When film academics direct their attention to the martial arts film, the tone of their writing often becomes wistful and the content personal. In David Bordwell’s seminal essay, “Aesthetics Action: Kung Fu, Gunplay and Cinematic Expressivity”, wherein the universally referenced phrase “pause burst pause” was developed, he gave an autobiographical image of a portly cineaste seized by the fanciful notion of vaulting a parked car with a graceful leap (1). More recently Stephen Teo has recalled his childhood, largely comprised of watching television in Hong Kong, for evidence that special effects have come a long way from the then common acting method of simulating a sword skewering by clamping a blade under the arm (2). I am happy to report that with Kung Fu Cult Masters, Leon Hunt continues the confessional trend. During the introduction he tells of his lifelong fascination with the kung fu film, “it began with Bruce Lee, whose image dominated my bedroom walls as a teenager. As I slide, not entirely gracefully into my forties, I take no small pleasure in succumbing similarly to Jet Li” (p. 19). Establishing his position among the scholars of Hong Kong cinema, a modest Hunt describes himself as an academic, a tourist and a fan. What becomes immediately apparent upon reading further is that Hunt has elevated fandom to new heights and that from this vantage point there are vistas previously uncharted. Hunt hands us the telescope.
Auteurist theory has proven a problematically narrow avenue for martial arts film scholars. Although it “works” for many North American directors, Hitchcock, Sirk, Kubrick and so on, the martial arts film does not conform as easily to such analysis. Star power has literally defined kung fu film production and choreographers, such as Yuen Wo Ping who have the ability to invest stars with the illusion of physical power (Keanu Reeves for instance), have more recently become recognised for their contribution to the success of physical action films. In chapter one, “Wicked Shapes/Wicked Lies”, Hunt acknowledges fanbase culture as a vital source of genre analysis and establishes that Kung Fu Cult Masters will investigate a central concern of the genre’s fans: the question of authenticity. “Authenticity” has different meanings. For the Asian critic authenticity is closely linked “to questions of identity” and performance traditions, whereas the western critic is “less sensitive to issues of cultural identity” but is concerned with the body documented in extremis versus the encroachment of special effects (p. 22). Hunt aligns the reader with the desires of the fanbase by adopting terminology used by vocal cinema-goers at London’s Scala theatre as recalled by Stefan Hammond. The proclamation of “shapes!” was used to applaud fighting stances and the call of “lies!” to denigrate the failure of special effects to remain hidden (3). The chapter continues as a highly detailed analysis of the evolution of the kung fu film style and the presentation of the body in the pursuit of authentic action.
Readers who are unfamiliar with Hong Kong’s martial arts actors, directors, choreographers and film titles will find Kung Fu Cult Masters rather daunting as the text is rich with names. Some foreknowledge of the Hong Kong martial arts film industry makes the text most rewarding. Hunt’s insightful explanation of martial arts styles and manoeuvres encourages the perception of action sequences as potentially laden with narrative import and so much more than simple spectacle. Hunt’s descriptions are palpable, an essential quality considering that many of the referenced films are difficult to procure and unlikely to have been seen by many readers.
Chapter two, “Burning Paradise”, unravels the myth of the Shaolin temple. As the supposed birthplace of kung fu, the Shaolin temple has become a primary source for the stories, heroes and martial arts styles that have dominated the genre. In the space allotted Hunt can only scratch the surface of Shaolin’s troubled history and, thankfully, he does not get bogged in the intricacies of anti-Qing resistance, temple burning, the survivors and their exploits. Rather, Shaw Brothers studio’s prolific representation of the Shaolin temple and monks neatly enables a discourse on the work of Zhang Che and Lau Kar-leung. The influence of Kung Fu, the Warner Brothers television series, is also recognised as inspiring the common use of the Shaolin thematic as a symbol of Chinese integrity and identity. The Shaolin temple represents a space under threat of destruction and so Hunt suggests that the Shaolin setting allegorically represents Chinese identity under threat of corruption. Also within this chapter is the suggestion of the affirmation of muscular Chinese masculinity in the films of Zhang Che. Hunt abandons the search for national-political allegory in Zhang’s films, more tantalising are his remarks alluding to Zhang’s casting of super-hunks and the director’s covert sexuality. Zhang’s contribution to the genre is directly linked to his championing of male actors in an industry that was dominated by female stars and Hunt provocatively argues that this was Zhang’s primary motive: “If (Bruce) Lee’s machismo carried political force on a global scale, Zhang’s concerns seem more local (or regional) – get the girls out of the wu xia pian (swordplay film), fill the screen with half-naked male pulchritude” (p. 53).
Given that Zhang Che was instrumental in claiming the kung fu film for male actors a further discussion of his films and the scant representation of women in them would have strengthened the historical context of chapter five. With its brevity, chapter five, “The Lady Is The Boss?”, indicates the limited presence of women in the kung fu film. Hunt here refers to the western fanboy’s appreciation of female action stars as based on sexual desire. With reference to Yvonne Tasker’s analysis of the western action heroine, Hunt notes that the Chinese woman’s fighting power, usually a masculine trait, is counterbalanced by a delicate appearance and demure attitude when non-combative (4). Aside from allowing Hunt to make a laugh-out-loud witticism in the endnotes this chapter does little more than sow the seed for further research. Hunt provides an analysis of Angela Mao Ying and Hui Ying-hung’s contribution to kung fu films before he necessarily turns to the swordplay film for lack of further kung fu examples. The appraisal of Brigitte Lin’s on-screen androgyny and the claim for the radical new interpretation of women’s roles that it seemed she was set to establish (prior to her retirement) makes for a compelling argument. It is an argument betrayed by a niggling drop in the otherwise precise research presented by Hunt. His example taken from New Dragon Gate Inn is wrong. Stating that Lin “strips Maggie Cheung during their swordfight” Hunt forgets that the scene does not involve swords but darts, and swift kung fu. Lin, naked and caught bathing by Cheung, uses her superior skill to divest Cheung of her clothes and uses them to dress herself. I know it is a small point but, as a fan, Hunt permits me to be fanatical. With regard to his own obsession of catching stars out by spotting their body doubles, he says: “I am a fan as well as an academic and so entitled to be a little bit obsessive” (p. 45). Although Hunt’s observations of the swordplay film are discerning they are by no means as definitive as his favourite subject, kung fu.
Kung Fu Cult Masters is sub headed From Bruce Lee to Crouching Tiger. By dropping kung fu’s most recognisable names onto the book’s cover it appears the publisher is attempting to grab the western book buyer’s attention. Thankfully, Hunt’s research begins before Bruce Lee and ends in the postscript with cautious speculation of the impact that The Matrix Reloaded and Zhang Yimou’s Hero will have on the genre. With the rather rude cropping of the full title of Ang Lee’s film (forgivable in the text but not on the cover) there is the sense that the film will not be properly addressed and it isn’t. The subheading gives a faulty finite time period and implies a text that includes the swordplay genre in balance with the kung fu content. Hunt concludes chapter five with a disappointingly brief account of the relationships between the women in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
In chapter three, “Exit The Dragon, Enter the ‘Shadow’”, Hunt contributes to the research on Bruce Lee by side-stepping his major films and appraising the various Lee-related biopics, docos and films starring look-a-likes, as well as the posthumously completed Game of Death. The Clones of Bruce Lee, a B picture, is used as a case study of the “Leealike” films and reinvigorates Hunt’s discourse on authenticity in the aspect of Lee’s identity crisis as his legend was shaped and reshaped by imitators: “the cloning of Lee, the endless recycling of footage of his funeral (the corpse star as ‘presence’), and the sex and drugs scandals in the Hong Kong press seem to me to also reflect a body in crisis, overwhelmed by the discourses willed onto it – both Chinese and ‘Western’, omnipotent and all too vulnerably human, unique and ‘clonable’” (p. 78). Curiously, by name dropping Bruce Lee on the cover of Kung Fu Cult Masters‘ and devoting a chapter to his absence, Hunt would appear to implicate himself in the cloning of Lee. However, Lee is consistently referenced throughout the book.
Chapter four, “Fat Dragons and Drunken Masters”, (like three, five and six), offers case studies of a particular aspect of kung fu film culture. Chapter four celebrates the comedic turn taken by kung fu cinema when Cantonese dialect cinema parodied the declining Mandarin model enabling such stars as Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan to step out of the shadow cast by Lee. The irreverent tone adopted by the kung fu comedy reworks the traditional characterisations of the master/student relationship. With an urban sensibility and cynical reflection on the common experience endured during their training as Beijing Opera performers the filmmakers undermine the authority of the character of the master, most notably with the vulgar Beggar Su in Drunken Master. A hyper-capitalist narrative is noted by Hunt – one that enables the student to exceed the master with individual aplomb.
In chapter six, “Last Hero in China? Jet Li and the ‘New Wave’ Kung Fu Film”, Hunt posits that Hong Kong’s economic decline, the transnationalisation of Asian genres and technological advances have resulted in Jet Li becoming the “last significant kung fu star” (p. 140). He is probably right. The chapter is devoted to Li’s Hong Kong feature films and the development of his on-screen persona. Particular attention is paid to Li’s martial arts skills and their narrative import in a study that gratifyingly and inadvertently trounces the popular western notion that the kung fu film champions spectacle at the expense of narrative.
Chapter seven, “Transnational Dragons and ‘Asian Weapons’”, explores the relative success of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li in America. Their trials exhibit that there has long been a cultural resistance to the kung fu traditions that relegate Hong Kong’s star power to a secondary and exoticised commodity. Kung fu now faces global criticism and fanbase culture plays a regulatory role in the assessment of kung fu productions. Although fanbase debate can often degenerate into a bipolar relegation of films and fights to either “good” or “bad” categories, it is a debate that rages nonetheless. The immediacy of such criticism via Internet vitalises genre analysis, a vitality that is evident in Hunt’s observations. For one example, in chapter seven, Hunt recognises the impact of the fanbase upon the genre when he defines Kiss Of The Dragon as being made in response to comments on the Jet Li website that its precursor, Romeo Must Die, was considered to have understated Jet Li’s considerable martial arts talent. He further utilises the fanbase’s derisive commentary that the wire-work in Romeo Must Die was redundant as it was unmotivated by the narrative, used for its own sake and inspired only by the success of similar special effects in The Matrix. That the kung fu film must necessarily alter its reality to something closer to the fantasy film as well as allowing actors who lack martial arts training to perform astounding fighting manoeuvres leads to the observation that “The Matrix and its many imitators offer worst-case scenarios for the future of diasporic Hong Kong action – Asian expertise absorbed into a cinema that continues to marginalise Asian performers” (p. 182).
Chapter eight, “’I Know Kung Fu!’”, is surely one of the most exciting of recent kung fu essays. Hunt considers the ways in which martial arts skills can be learned by novices such as the PC/console gamer and Hollywood stars such as Keanu Reeves and Cameron Diaz in The Matrix and Charlie’s Angels respectively. The depiction of kung fu is examined in relationship to the console games from 1984’s arcade game Karate Champ through Street Fighter, Mortal Combat and the Dead or Alive series. A case study is made of the Tekken series in its ability not only to replicate the moves of numerous martial arts styles but to involve the player in the scenario of a typical kung fu narrative whereby advancement in skill level is achievable through intensive learning of joypad routines, “combos”. Not only is Hunt a fan of the genre but an avid gamer too, and I suspect that his preferred gaming-character is Lei Wulong from Tekken, a Jackie Chan look-alike, who is paid special attention in this chapter as is Jet Li in the total volume. Crossover between kung fu based gaming and film, such as the remediation of Jackie Chan as Lei Wulong, gives rise to further discourse on the way that the tournament structure of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon prefigures the boss structure of “beat-’em-up” games and enables the gamer to participate in the creation of that narrative. Various games are analysed for their capacity to immerse the gamer in the construction of kung fu narratives with aspects such as the setting, manoeuvres and endfilms all being taken into account. The Hollywood film has similarly appropriated sudden kung fu skill by virtue of advances in CGI which leaves Hunt asking what will become of the kung fu star when authenticity can be replicated. For the moment it seems that the extra textual developments such as DVD extras and “making ofs” can only confirm that the moves of the performer are real in the same way that Jackie Chan’s out-takes reveal that he really does risk life and limb.
Kung Fu Cult Masters is set to become an essential text for those researching the on-screen representation of martial arts. Kung fu film enthusiasts must have this book. Hunt’s insights are well informed by prior academic research as well as DVD commentary and “fanboy” debate. Added to this is his impressive knowledge of kung fu technique. Most importantly Hunt is a fan – he loves kung fu and he lets his bias refresh the text with a cutting wit. With Kung Fu Cult Masters Hunt has made an unparalleled contribution to kung fu film analysis.
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- In At Full Speed: Hong Kong Cinema In A Borderless World, ed. Esther C. M. Yau, University of Minnesota Press, London, 1997
- In Heroic Grace: The Chinese Martial Arts Film, ed. David Chute, UCLA Film and Television Archive, Los Angeles, 2003
- Stefan Hammond, Hollywood East: Hong Kong Movies and The People Who Make Them, Contemporary Books, Illinois, 2000
- Yvonne Tasker, Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre and the Action Cinema, Routledge, London and New York, 1993