PANEL 2: Martial Mediations
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.
Martial Arts Television Series as Medium and Text
While Chinese cinema and post-cinematic film have played a pivotal role in the global success story of the martial arts genre and its significance for popular culture, martial arts television series seem to constitute a rather local phenomenon and, despite their social significance, remain relatively underrepresented in global academic discourse. Far from acting along a simple binary of the local and the global, however, Chinese martial arts television series constitute a complex glocal phenomenon in their textual strategies, format structure, and media dispositions. Aiming for a closer understanding of this format of martial arts culture and a more differentiated approach to its negotiation of these parameters, this paper undertakes a reading of the 2007 serial Huo Yuanjia (Fearless – A Chinese Hero) across three dimensions: 1) its relative (cultural) locality in an age of global hypermedia circulation of martial arts; 2) its integration into the logic and aesthetics of 21st century global media culture; 3) its relation to specific Chinese aesthetic and narrative concepts. It will be argued that Huo Yuanjia, in a multi-layered and dynamic interaction with the local and the global, employs textual strategies to construct a cultural essentialism and perpetuates a self-image of cultural localism, while at the same time operating under the dispositions of an increasingly borderless media world and connecting to a global popular consciousness and hypertextual network. It is in this interplay of global media culture and local text production that the serial finds the self in the other and the other in the self.
Sick Man of America: Steven Seagal and the Legacy of Hollywood Action Aesthetics
In virtually all existing scholarship on martial arts cinema, what is indicated in the invocation of such an ostensibly vast (temporally and culturally) cinematic realm is the specific and narrow martial arts cinema of Hong Kong from the 1960s to the 1980s. The “Hong Kong style” is considered the gold standard not only for its impressive and innovative aesthetics, fight choreography, and stunt work, but also for its seemingly inherent political progressiveness simply by virtue of its not being from Hollywood. On the basis of this rigid temporal and cultural demarcation, scholars have not only ignored a great many of the various threads which have come together to form the unique cinematic patchwork known as martial arts cinema; even more problematically, scholars have all-too-easily dismissed (with extreme prejudice) the American thread as merely racist, Orientalist opportunism on the part of Hollywood filmmakers responsible initially (i.e. pre-Bruce Lee) for promulgating at best Asiaphilia and at worst Asiaphobia and responsible subsequently (i.e. post-Bruce Lee) for the corruption and castration of a once-politically and aesthetically virile national style. Against this deeply problematic view of a considerably more expansive and variegated realm of film history, I intend to trace the American inheritance of martial arts action aesthetics from the work of James Cagney to the work of Steven Seagal, in the process highlighting not only national specificities vis-à-vis Hollywood versus Hong Kong aesthetics but also tactical specificities vis-à-vis grappling versus striking.