixiang ji / Romance of the Western Chamber (1927)

Yes, adding naval battles makes any film more interesting

Director: Yao Hou, Li Minwei
Writers: Wang Shifu (original play), Yao Hou (adaptation)
Date: 1927

Genre: Love Story
Description: Love story, scholar dupes the bandits, calling reinforcements, proving one’s worth

Cast: Ge Cejiang, Hu Chichang, Lam Cho-cho, Li Dandan, Zhu Yaoting

Crew of note:

Runtime: 50 mins.
Color: Black and White
Trivia: Based on the famous play by Wang Shifu, written during the Yuan dynasty

Zhang is a young scholar who enters a temple to learn. He meets Yingying, a girl who is famous for her beauty, and they quickly form a bond. Love at first sight and all that cheezy stuff. Unlucky for them, because Sun, a ruthless bandit leader, is outside with a master plan to kidnap Yingying and make her his wife (or worse!). Trapped between a bandit attack and a mother unwilling to marry her daughter off, Zhang must find a way to defeat the horde and prove himself worthy of Yingying’s hand in marriage.

Although based on the famous play, I was expecting it to be a boring romance since all the naughtybits would have to be omitted. Another drama from the silent era, yawn yawn.

It was a pleasant surprise that this was, in fact, closer to an action-comedy movie than a cheezy love story. Yes, of course the love story between Zhang and Yingying remains the center of the movie, but there is enough action, witty dialogue and odd circumstances to keep things interesting. The elaborate battle sequences, with complete period armor and weapons, is very well coordinated for 1927, if a little redundant. They really went all out to complete this period piece, and Yao and Li are able to recreate the Tang dynasty effectively with their sets.

The story itself is quite simple: Zhang must win Yingying’s hand in marriage. However, he isn’t Superman or Brad Pitt, so he must use what he has to save the day. No, he isn’t secretly a kung fu master, and he doesn’t suddenly know how to throw kame-hame-ha’s. He just uses his brain and calligraphy brush and finds a simple solution. Just like the story: simple yet effective. Probably a good lesson for 1927 too: even nerds can get hot chicks.

There is nothing too specific to recommend about this film, other than the fact that it’s good. Great sets, great costumes, and a good adaptation that follows the original’s story while making it interesting for audiences of the time, and even today. If you can find this film, watch it. We’re lucky it survived.

things to take note of
The intertitles, I guess
Great costumes and gear

best moment
The raid on the temple
The weirdest duel in history

why you should watch this
Interesting fight sequence, one of the few you’ll see (or find relatively easily) from this era
Old movies are always interesting

rating: 7.8

Plot: C+ (based on a classic, but the movie’s too short)
Cast: C+
Cinematography: B
Music: C+
Entertainment: B+

similar movies, maybe:
For films in the same era, I’m not quite sure. But this film is one of the great-great-grandads of wuxiapian, I think, sharing similarities with King Hu’s influential “A Touch of Zen” and other romanticky action flicks, and all the way up to the “Hero”s and “House of Flying Daggers”es of recent times. No wire-fu yet, of course.

Warai no daigaku / University of Laughs

Warai no daigaku / University of Laughs (2004)

Shown: 1/3 of the movies sets. Not shown: Comedy

Director: Hoshi Mamoru
Writers: Mitani Koki
Date: 2004

Genre: Comedy
Description: Writing a comedy play, 1940’s Japan, censorship, improving your script, an odd duo, stage play turned movie, play within a play within a play within a movie…?

Cast: Yakusho Koji, Inagaki Goro

Crew of note:

Runtime: 121 mins.
Color: Color
Trivia: Based on Mitani Koki’s play

Hajime is writing a play for his troupe, but there’s a new censure in town, Sakisaka Mutsuo, and he takes his job pretty seriously. The writer brings his play for approval, but it is deemed “not nationalistic enough.” The stern but amusingly enthusiastic censure decides to give him some tips. Laughing happy funtimes ensue!

With only two recurring characters, 3 settings (censors office, street, theater), two chairs and a table, the movie may seem simplistic. The plot certainly suggests so. As a slapstick comedy, its potential for big laughs is generally the only thing that audiences look for. What you will find here, however, is an intelligent script about the nature of scriptwriting that delivers both laughs and insight into playwriting. I suppose you can call it “meta”, because even though it doesn’t self-reference itself as a comedy, its background as a comedy play about writing comedy plays, and the way the movie relies on the unpredictability of the writing process as its plot, source of comedy, and main narrative structure… maybe you should over-analyze after the movie’s over instead. Anyway!

The laughs. Yes, the movie is funny, and even funnier if you know Japanese (some of the puns will escape you otherwise, even with the best subtitles). The two characters are enthusiastic about their work, move in the same way as their period contemporary comedies (exaggerated movements and facial expressions, etc), and are at odds with each other about almost everything. They clash constantly, and their unlikely writing tandem results in many, many laugh out loud moments.

Many comedies end after forcing its characters into unpredictably absurd situations. But there is an end result to its characters’ interactions: a comedy. You get a comedy, they get a comedy. It’s an interesting thought, one I’m sure I thought about way too much. Narrative structure, the play-like execution, the plot itself… all really intelligent, as if it’s impossible that the laughs were even the point of the movie. Laughs as a side-effect of Mitani’s inquiry into the process of scriptwriting? I’m not sure, I was laughing too hard. Looks like I failed Hoshi and Mitani’s University of Laughs (see what I did thar harharhar).

An enjoyable film with an intelligent script. There aren’t many metafictional comedies, but this one strikes gold.

things to take note of
Steak of the nation
Yakusho Koji’s deadpan-to-comedian transformation
Idiot’s Guide to Writing Comedy

best moment
Raaaatatatatatat police! Halt! HAHAHAHA

why you should watch this
Intelligent comedies are usually even better than intelligent dramas
Dude, maybe I can write comedies too

rating: 9 (yes, really)

Plot: B+
Cast: A
Cinematography: B
Music: B
Entertainment: A

similar movies, maybe:
I’m not sure. Stranger Than Fiction? I don’t think there’s even a single Asian in that movie. Intelligent meta-ish comedies are hard to find, y’know. Man, I hate that word.



November 2020