Friday 10 January 2020

A New Film a Day in 2020 (4) – SWORDSMAN OF DOUBLE FLAG TOWN (He Ping, China, 1990)

Blu-ray box from Diskino
Back in the 80s the esteemed Wu Tian-ming, a director of some repute, was made head of the Xian Film Studios. The dark years of the Cultural Revolution had ended and graduates from the reopened Beijing Film Academy were on the lookout for work. Wu set out to make some high quality films and to do so gave jobs to a bunch of those first graduates. Among them were Chen Kaige, Tian Zhuangzhuang and Zhang Yimou. Another whom Wu employed was the young but established director He Ping.

A little after Chen, Tian and Zhang made their first films, He Ping made Swordsman of Double Flag town a movie designed quite consciously to draw upon the traditions of the American and Italian westerns of both antiquity and recent times. I suspect He Ping may have also seen and admired Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai  and maybe Yojimbo  but that’s not a matter dealt with in the extras on a splendid disc of He Ping’s Swordsman of Double Flag Town (1990) produced at Xian Film Studios, a big hit in China and a hit abroad in the Chinatowns. 

Now the wonderful Diskino company, an independent DVD and Blu-ray publisher operating in China, and managed by serious enthusiasts, has released Swordsman of Double Flag Town,  the fifth film in its World Cinema Library collection devoted to restoring and re-releasing the major works of the Xian Film Studio from back in Wu Tian-ming’s day. It follows Red Sorghum (Zhang Yimou), The Horse Thief (Tian Zhuangzhuang), The Black Cannon Incident (Huang Jianxin) and King of the Children (Chen Kaige). Believe me, even if you saw those four films back in the day when they were released here on 35mm and VHS by Ronin Films (the 35mm prints are still held by the NFSA) you never saw anything like the images now on display in the new Blu-ray editions released over the last couple of years. 

Swordsman of Double Flag Town  came a little after those films in its production and Ronin didn’t pick it up for distribution. It had screenings at the Sydney Film Festival in 1992 and probably in local Chinatown cinemas in Sydney and Melbourne. (Thanks Tina Kaufman and Barrie Pattison for this info.) 

He Ping (and Wu) wanted to transform the conventions of the western and create a film, as Tony Rayns says on one of the extras, “rooted in the local reality, topography, customs and people”. The western would be re-invented and in the process break new ground for both Xian Studios and the Chinese film industry. Wu had a sharp eye for the leading edge.

The story riffs on so many conventions as to be dizzying. The bandits terrorise a small village, one built in otherwise desert of Shanxi. It substituted swordplay for gunplay and above all its design - urban brown from sky to land, to costumes of fur and dark interiors, would be even more unique than Zhang’s red dominated colour design in Red Sorghum. In fact, in a brilliant stroke, beyond some navy blue clothing worn by the village extras, the only standout colour belongs to that of the would-be bride Haomei. She always wears a soft red jacket which causes the eye to go straight to her wherever she is placed in the scene.

Its story of a naïve boy come to claim his bride and on the way through displaying remarkable agility, natural grace and sharp self-taught sword fighting skills, follows a number of arcs that keep you guessing. In an interview/visual essay that accompanies the superb Blu-ray, Tony Rayns notes the connections with Leone and with High Noon, another film where eventually the hero has to go up against the villain alone.

At a time when DVD and Blu-ray are in retreat and streaming services offer a barebones experience (no extras like audio commentaries, making ofs, filmographies) the work of Diskino and its World Cinema Library is to be applauded. 

Two things.

Maybe we can hope at the very least that someone on the jury at the Bologna DVD awards takes notice of the work Diskino is doing. 

Regrettably it seems Diskino has no theatrical or international distribution rights and thus cant supply DCPs or even Blu-rays for festival events like Cinema Reborn. Thus the opportunity to see, for instance, beautifully restored copies and such additions as the alternate Tibetan-language soundtrack, which is included on The Horse Thief  Blu-ray, but doesn’t exist on any screenable 35mm print, is available only on home video. 

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