Martial Arts Movies and My Flavor of Fandom

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A little known fact about me, is that I love martial arts movies and consider myself a fan. Today I am going to start with, what I feel, served as my launch pad into martial arts movies and my interest in art, games, books, movies, etc. from the Far East. Some of my earlier influences were Gremlins (1984), The Karate Kid (1984), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), Charlie Chan, and fables from Japan and China. In other words, it wasn’t any one specific thing, but a fascination that grew out of the American-facing snippets that I had access to about the Far East in general. As a kid learning and reading about new cultures for the first time, I was immediately drawn to the Far East for several reasons, and have been ever since to some degree. Mind you, I spent A LOT of time inhaling books as a kid and learned to read at an early age, and while I can’t say that I was immersed in pop culture, I definitely tapped into what I had access to, when I could.

Looking back, I can see this perfect storm of influences was further enhanced by Star Wars and a textbook I remember getting at a library sale. I loved (and still do!) Star Wars for many, many reasons. It wasn’t until much later that I realized one of the reasons why I loved these movies, was because there were Asian influences which I internalized. Darth Vader’s helmet, for example, was inspired by the samurai. But that, to me, really didn’t have as much of an impact as the relationship between Luke and Yoda did. The wise master teaching the young apprentice the ways of the Force, which was both mystical and powerful, which could be used for good or evil purposes… The swords that each Jedi protected and treasured, that were attuned to that warrior individually…(1)

As a kid growing up in the Midwest, I didn’t know the creative forces behind Star Wars, or understood movie magic, or thought about the specifics about the many Chinese and Japanese cultures, other than what I could get from the books I had access to. All of these faraway places(2) and stories from the Far East seemed, like the rest of Star Wars–magical. So, to uncover more “secrets” of the Far East, I turned to books. I don’t know the name of the textbook, but I do remember I had a book that was very colorful and was bursting with stories. In the textbook, there were colorful, three dimensional pictures of kirigami to illustrate the different fables. I do recall that Urashima Taro was one of them, and the other was a fantastical romance about a shapeshifting kitsune who fell in love with a wayward traveler. I loved these stories dearly.

Before I end this post, I want to add a comment about the gargantuan element in the room: Karate Kid. The thing about Karate Kid, for me, was that it sparked my enthusiasm to check out other films with martial arts in them, to get to the source. Yes, I very much understood that this was an American movie, and I didn’t have any issues with that–but it inspired me to start watching other films that fulfilled my desire for authenticity and more from the Far East.

Next time, I’ll make a paltry effort to start picking apart specific films, and see where this trail leads…

(1) If you’re interested in this aspect of Star Wars, check out Star Wars and Philosophy.
(2) They are on my list of places to visit some day, and I hope I’ll be able to afford to go.

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Keanu’s The Man from Tai Chi

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I wasn’t sure what to expect when I popped in The Man from Tai Chi this past weekend. I really love watching martial arts movies — the good, the bad, and the ugly. ‘Course, it should be said I watch a lot of these for fun. I’m so clueless I can’t recognize what’s kung fu and what’s not; it’s a touch embarrassing as I’ve always admired the art. But, as a writer myself, I do like a good story and a tightly shot one at that. Having seen so many of these films, I have certain expectations when I watch these movies–especially if they’re being shot by an American director.

The Man From Tai Chi surprised me in a lot of ways because I felt it was a solid movie that played with (and expanded) certain tropes in a great blend of East-meets-West. To me, Keanu Reeves seemed more confident acting on screen than he had been in years. The casting was great, the costuming was flawless, and many of the screen shots were extremely subtle. There was a marked balance of opposites throughout the film to further the point of the story. Rich versus poor. Passion versus stillness. Power versus control. And, of course, the main character was aptly named Tiger.

Other than the movie’s title, I liked this conspiratorial film. It’s a very tightly woven narrative and I feel the story/theme was respectful of what’s preceded it in the genre. I also really appreciate seeing female characters in roles that aren’t marginalized and overly romanticized as well.

Overall, I think this was a solid directorial debut and I’m curious to see if Reeves is going to take the plunge again. Dare I say… I’d love to see him direct a version of Blood that’s more in line with the original? Or The Last Airbender? It’s nice to see an American director “get” the genre and translate it appropriately.

Official Trailer below.

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Swords and Dragon Gate

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Here it is, a week later, and I’m still in awe of Tsui Hark’s The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. Shot in 3D, I streamed this on Netflix so I saw the 2D version. Jet Li lends his talents alongside a large cast (I’d recently seen Li in The Expendables 2). This is a wuxia film (e.g. martial arts heroes) with not one, but several adept masters (male and female) who rely on a fascinating array of weaponry.

The plot of The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate is written in a style which dovetails into an extended scene at Dragon Gate. The writing of these characters went well beyond Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This was written with more heroics, action, and inventive choreography — there’s a fight in a SANDSTORM — to blow the lid off the genre. Hands down, this movie had the best female action roles (that’s right, plural) in a non-hypersexualized manner that I’ve seen in a long, long time. There is meta-commentary on gender, but it’s integrated into the storytelling so it comes across as natural.

Between the visual effects, self-fracturing sword, treasure hunt, and… Yeah, I loved this addition to Tsui Hark’s collection of innovative films, and definitely need to find out if there’s American distribution for his classics.

Either that, or maybe I should learn Mandarin. Always a possibility!

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