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Chinese Action Movies: Entertainment and Coping
I recently caught a clip on Youtube from Ip Man 3 where the main character enters into a sparring match against none other than Mike Tyson. I had heard that the former and infamous boxer was going to appear in the film. And Donnie Yen, the actor who plays Ip Man is no slouch either. Being a fan of many martial arts films, he is one of the few I’ve seen who willingly not only incorporates other styles into his films, but also trains in them as well to make his performance more authentic.
While there was wire work involved in some scenes, I would say a majority of them was just the two men fighting it out and it was impressive. As one of my cousins said when he saw the film, it was a great portrayal of the strengths and weakness of the two styles: Wing Chun Kung Fu and western boxing. However, the fight ended in a draw as the match was timed only for three minutes.
In terms of other Chinese action films I’ve seen where the villain is either a huge White guy, or using a western fighting form, it’s usually the native hero who comes out on top. Sure the hero struggles a bit in the beginning, but then he somehow gathers the strength through indomitable will and faith in his style to beat out his physically/technically superior villain.
This has been a trope since Bruce Lee’s 1972 Fist of Fury, where when fighting against a larger, Russian opponent who puts up a real challenge, Bruce takes advantage of a moment's blindness from a open wound to gain the upper hand. To be fair, this is actually fairly legitimate as if you lose sight for even a moment, your enemy can and will seize the opportunity and exploit it. But it was still the Chinese hero defeating a larger and superior opponent.
Even in Ipman 3, during a battle with a another boxer named the Twister, most of the fight is spent being indecisive or having the Kung Fu master’s blows having little affect on the boxer’s physical conditioning. The outcome not finally decided until Ip Man remembers techniques taught to him earlier and starts using more unorthodox strikes. While great for a movie, as a martial art myself, I would wonder why any fighter would wait till they’re getting they’re ass beat to start pulling out all the stops.
Elsewhere, it has been said that Chinese martial artists harbor a hostility to learning other styles other than their own, particularly western ones, because of their nation’s history. While a major empire for most of its existence, China fell under the rule of foreigners from the Mongols, to the Manchu, and most infamously, the Europeans and the Japanese. So the reaction was a obligation of protection and bias to the ‘greatness’ of their culture.
When Bruce Lee was featured fighting Japanese fighters in his films, and while he held a respect for many of their styles, the film had to end with Kung Fu coming out on top because of the collective wound the culture shared. Kung Fu is great because China is great, and so on.
A nation can work through its issue in any number of ways, from blatant and offensive propaganda, to more subtle forms like in dress and language. I think for China and Hong Kong, this was done through their martial arts films. It was about something native to them that they all knew of, even if they never studied it, pitted against overwhelming powers subtly implied in their characters. Like the strongman who is taller and more heavily built: the White man who is dressed and yet so obviously untrustworthy and even copying or stealing Chinese elements. And even Black men, often depicted as strongmen but more domineering.
Though newer actors and movies don’t seem as heavily biased as their predecessors were, the element is still there. Especially as Chinese culture is trying to assert itself as equal to the other world cultures it interacts with. It’s seeking respect and not to be treated as inferior or subservient.
This isn’t a criticism of Chinese martial arts or action films. Centuries’ worth of oppression by foreign invaders would absolutely create a psychic wound that would be passed down through the generations, even more so in a community-centered society like China. And there is also the fact that they are not the only ones who have done this.
Like China, America also suffered a deep wound to it’s psyche after the loss of the Vietnam war in 1975. Prior to the war, America had a 6-1-0 record in its conflicts, the ‘1’ being the Korean War which came out as a draw with no clear winner. Though technically America withdrew from Vietnam by 1973 to leave South Vietnam to fend for itself, when Saigon fell two years later, it was regarded as loss.
Between 1975 and the First Gulf War fifteen years later, Hollywood put out a slew of films with a common theme. Both mainstream and second rate, they portrayed US soldiers struggling with the politics and the tragedies of the war, but somehow overcoming the odds, even if it was in a small way. Perhaps the one exception to this was the first movie of the Rambo trilogy, 1982’s First Blood. The setting taking place not in Southeast Asia, but instead Northwest America. The hero a homeless veteran who was special forces and is looking for surviving friends from his unit, only to be greeted by the villains: local Americans. The film’s jarring switch of the status quo, as well showing the affects of PTSD on a human being, makes it one of the best action and war films ever made and more than just a fictional spin on history.
American films are just as guilty of nationalistic movies as Chinese cinema. Where this becomes dangerous though is when it starts to play down historical truths, or portray stereotypes or fictional elements as fact. World War Two showed just how far that can go with both German and Japanese civilians willing to do/tolerate inhumane acts against other races in large part because that is what they were educated into and shown. You were not going to find a movie about a good Jew in 1930’s Germany or an honorable Chinese in 1930’s Japan.
Truthful and Relevant
While I am glad that many of the actors in Chinese action films are becoming more aware that being respected doesn’t mean disrespecting other cultures, I also hope that they don’t turn it into teaching a prejudice. Their action movies are very good, and I usually consider them and other Asian action films far superior to Western ones. Kung fu can be a good style, but it exists in a global world now where it will be compared to other foreign techniques.
While sensitivity to other people insulting your own culture is legitimate, an overly defensive reaction can be just as bad. It makes one blind to holes and faults that need to be repaired, where opportunity to create something new presents itself, and can make your style stagnate by failing to adapt in a different world.
Entertain the people, but don’t do it at the expense of truth or ego’s sake. They may protect the integrity of their native style and culture’s dignity in their own bubble, but you also can also isolate them as well. They will not be seen as beautiful, equal, and prominent among other world competitors like the Avengers, but as a distant and weird knock off not worth investing in or appreciating for what it truly is.