“As the traveler who has once been from home is wiser than he who has never left his own doorstep, so a knowledge of one other culture should sharpen our ability to scrutinize more steadily, to appreciate more lovingly, our own.” Margaret Mead
Kung Fu Cult Master is an enjoyable film but it contains many elements that I don’t fully understand. It seems to be in such a hurry to tell an exciting and entertaining story that it piles one eye catching effect or character upon another. I find it to be an exercise in high camp but in saying this I am not sure if this ‘camp’ quality is a deliberate exercise on behalf of the filmmakers or whether it is a reaction embedded in my western viewing of what I consider to be exotica. While I am sure that there are many things in other kung fu films that I don’t understand or unwittingly misconstrue I am not as aware of viewing them through the filter of this “camp gaze”* as I am with Kung Fu Cult Master. That is not to say that it doesn’t exist in my viewings of those other films – that it isn’t snaking around in my WASP brain just out of sight of my conscious thoughts – but I do feel that in most other kung fu films I manage to become at least somewhat attuned, to some extent, with the filmmakers’ ideas and creative agendas. While I enjoy Kung Fu Cult Master I somehow remain on the outside of the film.
Kung Fu Cult Master contains many confounding things for the western viewer**. When the film starts rolling it seems to have picked up in the middle of a very convoluted plot, which is stuffed full of kung fu lore, stock characters and mystical references. One of the real pleasures in succumbing to a kung fu movie obsession is the slow unpicking of this genre’s code of aesthetics, symbolism and cultural references. The novice starting on the road to kung fu movie obsessive fandom is faced with many happy hours of trawling through film commentaries, books or articles, online fan forums, and, of course, watching and cross referencing other films. Each time a little bit of the ‘code’ is revealed or explained it is a gold nugget of information, to be treasured and gloated over. Every time I come back to re-watch this film there are a couple of characters that jar or bewilder a little less and more references that are understandable to me. But I still have a long way to go. No matter how long I stick at this there will still be things I don’t understand. But that’s OK – it’s not my culture. I am legitimately entitled to not fully understand things about it. And I am always aware of the fact that I am not the audience that these films were initially made for. But what I do come to terms with, or gain an understanding of, allows me a privileged view into another film culture. As a result I feel I am becoming a far more discriminating, robust and tolerant viewer of movies from many other genres and cultures, including my own.
Some of the things that strike me while viewing Kung Fu Cult Master are:
- Its hero (played by Jet Li) starts off the film with a case of erectile dysfunction***. Moreover, at the beginning of the film he has zero martial arts ability and doesn’t appear to have any sense of toughness (either physically or mentally) and has to be saved from bullying by a girl. It’s just my opinion, but I don’t think too many Hollywood films would introduce the character of a major action movie star with earnest discussion about his not being able to get a stiffy.
- Our hero goes on to learn about martial arts from a whiskery dude imprisoned in a round rock. Our hero and another character fall into a chasm where they are simultaneously tormented and trained by a bushily grey haired gentleman who is embedded in, and chained to, a large round boulder. This situation does not put a cramp into this old guys’ extroverted disposition – he rolls about rapidly on his boulder, laughing heartily, declaiming fruitily, and dispensing both good teaching and sly manipulation. He is an example of the bizarre type of characters you can come across in kung fu movies.
- The Green Bat – another oddity and one of the characters who ends up supporting our hero. He is humanoid but, when needed, can sprout wings and fly off to be silhouetted against the moonlight. He drinks blood too, which is pretty creepy, until he explains that he mainly goes for animal blood (as opposed to humans) which makes it just a little less creepy.
- One actress plays 2 parts. Sharla Cheung Man plays both the hero’s loving mother at the beginning of the film, and the upper class arch villainess for the rest of the film. She does a good job with these 2 parts, and plays the unscrupulous aristocratic vamp with stylish relish.
- The comedy of the characters of the 2 whacky and dissolute scholars. They are obviously intended to be funny and probably, if I were an Asian movie goer in Hong Kong in 1993, they would have me rolling in the aisles. Humour is one of the hardest things to translate across languages and cultures. I can see these guys are meant to be funny, but, as a white Aussie film watcher in Melbourne in 2011, I just don’t get it.
- Soppy music played at an inappropriate moment. Only in kung fu movies will you find a bloody battle, featuring elaborate cruelty, including punctured horses and amputated limbs galore, being accompanied by a lilting piece of cantopop. A pleasant and soothing duet for a man and a woman, accompanied by synthesizer, plays over footage showing lashings of crushed bodies, frantic sword play, and the acrobatic and histrionic death swoons of the combatants. I can’t understand the lyrics – maybe it would help if I did.
Does the above sound as if I am bagging or sneering at the film? I really don’t mean to. I am actually quite sanguine about not understanding stuff and I don’t necessarily assume that my own confusion or ignorance is the result of bad filmmaking. The trick is to just relax, and let the extravagant visuals roll over you. If I do this I find this film good fun to watch and there are things to admire. I feel the cast as a whole do a good job and play their flamboyant characters up to the hilt. Sammo Hung, as usual, turns in a great performance. He can invest his characters with vigour that gives extra life and animation to any part he plays. I find Chingmy Yau always to be good. She is such a cutie pie that she, in the misogynistic world of 1990s Hong Kong filmmaking, always ended up being cast in roles that were either sexpots and / or bimbos. Thankfully, her character in this film has a fair amount of gumption. But no matter how one dimensional the character or how tasteless the film (and yes, I AM talking about your films Wong Jing) she always managed to inject some sense of spunk and wit into a performance where there really shouldn’t have been room for any.
Perhaps one reason why I have trouble getting into this film is the choreography. I feel that the choreography and its staging is focused on creating spectacle (and in one way this is fair enough, given the epic scope of its narrative and setting). There is a lot of wire fu in this film, and, generally speaking, I feel that when the choreography is overly reliant on wire fu then it robs the choreography of the chance to show detailed movement up close. There are also lots of fighting scenes for crowds in Kung Fu Cult Master. I guess this film has a large cast of characters who are martial artists and the filmmakers were faced with the challenge of cramming footage of all of these pugilists into the fight scenes. The result is certainly dynamic, perhaps frantic and visually very busy. As with the wire fu, there does not seem to be much attention paid to showing detailed extended movement sequences in much (although admittedly not all) of the film.
Another choreographic influence has to do with the special effects – there are lots of coloured lights exploding in this film, especially when Jet Li’s character uses the enhanced martial arts techniques he accesses during his time with the bearded man in the boulder. I find myself thinking a lot of computer or arcade games during this movie – when Li bounces around the big battle scene in the middle of the movie (disappointingly nothing but wire fu for Li – and probably his stunt doubles – here), when Li and Chingmy’s characters have to progress through a mysterious cavern in stages, when Li bounces around a large cave shooting coloured lights from his fists. Again the effect is dynamic and fun, but focused squarely on creating a sense of spectacle rather than constructing choreography with complex movement. Li’s fight with a Shaolin monk (who is played by a very skilled physical performer), which takes place in a cave in the middle of the film, does have some lovely detailed choreographic ‘writing’ that emphasizes kinetic, rather than technological, skill. During this duel the wired up performers are choppily jerked into mid air positions and perform repetitive moves that really convinces me that the choreographers and filmmakers were referencing video games. Another lovely moment comes right at the end of the film when Sammo Hung’s character teaches Li’s character Tai Chi. The movement here is energized and luscious, and it is wonderful to see 2 of the genre’s great performers moving together in the one scene. But overall the emphasis is on staging spectacle rather than constructing expressive and baroque sequences of movement. Personally, the glorious and beautiful choreography of kung fu films is a major reason as to why I am such a fan of the genre. Detailed sequences of movement take the viewer right up close to the character and allows us to enter into their kinetic world. Perhaps the lack of expressive choreography is one reason why I feel I watch Kung Fu Cult Master from the outside, rather than entering into the world of the film.
*I can’t quite remember where I saw this phrase – it may have been in Leon Hunt’s Kung Fu Cult Masters or David Bordwell’s Planet Hong Kong. Both these books contain intelligent discussion of the “camp gaze” that westerners bring to Hong Kong movies. I think it’s an important issue for western viewers of these films to be aware of.
**A plot synopsis can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kung_Fu_Cult_Master
***“Kung Fu Cult Master / Yitian Tulong Ji zhi Mojiao Jiazhu (1993) has fun with his (Li’s) sexually reticent image.” Leon Hunt, Kung Fu Cult Masters, P. 147