Martial Arts Films


The decline of Hong Kong kung fu cinema in the late 1970s turned out to be temporary. Forever looking for "the next Bruce Lee," Hong Kong cinema finally found him in Jackie Chan (b. 1954), a Beijing Opera–trained martial artist and acrobat whose everyman persona, stunt-happy performances, and Buster Keaton–like use of props returned martial arts to the forefront of Hong Kong cinema beginning with films like Drunken Master and Snake in the Eagle's Shadow (both 1978). Chan soon after emerged as the most popular star in Asia. Aborted attempts to break into the American market by co-starring in low-budget Hollywood films in the 1980s did not work out—fortunately for him, because when he had finally established a worldwide appeal his next Hollywood forays, like Rush Hour (1998) and Shanghai Noon (2000), were worthy of his talents.

Chan and Lee were not the last foreign martial artists to make their way into American martial arts film stardom. Jean-Claude Van Damme, "the muscles from Brussels," parlayed his karate champion background into a film career, bursting into stardom with a fairly routine yet extremely violent version of the standard tournament-style film, Bloodsport (1988). Films like Kickboxer (1989), Lionheart (1990), and Streetfighter (1994) continued to rely on the tournament structure, although Van Damme did help tie together science fiction with martial arts in successful films like Cyborg (1989) and Universal Soldier (1992). If Van Damme was a foreign import, Seagal was

Bruce Lee (left) in The Big Boss (Lo Wei, 1971).

an American master of the Japanese martial art of aikido, and he showed it off to good form in a series of police and military actioners, especially Above the Law (1988), Out for Justice (1991), and his best film, Under Siege (1992). Both Van Damme and Seagal saw their careers decline by the turn of the century, but that may be the fate of all aging martial arts stars—even Jackie Chan's career saw a shift away from fighting to special effects stunts.

The popularity of martial arts films in America did not go unnoticed in Hong Kong where the likes of Tsui Hark (b. 1950), Tony Ching Siu-Tong (b. 1953), Johnnie To (b. 1955), and John Woo (b. 1946) revitalized the genre. This time it was the stylistics of King Hu that inspired them in the creation of literally fantastic swordplay films like the Swordsman trilogy (1990–1992), New Dragon Inn (1992), and The Heroic Trio (1993). Women stars like Brigitte Lin, Maggie Cheung, Anita Mui, and Michelle Yeoh—who would become the most important female martial arts star since Cheng Pei-pei—also helped revitalize the genre. Kung fu was kept alive with Jet Li's incarnation of Wong Fei-hung in the Once Upon a Time in China series (1991–1997), but in a form far different than anything Kwan Tak-hing would have recognized—though the ideology remained the same. The special effects, acrobatics, and wire work (leading some to call this "wire fu") culminated in the King Hu–inspired international blockbuster Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000). For audiences that disdained the likes of Jean-Claude Van Damme or Steven Seagal and who knew nothing of the wonders of Touch of Zen , Lee's film brought respectability, if not originality, to the genre. World-class filmmaker Zhang Yimou (b. 1951), anxious to bring a bit more "Chineseness" back to the decentered form, released Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004)—both successful, indicating that for all its Chineseness, the martial arts genre belongs to the world.

SEE ALSO Action and Adventure Films ; China ; Hong Kong ; Japan

Desser, David. "The Martial Arts Film in the 1990s." In Film Genre 2000: New Critical Essays , edited by Wheeler Winston Dixon. Albany, NY: SUNY, 2000.

Fu, Poshek, and David Desser, eds. The Cinema of Hong Kong: History, Arts, Identity . Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Meyers, Richard. Great Martial Arts Movies: From Bruce Lee to Jackie Chan—and More. New York: Citadel, 2001.

Mintz, Marilyn D. The Martial Arts Film . South Brunswick, NJ: A. S. Barnes, 1978.

Zhang, Yingjin. Chinese National Cinema . New York and London: Routledge, 2004.

David Desser

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