A Pause for Breath…

… while I reflect on blogging about the travails of an Asian martial artist who takes on the hollywood system.

Is it just me or has anyone else out there had the experience whereby you are courted assiduously by a potential boyfriend and then, when they have landed you, they try to repress or weed out the qualities in you that supposedly attracted them in the first place? When I was young and nubile this happened a few times. In my twenties, as a professional dancer, I was a bona fide bohemian and, as such, attracted the odd bloke because I was supposedly exotic or unconventional (their labels, not mine, I hasten to add). These same blokes would then get embarrassed about introducing me to their Mum or their friends because they were worried that I was coming across as a bit weird. “Tone it down a bit” they would hint, which was bemusing as I had never been aware of toning it up during our courtship. As just one example, I had a boyfriend once who picked me up at an opening because I was “lively” and “out there” and then spent our subsequent dates criticising me for drinking too much (1 glass of wine was his preferred quota) and staying out too late (he would drive me home at 10pm). This sort of thing happened a few times and has left me with the impression that it is part of human nature to be attracted to, and want to absorb and control, the things we mistrust or don’t understand.

What has this to do with kung fu movies?

In the summer of 2008 I was unemployed and knew that I was potentially looking down the barrel of a few impoverished and perhaps depressing months. I had just been forced out of a job by severe workplace bullying, had lost faith in the arts industry to ever furnish me with enough paid employment to keep me off the dole, had lost any inspiration to choreograph my own work, and just badly wanted the human race to go and fuck itself. While I had been pulling a wage I had completed my collection of Jet Li films (plus some Shaw Brothers movies) and I gave myself permission to spend the rest of the Summer in front of the telly, lost in jianghu, getting high on exotica and gloriously choreographed and performed physical virtuosity, and watching folk beat the crap out of each other. This scheme seemed to answer several of my needs (avowed and unavowed) – in short, I gave myself permission to give up on the outside world and finally start becoming the kung fu movie nerd I had always wanted to be since I saw and fell in love with Project A, Warriors from Zu Mountain and Once Upon a Time in China on SBS about a decade before.

I felt that it would be a fine thing to write a series of blogs on Jet Li’s films as he is a favourite performer of mine, and his films often featured the work of other great performers and choreographers. I would start at the beginning (1982’s Shaolin Temple) and finish up at 2008’s The Forbidden Kingdom. This would be a big project, I mused, and would probably keep me busy during the whole of the summer, thus providing me with a welcome distraction from my poverty, boredom and the chronic irritability I was projecting at the cosmos. After that, maybe I would pick another theme in martial arts films (say, the depiction of women warriors or seminal works of certain choreographers or the plot structure of kung fu movies) and blog about that.

As I write this it is 7 October 2011, 2 years and over 90 (often long) blogs later and I have only just finished writing about Hitman (1998), with over 10 films yet to write about. It turns out I had a LOT to say about not just Jet Li (actually in some blogs he barely gets a look in) but about martial arts movies, and the way they work as entertainment, in general.

The last couple of years have provided me with yet more employment ‘adventures’ and while the blogging has had to be relegated to weekends and holidays (due to the time constraints of paid work) it has truly been a sanity saver. As I write this blog I am steeling myself to take on those next 10 or so films, and it seems to me that this next section of Li’s filmography brings with it certain discrete issues.

The very next film I will be blogging about will be Lethal Weapon 4, the first of several films Li has made in the West. From 1998 till the current day, Li’s films have been a mixed bunch of films made in Asia and the West and garnering a mixed reaction from fans.  As with Jackie Chan’s American films, there are a lot of fans out there who don’t think that the vehicles Hollywood has created for Asian action stars like Li or Chan or even Chow Yun Fat are any damned good (and I mostly agree with this). Of course, in writing about the films Li has made from 1998 till the current day I still have yet the great pleasure of writing about magnificent movies such as Hero, Fearless and The Warlords to look forward to. But these films were made in Asia. A main focus I will have on blogging about the non-Asian films is the degree to which they are appropriate vehicles for the unique abilities and qualities of Li as an artist (and by extension the Asian choreographers who worked with him on these films) and why this is the case.

I suspect that Hollywood film makers are like my former boyfriends. They see something exotic, alluring, boasting unusual skills and mysterious qualities, and this fascinates them and makes them hanker after it. But, once having got it, they discover that they don’t understand it and this makes them uneasy. Rather than having to lay themselves open to the unknown and experiment with new ways of working with something unique, how much easier is it to try to minimise or dilute the things that are not understood and therefore not so easily controlled. Thus we have the spectacle of highly trained and able physical performers like Li and Chan who are crammed and shoehorned into mediocre Hollywood actioners that don’t seem to give the genius of these performers room to breathe. I am quite sure that no one consciously sets out to make this happen – “Hey! I just thought of a great idea for a movie to really fuck up Jackie Chan’s career” – but between the first script pitches and schmoozy lunches to when fans like me congregate on the internet to bag the finished movies something often goes terribly wrong. Something in Hollywood’s innate approach to storytelling just doesn’t gel with the performative and storytelling approaches of Li and Chan and the choreographers they bring with them, and films like Cradle to the Grave, Rogue Assassin and Romeo Must Die and even The Mummy show us that no one in Hollywood has tried hard enough to figure out what the problem is over the years. This is an irritating mental itch that I must scratch, so be prepared for me to burble on about this theme over the next few blogs.

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8 Responses to A Pause for Breath…

  1. Good post, and good parallels between dating and Hollywood attitudes. I’ve gone on ad nauseum on this on my site, so I’m sure I’ll be nodding my head in agreement at your views on this. So you’re going to watch Cradle to the Grave and Romeo Must Die again? Godspeed.

    That’s a pain I can’t put myself through easily again!

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    • Thanks for reading Michael. Having read some of your blogs that touch on this subject I know I am talking to a kindred spirit. I am right now working on the Romeo blogs and it WAS hard to make myself sit down and watch the damn film again. But I must admit I am enjoying (at least attempting) to unscramble my thoughts on this in blog form.

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  2. andygeddon says:

    Nice blog and an interesting way of putting Hollywood’s insistence on sanitising kung fu for a multiplex audience. I think it’s telling that in something like The Matrix or Kill Bill more of the essence of proper kung fu movies flows more strongly than in any of the Hollywood Jet Li or Jackie Chan films. This ain’t anything new though – even Enter The Dragon is easily the least interesting of all of Bruce Lee’s films, a fact that I put down to the involvement of Warner Brothers and an attempt to make it a mainstream Hollywood hit. It’s got a lot to do, I think, with the way Hollywood studios produce films (from an admin/finance point of view) as a similar phenomenon can be observed in John Woo’s work in the west.

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    • I agree that it probably does have a lot to do with the way Hollywood produces movies, and apparently there are differences in the way Hollywood goes about this and the way the Hong Kong industry does. I am sure that I have read somewhere that the action choreographers enjoy more freedom, autonomy and authority when they work on the set and in the editing room in Hong Kong as well.

      Umm, I think I am the only person on the planet who does not like The Matrix or Kill Bill. Sorry. As showcases for martial arts I find them to be underwhelming.

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  3. jpfmovies says:

    Interesting connection dangerous. I agree with you theory that Hollywood sanitizes (and thereby wastes) the talent of these Asian film stars. I too have routinely complained of this very practice. Like in Idiocracy, Hollywood seems to force more and more rigidly formulaic movies down the audiences throat which seem to be satisfied with the entertainment elite’s waste of (in particular) Asian talent. I also agree that the epitome of this practice is seen in Woo’s western movies. I mean how can the man who made red cliff also have done Hard Target or Broken Arrow? With respect to Hollywood I am going to use one of my favorite quotes “who is the fool, the fool or the fool that follows him?”

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    • Yes, John Woo is another wasted talent. I am listening to director Antonie Fuqua’s DVD commentary on his film The Replacement Killers which has Chow Yun Fat in it. Fuqua is very candid about how the studio system cannot seem to accommodate ‘different’ styles of performance or directing, and this may indicate why some of these films misfire.

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  4. Will says:

    Great post Meredith. Relating your relationship experiences with the Hollywood crossover of HK filmmakers is a true stroke of brilliance and I really think you are onto something. Asian and Western filmmaking philosophies are just inherently different and I don’t think it’s possible to successfully transition without losing a lot of what makes Asian films special. And that’s why true fans will always be disgruntled with American films featuring these artists while general public may embrace them.

    Also for the record I agree that Matrix and Kill Bill are poor displays of martial arts, although I do enjoy the first Kill Bill as entertainment and I respect what Tarantino is trying to do with them. I also hope that they introduced Shaw Bros to people that wouldn’t have otherwise found them. The Matrix I have little love for, although I have warmed a bit to the first film.

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