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Love letter to the wuxia genre
THE Theatre Practice's original wuxia play is the most handsome, high-kicking production one has seen so far this year.
The elegant set designs by Wong Chee Wai include two houses, a tavern and a bamboo forest that stylishly evoke ancient China. Swordsmen and bandits break into fights that have been stunningly choreographed within the inch of their lives by Gordon Choy. Moe Kassim's gorgeous period costumes and Ashley Lim's hair design and headgear would not look out of place in a classic wuxia picture.
Legends Of The Southern Arch directed by Kuo Jian Hong is indeed a triumph on almost all its technical counts.
The script written by Liu Xiaoyi, who also plays the lead, relies somewhat too heavily on the conventions of the genre: Two martial arts sects carry out a decades-long feud to reign supreme over the land.
Master swordsman Nangong Xian (Nelson Chia) works for the powerful lord Muzi Wudi (Johnny Ng) to find the secret manual hidden under the Southern Arch. The manual will help any warrior attain invincibility.
Meanwhile, rival clan leader Wu Duya (Li Xie), her daughter Qiaoer (Jodi Chan) and Qiaoer's beau Shi Buqiong (Liu Xiaoyi) are plotting revenge on Wudi for the murder of Qiaoer's father.
Through frequent flashbacks over 60 years, the fates and actions of all the main characters are shown to be inextricably linked.
To any seasoned fan of wuxia fiction, Legends Of The Southern Arch won't offer anything new in terms of plot. The good-versus-evil fight, the standard vendettas and intrigue, the romance and melodrama, are all the stuff of pulp fiction.
But that doesn't mean the production won't endear you with its abundant tongue-in-cheek references to mysterious poisons (the "heartless powder", the "half-push pill"), exotic weapons (the "indestructible gauntlets", the "cold sword") and suggestive names for fighting moves (the "lonely blade technique", the "spearing together" move).
In fact, director Kuo and her cast seem to be simultaneously parodying and paying homage to wuxia - witness, for instance, the perfect performances by Chia and Ng that look completely like TV-acting.
Indeed, Kuo eagerly transfers TV techniques to the stage - the rolling credits at the start and end are distinctly the stuff of the small screen - but also succeeds in supplanting the usual TV special effects with the adroit use of stage sound and lighting by Sandra Tay and Dorothy Png respectively.
The pace does sag in parts and the ending feels rushed. But on the final count, Legends Of The Southen Arch is a well-crafted and impressive homage to a beloved genre, a deft and ambitious production that deserves a wider audience.
- Legends Of The Southern Arch plays at the Drama Centre from now till April 12. Tickets from $33 to $55 still available from Sistic