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The Geopolitics of Kung Fu Film

Post Series: 2007: Volume 6, Number 2
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The Geopolitics of Kung Fu Film(This article first appeared in Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF), a joint project of the International Relations Center (IRC, www.irc-online.org) and the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS, www.ips-dc.org), February 8, 2007; reprinted with permission from FPIF)

Regardless of whether it had won four Oscars, none, or all ten for which it was nominated, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon broke down the door to the U.S. market several years ago and ushered in a host of great Chinese Kung Fu movies featuring swordsmanship, hand-to-hand combat, gymnastics, mystical energy forces, and fantastical battles in flight over rooftops, lakes and atop bamboo groves. The arrival of high production value Kung Fu movies was overdue. Western audiences had long been ready for this style of Chinese, Hong Kong, and Taiwan film, even if that critical mass was not apparent to Hollywood.

The international success of Crouching Tiger and its superstars fuels the popular image of an ascendant Chinese nation and enhances China’s sense of cultural worth. In this digital age, a world-class power produces world-class movies. The kind of movies China has successfully sold to the world also reflects a certain set of Chinese values. Through these new Kung Fu movies, China emerges as dynamic, fast-paced, and disciplined, as well as Confucian in its devotion to a strict moral order. The movies also suggest a China that is not subservient to the West but somehow superior—capable of being a strong nation, a multiethnic empire, and an internationally dominant player.

Charlie Chan is no more. On the big screen, China not only speaks in its own voice, it kicks butt as well.

Hunger for the Exotic

The West’s willing suspension of disbelief and hunger for an exotic China has been predicated on a long period of cultural conditioning. In the 1970s, David Carradine introduced television audiences to the martial magic of the Shaolin Temple, and Bruce Lee mesmerized moviegoers with unexcelled Kung Fu prowess. In the 1980s, the “force” of Star Wars spirituality was grounded in Chinese “qi,” the very energy of the universe. Two decades of director Zhang Yimou’s epic cinematography introduced audiences to grandiose Chinese geography, sans Kung Fu. Meanwhile, Jackie Chan pounced from Hong Kong to Hollywood with his hyper-energized Kung Fu, including his highly successful Rush Hour series with Chris Rock.

In 1997, when Chinese female Kung Fu movie great Crouching Tiger’s protagonist Michelle Yeoh teamed up with Pierce Brosnan in the 007 adventure Tomorrow Never Dies, the Kung Fu stars themselves achieved global appeal. Riding the wave of Kung Fu action to challenge Hollywood at the box office have been not only China’s movies and stars but also Chinese Kung Fu itself. The Hollywood action genre has assimilated the fighting and sword styles so popular with Chinese audiences. For instance, the first ten-minute chase scene of 007’s recent blockbuster Casino Royale directly imitates Jackie Chan’s Kung Fu fighting and chase style in punches, kicks, and assorted chase-related jumps and gymnastics. Thus has Hollywood been sinified.

Once freed from a strict Western sensibility of realism, American audiences can now enjoy the flight and fight of warriors who cling to walls and race over rooftops and lake surfaces. Chinese audiences immediately recognize these techniques as qinggong (light body Kung Fu) or neigong (internal Kung Fu power) and take for granted the rules regarding such Kung Fu training and use. American audiences might require some tutorials to recognize the deeper levels of such martial techniques. Digital imaging, however, has helped to redefine the surface-level reality and thus bring Hollywood that much closer to Hong Kong.

It remains to be seen if the more esoteric and fantastical elements of Chinese Kung Fu film, such as shooting qi energy beams from a fighter’s palm, fingertips, or sword, will be equally well received by American audiences. This barrier to cultural sharing of Kung Fu has been challenged with some mild success by Stephan Chow’s Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle. Crouching Tiger showed the obvious potential of this genre of Chinese films in the Chinese language, and the rush to capitalize on this revelation produced other films like Zhang Yimou’s Hero and House of Flying Daggers.

Behind the force of the Kung Fu is the force of the industry itself. The writers, directors, producers, technical experts, and stars form a “Kung Fu industrial complex” that is multilayered as well as horizontally and vertically integrated. This loosely knit organization capitalizes on the trajectory of individual works as they move from literary serial to television series to movies and post-production commercial items like computer games. It is somewhat analogous to the Disney Empire. TV and movie adaptations commonly serve as the springboard to stardom for young actors and actresses, like House of Flying Daggers star Andy Lau, who thereupon ride the wave of popularity with other advertisement, movie, and even musical careers.

The Kung Fu industrial complex has finally gone global as demand for its production techniques, stars, directors, and fighting styles has reached Hollywood over the last decade. A prime example is the opening chase scene of The Matrix in which Trinity runs horizontally on vertical walls. It is no coincidence that such signature “light body Kung Fu” action appears in The Matrix and its sequels, because these films employed Crouching Tiger’s renowned action director, Yuen Wo-Ping. Chinese cultural values are further legitimized by the blockbuster earnings these films have garnered in the last half-decade, both in Asia and the West. This new success in the international marketplace—Crouching Tiger earned $128 million in the United States alone, and Hero earned $177 million at the box office worldwide—reinforces and reconfirms the Chinese national sense of cultural self-worth. Chinese Kung Fu really does finally “earn” its reputation as cultural “treasures” through which the global market begins to appreciate the essence of Chineseness.

Construction of Identity

Chinese consumption of popular martial arts literature accelerated in the latter half of the 20 th century with the serialization of Jin Yong’s (and other writers’) novels, which were immediately adapted for television series and movies. Their popular success was so great as to generate subsequent and multiple re-adaptations and spin-offs into comics, digital games, and other movie genres. Jin Yong’s works transcend entertainment by performing the unconscious social function of constructing the nation. They map out the Chinese nation geographically, and the characters and their behavior become archetypical products that inform the national consciousness. For example, Jin Yong’s final epic The Deer and the Cauldron, which was serialized from 1969 to 1972, provides a historically based fictional account of Qing imperial consolidation, intrigue and international conflict. The protagonist Wei Xiaobao colludes with Ming loyalists based in Taiwan, a pseudo-allegory of post-1949 PRC-Taiwan relations, and travels to Russia forming an alliance to thwart Wu Sangui’s conspiracy to overthrow the Kangxi Emperor. Hero and Crouching Tiger perform the same mapping function as the characters traverse a vast space from western Xinjiang, to Beijing in the northeast, and south to Wudang Temple in central China.

This construction of national identity also involves a construction of ethnicity. Jin Yong’s novels frequently turn on conflicts between ethnic groups struggling to dominate China. The cultural superiority of the Han—who make up a little more than 90% of the mainland’s population—is ultimately reaffirmed through struggles for sacred Kung Fu texts, even if martial superiority on a dynastic scale is temporarily elusive. Works like The Eagle-Shooting Heroes and The Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils demonstrate both the breadth of China’s ethnicities and the primacy of the Han.

In addition to helping fashion national and ethnic identity, the Kung Fu action also provides a complex vision of Chinese social values that reinforce and challenge the audience’s view of China, ancient and modern. Cultural values such as Confucian respect for hierarchy, central authority, education, and virtue are entwined with swordsmanship that resembles calligraphy (and vice-versa), poetry recited while defeating foes, and loyalty to martial master and state. At the same time, the films counterpose these individual qualities of rectitude with national aspirations.

Hero’s narrative, for instance, demonstrates the wisdom of a powerful ruler and his highly efficient military organization that can build a peaceful and prosperous “nation.” On one hand, the individual’s sword and Kung Fu prowess, like one’s moral rectitude reflected by one’s calligraphy, can overcome the massive destructive efficiency of orchestrated arrow strikes. On the other hand, the ruler is determined to assert the unity of “Our Country” (the English subtitle gloss) over the hero’s thirst for righteous individual revenge. The fact that the Chinese gloss for “Our Country” (tianxia) literally reads as “all under heaven,” creates space for a reading that points to China’s rise as the preeminent 21st-century industrial power.

East Versus West?

Chinese Kung Fu narratives often propound the cultural superiority of the Chinese. In blatantly nationalist films such as Fist of Fury, Bruce Lee uses Chinese Kung Fu to defeat an entire Japanese karate school, thus showing the metaphorical superiority of the Chinese over the Japanese and other foreign imperialists in Shanghai in the early 1900s. This nationalist narrative is repeatedly re-performed in later Fist of Fury film adaptations starring Jackie Chan (1978), Stephen Chow (1991), and Jet Lee (1994), as well as a 28-part TV series with Donnie Yen in 1996.

China’s superiority to the West is a common theme in crossover hits, particularly the films of Jackie Chan. Shanghai Noon, for example, juxtaposes a corrupt, violent, and mentally unstable wild West with a cultured Chinese princess and her loyal Imperial Guard, who personify moral integrity and decency in the effort to save her. Rush Hour portrays the honest and hardworking Hong Kong cop using his Kung Fu and his brains to outwit arrogant and bumbling FBI agents at every turn and ultimately rescue the diplomat’s daughter. In Who Am I, Jackie’s would-be CIA rescuers engage in high-tech villainy in their efforts to kill him to consummate their illicit $500 million nuclear weapons deal. In each of these movies, the well meaning Western partner serves as a foil for Jackie’s loyalty, ingenuity, honesty, and bravery—the defining qualities of the Chinese hero who metaphorically, as well as literally, conquers the corrupt foreign world.

Hero and Crouching Tiger function on a subtler ideological plane to reaffirm Chinese values such as the centralization of state power and the loyalty of individual and clan to the state. In this way, they suggest a cultural cohesion not dependent upon the threat of Western nation states. A maturation of Chinese consciousness with the onset of the 21st century is indicated by a move away from obviously nationalist movies that reflect a China struggling with a 20th-century sense of inferiority to the West and toward an exploration of Chinese values and capabilities on their own terms.

The Western assimilation of elements of the “Kung Fu industrial complex” offers a corrective to previous notions of a weak China. By successfully exporting its stars, directors, styles, and Kung Fu (along with such attendant notions as chivalry and valor), China thus has a platform for expressing its values. By the same token, Western audiences may view a more positive and proactive (thus complex) China rather than blindly wallow in the paradigm of prejudice constructed during the semi-colonization of China during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Kung Fu Hustle Hustle

In the first four decades of the PRC, Chinese film production was tightly controlled for didactic propaganda purposes. Hong Kong was the center of film production in the Chinese-speaking world. With its entry into the WTO, China has gradually loosened proscriptions on the film industry. These changes coincide roughly with the success of the Taiwanese-made Crouching Tiger. Now, many of China’s most talented directors have pursued formulas of blockbuster commercial success after the moneymaking potential of Kung Fu films was proven.

Directly drawing on Jin Yong’s rich literary and film legacy, Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle is an inspired caricature of Kung Fu film. Kung Fu Hustle won at least 21 awards and nominations in Hong Kong and Taiwan and was the highest-grossing foreign language film in North America in 2005. Kung Fu Hustle imagines a future for two of Jin Yong’s two most famous martial lovers, Yang Guo and Xiao Longnü. As writer, director, and actor, Stephen Chow taps into mythic archetypical action styled by Bruce Lee and to characters created by Jin Yong. A high level of Kung Fu cultural literacy is mandatory to understand the rapid-fire inside jokes and allusions that permeate every scene, but the movie still appeals on the surface to the uninitiated.

Thus, the “hustle” of Kung Fu Hustle is Stephen Chow’s demonstration that China can transcend more narrow issues of nationalism and national identity and fully embrace its own cultural forms. China no longer needs to make nationalist pronouncements about cultural subjugation in modern global society, thus serving to seal its rise in the 21 st century. China has become a producer of artistic and aesthetic culture, not just consumer products. It has moved up the manufacturing chain to create higher value-added cultural artifacts. As such, Kung Fu film nationalism—and internationalism—supplies both Chinese and foreign audiences with a muscular, mythologized view of Chinese martial and cultural prowess.

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