Saturday, January 26, 2013

Propaganda-Style Kung Fu

Donnie senses the presence of a tourist from Torquay & prepares to strike.
I've watched a whole bunch of kung fu films over the years, lots of them featuring mantis-style kung fu, others showing crane or drunken monkey style, and a couple highlighting the dreaded Buddha Palm technique. The bad guys in these films were the usual selection of corrupt officials, warlords, or boastful and evil kung fu masters. Some recent kung fu films have been featuring what I'm going to call propaganda-style kung fu. What's that, you ask? In films like Ip Man (2008), Ip Man 2 (2010), and Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zen (2010) the new enemies are the Japanese and Westerners, usually  represented by the British.

Now, there's nothing new about Japanese villains in kung fu films. Historically speaking the Chinese have good reason to cast them in this role, and in a lot of cases they use the Japanese as default villains in the same way Hollywood uses Nazis or Germans, as in the Raiders of the Lost Ark and Die Hard franchises. What's new is that Westerners have joined the stable of villains in a big way. In the 1970s and '80s Westerners were, in my viewing experience, rarely cast as villains. The trend seems to have started with Jackie Chan's The Legend of Drunken Master (1994), in which nefarious Brits are smuggling Chinese artifacts out of the country. The difference between the kung fu films from the '70s and today's films is that there's a hysterical and fearful vibe to the anti-Japanese/Western theme. In sum, it feels like the Hong Kong film industry has become the unofficial propaganda wing of the Chinese government.

The IP Man films and Legend of the Fist (all starring Donnie Yen, as it happens) are good examples of this hysteria. The Japanese and Brits (and some other Westerners) are vilified and demonized with relentless enthusiasm, far exceeding what's necessary to establish them as conventional villains. After a certain point you begin to realize that what's going on here is an attempt to make Chinese audiences wary, if not actually intolerant, of the non-Chinese world.

What's curious is why the Chinese government feels it's necessary to mount this propaganda campaign. China's economy and political clout is growing every day, but the kind of propaganda on view in these kung fu films feels like it's being created to bolster a fragile sense of self-esteem. Another example of this comes from Skyfall, the latest Bond film. In one throwaway scene a European hitman kills a Chinese security guard. Chinese censors snipped this scene out, apparently because the idea of a Chinese citizen falling victim to a European is too harrowing for Chinese audiences.

I'm guessing that the real reason for this propaganda effort is that some people at the higher levels of the Chinese government are scared at the pace of change in China. Few nations in history have undergone such sweeping changes in the course of one generation, and it would appear that some Chinese politicians and bureaucrats feel that the increasing Westernization of China's culture must be combated. It's also possible that this propaganda effort is also designed to create domestic support for some of China's more belligerent diplomatic efforts; the quarrel with Japan over the Senkaku Islands immediately comes to mind. Whatever the reason, this shift in the tone of some modern kung fu films drains them of their charm and leaves a rather bitter taste.


Kinga said...

This was a very interesting posts.

It reminded me of how they tried to vilify the USA behind the Iron Curtain. I have seen a few Polish documentaries of that time and they are almost funny (although they did raise a few points you couldn't deny like the segregation)

Kinga said...


Cary Watson said...

Thanks, Kinga. Smart propaganda always has a grain of truth, it's just a matter of far they distort or exaggerate the truth.

Anonymous said...

I came away with the same feeling from these films, especially the Chen Zhen one. The beginning and ending were alright, but the bulk of the film was just loaded with overkill anti-Japanese sentiment. There certainly were some valid historical points that were brought up, but it was soured by having every Japanese character lie, backstab, rape, and even murder their own. It was tastelessly done and I don't think I'll bother watching any more films with that actor as a lead. China's lack of self-confidence is just too glaring from films like these and it's embarrassing to watch.

Cary Watson said...

Embarrassing is a good word to use in describing them. Are the Chinese so lacking in self-esteem they have to produce this nonsense?

Peter Rozovsky said...

I just posted this at my place, but it fits here, too. Jet Li's Fearless (2006) plays up Chinese nationalism in a big way, complete with condescending Europeans and evil Japanese. It's interesting, though, that the hero, Huo Yuanjia, and the Japanese fighter come to enjoy mutual respect. A bit of pro-Asian solidarity there, perhaps?
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Cary Watson said...

Chinese-Japanese solidarity in kung fu films is very rare, unique even. In Bruce Lee's Fists of Fury the whole story revolves around Bruce standing up to arrogant Japanese occupiers. The Japanese are the default villains in Chinese films.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Have you seen Fearless? It's quite a stirring story of Chinese building national pride in the face of Western condescention and oppression, and that Tanaka character is a bit of lone wolf who even calls a corrupt Japanese gambler "a disgrace to Japan." That scene has all kinds of interesting overtones.

Unknown said...

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