Kung Fury: Contemporary Debates in Martial Arts Cinema
Birmingham City University
Friday, 1st April 2016
A key aim of the Martial Arts Studies Research Network (http://mastudiesrn.org/) is the forging connections; and specifically of two kinds of connection: on the one hand, connections between academics approaching martial arts from different perspectives and different disciplines; and on the other hand, connections between those working on martial arts inside the university and those on the outside. The first Martial Arts Studies Research Network event at Brighton University in February 2016, saw academics from the social sciences in particular enter into discussions and debates on issues related to gender, youth, sexuality and class with a range of teachers, coaches and practitioners from outside of academia (http://goo.gl/YmZe67). The second event, at Birmingham City University on 1st April 2016 brought scholars, researchers and teachers of martial arts in film and visual culture into dialogue with film-makers, distributors, festival organisers and other industry professionals.
The event was hosted by Drs Simon Barber and Oliver Carter from Birmingham City University, who arranged a fast-moving and fascinating day, involving keynotes, panels, plenaries, buffets, receptions and a film screening, all of which went off without a hitch.
The first main event was a keynote address by Bey Logan – a writer, martial artist, actor, director and producer, who is well known for his wide-ranging work within all aspects of the Hong Kong film industry. He began by reporting that his presentation title was initially going to be something along the lines of ‘Why Kung Fu Movies Matter’, but that he changed it to ‘Why I Love Kung Fu Movies and Why They Matter’.
In his talk, Logan’s argument was that although kung fu movies are obviously so much fun for the viewer, they also ‘propose dreams’, dreams that kung fu training itself can in a way make real. I found myself to be in complete agreement with Logan throughout his discussion of the relations between cinematic fantasy, escapism and real life, and I have made similar arguments myself, many times. However, just because Logan’s argument was familiar to me, does not mean it was predictable. Rather, Logan spiced his presentation with a range of interesting and often hilarious biographical and industry references and anecdotes that made for a very fresh and lively presentation. In the process, he also proposed an image for one useful way to understand the logic of the development of martial arts cinema in Hong Kong. The image is that of a bending and stretching mirror. If we think of this image, he proposed, it is possible to see the ways that film production develops, with new films mirroring earlier films, but not identically. Rather, because of the variations and angles of reflection, different films produce exaggerated or stunted dimensions, some flip over from serious to comedy, and others flip back from comedy to serious, and so on, and so forth, in endless dialectical permeations and permutations. (In a way, this image mapped onto an image proposed by Susan Pui San Lok’s later presentation of her artwork projects, in a paper entitled ‘RoCH Fans and Legends’ [See: http://goo.gl/lcHwMi]).
I cannot easily do justice to the richness and diversity of Bey Logan’s presentation. But hopefully we will see it in print in the not-so-distant future – Simon Barber and Oliver Carter are keen to develop the conference proceedings into a special issue of the journal Martial Arts Studies (http://martialartsstudies.org/). Suffice it to say that Logan discussed a wide range of films and issues, ranging from accounts of the personalities of key figures in the Hong Kong film industry to an argument in favour of the specific variant of feminism that he sees as unique to Hong Kong martial arts films.
The following panel saw papers by Jonathan Wroot, Hyunseon Lee and Felicia Chan. Wroot discussed issues in the distribution of Hong Kong films in the West in general; Lee explored the transnational and intermedial connections between martial arts film and Chinese opera; while Chan asked the question ‘Must a Chinese (Auteur) Filmmaker make a Martial Arts Film?’
All three papers were stimulating in different ways; but I think that Chan’s paper spoke most directly to my own interests, as it essentially operated at the level of discourse, proposing that not only is the category of the ‘auteur’ socially constructed, and not only does it serve a range of interests, but it also – when we think of how many East Asian ‘auteur’ directors turn to making a martial arts film or two at the mid to late points of their careers – shows us the ways in which a range of forces, expectations and gratifications play themselves out in the types of film production we can see from certain figures in certain times and places. Chan also rather deftly deployed a reflection on the growth of ‘simplified Chinese script’ in such a way as to pose questions of the ways Chinese ‘auteur’ (and) martial arts films are elaborated.
After lunch came an industry panel discussion on the making and distribution of martial arts film, featuring Bey Logan, Paul Smith, and Spencer Murphy, each in their own way representing the realms of film production, promotion, and distribution.
The final session of the day featured presentations from Susan Pui San Lok, Kyle Barrowman and Colette Balmain. Lok showed sections of short films she had made from myriad jumping and flying scenes from the many episodes of different versions of the Condor Trilogy / Return of the Condor Hero, alongside discussion of her ongoing art practice (http://goo.gl/lcHwMi), in a complex argument about the (re)iteration and dissemination of textual elements.
Kyle Barrowman followed, with a paper that he proposed took issue with aspects of Bey Logan’s arguments about the supposed differences between Hong Kong and Hollywood film. Barrowman argued – contra Logan – that MMA is not an ethically or morally barren world compared to traditional martial arts, and that signs of its complex lifeworlds can be discerned in the emerging movement of MMA films. Barrowman’s overarching project involves reconsidering the American martial arts film, and obviously MMA films seem to map onto this concern; but Logan proposed that MMA has clearly been incorporated into a number of Donnie Yen films, which suggests that there is no necessary correlation of ‘MMA film’ with ‘Hollywood’. In a similar spirit, I proposed – only half joking – that perhaps the best example of a film about MMA and/as ‘culture’ might be Keanu Reeves’ directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi.
Colette Balmain concluded the academic proceedings with a discussion of the heroines of Hong Kong cinema, in an enjoyable and challenging paper that sought to examine the problems and possibilities of female agency within the traditional martial arts film. Her argument was that such cinematic feminism is at once gesturing towards a kind of emancipation whilst always operating within the strictures of certain established representational codes and conventions.
In many ways, then, Bey Logan turned out to have been the ideal keynote for this event. His opening keynote unexpectedly set the scene – and many of the terms – of and for the ensuing academic and industry discussions and debates, all of which made for a wonderfully interconnected and cross-fertilizing day.
But the day was not over yet. After a Chinese buffet and drinks reception, Oliver and Simon led us across to the next building, an erstwhile IMAX cinema, where we watched the eponymous yet hitherto largely unmentioned or undiscussed star of the day – the half hour film Kung Fury (https://goo.gl/kiJfCF).