This blog is the second half of a previous blog which can be found here.
However, for me, there are disatisfying aspects to this film. The usual foul cantopop type of score that is often a feature of chopsockies from this era seems to be particularly over powering in Martial Arts of Shaolin. I mean, must the music sound like something off Sesame Street? Were there no more appropriately fitting or evocative scores around for the filmmakers to use? The cheap and nasty and anachronistically boppy music that abounds in kung fu movies is probably my least favourite aspect of this genre of films. I always think that I hate the dubbing the most, but then I start watching one of these films and I realise it’s the music that really makes me grind my teeth.
I enjoy Jet Li’s 3 Shaolin Temple films hugely, but I also think that they are all as camp as a row full of tents. This campness is neither an obstancle to or an enhacement of my enjoyment of these films. All these films abound in bright colours, silly gags, and casts of beautiful young eye candy performing flamboyant choreography. But, for some reason, I find Martial Arts of Shaolin to be the campest of the lot. The silly music hitting you about the ears with all the subtlety of a jackhammer is a contributing factor, but otherwise I can’t quite put my finger on why the camp quotient seems to have been ramped up in this film as opposed to the earlier 2. It’s a feeling I just can’t quite ever shake.
I certainly have no qualms about the choreography. As you would expect, Lau Kar Leung’s work is superb. I am not a martial artist so I cannot comment on it in terms of the finer points of martial arts technique. I trust the experts working on this film to get this aspect as correct as it needs to be for the purposes of filmmaking. But aesthetically it is lovely to watch. The choreography has an intricate and pleasing level of detail and gives the wushu savvy cast a chance to demonstrate some complicated sequences of choreography and some virtuoso moves. There is one very twee moment in the choreography right at the beginning of the film. Li’s character catches a nest of chicks as it falls from a tree and, as he does so, executes a very high leg extension. The technique – the height and control of the leg – would’ve made some of my old ballet teachers scream with delight, but choreographically it looks gratuitous. And camp. But I shouldn’t quibble – this is just a fleeting moment in a film that is obviously the work of a master choreographer. My favourite fight scene (with the final one underneath the vines running a close second) is one in which Jet Li fights Hu Jian Qiang in an abandoned temple. The choreography in this scene is full of a huge variety of shapes which are characterised by amazingly graceful angles. It is executed with precision and elegance by the 2 performers.
But in other parts the film looks camp, umm… even a bit gay. I have mentioned in an earlier blog that a young Jet Li should never have allowed anyone to put him in drag – he passes for a woman way too convincingly(*). I mean, I wish I looked as good in makeup. The sheep scene where Jet pretends to be a shepherdess and his 2 companions, looking very cute under their white floppy ears, pretend to be sheep is ridiculous, and camp, but also very funny. Hats off to Jet – he handles the comedy in this scene very well and looks as if he is having fun with it. When I see interviews with various Americans involved in the film industry they always say how “cool” they reckon Jet Li is. “He’s such a fucking badass” drools Brett Ratner in an interview on the Dragon Dynasty release of Tai Chi Master. I always wonder what these cool obsessed folks would make of this particular scene.
And then there is what I privately call the soft porn moment, which is where we see a lissome and nubile Jet cavorting about a meadow to an accompinament of synthesised cantopop. This comes in the film where Jet’s character has rushed away from his 2 travelling companions because he is overwhelmed by emotion following a shock revelation. He does some backflips to express this (as you do) and then flings himself down on a patch of lawn near a gently flowing river. The camera focuses on him as he very slowly turns his head that is resting on the pilow, errr, I mean grass to stare smoulderingly into the camera. This man’s youth, beauty, and heightened physicality are central to this voluptuous little scene and there is nothing plotwise, actionwise, or in terms of other characters to distract us from the gaze of Jet’s bedroom eyes.
So what is going on here? One of the things that interests me about Jet Li is the impact he has as a star, an idol, a walking brand, in comparison to the reality of his being just another human being on the planet who happens to have a job as a performer. I am a huge fan of his talent but sometimes I feel that he is treated or regarded in ways that go beyond mere fandom, or admiration, or enjoyment of his talent, to actual fetishisation. A mystique has built up around him (as it does with major talents like Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe or Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan) and it is interesting to consider where this comes from and how it helps or burdens, protects or constrains the actual individual at the centre of it all in his day to day work as a performer, producer or activist for philanthropy. I am quite sure that Jet Li makes it his business to hire managers and publicists to actively maintain and exploit this mystique. He would be a fool to do otherwise. Inspired by his Bhuddist beliefs, he has an agenda to use his fame to focus attention onto his charity One Foundation. This is probably the best thing anyone could do in his situation. But I think a mystique and adoration is also projected onto him by fans and filmmakers alike, and this is not necessarily something he can totally control or be responsible for. Many of his films present him in a way that go beyond a director just using a talented performer to serve the needs of the film. The films synergistically rely on and contribute to the propagation of the Jet Li fetish.
An example of this is the way he is protrayed in terms of romance and sex in his films. In very few films do we see him actively participate in a relationship – his characters are always on the cusp of it (Fist of Legend), avoiding it (Bodyguard from Beijing), just about to leave it (Dr. Wai) or lose it (The One). By the end of the 2 Fong Sai Yuk films he has acquired 2 wives but we are never actually shown much intimacy between them. And in The Warlords and Swordsman 2 it is quite clear that there is actual nooky going on between his character and a female, but the camera always cuts just before they show any real physical intimacy. In Kung Fu Cult Masters Leon Hunt calls him “…the chastest, most sexually reticent, of all martial arts stars… “ (p 134). At the end of Martial Arts of Shaolin, he DOESN’T get the girl. Again. I don’t think he ever even kisses anyone in any of his films (although he does suck Chingmy Yau’s thigh in Meltdown. But this is to cure her of snake bite*. Purely for medicinal purposes folks!). He may play characters who yearn for the girl, and is often the target of much yearning by a girl. Any actual romances his characters are involved in are treated coyly by directors and the viewer never sees him in a clinch with a female co-star. In the Once Upon A Time In China Series, Aunt Yee does well to corner him into an engagement by the 3rd film. She evens gets a chaste hug or 2. But this is as far as any of his characters ever get in having the chance to do their stuff in a romantic scene.
But his films are very much geared towards presenting him as someone who is eminently fanciable and with building on his persona as a martial arts sex symbol. His physical abilities and grace, good looks and a certain contained quality that hints at hidden depths are all exploited in his performances. Kung Fu movie actors have an advantage over mere thespians in that, courtesy of their martial arts practice, they very much convey a sense of heightened physicality – even when they are not fighting they seem to inhabit their bodies so thoroughly. But the audience is again and again denied the opportunity to experience a Jet Li character in a state of heightened physicality or heightened emotion in a romantic or sexual context(*). It is all a glorious tease, and evidence of a decided stance in these films that works to convert him from a performer to an object to be fetishised over.
Much of the choreography in Jet Li’s movies uses wirefu (although not so much in Martial Arts of Shaolin), and I wonder if this doesn’t also contribute to the establishment of Jet Li as an object of fetish. The use of wirefu often helps to depict characters who have superhuman abilities. These characters inhabit a realm of being where they are lifted beyond the normal limits of stamina, gravity and strength that the rest of us mere mortals are constrained by. Playing characters with these supernatural abilities adds to Jet’s aura of being somewhat remote from and unattainable to the rest of us. He inhabits a place in the cultural landscape where it is impossible to see him as a jobbing actor, and more as some glorious and rare creature to be marvelled at.
I am ambivalent about wirefu – at its best it can suggest the fantastic and when used discriminatingly (as is so often the case with Yuen Wu Ping’s choreography) it can extend a choreographer’s aesthetic options. However, when it dominates the choreography it can not only swamp any carefully wrought or inventive ground based choreography but we also miss out on the opportunity to witness the performer’s actual martial arts technique. Jet Li was a Wushu prodigy who was extensively schooled in many techniques and styles. This technically accomplished repertoire of forms, performed with his trademark elegance, is one thing his fans always yearn to see. Yet paradoxically, in many of his films his fans know they can expect to see his stunt double performing wirefu. Jet Li as a martial arts stylist is constantly promised to us, and this is what the fans may get to actually see. But sometimes this promise of an authentic performance of style and technique is whisked away from us and buried under an orgy of wirefu, CGI effects and stunt doubles. This “will he or wont he” conundrum faced by his fans is another tease, and ensures that we pantingly scrutinise his films in a desperate attempt to catch the glorious creature in the act of performing the wushu he is so famous for. By denying the fans a guarrantee of this authentic performance it makes us all the more desperate for it, and this desperation makes these performances something the fans can’t take for granted but instead yearn for and lust after. The Jet Li ‘brand’ of physical performance becomes something that is fetishised over and, much as a car enthusiast will obsess over the care and maintenance of his new sports car, Jet Li fans invest enormous energy into revelling over their perception of his superior qualties and skills as a martial artist during those onscreen moments when they are sure it really is him they are seeing.*
“The condition of being a legend is a certain ghostliness, as fame is no more than the sum of misunderstandings gathered around a great name.” Ackbar Abbas, Hong Kong: culture and politics of disappearance, p. 46
Jet Li is the star of 40 odd films, and, long before he reached middle age, was embedded in the minds of chopsockie fans as a kung fu movie icon. When did this start? How did this “certain ghostliness” and “sum of misunderstandings” build? He is certainly the central player of his first 2 Shaolin Temple films, and his good looks and luminous(*) screen presence not to mention his wushu prowess are certainly used to good effect in these 2 earliest films. The later Once Upon A Time In China rescued a career that had stalemated and made him a star. But I feel somehow in his 3rd film, Martial Arts of Shaolin, for the first time in his film careera line had been crossed in terms of how his talent and qualities were depicted and used. Here he is not just featured as a lead actor but fetishized and commodified as a manifestation of male beauty and supreme martial arts talent.
*Women dressing as men and vice versa: This convention can be traced back to Come Drink with Me, and it reflects a Peking Opera sensibility, wherein men played female roles and the audience was expected to accept their impersonation without question. From Chasing Dragons by David West, p. 118
*And this is actually the WRONG way to deal with snake bite. Never cut or suck snake bites.
*Not that I am complaining about this necessarily. I think that things are more powerful when they aren’t shown explicitly. And I get sick of hearing slurpy noises when people kiss on the big screen and bored with seeing folk’s bare arses going up and down during cinematic rumpy pumpy.
*I am currently reading, and enjoying, Leon Hunt’s book Kung Fu Cult Masters. Among other things, this book contains a very interesting and comprehensive discussion of authentic martial arts performance in Kung Fu films.
*Thanks to Flagday on the Alive not Dead website for supplying this adjective.