Friday, 3 November 2017

Youth, Rebellion and the Kung Fu Comedy

Jackie Chan as a kung fu 'brat' in Drunken Master (dir. Yuen Woo-ping, 1978). Video still.

Today I’m in Cheongju, South Korea, where I’ve come to give a paper at a conference on martial arts. This is being held in conjunctionwith an international, inter-style martial arts tournament, the ‘Youth Martial Arts Masterships’. It seems to me that this event – posited around friendly international competition, comparative testing of national traditions or cultures, and fostering a healthy ‘body politic’ through youth-physical-educational projects – sits squarely within modernising traditions of martial arts (and more broadly sports) reform of the early twentieth century. This would certainly be the case, at least, in the account given of the Chinese context by Andrew Morris in his influential book Marrow of the Nation. Here, organisations like the YMCA pioneered sporting cultures which were taken up enthusiastically by urban middle class intellectuals as part of a programme to ‘modernise’ China and challenge its status as the ‘sick man of East Asia’.

My paper will engage some of these contexts. The conference theme – loosely – is around youth and the martial arts, and so I will be exploring the representations of youth in the Hong Kong cinema that I have been writing about, and in particular in the kung fu comedies that have been the focus of the book I completed over Summer (currently still in the process of peer review with a publisher!). At the heart of these is a figure who becomes popular in the 1970s, the unruly kung fu xiaozi, the bratty or (in American slang) ‘punk’ kid, who was ubiquitously the hero of the first wave of kung fu comedy films at the end of the 1970s. (Think Jackie Chan before he took on the role of the dutiful cop; think Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Elton Chong, Leung Kar-yan, Gordon Liu, Wong Yue... Think Drunken Master, Knockabout, Magnificent Butcher, The Prodigal Son, Mad Monkey Kung Fu...)

The question of youth in these films interests me because in many ways it is little discussed – youth takes a back seat in thinking about cinema with regards to the categories that cultural theory has tended to see as more fundamental, with analyses of cinema revolving in particular around the classic variables of gender, sexuality, national identity or class. Of course, within the original moment of cultural studies, generational identity, especially in relation to popular music and youth subculture, was also a primary interest, so it’s interesting that youth is so little discussed in relation to martial arts cinema – which is (or was), after all, a cultural phenomenon profoundly linked to such youth subcultures. Youth also, it struck me after the invitation to the conference, is a persistent and central thematic of martial arts cinema, even stretching back beyond the period in which 'youth subcultures' grew up into prominence.

My overall analysis, as I will present it in my paper later today, will begin by historicising the notion of ‘youth’, which I locate as a peculiarly modern idea (a by-product of the ‘invention of childhood’ discussed by Philippe Aries and Hugh Cunningham amongst others), and an idea in fact profoundly intertwined with how modernity itself is constructed. Youth for us is, after all, aligned with the future, in opposition to old age’s association with the past and with tradition. I sketch 'youth' out as an ambivalent concept perched between sociological anxiety about the effects of modern, urban life (juvenile delinquency, etc.) and a Romanticism: for many (including the early Walter Benjamin, to name just one example) youth is the explosive energy which will bring about utopian transformation. Such Romantic ideas of youth were embedded in the Wandervogel movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and in the birth of artistic ‘modernism’ in movements such as Jugendstil. The youth movements and the pedagogies that surrounded them were often deeply intertwined with ‘physical cultures’; the active body was central in modern society’s production of ‘youth’ as a category and an experience.

This, of course, was brought into the modernising martial arts movements of early and mid twentieth century East Asia. In the Chinese context (which is the one I know most about), ‘youth’ was a central motif, I argue, in the ‘May 4th’, 'student’ and ’New Culture’ movements, which sought a radical nationalist and anti-colonial politics through a programme of modernisation. 

This radicalism and its images of youth can be traced forward even into films like Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury (dir. Lo Wei, 1972), which locates its plot in this very movement of early twentieth century martial arts reform and nationalist self strengthening. As I’ve discussed elsewhere in this blog, it includes the iconic image of Lee in his white ‘student suit’, resisting colonial domination with his transformed kung fu body.

Bruce Lee's white student suit in Enter the Dragon (dir. Lo Wei, 1972)

Lee’s youthfulness – and that of many of the stars (both male and female) who were his contemporaries in the late 1960s and early 1970s – stands in contrast to the most iconic figure of the martial arts cinema of the preceding moment, Kwan Tak-hing, who played the character of Wong Fei-hung in some 80 films during the 1950s and 1960s. Kwan was already in his late forties when he first took up the role, and Kwan's performance of it exudes nothing else but a patrician maturity.

Kwan Tak-hing as Wong Fei-hung, during the 1950s

The emphasis on youth in the Bruce Lee era, however, marks change as well as a continuation of the way it is envisioned around the martial arts. A new context is opened by the growth of the youth subcultures (and counterculture) that appeared in the wake of post-war consumerism. This is dealt a further spin in the Hong Kong context, where increasingly identity (in the context of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, just across the border) is drifting away from the ‘national’ as a pole of identification, and towards the international flows of money, culture and people in which Hong Kong was increasingly becoming a key node. In such conditions, the ‘nationalist’ body no longer provides an appealing figure of modernity through which to imagine the self.

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Youth and the kung fu star. From left to right – David Chiang, Lo Lieh and Wang Yu, who all paved the way for "Little Dragon" Bruce Lee (Li Xiaolong).

Josephine Siao, who engineered a star persona that spanned contemporary 'youth films' and period swordplays.

And this, of course is where the kung fu comedy enters the picture, with its more anarchic figures. Jackie Chan’s version of Wong Fei-hung in Drunken Master (dir. Yuen Woo-ping, 1978), in contrast to  Kwan Tak-hing’s is a troubled and delinquent teenager, not an upright and adult exemplar of manly virtue. In contrast to Lee’s ‘rebel with a cause’ in Fist of Fury, furthermore, Chan’s characters are apolitical and even for some commentators (prominently Leon Hunt) entirely amoral.

The argument I’ll set out in my paper today, however, (perhaps too much for a blog post) is that the xiaozi of the kung fu comedy not only accedes to the expectations and virtues of the new order of globalised capitalism and flexible accumulation (adaptability, lack of respect for tradition, cunning, etc.), but also seeks a source of value beyond this, that can neither be found in tradition (in Wong’s father's brutally authoritarian and patrician attitude to bringing up his son) nor in capitalist modernity (embodied in Wong’s arch-foe, the mercenary and cynical Thunderfoot), but entails a rebellious re-working of human relations. Jackie Chan's young Wong Fei-hung manages this by building a genuinely warm friendship (and discipleship) with the unorthodox ‘drunken master’, Beggar So. In this regard, the rebellion of youth in Drunken Master retains – at least to a degree – the utopian charge of its modernist predecessors.

Jackie Chan and Simon Yuen as Wong Fei-hung and Beggar So in Drunken Master.

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