From the Martial to the Art: Slow Aesthetics in Transnational Martial Art-house Cinema
This paper will argue that there is a paradigmatic shift of cinematic martial arts from fast-paced “chopsocky” actions of the 1970s and 80s to aesthetic marital art-house cinema emphasizing slowness and stillness. Martial arts has always been considered a frivolous genre with little affiliation to “slow aesthetics” of European art cinema. From King Hu’s bamboo forest in the 1960s, Bruce Lee’s flying kicks in the early 70s, to Tsui Hark’s new wave “wire-fu” and “undercranking” in the early 90s, speed has been accentuated as a signifier of martial arts skills, training, and power. However, the transnationalization of Hong Kong cinema in the past two decades has gradually transformed the popular genre from the martial to the artistic, the bodily to the spiritual, and the external to the internal. Rather than accentuating what David Bordwell calls “the glimpse” and the “burst-pause-burst” pattern reminiscent of the Chinese operatic traditions, cinematic martial art-house films such as Zhang Yimou’s Hero, Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster, and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassins feature extended long takes, lengthy pauses, and sparse narrative, which aim not to highlight, in Leon Hunt’s terms, the (archival, cinematic and corporeal) “authenticity” of martial arts performance, but an abstract embodiment of yijing (idea-image) through slow aesthetics created by an uncanny synthesis of mechanical mediation (wirework) and digital reproduction (computer generated imageries). More intriguingly, this accentuation of slowness emerges not only from the fantastical world of wuxia, but also from the kung fu genre with much emphasis on realism and violence. In addition to being a critique of and an alternative to fast-paced Hollywood action spectacles, this new paradigm is an exit strategy for a disappearing genre with aging talents and discontinuing lineage.
Wayne Wong is a joint PhD researcher at the Department of Comparative Literature at The University of Hong Kong and the Film Studies Department at King’s College London. He has published in Martial Arts Studies and is interested in Hong Kong martial arts action cinema, digital effects, and game studies. His current research focuses on martial arts action cinema and its digital reproduction.