…in the final analysis, I don’t think that I was a very successful director, because I did not achieve my purpose, namely, to get a lot of people to recognize my ideas or understand my point of view. Nor did I attract a lot of attention for trying to tell this story. No, I don’t think of myself as a good director. I made the decision not to direct any more movies. Jet Li from his essay about Born to Defence, retrieved from http://jetli.com/jet/index.php?l=en&s=work&ss=essays&p=4
Born to Defence represents Jet Li’s one and only foray into directing and choreographing (as well as performing in) a film. Judging from his comments about the film, he feels that it was an unsuccessful attempt. When reading any comments he makes about Born to Defence I can never shake the feeling that he is cringing as he makes them.
Born to Defence is an interesting film because it shows something of where a 23 year old Jet Li’s head and heart were at the time. It strikes me as a very angry film. In Kung Fu Cult Masters Leon Hunt makes the interesting comment “Born to Defence is an extraordinarily defeated film” (p 144). Much of the action is very brutal and conveys a sense of nihilism. The plot shows many instances of injustice and corruption, and the film seems intent in arousing a feeling of anger in the viewer.
But, for all this, I don’t think this is a bad film. While it may not be among the best movies ever made, it is very far from being among the worst. While it may be angry in tone it is trying, at least, to make a moral point. To gain some insight into Li’s intentions behind Born to Defence I can recommend reading his essay on his website (see weblink above). In this essay he outlines a quite detailed moral and political agenda for the story, based on contemporary historical fact and conditions he observed in his native China. This agenda strikes me as being quite an ambitious one, morally and creatively, for a first time director to translate into film. Li notes in the same essay that he was constrained by censorship regulations in China. He was badly injured during filming (copping a broken nose during one of the fight scenes) and, as the combined pressures of acting, directing and choreographing mounted, I believe he also had to swallow his pride and invite a colleague to help him co-direct the film part of the way through filming. These things may well have coloured his feelings about what is quite a decent film. When Li states in the quote above that he did not “get a lot of people to recognize my ideas or understand my point of view” I think he is being a little too harsh on himself. Personally, I feel that his position on the discrimination that Chinese people suffered in their own country is made abundantly clear, and he further makes his point that this double standard damages the Chinese and morally corrupts the Americans.
I may be drawing a long bow here (there is a certain freedom to writing a blog that no one ever reads) but I am rather intrigued by the way women are treated in this film. It seems to me that martial arts movies post Chang Cheh mostly focus on male stories (David Chase discusses this aspect of Chang Cheh’s influence from page 101 of Chasing Dragons). Granted we get the odd female centred film (mostly thanks to stars like Michelle Yeoh or Brigitte Lin) but, on the whole, chopsockies post Chang Cheh aren’t a feminist’s paradise. But, within Li’s moral agenda for this film, and for all that this film is mostly the story of his character (also called Jet), I think that he actually spares some thought (and screen time) for the lot of women in the time and society in which the film is set. Young women are shown being forced (by poverty) to prostitute themselves, at the risk of both violence at the hands of the men who procure them, and being stigmatised by their fellow Chinese. Jet becomes (chastely) involved with one such prostitute who is portrayed sympathetically in this film. She is shown as someone who needs to be rescued and defended, and also as someone who, when she tends a stricken Jet, is capable herself of rescue and compassion. Her murder at the end of the film may be a nod towards conventional morality – she was sexually promiscuous and the fates decree that she must be punished. But this murder is also a plot device to turn the audience even further against the degenerate Americans. We are meant to sympathise with this gentle woman and to be shocked at the waste of her life.
There are other references towards the status of women in this film. In the first half we see an old woman showing American soldiers her bound feet (that time honoured symbol of female repression) for money. Their jeering curiosity reduces her to the level of a freak in a side show. When Jet is working as a rickshaw driver he has to take a woman in labour to the doctor. His obstruction by American soldiers and their callous disregard of the plight of the pregnant woman is another plot device to makes us hate them.
These women are shown in states of vulnerability and constraint – bound feet, pregnant, being used sexually. Although these female characters are not lead parts they still have a huge impact on the story and this fleshes out the film’s moral landscape. The most important female part is that of the aforementioned young prostitute. Jet is shown during the film selling his blood to make money, and in so doing weakening his own levels of energy and vitality. He is also seen being ‘seduced’ by a bar owner into hiring himself out as a sparring partner in the bar’s custom made boxing ring. He is essentially being paid to be a punching bag for American soldiers. Hence, Jet is involved in a sort of prostitution of his own. Although the services he sells aren’t sexual at all, he is seen to be forced by penury to sell parts of his body (blood and fighting muscles) and to compromise his own sense of integrity and dignity in order to survive. This identifies his character even more strongly with the actual female prostitute and conveys to the audience the precarious moral and financial state his character (and, by implication, many other Chinese) are in.
There are other indicators of the moral investigations of this film. There is a major fight scene during which Jet, looking positively tiny in comparison to his opponent, fights with an American behemoth in the bar’s boxing ring. This fight gets way out of hand and ends up generating a bar room brawl and a mini riot. During this scene, a storm provides, in best gothic tradition, thunderclaps to underscore the macho declamations of the hairy, gimlet eyed yank pugilist, and then torrential rain starts to pour through the ceiling and floods the bar during the brawl. The bar’s Chinese owner is seen sobbing over the wreck of his establishment. This man has been shown toadying up to the Americans, recruiting fellow Chinese men to be their punching bags, and providing a venue for the Chinese women to prostitute themselves. Perhaps the fates decree here that his bar gets wrecked as a punishment for his lack of dignity and integrity. I find the presence of the rain in this scene to be quite fascinating. The fight ends in anarchy. Part of this chaos has been generated by the primitive behaviour and bad moral choices of humans, but part of it comes from a non human and therefore morally unaccountable and uncontrollable element (the storm). Hunt’s description of this film being “defeated” resonates with me here. Li has constructed a world within this film where humans are (in the case of the Chinese) unhappily prey to base human instincts as well as a hostile and capricious environment.
The murder of Jet’s close friend and his daughter (the redeemed prostitute) towards the end of the movie sets the film up as a revenge story. Up until this point the film has just been a survey of the ugly results of discrimination and corruption, but all of the free floating anger and disgust that has been generated during most of the film is suddenly given a focal point – Jet feels driven to avenge the murders of his surrogate family. In moral terms, this final fight scene is a fascinating if ambivalent one. The first shock for the viewer is unwittingly provided by Jet’s costume. He pops up wearing a cute Farmer Jones type outfit – pastel coloured shirt, denim overalls and a jaunty neckerchief. He looks as if he would be more at home in Romper Room or Playschool than dispatching thugs in an abandoned factory. But hereafter most of the shocks are provided by some truly brutal (if cleverly staged and finely choreographed) action. The man who actually killed Jet’s companions is himself killed in a particularly sadistic fashion. Jet trusses him to a conveyer belt and he is slowly conveyed, screaming, into a furnace. As awful and vicious as this character has been throughout the movie, and he is depicted as being without one redeeming feature, this is a truly horrible way to die and it made me question the morality of the character of Jet who, up until this point, had been portrayed as the hero of the film. Admittedly a somewhat angry and impetuous hero, but basically a good guy who loves his friends, gives money to child beggars, and behaves like a gentleman even to prostitutes (who he determinedly resists sleeping with). This character’s tremendous anger is an expression of moral outrage at the unfairness of life around him, but at the point where he consigns the American to the furnace this outrage seems to transmute into something harder and more toxic. What I would like to know is how conscious was Li of this change, and how did he view the act of vengeance in the light of it? As the unfortunate American trundles into the furnace the furnace door slowly lowers behind his disappearing, twitching feet. The camera then gives us a close up shot of Jet’s face as he watches this, its expression chilling in its coldness and severity. Jet’s face, lit with the orange of the furnace fire, is shown slowly to be covered by darkness as the furnace door shuts over the flames. I wonder if we are meant to see this as an indication of this character’s descent into moral darkness?
An interesting visual motif that appears throughout the film and which may indicate this exploration of moral ambivalence is the fact that young, pretty, wholesome looking Jet is shown again and again getting bashed and bloody, particularly around his face. The film’s fight choreography (which is aesthetically very well crafted) is also unashamedly brutal and Jet’s good looks are regularly marred by his character’s involvements in the fights. This visual motif is exaggerated in the final fight scene where Jet’s face is almost unrecognisable due to the blows it has had rained upon it. It is so puffed up that his eyes almost disappear and is covered by a patina of blood, sweat and discolouration due to bruising. Kudos to whoever did the makeup for this scene – it looks disconcertingly real. Jet looks truly monstrous, and I find myself wondering if we are meant to see that an obsession with vengeance and cleaving to violence (no matter how justified it appears) can make a monster out of most human beings.
In Chasing Dragons David West makes this comment on Chang Cheh’s ‘Men from the Monastery’ (1974):“there is no attempt to critique the violence of the Shaolin fighters, as the bad guys always strike first, thereby placing the blame for the ensuing bloodshed on their shoulders” p. 104
In Born to Defence the plot ensures that the bad guys strike first plenty of times, and the murder of 2 defenceless Chinese towards the end of the film certainly seems to set up the baddies as deserving retribution at the hands of Jet. However, that retribution and its agent are depicted in terms of such brutality and monstrousness that I am inclined to believe that Li has built in some level of critique of the violence in this film even while he is participating in it as lead actor and facilitating it as director. Perhaps we can come to the conclusion that one of the most apalling aspects of the discrimination the Chinese are suffering is that they may feel that they have no choice but to engage in acts of violence or retribution.
So where does that leave this film? On the one hand it is an extremely angry film as evidenced by the brutality of its fight scenes, the one sided depiction of hordes of exploitative yanks and the pitiable state of the Chinese characters. It is not an easy film to watch. The film never quite transcends its anger. Granted, the character of Jet won me back at the very end of the film because he resisted killing the very last American he fought with. But nothing in the film gives us a positive solution to dealing with the pressures or challenges of either discrimination being imposed externally or anger overwhelming a character internally. In this, I see this as the film of not just an angry filmmaker but of a very young filmmaker. A sense of perspective, or a repertoire of psychological or spiritual viewpoints, or anything that comes from maturity and life experience and that helps us contextualise life’s darker sides is missing in this film. However, I do feel that, as angry and emotionally ugly the film is, it does work within a definite moral framework and that Li, as a filmmaker, has done a far better job at defining and examining that framework than he gives himself credit for.