Chinese martial arts cinema owes a debt to the Chinese opera aesthetic where minimalist sets, character-type costuming, as well as simple plots and characters provide minimal distractions from the actor’s performance. Consequently, it is primarily the actors’ movements that bring meaning to any particular moment or scene on the Chinese opera stage. This performer-centric aesthetic can be seen in martial arts films in their use of long takes, wide shots, and well-lit set ups that clearly indicate the performer’s actual, undeniable skills, as well as in their narrative tendency to make plot and character secondary to a film’s action and choreography.
In the 1930s, some Chinese opera theater troupes responded to the competition from cinema by increasing the spectacle in their scenery. Replacing, for example, the traditionally simple and inconspicuous curtained backdrop with more elaborate three-dimensional scenery. A similar thing seems to be happening in Chinese martial arts cinema today. In response to a growing and fragmenting domestic film industry, martial arts films – in an apparent attempt to remain relevant – tend to emphasize greater visual spectacle through heavier use of green screens and CGI – their new, more elaborate scenery – while their plot and characters continue to be relegated to the backseat.
With the (very) brief overview above in mind, I’d like to suggest that plot and character are exactly where the Chinese martial arts film needs to evolve if it hopes to remain relevant to the modern Chinese and, increasingly, international cinemagoer. Instead, one of the most recent and exciting places to blend the martial arts formal aesthetic with a more Hollywood emphasis on plot, serialization, and consistent character motivation and development is Into the Badlands, a martial-arts-post-apocalyptic-drama that premiered on AMC in November, 2015. The paratextual clip included here, featured on the show’s official site, confirms a number of elements crucial to any Chinese marital arts production, including: the pedigree of the action choreographers, the involvement of actual Chinese martial artists and performers, and, of course, the rigorous physical training undertaken by the cast themselves. Seeing Chinese martial arts cinema on American television, I can’t help but wonder: what does this mean for the future of the formal aesthetic? And how will we continue to see it evolve across multiple media forms and national contexts? I, for one, am excited to see where it takes us.