From Ip Man to Chen Zhen: Metaphormosis of Traditional Kung Fu Masters in (Post)Modernity

This paper reconsiders the paradoxical relationship between kung fu imaginary in cinema and modernity and suggests that the two can be potentially reconciled by the modernization/westernization of kung fu masters in some of the key martial arts productions in recent years, including Donnie Yen’s Ip Man trilogy (2008-2010) and Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (2010). In “Kung Fu: Negotiating Nationalism and Modernity”, Li Siu-leung puts forward a key motif that Hong Kong kung fu cinema is “self-dismantling” in the face of modern weapon (i.e. gun) and traditional martial artists are often disconnected with modern life. Citing a self-reflective scene in Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China (1991), in which a superb kung fu master is tragically shot down by an anonymous solider, and the writings of the great master Huo Yuanjia, who denies the usefulness of kung fu in a modern age, Li concludes that (cinematic) kung fu is “caught in a dilemma of representation – the traditional and the modern”. However, the representations of the masters in recent blockbusters have turned the stereotype upside down and implied that kung fu could develop a comfortable relationship with (post)modernity. Instead of focusing on the films’ nationalistic narratives (i.e. triumphant defeat of foreign invaders), I will scrutinize the seemingly trivial/fragmented events in the films that subvert the conventional perceptions of the kung fu masters and discuss their increased affiliations with western technology, language and culture. By establishing a new discourse of nationalist narrative that no longer feeds on exaggerated kung fu skills and fantasy, these co-productions are able to help (mainland) Chinese renegotiate and reassert their changing relationship with the (post)modern world.

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