In Memoriam: Wu Ma | Live Culture

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Monday, March 3, 2014

In Memoriam: Wu Ma

Posted By on Mon, Mar 3, 2014 at 9:59 PM

One career ago, I was a professor of film studies. I gave that up to move to Vermont and write for
Seven Days, but movies will always been my first love. In this feature, published occasionally here on Live Culture, I'll write about the films I'm currently watching, and connect them to film history and art.

I experienced one of the weirdest coincidences of my life this morning. It had been a few days since I’d opened up Words With Friends on my phone: I’m a serious addict, but these days I’m a little more addicted to Triple Town, to the neglect of WWF. In one of the games I’m playing against my cinephile friend Jake (the same friend I refer to in my post on Dune), my tiles could be arranged to spell the last name of a film director who had just died two days earlier. And since I recently figured out how to take a screenshot on my phone, I can actually provide evidence!

Weird enough that those exact seven letters can spell the name of a person recently in the news; weirder still that it arose in a game against Jake, probably the only one of my regular WWF opponents with whom I could have a conversation about Alain Resnais.

I admire Resnais’ films more than I like them, in most cases: I recognize his importance and skill but rarely choose to watch his work. Resnais had an incredibly long, prolific, and award-larded career (he made 50 films over 80 years!), and several of his films are inarguably among the greatest ever made.

(If you’ve never seen the gut-wrenching yet eminently plainspoken Night and Fog [1955], then, believe me, you could spend half an hour far less well than by watching it online freely and legally right now. It’s so smart and succinct and affecting that it makes one realize that few, if any, of the raft of films made about the Holocaust in the last 50 years have even come close to its power.)

Nuit et Brouillard (1955) from KICK TO KILL on Vimeo.

I don’t regard Resnais’ death as a tragedy. Sad, but not tragic. He was 91 years old, and had lived a rich and productive life. I was hit somewhat harder by the death, about a month ago, of the great Hong Kong actor-director Wu Ma, who died at 71 of lung cancer. As an ardent admirer of Hong Kong cinema, I’ve seen Wu (his surname) in more movies than I can count, and probably more than I even realize. He was even more productive than Alain Resnais, having directed more than 40 films and appeared in 250+. That’s even more acting credits than Royal Dano, folks.

Wu’s career, which extended back into the 1960s and the heyday of the Shaw Brothers studio, had tapered off more than a little in recent years. He hadn’t directed a film in about 15 years, and most of his acting roles over the last decade had been bit parts, sometimes in fairly low-budget films, miniseries and TV shows. But during Wu’s own heyday, which stretched from the late 1960s into the late 1990s, he was ubiquitous both in front of and behind the camera. In 1991 alone, he directed one film and appeared in 13 more. That means he took a major creative role in a film every 3.71 weeks. And you thought Benedict Cumberbatch was omnipresent.

The ubiquity that Wu achieved has everything to do with the relentless pace with which the Hong Kong film industry once produced and released films, the local audience’s prodigious appetite for cinema, and the general attitude — just as relevant in Hong Kong as in Hollywood, and pertinent even for character actors like Wu — that “you’re only as good as your last film.” Wu was also somewhat chameleonic onscreen. He frequently played nebbishy types but attracted the most acclaim for one of his most over-the-top performances, the hard-drinking, misanthropic, ass-kicking Taoist monk Yin Chek Hsia in Ching Siu-Tung’s masterpiece A Chinese Ghost Story

Though it loses something without being translated into broken English, Yin’s song, in which he announces that all systems of religious and spiritual belief are “bullshit,” is still utterly delightful, as you can see below.

I am enough of a dork (and, I guess, old enough) to have once made a cassette tape of favorite “audio moments” from movies. This scene was on it, and I used to listen to it in my car all the time. (The tape also included the audio of Doris Day and Rock Hudson singing “Roly Poly” in Pillow Talk, but that’s a story for another day. Also, see below.)

Beyond his acting and directing skills, what I like about Wu is that he was a living link between two of my favorite Hong Kong directors — actually, two of my favorite directors, period. Wu began his career as an assistant to Chang Cheh, one of the greatest directors of martial arts films. (If you’ll forgive the self-linking, I’ve written a couple of essays on Chang: one free to readone behind a paywall.) Wu worked, in various capacities, on more than 20 of Chang’s thrilling, weird films. Chang’s methods of storytelling, cinematography, editing and, most of all, staging fight scenes were absolutely crucial to the kinetic aesthetics of the Hong Kong cinema. He laid the groundwork.

Wu also acted in eight films that were either directed or produced (or both) by Tsui Hark, who is to me one of the most important and talented directors of the last 30 years. Tsui not only revolutionized the industry by forging a new path for independent producer-directors, but, as a director, takes more visual and narrative chances in any given film than most Hollywood directors take in their entire careers. The cinema of Tsui Hark never, ever slows down. Even his lousy films are breathtaking; his greatest films, like Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain and The Blade, are sublime.

Wu linked two distinct, disparate eras in the history of one of the world’s greatest film traditions, a fact that speaks to his universal appeal. And, more than his historical importance, that’s what I admire most about Wu Ma, and why I was more affected by his passing than I was by that of Alain Resnais. His was a familiar face, avuncular and welcoming, that served as a kind of beacon through the fogs of enjoyable strangeness that characterize so much of the Hong Kong cinema.

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About The Author

Ethan de Seife

Ethan de Seife

Ethan de Seife was an arts writer at Seven Days from 2013 to 2016. He is the author of Tashlinesque: The Hollywood Comedies of Frank Tashlin, published in 2012 by Wesleyan University Press.

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