This article appeared originally in the all-Hong Kong issue of Bright Lights #13 (1994).
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HK’s martial arts film stylishly bridge time, space, and now cultures
More popularly known as kung fu films in the West, the martial-arts cinema is almost as old as the Chinese film industry itself. Originating in Shanghai in the 1920s, the first of these action-packed screen dramas cashed in on the contemporary popularity of pulp novels, drawing liberally on traditional tales and legends of superhuman swordsman and magical feats. One such story, The Legend of the Strange Hero, proved so durable since its original publication in 1928 that it has survived at least five film adaptations in as many decades.
Tightening censorship and the Chinese cinema’s growing engagement in social issues resulted in few martial-arts films being produced in the 1930s. But after the 1949 revolution, the Chinese commercial-film industry left Shanghai for Hong Kong, and the martial-arts cinema flourished again.
This cinema form’s survival depended on a variety of factors. Martial-arts films are artistically unique, influenced by all the artifacts of kung fu culture, both high and low; comic books and classical Chinese literature, TV serials and traditional Chinese painting, superstitious beliefs, pulp novels, and so on. For most people, the films reinforce common suppositions about childhood myths and legends, underpinned by a historical tradition of institutions such as the Shaolin Temple, and personalities whose attributes (and occasionally existence) can be neither proved nor disproved.
In the hands of its most adept practitioners, the martial-arts film plays on beliefs suspended somewhere between historical legend and contemporary fact. Most Cantonese in Hong Kong, for example, know of Huang Fei Hung (Wong Fei Hong) – a supreme exponent of the Hong boxing style, the personification of Confucian virtue, and a pillar of Chinese tradition in changing times – or so the cinema has it. For though Huang did exist, little is known of his philosophical postures. In fact, most people associate Huang with Kwan Tah-hing, the actor who portrayed him as a paternalistic martial-arts teacher for more than two postwar decades in close to 100 films. Today, popular consciousness regards Kwan actually as Huang, the perfect product of intercourse between film and reality.
The Kwan-Huang phenomenon is unique, but it does show that kung fu films cannot be too divorced from either myth or reality. The audience’s preference for the modern is tempered, however, by an inbred (or cultivated) conservatism that demands at least the guise of tradition. Few martial-arts films are located in a precise time or place; rather, they take place on an abstract historical plane (like a fairy tale) that is then given the trappings of contemporary life. Mandarin martial-arts films made in Hong Kong in the 1960s, for example, regularly presented a plot in which individuals or groups competed for secrets or valued objects such as sacred texts or swords. Through all of this wandered the smart swordsman who knew all the tricks of his trade and his way around the courts and inns of ancient China.
Kung fu films were successfully revitalized – after Bruce Lee’s death – by the introduction of humor that seemed more appropriate to contemporary comedy than period epics. Nevertheless, they proved immensely popular. Similarly, one of Hong Kong’s most successful productions of 1982 – Zu, Warriors from the Magic Mountain – was a science-fiction kung fu extravaganza complete with the latest high-technology special effects from Tokyo and Hollywood. In martial-arts films, audiences like to identify with chivalrous knights, swordsmen, or heroic fighters of the past – but only if their values and wisecracks are tuned to the modern world.
The popular mythologies promoted by the martial-arts cinema and the various links these films make with contemporary reality have, however, given it another, more significant dimension. Almost all postwar martial-arts films that constitute the genre have been produced by and for the Chinese communities outside mainland China. And to this end, they can be read as films of mythic remembrance, an emigrant cinema for an audience seeking not only its identity and links with an often imaginary cultural past, but also its legitimization.
Lee’s films remain statements on the mythological status of Chinese martial arts and national identity. Born in the United States, Lee worked as a child star in Hong Kong films before entering the University of Washington. Returning to Hong Kong at the beginning of the 1970s, he starred in, and made, films that often express the feelings of the Overseas Chinese. His films are all in the quest mold and always show the triumph of inferior Chinese kung fu over styles (such as Japanese karate) that signified a restless spirit looking for its form and rightful place. And it can be seen that the appeal of Lee’s cinema lay not only in the charisma of the star or his effortless displays of skill, but in its ability to inspire a national pride.
Lee’s cinema was not an isolated case. King Hu, transposed in 1949 from Peking, has never made a film about Hong Kong. Instead, he has celebrated – particularly in A Touch of Zen – the classical world of the Chinese landscape painting, animated by elegant scholars, courtesans, monks, and swordsmen. Many of King’s films, and those produced at Shaw Brothers’ studio in the 1960s, are meticulous reconstructions and create for their audiences two or three dreamy ideals of China. The China presented in the realistic Huang Cantonese films of the 1960s and the mythical, hermetic worlds of King in the 1970s have never existed in the audiences’ experience. In these popular tales, we are presented with a China that all emigrants dream about. The Mandarin filmmakers in their films of traditional life and martial-arts schools tried to recreate a China and a society that had largely disappeared. But whether the China that is presented is the literary, mythical, or rural, does not matter – what does is that it is more of a comforting ideal than real. And like all products of popular culture, this cinema deals in idealistic ethics – good versus bad, virtue triumphant over corruption. Villains die and heroes live to fight another day.
In this sense, the martial-arts cinema has always been escapist. But the fantasy to an audience “far from home” is a kind of reality that satisfies a more tangible cultural need: the desire for a link with tradition, no matter how tenuous or imaginary. The films have fulfilled this function with the plausibility and appeal of folk tales. And like the story of oral tradition, the martial-arts cinema does not run out of stories or dreams – it just repeats them until they too become part of the myth.