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Martial-Arts Films Essay, Research Paper

One of the most underrated and misunderstood of all film genres, the martial-arts film is also one of the most popular among the movie-going masses and encompasses several sub-genres: kung fu, judo, ninja, and karate action flicks, samurai epics, the Asian fantasy and modern-day "new wave" gun-action violence of directors like John Woo, the acrobatic action/comedy antics of the talented Jackie Chan, and the historical epic as reinterpreted by Tsui Hark. The Orient has always seemed fraught with mystical wonder and knee-deep in historical grandeur, which many Westerners find exotic and unapproachable. Long before the martial-arts film genre existed, filmmakers tapped into a Western fascination with fighting techniques that originated in the Orient. World War II exposed millions of Americans and Europeans to the Japanese soldiers' code known as "Bushido," and to such fighting techniques as judo and jujitsu. These were subjects that the Japanese themselves were just beginning to appreciate as a basis for drama: Two of the legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's earliest films, Sanshiro Sugata (1943) and Sanshiro Sugata, Part 2 (1945), dealt with the historical conflict between adherents of judo and jujitsu. In America, beyond the usual depictions of Japanese soldiers' ferocity in battle, audiences got their first taste of martial-arts cinema in the 1945 thriller Blood On The Sun, directed by Frank Lloyd. The film starred James Cagney as a crusading American reporter (and judo expert) in 1931 Japan, who engages in a shattering fight to the death with a sinister Japanese police sergeant, portrayed by judo expert (and technical advisor) Jack Halloran. Although Blood On The Sun lost money and wasn't terribly influential, its martial-arts component pointed the way to one aspect of the American boom in Japanese cinema, which took place during the following decade. For Western film scholars and mainstream critics alike, the Chambara (Japanese sword-fighting period movies) have always been held in high esteem. Directed with majestic scope and grandeur, Japanese productions such as Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai (1954), Yojimbo (1960), and Sanjuro (1962), or Hiroshi Inagaki's Musashi Miyamoto (1954) (also known as Samurai 1, part of his 1954-56 Samurai Trilogy), were well received at "art house" movie theaters of the 1950s and '60s. Their originality and daring, coupled with superb acting and finely nuanced direction, elicited a highly favorable critical response; audiences found them vastly entertaining as well. In time, the name Akira Kurosawa — the most celebrated Japanese director in the West — became synonymous with Japanese sword-fighting movies, although others, such as Inagaki and Kenji Mizoguchi, have their own, narrower followings among the cinematically aware. The Chambara, however, are extremely "Western," especially as represented by Kurosawa. Since World War II, the heroes of Japanese period films have had surprisingly familiar motivations and personal characteristics and are often closest in spirit to that institution of American cinema, the western. But the martial-arts genre also encompasses the cinema of Hong Kong, mainland China, the Philippines, and South Korea, all of which have decidedly different characteristics from the critically celebrated Japanese films. Their cinema represents a most peculiar brand of escapism, aimed at a young audience whose background is very different from the relatively stable, tradition-oriented Japanese culture. Nearly every corner of the Asian continent has seen political, social, or economic strife, both within living memory and dating back through the centuries. The youth of these nations, although often steeped in dearly acquired survival skills and raised in traditions demanding strict adherence to rigid moral codes, is frequently at odds with — and sometimes openly rebellious against — their own cultures, which remain repressive but have little way of enforcing their restraints (with the exception of mainland China). The martial-arts films aimed at these audiences, in sharp contrast to those made in Japan, tend to be far more wild and woolly creations, infinitely less inhibited in both their violence and their characterizations. They are also, in absolute terms, great action movies — among the purest action cinema produced in the entire world. Outside of the more complex and restrained Japanese production sphere, the cinematic martial-arts heroes of today and yesterday — which include women as well as men within their ranks — are endowed with the strengths and abilities that Westerners often associate with comic-book superheroes. They can battle dozens of opponents simultaneously, leap to (or fall from) incredible heights, take an extraordinary number of seemingly painful and potentially crippling blows from heads, hands, feet, and sharp, exotic weapons, and continue to fight, even when they are bloodied or mortally wounded. They are icons of pure strength and endurance who invariably end up standing amid the bodies of their fallen foes. In one sense, they play a psychic role similar to that of the Japanese-created screen monster Godzilla (or Gojira, as he is known in Japan): an ironic symbol of endurance amid the decades of abuse that Asian countries have withstood as a result of war and revolution. The actors in these films tend to be selected as much for their acrobatic skills as for their thespian capabilities — many have trained all through their youth and require no stunt people to perform for them. Of course, having an experienced fight choreographer on hand to see that no one is fatally injured on the set helps as well. The best of these cinematic martial artists are breathtaking to watch: Their physical acrobatic prowess and intense abilities to wield a sword without fatally injuring fellow actors are among the best displays of modern movie magic. Although it asks a lot of the casual viewer who only dabbles in this genre, viewing any of these films in their original languages with English subtitles can be a real treat. The standard of dubbing for the general-release versions of martial-arts films tends toward the atrocious, and these editions often overlook numerous details of character, story structure, and plot in the course of translation and editing. lmaginative action dramas are often turned into unintentional comedies by poor, often out-of-sync dubbing, done quickly and without any care for language or subtlety, particularly in their attempts to Anglicize various Asian languages. The recent laserdisc release of John Woo's The Killer (1989), in the "director's cut," also illustrates the myriad pitfalls that can befall a martial-arts film in its editing for general release. The authorized director's version, as finished and approved by Woo (Hong Kong's leading action filmmaker) is 20 minutes shorter than the edition that was issued to theaters and which was previously available on home video. The director refers to that version as a "rough cut" which the producer chose to issue — complete, of course, with a very corny, outdated translation of the dialogue. But even international distribution on this level cannot ruin a good film. An above-average martial-arts picture remains a rewarding experience. (The worst martial-arts films — and, admittedly, there are many, as every genre has its share of the bad along with the good — are endurance tests of incredible willpower to sit through.) The genre's icon to this day remains the late Bruce Lee (1940-1973). An actor with a lean physique and quick, catlike reflexes, coupled with brute strength and a magnetic screen persona, Lee was the greatest star the martial-arts genre ever saw. None of his films make for entirely pleasant viewing experiences, even in their original uncut versions, due to their weak story structures designed totally to showcase the star. But whenever Bruce Lee appears on screen, there's no denying his impressive charisma, and the viewer's attention never wavers. Ironically, it was only after his untimely death that Lee made the crossover to mass-media icon, with the subsequent release of his films to English-speaking markets. In the years that followed, other "actors" followed Lee in an attempt to break into the international markets, spurred on by ambitious producers and distributors: Dragon Lee, Bruce Le, Bruce Li, and others, seemingly thrown into the international film market as Bruce Lee prot?g?s/clones in an apparently unending series of low-budget films, each as mindless as the genre can get. Only the Japanese-born Sonny Chiba and the ever-charming Jackie Chan have managed to approach anything resembling success in a market glutted with too much poor product. Chiba's incredible Streetfighter series was so violent that it had to be severely cut — and was still released in 1975 with an X rating for its violence. It was re-edited to achieve an R rating soon after, and in that version it remains today on video. Jackie Chan continued to make inroads into all film markets outside of his native Hong Kong with a combination of martial arts and comedic antics equally inspired by the great American silent stars Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton, alongside a Bruce Lee-inspired intensity. Totally misunderstood as a performer, Chan was introduced to American audiences in such drivel as the Cannonball Run films and a few lesser comedies. Nevertheless, Chan remained the most popular Asian actor with the greatest potential to crossover into the profitable English-speaking markets, which he proved co-starring with Chris Tucker in the 1998 box-office hit Rush Hour. In his tireless devotion to the most elaborate of sight gags and the most awe-inspiring of stunts (many of which have nearly cost him his life), Chan is Keaton incarnate. The 1980s and '90s have also seen another kind of revitalization in the martial-arts film; worldwide attention has turned to Hong Kong, where the once-dormant genre is again a dominant form of cinema. Tsui Hark's monumental, historic, multi-part saga of turn-of-the-century China, entitled Once Upon A Time In China, acknowledges the spirit of Bruce Lee with the presence of Jet Li, a true martial artist/actor, whose presence in Parts I and III of the series rekindles fond memories of Lee's best moments on screen. As the current decade moves on, so has the martial-arts film, which has introduced guns and Sam Peckinpah-influenced violence in the baroque, stylized cinema of John Woo. His films are a place where loyalty and disloyalty stand uneasily side by side — all of his best films are about honor. Woo's directing style involves slow motion and speedy montage editing during scenes of intense violence, and all of his heroes and antiheroes move with the grace of the finest martial artists. Whether your taste runs toward serious historic dramas such as Inagaki's Samurai I, II, and III, or the more elegant style of Kurosawa in The Seven Samurai, John Woo's gun-action films, Bruce Lee's flawed but unforgettable classics, or Jackie Chan's acrobatic comedies, a splendid time is to be had watching the cream of the martial-arts genre. Grab your popcorn, pop a tape into the VCR, and the enjoy the best (along with some of the worst) of the martial-arts film.


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