It’s weird. Although the majority of Western audiences hunger for action and adrenaline, normally to the point where the films that cater for them are devoid of plot or ingenuity, true martial arts cinema from the East still rarely makes it past the straight-to-DVD ignominy of a ‘World Cinema’ section in HMV.
Clearly a cleanly executed backflip does not compensate the need to read subtitles. That said, movies like The Raid and Ong-Bak showed that the homogenised antics of Jet Li and Jackie Chan, now two/three decades diluted from their raw, younger selves, are not all we have to look forward to, and met with limited box office success.
Very safe films
Hollywood Martial arts films, post-Jackie Chan/Jet-Li, have become very safe. Wirework and CGI have tarnished the visceral reality of witnessing Bruce Lee one-inch punch some poor sod through a pile of boxes. As graceful as Chan is, he Chaplinised his trademark Drunken Boxing to the point where, come The Tuxedo, he was making action-comedies drenched in wacky CG gimmickry. Jet Li was invited into The Expendables, essentially a hall-of-fame for past-it action gargoyles. Steven Seagal and Chuck Norris (fearful as I am of retribution from either) have provided ‘identifiable’ Western protagonists onto which unadventurous U.S. audiences can latch. I wouldn’t enter a fight with any of them.
I have no doubt that on their own terms they vary from ‘Quite Skilled’ to ‘World Class’, but there’s no denying that Hollywood milked that cow and ran off. On the flipside blockbuster films like The Matrix and Kung-Fu Panda were made infinitely better through their loving appreciation/shameless assimilation of Eastern tropes and styles.
The internet and martial arts films
Things have changed. The internet has blown the world wide open. When the nigh-on-godlike physicality of Bruce Lee was absorbed into popular culture via Enter the Dragon, studios gave him English scripts to read (with far too many ‘Ls’ in not to be deemed disgustingly racist) and he was considered a carnival sideshow; an ‘Other’ for Western audiences to marvel at.
That was forty years ago. Now, more martial arts, like Muay Thai and Brazilian Ju Jitsu, are not only being popularised but, via international sports competitions like MMA and UFC, being made the norm. Martial Artists like Tony Jaa and a large contingent of the Baa-Ram-Ewe studio output from which his 2003 breakthrough Ong-Bak burst, knees-first, can build up a buzz through online word-of-mouth and reviews. They no longer need the heft of a Hollywood conglomerate behind them to break even.
This is a brilliant development. It shows off a number of great things about the openness of the internet and the corners of the globe it can reach. On a purely visual level, it gives us a cluster of fight flicks that are not about flashy visuals but about introducing martial arts we aren’t used to seeing in a dramatic setting. When Tony Jaa first lets rip with the emotive ferocity of Muay Thai in Ong Bak, it’s unlike anything unitiated Western audiences had seen before.
The same with Iko Uwais, Tony Jaa’s Indonesian counterpart, who’s slippery, malevolent Pencak Silat style is mesmerising throughout The Raid and even further removed from a Western comfort zone. In an industry where even Drunken Boxing became hackneyed, seeing styles these fascinating unfold in their own habitats is less a breath of fresh air and more a flying elbow to the forehead.
Wildly different techniques
With a great deal of Asian directors over all genres, the techniques are wildly different to those in our own movies. These range from the beautifully measured to the unrelentingly bat-shit mental, sometimes within the space of a scene. When you ‘clean up’ Messrs. Chan or Li for Western viewing, you automatically frame their action in a different way. Sometimes this is well handled: I for one genuinely enjoyed Li’s Unleashed for its jarring mix of saccharine sentimentality and frenetic violence.
That said, move your action to the Philippines, Indonesia or Thailand, and you have a whole other style set to play with. Part of what made Jaa’s follow-up, Warrior King, so brilliant is the pivotal one-shot slugging match on a spiral staircase that lasts close to five minutes. It is more audacious and impressive than most Western scenes in the last ten years. Scorsese would be not only proud of but baffled by that tracking shot. It’s simply not something a cut-happy Yank director would even attempt. The average Hollywood shot length is something like two and a half seconds. So as movies, not only as action movies, they break new ground.
The cultural aspect
Another important aspect is cultural. Many, like Uwais’ Merantau and any of the three Ong Bak movies are about a pilgrimage, from their own rural culture to an urban wasteland in their own or another country, to retrieve something dear to them like Ong Bak’s Buddha head, Warrior King’s baby elephant or Merantau’s ritual quest for adulthood.
These pilgrimages and quest story structures teach us not only the customs of these cinematically untarnished areas, but of the importance of their retention, intact, or else ELBOWS AND KNEES WILL HAPPEN. The impact of retaining their own language, cultural style and martial art whilst (largely) adhering to Western story structures gives us a much needed honest lense from a culture’s own perspective, while of course allowing its protagonist to go as mental as they so please with their legs.
Martial arts my friends, is back, in its purest form. Go explore.