Archive for December, 2010

Too Much Fisting – Chen Zhen, Chinese Nationalism And The Myth Of Kung Fu

December 21, 2010

On an internet forum about Asian pop culture I recently saw a post from someone interested in taking up a martial art. They said they wanted to learn something that would enable them to take on a group of attackers, like in the movie Ip Man. They were thinking of trying Wing Chun. A recurrent theme in Hong Kong kung fu movies is the superiority of Chinese martial arts over pretty much everything else. I don’t know when the idea was first expressed on screen, but it can be found in the 1969 film Wong Fei-Hung: The Conqueror of the Sam-Hong Gang starring the legendary Kwan Tak-Hing. In that movie, Wong Fei-Hung defeats a Japanese samurai played by perennial Hong Kong movie villain Feng Yi, who would later tangle with Bruce Lee in the guise of the rotund judo instructor in Fist of Fury.

Everybody Wang Chung tonight

Fist of Fury is a vital film in the canon of kung fu movies because it introduced audiences to the fictional character of Chen Zhen, immortalised as an unstoppable engine of Chinese vengeance by Bruce Lee. In the film, Chen is the student of Fok Yuen-Gap (aka Huo Yuanjia), a martial arts instructor who lived in Shanghai and was head of the Jing Wu Athletic Association. Fok is referenced in many films, notably Legend of a Fighter, and his lofty status is typical of the mythology that springs up around these figures and informs so much of kung fu cinema. There is a very thin and fragile dividing line between fiction and reality in the world of kung fu. This is nowhere better illustrated than in the portrayal of Wong Fei-Hung in the Kwan Tak-Hing series. So little was known about the real Wong Fei-Hung that the films became a substitute for history so successfully they generated their own folklore in Cantonese culture. The same process is now happening with the figure of Ip Man in a slew of films about the Wing Chun kung fu instructor following the wake of the Donnie Yen/Wilson Yip hit.

Chen Zhen, who would rather die of hunger than eat okonomiyaki. Or try to spell it.

A similar process of mythologizing has occurred with Fok Yuen-Gap and Chen Zhen. Much of Fok’s reputation is built on stories of his fight with a Russian wrestler. This encounter is the source of the endless scenes in kung fu movies in which a Chinese martial artist takes on a foreigner in a challenge match and invariably triumphs. You can see this in Fist of Fury in which Chen, played by Lee, defeats the Russian karateka played by Rob Baker. A similar scene is played out in The Boxer From Shantung, starring Chen Kuan-Tai. Fearless, with Jet Li, is basically all about Fok Yuen-Gap beating up foreigners to preserve the honour of China. The only problem with all this is that it is based on something that never happened. Yes, a  Russian wrestler passed through Shanghai during Fok’s lifetime. There was even a challenge issued. But then the wrestler left Shanghai and moved on. No fight ever took place. Fok’s reputation for invincibility is based on a fight that didn’t happen.

Now Chen Zhen has become the embodiment of Chinese national pride, which is even more absurd as Chen is not even a real historical figure, but was a character invented for the Bruce Lee film in 1972. Chen has since been played by Jet Li in Fist Of Legend, where the character exists as a cipher for Bruce Lee, and by Donnie Yen in the Fist of Fury TV series and again now in Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen.

Fisting in the rain, what a glorious feeling, I'm happy again...

The impact of China’s defeats in international conflicts in the Twentieth Century upon Chinese pride, even in the displaced Cantonese populace in Hong Kong, was considerable. Having been beaten by the Japanese and the British, forced to hand over Hong Kong to the Brits and allow Shanghai to be occupied by the Japanese, China’s pride was badly bruised. Japanese abuses in Hong Kong and the appalling treatment of the civilian population in Nanking have left scars on the Chinese psyche that have proven slow to heal. So it falls to the movies to provide the retribution that was unavailable in the real world. In Fist Of Fury Chen Zhen single-handedly decimates an entire dojo of Japanese fighters. Legend of a Fighter qualifies the anti-Japanese sentiment, with Yasuaki Kurata playing a karateka who befriends Fok Yuen-Gap but is then forced to fight him against his own wishes. Fist of Legend is far less rabidly anti-Japanese than its predecessors, having Chen fall for a Japanese girl which would have been heresy in the Bruce Lee/Lo Wei original.

Sadly, Legend of the Fist is part of a recent trend in Hong Kong cinema following a pattern of regression to the mindless jingoism of the 1970s. Fearless, True Legend, Ip Man: The Legend Is Born, both Donnie Yen Ip Man vehicles and now Legend of the Fist centre upon the spectacle of a Chinese martial artist beating up non-Chinese opponents in the name of national pride. The irony is that China has never been more in the ascendant internationally. China is a global economic powerhouse and yet apparently there is still a need for Donnie Yen to beat up Japanese men and shout “The Chinese are not the sick men of Asia!” echoing Bruce Lee’s cry of forty years ago. Frankly, no one is currently suggesting anything of the sort, China. In fact, everyone wants to trade with you and business and political leaders are falling over themselves to be your number one pal. Just ask Taiwan, which has lost official diplomatic relations with a slew of countries as China has flexed its industrial and economic muscles.

So why this insecurity about being sick men? Historically, Chinese martial artists have not fared well in competition. Partly this is because traditionally most Chinese martial artists were hobbyists, by which I mean they were not professional fighters. There is a world of difference between someone who spends their free time in a training hall learning forms and following the Confucian mode of self-cultivation through martial virtue – wu de – and someone who fights for a living. In the past when Chinese martial artists went to Thailand and stepped in the ring with seasoned pros, or travelled to Japan to compete in Kyokushinkai knockdown competitions, they learnt the hard way that all the martial virtue in the world was no substitute for experience.

Worst Anti-Smoking Ad Ever.

In modern Chinese martial arts, there is clear divide between the practice of Wu Shu, the acrobatic display form endorsed by the Chinese government, and the competitive fighting style of San Shou, which is essentially kickboxing. What does it say about the practicality of Wu Shu that it bears no resemblance to the techniques of San Shou? Chinese martial artists have begun training in MMA and are starting to build a reputation slowly in events like Art of War, but at present China and Hong Kong have no competitive fighters of international standing. Professional boxing is dominated by America, Mexico and South America, and the former Soviet nations. MMA is ruled by the North Americans and Brazilians. Muay Thai and kickboxing are dominated by the Thais and the Dutch, with very strong contingents from Morocco, France and a growing number of European nations. Where are the Chinese tough guys to be found? In the movies.

Legend of the Fist gets off to a stirring start with Chen Zhen and his compatriots under fire in Europe during World War 1. Chen saves his friends and single-handedly beats the hell out of the Germans. Back home in Shanghai after the war, he is part of an underground network working to oppose the Japanese occupation. The Jing Wu Athletic Association is empty and China’s pride has never been at a lower ebb. The Japanese and the British wrangle for control over the country but then Chen puts on a mask and sets about putting the Japanese in their place, one broken jaw at a time. He becomes entangled with nightclub singer and hostess Kiki (Shu Qi, surely one of the most beautiful women in the world), who has a dark secret, while the Japanese set about murdering everyone who stands in their way in their bid to control Shanghai.

So when I get done killing people later, you want to hang out? I don't mind where we go, as long as it's not for sushi.

Several key icons remain from Fist of Fury. There is a flashback of the scene of Chen smashing the Sick Men Of Asia placard and killing the Japanese sensei, played here by Yasuaki Kurata, which is a lovely touch. When Chen returns to the Hongkou Dojo for the climactic showdown, he wears the white suit worn by Bruce Lee in the opening sequence of Fist Of Fury. It’s all very referential if more than a little generic. The principal villain this time is Takeshi Chikaraishi (Ryu Kohata), who is the son of the sensei killed by Chen in the backstory. You can’t get more generic than the plot device of “You killed my father, I want revenge”, which is indicative of the lack of progress in Legend of the Fist, a movie all too content to retread very familiar ground under the stewardship of director Andrew Lau.

Donnie Yen was his own action director on Legend Of The Fist. He’s done good work as both an action performer and choreographer in the past but the fight scenes here are surprisingly weak. The lurching camerawork is distracting, the frantic editing is obtrusive and obscures far too much of what is going on. By contrast, the camerawork and choreography in Fist of Fury served to reveal the techniques, not hide them. For a film that so clearly wants to state the case of the superiority of the Chinese and their martial arts over the Japanese, it is not possible to deduce from the fight scenes what kung fu style Chen Zhen is supposed to be skilled in. He’s certainly not performing Hung Kuen or Wing Chun, not Chow Lay Fut or even Northern Long Fist. The kicks are more akin to those found in Taekwondo than any Chinese system and most of the time Chen is just brawling. At one point he even throws a bolo punch, a slightly old-fashioned boxing technique that has nothing at all to do with Chinese kung fu.

The climactic scene when Chen takes on the Japanese in their own dojo relies on editing and camera tricks for its execution. Chen pulls out the nunchaku, another reference in the 1972 film, but Yen/Chen is clearly not the master of the weapon that Lee was. Lee didn’t need camera tricks and a busy editor to make him look good. I’m not sure that Donnie does either, but you’d never know it from watching this. What I always found so appealing about the Hong Kong films of the 80s was that you could always see what was happening. The final fight scenes in Donnie’s 80s and early 90s films, particularly Tiger Cage II and In The Line Of Duty IV, are showcases for his abilities and the superb choreography of the Yuen clan. Legend of the Fist could be any Hollywood action movie, like the Bourne series, where the fight is built in the editing room and you can never actually see what anyone is doing. The worst recent perpetrator of this is The Expendables, when all you see is a series of blurry, jerky shots during most of the fight scenes.

Chen Zhen wants you to know that he hates you and he hates your assface, Japan.

While I have criticised Legend of the Fist for being regressive in genre terms, it neglects a vital genre element in the fight choreography, which is the development of the martial artist. A common element in traditional kung fu movies is the invention or refinement of a new technique. The best single example of this is the final fight between Tan Lung (Bruce Lee) and Colt (Chuck Norris) in Way of the Dragon. In the early exchanges, the stronger Colt overpowers Tan Lung and knocks him down. Then Tan Lung adapts his style, becoming elusive, light on his feet and unpredictable. No longer trying to match Colt’s strength, Tan Lung beats him by evolving his own martial arts technique in the heat of battle. Fist of Legend apes this idea in the scene between Chen (Jet Li) and Funakochi (Yasuaki Kurata), as their sparring match becomes an exchange of ideas, a conversation between two bodies about the martial arts. It’s a brilliant scene and easily one of the best in Li’s career, in no small part due to the fact that the scene doesn’t rely on the wires to do the work.

Sadly, there is none of that here. In the climactic fight between Chen and Chikaraishi, Chen starts out being beaten all over the dojo. Then he thinks about China and his dead countrymen, gets really mad and kills Chikaraishi with his bare hands. There is no development of any new technique, no exchange of ideas and no conversation between bodies. It’s just two guys taking turns beating each other’s faces in and the Chinese guy wins because he’s fighting for China’s affronted honour. Frankly, that’s weak. It perpetuates the myth of the invincibility of Chinese martial arts, which has no grounding in reality, and teaches a new generation of movie-goers to hate the Japanese. It is high time Hong Kong and Chinese filmmakers moved on from this sort of xenophobic nonsense and found something else to talk about.