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Kings of Kung Fu

 

Until the early 1970s, Kung Fu, the amalgam of ancient Chinese martial arts, and health and fitness regimens, was virtually unheard of outside of China and the Far East. Then suddenly, a handful of low budget, appallingly dubbed and garishly violent action movies, made in Hong Kong; a pretentious American TV show, and the mysterious premature death of a young Chinese actor, provoked a frenzy of public excitement throughout the United States and Europe. Soon the whole world – from hungry kids in remote African shanty-towns to the latest James Bond blockbuster – “Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting”.

Now even 2 cartoon pandas are doing it! Whether you’re practicing t’ai chi ch’uan to keep fit, live longer and grow old gracefully; discovering your karma through Buddhist wisdom, feeling safer after wing chun self-defence classes or becoming a fan of exotic cult films, your initial exposure to this passion probably owes something to that first kung fu fad.

The actor, of course, was Bruce Lee, who had initiated a few minor Hollywood celebrities into the ancient secrets of Shaolin temples (including David Carradine, star of TV’s Kung Fu series) before returning to Hong Kong to star in four-and-a-half movies. Today Lee retains his legendary and iconic status, as the first and ultimate King of Kung Fu. His contribution, not only to martial arts, but also to the esoteric philosophies and healthy lifestyles that underlie them, and their popularity in Western culture, is pivotal. And the finest exhibition of his extraordinary skills is in his movies.

In the wake of Lee, Hong Kong’s film industry remained transfixed in his shadow for several years. Eventually, new kung fu superstars evolved presenting vastly different performances. Jackie Chan was first with his comic-fu, followed by China’s teen-Fu prodigy, Jet Li. Others passed unnoticed, but with the onset of a new Millennium, the first Lotus-Queen of kung fu arose, Michelle Yeoh. Each of these groundbreaking kung fu superstars is here assessed, amidst the evolution of Hong Kong’s Action Cinema.

The popularity of Lee’s films, both in Western and Eastern societies, served to define the kung fu cine genre. Back in 1983, I was learning wing chun in Victor Kan’s London based school. Lee and Kan were two of about only half-a-dozen people to be personally tutored into the wing chun style in Hong Kong by Yip Man, one of the most accomplished exponents of martial arts. Kan once told me that Lee incorporated kicking techniques from Thai boxing into his evolving wing chun style, to improve the cinematic visual extravaganza of his films with even more demanding physical feats (eventually developing his Jeet Kune Do form). To this day I’m unable to verify Kan’s claim but it seems likely, considering pure wing chun is, like traditional boxing, a technique centred on maintaining perfect and flexible physical balance by keeping both feet firmly on the ground. Whatever the source of Lee’s innovation, cinema audiences certainly got a kick out of it!

 

Cut to Scene 2: Film History – Action!

Within the history of cinema, kung fu movies are a sub-genre of Exploitation Films. From Edison’s patent of the movie camera in the early twentieth-century, the Hollywood studio system grew to dominate the film industry, first in the US and later box offices throughout the world. They achieved this by mass producing movies as products, each made to strictly defined successful formulas, according to popular marketing categories (or genres) targeted at mass/mainstream consumer groups. Further, the Hollywood Studios took-over cinema chains and controlled film distribution networks, effectively establishing a lucrative monopoly. Their domination was further strengthened by the establishment of a code of rules for censorship (the Hayes Commission in the US) according to a system of classification or certification (without which films were excluded from screening).

But from the 1950s, a few independent film producers and small production companies began to challenge Hollywood. Lacking the cash, production and distribution infrastructure of the big studios, independent producers had to make low budget movies and find new/alternative markets to exploit.

In particular at this time was the newly emerging youth market (now with disposable cash) and by tackling sensational and controversial issues, outside of mainstream family viewing. This meant a more realistic approach to sex and violence, or salacious issues of the day like the headline induced mass panic over urban street gang violence (e.g. The Wild One, 1953). In turn, this challenged the boundaries of film censorship. The Exploitation Cinema production process was copied in other countries, most readily by exploiting local social issues from country to country. Sometimes these movies hit a huge audience/fan base, and so becoming Cult films.

 

World Cinema

Localities of World Cinema are crucial regarding kung fu movies, because they could not have been made in mainland China at the time. Mao’s Cultural Revolution spurned nostalgia for ancient traditions, Buddhist superstitions and individual heroes as reactionary and counter-revolutionary. But Hong Kong was a different story.

Hong Kong Harbor

With a population of seven million people, Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. The harbour's deep, sheltered waters and strategic location on the South China Sea were instrumental in Hong Kong's establishment as a British colony and its subsequent development as a trading centre.

 

From 1841 to 1997, Hong Kong was a British Crown Colony and Dependent Territory; a penance Imperial China had to pay for fighting and loosing the Opium Wars. As a strategic port of the British Empire, Hong Kong developed apart from China, becoming a melting-pot for sacred Chinese traditions and Anglo-American commerce.

With the onset of Mao’s Communist Revolution in China, tens-of-thousands of Chinese fled to Hong Kong causing a population explosion, overcrowding, poverty, and rampant crime and corruption. Hong Kong’s isolation from the mainland became complete. A violent and schizophrenic culture emerged, where Western liberal values jostled with ‘rose-tinted’ nostalgia for China’s mythical past. Yin and Yang were in very ill-harmony! These are the currents that pervade Hong Kong’s home-grown film industry.

In this regard, it’s also crucial to remember that the way you watch and perceive these ‘exotic’, ‘oriental’ movies as an American or European, is inescapably different from how the same popular films are viewed in their homeland. Our concerns here must be from that outsider perspective.

 

Outside Looking-In

Preaching to the converted, the geeks and aficionados of Kung Fu Cinema is one thing. But for the novice, perhaps coming from more tranquil, meditative Chinese pursuits; Om-chanting, humming-along to Phases of the Moon, Mah Jong snack-nights, that sort of thing… Those of you too sensible to share in the crass, childish delight us depraved geeks indulge, in wading through endless hours of excessive cartoon-like violence, howling, gore, splatter and red-letting (fake blood)… You may wonder whether there’s anything of cultural worth in kung fu movies. Indeed, a frequently asked question is whether we’re really watching any genuine Shaolin martial arts, amidst the spectacle of cheap special effects, ludicrous stunts, over-long takes or hyper-fast editing, impossible leaps and bounds..?

The answer, quite simply, is YES. Renowned Hong Kong film producers, the Shaw Brothers, established in the 1960s and made Chinese Boxer, the first proper arm-to-arm combat kung fu movie. Always on the look-out for genuine martial artists, producer Raymond Chow immediately recognised Bruce Lee’s astonishing Kung Fu skills, sacking his intended star and thrusting Lee into his first star role. Lee was later encouraged to choreograph his own fight scenes and even direct his films (distributed by Golden Harvest). The studios talent-hunted skilled Kung Fu champions, trained in various forms. But the way of the skilled voyeur demands careful watching.

Another ancient Chinese tradition is almost as integral to the genre, as martial skills. This is the incredible dexterity, skill and discipline of Chinese acrobats, and its spectacular development in the Peking/Beijing Opera. Jacki Chan is a master of these arts.

Other apparently contrived physical feats and stunts serve as metaphors for sacred Buddhist karmic states of consciousness (such as representations of ludicrous indestructibility or resistance to physical pain)…

But let’s not get carried away yet. First we must contemplate the basics of Kung Fu Cinema.

 

Don’t Watch Too Hard

At a casual glance (Chinese visual arts have always favoured the perception of the glance, rather than the gaze, demanded by Western visual arts) Hong Kong kung fu movies might amusingly be defined as a concoction of cheap cinematic tricks, to minimise the production budget: Movie running times frequently falling short of the 90 minute minimum length expected of Western films. Sloppy translations from Cantonese to English, and whimsically ill-synced dubbing, using Peking Duck-like voice intonations. Overzealous editing (on later HK films), frantic zooms in and out, excessive gore sound-effects (like the sound of the single bone-crunching). Childishly naive and endlessly repeated diegetic* plots. Pantomime acting techniques, and schoolboy humour. Cheesy romance and mawkishness; lack of consistent point-of-view shots, and so on…

But then, didn’t we mention the Eastern preference for the aesthetic of the glance over the gaze? Surely these perceptive judgements require the gaze, associated with Western critical prejudices? Tao Master says “Can you learn to see differently?”

 

Enter Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee was born in San Francisco in 1940. His Chinese father was a professional performer with the Cantonese Opera, then on tour in the US. Bruce’s mother was German. Shortly thereafter the family returned to Hong Kong. Bruce had joint Hong Kong/US citizenship.

The Lee family was fairly well connected and well-off. But Hong Kong was undergoing difficult times, Japanese occupation followed by overcrowding caused by the 1949 Chinese Revolution. Bruce’s education suffered and he was moved to a rough school, aged 12. Here he was tutored in competitive boxing and developed a liking for schoolyard brawls. But he didn’t always win and suffered a couple of beatings from school gang bullies. So his parents decided to send him to learn kung fu. His father happened to know Yip Man, the Master of wing chun style, who ran a local training centre. From age 13, Bruce dedicated himself to learning the art.

* Features and time plot of a fictional film.

Bruce Lee

“If you always put limit on everything you do, physical or anything else. It will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. The key to immortality is first living a life worth remembering” Bruce Lee

 

Yip Man also encouraged the virtues of Taoist philosophy and an ascetic lifestyle to accompany the skills. He organised fighting competitions between pupils. Lee practiced sticking hands (chi sao), free sparring and fighting wooden dummies. He received additional tuition from Wong Shun Leun, and learned Wu style tai chi chuan from his father.

In 1958, Bruce used his wing chun skills in Hong Kong’s inter-school Boxing Championships to beat British boxer Gary Elms. But he continued to get involved in street gang rumbles, joining “Tigers of Junction Street” in 1959. During one tenement rooftop brawl, he broke the arm of an opponent, causing the cops to get involved. His parents decided to send him away to stay with relatives in the US.

Bruce eventually settled in Seattle, working as a waiter while finishing high-school. He also began tutoring Americans in Jun Fan Gung Fu (Bruce Lee’s Kung Fu). Lee enrolled at the University of Washington in 1961, majoring in drama but also studying philosophy and psychology. Here he met Linda Emery, marrying her in 1964 and having two children.

Returning to Seattle, Lee augmented his first training school with Judo practitioner Jesse Glover, after tutoring him in wing chun. Lee was evolving his own style of wing chun, adapting it to suit his experiences. Later he established a second school, in Oakland.

Ed Parker was a leading organiser on America’s martial arts circuit. When news reached him about the incredible capabilities of Bruce Lee, Parker was fascinated and invited Lee to perform a demonstration at the 1964 Long Beach International Karate Championship. He was not disappointed. Lee performed his two finger push-ups, using only his thumb and forefinger. Also his remarkable “one inch punch”, for which he stood with his arm outstretched, so his fist was just an inch short of the chest of his facing, stationary opponent. Suddenly he would force his punch that last extra inch, projecting enough force into his opponent’s chest to send him toppling backwards and falling into a chair. Further, the unfortunate victim of this demonstration claimed he had serious chest pains for weeks afterwards. That same year, Lee also met Jhoon Ghoo Rhee, a taekwondo master who taught Bruce the sidekick.

In 1965, Lee is challenged to a fight by Wong Jack Man, a leading Chinese martial arts exponent, who is angered that Lee is teaching ancient secret techniques, to non-Chinese pupils. Reports of the length of the fight differ, but Bruce eventually triumphs against this formidable adversary. However, Lee is not satisfied with his performance, believing his vast array of learned combat skills is now holding him back.

He now decides he must concentrate on adapting these techniques, to innovate his own, new style, by drawing on his fighting experiences and situations; particularly from street fighting. To this end, he begins a regime of weight training, stretching and running, to increase his strength, flexibility and endurance. Bruce will call his new style, Jeet Kune Do.

Meanwhile Lee is slowly developing his acting career, with a handful of bit-parts and appearances on minor TV shows. In 1967, he returns to Long Beach International Karate Championship. This time he shows his “unstoppable punch” against the USKA Karate Champion, Vic Moore. The champ fails to block any of Lee’s eight super fast punches. Bruce also lands his most important acting job to date. For one TV series of the Green Hornet, Lee is hired to play Kato, the masked assistant to the super-hero, a part enabling him to perform kung fu skills, on screen. But in the US, Bruce fails to attract much attention.

Frustrated by his slow progress as an actor, Lee develops a script treatment for a new TV series. It’s an Eastern-Western, the saga of a lone Chinese kung fu initiate, wandering around America’s Wild West. He shows it to Warner Brothers, who reject it. Shortly thereafter Warners announce their new TV series for 1971, Kung Fu starring David Carradine. Warners don’t credit Lee and claim it’s not based on his idea, but is a similar plot that was already being developed by their in-house script writers.

Bruce decides to give-up his hopes of an acting career in the US and return to Hong Kong. This he does, and is pleasantly surprised to find everyone recognises him, as Kato, the kung fu sidekick from the Green Hornet series, recently broadcast in Hong Kong. He is in demand by local film studios…

 

Bruce Lee’s Real Game of Death

Bruce Lee is the undisputed King of Kung Fu. But his sudden and unexpected death – aged just 32 – shocked the world, and is shrouded in mystery, intrigue and conspiracy theories…

Predominate among these is the belief that he was murdered by sinister Triad (Chinese Mafia) gangs; executed for revealing ancient secrets of Shaolin martial arts to the uninitiated.

On 20 July 1973, in Hong Kong, Lee was with his producer Raymond Chow, working on the script of Game of Death. They were in Betty Ting Pei’s apartment (Taiwanese actress) prior to a dinner appointment with former James Bond star, George Lazenby. Chow left early for the meeting.

Shortly thereafter, Bruce complained of a headache, so Ting gave him Equagesic, an analgesic aspirin containing the muscle relaxant Meprobamate. Bruce went to lie down about 7:30.

Alarmed when Lee didn’t show for dinner, Chow returned to the apartment. Unable to rouse Bruce, Chow called a doctor. The doctor called an ambulance to rush Bruce to hospital, but the star was dead on arrival.

The Coroner’s Report ruled “death by misadventure”, caused by a cerebral edema (excess of cellular liquid in the brain) from allergic reaction to Equagesic. But controversy ensued after Bruce’s GP, Don Langford, claimed Lee had suffered a similar attack on 5 July 73. Apparently he suffered cerebral swelling, which was dealt with in hospital using Mannitol. But Equagesic was not (then) involved.

Other unsubstantiated claims surrounding his death involve a death curse, ingestion of cannabis, or delayed reaction to a deadly blow sustained weeks prior from Dim Mak.

None of this, of course, did anything to detract from creating the young rebel’s legendary status, among the likes of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Jim Morrison!

Bruce’s son, Brandon Lee (1965-1993) was tutored in martial arts by friends of his father. He also began a movie acting career and died young in a shooting accident, while working on the Gothic comic-strip horror movie, the Crow.

Bruce Lee Film Poster

The King of Kung Fu, Bruce Lee, kicked his way into his first star role, as an avenging street gang rebel and fighter, taking on the Big Boss, for Goldcrest productions, Hong Kong.

 

The Three-Way Punch

The superstars of Kung Fu Cinema arise out of an evolving genre, so the particular skills and forms developed by each superstar, change to represent the evolving expectations of growing audiences. Kung Fu Cinema might be very loosely divided into three periods.

The first period dates from the early 1970s. This is the period dominated by the films and influence of Bruce Lee, the golden period for martial kung fu purists. Movies are dominated by long-takes and long-shots, the emphasis on realistically choreographed fight sequences. Combat is mainly hand-to-hand, weapons only rarely appearing (such as rice-beaters: two heavy, rounded wooden clubs joined by a short chain). There are lots of comic-strip ‘yee-e-ows’ and ‘hay-a-as’, with gallons of unrealistic but gorgeously splat-y stage blood (creating a special effect sometimes faintly reminiscent of a Jackson Pollock canvas!). 

The Big Boss, Lee’s debut star role, kicked its way onto Hong Kong screens in 1971, breaking box-office records. It’s followed by Fist of Fury and Way of the Dragon, both in 1972. But in the US and Europe, Fist of Fury was distributed first, creating a popular misconception among fans that this is Lee’s movie première.  72 was a busy year, because Lee also began shooting Game of Death which he directed and choreographed, as well as starring in. He filmed about 100 minutes. But Game was only completed after Lee’s sudden death, employing two Lee-Fu lookalikes stand-ins.

Lee fans constantly argue over which his finest film is. Fist of Fury is favoured by many as the original kung fu movie. Game of Death for Lee’s (unfinished) direction. Way of the Dragon, particularly for its climactic gladiatorial duel, set in Rome’s Coliseum; pitting Lee’s kung fu against a karate champion, played by Chuck Norris. The sequence is also choreographed by Lee, and apparently inspired by one of Lee’s real-life fights. Personally I prefer the Big Boss, for its spectacular mix of street gang battles and dulling duos displaying some excellent wing chun techniques, amidst a plot of comic-strip class war politics.

Oh yeah… Sorry, almost forgot everyone’s favourite, undisputed kung fu masterpiece, Enter the Dragon (1973). Production on Game of Death was suddenly halted, when the call came from Hollywood’s Warner Brothers studios, offering big-bucks for Lee to star, after the unexpected massive box-office profits from Fist of Fury in the US. Kung Fu mania is alive and kicking! Enter the Dragon is clearly a much more American looking movie – a big-budget, glossy action-packed Kung Fu epic; perhaps most resembling a James Bond movie. Despite this, it’s packed with some of the best and most archetypal KF-combat sequences. John Saxon (an American taught kung fu by Lee) co-stars. Three long sequences standout – Lee’s covert infiltration of the enemy base; for his mesmerizing, bare-chested rice-beating sticks display; a long sequence of bone-crunching duels in a set-piece Kung Fu competition, and Lee’s inevitable final encounter with the one-handed – and one razor-sharp claw – cunning arch-bad guy.

Much of the production budgets for Hong Kong movies came from Taiwan, which also produced a few home-grown kung fu films. One in particular shines out from this early period, A Touch of Zen, made in 1971. This lengthy mini epic attracted critical acclaim as an art movie, for its rambling naturalistic realism and pretentious Buddhist allusions. It even won a prize at Cannes. Contrasting with the comic-strip style and plot conventions of the time, it remains a unique, alluring and contemplative film.

One plot line dominates the plethora of 1970s kung fu movies, with occasional quirky variations. An establishing harmony or normality is disrupted by a ruthless force of evil. Inevitably this involves the brutal killing of some holier-than-thou character. A battle between good and evil ensues, usually involving the return of an unruly, heroic loner (or knight-errant) who enters the chaotic struggle, determined to avenge the death of his mentor or loved one. After lots of action and a healthy body-count, he faces-off and dispenses with the evil threat, restoring peace and harmony.

This traditional plot-line, replete with Buddhist allusions and symbolism, is usually set in one of two one of two locations and time periods. Either: current-day (when filmed) urban-jungle landscapes, involving feuding youth street gangs, mobsters/triads, greed, crime and corruption. Or: some ill-defined and ‘rose-tinted’ ancient, historical or mythical epoch, involving Shaolin kung fu schools, Buddhist Temples, remote poverty-stricken village folk, bandits and outlaws, and greedy Imperial warlords with soldiers.

 

Jackie Chan – the Laughing Buddha

Chan’s movie career spans almost 40 years, covering all three periods of Hong Kong kung fu/ action cinema. He’s a stuntman, actor, director and producer. His best known persona is as a cheeky chappie, performing bungling, but dangerous acrobatic stunts, with ordinary objects in the comic tradition of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, of whom he is a dedicated fan. His wife is Feng-Jaiao Lin and they have a child.

Jackie Chan

On 20 January 2011, Jackie Chan was invited by President Barack Obama, to a State Dinner at the White House in Washington D.C., in honour of China’s president Hu Jintao’s US visit. President Obama claimed to be a fan of Jackie’s films, as did other notable guests including ex-presidents Clinton and Carter.

 

Jackie was born in Hong Kong on April 7th 1954. He’s 5’8” (1.74m) tall. The family relocated to Australia, but he was a naughty boy so his parents sent him back to the China Drama Academy when he was just six years old. There he was rigorously drilled in martial arts, music, and dance under Master Yu Jim-yuen.

His struggle to stardom was long and hard fought, beginning as a stuntman on Lee movies Fist of Fury and Enter the Dragon. He was injured performing a stunt on Enter the Dragon, just the first of many injuries he sustained over the years, while insisting on performing his own daring stunts.

He has worked on dozens of films, initially expected to perform in the vein of Bruce Lee. But Jackie claims he was unhappy with this type-casting and he decided to develop a new and alternative Hong Kong action mode. These expressions of absurd physical posturing, mixing acrobatics, dance, wushu/kung fu, seamlessly moulded together with the pathos of the laughing Buddha.

Key films involve his directorial debut, the Young Master in 1980, Police Story (1985) a huge success with Eastern audiences, winner of “Best Film” award at the 1986 Hong Kong Film Awards, spurning numerous sequels. In 1987, the Armour of God, during the making of which he fractured his skull while performing a stunt. It took Jackie much longer to win popular appeal in the US, but he persisted and after several failed attempts he succeeded with Rumble in the Bronx (1995) and again with Rush Hour (1998).

Chan movie trivia: On Dragon Lord, Jackie shot the highest number of retakes ever for a single scene, 2900 retakes of the Jianzi* game sequence. He holds the record for “Most stunts by any living actor” according to Guinness World Records. On his many stunts he has broken most of his fingers, his cheekbones, nose three times, and an ankle. On Kung Fu Panda (2008) Jackie provides the voice of the Master Monkey character. In 1989, he was awarded an M.B.E. (Member of the Order of the British Empire). Jackie provides his English voice-overs, on Asian productions for English speaking markets. 

*Jianzi is a traditional Chinese game, similar to volleyball, but where players attempt to keep a weighted shuttlecock in the air, without using their hands or rackets, but using feet and other body parts.

 

The Second-Wave Kick

By the late 1970s/early 1980s, audience boredom with the conventions of the first-wave is contrasted with the growing market potential of attracting wider audiences. The second wave of Kung Fu Cinema emerges. This is marked by less emphasis on the naturalistic realism of martial Kung Fu. In the US, flashy disco-dance mania (Michael Jackson and all) has captured the youth market while wider Eastern audiences, are developing a taste for tightly choreographed slapstick-comic, acrobatic stunts. These are the trademarks which define Jackie Chan as the new kung fu superstar, in movies like Drunken Boxer (aka. Drunken Master, 1978) and Police Story.

The now more affluent Hong Kong studios invest in lavish and glossy productions, competing for more mainstream, Hollywood action movie audiences. High-tech, state-of-cine-art special effects are increasingly introduced. The editing gets much faster and ‘slicker’, and violence is more hyper-real. While there’s little change to the archetypal good versus evil plots, more varying sub-plots and other features are incorporated. In particular, mawkish, boy meets girl romantic sub-plots.

Emphasis on hand-to-hand combat is increasingly replaced by a wide range of weapons, starting with swords, spears and a gruesome range of traditional Chinese military hardware. Eventually guns are introduced into current-day plots. Some fighting ladies steal the spotlight (like Yakari Oshima). Film running times increase along with proliferating sequels and remakes.

A prime example is in the films of the Vietnamese born, US trained and Hong Kong based director, Tsui Hark. His lengthy saga Once Upon a Time in China (obviously influenced by Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America) is followed by Parts II and III, completing a highly acclaimed, cult trilogy. These films also capture performances of another Kung Fu superstar, Jet Li who plays Wong Fei-Hung.

At the cult/exploitation end of the spectrum, kung fu genre conventions expand, to incorporate black-clad Japanese Ninja assassins into plots. Eventually some Japanese productions become associated with the kung fu/action genre, including a series of maliciously violent Samurai warrior films (no relation to Akira Kurosawa’s acclaimed Samurai art movies). The Baby-Cart Gore-drenched/violent Samurai series – a superb example being Shogun Assassin (1980, for US market) edited together from gory outtakes from earlier episodes. Also fighting women take centre-stage, alongside America’s Karate Kid series (featuring brief appearance by Michelle Yeoh).

Overcoming a preference for cheap 1970s kung fu movies, there’s one film from this period, which is a cinematic masterpiece – despite its Hollywood blockbuster style special effects. Zu Warriors from Magic Mountain (1983) directed by Tsui Hark, is a furiously fast-moving journey through dislocated time and space zones. It incorporates symbolism and motifs, from Chinese mythology, legends and history. Taoist and Buddhist themes abound, master/student relationships, chin na healing practices, mystical superstition, fantastic combat sequences, and extreme supernatural/horror effects.

 

Jet Li: Once Upon a Time…

Jet Li is the stage name of Li Lianjie, born in Beijing in 1963. He is a Chinese martial artist, actor, producer and wushu champion. Jet began learning wushu/Chinese kung fu arts at eight years old. After three years dedicated training, coached by Wu Bin and Li Junfeng, Jet won the national championship for the Beijing Wushu Team. He demonstrated his competitive skills at the All China Games, going on to win a fistful of gold medals in the Chinese Wushu Championships. Li was just twelve years old.

Jet Li

Jet Li was offered and turned down a leading role in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, because his wife was pregnant at the time. He promised her he would not work while she was pregnant.

 

Jet’s youthful success continued, he was a teenager when he landed his screen debut in Lin tzu (Shaolin Temple). Further the film augmented a kung fu mania in mainland China, in the early 1980s. In 1994, Jet starred in Fist of Legend, a remake of Fist of Fury. The following year he starred with Jacky Cheung in High Risk. These two Hong Kong box-office blockbusters were instrumental in reviving kung fu movie mania in Hong Kong. Now Jet wanted to conquer US action cinema!

His American debut came in Lethal Weapon 4 (1998). But his popularity grew after starring in Romeo Must Die (2000). Jet’s bill boarding in the American movie, Hero (2002) helped make it the biggest grossing film ever in China. Fearless (2006, US) was another smash-hit! While the Warlords (2007, Hong Kong), grossed $13,000,000. In 2008 he starred with Jackie Chan in the Forbidden Kingdom.

Jet was a childhood Maoist who grew-up to become a Tibetan Buddhist. His second wife is Nina Li Chi. Jet developed his own fitness programme, “Wuji”, a combination of martial arts, yoga and Pilates.

 

Kung Fu Encounters of the Third Kind

The third and final wave (to date) in Kung Fu Cinema, evolves from the early/mid 1990s. Now the whole kung fu genre becomes completely alien, unrecognisable to its 1970s roots. Hand-to-hand martial skills are virtually absent. Guns and balletic shootouts take centre stage, backed up by state-of-the-art, explosive artillery hardware: grenades, rocket launchers, infra-red sniper rifles…big budget pyrotechnics. Depth is given to multi-dimensional character development, exploring the indefinable boundaries between good and evil. Losing its original identity, the kung fu genre evolves into Hong Kong Action Cinema.

The maverick movie director of this period is John Woo. In slick action-packed roller-coaster ride films, like Hard Boiled (1992) classic Hollywood themes – male bonding and camaraderie, and good/bad, cop/gangster thematic dichotomies or oppositions – are examined. There’s a jittery, schizophrenic urgency to Woo’s movies, perhaps contemplating the relationship between Hong Kong and mainland China, their unification fast approaching. Or even cultural differences between East and West.

There are also a handful of lavish and immaculate homages to the origins of Kung Fu Cinema, like the spectacular box-office hit, Kung Fu Hustle (2004) starring, produced and directed by Stephen Chow. Also one of the most internationally successful and critically acclaimed kung fu films ever, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) starring Michelle Yeoh, a Taiwanese-Chinese-Hong Kong-American co-production, became the highest grossing foreign language film ever in the US.

 

Michelle Yeoh (Choo-Kheng) – the Lotus Queen

She’s a cult actress, the Lotus-Queen of kung fu cinema, skilled ballet dancer, and performs all her own stunts and fight sequences, starring in some of the best kung fu movies of recent years. Yeoh was selected as one of the 50 Most Beautiful Women in the World, by People magazine in 1997. Nominated for BAFTA “Best Actress” award…

Michelle Yeoh

Michelle Yeoh, the Queen of Kung Fu, took a break from Action Cinema to star as The Lady (2011) a French/UK co-production about the life of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese political activist and civil rights campaigner.

 

Yet incredibly, Michelle never had any kung fu or martial arts training! She relies upon on-set tutoring and her former achievement as a ballet dancer.

Born in Malaysia in 1962 to Chinese parents, she received ballet tuition from age 4. When she was 15 she was sent to an English boarding school. From here she won a place at London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Dance, majoring in ballet. Tragically she suffered a spinal injury which destroyed her ballet career.

Aged 21, Michelle won the Miss Malaysia beauty pageant in 1983, going on to represent Malaysia at London’s Miss World contest. When she appeared in a TV commercial with Jackie Chan, it caught the attention of Hong Kong’s D&B film production company.

In 1988, Yeoh married Dickson Poon. Four years later they were divorced. She was selected to model for L’Oreal, and her first film role in Police Story 3: Super Cop. Her ballet training clearly paid off when it came to kung fu, because she excelled at developing martial arts skills on-set: Yes Madam (1985), the Heroic Trio and Tai Chi Master (both 1993) and Wing Chun (1994).

The Heroic Trio
The Heroic Trio – a truly comic-like escapade that brings together the three most popular international queens of Hong Kong cinema

She was thrust into international superstar status, being chosen to play the James Bond girl in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) opposite Pierce Brosnan. Her later movies are: Memories of a Geisha (2005), Sunshine (2007), the Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008, with Jet Li), Reign of Assassins (2010). In 2011, Michelle did the voice-over for Soothsayer character in Kung Fu Panda 2. She sometimes appears under the name Michelle Khan.

Now her star kung fu performance…

 

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is a wuxia movie, a sub-genre of kung fu. Other wuxia films mentioned include Zu Warriors from Magic Mountain and A Touch of Zen.

Wu means military or armed, xia is heroic. Wuxia refers to a formerly extremely popular and prolific series of Chinese novels by numerous authors, and published mainly in the 1920/30s. But the novels are inspired by much older youxia stories, myths and legends, dating back to 300-200 BC. Also Chinese travelogues by Xu Xiake (1587-1641); and epic romanticised histories like Water Margin by Shi Nai’an (from mid-16th century, based on 14th century history). Stories replete with symbolism, metaphors, ancient wisdom and profound insights. They commonly involve wandering heroes and contemplate problematic issues like Master/Pupil relationships, gender roles, chaos verses order… Jianghu is the Cantonese word for a sub-community or environment (often fictitious outlaw or outsider groups) who frequently employ martial arts for protection in a lawless world. Chin na, is a technique used to kill or cure by touching acupressure points (see Zu Warriors from Magic Mountain).

The allegorical plot of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon follows the evolving character development of 3 women. Denied entry into the ‘male’ monastery, Jade Fox poisons (symbolic of her bitterness and cowardice) the top-monk, gaining access to, and stealing, knowledge (a guide-book to Wubon [fictional name of a secret martial arts technique, within the plot]combat skills).

As a woman warrior, Yu Shu-lien (Michelle Yeoh) lives in accordance with patriarchal codes of honour. Jen Young awaits her approaching wedding with trepidation, torn between love for her family and fiancé and her craving to be totally free (counter to marriage obligations). Eventually she opts for suicide!

The establishing action sequence, concerns a stolen sword, the female thief (Jen Young) being pursued by two male warriors (for whom the sword is a phallic/power symbol). Jiao Long and Luo Xuola must show restraint to uphold Order, they need to conceal their passionate desires, under the surface. Hence they represent the Tiger and Dragon of the title, derived from Chinese proverbs.

The first half of the film-plot is concerned with maintaining order in the face of chaos; second part centres on social obligations and expectations (including a flashback sequence). Juxtaposition of freedom and power is also pivotal.

Script based on a 1930s novel (trilogy-CUT) by Wang Du Lu; Directed by Ang Lee.

 

About the author

Chris Barber is an author and journalist, with over twenty year’s professional experience. Originally from Cowes on the Isle of Wight, after leaving school he relocated to London, but has also lived in Barcelona, and Paris. He graduated from University of London, majoring in Philosophy with Film Studies. 

Chris Barber

 

During his childhood and early teens (mid 1960/70s) his mother was a secretary for the Royal Navy, HMS Temerare dockyard, in Portsmouth. Being a mummy’s boy, Chris frequently accompanied her to work during school recess. Here she found a ready-made crèche, leaving him in the company of serving sailors, who introduced him to boxing. His father ran a jewellery shop on the Isle of Wight.

Prior to Chris’s birth, his grandfather served as a Royal Naval officer, stationed in Shri Lanka (then Ceylon) and India, involved in overseeing the transition to independence from Britain. Because his wife and daughter (later Chris’s mother) lived several years there, Chris’s extended family childhood was immersed in Asiatic tales and philosophies, kindling a lifelong fascination.

World travel and culture is a central focus of Chris’s life and writing. In particular, he regularly makes long excursions to Thailand, India, Cambodia, Nepal and Vietnam. He has also travelled widely throughout the United States, Morocco, Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Greece, Egypt, and more. His adventures have been published in numerous magazine features and travelogues, including QX International and Time Out.

In his book on kung fu cinema, Kings of Kung Fu (Mowbray Publishing) Barber recalls:

 “Back in 1983, I was learning wing chun in Victor Kan’s London based school. (Bruce) Lee and Kan were two of about only half-a-dozen people to be personally tutored into the wing chun style in Hong Kong by Yip Man, one of the most accomplished exponents of martial arts. Kan once told me that Lee incorporated kicking techniques from Thai boxing into his evolving wing chun style, to improve the cinematic visual extravaganza of his films with even more demanding physical feats (eventually developing his Jeet Kune Do form). …it seems likely, considering pure wing chun is, like traditional boxing, a technique centred on maintaining perfect and flexible physical balance by keeping both feet firmly on the ground. Whatever the source of Lee’s innovation, cinema audiences certainly got a kick out of it!”

Later, Chris also trained in Thai kickboxing, at the prestigious Muaythai Sasiprapa School, Bangkok. Additionally he practiced Buddhist Vipassana meditation technique at Wat Pho in Thailand.

As a Film/Cinema, writer and reviewer, he has written prolifically, particularly on cult/world, and art-movies. His published books include: No Focus – Punk on Film (Headpress; London, 2007), Eyeball Compendium, Films of Dario Argento (both Fab Press). Also many film journal reviews and features… He also made a short experimental film, Posi, screened at international film festivals.

Barber is also known for true crime books: Death Cults, Bad Cop-Bad Cop (both ed: Jack Sargeant, Virgin Publishing) Guns, Death, Terror (Creative Books). Also a guide to genealogy: Who do You Think You Really Are? (ebook, Mowbray Publishing).

You can contact Chris Barber @ www.chrisbarber.eu