Where’s the Action?

This Christmas, audiences will be treated to Ip Man 3, featuring the continuing adventures of Ip Man – that is, the Donnie Yen iteration and not the Wong Kar-wai directed film with Tony Leung Chiu-wai, or the other Ip Mans that nobody cared about because they weren’t played by Donnie or Tony. Sorry, but not all Ip Men are created equal.

Barring a meltdown by director Wilson Yip, Ip Man 3 (co-starring Mike Tyson!) will be big, not only in Hong Kong but also in China and via ancillary sales to overseas markets, from Asia to Europe and North America. A surer thing cannot be found in Hong Kong cinema today.

Six Degrees of Donnie Yen

Ip Man 3 represents a major exhale for martial arts cinema fans, who have only had maybe two to three noteworthy features to satiate their fandom over the last few years. Earlier this year, there was SPL 2, a sequel to a Donnie Yen film that did not feature Donnie Yen, and in 2014, there was Rise of the Legend, which was basically a reboot of Tsui Hark’s popular Once Upon a Time in China films, one of which actually featured Donnie Yen. It’s apparently difficult to get away from Donnie when discussing martial arts movies.

In between those films we received Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin, an award-winning martial arts film that enchanted film intelligentsia worldwide but disappointed hardcore kung fu action fans. Besides the fact that it had nothing to do with Donnie Yen, The Assassin is an art film set in a martial arts world, and not the sort of exhilarating, intricately choreographed action flick that most people think of when they hear the words ‘martial arts movie’. Overseas distributors had best be careful about marketing The Assassin to the wrong crowd.

A Dry Well

What happened to the action-packed martial arts movie, anyway? Previously, hundreds of features were cranked out over the course of decades. During the Eighties and Nineties, prior to Donnie Yen’s superstardom, we had triple A martial arts films starring Jackie Chan or Jet Li, plus lesser but still widely released features with Michelle Yeoh, Lam Ching-ying, Cynthia Khan, Yuen Biao, Sammo Hung, Leung Ka-yan and, yes, Donnie Yen. The Seventies and earlier gave us Bruce Lee and the Shaw Brothers’ films, and while some worked (think director King Hu’s films) and attempted more than thrills, the martial arts genre was largely high-kicking entertainment.

Now? The martial arts action movie is near extinct, with few notable attempts at the exciting action and bro-friendly drama that fans expect. Hong Kong cinema’s lessened output is partly responsible, but with China’s rising film output, one might wonder why China filmmakers haven’t picked up the slack and produced more kung fu flicks. China actually does produce some of those films (Who Am I 2015, The Wrath of Vajra) but they’re usually so small that nobody notices. I still have people asking me on social media about the lack of martial arts films.

Cultural Relativism

One issue might be who’s doing the asking. The ongoing popularity of martial arts movies is partially a construct of Western film fandom, which still regards kung fu as ‘exotic’ and thinks of Hong Kong cinema as a genre film factory for action and crime films, rather than the multidimensional film industry it once was. Now that China’s film industry is blossoming, these fans naturally ask where the kung fu flicks are, when the reality is that outside of very few examples, the Chinese are getting their action from the same source as the rest of the world: Hollywood.

Unless the star is a big one, like Donnie Yen or Jet Li, martial arts films go unheralded, because modern China audiences don’t care much for martial arts as a selling point. What they do like is visual effects and the unreal spectacles found in disaster films and Marvel superhero movies. As CGI and big budget Hollywood action have flourished, smaller scale Asian action – like the kung fu cinema of old – has become almost extinct.

Some martial arts stories have been jazzed up with CGI for event films (the Detective Dee movies, Zhong Kui: Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal) to capitalise on audience interest in visual effects. But these are big productions that lean on high-tech spectacle rather than people fighting in cool choreographed ways. And even though the Detective Dee movies or Flying Swords of Dragon Gate offer good choreography, they’re not sold on their fighting action. Instead, technical gimmicks like CGI or 3D projection are the draws.

What To Do

All things considered, the future doesn’t look bright for large-scale Hong Kong action cinema. The cultural value inherent in martial arts stories is still represented through movies like The Assassin, but the storied history of Hong Kong action choreography is not. There’s a real daring and creativity in Hong Kong action that’s starting to become a lost art to both film audiences and professionals. If nobody cares, who’s going to make these films in the future?

Actually, the answer already exists: Western fans. The popular Indonesian action film The Raid, as well as its sequel, featured Asian action stars and martial arts styles, but were driven by a Westerner, Welsh director Gareth Evans. China is following suit: Keanu Reeves directed and starred in the 2013 China-US co-production Man of Tai Chi (which was released in the West but not in Hong Kong), while 2016 sees the arrival of a prequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, produced by the China Film Group, the Weinstein Company and Netflix. The director is Chinese, action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, but it’s Westerners looking for an elegant kung fu fix (and revenue, naturally) pushing this cart. More Western-influenced productions could help bring martial arts cinema back.

However, the star of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2 is Donnie Yen. Again! Even if Western filmmakers can resuscitate martial arts cinema, can it survive without its last major star? If one were to judge by how many times I’ve mentioned him in this column, perhaps not.