Hou Hsiao-hsien—subject of a new critical anthology, soon to be reviewed here—is currently in post-production on The Assassin, his first foray into the martial arts genre. Hou’s career has been defined in part by a sincere evasion of genre as a whole, encapsulating Taiwanese culture in general in its assimilation and appropriation of numerous artistic traditions. Hou’s career has also been defined in part by an ongoing desire to set himself challenges: his latest project was shot on Bolex, and consequently promises an edit every fifteen to twenty seconds—fast work for a director customarily associated with the long take.
It got me thinking. Though martial arts films are generally left to die-hards to rant and rave about, less specialized critics could learn a great deal from watching them. Indeed, those inclined to appreciate and analyze the interaction between composition, editing and blocking (just about all of us, then) will find the combination of these elements at its sparest in the martial arts genre. Like the cane of electively blind Zatoichi, story is often a throwaway crutch in these movies: their chief lasting appeal is the unfiltered celebration of the human body as an active, working example of absolute discipline.
When it comes to fist fights and the martial arts, first impressions are everything. They’re the difference between a challenger opting to lose face and feeling invited to probe your personal space further. Martial arts films convey and seemingly depend upon a heightened reality precisely because violence heightens reality. It heightens reality because it sharpens the instincts and senses through which we absorb, relate to and shape that reality. In such heightened scenarios, judgments are made in the snap of a moment. It is for this reason that the moment—and “being in it”—is everything. Though this column ordinarily looks at how a scene or a motif may exemplify a film’s wider themes, in the martial arts film the moment is the theme: it is not only the upshot of a single fight that is determined by expressions of bodily prowess, but also the success of a martial arts film as a whole. Body counts more than anything.
As with any other filmic gesture—a frown, a double take, a kiss—such expressions are both simulated and real. They are real insofar as a kiss is the meeting of lips, as a kick is the purposeful extension of one’s leg or a punch is of one’s fist. They are simulated because they’re volunteered before a camera. Often, a fist meets teeth at the moment at which we cut from one angle to another angle. If a fistfight (or its prevention) often relies on first impressions, the martial arts film relies on the impression of things. This could be taken to mean the impression of violence—of fist hitting face—but it could also mean the impression one needs to make even before a word is spoken.
Take Yen Yung-tsu’s Thunder Kick(1973), in whose opening scene a band of petty extortionists intimidate a group of local men into paying them a toll in order to cross a river. Just as the victims exit the scene, we cut to a shot of the villainous bandleader (Nan Chiang), chuckling wickedly as he sips his drink. In the unfocused background of the same shot, we see Lee Gam Kwan’s lone figure calmly enter frame. In a single composition, the abuse of power is juxtaposed against ominous quietude, overzealousness against discipline, indulgence against control, vice against virtue, arrogance against wisdom. It’s only a brief moment, and the visual contrast tells us everything we need to know.
The protagonist of Lin Bing’s 72 Desperate Rebels (1978) is introduced in a different way. The film’s premise involves the brutal band of eponymous warriors with which a tyrannical lord has surrounded himself. In an early scene, they pit two enemies against one fierce opponent: if either of the two kills this man—who is himself one of the seventy-two desperate rebels—they will be set free. Another way to win freedom is to physically escape the arena, which is surrounded by hostile masked guards. One of the two men is killed. Just as the other, however, is thrown to the ground at the mercy of a spear-carrying guard at the arena’s perimeter, the tide turns. While in Thunder Kick tension was imbued with one image, here anticipation comes through a slightly more complex arrangement of actors, and the cuts between them.
We see the downed man in a frontal shot through the legs of the guard. The man looks up, fearing death.
Cut to the guard. His mask hides not only his identity but his intentions too. In a genre often based upon simple, identifiable moral codes, such ambiguity is immediately notable, which in itself imbues tension.
We cut to the merciless rebel, looking on from the center of the arena. He nods to the guard, effectively green-lighting the downed man’s execution.
Cutting to a high-angled shot of the victim-to-be not only increases his sense of vulnerability but also places us in a revealing position of complicity with the masked guard. Viewers who have seen enough martial arts films to know how uncomplicated their moral codes are will at this point realize the guard will not kill the man: if he did, it would be a particularly cruel angle to shoot it from, as we are essentially placed in the guard’s position.
As is revealed by the next shot, the guard is indeed on ‘our’ side: he reaches his spear down to fling the man up and over him, allowing him to escape. He confirms his good-guy status by removing his mask. A second fight ensues.
There’s no time for something as fussy as tension in Hsu Tien-yung’s The Six Directions of Boxing (1983), though. Seconds into this film, one man enters a shadowy room and is accosted by another. The title card appears as the two fight it out behind the text. As far as first impressions go, this is a film that won’t be hanging round.
For the opening of Chen Hung Min’s 18 Secrets of Kung Fu (1988), a different kind of action takes place. As voiceover narration explains the differences in kung fu styles, we see individual performers shadow sparring. In line with its functional title, the opening sequence of 18 Secrets of Kung Fu could be part of a stylized documentary. Indeed, unlike the others already mentioned, in this sequence narrative is stripped away altogether. Body and its expressions are illustrative—not only of the narration, but of their own expression. Autonomy made flesh, if you like.