Funny how it’s only been a week or so since I wrote a little bit about how it isn’t my job to correct people who are wrong on the internet and an article shows up on a blog I enjoy which makes me want to publicly raise my objections.
There’s a lot to love about Black Gate’s blog. They’ve done admirable work with articles about authors who deserve more attention. I particularly appreciate their retrospectives on Leigh Brackett, Manly WadeWellman, and Clark Ashton Smith. Their three part retrospective on the originsof the fantasy genre as a whole is highly worth reading for the fan of fantasy fiction, which many of Black Gate’s editors write quite well.
Among these editors is John R. Fultz, whose recent novel, Seven Princes, has attracted much positive attention. I read a post on a forum which compared it to Jack Vance’s Lyonesse trilogy, which is high praise to say the least. And if it’s an apt comparison, I have to give Mr. Fultz a tip of the hat; it takes guts to publish that sort of mythic fantasy when the current trend in the genre is “in the grim darkness of… there is only grim darkness.”
So it is not personal when I say that Mr. Fultz’s “DANGEROUSBEAUTY: The Kung Fu Fantasies of Zhang Yimou,” is a presumptuous, wrong-headed, almost contemptible look at the wuxia genre as a whole, and a bland, uncritical paean to a mistake so big that Zhang Yimou had to make it over three movies.
I will not bother with a critical examination of Zhang Yimou’s films here; they, and the enamored western public, exhausted my patience when they were new. Needless to say, I have a number of aesthetic, political, and ethical bones to pick with Zhang and the critics who championed his films in spite of their less than savory political underpinnings. But Mr. Fultz seems to enjoy them primarily for their aesthetic qualities, for their evocation of “the China of Legend, where martial arts is a magic all its own.” (His words) Aesthetics are subjective, and personal; I disagree that Zhang’s films evoke this vision of China particularly well, much less better than many of the films of such directors as King Hu, Chang Cheh, Chu Yuan, and Pan Lei. But to each his own. If Mr. Fultz enjoys these films, I will not begrudge him his enjoyment.
I do take exception, though, to his myopic view of the genre as a whole, as I do with certain statements that betray unfamiliarity with the subject of not only wuxia in both its literary and cinematic forms, but with Chinese film as a whole.
The first real red flag comes from his mistaking wuxia films for kung fu films. This is, to some degree, like speaking of spaghetti westerns as though they were the same as Poliziotteschi. To acknowledge overlapping themes and visual conventions is one thing, but to mistake the one as the same as the other is a fallacy. I also find it hard to swallow that he refers to them almost uniformly as “flicks.”
After summing up what he believes to be the artistic triumph of recent wuxia films (Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Zhang Yimou’s trio of genre excursions being the only ones he mentions), Mr. Fultz informs us that “there’s nothing wrong with the ‘grindhouse’ style of kung fu movie,” which makes me what he means by “grindhouse,” given that these films were mainstream entertainment for their intended audience and home region. Compared to Chang Cheh’s The Five Deadly Venoms and Jimmy Wang Yu’s The Master of the Flying Guillotine, we are told, Zhang Yimou's films have “[taken] this type of action-based movie to a whole new level of excellence.”
This illustrates precisely the problem I have with this piece. More apt comparisons for Zhang Yimou’s films might be found in the highly influential, elegiac work of King Hu, or the literary adaptation of Li Han-Hsiang at his best, or even the thoughtful tragedy of Wong Kar-Wai’s Ashes of Time. But Mr. Fultz has, either through ignorance or genuine equivocation, written off the breadth of a nearly century old film tradition. To read his article, one would believe that until the advent of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the genre contained not a single thoughtful meditation on the cycle of violence and revenge, not a single critical examination of the xia code and the jiang-hu, not a single film that was not a “grindhouse” style action film.
If Mr. Fultz is under the impression that Zhang Yimou’s films have set a visual bench mark for the genre, I have to again disagree. Although the gaudy visuals of his films appeal to western sensibilities, visual experimentation -- whether with slow-motion, special effect, or wonky cinematography -- has long been a staple of the wuxia genre. If he means that there is a technical proficiency present in Zhang’s films that is lacking in the rest of the genre, I have to once again point him to the work of King Hu, and to Wong Kar Wai’s lone contribution. Visually arresting wuxia (and kung fu) films existed before Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but Mr. Fultz gives us no indication that he has actually viewed them.
And as a fan of Jet Li who has long championed his ability to, y’know, actually act, I have to wonder at the statement that his one-note role in Hero “is arguably the greatest role of Jet Li’s career.” What about his deft handling of a non-action role in Ocean Heaven? What about his Golden Horse winning performance in Peter Chan’s Warlords? What about his role as the Cantonese folk hero Wong Fei Hung in Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China series, where he managed, with aplomb, to fill the shoes of the legendary Kwan Tak Hing? In the comments, there is some discussion of the melodramatic nature of Zhang Yimou’s Curse of the Golden Flower, which Fultz compares to Shakespeare, oblivious to the fact that it is a loose adaptation of Cao Yu’s “Thunderstorm.”
I am reminded of the brief furor caused by HBO’s “A Game of Thrones.” Various television critics – critics unfamiliar with the fantasy genre, its history and current trajectory, its diverse audience, and the current enthusiasm it enjoys – made a number of statements about what it meant as a product of its genre. Many of those critics actually enjoyed the show, but fans took umbrage at their myopic view of fantasy, quite understandably, and rightly. Fantasy fans are more numerous than (English speaking) wuxia and kung fu fans, and their displeasure was made quite well known. I only hope that they will remember their displeasure when they decide to write about subjects that, though perhaps related, are not within the purview of their fandom.
So yeah. Apparently I am the genre cop. Also: please stop perving over Zhang Ziyi.