For the purpose of this paper, the films Fists of fury (1972), Rumble in the Bronx (1995) and Infernal affairs (2002), will inform a discussion covering the generic characteristics and historical evolution of Hong Kong martial arts films. In brief, generic characteristics are constructed by audiences as well as films themselves (Neale, 2000) and it is they that inform audience expectations and provide a means of recognition and understanding during the screening of a film with regard to plot, structure, style, themes and the patterns of meaning that will become apparent to the audience during screening. These characteristics as well as other key aspects of martial art films, in particular, have been subject to change in response to the capitalistic nature of film making, change in the cultural and political environment as well as the progressive nature of film making in general.
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Fist of fury is a film directed by Lo Wei starring Bruce lee. The screening of this film came with the decline of Cantonese film making and the rise of ‘the hero’ in martial art film making and it is in this genre that Bruce lee distinguished himself via his distinct fighting style and his inimitable on-screen persona that appealed to audiences everywhere.
However, it becomes apparent as one watches the film that storytelling in the 1970’s still remained trite and unimaginative. The plot of the film although clear and concise is deprived of suspense and is plagued with predictability. In spite of this, the film’s thematic concerns show an understanding of the socio-political environment in China at the time fueled by the Japanese occupation with the injustice, outright discrimination and degradation experienced by the Chinese during this period being brought to life through the character of Chen, who returns to marry his fiancée only to find his master dead and the Jingwu students being constantly taunted by the students from the Japanese dojo. What follows is a story of a single-handed quest for retribution by Chen through the application of Martial art techniques that could only have been brought to life so exceptionally by Bruce lee. This performance is only apparent if one manages to overlook the poor quality of the filming stock consistent with filmmaking in the 1970s and the absence of the advanced capacity for camera manipulation and framing provided by the technological revolution in the 21st century.
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As one watches the film Rumble in the Bronx, a film directed by Stanley Tong and starring Jackie Chan a shift in the generic characteristics of martial art films can be witnessed as ‘the hero’ has now been replaced by ‘the clown’. This can be said to have occurred from the futility of trying to replicate Bruce lee’s unique fighting style and the need to develop martial art films that would also be as widely accepted. The characters portrayed by Jackie Chan managed to incorporate a unique sense of humor in to martial art films that was not present in earlier films and was also well received by audiences.
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This film also came with the advent of high-risk action sequences where actors performed their own stunts on planes bridges and high-rise buildings. These aspects come to life when Keung, the character portrayed by Jackie Chan jumps from a parking garage to the fire escape of a building and the culmination of a sequence of action filled events where the White Tiger syndicate is pursued by the police and Keung through the streets leading to massive destruction of property and the phenomenal collision between a hovercraft and a sports car. The thematic concerns of the film reflect the extent of crime in the Bronx with gangs terrorizing local business owners and syndicates running highly profitable operations that often result in massive loss of life and the powerlessness of the common man and to some extent, law enforcement to mitigate these situations.
The plot is complex and compelling without the slightest hint of the predictability that earlier martial art films had employed. This is apparent when Keung ends up being lured to an alleyway to be beaten by the same woman he develops a romantic attachment to later in the film and much later when he concedes to helping the same biker gang that had beaten him and terrorized Elaine’s shop escape the wrath of the White Tiger syndicate that had been brought about by one of the gang members when he stole the syndicate’s diamonds. One can see that much more thought had started to go in to the writing of screenplays for martial art films as opposed to previous times where a significant amount of emphasis was placed on depiction martial art techniques while neglecting other aspects.
One can also see a significant improvement in the quality of the picture as an effortless transition between frames is seen and much more clarity in the picture and sound as would be expected of a film made in 1995. The film shows the beginning of the gradual and stimulating drift from the conventional regimes of verisimilitude associated with martial art films and it is this drift that revolutionized the making of martial art films and has made them appealing even to audiences that had been averse to the displays of unabated violence typical of martial art films in previous years (Neale, 2000).
The film Infernal affairs directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mark starring Andy Lau and Tony Leung, shows the eventual globalization of martial art film making that has marked the 21st century with a much more intricate and intriguing plot, clearer and more defined picture quality and the incorporation of characters that were more dimensional, more complex and in many ways more human.
The plot follows the story of Chang, a police officer who infiltrates a triad and Lau, a member of the triad who infiltrates the police and their respective bosses who are working hard to uncover the mole in their respective organizations. Compelling emotional elements and moral dilemmas are the hallmark of this film with the popular assumption that the ‘good always triumphs over evil’ being abandoned and the characters allowed to pave their own paths. This is clearly demonstrated when the gangster eventually remains a police officer and the police officer is killed at the hands of another gangster posing as a police officer.
The film displays a unique and unrivaled demonstration of serendipity, digression, suspense and spectacle (Porter, 1988). The thematic concerns of the film such as crime, betrayal, law enforcement, undercover work and gang infiltration are typical of a crime thriller, are in many ways unoriginal as they had been explored in many other films in the 20th century and it can be posited that without the emotional and moral aspects, this film would have remained bland and uninteresting to audiences during its screening.
From this discussion it can be seen that the generic characteristics of martial art films although consistently recognizable have been subject to change and evolution as well as revolution over time with story lines becoming more complex and unexpected, characters acquiring more depth and becoming more relatable. As one watches these films it is discernable that technological evolution in the film industry has contributed greatly to the changes that have been witnessed in the cinematography employed in the making of martial art films over time with more realism being achieved, more action filled stunts being undertaken by the actors and more satisfaction being provided to the viewer. This along with the economic aspect of film making which has been informed by the needs of the audience has led to the development of the martial art film industry from merely a show case of the technicalities of martial art as a fighting style to a film genre that adapts and responds to the needs of its audiences but still manages to refrain from deviating from the display of pride in the Chinese cultural heritage that was the basis of its inception.
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