Friday, 10 June 2016

The body in Jackie Chan's Project A

Colonial Comedy Kung Fu – the opening shot from Jackie Chan's Project A (1983). Video still, from the Hong Kong Legends 3-disc 'Project A Collection' DVD set, 2005.  

I’m currently working on some writing that attempts to think through the kung fu comedy film, and its rise in Hong Kong during the mid 1970s. I’m interested in writing about this genre in part precisely because it is one that has been relatively overlooked, and relatively undervalued. The epic martial arts film – clearly often nationalist or anti-colonial in its content – is relatively easy to understand as ‘political’, and hence for academia to valorise as ‘important’ and worthy of scrutiny. Relatively speaking the martial arts comedy is less easy to read in terms of a political ‘content’ or ‘position’. Its lack of ‘seriousness’ makes it harder to think about as a worthy topic of analysis – though perhaps a more positive way to think of this ‘un-serious’ nature would be to count such films as irreverent.

A number of authors – including, for example, Leon Hunt (2003, p. 102) – have thus proposed that whilst still in the shadow of the decolonisation movements of the 60s, the Hong Kong Riots, and the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, Hong Kong’s martial arts cinema, in its heroic mode, expressed something of this heavily politicised moment; but they argue that the rise of kung fu comedy in the mid 1970s marks a depoliticisation of the genre, reflecting the increasingly ‘taboo’ nature of politics in the colony during this period. In my recent article on Chang Cheh’s The Assassin (White, 2015), I came quite close to making such and argument myself.

However, I’m ultimately not convinced that these comic films are ultimately any less worthy of a political reading than their tragic-epic counterparts. A certain radical ‘redemption’ of these films seems to me to be in order. After all, they surely constitute the most ‘popular’ form of martial arts cinema, and, for a left-wing critic, the popular has to count for something. My proposal is that in such films, made as they are at a moment of rapid social change (one that it might once have been fashionable to mark as the moment of the rise of the ‘postmodern’), politics simply migrates ‘somewhere else’ from where it had been previously.

What’s interesting about working with these films is that one is thrown increasingly away from narrative readings and forced to engage with aspects of the visual, the cinematic, and perhaps in particular with aspects of performance. This in itself might mark a certain resistance in them to ultimately ‘bourgeois’ forms of narrative, marking the appearance of a cinematic ‘excess’ (Thompson, 1977) in relation to such structures. It seems to me that the various images and fantasies of the body that are represented in these films are central to how we might negotiate them critically.

At the moment I’m working on a section of the writing that attempts to think about these films in relation to Walter Benjamin’s writings about Mickey Mouse and Hollywood slapstick; and Jackie Chan is the main figure I’m thinking about. As part of this work, I’ve just been re-watching Chan’s Project A (1983), and, I might add, with huge pleasure.

It seems to me to be the film where the political stakes of the body in kung fu comedy emerge most clearly, largely because of a prominence of historical reference that is unusual in the genre. This historical reference brings the film close to a kind of political and social satire. I’d argue that some of the politics that attains this unusual visibility in Project A is in fact merely more latent, less explicit in many other kung fu comedy films, and that it helps us understand the broader signification of the body in a genre that had been under development since at least Lau Kar-leung’s Spiritual Boxer (1975).

Project A – made towards the start of a period that has often been understood by critics as always overdetermined by the looming of the 1997 hand-over of the colony to Chinese ownership – is set back in ‘old Hong Kong’, in what seems to be the late nineteenth century, in the heyday of unreconstructed British colonial rule. Though perhaps in some ways somewhat tender and nostalgic in its recreation of the past, there’s a strong strand of satire, which mocks the general chaos, ineptitude and corruption of the colonial regime, as exemplified by both its British and Chinese representatives. The plot is ultimately not terribly relevant for our purposes here, but revolves around the rivalries between the coastguard and the police force, and the attempts of the former to capture a band of pirates who are halting trade to and from the island.

What was most striking to me in rewatching the film, however, was Chan’s famous ability not just to stage fights but to work creatively with the environments and objects in which he sets his characters – something, of course, that is hardly a new observation about his comic or choreographic style. It has, however, been argued that something very similar was at the heart of Charlie Chaplin’s comedy, which often built its humour out of the transformation of objects from their mundane uses to new and surprising ends, based not on convention, but on the morphology of the object itself, presenting us with a rehumanisation of the alienated world of things as produced by capitalism, and a new mastery of the modern environment (Clayton, 2007, pp. 32–3).

This all happens, in hyperbolic form, in the action scenes of Project A. A chair is no longer an object that rules, determines and orders the human body through our very use of it. (If you are anything like me, you will remember well the constant commands from childhood: ‘sit up straight!’; ‘don’t tip the chair backwards!’; ‘Don’t put your feet on the table!’; ‘stop shuffling and sit still!’; etc., etc. In this, the chair is not just a chair, it’s a tool for the discipline and socialisation of the body.) Rather than something to be sat on in the ‘proper’ manner, a chair in Jackie Chan films is also for leapfrogging over, rolling across, or even for a momentary headstand. With a strike coming towards one, the body may well spin around to lie on the chair, ducking underneath the strike. And tipping the chair back in what would normally be a disastrous fall, the acrobatic kung fu comedic body might turn the chair into a form of shelter in which the body might momentarily nestle, before rolling away, or flipping it around yourself to move into a new point of attack or retreat. Wielded in the hands of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung or Yuen Biao, the chair is no longer a chair, but a shield, a tool for disarming or trapping an opponent, or a heavy bludgeon. Tucked rapidly under the body, it might become, again, a launchpad, or kind of a perch on which to posture and pose before the next exchange with an opponent.

When is a chair not a chair? When it's in a Jackie Chan movie... Stills from Project A.
Similarly in Project A, coat-stands become tridents; vases become boxing gloves; bamboo poles are no longer for hanging washing on, but become a jousting lances for knights mounted on bicycles; bedpans become missile weapons, fired with a flick of the foot using a bicycle wheel as a launching device; tables become battering rams or vaulting benches; windows become portals to exit and enter a space. Banisters are for vaulting over or sliding down; flagpoles are for climbing up, out of harms way; awnings break your fall; chandeliers are useful to swing from…

We are thrown into the anarchic and surrealistically re-enchanted world, in permanent flux, which Benjamin (1931; 1933) lauded in the first Mickey Mouse cartoons. If machinery and capital had set the world into a state of permanent, disorientating change – and one which more often than not was experienced as a violence on the human subject, its body and its capacity for experience – Mickey Mouse, for Benjamin, also revealed the dialectically complementary side to this. The cartoon imagination foregrounded an underlying utopian desire for the power to transform the world that Benjamin saw modern technology itself as expressing, if in distorted form. In early Disney animations (and in the Hollywood slapstick of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd), this power was envisioned as re-rooted within the body itself. This power was rehumanised, bracketed off from a capitalist use of technology that had been turned away from the benefit of humanity and placed in the hands of a small elite who – as Benjamin suggested first in ‘Experience and Poverty’ (1933) and then more emphatically in the final version of the ‘Artwork’ essay (1992 [1939]) – used it not to liberate but to exploit, and perhaps ultimately annihilate, the rest of humanity. This rehumanisation might be read as entailing a reconciliation between the body-intensive nature of Benjamin’s archaic ‘first-technologies’ and the modern forms he termed ‘second technology’, the true essence of which, he proposed, lay not in their alienating use for war and capitalist organisation, but rather in the institution of ‘play’ between humanity, technology and nature. (For more on Benjamin on first and second technologies – and their relation to such corporeal arts such as yoga, as well as his pursuit of the erotic, drugs and ‘running downhill’, see Hansen, 2002, pp. 52–3.)

A bedpan used as a projectile weapon, fired with a flick of a bicycle wheel. Video still from Project A

Chan’s Project A was made at a time in Hong Kong of rapid modernisation that competed with the Europe of Benjamin’s day or the America of Buster Keaton (Duncan, 2007), and seems to envision something of the same re-appropriation of the alienating world of things that Benjamin saw in the cinema of his own time. Through the re-enchanting magic of their transformation, humanity reasserts a creative mastery over the objects about him. However, in Project A this takes on a very particular significance in terms of the film’s re-imagination (and re-appropriation) of an emphatically colonial landscape.

Frantz Fanon, describing the colonial experience, proposed it as a ‘narrow world, strewn with prohibitions’ (Fanon, 2001, p. 29). If 1970s Hong Kong was not the most nightmarish of colonies (involving an altogether ‘softer’ form of colonial governance than the French-held Algeria that Fanon knew), with its crowded urban spaces it at least made Fanon’s figure of speech a matter of literal, physically experienced constraint, and this surely forms a significant context for Chan’s corporeal art. Walking in Hong Kong’s bustling streets even today, or looking up at the huge and tightly packed vertical towers of tiny apartments, a visitor to the island gets some kind of small insight into such an experience. Fanon makes much in The Wretched of the Earth of the ways that the colony is structured around spatial exclusion and control. It is around such spatial organisation that colonial violence is instituted and made a part of the everyday, embodied experience of the ‘native’. Much of Chan’s physical performance in Project A involves a renegotiation of such spaces, bringing an anarchy into them through his physical traversal and refunctioning of their logic. This is perhaps most spectacularly envisioned in the bicycle chase through old Hong Kong’s narrow alleyways, where the protagonists have to zig-zag their ways through the cheek-by-jowl lives of its inhabitants, navigating impossibly tight right angle turns as fantastical leaps, or climbing up walls to escape speeding pursuers. Here the relation between the human body and the bicycle becomes radically refashioned to make them tools for a superhuman traversal of the colonial metropolis.

The 'narrow world' of Hong Kong's alleyways reconfigured in a new composition of architecture, bodies and bicycles. 

This logic that pits the body against the colonial organisation of space is even set up in the opening sequences of the film, for example, as we see Chan, in his colonial coastguard uniform, rushing to a meeting at the police and coastguard headquarters. After leaping from his still-moving bicycle, which crashes madly into the bicycle rack, disintegrating as it does so, Chan rushes up the evocatively colonial staircase of the building and along its wooden balconies. Chan vaults and spins over a handrail to get past oncoming employees within the narrow space available, without breaking his stride, defying the ‘proper’ function of the Western architecture. His wild running contrasts to the neatly regimented marching columns of his colleagues, and, as he reigns himself in in front of a superior officer, his mode of propulsion is clearly a transgression of correct protocol.

The architecture of the colonial police headquarters is also renegotiated by Chan’s coastguard hero later in the film, when he decides to spy on his superior officers, hoping to hear good news about the reinstatement of shelved plans to attack the pirates. Chan transforms a chimney into a tunnel that takes him into the heart of the administration, bypassing the normal security that keeps social inferiors away from the private discussions of their superiors. Chan, however gets more than he bargains for when the (English) Governor steps aside from his (Chinese) commanders into a side room to do a deal with a wealthy businessman who is in fact in league with the pirates. The Governor’s inner-sanctum-within-an-inner-sanctum sets up a further spatial divide in rank and privilege between him and his high-level subordinates. Chan, however, has come into this very room, and it is his illicit eavesdropping on this conversation, discovering his superior’s guilty secret – and his superior’s discovery that he has done so – that allows him direct access to the ears of the very highest level of authority. Being in the centre of the administration, Chan gets the privilege of putting the moral case to the Governor for fighting the pirates rather than doing a deal with them. Chan’s physical renegotiation of the environment thus becomes a parallel challenge to the normal hierarchies of the film’s world, which are realised in the architecture of the police headquarters and its regime of physical exclusion.

Chan turns a chimney into a passageway to enter into the heart of the spaces of colonial privilege.

One of the key fights in the film takes place in a high-class club, where the police have gone to arrest a suspect harboured by the club’s well-connected owner. The film labours the fact that this is a space from which the police are normally economically excluded (as well as linguistically so – the head waiter insists on talking to them in English). Then, when the fight breaks out we have a tour-de-force of the transformation and re-use of its fittings and furnishings, from the Rococo-style staircase through the antiques which litter its walls, to the furniture itself, as all these things are, in their turn, transformed into weapons. The scene is one where Chan’s stunt team get to ‘do their stuff’, performing a series of the spectacular falls for which they are so well known, crashing the human body (thrown, spinning, often from great heights, and with great kinetic force) into the various props or scenery provided. In most cases, though the body certainly gets an awful punishment, it is ultimately the club itself which comes off worst, the high-class environment being reduced, by the end of the scene to little more than fragments of wood, ceramic and plaster. If this was a space of colonial (and class) exclusion and privilege, a kind of a ‘kung fu revenge’ has been waged upon it in the scene through the collision of the environment with the rubbery bodies of the stunt team and their cartoon-character-like resilience. In fact, the film overall seems to have a point to make through our extra-diegetic response to performance, in the ways that (even where taking a thrashing) the performers’ bodies take on new, fantastical relationships to their environment, performing unusual forms of movement through it at new velocities.

Colonial space being reduced to rubble in Project A, as Chan hurls an opponent through and over the balcony of the exclusive club.

In the light of such a reading, the theme established through the early part of the film of the discipline of the body makes another kind of a sense, too. When Chan’s rather anarchic and incompetent squad of coastguards are disbanded and sent back to train with the police, this is to instil in them physical discipline, such as standing straight to salute, in the proper (Western) military manner. The training itself, however, becomes peculiarly subversive or carnivalesque in nature. When two recruits on parade are discovered mouthing a lewd comment about a passing woman, they are punished by having to repeat the comment ad nauseam, only serving to multiply, rather than negate its obscenity. A further recruit, who fails to salute correctly, is made to salute repeatedly, but this makes the gesture of deference into an absurd and mocking simulacrum of itself. The recruits are stood on alert in the middle of the night by an officer who claims to be concerned that they have drunk too much soup, with Chan having to call a militaristic ‘charge’ to the latrines. The next day involves the recruits stripped to shower, and interrupted, half soaped, and called out of the showers with only water ladles to protect their modesty. The whole training section (a peculiar parody, perhaps, of the training montages that had already become a staple of the kung fu comedy) serves to re-libidinise colonial discipline and to re-inject a sort of anarchy into it, through a failure of the ‘proper’ mimesis of the colonial masters. This ‘failure’ to conform seems to be celebrated throughout the film, as a productive, creative and ultimately transgressive and liberating act.


Benjamin, Walter (1931) ‘On Mickey Mouse’, in Jennings, Eiland Gary Smith, eds. (1999), pp. 545–6.

Benjamin, Walter (1933) ‘Experience and Poverty,’ in in Jennings, Eiland Gary Smith, eds. (1999), pp. 734–5.

Benjamin, Walter (1992 [1939]) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn. London: Fontana, pp. 211–244.

Clayton, Alex (2007) The Body in Hollywood Slapstick. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Duncan, Sydney (2007) ‘The Traditional Thing in the Modern Age: Contextual Perspectives on Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan’. New Review of Film and Television Studies 5.3 (2007), pp. 353–367.

Fanon, Frantz (2001) The Wretched of the Earth. London: Penguin.

Hansen, Miriam (2002) ‘Benjamin and Cinema: Not a One-Way Street’, in Gerhard Richter, ed., Benjamin's Ghosts: Interventions in Contemporary Literary and Cultural Theory. Stanford: Stanford UP, pp. 41–73.

Hunt, Leon (2003) Kung Fu Cult Masters: From Bruce Lee to Crouching Tiger. London: Wallflower.

Jennings, Michael, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith, eds. (1999) Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, vol 2, part 2, 1931–1934. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Thompson, Kristin (1977) ‘The Concept of Cinematic Excess’. Ciné-Tracts: A Journal of Film, Communications, Culture and Politics 1.2, pp. 54–64.

White, Luke (2015) ‘A “Narrow World, Strewn with Prohibitions”: Chang Cheh’s The Assassin and the 1967 Hong Kong Riots’. Asian Cinema 26.1, pp. 79–98, doi: 10.1386/ac.26.1.79_1.