Chinese Martial Arts Cinema in the 21st Century: from Wong Fei-hung to Huang Fei-hong

Written by  Friday, 22 April 2016 14:15

( This manuscript is NOT a formally written paper and is NOT FOR CITATION in any form. )

    The real Wong Fei-hung (WFH) was a celebrated martial artist, a physician, an herbalist, and a street performer. He belonged to the Hong Fist (洪拳) of the Southern Shaolin School (南少林) and was taught by his father, Wong Kei-ying (黃麒英). Wong Fei-hung’s legend was first popularized because of the serialized stories written by Zhu Yu-zhai in Hong Kong and published in newspapers in the 40s. In 1949, the first WFH film, True Story of Wong Fei-hung, (Huang feihong zhuan) was made, with 2 installments. This film ushered in a new era of martial arts films, and the directors trademarked it with Cantonese opera actor Kwan Tak-hing (關德興). These two films started the longest running series in world cinema. In my count, there are at least 107 films made featuring WFH from 1949 to 1997. And it is officially confirmed that Kwan Tak-hing appeared invariably as WFH in 77 films. 

 

    This specifically Cantonese series proclaimed to be kung fu, in the sense that it departed from a previous fantasy subgenre of martial arts, shenguai wuxia (神怪武俠). It rejected the fantastic montage, newfangled weapons, or supernatural martial skills characteristic of shenguai wuxia, but aimed at a realist documenting of martial skills. This series staked a set of claims to ‘realism’ and ‘authenticity’ in rendering martial arts. For the first three Wong Fei-hung films, Wong’s actual wife and son served as martial arts advisors and supplied story information for the filmmakers. As the films got increasingly popular in the 1950s and 1960s, the filmmakers established the practice of employing a team of Dragon-Tiger Martial Masters (龍虎武師 longhu wushi) as regulars of the production crew, consisting of opera performers, acrobats, stuntmen, martial artists, doubles, and choreographers. Dragon-Tiger Martial Masters staged and executed action sequences, stood in for the main actors, or simply coached and trained actors. As a result, the WFH series anticipated the institution of the position of ‘martial arts director’ (武術指導 wushu zhidao) in the production team, which has been considered since the 1960s as an indispensable and leading creative force in any martial arts film. In the late 1970s, a number of martial arts directors became film directors in their own right. Here I’m talking about two well-known brands of martial arts choreography: the Yuen family and the Lau family (the real descendants of Wong’s martial school).

 

    Before the 1990s, decades of WFH films had developed distinct communities of martial artists serving as choreographers, action stuntmen, and filmmakers, while solidifying certain narrative conventions, characters, and aural-visual iconography of the WFH genre. WFH movies actually went into decline in the 1980s, but were rejuvenated by Tsui Hark and Jet Li in the early 1990s when they made three WFH films in three years: Once upon a Time in China Parts I to III. These WFH films became known worldwide and were responsible for launching Jet Li into international stardom, paving the way to his Hollywood career. When the films were first released, they were once severely criticized for historical anachronism: the mishmash of early modern China’s historical events, and the liberty that Tsui took in mapping such historical events onto WFH’s biographical account. The series had invited Hong Kong historians’ accusation for committing ‘historical amnesia’ or ‘historical imbecility’ (歷史遺忘或癡呆) which historians believed was typical of Hong Kong popular, commercial culture. The series was critically recuperated for its allegorical significance shortly after these accusations were made. In an allegorical reading, the series is charged with the ideological implications about the West-China polarity, empires, Chinese modernity, and most important of all, Hong Kong’s upcoming handover in 1997. These films gave a much more detailed portrayal of late imperial China in the late 19th and early 20th century when western colonial powers and Japan began to break China’s isolation under the Qing regime. At the same time, they characterized WFH as involuntarily caught between the impotent government and invasive foreign powers. By constantly invoking the semiotic play of China vs. West by juxtaposing and polarizing western military technology vs Chinese martial arts, western surgical practice vs Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture, or western capitalist interests vs. Confucian ethics, the films present a WFH that personifies someone who tries to learn the good things from modernization but retain the good Chinese cultural practices. In an allegorical understanding, the film is also taken as a call for cultural nationalism, that is, an identification with a cultural China that is not anchored in national allegiance with any political regime or ideology.

 

    The last 20th century WFH film appeared in 1997, and it took 17 years for this film to be seen. In November 2014, we saw the surprise success of Rise of the Legend (黃飛鴻之英雄有夢), of which director Roy Chow (Xian-yang) and screenwriter Christine To (Zhi-lang) are both novices in the martial genre. The film was produced by very powerful producers in the Chinese speaking world, one of whom is Bill Kong (江志強), whose company Edko Films (安樂影業) has co-produced quite a few landmark martial arts films in the 21st century, such as Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (臥虎藏龍), Zhang Yimou’s Hero (英雄) and House of Flying Daggers (十面埋伏), and Ronny Yu and Jet Li’s Fearless (霍元甲). The film also boasted a strong supporting cast, especially with the veteran martial arts star Sammo Hung (洪金寶), who played the villain as well as co-produced the film. When publicity about this film began to be circulated 3 years earlier, it was obvious that the film would revamp the persona of WFH defined by Kwan Tak-hing and Jet Li, both of whom, despite their different physical and emotional qualities, have portrayed WFH as a didactic, almost a-sexual Confucius patriarch. What drew attention to the film (or perhaps raised people’s eyebrows) was the fact that the lead actor, Eddie Peng Yu-yan, is not even a martial artist; he won this role more for his ‘idol appeal’ than his martial arts profile. As a biographical account, the new film was meant to be a prequel to Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China, in that it features WFH in his late teens or early 20s.

 

    At first viewing, the narrative is straightforward. Visually, the film employs state-of-the-art cinematographic technology (such as stereoscopic and GoPro cameras) to enhance the fighting sequences and 3D effects, which attest to the use of digital special effects pioneered by Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The camera lens often focuses on Eddie Peng’s sculpted, nude body and photoshopped muscles, presenting to us an unprecedented sexy and sexualized WFH, who frequents a whorehouse to seek emotional comfort. At the same time, revolving around the struggles between the local gangs, the narrative downplays cultural and political sensibilities and stays clear of any confrontational statement about nationalism or imperialism that normally underpins Tsui Hark’s WFH films. Moreover, despite the fact that the screenwriter is female, Rise of the Legend is completely devoid of interesting female characters and subtle gender politics that are typical of all of Tsui Hark’s works. But the film is a box-office success. Surprisingly, film reviews and journalistic discourses did not lament Eddie Peng’s lack of martial virtuosity, nor measuring him against Jet Li’s defining performance, or Donnie Yen’s recently achieved status as a transnational martial superstar thanks to the success of his Ip Man films.

 

    So beyond the façade of polished martial spectacle and mega-picture slickness, the questions that I think the film raises would be: what is the new WFH film indicative of? In what ways could it be allegorical? Does an allegorical reading even matter? If in Once upon a Time in China, Jet Li is the allegorical figure caught between imperial powers that could be identified as either a Chinese dynasty or foreign imperial regimes, how is ‘empire’ signified in or by the film?

 

    First of all, the success of the film bespeaks a significant change in this culturally weighted genre of Chinese language cinema. In using Eddie Peng, it might seem to have audaciously broken the convention of casting a real martial artist as the leading character, but it conforms to a current trend of casting a star/ a pop idol and making him/her a martial artist. What we are witnessing in quite a few recent successes is not really ‘a star in the making’ (or making a star out of a martial artist), but ‘a martial artist in the making,’ that is, making a martial artist out of a star, especially someone that already has trans-Chinese or East-Asian popularity. Why is this important? For one thing, it harkens back to and fulfills an original claim staked in the very naming of WFH film as ‘kung fu’ in the 1950s and 1960s: that is, to use cinema to document martial arts skills, to propagate the knowledge about martial arts style and genealogy, and to popularize the practice of martial arts itself. The fact that Eddie Peng, in promoting Rise of the Legend, sometimes cited the vocabulary of the Hong Fist School would probably have a stronger impact on how we understand martial arts legacies. 

 

    Second, “a martial artist in the making” points to the genre’s desperate efforts to find the next transnational martial arts superstar following Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li. At the same time, it perhaps explains the strong presence of Taiwanese pop idols or actors in pan-Chinese mega-pictures, most of whom are not martial artists. It makes manifest Taiwan’s role as a ‘key minority’ and soft power in supplying hip and creative talents on and off screen, despite Taiwan’s seeming anxiety over its increasing marginalization in face of China’s rise as a super power. This in turn entails the necessity of studies on star or star discourses in understanding contemporary martial arts film. For example, how do we characterize and assess the lack of aura of certain supremely skilled martial artist, as evident in a few tentpole productions which however fail to make them superstars. How do we understand the quite belated, or almost too late, arrival of Donnie Yen’s superstardom. How do we explain the ‘aura’ of Taiwanese or Hong Kong actors or actresses, which is indeed the result of decades of immersion in pan-East Asian pop idol culture from the early 1990s, including Taiwan’s own transnational idol-making from the beginning of the 21st century?

 

    For sure, Rise of the Legend testifies to China’s mega picture (dapian) era and the potency of transnational or trans-Chinese co-production. Recent publications on Chinese blockbusters have characterized the dapian phenomenon with such phrases as ‘Chinese cinema with HWD characteristics,’ ‘Hollywoodization of Chinese cinema,’ or ‘made-in-China Hollywood films.’ I think when we use these phrases, we need to qualify them with accurate industrial observations or interviews, and beware of the ‘China vs HWD polarity’ evoked in such descriptions. Hollywood on one hand has its own multifarious history and on the other hand stands for a highly codified storytelling formula that is called ‘classical HWD narrative,’ which I would say the majority of martial arts films do not conform to. Rise of the Legend does signify ‘empire’ as conceptualized by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, which is, capital defined in a very contemporary sense, of which the structures and logistics are entirely immune to the liberatory or radical weapons of politics of difference. Yet, the exercise of power or operation of capital is also multifaceted and is always susceptible to the recovery or re-discovery of subaltern knowledge or practice, which is martial arts itself. Therefore, while it is never assumed that this new WFH or Eddie Peng should learn to speak Cantonese, it is always taken for granted and emphasized that Peng has trained for at least 6 months as a martial disciple for the making of the film.

 

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