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.
The Spectacle and the Story
I think that no matter the medium, there will always be a visual coding for a formal, middling, and perhaps low culture aesthetic. And I know that I, for one, would really like to see plot and character evolve in Chinese films, because I feel that this will affect the packaging of the epic as it is prepared out of Hollywood in the anticipation of catching world markets. (The dialogue and narrative elements of many blockbusters are already affected by this market need.)
"Performance," without doubt, but of what?
Hello, Munib. This was an interesting consideration of the Chinese martial arts aesthetic. I actually think my editing-based aesthetic consideration of martial arts cinema following your performance-based aesthetic consideration will make for a provocative juxtaposition this week. As to the content of your post here: While I am sympathetic to your plea for the continuing development of character and narrative complexity in martial arts storytelling, I couldn't help but think about your discussion of performance in relation to the issue of realism. My paraphrasing of André Bazin for the subject of this comment obviously indicates where I'm coming from on this issue, but even more specifically than Bazin, your authentication of the martial arts action in "Into the Badlands" on the basis of what you refer to as performers' "actual, undeniable skills" made me think of Leon Hunt's breakdown of what he takes to be the three “modes of authenticity” in martial arts cinema: The archival, by which he means real, existing martial arts styles and techniques; the corporeal, by which he means real bodies really engaging in real styles and techniques; and the cinematic, the most nebulous of the three by which he means an aesthetic faithful to real bodies really engaging in real styles and techniques. In the discourse on action aesthetics in relation to martial arts cinema, the long shot/long take aesthetic as a guarantee of the real has been elevated to a veritable axiom. And yet, as Man Fung Yip argues in relation to the 1950s Wong Fei-hung films, it is precisely because there is no place to hide, so to speak, that those films - steeped in the Peking Opera tradition though they were, containing real bodies and real techniques as they did, and filmed using the long shot/long take aesthetic as they were - are so conspicuously inauthentic. I think you're right to emphasize actual martial arts skills on the part of performers in martial arts films, TV shows, stage performances, etc., and I also think there is something to the notion of the long shot/long take aesthetic, but I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the symbiosis between performance and aesthetics. Do you find the long shot/long take aesthetic to be axiomatic or do you feel there are exceptions where different aesthetic strategies are more conducive to realistic martial arts on the one hand and exciting spectacle on the other?
Haven't seen the new series but...
Enjoyed your post. I am not familiar with this series but I am looking forward to checking it out. Of course, martial arts on American TV is not a new thing. Green Hornet and Kung Fu appeared in the 60s and 70s, during the height of the kung fu craze, followed by several popular tv series (e.g. Xena Warrior Princess, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. etc.) that appropriated various forms of martial arts. But I think you are right to suggest that Into the Badlands may set a new trend as we are bound to see more and more Chinese martial arts media appearing in western cinemas, tv screens, and streaming services. This will occur for two reasons: firstly because of the Chinese film industry's desperate desire to increase the market for its products. And secondly, because of the Chinese government's role in the industry and its push to spread Chinese culture through soft power. Anyways, thanks for your post.
Yeah. That definitely makes sense. There are definite directing and choreography styles that are unique to China and Hong Kong that haven't appeared on US tv previously. That would certainly mean that something new is afoot on American television.
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