Analysis: The Duel Between East and West — What The West Gets Wrong About Martial Arts Films
Martial arts films have long been a quintessential feature of Asian cinema. Interpreting the ancient arts of kung fu, wushu, and even karate into the medium of film has allowed Asia to showcase its rich culture and heritage through one of its most famous aspects.
Over the years, many classic Asian films have been born from this genre, especially during the Golden Age of Hong Kong cinema in the 1990s. The films have also propelled actors into international fame, with the likes of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Donnie Yen being just a few notable names.
The popularity of Asian martial arts films has not gone unnoticed by the west, and Hollywood has tried their hand at recreating the awe of these movies to mixed success. Are these imitations truly a homage to Asian cinema, or are they a cash grab hinging on an existing audience? Do the Western recreations measure up to authentic Asian films? And will Hollywood ever be able to truly capture the essence of a martial arts film?
Martial Arts As a Storytelling Form
Martial arts has a deep history and in many ways has been influenced by traditional philosophies such as Confucianism. As such, martial arts becomes a storytelling device in films to symbolise respect, power, righteousness, and much more.
Whether it’s to settle disagreements or to teach a lesson, combat is always introduced as more than just a visual spectacle. Martial arts films in Asia like to give characters their own motivations for practising the craft and their own flair in combat. This gives them depth and helps audiences understand their personalities better.
In the Ip Man series, we see how the titular character hones the art of Wing Chun to empower others and uphold his personal sense of justice. In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, our main characters Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi) and Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeo) duel each other in a display of their emotional intensity and how firmly rooted they are in their personal beliefs.
Even in the comedic antics of Drunken Master, the mannerisms of protagonist Wong Fei-Hung’s (Jackie Chan) fighting style reveal a lot to the audience about his goofy and immature demeanour.
In order to capture the importance of martial arts, western interpretations of martial arts films need to nail this same emphasis, otherwise it risks devaluing the genre altogether.
How Hollywood Fares With Their Adaptations
As the saying goes: “Imitation is the best form of flattery”, but how true is this when the imitations miss the mark? Hollywood has created rendition upon rendition of Asian martial arts films, with some performing better than others. Some of these films celebrate what makes Asian martial arts films unique, while others fail to have any real depth, playing off as nothing more than cash grabs.
Being propelled into fame after his role in Drunken Master, Jackie Chan honed in on his slapstick comedy style both in Hong Kong and in Hollywood which he would go on to become famous for. After achieving international success, Chan starred alongside Jaden Smith in a 2010 remake of The Karate Kid but this time dropped the humour for a more quiet and sombre demeanour.
In 2003, director Quentin Tarantino delivered Kill Bill, which spans multiple genres including martial arts and samurai films. Most recently, Disney delved briefly into the world of wuxia in their live-action remake of Mulan.
These examples of authentic Asian works and Western interpretations give us an insight into what makes the genre work. Martial arts is shown its significance even in a comedy like Drunken Master through how it is a respected way of settling disputes and also a practice that can bring honour (or dishonour) to a family. Martial arts is not a means for pursuing petty squabbles, or a tool in senseless conflicts.
Of the three Western-made films, Kill Bill is the most critically acclaimed. Jackie Chan’s star power could not save the glaring issues in The Karate Kid, such as the racial stereotypes that pander to Western audiences’ shallow understanding of Asian culture. It doesn’t help that the film’s title completely mistakes kung fu for karate. Mulan also misunderstands the function of “qi” in Chinese martial arts, alienating Chinese audiences and confusing Western audiences.
Perhaps Kill Bill succeeds in its interpretation by not feigning to be an accurate representation. Kill Bill includes its own elements and puts its own spin on what Tarantino wants his homage to martial arts cinema to look like. Being somewhat of a passion project for Tarantino and lead actress Uma Thurman, the respect for the genre drives the film to be an honourable reflection of the value of martial arts films and a reflection of their admiration.
For The Sake of Authenticity
Hollywood does not have a natural incentive to create accurate depictions of Asian martial arts. Hollywood is incentivised by box office sales and the opportunity to tap into a large international audience. Thus it boils down to the artistic integrity of the filmmakers in order to preserve the authenticity of martial arts films.
It could be said that martial arts films are to Asia what old Westerns are to the United States. However, martial arts films have always had an innate appeal to white audiences based on what is perceived to be “exotic”. This creates a disconnect from the essence of what fans of martial arts films enjoy about the genre and reduces its value to its visual spectacle.
While old archetypes make for easy storytelling, a martial arts film is inherently rooted in Asian culture. Undermining this would be akin to building a house on pebbles — it does a total disservice to the foundation of the genre and any aspect of the film that is built atop of it cannot hold its own weight.
Imagine if Asia started creating huge blockbuster films with Asians cast as white characters in the wild wild west, playing on caricatures of what the United States is like. It would be awkward and uncomfortable to watch.
There may be filmmakers in Hollywood who value martial arts films for their deeper symbolism of Asian values and history, and these filmmakers may wield the potential to carry on the legacy of martial arts films. But as long as there is a culture of acceptance towards a surface-level representation of Asian heritage, a truly great martial arts film cannot be made by anyone who does not understand its roots.