Xu Haofeng the Grand Master

Xu Haofeng began to learn Xingyiquan, one of the major “internal” styles of Chinese martial arts, in 1987. After studying fine arts for five years, he went to the Department of Film Directing in Beijing Film Academy and graduated in 1997. Unlike his peers who were eager to make waves in the newly discovered film market, Xu returned home and studied Taoism and the history of martial arts from two eighty-year-old masters for eight years. In 2006, his publication Shiqu de wulin i.e. In Search of the Lost Martial Arts World aroused nationwide attention. He continued to write novels and non-fiction about the ecology of the martial arts sphere in early Republic of China. In 2011, his first film The Sword Identity had its world premiere at the 68th Venice Film Festival and this marked the reincarnation of the Chinese martial arts film. One year later, his sophomore film Judge Archer premiered at the 7th Rome Film Festival. Xu insists in presenting unusual values in traditional Chinese culture in an age celebrating outrageous slapstick comedies and restless performing monkeys, and he investigates whether people could live in an alternative way, other than following the conventional circle of life.

Feature Photo: Xu Haofeng teaching actor Zhao Zheng how to use the spear.

When Wong Kai-war was preparing The Grand Master and visiting hermits in different parts of China, many of them mentioned Xu Haofeng. Xu was thus invited to be a scriptwriter of The Grand Master and contributed to an atypical Wong film with minimal monologue, dignified masters and refined manners of a bygone age. Xu’s years of studying different schools of martial arts from that specific period of China made the story grounded and the people’s life choices convincing.

Xu believes martial arts is a basic aspect of the Chinese cultural heritage: in the past, a well-educated man needed to be adept with both the pen and the sword. To nurture one’s temperament, one needs physical training as well as literary cultivation. The training of martial arts is essential in character building, as it would be the source of stamina, courage and perseverance in times of turmoil. The sad thing is: the corruptive power of money is even greater than that of the impending death. Nowadays, people are desperate to make a fortune overnight and the young prefer to lead a comfortable life and thus ignore the precious martial arts tradition, while in the old days, the masters would pass on their Kung fu to the next generation even when they were reduced to anti-revolutionists and about to be executed. Starting in the 1980s, people gradually waved idealism goodbye at the crossroads of renewal and breakdown, due to a sweeping worship of money, the most destructive force to this national heritage.

Xu Haofeng’s films show the spirits and nature of the Chinese people: What did they look like in the past? How did they behave and make decisions? What were the principles and values that they clung to? Luckily for the nation and its culture, the younger generation has begun to appreciate this grand master of Taoism, calligraphy, martial arts, and filmmaking: students travel a long way to receive a weekly catharsis in his over-crowded seminar in Beijing Film Academy. Some professors call this a miracle in the history of the academy as students usually skip classes to shoot their own films. Also, his collection of reviews on martial arts films Sword and Stars has become a bible to those who want to learn about martial arts or martial arts filmmaking.

Could you talk about your upbringing?

I was nurtured by my maternal grandparents in a post-aristocratic family but life was changing rapidly at the time. To some extent, it was my genes that guided me to the things that I self-taught myself along the way. I visited a number of anonymous senior masters, listened to their life stories and sorted out several books of oral history. In between the days, I was first attracted to fine arts and then film. Film is an extension of my perception about fine arts.

It seems each frame in your film is very well calculated. Is there any director that has a big influence on you?

In my early days, it was Luchino Visconti. In The Leopard and Rocco and His Brothers, you can spot his conception and awareness of the western aesthetics tradition, which showed me the elements that I was familiar with. I was amazed how well fine arts could be channeled into film so Visconti was an early influence. And then Le Samouraï by Jean-Pierre Melville was another stimulation to me with its slow tempo and concise film language. My days in Beijing Film Academy witnessed a huge change of taste: from appreciating the French New Wave and Russian poetic cinema into a chase of Hollywood blockbusters. After my graduation, every film studio in China was talking about commercial films while the previous practice was to achieve decent breakthroughs in terms of the film art. The criteria of a good film then changed into whether it looked like an American film or a Hong Kong film: as long as there was a certain resemblance, it would be labeled as a good film. Though I was not convinced, I should admit this change affected my taste of films. I had heard about the classic French crime film Le Samouraï for a long time and thought it would be quite an excitement, but I could hardly finish watching the whole film. I was disappointed and thought to myself that this could be an extinct technique: How could the audience cope with such a slow pace of narration and such monotonous visual elements? However, days later, when I watched this film again, I really liked it. I realized my appetite and judgment had been manipulated by the mainstream blockbuster craze, in which film shots function only as a way to tell a story and exhibit the stars’ facial expression. Melville utilized the whole frame to show the narration, not just a face or a single event, and that was a revelation to me that fine arts could be such a resilient existence in a film.

Isn’t it a bit sad that contemporary audience only look for simple jokes and gangster logic in films? After all, this nation has a long history of ancient civilization and many peculiar cultural schools.

It is a problem that has no easy solution. If contemporary human beings are not willing to learn the ancient culture, they could barely relate to it. This is an uncivilized generation. Europe had a similar crisis after the World War II as countries like France, the United Kingdom and Germany realized their young men were not so civilized due to the tumultuous years. When you think about it, that was only 8 years, from the beginning of the war to the reconstruction, but us Chinese have been uncivilized for 130 years, since 1860. After the Burning of the Summer Palace, Chinese people began to criticize and despise our own traditional culture and it has been 130 years, let alone different wars the people went through. When looking at myself, I feel I am uncivilized compared with the ancient Chinese. The cultural heritage should be passed on when one is little. To nurture a generation or to resume our tradition takes time and vision. Martial arts could be a good start. Some westerners are busy with life and work during the week, but will go to church in the weekends to have a spiritual moment of life. In the east, originally there was no church and martial club served as an equivalent. In Japan, kids stay at school from morning till night, too, but there are all kinds of clubs where they can join in different extracurricular activities. Societies specializing theater, fine arts, flower arrangement and martial arts offer students space to breathe and help to keep the martial arts tradition.

Many martial arts films are keen on showing the Chinese beating foreigners, but not yours; it seems you have a clear idea to make different martial arts films. What is your philosophy of this China-born genre?

The reason why general Chinese audience feels excited seeing foreigners, especially colonists being beaten by the Chinese is because China had a long history of being the weak side in a series of wars. Since we could not win the west when it comes to technology and military force, we had great expectations on martial arts, as our last hope to win. For a hundred years, it was a very important thing to give people hope and faith to continue living. In the recent 20 years, Chinese films imitated Hollywood and Hong Kong styles, studied mass communication and picked up skills from assorted western audio visual symbols and concepts, but did not spend enough time in examining our own culture. Too much focus has been put on comparing different cultures: in fact, to study our own spirits and the basics of our culture is much more relevant to study the Soviet style, the American style or the British style and use their standards to evaluate our society.

There is a Chinese concept meaning “the creation of an object”, that is, to display man’s perception of life through the making of a craft. The Chinese weapon is a part of the Chinese craftsmanship, not just a tool to conquer. During the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period, weapons like bows and arrows were used as presents among the aristocrat; earlier, they were used in national sacrifices to pay tribute to the ancestors, to the above and beyond. Sometimes it would take three years to make a single bow. My films are different from others’ because I value fights with weapons and feature little bare fist fights. The reason is I think a weapon carries symbolic messages and it always tells a specific historic context. Each era directly interacts with the objects and the people in it. I think the weapon thus reflects a whole period of time or the people’s fate.

When you look at the credits of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, you could see the names of the famous Kendo practitioners as his Kendo advisors. The Japanese has an authentic criterion when making such films, but not in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, the criterion is not the Kung fu itself, but the visual fantasy: the film needs to be fascinating. However, after seeing Return of the One-Armed Swordsman by Chang Cheh, the Japanese formed several study groups to Hong Kong to investigate how local martial arts films were made. They studied Bruce Lee, Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-tung. So now, you can see Hong Kong traces in Japanese films, as you can tell in the case of Azumi (Ryuhei Kitamura, 2003).  Another example is The Princess Blade (Shinsuke Sato, 2001) and Donnie Yen was its martial arts choreographer, so it feels like a Hong Kong film made by the Japanese. But to trace the roots, the Japanese filmmakers in the 1960s or 1970s were inspired by the rules in their martial Clubs while the practice in my films originated from the martial clubs in the period of the Republic of China. Each has his own soil, but both are deeply rooted in the traditional practice.

Besides Japanese films, Hollywood has also been learning from the Hong Kong way of fighting, isn’t it?

What I have heard about is that the Hong Kong martial arts choreographers are faced with a big crisis. Hollywood has been absorbing fine elements from other cultures: as long as it is practical and applicable in the film and could become a fashion, Hollywood will take and make use of it. To work with such a sophisticated capital system, it is easy to be burnt out as you are trading all your know-how for a very small amount of immediate returns. From the 1990s to what we can see in The Matrix, Resident Evil, Sherlock Holmes and even its vampire films, Hong Kong style of fighting is quite visible as the American filmmakers have almost learnt everything about that style. Some Hong Kong martial arts choreographers begin to lose their jobs in Hollywood because a generation of native martial arts choreographers is replacing them. There are a number of African American martial arts choreographers and stuntmen who began to learn this craft under Bruce Lee’s influence back in the 1970s. Films featuring Jackie Chan and Jet Li usually pair them up with an African American partner as African Americans are one of the biggest martial arts film audiences and they have opened many martial clubs. Some of them have also become martial arts choreographers.

What do you think of the recent Chinese box office hits?

Sometimes you cannot explain the Chinese film market in a conventional way as you would occasionally see a film belongs neither to the Hollywood commercial film category nor to other categories. It might defy the conventional principles of the commercial film but became a smashing hit. However, when roughly-made films gain continuous success in the market, it is a disaster to the entire environment. Such flat commercial films might make people even more impatient and eager for profits, instead of making efforts to improve the art of cinema.

Could you give us an outline of the development of the Chinese martial arts films?

The first martial arts novel emerged in 1928 and it became popular in the next five years. Mingxing Film Company realized its profitability and invited the top actress Butterfly Hu to lead a number of martial arts films. She wore tights fighting and those films were a sensation. There were more than a hundred such films made in those two or three years. But it was not until Chang Cheh and King Hu that such films could be called Wuxiapian, or films of martial chivalry. It started to tell stories about Jianghu, the hidden structure of a society: some people from the lower-class, not necessarily the gangsters, but maybe a certain school of martial arts. Chang Cheh and King Hu began to capture them in their films and introduced real Kung fu and techniques from Peking Opera into films. Bruce Lee and his philosophy caused another sensation and had a lot of disciples, but not many of their films are impressive. Later, Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-tung created their own conventions. So you can say that in Taiwan, there is King Hu; Hong Kong, Chang Cheh, Bruce Lee and then Tsui Hark. In Mainland China, however, the previous Wuxiapian fashion was banned by Kuomintang during the ROC period, while in the 1950s, Wuxia novels were banned. In 1980s, the mainland imitated Hong Kong and made some martial arts films. One could say that it was Zhang Yimou who has resumed the martial arts filmmaking in the mainland, but what he presented was not Jianghu, but a sort of political allegory, a variation of historical costume drama, with fighting scenes.

A flash back to your younger days: after graduated from Beijing Film Academy and a few odd jobs, you just went back home and stayed in for eight years. Isn’t eight years too long for self-improvement?

In fact, I wish that period had lasted longer so that I could have learned more. To stay at home and study is a joy in itself. That actually meant true happiness in ancient times in China, but now people think quite differently and regard not coming back home as a declaration of aspiration and triumph. A man feels proud when he is moving around and building a business. But in the traditional Beijingers’ mindset, to be able to stay at home is a thing to celebrate: people will come to your house to talk to you and leave afterwards; the fact that you could stay in is a sign of nobility and competence. So many would prefer to stay at home and it would also save the cost of social engagements. You will not see a man stay in the living room or the bedroom, but in the study, read books or practice calligraphy – that’s how traditional men do in China. I chose not to jump on the bandwagon, but to read books and talk to the elderly. In 2006, I drew a period to my seclusion and was appointed as a lecturer in Beijing Film Academy.

What difficulties have you encountered as a film director?

When I was making films, I thought low-budget films could be based on a social topic or a cultural issue and find its own audience. The truth turns out worse than what I had envisioned, especially the mechanical approach of some distribution companies. It was like the situation in the 1990s, when Hollywood or Hong Kong films became the only benchmark, people won’t bother to try new things. As for my third film, I would like to have a bigger budget and utilize the techniques I have accumulated during my previous filmmaking. Budget aside, my filmmaking has been going really well as my crew is filled with my university classmates who have been practicing their crafts in the industry for years and they also bring their working partners to help out. In a way, you could say that I build a layer around me to protect and realize my creative ideals. The only problem for me, so far, is how to make the film meet the audience: the investors of my two films were generous and did not interfere in my creation, but once the film was completed, it seemed not easy to reach the audience and I am thinking about a better way to reach the audience.


  1. Poster: The Sword Identity (Xu Haofeng, 2011)
  2. Poster: Judge Archer (Xu Haofeng, 2012)
  3. Book cover: Sword and Stars (Xu Haofeng, 2012)

This interview was originally published on THE CHINESE FILM MARKET, the June issue for the 2013 Shanghai International Film Festival.

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