Princess Iron Fan (Mainland China, 1941)

I dutifully watched this old animated film revolving around the Journey to the West stories about Princess Iron Fan in the interests of research, allowing for the fact that the film is so very old and such an early example of animation from Asia*. Before watching I assumed that I would find the film dated and that I would find it – at best – of curiosity value but somewhat old fashioned. To be sure, the print I watched online was of terrible quality, but this could not deter my enjoyment of the animation itself. I was surprised and delighted by how watchable this film still is (despite the crappy quality of the print).

PIF poster

According to the Wikipedia article about the film the directors, brothers Wan Guchan and Wan Laiming**, were inspired by Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and, to be sure, a Disneyesque influence does seem to be apparent. This sits beside more traditional looking Asian images; the juxtaposition didn’t jar on me. I felt that there were a lot of beautiful looking images that combined with a fun story and nice touches of humour to create an entertaining film.

If you want to watch this movie you can find it on youtube or on the US Library of Congress website***.

*“This animated adaptation of the Princess Iron Fan story from Journey to the West was apparently the first animated feature film to be made in China and the 12th worldwide (although it is only the 9th that still survives, as the films of Argentina‘s animation pioneer Quirino Cristiani are thought to be lost).”  – wikipedia

**The brothers Wan also directed another Journey to the West animation – Uproar in Heaven – which is gorgeous and which I will rewatch as part of my Monkey Magic project.

***Don’t you love how these big libraries are digitising all of this great content?

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In the worlds before Monkey, primal chaos reigned…

“The nature of Monkey was irrepressible!”

Remember the Japanese TV show ‘Monkey’?

Did you know that it was an adaptation of an ancient classical Chinese novel; or that the story has been remade oodles of time as Chinese Opera, theatre, animation and kung fu movies?

I am working on a talk about this most enduring of stories to give at a private event at the end of the month. To celebrate the lunar New Year – the year of the monkey, no less – I am posting the text from the opening narration of that old Japanese TV show, along with a clip of the theme song.

Enjoy! And happy new (lunar) year!

“In the worlds before Monkey, primal chaos reigned.
Heaven sought order.
But the phoenix can fly only when its feathers are grown.
The four worlds formed again and yet again,
As endless aeons wheeled and passed.
Time and the pure essences of Heaven,
the moisture of the Earth,
the powers of the sun and the moon
All worked upon a certain rock, old as creation.
And it became magically fertile.
That first egg was named “Thought”.
Tathagata Buddha, the Father Buddha, said,
“With our thoughts, we make the world.”
Elemental forces caused the egg to hatch.
From it then came a stone monkey.
The nature of Monkey was irrepressible!”

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My new project: Journey to the West

The main cast of Japanese 1970s TV series Monkey

The main cast of Japanese 1970s TV series Monkey

“Dangerous Meredith’s rapturous rant about cult classic Monkey Magic…”

So raves a small part of a promotional blurb about an event being held at the end of February at which I am pledged to give a talk.

Some long time and very dear friends are organising this event. Over the years they have been exposed, probably too often, to my “rapturous rants” about kung fu movies. When they were putting together a collection of performers and presenters for their event I volunteered a talk about chopsocky and, more fool they, they accepted.

I decided to talk about ‘Journey to the West’ and its many interpretations into film. I decided to do this for a few different reasons:

  • Many people my age and a bit younger / older have fond memories of the Japanese TV show ‘Monkey’ (which we used to refer to as ‘Monkey Magic’) when it was screened here in Australia in the 80s. If you want to know why, read this blog where I described the impact it had on me.
  • Despite the fact that ‘Monkey’ was popular when it aired I doubt if many of the people who watched it have any idea of the importance of The Journey to the West in Chinese culture. I thought they might be interested to know that it is a classic piece of Chinese literature, originally dating from the 16th century, that it has been adapted for Chinese Opera and film many times and that it continues to be a source of inspiration in Chinese culture even today.
  • This year is the year of the monkey! And I was born in the year of the monkey myself, so how could I resist doing a talk about something monkey related.

One of the organisers, Erin Ender, is a fantastic artist who, years ago, created a giant inflatable sculpture of Sun Wukong. When I reminded her of this, and described my reasons for choosing Journey to the West as the topic for my talk she decided that she would install the sculpture during the Love Fest.

I will be spending February creating my talk and to do this I have to choose movies to speak about. Which of the Sun Wukong / Journey to the West movies do you find the most interesting? If you are a Gen X Aussie like me, which of the Monkey Magic TV show episodes was your favourite? Please leave a comment below.


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Men Can Be Flowers Too: Asian Masculinities in Popular Culture

It’s been so long since I have blogged myself; I have been extraordinarily busy chasing an income and haven’t had the time or creative and intellectual energies. I do miss it, though, and intend to come back to it. Meanwhile, enjoy this blog that Dr. CeeFu has written about masculinity in Asian pop culture.

High Yellow - Asian Popular Culture

NIcholas Tse as Hua Wuque, The Proud Twins Nicholas Tse as Hua Wuque, The Proud Twins

Every time I see articles about young Asian actors leaving behind their “flower boy” roles for more “manly” characters, I feel some kind of way. Such articles act like attractiveness and masculinity cannot go hand it hand. They might if their authors were watching what I watch.

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The Clones of Bruce Lee is a Paean to the Commodification of the Human Body

The opening scenes of The Clones of Bruce Lee dramatize the attempts of medical staff in casualty to revive a dying Bruce Lee. The story swiftly moves onto showing us how a secret service agency appropriates samples from Lee’s body in order to clone him. “Professor he’s all yours now. I only hope that what we attempt will work.”

A classy film, The Clones of Bruce Lee is not. Obviously made to cash in on dead Bruce Lee’s fame, it is extraordinary just how closely the incidents in the film’s plot cleave to the capitalistic motives of its producers. It’s not that I am surprised at this and, indeed, this blog will be stating the bleeding obvious to many familiar to the film. But it is still gobsmacking to witness. Did the producers not expect Lee’s fans to find this a wee bit disrespectful? There is something a tad psychopathic in the way the filmmakers have ruthlessly appropriated someone else’s life and career to fill their own pockets. This determination to turn human beings, their bodies, talents, and creative legacies, into a money making asset is reflected in the film’s characters and the things that happen to them. The Clones of Bruce Lee can be seen as a catalogue of blatant attempts to treat human beings as commodities.

The most obvious example of this is the fact that the film’s story revolves around the doings of the three clones themselves. The cloning process is fudged over but it is clear that the clones are somehow based on samples of organic matter taken from the original Bruce Lee’s body, which seems to suggest that the poor man was something that could somehow be reassembled at will and churned out in duplicate.

There are scenes showing the freshly minted clones brushing up their martial arts skills*. In these scenes what struck me was how biddable and docile the clones were. Somehow this doesn’t square with my idea of who Bruce Lee was both on and off screen. Admittedly, I am not a diehard fan of Bruce and so do not have a nuanced appreciation of his celebrity persona, but biddable and docile is not how I would describe him.

Perhaps part of the problem here is that the three poor performers who are playing the clones have a pretty thankless task. They spend an inordinate amount of their screen time shirtless so that their toned torsos can reference that of the real life Bruce in many of his movies and posters. There are many shots of them wearing sun glasses and angling their faces just-so, so that their superficial resemblance to Lee is driven home. They also manfully attempt the Bruce Lee glower and screech. But this is not acting, it’s aping someone else’s mannerisms. I can’t imagine that there was much room here for these performers to inject much of their own personalities or creativity into their performances**. Perhaps my perception of docility arises from the fact that these performers are being creatively docile: these are very much tame performers in the service of a profit making exercise.

There is one scene that I find completely bizarre*** as it has no bearing on or reference to the rest of the plot whatsoever. A bunch of completely naked women come running out of the sea, dance on the beach to pop music, smear baby oil all over their breasts (this bit takes some time and many nipply close ups) and then swarm onto a passing bloke. The only reason for including these women, who are never seen or referred to again in the film, is to show some full frontal nudity and nudge the film towards soft porn territory for a couple of minutes. It is completely gratuitous and these women are literally being used as sex objects. Sorry to sound like a stodgy old femo Nazi, but this is a straight up and down example of human bodies being used as commodities.

If these ladies are sex objects, perhaps the Bruce Lee clones can be seen as violence objects? And alongside the clones, another set of fighters are used as tools of violence. Two of the clones are sent to track down a mad scientist in his secret laboratory in Northern Thailand. Not content with creating drugs to sell (a practice that shows the dark underbelly of capitalism if ever I saw one), the scientist has come up with a plan to turn men into bronze metal fighting people by injecting, um, something into them (The Clones of Bruce Lee is not red hot when it comes to explaining scientific procedure). This is a very strange thing to put into a plot of even a kung fu movie and is another unsubtle example of using the human body as a commodity. A this stage of the movie you have clones, made from someone else’s synthesised body tissues, fighting men that have been dehumanised so that they shine yellow and clang when they are hit.

A word on the fighting in this martial arts movie: it’s not bad. The choreography is reasonably interesting and the performers, especially the clones, execute it nicely. Ironically, having someone clumsily presented as a clone of Bruce, i.e. NOT the REAL Bruce, is a great way to force you to compare the clones to the original and I can’t imagine that big fans of Bruce will find much joy in watching these fight scenes – I assume that they will constantly be reminded of what they are missing. But still, the fight scenes are the best part of the film and quite OK to watch.

And yet… for all the physical and choreographic skill on offer they lack something. Great kung fu films showcase choreography and physical performance that is not only highly entertaining to watch as a standalone set piece but also which supports themes, narrative and characterisation and helps the films to hang together as a satisfyingly cohesive whole****. Obviously, the makers of The Clones of Bruce Lee had not set out to make a classic, but still in dehumanising their characters they have perhaps robbed the film of its one point of creative impact. The lack of emotional life of the characters and the silly cartoon plot they inhabit leaves the choreography with no work to do in terms of establishing character or heightening atmosphere. Despite the outlandish storyline, metal men and a glimpse of muff and nipple on the beach, this is a flat film that leaves its choreography nowhere to go and nothing to say. There are stacks of fights at the end of the film – to be truthful, I didn’t understand why some of them were happening. And instead of functioning as a climax, as the culminating action of a carefully built up film that layers fight choreography, good performances, good plot and direction, these scene just came across as time fillers.

I am not a fan of Bruce Lee. His talent, skills and charisma are obvious and, from reading various articles and watching documentaries, I am aware of his intelligence and his importance to the kung fu movie genre and martial arts as an innovator. But his gimlet eyed, cat wailing brand of hyper-machismo is not attractive to me and, therefore, I find his films a little tedious. But his fans are legion and to them he is important. Fan or not, I can appreciate that the man was certainly an original. I guess that’s why I find the filmmaker’s obsession with commodifying the human body and controlling and taming Lee’s image to be so peculiar. By making a joke and a commodity out of someone who was very much his own man and artist they have defeated their own ends as makers of entertainment.

NOTE: If you would like a detailed summary of the plot and a review of this film, check out Uncle Jasper’s review here at the Silver Emulsion website.

*Accompanied, at one point, by the Rocky soundtrack. The grand old kung fu movie tradition of ripping off hit movie soundtracks is being continued here, and is another small example of commodifying someone else’s stuff.

**And I don’t care what anyone says – real acting DOES happen in kung fu and wuxia films.

***Obviously this film wasn’t made for middle aged heterosexual ladies like me.

****Think of Ip Man, or Yuen Wu Ping’s Tai Chi Master, or Lau Kar Leung’s The Spiritual Boxer, or Sammo Hung’s The Magnificent Butcher.

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A short gushy blog about a Wang Lung Wei tribute clip

I first saw this tribute clip a few years ago when its maker Angel Vargas, aka The Flashpoint75 aka That Puerto Rican, posted it to the Heroic Sisterhood Facebook page. At the time, Angel was active on Facebook and was good enough to post many of his clips to our page (many can be found on his YouTube page and are definitely worth a look). Angel’s clips were always really well put together. I also appreciated the fact that he gave a lot of attention to many of the excellent female action stars in Hong Kong action movies.

My very favourite clip is this one paying tribute to Hong Kong kung fu movie tough guy Johnny Wang Lung Wei. The way Angel has paired movement with music is outstanding, especially in the opening section featuring footage from Lau Kar Leung’s Martial Club. Angel has selected music with beautifully complex rhythms that seem to match the rhythms in the choreography perfectly. This is a great underscoring of the fact that great choreography in kung fu movies often does feature very intricate and very beautiful rhythms and combinations of movements.

The rhythmic precision of the music, emphasising the rhythmic precision of the choreography, draws the viewer’s attention to the precision of the movement in its execution by the combatants. I have long loved the deftness and neatness of the movements of great screen fighters, it’s a hangover from my dancing days. Neatness may sound a bit mealy mouthed and not like a quality to get excited about but it is very important when it comes to performing physical movement. It doesn’t matter how athletic, extravagant or virtuosic the movement is, if it is not performed with neatness and precision then it is going to look out of control and messy. By having the aural precision of the music accompany our watching of the fight scenes in this clip, we have an extra means for tracking the ability of the performers to nail their movements with precision and control.

Sometimes, when I tell people that I love kung fu movies, they look at me a bit oddly. “Why do you like those silly movies?” people ask. The reason I give is that they are not as silly as people think and, choreographically and physical performance wise, they are not silly at all. I guess I love this clip because it highlights the ways in which these old movies were so extraordinarily well crafted and highly creative. I feel that if everybody could watch this tribute they would see what goes on inside my head when I watch these movies.

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About me

I am quite addicted to martial arts fu movies, which is odd when you consider that I hate violence. But when I declaim my love for these films my offline friends start back in horror and make warding motions with their hands. I am quite, quite alone in my obsession.

A million years ago, I worked as a freelance dancer and choreographer. I love martial arts films for many reasons – they are dynamic, stirring, fun, creatively audacious, and I learn a lot about a culture that isn’t my own. I love the choreography and the way the choreography is performed in these films – it’s often superb and this is a theme I often blog about.

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