The true stars of Shirley Sun's IRON AND SILK are the simple harmony of its story and the breathtaking sights of the ancient city of Hangzhou.
Mark Franklin (Mark Salzman, on whose book the screenplay, which he also co-wrote, is based) is a recent college graduate who arrives in China in 1982 after accepting a position as an English instructor at a small mainland college. A confirmed sinophile (he claims to have seen every kung fu movie
ever made and, while studying martial arts as a teenager, became fluent in Chinese by washing dishes in a Chinatown restaurant), Mark has determined that he must go to the source of Chinese culture and philosophy to gain an authentic understanding of it.
He is soon introduced to Teacher Hei (Jeanette Lin Tsui), his assigned Chinese tutor, who is determined to teach him the rudiments of the Chinese lifestyle. He also meets his students, known as the "middle-aged english teachers." Originally Russian instructors, they were told to "forget" that
Slavic language and learn English instead. Mark begins instruction, but discovers that at times he is the student. Though intended as simple writing exercises, their poignant, eloquent essays on happiness teach him that in China, still reeling from the Cultural Revolution, "nothing is simple,
especially something like happiness."
Mark relates his fascination with kung fu--also known as "wushu"--to his pupils, and one dawn, Sinbad (thus nicknamed because he's enamored of the distant sea) takes him to a local martial arts school where the class in progress displays breathtaking discipline and agility. To be adept at wushu,
Mark is informed, is to possess skill that transcends surface beauty. He implores the master, Teacher Pan (Pan Qinfu, playing himself), to accept him as a pupil. Pan, nicknamed "Iron Fist" for his habit of pounding a solid iron plate over one thousand times each day, bluntly refuses. With Hei's
encouragement, Mark persists, and eventually Pan agrees to take him on. But the eager American is quickly told that what he has learned at home is junk; he must begin to retrain at the basic level.
Mark soon meets Ming (Vivian Wu), an ethereally pretty young woman, in the college library she frequents to borrow Western books. After enduring two years of hard labor during the Cultural Revolution, Ming, a former medical student, has been consigned to working as a counselor in a
family-planning clinic after school officials decided her interest in Western culture proved her disloyalty to China. Mark's friendship with Ming--whose name is a combination of the characters of the sun and moon, and means brilliance--gradually deepens into love, but she discourages his romantic
advances, warning him that China is not as free as it seems; after an influx of Westerners with their coveted advanced technologies, the political climate is once again changing for the worse.
After presenting Ming with a gift, Mark attempts to bestow a forbidden kiss upon her in the library, and is caught by Mr. Song (Zheng Guo), the foreign affairs director; Mark is soon accused of "spiritual pollution" and barred from meeting Pan in the training hall. Ming, succumbing to family
pressure, declines to see him any longer. Demoralized by his sudden treatment as a "foreign devil," Mark is comforted by Hei, who reminds him that just as Buddha, who was Indian, was embraced by the Chinese as their own, so too can he embrace wushu as his own. To encourage him, she offers to teach
him taijiquan, the soft-style martial art that she practices.
Beginning to realize now that he will never be Chinese or be treated as a Chinese, Mark decides to respond to the situation in his own way. He manages to rush through the gate at the sports complex and, with the guard at his heels, tells Pan why he has been absent from his lessons. Teacher Pan,
once so reluctant to teach Mark, now reassures his student that the lessons will not end. If Mark can't come to the training hall, Pan will go to him. From then on they meet illicitly in a warehouse on campus, and Mark begins to learn Pan's most treasured style of martial arts, the Long Sword,
which he has never taught to anyone else. But one afternoon, when he discovers his student practicing tai chi he becomes angry and stalks off. Traditionally, a martial arts student studies with only one teacher. Mark is distraught that he has offended the very person he most wants to please.
Summoning his courage, he confronts Pan and apologizes for his tactlessness, but his teacher is unmoved. Mark vows to continue practicing nonetheless.
The day before his departure for America, Mark's students--who, he's learned, are not without their own prejudices--throw a warm going away party. Ming comes to see him one last time, and a subsequent, final scene together is delightfully subtle. He returns to the warehouse and is unexpectedly
confronted by Pan, who has brought two swords and wants to see if Mark kept his vow to continue practicing. Satisfied, he presents one of the swords as a gift and instructs Mark to pass his knowledge on to others in America. Mark's final goodbye, to Hei, is poignant. Mark has learned that "the
greatest foolishness is to search for the donkey you're riding atop"--his experience in China has not changed him so much as made him aware of who he already was--and that "eating bitter lets you taste sweet."
IRON AND SILK wins the viewer over in simple ways. Despite its weak dramatic structure, the film, abetted by James Hayman's superb cinematography, evokes some of the wonder to be felt in the embrace of another world. Shirley Sun's direction, if somewhat pedestrian, is nonetheless highly polished,
and she has elicited affecting, understated performances from Vivian Wu and Jeanette Lin Tsui. Oddly enough, Salzman fares worst, his decidedly amateurish performance sabotaging rather than bolstering the already weak script.
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- Released: 1991
- Rating: NR
- Review: The true stars of Shirley Sun's IRON AND SILK are the simple harmony of its story and the breathtaking sights of the ancient city of Hangzhou. Mark Franklin (Mark Salzman, on whose book the screenplay, which he also co-wrote, is based) is a recent colleg… (more)