INTO THE BADLANDS: The Future of Chinese Martial Arts Cinema on American TV?

Curator's Note

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.



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.)

Thanks for the comment, Kate! If I understand you correctly, I completely agree. I feel like there are articles coming out every other week about China's - and Hollywood's - attempts to achieve a more successful crossover hit. And not just with martial arts movies, like the CROUCHING TIGER sequel set to be released on Netflix in the coming weeks. Here's one of the more recent articles discussing Chinese studios hiring American writers: I think another trend we're seeing now is a greater increase of multicultural talent. Filmmakers who themselves straddle both Chinese and American contexts in their biography. That's exactly what we're seeing with INTO THE BADLANDS in both its lead star/producer, Daniel Wu, and its action director/producer, Stephen Fung. If you're interested, I also highly recommend the work of Dayyan Eng, whose Chinese name is Wu Shixian. His bilingual film, INSEPARABLE, which also stars Daniel Wu, is streaming on Netflix. I think it's safe to say that the more media we see being created by people who are essentially world citizens, the more we'll begin to see a natural blend of multi-national conventions and cultural aesthetics.

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?

Hi, Kyle! Thank you for the comment. You've brought up a lot of really fascinating points! First of all, I can't believe I haven't come across Leon Hunt's work before! It sounds like a major gap that I need to fill. I love the breakdown of the "modes of authenticity" and look forward to learning more about that. Seems like a productive tool to have in approaching martial arts cinema. Your comments and concluding question triggered so many thoughts, especially in the distinction between "realistic martial arts" and "exciting spectacle," which I’m not entirely sure you mean to be mutually exclusive. Could you elaborate a bit more on those two ideas? I have so many thoughts but I keep coming back to these two notions of realistic martial arts and exciting spectacle. And I want to make sure I fully understand you before going off with my thoughts on THE MATRIX and DRUNKEN MASTER and THE RAID, etc, etc… Looking forward to reading your post tomorrow. I apologize if I'm unable to get to it until much later in the day.

Hello, Munib. Leon Hunt is definitely worth a read. The book where he lays out those modes of authenticity is called Kung Fu Cult Masters: From Bruce Lee to Crouching Tiger (that discussion of authenticity runs from pages 21-47 in Chapter One entitled "Wicked Shapes/Wicked Lies: Performance and 'Authenticity' in Hong Kong Martial Arts Films"). In terms of establishing a theoretical "ground zero," it's very useful in that Hunt tries to bring together ideas and arguments from fan discourses, critical discussions, and scholarly analyses to establish where we stand when it comes to talking about realism in martial arts cinema (for a more elaborate consideration of Hunt's work - which also pushes on some of its limitations and tries to expand from where he leaves off - you can check out this essay of mine if you like: As to the realistic/exciting split: Your skepticism regarding my potentially claiming them to be mutually exclusive was going in the right direction but it's my fault for not being clearer. Personally, I see them as being two sides of the same coin (that is, my response is usually "exciting BECAUSE realistic" or "not exciting BECAUSE not realistic"). What I was trying to register there was the task filmmakers and performers are faced with when they step in front of/behind a camera (I'm not trying to dismiss stage performances, but since my background/interest is in film, that's my focus here). If they are trying to both produce realistic martial arts and exciting action, then both the choreography and the aesthetics will need to be on point. The long shot/long take aesthetic is often brought up as a way of guaranteeing that the aesthetic side of the equation will always be above board. However, one of the most interesting things to me about martial arts cinema is the variety of aesthetic strategies available to filmmakers and the way some aesthetic strategies work for some performances but not for others (in my own research, I've tried to approach aesthetics from the two sides of the martial arts coin with striking on the one hand and grappling on the other). There needs to be a symbiotic relationship between performance and aesthetics to guarantee both realism and excitement, but there are times - at least, in my estimation there are - when the long shot/long take aesthetic actually hurts rather than helps the achievement of realism and excitement. If my thinking here is valid - if, in examples like the early Wong Fei-hung films or the famous long take in Tony Jaa's The Protector, it is precisely the effort to guarantee realism through the long shot/long take aesthetic that destroys the sense of realism and thus hinders my excitement - then what are the implications of this for action aesthetics? In something like the first fight scene in the Pilot of "Into the Badlands," there is actually quite a bit of cutting (especially for the grappling techniques, which is the basis for my contribution to this week) and a significant amount of medium shots and even close-ups and cut-ins. Can it be claimed, then, that "Into the Badlands" adheres to the long shot/long take aesthetic, or is it doing something different? If the former, then what exactly are we invoking when we invoke "long shot" or "long take"? If the latter, then what is it doing and why is it doing it? To go back to Bazin: In his famous essay on "The Virtues and Limitations of Montage," he claims that: "When the essence of a scene demands the simultaneous presence of two or more factors in the action, montage is ruled out. It can reclaim its right to be used, however, whenever the import of the action no longer depends on physical contiguity even though this may be implied … It is in no sense a question of being obliged to revert to a single-shot sequence or of giving up resourceful ways of expressing things or convenient ways of varying the shots. Our concern here is … with a certain interdependence of nature and form … it is not easy however to state offhand to what kind of subject or under what circumstances this applies." The part that I always find myself returning to in this passage is the idea of "the essence of a scene." If it's the job of those interested in martial arts cinema to first determine the "essence" of a combat sequence in order to validate/authenticate that sequence choreographically and aesthetically, then it would seem to be the case that the "long shots + long takes = realism" formula is missing something. If that's the case, then how should we proceed?

Thank you, Kyle, for that wonderful elaboration. I see much more clearly now what you mean, and I think the “exciting” / “realistic” distinction is pretty fascinating. I think you bring up a good point about the opening fight scene of INTO THE BADLANDS, and it made me realize that whenever I speak of a long take or a long shot, they’re both relative terms. So, for example, compared to something like the fights in Jackie Chan’s original DRUNKEN MASTER (, the opening fight in BADLANDS is full of cuts and close ups. However, compared to a more typical Hollywood production, particularly pre-MATRIX, like the final fight in LETHAL WEAPON 4 between Danny Glover, Mel Gibson, and Jet Li, (, then BADLANDS comes out with far fewer cuts, better lit set-ups, and wider shots. So maybe what’s more interesting to me in the case of BADLANDS is the context we find it in, that is, American TV history. Not only for its embrace of the martial arts aesthetic, but also its placement of a Chinese actor in the lead role. I admit that part of the excitement for me in watching the show and its fight scenes is the knowledge that the people – and aesthetics – behind them are people – and aesthetics – who have long histories in the greater China region, and who are finally getting some recognition and praise in the US. I also keep thinking about THE RAID: REDEMPTION. I will admit I have very little knowledge about Indonesian martial arts or Indonesian filmmaking in general, but I would describe the fights in that film as “realistic” AND “exciting.” The editing and overall pacing was frenetic and the spaces tight, but it still felt very much in tune with many of the films that do carry the long shot/long take aesthetic to me. You’ve given me a lot to think about. Thank you!

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.

Thanks for the comment, Ian. It’s true about the history of martial arts on American TV. And I also agree that China will only increase its foothold in American media over the coming years in a variety of ways. I still think there’s something different going on with INTO THE BADLANDS, and I think part of the newness has goes beyond just presenting kung fu to American audiences. I think it has something to do with how INTO THE BADLANDS embraces the very production culture of Chinese martial arts films through its behind-the-scenes talent and production practices, as well as what that means for the show’s formal qualities, in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before on American television. Does that make sense? Look forward to reading 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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