The Revival of Martial Arts Films in the 1930s and 1940s
Located at the south-eastern tip of China, Hong Kong became a British colony in 1841 and from the 1930s accommodated filmmakers fleeing from Beijing, Shanghai and other major mainland cities, becoming the new centre of the Chinese film industry (Szeto 2011, p. 13). In the 1930s and 1940s, a number of seminal martial arts films were produced in Hong Kong (Lee 2003), including the Fong Sai-yuk (Fang Shiyu) and Wong Fei-hung (Huang Feihong) series (see Hong Kong Film Archive). The popularity of these martial arts films was undoubtedly associated with their portrayals of traditional Chinese virtues and norms, as demonstrated through the heroic stories of real martial arts masters. However, with the eponymous hero depicted as a leading anti- Manchu activist in the films, the Fong Sai-yuk series seems still to have carried the motif of ethnic nationalism.
The significance of the Wong Fei-hung series is the removal of supernatural martial skills and artificial elements used in earlier martial arts films made in the 1920s (Klein 2004; Lee 2003). Instead, The Story of Wong Fei-hung (Wu Pang 1949) for the first time integrated authentic martial skills and proper martial arts forms, such as the fight sequences commonly presented in the Beijing opera (Klein 2004; Lee 2003). This shift towards the realistic presentation of martial arts paved the way for a ‘new style’ of martial arts films in Chinese cinema in the 1960s. The character of Wong Fei-hung also fortified a cultural imagination based on anti-imperialist nationalism: “[t]he scene of Chinese kung fu fighters smashing Japanese karateists and western kick-boxers in empty-hand fighting has been a stereotypical cliche for years” (Li 2001, p. 518). In fact, the actor who played the role of Wong Fei-hung throughout the series, Kwan Tak Hing, virtually became the reincarnation of Wong and was called ‘Master Wong’ instead of his own name by the public (Li 2001). While almost half of mainland China had fallen into Japan’s hands by the beginning of the 1940s, the British colonial government adopted a laissez faire attitude towards the affairs of Hong Kong (Tsim 1989, p. xvii). It therefore became the only place with the freedom to promote popular nationalism, which to some extent preserved continuity in the development of the Chinese National Cinema within this territory. In the 1941-45 period, the entire Hong Kong film industry refused to cooperate with Japan when the territory fell under Japanese control (Szeto 2011, p. 14; Zhang 2004, p. 92) and consequently no martial arts films were produced during these five years. If Hong Kong people walked a fine line between Chinese cultural hegemony and the existing British colonial rule in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the martial arts films of this period reflected such a struggle by depicting characters that embodied Confucian values in a historical period when China was under serious threat of Western invasions (Li 2001, pp. 531-532). The anti-colonialism that later emerged in this British colony was also represented in martial arts films, as discussed in the section below.