Magazine article Metro Magazine

Enter the (Diaspora) Dragons: Martial Arts Cinema and Globalization: In the Last Decade Martial Arts Film Has Undergone a Renaissance in Asian and American Cinema. What Was Once Considered 'Oriental' Filmmaking Has Been Embraced by Western Popular Culture

Magazine article Metro Magazine

Enter the (Diaspora) Dragons: Martial Arts Cinema and Globalization: In the Last Decade Martial Arts Film Has Undergone a Renaissance in Asian and American Cinema. What Was Once Considered 'Oriental' Filmmaking Has Been Embraced by Western Popular Culture

Article excerpt

IS THIS TRUE symbiosis of cultures though, or does the recent success of Western martial arts inspired films such as Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill volumes (2003 & 2004), or even Ang Leers Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000), merely reflect stylistic concerns designed to connect with the commercial fads of globalization? Furthermore, how has martial arts film evolved to reflect cultural identity?

Bruce Lee (along with the Shaw Brothers, who had earlier established their own production company)essentially pioneered the Asian martial arts film industry in the 1970s. Lee was responsible for bringing the genre to the attention of international audiences. His films were heavily political and focused on the disconnection felt by the lower class in China and perceived Japanese prejudices, as well as ushering in the new wave of Cantonese Kung Fu martial arts, characterized by weaponless fighting. (1) Lee's own revolutionary martial arts technique, Jeet Kun Do, also became a feature.

According to Stuart Kaminsky's essay Kung Fu as Ghetto Myth, 'Lee's films do not manifest any sense of common good as do Japanese Samurai films or Ameri can Westerns, but instead promote violence, vengeance and destruction.' (2) In the 1970s, American society was struggling to come to terms with the turmoil caused by the Vietnam War. A strong sense of national cynicism and disenchantment was expressed during this period. As David Desser suggests, American audiences connected with the negative sentiments expressed by the Chinese lower class depicted in Lee's films. Desser particularly cites 'the rebelliousness of black and youth audiences' as the markets that enabled Asian martial arts cinema to break through cultural boundaries and achieve mainstream American success. (3)

In his review of The American Martial Arts Film, Douglas McLeod provides an alternative view, dismissing the notion that Lee's films connected with the antiauthoritarian attitudes of America's youth audiences. McLeod instead suggests that the rise in youth enrolment in martial arts schools across America indicates an emphasis, driven by parental influence, on authority and discipline. (4)

Here the influence of the Vietnam War again becomes relevant. According to statistics from the Combat Area Casualty File (CACF) in Washington DC, the average age of Americans involved in the war was 23.11. Indeed, the CACF states that five American casualties were only aged 16. These realities, reinforced by the draft efforts of the Armed Forces in schools across the nation, (5) inspired a youth-driven cultural drive to correct perceived injustices (and express youthful bravado). The cultural themes inherent in Lee's films therefore did seem to appeal to the sensibilities of America's youth culture in the 1970s.

Since the breakthrough of martial arts film into Western cultures, Asian filmmakers such as Ang Lee have continued to foreground Eastern politics, though with films aimed at drawing international audiences. The success in the West of Lee's Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon heralded a new era of martial arts films that utilize Western filmmaking conventions. Lee, who has spent much of his life in the US, has admitted that the film owes much to American cinema. In traditional Asian martial arts films, fight scenes are often separate to the main plot. The story literally stops to make way for a fight scene. Lee's intention, though, was to use a similar strategy to Hollywood musicals, in which the music was organic to the plot. (6) However, Lee also hearkens back to Asian tradition by using the Mandarin language, common in Chinese martial arts cinema prior to Bruce Lee's internationalization of the genre. (7)

Derek Elley, writer for Variety, labelled Crouching Tiger 'culturally inauthentic' and accused it of corrupting 'its Asianness ... by its absorption of Western cinematic conventions'. (8) Salman Rushdie, writing for The New York Times, adopted a more positive view, in line with most other Western reviewers. …

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