What makes a really good martial arts film?
If you're familiar with this blog, you may be puzzled by the question. "But Chris," you're saying, "haven't you said before that empathy is the key to virtue, and that war is a psychologically and morally damaging disease, and even that football is modern-day gladiatorism? What makes a movie about Asian dudes kicking other Asian dudes in the face any more edifying or discussion-worthy than overpaid and oddly-dressed American dudes trying to get a prolate spheroid of pigskin across a field?"
When I wrote the aforementioned tirade against football, I got a lot of
replies from people claiming that I "just don't get it." And that's true -
part of the appeal of watching football is that it reminds us of how much we enjoyed playing. Sports are a
formative part of a lot of people's childhoods. Through sports, kids learn teamwork, determination, and focus, in ways that
stick with them forever. Heck, I've heard people quote their football
coaches over the pulpit in church. But my experience with sports was nothing like that. Most of
the super-athletic people I knew growing up were over-competitive,
arrogant, and obnoxious. I never felt like I could relate to them. So,
to me, when I watch football, it's just a bunch of big guys running into each other. I don't have an emotional
connection to it. I do, however, feel connected to martial arts.
This is where I must reveal my bias: I've spent a good 25% of my life practicing martial arts. I did Tae Kwon Do, Aikido, and Shotokan Karate - three times a week, for over half a decade. Eventually I even earned a Black Belt. I can say without hyperbole that martial arts has made me who I am today. It calmed me down. I started as an aggressive, impulsive kid who got in fights. I became mellow, patient, contemplative, and (for the most part) disciplined.
Many who have never practiced martial arts probably look at something like Bruce Lee's The Big Boss (aka Fists of Fury) in the same way that I look at football: simplistic, unnecessarily brutal, and more about bodily spectacle than thematic weight.
But to me, it's different. Martial arts is philosophy. The six "Tenets of Tae Kwon Do," as I was taught in my youth, are courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, indomitable spirit, and humility. Those tenets are what a good martial arts film is about.
Good martial arts films tell stories about honor despite adversity, self-control despite corruption, and resolve despite hopelessness. And in a good martial arts film, violence is a means to an end, never an end in itself. Brutality is a reluctant choice, never a primary option.
On the other hand, a bad martial arts film forgets its roots. A bad martial arts film glories in violence without regard to the reasons behind (or consequences of) that violence.
Bad martial arts films exist because filmmakers misunderstand the needs of their audience. These filmmakers look at something like "Fight Club" and misinterpret it as an American plea for testosteronic catharsis. They look at action classics like "Die Hard" and totally ignore the reasons why John McClane is such a likable character - assuming that we really just want to see countless bad guys getting mowed down. They forget about character and focus on the killing.
Then these filmmakers produce something like "The Raid." Have you heard of it? It's a fairly recent Indonesian martial arts film that the critics are raving about (one critic even called it "without a doubt the best action film of the last decade and maybe one of the best action films of all time"). But why? I don't understand what's so great about it. It's a mindless, soulless, and bloody film. Its only merit is occasionally impressive choreography, as it was clearly designed to showcase the Indonesian martial art known as "Pencak Silat." But it does a poor job of representing what martial arts are really about. If this is the cultural picture Indonesia wants to present to the world, it's an oddly vicious and ugly choice. I did some research on Indonesian culture and on Pencak Silat, and couldn't find any obvious justification or sociological context for "The Raid." It looks to me like this is simply what the filmmakers thought people wanted to see, and if they were going to showcase their particular brand of martial arts, this is how they'd have to do it (and they were right, weren't they? It's one of the most successful Indonesian films ever made, financially and critically). What does that say about the action genre (or, specifically, the martial arts genre)? And what does that say about us (remember, you and I are the people who pay for these flicks to exist. Film is a commercial art form. Therefore film reflects culture more than it dictates it)?
Remember, back in Jackie Chan's heyday (from the late '70s to the late '90s), the hero was almost always a reluctant one. Violence was a last resort. Certainly Jackie's films were spectacular, but the spectacle wasn't in gratuitous brutality: it was in Jackie's escaping from brutality. Take a look at the ladder fight scene from "First Strike." It's incredible! Chan is the Charlie Chaplin of Hong Kong cinema. But he pulls off that Chaplin-esque level of charm and wit in his performance precisely because his characters are trying so desperately to avoid trouble.
Today, it seems this sentiment has been lost. Films are becoming more shocking for the sake of shock. While relatively new stars like Donnie Yen maintain a respect for traditional martial art values in their films (like in the beautiful biographical epic "Ip Man"), there are countless other stars and filmmakers who awkwardly try to mix martial arts with the gritty, nihilistic, and exploitative themes of darker genres. I don't believe that mix works well. This trend will bastardize what the martial arts truly represent.
You can do your part. Your wallet has a voice. Support pure martial arts films. And don't watch "The Raid."