martial arts films


martial arts films
The genre of martial arts films has cultural origins in an earlier tradition of ‘knights errant’ novels (see martial arts fiction), opera and street performance, and was represented in the earliest days of Chinese cinema by such films as Burning of Red Lotus Monastery (1928). However, for its advocacy of superstition and glorification of such anti-social figures as roving swordsmen, the film genre was banned in 1930. It fared little better under the early People’s Republic, when state film studios produced increasingly stylized portrayals of popular struggle and the heroism of the masses, leaving no room for the romanticized secrecy or individuality of martial artists.
The martial arts genre came into prominence with the explosion of films produced in Hong Kong during the 1960s and 1970s. Throughout these two decades, major studios, most notably the Shaw Brothers studios, fed a growing kung-fu craze with classic films such as The Drunken Master and Enter the Dragon, launching the careers of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, David Chiang and international superstar Bruce Lee. These films established many of the conventions defining the genre, which remained within a few stylized storylines. Plots such as the revenge tale, the patriotic hero (usually set against the backdrop of the Manchu or Japanese invasions), and the gangster story tended towards the gory, while more mythic or religious themes were fanciful, with actors suspended by wires performing stupendous feats. Hong Kong remained the unquestioned centre of the genre, providing inspiration for a smaller industry in Taiwan. Hong Kong director King Hu (Hu Jinquan) worked briefly in Taiwan, but for the most part the flow of talent went in the reverse direction, as with the director Zhang Che (Chang Cheh), who left Taiwan for a career in Hong Kong.
As state-sponsored wushu training developed during the late 1970s, the People’s Republic began to make a contribution to the genre in the form of martial arts prodigies who were featured in Hong Kong productions. The first of the major productions was Shaolin Temple, starring a sixteen-year-old Jet Li (Li Lianjie). This film sparked a national interest in Shaolin wushu (see martial arts), prompting the reopening of the Shaolin Temple in Henan, as well as a brief period during the early 1980s in which Mainland studios produced their own films in the genre, such as The South Shaolin Master.
During the 1980s and 1990s, martial arts films began expanding beyond traditional conventions, partially in order to capture emerging international markets. Martial arts choreography and storylines were incorporated into other genres, such as the science fiction films of Tsui Hark and the action films of director John Woo. Martial artists such as Jet Li and Jackie Chan both starred in English-language films, alongside Hollywood stars, while behind the camera long-time director Yuen Wo Ping added his distinctive choreography to the Hollywood blockbuster, The Matrix.
The Hong Kong industry also courted the burgeoning mainland market by adding more Chinese-style wushu to its films, and building up patriotic themes, as in features such as Once Upon a Time in China. At the same time, low-budget, Mandarin language serials produced in Hong Kong and Taiwan proved immensely popular and soon became stock programming on PRC television. During the 1990s, the internationalization of the martial arts genre came to focus on cooperation within ‘Greater China’, particularly after the 1997 return of Hong Kong to the PRC. The culmination of this process was Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which conspicuously combined talent from the PRC, Taiwan, Hong Kong and overseas Chinese.
Farquhar, Mary (2003). ‘A Touch of Zen: Action in Martial Arts Movies’. In Chris Berry (ed.), Chinese Films in Focus: 25 New Takes. London: BFI, 167–74.
THOMAS DUBOIS

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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