Last year I read a very interesting book written by John Mercer and Martin Shingler called Melodrama. This book is a survey of the way the term ‘melodrama’ had been used to describe certain American films during the history of cinema. I read it because I was interested to see if there was any co-relation between western melodramas and kung fu movies, especially in the areas of narrative structure, character types, performance styles and other theatrical or film making techniques.
Nothing I read in Melodrama suggested that I was barking up the wrong tree in looking for parallels between what might be seen as being very different types of movies. In fact it became obvious that kung fu films fit neatly into the traditional definitions of melodrama, and studying the creative and aesthetic tropes of melodramas explains a lot about the way kung fu movies hang together and how they function as entertainment. This is definitely worthy of further thought and research, and if I ever do go back to University it is what I will be doing my thesis on. (1)
What was interesting, and what I certainly didn’t realise until I read the book, was how there has been a shift in the types of films the term ‘melodrama’ has been used to describe. Before reading the book, I thought that melodrama pertained to a film I would otherwise call a weepie or a soap opera, and probably this view is not an unusual one. I actually hate schmaltzy weepies. The half joke I make is that these films would be maybe watchable if they had a few good kung fu fights in them. I was motivated to research melodrama, however, because while action films could never be called ‘weepies’, many kung fu films do feature histrionic, one could say even melodramatic, displays by characters who wear their hearts on their sleeves in between, and even during, their fight scenes.
Mercer and Shingler quote Peter Brooks, from his work The Melodramatic Imagination, in his discussion about the Victorian stage melodrama that early Western film makers would have inherited as part of their cultural background: “Whilst perceiving the necessity for melodramas to use realism as part of their aesthetic, Brooks also described them as being similarly determined by ‘muteness’ whereby speech was replaced by music, gesture and expressive mise-en-scene for dialogue, giving melodrama its distinctive form” (Melodrama, p 84).(2)
In his wonderful book about Hong Kong cinema, Planet Hong Kong, David Bordwell talks about how Hong Kong movies have“Reliance on pictures and music rather than on words, …easily learned conventions of style and story, and redundancy at many levels…” (p. xii) and how “…Hong Kong plots tend to be organised around vivid moments, fights or chases or comic turns or melodramatic catastrophes.” (p.11). Comparing these quotes to the ones taken from Melodrama, Bordwell could easily be discussing an old style Hollywood melodrama rather than the works of Chang Cheh, Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam or Jonh Woo.
In Melodrama, I was surprised to read that “… the term ‘melodrama’ was used originally in Hollywood to designate films featuring crime, guns and violence, along with action, tension and suspense…” (Steve Neale, p. 28). Neale is also referenced as speaking “…of a kinship between nineteenth-century melodrama and Hollywood action and suspense genres. Melodrama’s actions, he pointed out, involved bodies tied to rail-tracks, heroes in cellars with the water level rising, circular saws and steam hammers threatening the hero’s life in some fiendish trap: all of which are more closely associated with the ‘James Bond’ film cycle than the films of Sirk and Minelli.” (p. 30). The lurid perils that can be found in most kung fu films would also fit within this association.
In their book, Mercer and Shingler track the shift in use of the term ‘melodrama’ from describing action films to being used to describe weepies. Some of the supporting theories they reference come from Christine Gledhill’s study of this form in her essay The Melodramatic Field: An Investigation:
“Indeed, she (Christine Gledhill) noted a fundamental paradox here, that it was actually the male genres of western and gangster films and other action genres that perpetuated a melodramatic rhetoric. Meanwhile, the woman’s film (later to be described as melodrama by scholars) adopted quite a different form, being dominated by words and dialogue, openly expressing and articulating its central issues and conflicts. Such films were, in other words, anything but texts of muteness, forced to transform the unspeakable into spectacular action sequences or mise-en-scene. Nevertheless, it was the male genres that took on the aura of prestige associated with realism, whilst women’s genres became increasingly linked with the pejorative associations of melodrama.” (p. 87)
So it became clear to me that most of my beloved chop sockies, with their reliance on fight scenes and action sequences, their art direction and mise en scene often dominated by attention grabbing effects, and their stock characters given to emotive display, were arguably functioning within the aesthetic and narrative structures and processes of the ‘old’ (i.e. action film) type of melodrama.
So where does this leave My Father is a Hero? This film veers from spectacular action to densely worded soap opera. Does this film fit into the old or the new definition of melodrama?
There is plenty in the early scenes of My Father is a Hero to suggest that it fits comfortably within the newer definition of melodrama as soapie or weepie, despite its action scenes. The scenes showing Jet Li’s character, Kung, interacting with his family are largely dialogue driven, with the family articulating emotionally subtle and complex emotions. On balance the dialogue scenes dominate the tone and structure of the early part of the film, despite the presence of a couple of great action scenes (3). The art direction creates a very realistic picture of working class Beijing and, while being a highly effective evocation of time and place, the sets and costumes do not try to compensate for or ‘overtake’ the dialogue at any time. In these early scenes, dialogue constitutes the main text of the film and educates the audience as to what is driving the characters. A couple of action scenes are present, yes, but I feel that their main purpose is to allow choreographed movement to ‘stake a claim’ on the film so that it can be utilised extensively later. The action scenes also provide a welcome variation in rhythm and mood in the film – they save it from getting too bogged down or lugubrious.
With the departure of Kung for Hong Kong (leading to a highly charged farewell scene with his tearful son Ku, played by Xie Mao), and the arrival of Inspector Fong (Anita Mui) into the lives of Ku and his mother Li (Bonnie Fu Yuk Jing) the film starts to shift into full on soap opera mode (albeit a high class, well- acted type of soap opera). The emotions and desires of the characters are here still being primarily articulated by words. The death of Li is steeped in pathos, and her death bed scene is a very obvious example of melodrama as weepie, as it “… deals with highly charged emotional issues, characterized by an extravagantly dramatic register and frequently by an overtly emotional mode of address” (p 1). At this point of the film, it is very much a “woman’s film”, as Li and Fong connect and articulate important and driving feelings.
However, something is happening to the emotional intensity of this film at this juncture: it is gathering pace and the main characters of Fong, Ku and Kung have been propelled into a more desperate and complicated range of emotional needs and desires. From this point on these characters are resolutely steered towards experiences that are harder to articulate or resolve in dialogue, and therefore from this point on the film begins a trajectory into becoming a more old fashioned type of melodrama. This older type is a text of muteness that cannot articulate the messy, repressed and difficult emotions it has stirred up, and instead must rely on modes of communication other than words:
“(Geoffrey) Nowell-Smith suggests that repressed emotions erupt in moments of high tension or drama and manifest themselves as symptoms through performance, music and mise-en-sce`ne and it is at such points of heightened emotion that the characteristic excesses of the melodrama manifest themselves.” (pp. 22-23)
Melodrama does a good job of explicating just what it is that makes for the old and new fashioned definitions and types of melodrama. Handily, it includes the following as part of its description of the old fashioned type of melodrama inherited from the Victorian stage:
“Neale identified the key components of nineteenth-century stage melodrama as follows:
- conflict of good and evil
- eventual triumph of good over evil
- hero, heroine and villain as principal types
- demonstrative and hyperbolic aesthetic
- episodic, formulaic and action-packed plots with fate, coincidence and chance playing a major role
- ‘situations’ (for example, tableaux) forming moments of dramatic revelation or display” (p. 30)
How many kung fu movies have you seen that have all of these components? I can’t think of a single one that I have seen which doesn’t. How does My Father is a Hero stack up against these criteria:
- Conflict of good and evil. Tick. We have Kung, Ku and Fong versus the sociopathic criminal Po and his attendant thugs.
- Eventual triumph of good over evil. Tick. Kung, Ku and Fong defeat Po (Yu Rong Guang) and his gang in a climactic fight scene.
- Hero, heroine and villain as principal types. Tick. Kung is a Good Man, a kind father and husband, a dutiful policeman, a brave and skilled fighter. His wife, Li, is uncomplaining, gentle and virtuous. Ku is a doughty little fella, unwavering in his duty to his parents. Even Fong is a stock character of sorts – easily recognizable as a single minded modern career woman. All of these characters are allowed some depth and subtlety but none of them ever radically alter. In fact it is the unchangeable, unwavering personality traits that set the characters on an unavoidable collision course with the sort of extreme circumstances that abound in melodramas and cause the eruption of “repressed emotions” and the manifestation of “characteristic excesses” mentioned by Nowell-Smith above. The villain of the film is a particularly recognizable stock figure. Evil Po is instantly recognizable as a Bad Man through his creepy glasses and white gloves. We never see his hands or eyes during the course of the film. This, in addition to Po’s criminal and sadistic actions and Yu Rong Guang’s oddly twitching performance, all combine to dehumanize Po and make him into a kind of a monster. In the final fight scene Po even flourishes his long black coat like a cape. For all that Po is dressed in 20th century designer gear this twirling of his ‘cape’ obviously equates him with the clichéd black cloaked Victorian melodrama villain. “He is reduced to a few summary traits that signals his position, just as physically, do his swarthy complexion, moustache, cape, and concealed dagger. But he is strongly characterised, a forceful representation of villainy… The villain is simply the conveyor of evil, he is inhabited by evil (Peter Brooks, pp. 101-102).
- demonstrative and hyperbolic aesthetic. Tick. See Li’s death bed scene, Ku’s playground bullying scene, Darkie’s death scene as just a few examples of a demonstrative aesthetic at work both in the performative styles and mise en scene. There are many small touches and visual clues that contribute to the film’s “hyperbolic aesthetic”. An example is the shot showing Fong’s tears falling on Li’s death certificate that finishes of Li’s death bed scene.
- episodic, formulaic and action-packed plots with fate, coincidence and chance playing a major role. Tick. As Bordwell, for one, identifies in Planet Hong Kong, kung fu movie plots are typically episodic (p.184) as they alternate between dialogue scenes and action set pieces, which can often easily be watched as stand-alone pieces of physical performance art. In this particular film, formulaic plot lines and themes include good cop versus nasty criminal, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do theme for Kung a la Chang Cheh, plus a family soap opera. One particularly melodramatic flourish in the plot appears during Li’s death scene. When she dies, both Li and Ku believe that Kung is due for a lengthy prison sentence. Ku asks “Auntie” Fong to take him with her – he is an abandoned child, essentially an orphan at this stage of the film. Characters in this film are heavily influenced by chance and either just miss or just encounter each other. For example, when Fong undertakes to smuggle Ku from China to Hong Kong, one of Po’s henchmen just happens to be nearby to hear of it. When Kung participates in a heist and gun battle, the setting is a bar in which Fong just happens to be sitting. There is a strong sense that the characters are following trajectories that are inexorably steering them towards certain fates that they cannot alter. “For Neale, the key to the narrative logic of melodrama is not realism or naturalism but rather the need to produce discrepancies between the knowledge and point of view of the spectator and the point of view of the characters. This discrepancy is ultimately what produces the pathos that culminates in tears.” (pp. 80). An example of this discrepancy is the audience’s knowledge that Kung is only pretending to be a criminal in order to facilitate his pursuit of Po, and that he is really a Good Man. When his poor wife dies, she and his son do not share the audience’s knowledge and believe that he is a Bad Man. But in true melodramatic form they remain devoted to him even so.
- ‘situations’ (for example, tableaux) forming moments of dramatic revelation or display” – Tick. As My Father is a Hero is a martial arts film, it abounds in “displays” and, as stated in (v), is “action-packed” for the purposes of “dramatic revelation”. As is my wont I will be devoting a whole blog to the choreography of this film and the way in which it aids and abets the film maker’s purposes. In this blog I will just offer one example – when Kung learns of his wife’s death via a pager message from his son, his reaction is wordless. Instead there is an explosion of violence that serves to externalize and manifest for the audience Kung’s distraught and desperate state. “Most crucially, she (Gledhill) drew attention to an essential paradox of the form. Although melodrama is primarily concerned with an intense focus on interior personal life, its characters (including the protagonist) are not psychologically constructed and, rather than being introspective, convey their inner being through action, movement, gesture, décor, lighting and editing”. (p. 80)
The early dialogue driven scenes notwithstanding it is easy to make a case for My Father is a Hero fitting neatly into the old definition of melodrama that owes so much to traditional stage melodrama. So when, and how, does My Father make the transition from being the weepie that it seems to be in the early scenes culminating in the one showing Li’s death into becoming an old fashioned type of melodrama? As I mentioned above, there is a sense in this film of the main characters being resolutely steered towards certain compelling situations, and as one demanding circumstance piles on top of another the film needs to embrace the traditional melodramatic form in order to accommodate this.
“Here Nowell-Smith argues that at points of high drama the melodrama that usually aims to convey a strong sense of realism (for example, by using the rhetorical conventions of Classic Hollywood cinema) literally exceeds the limits of what can be considered realistic; it goes ‘over the top’. Nowell-Smith is suggesting that there is such an excess of conflict and contradiction that the narrative cannot contain it and that, consequently, realism and narrative coherence breaks down. Like a saucepan full to the lid with boiling water, the excess emotion leaks out. It is at such highly emotional points that hysterical conversion takes place, that the repressed starts to emerge.” (pp. 23)
A father who works as an undercover cop in close proximity to a sociopathic monster, the tear jerking death bed scene of the virtuous mother, an abandoned child being smuggled into Hong Kong by a well-meaning and crusading policewoman, unresolved sexual tension between the newly widowed father and the crusading lady cop, a runaway child who ends up in the clutches of the sociopathic monster… As each scene of My Father unfolds the film steadily progresses away from what could be seen as realistic and starts to gallop towards the excess that characterises many a kung fu movie (and melodrama!). As the pressures on the main characters mount, the film arrives at a place where these characters couldn’t possibly resolve or even articulate their thoughts or emotions. In the last third of the film it has to stop trying to work through the characters’ problems on a dialogue level and relies more on visual strategies in order to express or externalise the characters’ issues and to drive what was, after all, a commercial film to a satisfying end for its Hong Kong mainstream audience.
“The laying out of the problems ‘realistically’ always allows for the generating of an excess which cannot be accommodated. The more the plots press towards a resolution the harder it is to accommodate the excess. What is characteristic of the melodrama, both in its original sense and in the modern one, is the way excess is siphoned off.”(Nowell-Smith, p.23)
This being an action film made in Hong Kong, directed and choreographed by and starring expert martial artistes, the strategies used to siphon off excess are mainly compounded of action scenes.
As stated above, I will address the action, its choreography, and the way it accommodates the excess, in a separate blog. But there is one moment of violence in this film that I do want to address, as it constitutes both a problem for the film and a point of revelation when considering the film as an example of melodrama. One of the grimmest scenes in the film depicts the child Ku being bashed bloody by Po and then strangled apparently to death. The violence in this scene is not a piece of balletically choreographed kung fu, but a short, simple, realistic and horrifyingly brutal depiction of violence. This would be bad enough to watch, but the dramatic crux of the scene is that it is Ku’s father, Kung, who does the strangling (The reason for this is that Kung does not want to blow his cover and needs to prove himself to the watching Po as a genuine bad guy who has no connection to the child). I am afraid that the scene showing the strangulation of Ku by his own father goes too far for me. Despite the fact that the self-sacrificing Ku hints to his Dad that he understands and supports his father’s actions (!), the depiction of the violence at this point of the film is just too graphic and realistic and has the potential to alienate the film’s viewer.
How did this film get to such a dark place, and how does it move away from this dark place to a satisfying and triumphant finale for the good guys? This is especially challenging for the film makers considering that the victorious good guys include the father who did the strangling and the son who was strangled, and that they must be seen to unite together against the evil Po in order to establish a sense of moral legitimacy (even superficially) for the audience. In true melodramatic form, Kung and Ku each are compelled to follow a story arc that sees them fated to meet in this particular scene. Like most melodramatic characters, although they are emotionally invested in intense feeling, they are not psychologically complicated characters and therefore are powerless to do other than to follow the dictates of their own belief systems and play out the scene to its logical conclusion: Kung has pledged to carry out his undercover assignment and must therefore pose as a Bad Man; Ku is a dutiful son who, no matter how greatly he is imperiled, must not only support his father’s actions but love him all the more for carrying them out. Part of the dark landscape My Father is a Hero traverses and explores is to see what happens when people are caught between conflicting loyalties and promises (see my previous 2 blogs for more about this theme). Thus we see Kung struggle between being the kind father and the unswervingly dutiful cop. The strangulation scene is an expression as to the moral ugliness that can result when conflicts between family and other loyalties cannot be reconciled:
“… the importance of melodrama lies precisely in its ideological failure. Because it cannot accommodate its problems either in a real present or an ideal future, but lays them open in their contradictoriness, it opens a space which most Hollywood films have studiously closed off.” (Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, p.14)(4)
In depicting a child being at the receiving end of such realistic and brutal violence, My Father crosses a line and gets itself into trouble. But the trouble it has generated for itself arises out of the melodramatic form of the movie. As a melodrama it is geared towards generating an excess that cannot plausibly be accommodated, and this problematic scene is a manifestation as to how effectively My father has done just that.
As hard as the beating and strangling of a child is to watch, perhaps the instincts of the film makers lead to them using these actions in order to express this messy moral ugliness in a way in which words could not: “… melodrama… implicitly recognises the limits (inadequacies) of conventional representation (for example, exposing the limits of language, its inability to express or articulate certain contradictions). In this way, the ‘beneath’ or ‘behind’ (the unthinkable or repressed) is evoked as metaphor through gesture, music and mise-en-scene.” p. 79
Hong Kong kung fu films were heavily populated by performers and choreographers / directors who were adept in physical performance, having been trained in martial arts, Chinese Opera acrobatics or stunt performance. It is no surprise, then, that these films turn so easily and readily to choreographed movement as a communicative device. Spoken dialogue may dominate the early scenes of the film which becomes a fully-fledged weepie by Li Xia’s death bed scene. But action scenes start to appear more rapidly during the middle section, and choreographed movement then dominates the last act. Perhaps My father is a Hero is a film where the old and the new types of melodrama find a meeting ground.
(1) This is highly unlikely as I can’t afford the student fees.
(2) Unless otherwise stated, all page references are to Melodrama, and the authors are Shingler and Mercer
(3) Admittedly, the kung fu film proper is never far away in the early scenes of this movie, which is hardly surprising given that it’s helmed by Beijing opera trained and veteran martial arts film choreographer Corey Yuen Kuei and is a vehicle for martial arts performer Jet Li.
(4) “As popular cinemas go, Hollywood is unusually fastidious about realism of detail, restraint of emotion, and plausibility of plot…” (David Bordwell, Planet Hong Kong, p. 19)