Book Review: Virgin Film: Martial Arts

I honestly never would have guessed that the first book review I would write for this site would be for non-fiction. As a matter of fact, that actually kind of bothers me. Non-fiction work shouldn't need a review from a web-site run by a guy who put off his graduation date so he could spend another semester dicking around with cameras while calling it school work. I mean, non-fiction is simply presenting what is there. Criticism of their work might be warranted in terms of how well they convey the meaning of their thesis, and there might be some room for discussion about the stylistic choices they make in their writing. However, if I - a person who refuses to do anything that would cut into the time I spend watching kung fu movies and playing Japanese RPGs - take such issue with your non-fiction that I'm actually moved to take notes and underline the most offensive passages of incorrect or misleading information, you have officially failed.

Such is the issue with PTJ Rance's contribution to the "Virgin Film" series of genre surveys, examining the oft misunderstood and rather nebulously defined "Martial Arts" genre. I don't mean to spew meaningless invective at the author. Rance is a practitioner of martial arts (White Crane) and has done a good deal of research on most of the movies that are individually reviewed. My objections are not personal animosity.

I bought his book at a store which was selling them at discount. Always interested in a book on one of my favorite film genres, I picked it up and found it to cover a selection of films which I neither approved of nor objected to: a seemingly mundane selection of the genre's better known and incessantly discussed exponents. Since I had not only seen every movie reviewed in the book, but consider myself fairly well informed about the genre I have spent innumerable hours watching, collecting, and discussing with other like-minded fans, I was ready to pass it up when a tiny passage of text on the back cover caught my attention: "A fascinating must-have read for any kick flick fanatic."

What in the blue hell is a "kick flick?"

Might it be a childish term for martial arts films that is completely lacking in descriptive power and reduces the genre to its most obvious element (fighting)? I think that this would be the only way to understand the term "kick flick," although perhaps it just means a movie where people kick. Who needs poetic terms like "heroic bloodshed" or "wuxia" (martial chivalry) when describing a film genre that started in the silent era and stems from centuries of literature, theater, and cultural expression?

Seeing this, I had to buy it, if for no other reason than to find out if it were truly as awful as those two words lead me to believe. If it had turned out that the blurb on the back were little more than woefully written copy, I would have been quite pleased. Unfortunately, within the first two pages, the term is repeated and the slightly less nauseating term "chop-socky" is used. Even worse, Rance refers to the Japanese science fiction flick Returner (Takashi Yamazaki, 2002) as a "gun-fu" movie (p.13) which is a term far stupider than the other two combined. What is gun-fu? Shooting a gun while doing martial arts? Returner doesn't even fit into the Hong Kong action genre that the term was originally (sadly) applied to.

Even worse is Rance's explanation for the selection of films. Rance cites "each of the movies covered is the originator of a successful series, has a sequel, or at the very least has spawned a number of copycat releases" (p.2) as being a reason for their inclusion. This criteria is flawed for a number of reasons. For one thing, Rance misses several extremely influential and important films in favor of films that not only haven't spawned a series or rip-offs, but are themselves highly derivative. A Touch of Zen (King Hu, 1969) might be a singular example of personal, idiosyncratic auteur film making within the genre, but it is still has more to offer those new to the genre than something like The Karate Kid (John G. Alvidsen, 1984) or Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, 2003/4). The book is structured as a chronological survey of the genre; however, the way in which the chapters are broken will leave the uninitiated with the wrong impression of how Hong Kong and Taiwanese film makers developed the genre and the genre fanatic scratching their head as to how anybody could get it so wrong. Why is Wu Pang's The Story of Wong Fei-Hung -- a 1949 film considered by most to be the first kung fu movie (as opposed to its sister/mother genre, the wuxia film) -- placed under the same developmental cycle as King Hu's Taiwanese wuxia film Dragon Gate Inn(1966) and Chang Cheh's first million dollar hit, One-Armed Swordsman (1967)? Wu Pang's film is important as an early establishment of the martial arts film as the domain of the Cantonese film production in post-war Hong Kong, which Mandarin film outfits like Shaw Brothers, Cathay, and Great Wall would not break into until the mid-sixties, which is when Come Drink With Me (King Hu, 1966), Temple of the Red Lotus (Hsu Tseng-Hung, 1965), One Armed Swordsman, and The Jade Bow (Zhang Xin-Yan, 1966) were released. These constitute a movement within the genre separate from the one that Wu Pang started, and should be examined in the context of each other as well as that era in Hong Kong's history. I knew I had a winner.

No mention is given to the Cantonese serials, such as the Buddha's Palm (Ling Yun, 1964) series that spawned a Shaw Brothers remake and later a television series, nor to the "Jane Bond" films that such important directors as Chu Yuan spent the better half of the decade filming, nor to stars like Chan Po-Chu and Josephine Siao. Some of what Rance claims is simply wrong. Rance claims that for Wu Pang, "the very idea of the fantasy-oriented wuxia-pian was anathema... and he was determined to make the martial arts film devoid of flying fighters, magic swords, and the ubiquitous knight errant." (p. 32) Oh, really? Why then did he make Ne Zha's Adventures in the Heavenly Palace, Ne Zha's Adventures in the East Sea, and Devil's Sword all in 1957? Each of these is a martial arts film filled with special effects (with a magical creature like Ne Zha, it's a necessity) and knight errantry.

In her review of Dragon Gate Inn, Rance erroneously states that "at the time combining opera and film was a daring innovation..." (p. 42). This is of course incorrect. Had Rance bothered to watch any of the Cantonese language films that the book ignores, she might have noticed that they frequently include music sung by actors who were also students of the opera stage. Even in Mandarin language films, the clanging of cymbals and drums in the likes of Temple of the Red Lotus directly correlate to operatic traditions. And besides that, Huangmei and Cantonese opera films were hugely popular with audiences in the fifties and sixties. Rance then complains that One-Armed Swordsman -- one of the films that established the use of hand held cameras and tight editing in the late sixties era of wuxia films -- lacks aesthetic value while also claiming it as "the real beginning of the gung fu pian" (p. 61). It all makes very little sense.

Bear in mind, up until this point, I had not yet begun to take any notes. It was in the second page of her intro to what the author dubs "The Golden Age of Kick Flicks" that I had to get a pencil to underline quite possibly the weirdest error I've seen outside of a Ric Meyers commentary. Rance writes about Jackie Chan's early career that "Cathay cast him in a number of kung fu films (directed by Lo Wei, who made Bruce Lee's first two films)..." (p. 64). Only problem: Cathay had ceased producing films by 1973, and Jackie's first major starring role (barring the Cub Tiger from Kwangtung debacle) was not until 1976. Rance again shows great ignorance of the genre about which she is writing two pages further, asserting that in the eighties, "The [Hong Kong film] industry moved away from the traditional and created cinema that belonged to contemporary Hong Kong, with great success... costume epics disappeared for the rest of the decade."How in the world could anybody write that?

First of all, it was in the early eighties that The Prodigal Son (Sammo Hung, 1981), Legendary Weapons of China (Lau Kar-Leung, 1982), Killer Army (Chang Cheh, 1981) were being made. These are all fairly traditional films with some outstanding action as well as thematic weight for audiences already familiar with their generic conventions. As for "costume epics," the author has forgotten (if she ever knew) that wuxia films from directors like Chu Yuan were still drawing considerable numbers of people, as were stars like Tien Peng -- a Taiwanese actor who had been making wuxia, kung fu, and action films since the late sixties as a star, a producer, and even as director. And what about ghost films like A Chinese Ghost Story (Ching Siu-Tung, 1987) and its many derivatives. These aren't kung fu movies, but they contain martial arts scenes and action direction by such important choreographers like Ching Siu-Tung and Phillip Kwok. This should have been the perfect time to talk about how the influence of the genre's popularity had seeped into other generic traditions. Chinese film makers adapted from Pu Song Ling's Strange Tales from the very start of their film industry in Shanghai, but films like Li Han Hsiang's 1965 effort, Enchanting Shadow, didn't include wildly creative action choreography that could easily fit into any wuxia film. Rather than discuss this, Rance ignores it, as well as the most interesting and least discussed aspects of the eighties: Mainland China's many contributions to the genre.

If I were to go over every single note I have in the next 200 pages of Rance's awful book, this would be well over three or four thousand words. At that point, I might as well write my own book. Mention must be made; however, of Rance's organization. I already mentioned that Rance orders the book chronologically, but she also has three sections that follow her appallingly inept survey of Hong Kong -- covering Hollywood, "The Rest of the World" (Rance's words), and television. It is insulting that films that have been written about so often by so many warrant their own section while Japan, Thailand, and South Korea are each represented with only one entry, in spite of Japan having been greatly influential on the genre, South Korea having provided some of the top villains (Hwang Jang Lee in Drunken Master, Eagle Han in Guards from Shaolin, for instance) as well as having contributed numerous co-productions and provided the natural settings for so many films. Thailand looks to be where the future of the genre will be located, with Panna Rittikrai, Jeeja Yanin, Dan Chupong and Tony Jaa showing high caliber screen fighting talent that China and Hong Kong don't seem to be producing any more. Even worse, perhaps, is that North Korea, Indonesia, and Malaysia are barely mentioned. Indonesia's martial arts films are becoming increasingly popular with cult and exploitation film fans, while North Korea is a sterling example of how the genre has been used for propagandist aims and Malaysia's various films about their historical heroes, such as Huang Tuah, were made with the investments of film companies like MP&GI -- better known as one of 1960's Hong Kong's mega studios, Cathay.

Furthermore, there are too many films that are ignored and glossed over to be blithely discussing films that everybody has seen. For that matter, why is Enter the Dragon (Robert Clause, 1973) included in the section on Hong Kong kung fu films? It's an American production, designed more for an American audience than a foreign one. And hasn't enough been said about Bruce Lee at this point? Why ignore more important films in the genres development to prattle about Japanese television shows that were only shown in English in the UK? These aren't important to the genre as a whole, at least not any more than "Ultraman" or "Super Sentai." Why give short shrift to "The Rest of the World?"

I could further elaborate. I could simply proffer a selection of the most egregious or just factually incorrect snippets that litter the book -- although to do so would take me days, and this post has to end at some point. If the issues with Rance's book were that the conclusions about the generic thrust of kung fu, wuxia, chambara, or any other strain of martial arts film differed from mine, or that she considered important films that I simply don't like, it would still be excusable. The incorrect information is unacceptable. And because of the incorrect information, I feel no need to equivocate when talking about Rance's work. Her basic idea of martial arts films is completely off, and on many of the most significant facets of wuxia films in particular (which she describes as being about "antiquated codes of honour" on page 101, and claims that "machine-gun editing [is] common to the genre" p.133. Rance also claims that heroes in these films "often remain unscathed or die in tragic circumstances" on page 97, apparently having forgotten that Jimmy Wang Yu gets his arm chopped off and still survives in several of his films) she has absolutely no clue.

This is supposedly a book for beginners looking to get deeper into the genre. Might I suggest a decent book that covers all of Hong Kong cinema, like David Bordwell's Planet Hong Kong? Stephen Teo's Hong Kong: The Extra Dimension? Or -- since you don't have to pay for these -- how about Jean Lutkish's blog on kungfucinema.com, Electric Shadows? Why not just check out the HKFA news letters and supplemental material? Any of these would be better options for a new fan looking to better understand the genre, as all are written by competent critics historians, and fans who understand that to write about this genre is to write about Chinese, Hong Kong, Asian, and world cinema. Rance makes some interesting observations on many of the films she reviews, but her book would be nothing but a disservice to genre novice's, who would walk away thinking that no wuxia films were made during the eighties or that Jackie Chan invented kung fu comedy and dangerous stunt work with Project A. This is an awful, awful book. Don't read it.

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