1977 vs. 1978: A Banner Year for Martial Arts Films
Like all good blog posts dealing with popular culture and kung fu, this one starts by assuming the existence of time travel.
In a sense this is what the martial arts have always been about. It can be seen in your average kung fu school on any given Tuesday night as individuals turn to their practice in an attempt to feel what it would have been like to be a different kind of person in a very different place. This promise has always been part of the appeal of the traditional martial arts in the West. They are seen as an embodied avenue to a far off place.
But for now let us imagine that our newly gained powers over time and space are less metaphorical. And the subject of today’s research will be the effect of cinema on the modern appeal of the Asian martial arts in the West. Or put another way, what was the process by which we came to accept these images and stories as a normal part of western consumer culture?
The real dilemma arises when we try to decide on a year. My theory is that there are basically two sorts of martial arts studies scholars. Some would opt to visit the year 1978, and then there are those who would grab the control panel and launch us back to 1977 instead.
1978 would be an obvious choice for students interested in the history of the cultural appropriation of the martial arts in the West. Actually it would be a great year for anyone who just loves classic kung fu films. What will we find in the theaters? Perhaps the biggest titles of the year were The Five Deadly Venoms, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, and the first installment of Jackie Chan’s iconic Drunken Master (my personal favorite). For those with more specific tastes there was also Heroes of the East and Warriors Two (a must for Wing Chun students). Even Bruce Lee makes his own time traveling appearance with the 1978 debut of Game of Death.
By comparison the pickings in 1977 appear to be slim. Executioners from Shaolin is certainly a “must see” film. But I suspect that most of us would skip Snake-Crane Secret or the 18 Weapons of Kung Fu.
Still, a number of Japanese titles debuted in 1977. This is somewhat ironic as the sword wielding monastic warriors, escaped from the wreckage of a burning temple, that the year is best remembered for are the now iconic Jedi Knights of the Star Wars franchise, not the samurai who inspired them. Indeed, it was George Lucas’ highly creative vision for a space opera combining elements of western serials and samurai theater that would ultimately introduce me, and most of my friends, to the outlines of the Shaolin mythos.
I have always found this to be a little surprising given the popularity of all of those kung fu films throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Still, nothing succeeds quite like success. And Star Wars proved to be an incredible vehicle for appropriating certain key elements of Japanese and Chinese martial arts culture (as well as the imagery of Western knighthood) and feeding it back to audiences in ways that were deemed to be inspirational rather than “highbrow” (e.g., a Kurosawa film) or sketchy and dangerous (let us remember for a moment the sorts of theaters that actually played kung fu films back in the day).
1978 was a year with some fantastic films, but I think that I would still choose to visit 1977. Star Wars hit exactly the right notes for its cultural moment, and in so doing it made critical aspects of the Asian martial arts (including cryptic masters, the nobility of the sword, Qi based mysticism and the promise of martial excellence through the quest for “lost lineages”) desirable to western consumers.
One might object that the original Star Wars films themselves did not feature “proper martial arts,” and instead focused only on fencing and mysticism rather than the kicks and acrobatics that were seen in other films. Of course China and Japan produced their own genres of “swordsmen” films. And if one were to make an argument in the same vein as Krug (2001), it was Star Wars that did the heavy lifting of making these once esoteric aspects of the world of the Asian martial arts culturally and commercially available to suburban kids across the country.
From there it was an easy transition to the closest Tae Kwon Do, Karate or Kung Fu school. In that sense Star Wars functioned almost as a cultural enzyme driving forward a process of social transformation that was larger than anything that its creators envisioned.
And while “proper martial arts” may have been missing from the big screen, they would go on to play a prominent role in the “Expanded Universe” of comic books, video games and novels that were to follow. The Seven Lightsaber Forms of the Jedi Order, with their excruciatingly detailed in-universe history, would be only one of the many fictional and hyper-real martial arts systems to emerge from that far distant galaxy. Even the Wookies received their own, species specific, martial arts system.
Fans seem to be fully aware of the foundational role of the historic fighting systems in the creation of the mythic Jedi order. It is something that many embrace. In fact, more than one commentator has noted the irony that there are no leading Asian characters in a movie franchise which succeeded through its cultural appropriation of Eastern symbols and images. Of course Krug would remind us that this is exactly what successful instances of cultural appropriation usually look like.
Rogue One: Donnie Yen
The many intersections between the development of the Star Wars mythos and the spread of the traditional Asian hand combat systems in the West is a fascinating topic and one that deserves a much more careful investigation. Unfortunately this is not the place for such an undertaking. The aim of the current post is more limited in scope.
In July of 2015 a number of Chinese tabloids began to publish rumors that Donnie Yen had been cast as a character to appear in two new Star Wars films. These were Episode VIII, in which it was reported that he might play a Chinese Jedi opposite Han Solo, and the standalone film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (originally titled Star Wars Anthology: Rogue One). These reports were briefly discussed at Kung Fu Tea here, and were widely republished by various media outlets around the web.
The significance of this move was not lost on commentators. Reporters immediately noted that this choice was designed to broaden the appeal of this film within China’s huge cinema market. In fact, the film’s producers seem to have been determined to feature top shelf Chinese talent and Donnie Yen is rumored to have beat out six other possible contenders (including the noted martial artist Jet Li) for the spot.
Certain fans happily noted that the franchise would be correcting what many saw as an increasingly serious oversight in the exclusion of Asian actors from the world of the quasi-oriental Jedi. Better yet, they were turning to a noted martial arts performer to do so. One can almost sense the moment at which speculation erupted as to what color his lightsaber would be.
Much of this reporting was speculative and premature. Disney has been remarkably tight lipped about these projects, even managing to prevent the leak of the concept art for Rogue One that they presented to their investors or a teaser trailer that was shown at conferences. There was no immediate confirmation of Yen’s casting or what role, if any, he would play in the Star Wars universe.
The only formal confirmation of Yen’s involvement with this franchise that I am currently aware of happened rather recently at D23 where he was included in a cast list and photo that was released to the public.
It might be interesting to pause for a moment to speculate on what this all means. [Fair warning, things are about to get very speculative]. Rogue One is set just prior to the opening of Episode III (A New Hope, 1977) and is said to follow a group intent on stealing the plans for the Death Star (thus setting the stage for Luke Skywalker’s first adventure). As the cast picture indicates, this movie is meant to have a different feel from other installments in the Star Wars franchise.
Rogue One has been described as a heist film set in the “gritty reality” of a protracted ground war against the Empire. Nor will the Force will play much of a role in this storyline. When describing his film director Gareth Edwards stated “It comes down to a group of individuals that don’t have magic powers, that have to bring hope to the galaxy.”
It is hard to say that “magical powers” will play no role in any film in which Darth Vader is rumored to make an appearance. Still, Edward’s point seems obvious enough. This is not a storyline that will feature a Jedi. Donnie Yen’s character is almost certainly neither a Force user nor a Jedi. This seems to make it pretty unlikely that he would be tapped to play one in Episode VIII.
The theory that Yen was hired to broaden the international appeal of the project does have some support when we look at the other casting choices that were made. It is a pretty geographically diverse group and it even includes a second draw for Chinese audiences in the form of Jiang Wen. I suppose what all of this means is that I can now shelve my fantasies of seeing a lightsaber wielding Ip Man.
Midi-chlorians vs. The Martial Arts
I must admit that I was pretty disappointed to realize that the first Chinese actor to play a major role in this series (and a noted martial artist at that) would not be cast as a Jedi. After all, that has always been the part of the Star Wars franchise that owed the greatest debt of gratitude to Wuxia novels and the myth of the burning of the Shaolin temple. It just seems like a circle that needs to be closed.
If Donnie Yen is not going to be a Jedi, what sort of hero will he be? All we have to go on at this point is a single picture. Still, it is very suggestive.
The first thing to notice about his character’s design are the white and opaque eyes. It seems unlikely that Disney would have released a publicity photo in which one of their more expensive stars was blinking. As such it is interesting to speculate whether Yen is supposed to blind or visually impaired.
While he has a rifle of some sort slung across his back, our eyes are immediately drawn to the composite wood and metal staff that he holds in his hands. Featuring both free flowing organic lines and technical augmentation we are forced to wonder about its function. Is it a simple aid, or something more? A weapon befitting a renowned martial artist perhaps?
Of course the image of a blind warrior conjures the memory of the iconic figure Zatoichi (who was featured in 26 films from the early 1960s to the late 1980s and had his own hit television show in Japan between 1974 and 1979). China too had its tales of disabled swordsmen, and similar figures continue to be a stock character in popular culture treatments of the martial arts today.
The Star Wars universe already has a rich history of staff wielding warriors, from the Force Pikes of the Imperial Guard to the pole fighting Jedi Master and librarian extraordinaire Vodo-Siosk Baas. While the overall look of Rogue One is intended to be a departure from the expected, Donnie Yen’s character seems to retain a number of important points of connection with both the martial arts and Star Wars mythos.
After thinking more about this photo and the director’s various statements I am starting to become more excited about Yen’s involvement in this storyline. It is no doubt true that his involvement with the film (as well as that of Jiang Wen) will increase box office returns across China. Yet I think that there are a fair number of Western fans who will be just as excited to see Donnie Yen in this role. I for one cannot wait to see what contributions his background in the visual representation of the Chinese martial arts will make to the Star Wars universe.
It is also interesting to consider the more positive aspect of Yen appearing on screen as a martial artist rather than as a Jedi. While elements of martial arts culture (such as the Japanese cult of the sword and Daoist Qi mysticism) have certainly contributed to the creation of the Jedi ethos, they remain distinct concepts.
In the Star Wars Universe certain individuals are born strong in the Force, and others are not. The effect has been to create a caste system. Indeed, certain lines of storytelling in various novels and comic books have explicitly built off of this. While the controversial introduction of Midi-chlorians into the storyline in Episode I made this situation explicit, it is always something that seems to have hovered in the background of the mythos.
In contrast the martial arts also promise their students an avenue from which to step out onto the stage of history. They grant their own abilities and have their own philosophies. And even in the Star Wars universe they are seen as skills that are available to people as a result of their effort and hard work rather than as a fluke of their birth. Yen’s character design promises to deliver an interesting hero, but one who is self-made rather than the product of wizardry.
I find this deeply appealing, and I suspect that many martial artists of various styles will agree with me. The driving engine behind the remarkable growth of the martial arts in the post-WWII period has been the promise that through dedication and hard work anyone, regardless of their nationality, gender or social background, can forge a “new self.” This is a profoundly democratic and empowering vision.
I will be the first to admit that it is one which we often fall short of. There are still many factors which skew who will get access to quality training and whether they will have the basic resources that they need to succeed. Still, what an incredible aspiration! What a vision of human potential. This is a project worth dedicating a life to.
The story of Luke Skywalker, a young farm boy from nowhere in particular, had a profound impact on audiences precisely because it touched on these themes. Unencumbered by a galactic bureaucracy, fate-warping Midi-chlorians and the crushing weight of a universe worth of back-story, his journey to adulthood seemed universal. Indeed, it was the promise of self-actualization that made Star Wars a natural ally in the spread of the martial arts. Luke Skywalker and the characters of Bruce Lee were clearly distinct and they appealed to different audiences (those who would choose 1978 vs. 1977). Yet there were also distinct parallels in the promises that they offered. Together they opened the separate doors necessary to make the martial arts appealing to so many diverse groups in such a short period of time.
Bruce Lee has never lost his cool. Yet the constant embroidery of the Star Wars story, while creating a richer universe, has also served to distance us form some of these key promises. The Jedi no longer appear as an ideal to be aspired to, but as a privileged caste to be looked upon with awe and a little bit of distrust.
In being given an opportunity to refocus the narrative on the less mystical aspects of the martial arts, and by once more demonstrating self-actualization without magic, Donnie Yen has been put in a fascinating position. Rather than simply being a token casting choice to attract Chinese viewers, he may have a chance to renew the essential promise of one of the central stories of modern popular culture. Who better to do so than a Chinese martial artist?
If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Spreading the Gospel of Kung Fu: Print Media and the Popularization of Wing Chun (Part I)