Must an International Chinese (Auteur) Filmmaker Make a Martial Arts Film? Genre Filmmaking and Industrialised Cultural Production in Global East Asian Cinema.
Martial arts films are built on narratives of abjection and martial arts heroes are constructed from figures of abjection. These films frequently dramatise stories of loss, humiliation, and trauma, whose recuperation is necessitated by the heroes' efforts at restorative justice through the act of revenge, usually achieved through intense individual struggle, hardship and sacrifice. Abjection and agency then may be read as mutually defining concepts: abjection signals a profound loss of agency on the part of individuals and communities, even cultures and nations. Julia Kristeva describes abjection as 'what disturbs identity, system, order ... [and what] does not respect borders, positions, rules' (Kristeva 1982: 4). It is unsurprising thus that the themes of loss, revenge and recuperation in martial arts films have been also easily read as allegories for the struggles of (Chinese) nationhood. Writing of traditional wuxia (martial swordplay) films, Stephen Teo notes:
The wuxia film was and is regarded as a national form, fulfilling nationalist desires for self- strengthening at a time when China was weak. In the present, as China has become a rising power on the world stage, the wuxia film seems to have become an instrument of the state: wuxia as a means to main the myth of a warrior tradition and its historicist concepts of chivalry and knight-errancy in order to justify the modern concept of the nation-state. (Teo, 2015: 8)
In this paper, I read the abjection, and the apparent lack of agency, of the martial figures in The Grandmaster and The Assassin alongside the figure of the Chinese film 'auteur'--Wong Kar-wai and Hou Hsiao-Hsien respectively--on the global stage, to the extent that these auteurs may also be seen to be negotiating their cultural agencies within the abject frame of global capitalism, what Thomas Elsaesser refers to as 'performative self-contradiction' (Elsaesser 2016: 21).
In his article on 'Positioning auteur theory in Chinese cinemas studies' (2007), Song Hwee Lim argued that it was necessary to explore 'the relevance of auteur theory to the study of Chinese cinemas' as well as the its relation to 'the auteurist approach institutionalized within Anglophone academia' (Lim, 2007: 224). Lim observed that the new digital aesthetic 'at the start of a new century saturated with mediatized visuality threatens to flatten all images into a simulacrum that simultaneously wipes out the auteur' (Lim, 2007: 224). In this paper, I take the auteur to be a received notion employed both by the film industry and the critical community 'to elevate selected film-makers to the pantheon of artists, thus granting legitimacy to the establishment of film studies as a serious academic discipline' (Lim, 2007: 224); the 'star-auteur' as a 'brand', so to speak (Promkhuntong, 2014). In a further article, Lim reflects on how digital imaging has enabled star-auteurs to transform the reception of martial arts cinema from its populist origins to a spectacle of high artistic value (Lim, 2016: 149). Through the close analysis of the 'poetics of slowness' (Lim, 2016: 150) in these films, exemplified by the 'poetics of virtual objects flying in bullet time' (150), such as raindrops and pebbles, Lim asks how we may read such developments in the politics of culture and labour in the modern martial arts film, when so much of this spectacle is created by digital technology? In other words, these filmmakers have not simply returned to an older populist form of cinema in recent times, but in merging a populist form (previously and still associated with Chinese cultural identity and nationhood) with digital imaging, the new martial arts film aligns itself with the hyper-modernity of present times, one that is 'indexical of a transformation from shame to pride, an imaginary of Chineseness and nationalism that has found a new iteration in the current PRC leader Xi Jinping's slogan of "China Dream" (Lim, 2016: 148-49). My analyses of The Grandmaster and The Assassin explore how the politics that had been previously read in Wong's and Hou's films, viz. the geo-politics of Hong Kong and Taiwan respectively against the hegemonic spectre of the People's Republic of China, continue to work their way through narratives and characters of abjection in the more recent works. Yet. as they are taken on to the global stage of mainstream cinema exhibition (beyond the niche film festival market), including the expanding film exhibition market on the Chinese mainland, they become more directly subject to the capriciousness of the global market and their gatekeepers. In a manner of speaking, these auteurs may be seen as figures of abjection themselves, ones whose creative agency is persistently held to account on the one hand for signs of political compromise, and on the other hand, also subject to instant aggrandisement as blockbuster filmmakers (where previously being known for more intimate films), able to command and draw in vast amounts of global capital (see also Chan 2013).
Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster is one of several 'Ip Man' films to have been released in the early- to mid-2010s. Though he had apparently announced the project in 2002, shooting did not begin until 2010 (Hendrix. 2013). In the interim period, Wilson Yip's highly successful Ip Man franchise (Ip Man, 2008: Ip Man 2, 2010; Ip; Man 3, 2015: Ip Man 4, 2018). starring Donnie Yen in the eponymous role, captured the market, alongside Herman Yau's The Legend is Born--Ip Man (2010) and Ip Man: The Final Fight (2013). and a Chinese television series Ip Man (2013). The historic Ip Man (1893-1972) is a kung fa 'grandmaster' of the wing chun school of martial arts, and is more widely known in popular culture circles as teacher-mentor of the iconic Bruce Lee. The emergence of the Tp Man craze' in this period is worthy of a separate project, however, suffice it to say that all of these adaptations are only loosely based on the actual biography of the historical figure. The broad trajectory of Ip's life spans the politically tumultuous years for China and Hong Kong through most of the 20th century, and his subsequent connection with Bruce Lee (as arguably the best-known transnational Chinese star), allow for the projection by these adaptations of any number of national and cultural allegories, if not anxieties, about Chinese identities, sovereignties and histories.
In researching the film, Wong is said to have travelled extensively and visited numerous kungfu schools and grandmasters to learn of their ethos and histories (Szeto and Chen, 2015: 98), many of which are either diminishing or existing mainly in popular memory through their mediatised movie renditions. Szeto and Chen have noted that Wong's The Grandmaster enacts an anxiety of succession (2015: 108), and draw parallels with Hong Kong's own political anxieties twenty years after its handover from Britain to China, describing Hong Kong's film culture as a 'middle-aged ... [and] embarrassingly inhibited by blocked horizons and anxious about not moving on' (2015: 89). In The Grandmaster, the ageing Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang), lead pugilist from a northern school, anoints a southern successor in the figure of Ip Man (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), after a semi-philosophical duel convinces the elder Gong that the 'young Ip Man of the Southern tradition [had| won over him and [could] become the next grandmaster not due to invincible skill, but due to his ability to see beyond the narrow essentialist North-South binary impasse towards the survival of the culture and world of martial arts at large' (Szeto and Chen, 2015: 109). The national allegory here is not difficult to read: for example, as a call for the unification of regional factionalism and (given Wong's preoccupation with the recuperation of Hong Kong culture in his earlier films) a kind of reconciliation of Hong Kong with mainland China. However, the historical allegories of Wong's films can be equally read as allegories for the history of Hong Kong cinema itself (Chan 2017), which is currently under threat by the rise of the industry in the People's Republic. Szeto and Chen argue that rather than capitulating to the 'mainlandization" of Hong Kong cinema, 'Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster... trumps both the national / mainlandization and localist imperatives by claiming the entire world of kung fu/martial arts':
The film's key thesis is to show how Hong Kong, and the Cantonese grandmaster Ip Man, both have the ability to see beyond the essentialist North-South, local-national, Chinese-foreign binary impasses towards the survival of the culture and world of martial arts at large. This is an attempt to show how Hong Kong's cosmopolitan worldview can claim Hong Kong, China, and all the world at one fell swoop, proven by its US$63.6 million global box-office, with 71 percent from China, while maintaining draw in traditional markets like Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia. (Szeto and Chen,2015: 98)
Cinematic and box office triumph notwithstanding, it is worth noting that within the narrative, all the characters pay a heavy personal price. As the hero of the film, Leung's Ip Man is relatively helpless in the face of history: he loses his family and his social standing to the war and ends up impoverished and alone in Hong Kong, trying to start a martial arts school in a street of many martial arts schools. As 'successor' and apparent unifier of the myriad schools, he fails to learn the Gong clan's '64 Hands' style, whose secrets die with the last Gong daughter. Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi). Ip's rivalry with Gong also serves as a proxy for the frustrated desires of these abject movie heroes. Andrew Chan writes of their unconsummated onscreen romance, and the 'flicker of sexual electricity between Ip Man and Gong Er' (echoing Leung and Zhang's previous sexually charged roles in Wong's 2046 ) as they engage in an elaborate fight staged in an opulent brothel: 'The moment of erotic connection only becomes apparent in an instant replay that draws the pair's fleeting relationship out as timeless reverie-as if to suggest that love at its most sublime is always the product of reevaluating and reinventing one's memories' (Chan 2013: 58).
Andrew Chan reads the film's 'transnational mode' and 'sweeping panChinese narrative' as one that feels 'compromised' (Chan 2013: 57), citing in particular the awkward interweaving of the Cantonese-Mandarin dialogue, 'as if the languages were mutually intelligible' (Chan 2013: 58): they are not, but this is not a new thing in Wong's films. He has consistently used this as a narrative device to enact precisely the mutual unintelligibility of Chinese languages, and thus their discordant pan-Chinese politics (Chan 2017). Chan argues that these fissures are even more exposed in the Weinstein-Company-distributed US cut of the film (from 130 minutes to 108 minutes, authorised by Wong):
But where the original version that played at festivals... successfully masked these cultural obfuscations with its steady stream of sensory pleasures, the new version cut for the film's U.S. release heightens our awareness of its status as a carefully calculated product. Not only has the logic behind the story's temporal leaps been strenuously clarified by a reshuffling of plot lines and a less ruminative, more expository voiceover, the film now also includes inter titles that betray a general lack of trust in the Western viewer's ability to differentiate Chinese faces and interpret historical context. (Chan 2013:58)
Implicit to this reading is an almost moral objection to the film as 'a carefully calculated product'. While all films are necessarily calculated products, this objection to Wong's particular calculation is framed by the expectations of his status as an auteur: 'the material presents fresh challenges for a director whose aesthetic, even at its best, has long since calcified: it's his first biopic, his most blatantly commercial project ever, and a martial-arts take whose traditionalism... demands the kind of painstaking choreography and period research we've never thought to expect from a filmmaker with such a notorious aversion to scripting and planning' (Chan 2013: 55. emphasis added). In other words, the tacit charge made against Wong here is one of an auteur past his prime who has had to resort to a popular genre, supported by 'hardcore chopsocky fans' (Chan 2013: 55), in order to keep going.
Is it all there is then? A kind of late-career project of a middle-aged filmmaker unwilling to let go of his style, industry presence, and cultural relevance? A middle-aged filmmaker, who in the spirit of his own film, may be unwilling to step aside for a successor or successors to emerge? (Szeto and Chen, 2015: 90) What is the message of succession planning that can be read in the him then, especially if one considers the figure of Gong Er, whose quest for revenge takes up most of the second half of the him and much of the diegesis, to the extent that 'Ip [is] relegated to the sidelines of his own story' (Chan 2013: 58)? The desire to avenge her father's murder at the hands of northern successor and subsequent traitor and Japanese collaborator. Ma San (Zhang Jin), drives Gong to sacrifice a comfortable middle class life and a betrothed in waiting, a sacrifice which nonetheless pays off for the viewer in the form of a climactic, and spectacular, fight sequence on a snowy train station platform. What does it mean that the narrative and visual climax of the him is held by the secondary character. Gong Er, who is played by a high profile mainland actress whose transnational career was launched with Zhang Yimou's The Road Home (2000) and Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon! Of the two, Gong Er is more psychologically developed than the lead character of Ip Man, and narratively she achieves her goal albeit at the cost of the succession of her clan (she never marries and dies without progeny or disciples). While Ip seemingly appears to comply with the forces of history, Gong faces her challenges head on and defies her father's last words (not to exact revenge) by reinterpreting them as love and concern for her well-being. Her conviction to keep moving forward is affirmed by the symbolic act of cutting off her long and girlish plait in favour of a widow's bun. Her tenacity notwithstanding. Gong Er eventually dies from her efforts, leaving Ip to fulfil his destiny. However, this destiny is fulfilled only extra-die getically and off-screen, as the audience is invited to reflect on his future status as mentor of Bruce Lee, one of global film culture's enduring icons (Bowman 2013). In the Hong Kong version of the film, no direct mention of Bruce Lee is ever needed. His presence is invisibly woven into the fabric of the film, and quite literally into the performance of Tony Leung himself, who in an interview in the DVD supplementary extra, reveals that he had tried to imbue something of Lee's persona into the character of Ip. In the US cut, the film closes on a paratextual (and in my view, gratuitous) quotation by Lee, whose name is never mentioned anywhere else in the diegesis. However, it is worth noting that Bruce Lee has been deceased for many years (since 1973. only a year after Ip Man's own death in 1972). and with the death of his son Brandon (1965-1993) and the retirement of his daughter Shannon from the big screen, has left no apparent 'successor'. Nevertheless, Lee remains a powerful presence in Hong Kong and global film culture through reruns, retrospectives, tributes, and film and cultural writing. In that sense, the legacy of the mythical 'Ip Man' alluded to in The Grandmaster is not 'Bruce Lee' as such, nor even 'Hong Kong martial arts cinema" by extension, but that Wong through the martial arts form gestures towards a global film culture currently shaped by the rising domination of the Chinese film industry and market.
Wong Kar-wai is no stranger to revisionary martial arts cinema. In 1994 when the martial arts film had all but disappeared from the big screen, Wong released Ashes of Time with the stable of Hong Kong's biggest stars. Shot in the style he was still developing early in his career, Ashes of Time focused not on the fighting, but on the interminable waiting between fights, where every character seemed to languish in their longing for someone who was also longing for someone else. Ashes of Time can be said to be an experimental film at the time it was released. In 200X, Wong released a digitally remastered version as Ashes of Time Redux. In an earlier article comparing the two films. 1 argue that the latter should not be considered a replacement for the former but that they should be taken as separate but related works where each spoke to the culture of their own times (Chan 2012). I would argue the same of the two versions of The Grandmaster, especially if one considers that Wong had a hand in the US cut himself. The US cut spearheaded by the Weinstein Company was also released in the UK and in some international markets. This version reordered scenes, eliminated entire sequences, and inserted expository titles and explanatory voiceovers. presumably in order to make the story more coherent and consumable to western audiences. In so doing, it alters the flow and rhythm of the Hong Kong version to the extent the two can be considered entirely different films, operating as co-agents within the sphere of global film culture.
Reading Wong's films solely in terms of their characters and narratives can result in a kind of 'standstill' (to quote the subtitle of Andrew Chan's article), an impasse, as his narratives tend to be oblique, even elliptical, and his characters often opaque. Scholars have made more productive headway with addressing the style, aesthetics, and 'poetics' of his films (Bettinson. 2014). including, or especially, their unsettled temporalities. However, where The Grandmaster differs from Ashes of Time (in 1994) is in its use of what Song Hwee Lim calls 'the poetics of slowness' achieved by digital effects. Lim offers a close reading of how in the digital era, 'Wong's film reconfigures the trope of brick breaking in martial arts films, mobilizing the virtual objects to underline that this new digital aesthetic is exactly about not breaking things' (Lim 2016: 160). These shots 'are rendered in slow motion and they privilege small virtual objects' (161) like screws, pebbles, and raindrops. Lim notes how 'in The Grandmaster the historical change facing the protagonists (the ownership and passing on of martial arts traditions) is dramatized as duels between two characters only, and aided by a couple of virtual objects in slow motion, thus differing from the digital multitude in both pace and scale' (161), and concludes that '[t]his poetics--and its politics--fundamentally restructures the spectacular tradition of the Chinese martial arts genre, including a belief in sacrifice in the form of human labor for the attainment of the physical prowess to break bricks' (162). This digital aesthetic invites us 'to relish the sensual pleasure of small virtual objects shown in slow motion, displacing at once the human agents and their corporeal skills gained through sacrifice' (163). For Lim, this displacement renders invisible the labour required to produce such effects (both the technical team and the bodies of actors, choreographers and stunt personnel), as they 'compete for attention in high-value productions enabled by transnational capital' (150). In this era of the 'Chinese century', where economic dominance seeks equal cultural leverage in the form of 'soft power', this digitisation of culture is the new representation of 'Chineseness', albeit one that continually returns to former spectres, and grandmasters, in the figures of Ip Man and Bruce Lee.
Hou Hsiao-Hsien's The Assassin made entertainment headline news when it won five Golden Horse Awards (Taiwan's equivalent of the Oscars) in 2015: Best Feature Film, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Makeup/Costume Design, Best Sound Effects, as well as Outstanding Taiwanese Filmmaker of the Year for Hou. As one of the leading auteurs in the Taiwan New Wave movement. Hou had previously won for Best Director and Outstanding Taiwanese Filmmaker of the Year but this was the first time in which one of his films had been picked as Best Feature Film. Despite an oeuvre of over 20 films. The Assassin is undoubtedly Hou's most internationally visible film to date, as it played not only in arthouse cinemas but also at multiplexes, something that would have been previously unheard of. In 2015, Hou also won the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
This sudden mainstream visibility for Hou, especially in western markets, is remarkable for a number of reasons: (1) his films are not easy to encounter outside of festival premieres and retrospectives, and many either have not been released on DVD or are unavailable in subtitled versions (Vitali 2008); and (2) his films tend to be stylistically and narratively challenging, even for arthouse regulars. Leo Chen offers this profile of Hou:
Now widely regarded as Asia's greatest living director, author of an extensive oeuvre--some nineteen films to date [in 2006]--Hou Hsiao-Hsien remains nonetheless one of the least understood figures in world cinema. Frequent awards at film festivals--Nantes, Berlin. Venice, Cannes--did not immediately catapult him to international attention: while at home in Taiwan his reception has been strangely lethargic and unbalanced. The films that have made him famous are a high art more exacting, and elliptical, in its forms than those of his equally gifted contemporary Edward Yang. Yet unlike the latter, or perhaps any other director of comparable reputation, Hou is the product of a decade of activity at the lowest rungs of commercial cinema, and the two halves of his career are not unrelated. Never having spent any extended period outside the island, he is a more purely Taiwanese master than Yang--not to speak of Hollywood's jack-of-all-trades Aug Lee--and his achievement can be grasped only in its setting, the complex development of Taiwanese society since the Second World War. (Chen. 2006: 73)
James Udden writes that Hou's films are 'the most difficult to grace the planet over the last three decades... If anything. Hou's films have remained defiantly less accessible, challenging, cryptic and prone to such charges as "elitism," "pretentiousness" and "self- indulgence'" (Udden 2006: 2). Stylistically, Hou is known for the meditative rhythm of his story- telling, with a preference for long shots and extended takes that present the spectator with plenty of time and space to take in the languid dialogue as well as all the textures and detail of the mise-en-scene. Beginning with one of his earliest features. Boys From Fengkuei (1983), 'several of the hallmarks of Hou's style are already in place: long takes, inexplicit shifts of scene, sudden landscape stills' (Chen 2006: 81). Narratively, Hou's films are often read as intricately intertwined with the history and politics of Taiwan. Udden writes: 'without Taiwan there is no understanding of Hou Hsiao-hsien; without Taiwan there would not be any Hou Hsiao-hsien to begin with, certainly not as we know him today' (Udden 2006: 3), and it is this strength of connection with Taiwan that impacts upon how he may be viewed as a 'Chinese' filmmaker: 'If Chinese culture is going to have any meaning in the case of Hou's cinema, it lies in how Chinese culture has played out in Taiwan from roughly 1947... to the present day. And what Chinese culture means in Taiwan is radically different than what it means in mainland China, or even Hong Kong, for that matter, so much so that Hou's films are inconceivable without the island' (Udden 2006:7).
The Assassin, I argue, is situated at the discursive intersection of Hou's international reputation as a Chinese/Taiwanese auteur and the genre of martial arts cinema in its transnational mode, as was ushered on to the global stage by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero. Where Wong's The Grandmaster reflected on Hong Kong cinema's legacy of the kungfu film (emphasising fist lighting). The Assassin, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon before it, recalls Chinese cinema's, and in particular Taiwan cinema's legacy of the wuxia film (emphasising swordplay), popularised by directors such as King Hu (Dragon Inn, 1967; A Touch of Zen, 1971). However, in The Assassin, very little of the balletic swordplay is visible, and its demonstration bears more similarity to the Japanese kendo, in which the build up to and the denouement after the action tend to be more prolonged than the actual sword fight itself. Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) is the eponymous assassin, who having been taken away from her family at a young age has been trained to be a cold-hearted and efficient killer. In the opening sequences, Nie is seen accomplishing her missions in just a couple of strokes, literally a swish and slash of her sword, as she drops down from a tree or jumps up from the bushes. According to more conventional genre expectations, the two slightly more extended fights in the film, where she duels with Tian Ji'an (Chang Chen), the governor of Weibo, and later with her master, the princess-nun, Jiacheng (Sheu Fang-Yi), should serve as narrative and action climaxes. However, in the film, the exchange of blows between them is hardly seen. Instead the camera cuts away from the moment contact is made, even as we hear the slash of the sword. In the next shot, we frequently see Nie turning her back on the camera and walking away from the action. This is uncharacteristic of the martial arts film, since the spectacle of bodily display is one of the main draws of the genre. As noted above, Song Hwee Lim discusses the poetics of slowness and virtual objects in post-Crouching Tiger martial arts films; in comparison, it is worth pointing out that Hou eschews what Lim has described as the visualisation of restraint via the use of digital objects (Lim 2016: 162), and indeed CGI in general (Labuza 2015): it could be said that Hou's poetics of slowness is instead underpinned by a poetics of realism. There is little use of digital imagery in The Assassin, with much of its cinematographic richness achieved by production, costume and lighting design (Labuza 2015). As Labuza describes
Typically for the director, the complexities of the political allegiances become less allegorical and more emotional through the slow spooling out of exposition between reflective pauses. Hou rhythmically edits more than usual, continually realigning his characters in relation to their spaces and ideologies within the chamber set pieces. More than that, The Assassin features Hou's most traditionally exciting sequences, using Stedicam movements into empty spaces to suggest the present of the looming assassin, followed by quick-cut action sequences with skillfully choreographed fights. These fights, however, make up a very little part of the film's running time, which instead creates a languid space in which characters both enact and disobey their historical tradition. (Labuza 2015)
The use of these spaces, these ellipses or gaps in action and narrative, gestures to an (abject) silence that seems to point to the weight of unspoken secrets and traumas that Hou's characters are barely able to acknowledge to themselves, much less to the camera. Leo Chen writes that 'Hou has spoken of his narrative method as an "oil-drenched rope": developing emotion and story to the fullest saturation, to a point where discontinuous snatches of them are enough to indicate the whole' (Chen 2006: 85). Most of his films from the Taiwan New Wave period reflected the social and political concerns facing Taiwan, as well as its struggles for national sovereignty and international identity against the domination of the People's Republic of China. His earlier Taiwan films dealt with the trauma not just of cultural separation and isolation from the imaginary mother/fatherland but also of the betrayal from the Taiwanese state itself, especially during the White Terror period (1947-1987) which saw Taiwan being placed under martial law for over 38 years. During this period, around 140.000 Taiwanese people were imprisoned by the state, and an estimated 3,000-4,000 executed for real or perceived opposition to the ruling party. In a sense, Taiwan as a political entity could itself be perceived of as multiply abjected: firstly from mainland China: secondly from the United Nations when China returned to its fold; thirdly, the domestic terrorisation of its own people during the White Terror years; and fourthly, the internal displacement of indigenous peoples by the new 'abject-invaders' themselves. (1) Much of the complexity of this cultural and political trauma is expressed in Hou's films as a kind of muteness, an inability to speak, and perhaps to even represent on screen, the depth and the scale of the loss. This muteness extends into The Assassin, in spite of its lush interiors and sweeping landscapes. Almost as a resistance to the aesthetic majesty of the miseen-scene, The Assassin is not shot in widescreen as would usually be the case in such epic films tailored towards spectacle. Hon maintains the standard academy ratio of 4:3 that he has used in all of his earlier domestic dramas, and had apparently initially tried to make the film with a 16mm camera (Vishneveysky 2015), which would have delivered a more grainy picture, less suited to present-day demands of HD projection and home plasma screens.
The choice of setting The Assassin within the Tang dynasty, adapted from a short story contemporary to the time, situates the him within a 'China' and a Chinese culture prior to the political face-off between the People's Republic and Taiwan since the mid-20th century. The Tang dynasty spans 600 to 900 BCE. It is generally noted to be one of the great empires of the medieval period, a 'golden age' in the history of Chinese civilisation, marked by political stability, successful diplomacy, economic expansion, and a dynamic cosmopolitanism, as well as a flourishing of literacy and art. It is a period that has been extensively imagined and re-imagined in fiction, poetry, and film. In a sense, The Assassin can be read as an attempt to recuperate an older historical and cultural Chineseness, including its adherence to the use of classical Chinese (which has a different morphology from the contemporary vernacular), in contradistinction to the genre's inclination towards cultural accessibility. Ironically, it is the critical and mainstream acclaim of The Assassin in the global marketplace that enables The Assassin to inhabit that ambivalent space of cultural muteness. By all accounts, it is a 'Chinese' film before it is a 'Taiwanese' one, but how can we speak of any kind of 'Chinese' representation when notions of Chineseness (however fraught they may be) have already been claimed by other, more dominant, geo-political parties? As a matter of interest, though, 50 per cent of the film's budget came from Chinese funders, 'the ones who also produced The Grandmaster'. and the rest from 'Europe. Japan. Hong Kong, Taiwan, [and] Southeast Asia' (Labuza 2015).
In the context of global Chinese filmmaking, engaging with the martial arts film appears to have allowed auteur filmmakers like Wong Kar-wai and Hon Hsiao-Hsien to trade in the signs and the production of a kind of global Chineseness that is at once located in history, yet is also decoupled from that history. In staking a claim on the history of a popular genre, these filmmakers are staking their claim on the history of Chinese film production not simply as a cultural activity but also an economic one. Consider how these films are typically written about in economic superlatives: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is frequently cited as the first (and possibly the only) Chinese-language film to have earned over US$120 million at the US box office, a market notoriously perceived to be resistant to foreign productions, and over US$200 million worldwide: Hero grossed US$53 million in the US, and nearly US$180 million worldwide. Collectively the two versions of The Grandmaster grossed US$6.5 million in the US (despite Weinstein's drastic cut) and nearly US$64 million worldwide: and significantly US$45 million in China. As Hou's first Taiwan/Hong Kong/China co-production, The Assassin is also the most expensive of Hou's films to date, at US$15 million. Its modest US$630,000 showing in the US is offset by the numbers in China at US$9.4 million. In looking outwards at the global market, these films are also invariably looking at the mainland Chinese market.
Ang Lee once remarked that in making Crouehing Tiger, Hidden Dragon, he was returning to a boyhood fantasy. When asked why he chose to make a wuxia film 'now', Hou Hsiao-Hsien laughingly remarked: 'Because I am old!' (Heskins 2016). Ageing appears to be a form of abjection too. and indeed, these auteurist turns to the martial arts genre seem to occur at points where the filmmakers are broadly perceived to have already made their best work: they have won major awards and achieved a certain degree of national and international recognition and accolade; they appear on festival juries and university him studies curricula. The martial arts him appears to present itself as a 'next stage' project, an opportunity to return to boyhood fancies, via the nostalgia of the genre. Even Chinese Sixth Generation filmmaker Jia Zhangke. once the exemplar of an underground filmmaker from China's 'urban generation' and known for his astute micro-observations of the underbelly of contemporary Chinese society, is rumoured to be working on a martial arts project '[s]et at the end of the Qing Dynasty' (Shackleton 2016).
This article is an attempt to think through how the engagement of Chinese auteurism with the form of the martial arts film can exemplify how cultural labour and capital intersect with industrialised modes of production. In an essay published posthumously in 2013, the late Paul Willemen disagreed with Bourdieu, arguing that: 'There is no such thing as cultural capital, there is only capital, the ownership of congealed labour/value' (150). Indeed, these filmmakers do not need martial arts films to be validated as auteurs. or even simply as 'Chinese' filmmakers. However, what the martial arts film has done for their late-stage careers is to validate their cultural labour as capable of continuing to produce surplus value which capital can then continue to extract. Making a martial arts film with a mainstream reach further affirms their socially anointed roles as auteurs as well as economic agents, as generals capable of marshalling the necessary resources in bringing their grandiose projects to fruition. Never mind if the resulting film is a boutique piece no one quite understands--it would seem that it is the integration, perhaps the infiltration, of the arthouse aesthetic into the popular genre that returns the international Chinese auteur to the domestic fold of the voracious Chinese box office.
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(1) Many thanks to the editor for highlighting this point.
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|Title Annotation:||Global East Asian Cinema: Abjection and Agency|
|Publication:||Studies in the Humanities|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2019|
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