Sunday, June 16, 2013

What we talk about when we talk about kung fu movies.

Shaolin and Wu-Tang: Two great tastes that taste great together.

I. Something You Should Know About Me

I notice that, to the extent that I write about anything here, I've scarcely mentioned martial arts films - I think they've only been glancingly alluded to in the context of my Tsui Hark binge a couple years ago, although I'd have to check through more thoroughly to be sure.

Let me correct this unfortunate oversight: I really love martial arts films.

This requires two immediate clarifications: 1) I mean really. I'm not saying they're so hilariously bad they're good. I'm saying they're good. Sometimes great. 2) "Real" martial arts movies from the Chinese-language cinema, not the anemic American version courtesy of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Cannon Films and the like. 

No single genre has occupied more of my viewing time and my reading time (yes, there are books about them... and websites, of course) in the past decade and a half, since the beginning of my Hong Kong cinema addiction. There's scarcely any bit of arcana about their traditions and history that I won't eagerly slurp up like a voracious anteater, if ants were information about martial arts movies, which unfortunately they are not.

This comes up now because recently New York City was kickblessed (a real word I just made up) by the third edition of the ten-years-dormant Old-School Kung Fu Fest, courtesy of Subway Cinema. This is a deceptively professional-sounding name for a tiny knot of film-geek friends of mine who, since 2000, have squandered much of their spare time and their own money bravely and tirelessly bearing the banner for Asian popular cinema as a big-screen theater experience. They concentrate almost exclusively nowadays on their annual summer blowout, the New York Asian Film Festival, an big, fancy do co-presented with the Lincoln Center Film Society, so this was a fuzzily nostalgic throwback to their punkier early days in little downtown venues, when their festivals felt more like parties where movie screenings sometimes break out.

Returning to those thrilling days of yesteryear with an often-packed house of cheering NYU students and other cult-movie types got me navel-gazing again about the experience of being a white, American cult-movie type who invests so heavily in these stories that come from deep inside someone else's culture. Thus, behold my navel - dive in with me, if you dare...

The neighborhood is a little rough, but it's got a great view:
Lau Kar-wing's 
The Odd Couple

II. Old School Summer Classes, or Condescension is the Sincerest Form of Flattery

It's relevant here to clarify what exactly is meant by "old school kung fu" (I won't waste space on the distinction between "martial arts" and "kung fu" movies, except to note that the latter is generally understood to be a subset of the former). These were made in massive numbers, mostly in the 1970s and early '80s, according to a particular set of filmmaking and storytelling conventions. The term draws a sharp division with the new Hong Kong action cinema that emerged in the '80s, influenced by post-Star Wars Hollywood blockbusters, and led by young "movie brat" filmmakers (most famously Tsui Hark), often formally trained in overseas film schools, with a wide range of film references in their heads to draw on, and new technical and aesthetic ambitions. 

The change in the new breed of movies is so stark and sudden that often you can take two movies from, say, 1983, and they look like they were made in different decades. The older style of martial arts movies had scarcely changed their styles of designing, shooting, editing, acting, etc. since the late '60s - when, ironically, Hong Kong commentators called them "New School" movies, since they represented a decisive break in their own time from still older martial arts movie conventions.

This last point underlines the fact that Old School Kung Fu is an English-speaking westerners' term. For most such viewers, this generation of movies represents the beginning of the genre's history, since the hundreds of older examples going back to the 1920s aren't widely available on video, and almost never with English subtitles, and there's relatively little historical information available in English. So what does the term mean for American cultists - or "us," I should say? 

For starters, it's loaded with (perhaps perverse) nostalgia for the bygone era when these movies, in scratched, faded prints with slapdash dialogue-dubbing, infiltrated western culture as staples of weekend and late-night TV, and double- or triple-features at drive-ins and urban grindhouse theaters. This appreciation can cross over into camp condescension in the blink of an eye, and one interesting thing about the Old School Kung Fu Fest is the way the event itself and the audience tread that line. Gasps and applause are plentiful, but there's at least as much laughter at moments that were certainly not intended by the filmmakers as remotely funny - a couple girls behind me during probably the weekend's best film, Shaolin and Wu-Tangscarcely stopped giggling the entire time, much to this cantankerous old coot's irritation. 

Our hosts, the Subway Cinema boys, don't entirely discourage this sort of reaction - the publicity materials, festival program and live introductions tend towards a freakshow barker approach, full of words like "insane" and "bizarre" and "psychedelic." The costumes are mocked, the villains' uniforms in Shaolin Temple Against Lama compared to the stage threads of funk musician Bootsy Collins. 

(Image: The Funk Store)
(Image: Cool Ass Cinema)

Faced with an unsubtitled print of Angel Terminators, the hosts transcribed the subtitles from a DVD into PowerPoint for projection - but partially tweaked them for comedic effect in quasi-Mystery Science Theater 3000 fashion ("Don't make me explain 'freeze' again," a cop warns; "We'll be the kings of Newfoundland!" exult two gangsters as they plan their flight from justice to Canada). But at the same time, the programmers are sincere, passionate evangelists. They dole out large helpings of arcane behind-the scenes lore and cast and crew biographies, they extravagantly praise the combat choreography and visual panache, they sincerely promise, and occasionally even deliver, movie experiences of life-changing strangeness and power.

And I have to admit that I was laughing some of the time, too. At the costumes, often cheaply cartoonish approximations of the florid traditional Chinese aesthetic. At the fake facial hair and wigs. At the turn-on-a-dime changes in tone from serious to slapstick, from rambunctious to sentimental, or the occasional abrupt shift from the entrancingly ineffable to the crassly commercial. Sometimes I would even wince and sigh, as some moment of wonder or beauty was followed by a lazily unimaginative one - weighed down by the actors' repertoire of stiffly delivered standard gestures or by flat, stock characterizations ("Did it occur to no one to make that villain a little interesting, or at least have him occasionally say something funny?").

"Are those real?": Scene from The Odd Couple

So amidst all the dazzling fun of that weekend, I had one or two fleeting moments of doubt - were the pack of us just more privileged white people slumming with someone else's culture so we could chortle at it? If we, or at least I, really like these movies, as I claimed above, then why? Or maybe more to the point, how?

III. Puttin' on the Kicks, or Violence: the Universal Language

To start with the most obvious and easily explained of the genre's attractions, there's the unparalleled beauty of the action scenes. Nothing in any other form of cinema quite compares to what's achieved with the human body in a good kung fu throwdown. Modern American action movies are scarcely even worth mentioning in this context. A better comparison (made by others before) is to the athleticism, grace and wit of a Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire dance sequence or the swashbuckling stunts of a Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn. But none of these have the same quicksilver complexity or the sense of real-life danger. Whatever their frequent aesthetic debits, old school kung-fu movies had an embarrassment of riches in a generation of rigorously trained martial artists, often the products of the sort of brutally tough Peking Opera school that doesn't exist anymore. Watching these men and women in a great combat scene is an experience in constant visual surprise: bodies and parts thereof suddenly move in unexpected and seemingly impossible directions; combatants multiply the possible planes of action by running halfway up walls or skittering under tables. In Shaolin Temple Against Lama, teams of fighting monks leap onto each other's shoulders to form pyramids like deadly cheerleaders. Why, a pedant might ask, do they bother? What strategic advantage does this offer? But the question misses the point as surely as asking why no one around Fred and Ginger's characters think it's odd when they burst into song, or how they both know the melody and the lyric and all the dance moves.

I wouldn't touch you with a ten-foot, eight-diagram pole: 
Lau Kar-leung's The Eight-Diagram Pole Fighter
(Image: Hong Kong Movie Database)
Another way in which kung fu action differs from Hollywood action setpieces is that the conscious sense of a long tradition and deliberate artistry is much greater in the former. Western stunt coordinators and stunt doubles are almost entirely anonymous outside of their own small community. But action choreographers in Chinese cinema are often renowned figures and can get co-directing credits and nominations for "Best Action Design" at the Hong Kong Film Awards. Stunt performers routinely graduate to being actors or full-blown stars, and ostentatiously trace their training lineage back to famous martial artists of yesteryear. Critics and fans analyze the differing styles and influences of fight coordinators like Lau Kar-leung or Yuen Woo-ping the way they do for dance choreographers such as Busby Berkeley and Jerome Robbins. 

On top of that, martial arts folklore boasts a bewildering taxonomy of differing styles and "schools," with centuries of (pseudo?)history and intramural rivalry (Southern vs. Northern, Shaolin Temple vs. Wu-Tang, etc.) - leading to Bruce Lee's famous skeptical comment that "everyone has two arms and two legs," so how many styles can there really be? All of this together means that while you can just enjoy a kung fu scene for its simple bad-ass sweetness, a knowledgeable enthusiast can see a rich cultural context around the people leaping around onscreen like monkeys.

IV. Found in Translation, or Did I Mention I'm Caucasian?

But let me not lend credence to the mistaken notion that the fight scenes are all that kung fu movies have going for them. If that were true, my list of favorite examples would perfectly match my list of those with the best choreography (both lists are informal, unofficial and exist only in my head) - as a former roommate was fond of saying during political discussions, "It's a ven diagram with a lot of overlap," but they are two different circles.

If there's another pleasure that matches that of the fightin', it's the combination of the strange and the familiar in both the surface details and the deep structure. The genre is an elaborate web of conventions that can be mastered over time, combined with deep roots in a very different culture that mean there are constantly new details to be discovered - historical references, cultural assumptions, etc. An example of the latter would be the central emphasis on the bonds of loyalty and obligation between teacher (or "master" in martial arts terms) and student. It can take some effort for me to imaginatively access the emotions in a story that leans so heavily on this assumption, as so many kung fu movies do - even if you don't watch them, you're probably vaguely aware that "I must avenge my master's death/dishonor!" is a premise repeated ad nauseam in the genre. Of course, I'm mired up to my nostrils in a contemporary, western, middle-class, liberal outlook where "independence" (however defined) tends to be valorized more than attachment to a group or an authority figure, and where education is looked at as a natural and unremarkable part of growing up, rather than a special privilege for which gratitude is owed. So the profound reverence for teachers that's part of traditional Chinese culture is something I have to put on like a pair of glasses when I watch such a story unfold. Taking this step outside my own worldview is part of the pleasure.

Okay, I also like the fancy costumes and the lovely sets and the temples and the hair and the way people's clothes flutter loudly, like bird wings, when they soar through the air.

I've watched so many of these movies that the King of China
gave me this bitchin' headband. Free!
(Image: Geekscape)

V. "Oriental" Means Rugs, Not People, or I'm Still Caucasian, In Case You'd Forgotten

Of course, now I'm on the borders of some tricky and uncomfortable territory. Does this all mean I'm "exoticizing" this other culture? Exotic is kind of a dirty word these days, you know (see another white nerd wringing his hands about it here, so it's not just me). What the heck, let's throw in orientalism, too - if only so that I can mention how the world's worst film critic loves to fling that word at anyone who likes an Asian movie he doesn't. But to untangle whether or not I'm guilty of these intellectual sins, and to what extent, and all the related issues, would take another essay at least as long as this one (and maybe I'll write it someday). So beyond lampshading the issue so you know I'm aware of it, I'll only observe the following: I'm not sure I'm significantly further from the world depicted in a period martial arts movie than are most modern Chinese people, who certainly continue to make and watch them in large numbers. Or, for that matter, from the Asian-American New Yorkers who pack into the Old School Kung Fu Fest in disproportionate numbers. So the issues of exoticizing/fetishizing another culture aren't necessarily more in play than they are when I watch a Western or read medieval chivalric romances (which I do), or when an Asian person does, for that matter. I suspect that broader questions about how we view and portray the historical past are more relevant here than are questions of national or ethnic difference.

On the other hand, I've never been taunted as "Bruce Lee" or "Jackie Chan" by playground bullies, so it's easy for me to talk. That admitted, I'm careful not to wear my Jackie t-shirt when I go to Chinatown, because I totally know how that looks.

VI. An Abstract for My Imaginary Masters Thesis, or If You Think Kung Fu Movies Are Dumb, You're Dumb

It isn't simply my foreignness to their originating culture that makes me fascinated by kung fu films, a point which brings me back to Westerns and medieval romances. Both are frequently compared to the martial arts genre, and their similarities and differences are instructive as regards the genre's deeper qualities that make it interesting no matter your cultural viewpoint. All three are, of course, period adventure forms driven by melodramatic and violent conflicts of good and evil. All three tread on the fine line between history and folklore, transforming them into myths about national identity, masculine and feminine roles, and especially honor and heroism - how and when people (most often men) use violence, and what that says about their courage, their skills and their moral and spiritual qualities. Zooming in to see finer-grained details, you could make a game of identifying roughly shared motifs across all three forms, such as the hero wandering into a confrontation in an inn or tavern.

Any day now, someone will option my screenplay, The Sword of Swords of Swords.
(Image: City on Fire)

But to my eye, many of these elements are more complex in martial arts stories than in the other two genres, especially the Western, possibly due to older and more tangled cultural roots. There are obvious exceptions to the observation: the powerful racial themes in Westerns have no ready equivalent in any other genre I know of; and the dense religious elements in European medieval romance take more effort for a secular modern like myself to access than anything in martial arts fiction. But I'll detail a few ways in which I think my claim holds true.

I've already mentioned above the elaborate folklore around different fighting schools and styles; nothing like this exists for the gunplay in Westerns. The chivalric romance comes closer. It shares with martial arts stories a mystical fetishization of swords - weapons are often named, or have magical powers, or are of such excellent quality that all alone they vastly increase a warrior's prowess. But martial arts movies push this even further. A favorite plot is the struggle among opposing warriors or factions for possession of a sword so powerful it makes the bearer invincible. This motif often allows the filmmakers to have their cake and eat it too, ethically speaking - they can glorify the skill and bravery of fighters while delivering a moral about the futility and moral corrosion of the quest for martial glory (my two favorite examples are Cheng Kang's 1968 The Sword of Swords and Patrick Tam's 1980 The Sword). A frequent variation on this plot, which I like to call the "pen is mightier than the sword" motif, replaces the sword with a book containing instructions for an unbeatable fighting technique - which again points to how martial arts movies are distinguished by their detailed elaboration of how, not just who or whycharacters fight.

Angela Mao apparently got lost on her way to the kitchen or knitting class.
(Image: Pirate Treasure)
The complexity of gender roles is another such area. It's a basic truism that men and women in Westerns and medieval romance are almost always divided respectively into active heroes and passive romantic objects. There are, again, exceptions: among my favorites is 16th-century Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto's incredible chivalric epic Orlando Furioso, which has two female knights among its major heroic characters (and romantic objects). And, make no mistake, this double standard holds true in plenty of martial arts films. But right from the start with 1920s titles like The Swordswoman of Huangjiang and Red Heroine, women warriors in leading roles have always been commonplace in the genre, which can't really be said about Hollywood action movies even in the 21st century. I recall a lot of slightly astonished American buzz about the fierce but sympathetic heroines of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, when that was one of many traits that Asian audiences found to be no big deal. From what I know of the folklore and literature that preceded the movies, they often follow the pattern, too. Why this should be true is still quite a mystery to me - it isn't like traditional Chinese culture on the whole has been exactly feminist in its outlook.

But things get even trickier with this genre: cross-dressing, androgyny and other gender-bending elements are intriguingly frequent, and this is where we entirely leave the familiar waters of European and American genre tropes. I wouldn't be the first to connect this tendency partially to Chinese opera (a theatrical form that has had a huge influence on martial arts movies), where well into the 20th century, female roles were almost always played by effeminate men in drag. The most famous screen example among western fans is actress Brigitte Lin, a classically beautiful superstar who had an amazing early 1990s run of roles as gender-ambiguous or even gender-switching warriors. 

A typically elegant composition from Lau Kar-leung in Executioners from Shaolin.
(Image: Silver Emulsion)

Another favorite  - and a perfect ending to my pitch for the strangeness, beauty and brains of kung fu cinema - is in Executioners from Shaolin (1978), by the greatest of the old school director-choreographers, Lau Kar-leung (or Liu Chia-liang in Mandarin). Here, the hero is raised by martial artist parents who tend to get into sparring matches, even on the honeymoon bed, over the relative merits of their respective "masculine" and "feminine" combat styles. After they're killed by an evil monk with unbeatable, mystical fighting powers, their son (whose clothes and especially hair are androgynous-bordering-on-feminine) learns to combine their two styles into an integrated new technique so novel the villain is powerless to counter it. Add to this the fact that the monk's special technique involves trapping an opponent's foot when they kick his preternaturally invulnerable genitals, and the swirl of Freudian and quasi-feminist symbolism becomes as dizzying as a Tilt-a-Whirl ride.

VII. Summary

So, right: Martial arts movies. Awesome. Exciting. Weird. Beautiful. Deep, sometimes. Why doesn't everybody in the world watch these?

Hat-tip to Raymond Carver.


  1. This is a really excellent article & overview. (And it's true: I used to routinely think kung fu films I saw at my grandfather's on weekend visits in the early eighties were from the fifties or sixties, when presumably they were mostly no more than a few years old.)

  2. Fred! Nice to hear from you around these parts. Sorry I haven't responded until now - been busy watching movies kinda non-stop for a couple weeks. You may even read about them here. Or I may not write anything further until after Christmas. It's anyone's guess.

    Thanks for the thumbs up. I like your grandfather already.

    Nice bloggy thing you've got there yourself, by the way.

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