Sunday, 21 August 2016

Hysterical Film Style in the Kung Fu Comedy – Drunken Master Slippery Snake (1979)

As my recent post on Jackie Chan and the body has mentioned, I'm currently working on Kung Fu comedy. As part of this, I'm examining whether the notion of hysteria might be a useful one in understanding the features of the kung fu comedy style. My argument is that in spite (and perhaps precisely because) of its many problems, hysteria seems indeed to be a helpful idea in thinking about kung fu comedy. Further theorising the notion of hysteria, and further examining the questions around the ways that it might be a useful way of discussing the complex politics of the body in 1970s Hong Kong action cinema will have to wait for another moment – and perhaps for the actual essay I'm currently working on – rather than this blog post. For now, interested readers might look at two attempts to use this concept in relation to martial arts cinema – Bhaskar Sarkar's 'Hong Kong Hysteria: Martial Arts Tales from a Mutating World' and Mark Gallagher's 'Masculinity in Transition: Jackie Chan's Star Text'.

Instead, in this post I wish to look a little more empirically at the film style of the genre itself, and the ways that editing and the body interact, and to thinks about the ways that this might entail a 'hysterical' film style. To do this I'm going to dissect a single sequence from the film Drunken Master Slippery Snake (dir. Ho Meng-Hua / Yu Cheng-Chun, 1979, also known as Mad Mad Kung Fu and Ol' Dirty Kung Fu).

Hysterical Kung Fu Comedy

First I will at least have to sketch at least briefly and descriptively some of the attributes that I will be associating with the 'hysterical'. Hysteria, though largely rejected as a diagnosis today, had its heyday in the nineteenth century and primarily designated mental illnesses whose symptoms played themselves out in the bodies of patients. As grasped by psychoanalysis, hysteria entailed repressed material that, unable to come to representation otherwise, presented itself in what seemed like inexplicable and causeless physical illnesses. Hysterics presented fainting fits, epilepsy-like seizures, catalepsy, blindness or deafness, tics, paralysis or weakness, sudden rigidity of the body, vomiting, phantom pains, uncontrollable tears or laughter, and many other things besides.

Often suffered by those who were most silenced by society – young women living under Victorian patriarchy – the body was converted into a medium for the expression of otherwise buried, unconscious trauma and desire; hysteria was, as one theorist put it a maladie par representation (a 'sickness by representation'). [1] This sense of the body as possessed by the representation of traumatic memory or repressed desire is one of the things that makes it, perhaps, a useful idea for thinking about martial arts cinema, and for thinking about the 'madcap' genre of kung fu comedy in particular. Kung fu comedies also, of course, involve an amplified 'theatricality', and other accounts of hysteria have emphasised this 'theatrical' and even 'pantomimic' – or, to highlight the kung fu connection, operatic – aspect of hysteria. Jean Baudrillard, for example, has described it as 'the pathology of the exacerbated staging of the subject, a pathology of expression, of the body's theatrical and operatic conversion.' [3]

As it has entered a more 'everyday', non-technical discourse, hysteria tends to suggest the excessive, (over-)emotional and unrestrained (or even unrestrainable). All this may well match the anarchy, melodrama and corporeal excess of the kung fu comedy – in terms of its manic visual style, its disorderly narrative form, and its exaggerated acting and performance style, which consistently seeks out the extreme.

Whilst we tend to think of hysteria in terms of tears, feinting and of 'weak', overemotional women (it is a highly and problematically gendered concept, though further discussion of this, too, will have to wait for another moment), hysteria also involved peculiarly athletic symptoms. Elisabeth Bronfen has described one phase of the hysteric attacks diagnosed by the famous neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot,  as: 'a period of grands mouvements, of contortions and bodily dislocations [...] [In these,] the hysteric would exhibit an extraordinary expenditure of muscle power. In this phase Charcot thought to have detected eccentric body turnings and grotesque postures, marked by an unusual flexibility, mobility, and sheer physical force.' [4] Charcot's description, certainly as recounted by Bronfen here, could well describe the performance and choreographic style of Jackie Chan or Sammo Hung. In Charcot's account, the fits of such patients often resembled 'an embittered battle with an imaginary enemy'. Furthermore, just as the kung fu comedy often involves a 'becoming animal' as one learns mantis, monkey, snake, cat, crab or other exotic and preferrably bizarre martial arts, Charcot also 'emphasised the similarity in this phase between the hysteric and the animal, as if the body had transformed into a dislocated and foreign body.' [5]

A relation to kung fu comedy might further be suggested by the fact that Charcot called such seizures 'clownism'. For Allon White, this emphasised a historical relation between hysterical symptoms and the 'grotesque body' of European carnival, with the former carrying the latter on after its repression by the stiff and idealised body of the bourgeois era. [6] We might also read it in terms of the tradition of (martial and acrobatic) opera clowning on which the kung fu film draws, and on the older, ritual, grotesque inversionary forms of the body that this has entailed in Chinese as well as Western culture. Again, however, this is starting to take us elsewhere than can be contained in this post.

Film Analysis – Drunken Master, Slippery Snake (1979)

In all of this, then, we might find a series of analogues between kung fu cinema and notions of hysteria. I will turn now, however, to look at some of the ways that this 'hysterical' style is manifested in a fight sequence from Drunken Master, Slippery Snake, examining in particular a short section of a scene of combat (about 45 minutes in) between the film's protagonist (played by Cliff Lok) and two villainous henchmen. I'm interested in the ways that the film's camerawork and editing support and emphasise a vision of the body in excessive, hyperkinetic, 'hysterical' motion.

Shot 1

Setting the scene we have the 2 villains, who block our hero on a path, setting up the confrontation, and starting a shot-reverse shot sequence. The angle is low, looking up at the henchman who speaks, adding 'drama' to the scene. The other villain, lounging in the foreground emphasises this low angle of view. Such low angles – taken to further extreme – would become a staple of the overwrought cinematic style of the swordplay films of the 1990s, which Sarkar treats in terms of 'hysteria' in his essay (mentioned above). The unusual angle – which doesn't directly present us with the point of view of the protagonist perhaps suggests a psychological state in which the villains loom as a threat, rather than describing the space. Its drama breaks with what's necessary in terms of storytelling, and already marks a form of cinematic excess, one located in relation to the body of the performers. It marks, already, the ostentatious, gratuitous stylisation typical of the genre – an aspect, again, taken forward in the 1990s swordplay.

Shot 2 – reverse shot

Reverse/reaction shot, of the protagonist. A series of unstable emotions play across his face – surprise, anxiety, bravado – the expressions exaggerated in 'operatic' rather than 'method' style – in spite of the director's use of a technical device (the close-up) which allowed this more nuanced and subtle, 'naturalistic' acting style to develop.  The head-shot allows the magnification of this already magnified expressivity.

Shot 3

The angle is reversed again, now looking over the shoulder of the hero, giving a head-and shoulder shot of the villain. The subtle shift between this and the previous low camera angle underscores a mobility of the camera, which in the sequence will be rapid and hyperactive. As the villain speaks, the camera zooms suddenly out into a half-figure shot, and the other villain stands up, emerging into the frame. Utilising the potential of the recently available hand-held camera for such zooms and to make the viewpoint mobile had become a trademark device in Hong Kong action and martial arts cinema, a marker of its stylistic excess that was taken to the point that the 'over-used' snap zoom has been repeatedly satirised. The use of such technology was pioneered as early as 1967 by Chang Cheh for The Assassin and One-Armed Swordsman. I have argued elsewhere that this allowed Chang a new energy and dynamism in his depiction of , the camera itself becoming choreographed, its mobility mirroring that of the frentic Jimmy Wang Yu as he leaped around the sets, placing the viewer's gaze and imaginary body in motion, too. [7] Whilst Chang's Assassin held this within the limits of a certain classicism, and whilst the action sequences contrasted to the slow pace and static camerawork of the other scenes, by the late 1970s, in the kung fu comedy, such questions of 'taste' were largely jettisoned for the dizzying effects of a saturation of rapid camera movement. The zoom is a prominent device within the upcoming sequence.

Shot 4

A final reverse shot, before the action ensues. Again this is framed differently for our first reaction shot of him.

Shot 5

A full-figure long shot establishes the space of combat. The viewpoint is from right angles to the previous sequence of reversals. The camera is unusually still for the combat that follows, but this allows a frenetic movement of bodies within the frame – drawing on the style developed by Lau Kar-leung and which sought to present the 'authenticity' of the movements of performers to their maximum. One villain leaps with a flying kick from left of right of screen, and the hero dodges first into the depth of the frame and then towards the camera and to its left, establishing a diagonal movement. He then crosses between the two villains to be in the front right of the frame, on the other diagonal. The movements rapidly map a series of different spatial relations, with the bodies – espcially that of the protagonist, spinning through space to do so. In an 'elastic' relationship, the bodies are drawn together and thrown apart repeatedly in the sequence.

Shot 6

As he's thrown backward, the camera cuts to a close up of the protagonist, again rotating 90 degrees from the previous shot. The close up emphasises the bodily effect upon him, eliciting a mimetic effect in the audience. Close shots are often used in the sequence to magnify a sense of the effect on a body. The moment of cutting also cuts out some time – cuts often happen before a movement ends to emphasise the sense of continual motion and increase the impression of frantic speed and movement. As the hero moves back across the frame one of his antagonists follows him into shot from the left, with wildly flailing arms (Choy Lee Fut style) clashing dramatically. As it pans across to the right tracking the protagonist, it begins to pull its zoom outwards – the hero pulls one attacker past him but the other is drawn into the shot as it comes out and the protagonist is assailed on both sides. The antagonists seize him. Space seems to be fragmented in a number of these sideways cuts – on inspection, though the orientation of bodies and velocities seems to hold us within a defined space, the background to the scene often seems unrelated to that which we see in the previous shot. The effect is a peculiar spatial drift or dislocation.

Shot 7

Cutting to another right angle, in a long-shot, we see the two protagonists throw our hero, as he somersaults through the air to land on his back. The villains follow up their attack whilst he is on the ground, rushing after him, but he flips up athletically sending them flying back. Landing, he immediately springs through the air in a full backward somersault to land on his feet, the circle he describes neatly contained within the frame of the shot. As he lands the furthermost attacker assaults with a flying kick, throwing the hero's body flying upwards through the air again and towards the camera, hitting the ground in the start of a roll. Here, an unusually still and distant camera angle is used to make clear the extent of the acrobatic movements of the figures. The emphasis has been on a series of aerial flips and spins in the protagonist. This use of the longer shot to underscore aerial virtuosity echoes the flying kick of the attacker in the opening shot of the sequence. David Bordwell has noted the preference in Hong Kong cinema to show the whole of an action as clearly as possible, rather than, as in Hollywood, to imply it. [8] Here, however, (and in much of the comic repertoire) such shots, which impress us with the unthinkable skill of the performer, are mixed with much more mobile and 'impressionistic' shots that emphasise affect, and involve the movement of the camera and viewing subject, too.

Shot 8

Again, a close-up (this time without a change of angle) allows impact to be registered, and as the protagonist rolls toward the camera, it zooms rapidly outwards. The villain in black executes an inside lotus kick that sends the protagonist staggering backwards to the right of the frame and into the arms of the other opponent, who holds him for his partner in crime to hit. The dark-costumed attacker shifts to a pantomime/comic mode, rolling up his sleeves; and as he approaches, the camera zooms back in. There's a shift in register here from the acrobatic fighting to a sort of slapstick, and this changes the 'pace', offering a pause amidst the burst of manic activity. This (repeated) switching between 'action' and 'slapstick' within a sequence is, again, typical of the genre. In keeping with the exaggerated, comic mode of performance, Lok's body ripples exaggeratedly with the impact of the strike.

Shot 9

Lok's body still ripples with impact as the camera cuts, at a right angle again, to a closer shot, emphasising Lok's overwrought reactions and clownish grimmaces. Again, in pantomime slapstick mode, the villain looks at his fist, spits on it and winds up to punch Lok in the face. With a look of mad panic, Lok drops down out of the bottom of the frame, escaping the clutches of the man holding him, who unwittingly takes the telegraphed blow of his opponent.


The fight, of course, carries on. Comic close-up reaction shots show us the two attackers bemoaning their fate, the first looking bemusedly at his fist and the second rubbing his nose, before the sequence turns once again to acrobatic violence. This continues to be depicted with the same mixture of mobile hand-held camerawork, rapidly shifting point of view, snap zooms in and out (mainly out, blending a reaction shot registering impact into the continuation of combat), with longer shots used to showcase virtuoso leaps, spins and flying kicks and mid-shots allowing the maximum impact of flailing arms and punches to the body. There's an extreme mobility of performers across the space delineated in the shots, constantly changing direction. Fighting and slapstick alternate, mixing pain and laughter, courting inconsistency and fragmentation. Operatic reactions are telegraphed to the audience. Good taste or measure is given up in order to pile on kinetic and kinasthetic effects and to elicit 'Carpenter effect' responses from the audience. The theatricality and artificiality of the style are underscored by the soundtrack – dramatic music and the percussive special effects of thwacks, whooshes, yelps and thuds that accompany the action. The affective register here is a piling on of excess on top of excess, sunk deeply into both viewers' and performers' bodies. The technical effects of cinema used here seem calculated to further exaggerate this load that the body takes on within representation.

All this of course, may offer what is hopefully a fairly convincing 'match' between the use of body and cinematic apparatus in the kung fu film and qualities that might be described as 'hysterical'. But this in itself can only be a part of an analysis – it is far from exploring what such a match might mean. If we are dealing with 'hysteria' in some form, what might be the repressed trauma or desire at stake within these representations? Why might hysteria be a useful concept in thinking about these films? What might it actually explain about them, rather than simply offering or fleshing out a descriptive term for their qualities? All this, of course, is beyond what I can deal with here today...


[1] Bhaskar Sarkar, 'Hong Kong Hysteria: Martial Arts Tales from a Mutating World', in Esther C M Yau (ed.), At Full Speed: Hong Kong Cinema in a Borderless World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), pp. 159–176; Mark Gallagher, 'Masculinity in Transition: Jackie Chan's Star Text', Velvet Light Trap 39 (Spring 1997), pp. 23–41.

[2] Pierre Janet, cited in Elizabeth Bronfen, The Knotted Subject: Hysteria and Its Discontents (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), p. 58.

[3] Jean Baudrillard, 'The Ecstasy of Communication', in Hal Foster (ed.), The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays in Postmodern Culture (Seattle: Bay Press, 1983), p. 132.

[4] Bronfen, Knotted Subject, pp. 180–1.

[5] Bronfen, Knotted Subject, pp. 181.

[6] Allon White, 'Hyseria and the End of Carnival: Festivity and Bourgeois Neurosis', in Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse (eds.), The Violence of Representation: Literature and the History of Violence (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 157–170.

[7] See Luke White, 'A "Narrow World, Strewn with Prohibitions": Chang Cheh's The Assassin and the 1967 Hong Kong Riots', Asian Cinema 26.1 (2015), p. 92. (Full article: pp. 79–98.)

[8] David Bordwell, 'Aesthetics in Action: Kungfu, Gunplay and Cinematic Expressivity', in Yau (ed.), At Full Speed, pp. 74–6. (Full essay: pp. 73–94.)