Fragmentation of Chineseness in The Martial Arts Films of Wong Kar-wai

Wong Kar-wai’s most recent venture has deepened the filmmaker’s relationship with martial arts films. Yet, when looking at his first martial arts film, Ashes of Time (1994), and the widely released biopic, The Grandmaster (2013), the two films seem to have many more differences than similarities. Stylistically and aesthetically the former focuses on the chaos fraught with vengeance and confusion in a swirling desert whereas the latter emphasizes the opera and tea houses and the life and love of Bruce Lee’s Wing-Chun teacher, Ip Man. Although these representations of the martial arts world seem almost disparate, I argue that rather than being martial arts films that solely aestheticizes movement, fighting scenes, violence, or even the idea of chivalry or xia, Wong’s films create martial arts worlds that comment on Chineseness and the assumption of a monolithic historical Chinese culture. This is not to say that the films do not centralize fighting and violence. Wong’s films do, indeed, include multiple highly stylized fighting scenes, but fighting and violence along with the surroundings and props become a mode in which useful critique and commentary is made. More specifically, the idea of a singular Chinese culture is rejected through martial arts and the material culture, such as costuming within the film, which also implies a critique on the assumption of discrete martial arts systems exemplified by the various masters present throughout the film. Through this rejection of a singular Chinese cultural identity, Wong’s representation of martial arts is able to comment on the construction of Sinophone communities. While previous scholarship on the conception of the Sinophone has mainly focused on language, ethnicity, and marginality of certain groups, such as ethnic minorities, the use of martial arts, movement, and the body, however, can be used to further reveal fragmentation in terms of a cultural imaginary.

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