Editor’s Introduction to the catalog of the landmark touring film series curated by Cheng-Sim Lim for the UCLA Film and Television Archive, 2003.
It’s pointless to dispute the fact that the Chinese martial arts movie has a chronic image problem in the West. Like every major film genre this one has its prestige productions and its Z pictures, its classics and its Golden Turkeys. But while great works such as King Hu’s A Touch Of Zen (Xia N?, 1971) have surfaced here occasionally, the form has largely come to be identified with the dregs of its output. The Hong Kong film industry itself was partly to blame, cranking out hundreds of one-week wonders and shipping them directly overseas, to opportunistic distributors, during the short-lived “kung fu craze” of the 1970s.
Martial arts movies have outlasted the disreputable “B” sub-genres they shared drive-in triple bills with in the ’70s, the spaghetti Western and the blaxpolitation picture, to become a familiar feature of American pop culture. Oldies radio stations still occasionally play Carl Douglas’ 1975 novelty hit “(Everybody Was) Kung Fu Fighting,” and listeners smile knowingly. But in the grind-house of the mind the films are a distinctly threadbare and frenetic spectacle, with their plastic wigs and poster paint blood, their posturing machismo, their vertiginous smash-zoom camerawork and sledgehammer sound effects-and above all with their epiglottal dubbed English dialog, so intimately associated with our Kung Fu Theater memories that even hard-core fans enjoy quoting great chunks of it.
There is a great deal more here, however, than meets (or has yet to meet) the western eye. The noble bearing and the altruistic values that American art house patrons admired in the heroes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and mistakenly assumed were unique to the revisionist approach of auteur director Ang Lee, are in fact the philosophical wellsprings of an exceedingly ancient and durable genre, the idealistic pursuits that have shaped it from its inception almost two thousand years ago.
The earliest works of published fiction about martial heroes date back to the 3rd century BC, and one of the oldest surviving Chinese feature films, made in 1926, is a silent swordplay saga. Like the Western in the US and the chanbara samurai tale in Japan, these stories embody the central hero myths of an entire culture. These self-help fables of free-lance warriors pursuing justice across an imaginary landscape of heroic fantasy have deep roots in oral legends that pre-date the nation’s earliest official historical records by several centuries. We have barely scratched the surface of this ancient genre in the States, and the surface we’ve scratched has been conveniently pre-tarnished.
A point that needs to be made at once is that what you’re getting here are two genres for the price of one. For most Americans, the history of the Chinese martial arts movie begins with Bruce Lee and ends with Crouching Tiger, and there’s some justice in that: Lee remains the most ferociously popular international icon of two-fisted (and two-footed) kung fu prowess, while Crouching Tiger offered many westerners their first close look at the righteous swordfighters of the older foundational genre known as wuxia (“woo-shia”), or “martial chivalry.” With the examples of Bruce Lee and Crouching Tiger’s Li Mubai in front of us, these two forms of martial adventure seem pretty easy to tell apart, almost at a glance. One flies and the other doesn’t; one swings a sword and the other throws a punch. But in practice, as Stephen Teo argues in his essay here, the boundary between the two forms is fairly porous, and these glib distinctions don’t stand up to close scrutiny.
The umbrella term wuxia simply attributes force or power, wu, to a person of righteous principles, the xia. So the moral splendor of the hero is one of wuxia’s key distinguishing features as a genre. Wuxia stories depict heroes who are prodigious martial artists, but the emphasis is on how the prowess used, and to what end. On the other hand the morally neutral Cantonese expression gongfu, which can be literally translated “skilled effort,” has by association come to m refer to any “skill acquired after long practice.” In this sub-genre the martial arts themselves, as such, become pivotal narrative elements. Suspense may be generated by the hero’s struggle to complete an arduous course of training, or the plot may hinge upon the development of an ingenious new technique. Or both, as in Lau Kar-lueng’s definitive period kung fu movie The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (Shaolin Sa Liu Fang, 1978). Kung fu stories are always, at least to some extent, about the martial arts. And the history of martial arts cinema can be seen, in part, as an on-going debate between these two approaches, between the airborne wuxia and the down-to-earth kung fu. The kung fu movie was invented, in fact, only in the 1950s, by filmmakers who were also martial artists, partly as a realist response to some of the wilder flights of wuxia fantasy.