Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Before and After

In recent decades, while a new genre of martial arts films which consists of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and its followers is in development, the anti-Japanese sentiment has continued to serve the core theme of martial arts films due to the problematic nature of Sino-Japanese relations, including the territory dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands,[1] as well as the repeated visits by Japanese leaders to the Yasukuni Shrine.[2] A number of recent martial arts films featuring anti-Japanese sentiment thus gained considerable popularity among the Chinese diaspora, e.g., Fearless (Ronny Yu 2006), Ip Man (Part 1 in 2008 and Part 2 in 2010 by Wilson Yip), The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake (Herman Yau 2011) and The Grandmaster (Wong Kai-wai 2013). Ip Man 1 and Ip Man 2 were particularly successful, recording box office takings of approximately US $15 million (CNY ?94.3 million) and US $35 million (CNY ?219.5 million) respectively in mainland China (China Box Office Statistics). The New York Times suggested that Ip Man 2 would be “one of the world’s top-grossing non-English-language films” in 2010 (NYT 2010). With such great success in the box office, Pegasus Motion Pictures Limited has announced that Ip Man 3 is already in development and will be shot in 3D. The Grandmaster, produced by internationally renowned director Wong Kar- wai, earned around US $45 million (CNY ?288.3 million) at the mainland China box office (China Box Office Statistics) and was nominated for the ‘Best Cinematography’ and ‘Best Costume Design’ awards at the 86th Annual Academy Awards. The prevalence of this kind of martial arts film is unsurprising since both Ip Man and The Grandmaster depict the same character, Yip Man (Ye Wen), who was a master of wing chun and Bruce Lee’s teacher, portrayed as a nationalist hero defeating Western fighters. Nevertheless, they were not or have not been received very well in the global market - at least not when compared with Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and its followers, as discussed below. For instance, Ip Man 1 and Ip Man 2 are not scheduled or planned for public release in the US. The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake, which has no official English title, is apparently not planned for release in the Anglophone market either. The Grandmaster is in line with other films directed by Wong Kar-wai, which are likely to be positioned as art-house films. It is also interesting that the 86th Academy Awards did not nominate it for ‘Best Foreign Language Film’, which might be a good indicator of the reaction from the US market. It is thus safe to assume that the global reception of this kind of film cannot compete with the Crouching Tiger type.

These films apparently target (and some are even solely aimed at) the Chinese market consisting of mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Since the handover of Hong Kong’s sovereignty to Beijing in 1997, China-Taiwan relations have been somewhat repaired and have been improving in the past decade. In May 2005, Lian Zhan, Chairman of the KMT, led a delegation from Taiwan to visit mainland China. Lian Zhan and his delegates were welcomed by the Chairman of the PRC, Hu Jintao. This was the first time that leaders of the two political parties, i.e., the KMT and the Communist Party, had shaken hands since the KMT was defeated by the Communist Party and retreated to Taiwan in 1949 (Xu 2005). Since then, and especially after Ma Ying-jeou won the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections in Taiwan, cross-Strait relations have moved away from being “more than just cool” towards a common desire to “weave a fabric of relationships” (Romberg 2010, p. 10; see also Muyard 2010).

Collaborations in the film industry between mainland China and Taiwan have significantly increased in this political climate, and in January 2013 the Beijing government released a specific regulation in order to manage and strengthen these collaborations (The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television of China 2013). In the context of this lowering of political tensions between Taiwan and mainland China, some martial arts films have acknowledged and portrayed the contributions of the KMT, as well as of Sun Yat-sen as the first President of the ROC, in relation to anti-feudalism and in the Sino-Japanese wars. For instance, Bodyguards and Assassins (Chen Tak- sum 2009) told the story of a group of martial arts fighters who gathered in Hong Kong to protect Sun Yat-sen. Sun had travelled to Hong Kong to attend a meeting aimed at overthrowing the Qing government, which had in turn sent assassins to kill him. The film also implies the collusion of the colonial British powers in the assassination plot. Therefore, the film manifests anti-colonist and anti-feudalist sentiments. The type of martial arts film embedded with a sense of nationalism is not only produced in all three territories but also is well received across the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Nevertheless, it is intriguing to note that the first martial arts film and also the first Chinese film to win an Oscar for Best Foreign Film was Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Apart from a variety of film festival awards (e.g., at the 54th British Academy Film Awards and the 58th Golden Globe Awards) it won, this film also achieved considerable box office success with a record of over $100 million in the American market alone and over US $200 million in global markets (Wang 2008; Chung 2007; Wu and Chan 2007; Hsieh 2004). In fact, Crouching Tiger triggered a cycle of big-budget martial arts genre which is called “the new-style martial arts saga” by Desser (2011, p. 1). He (2011) maintains that Crouching Tiger injected new life to the legacy of Chinese cinema through the resurrection of Chinese martial arts films genre. However, the resurgent martial arts picture should be distinguished from ‘the new-style’ in 1960s and 1970s (see discussion earlier) as they prioritise “expressions of cultural nationalism” (Desser 2011, p. 2). Fore (1997, p. 95) cited Harumi Befu to define cultural nationalism as “the creation, crystallisation, and expression of the cultural identity of the nation.” It is different from state or political nationalism in various aspects. For instance, a cultural nationalist would be attached to the cultural nation over loyalty to the Party-state (see details in Guo 2004). The cultural nationalism has already been evident previously in contemporary Chinese cinema amongst the independent art- house films (Fore 1997, p. 95-97) such as Yellow Earth (Chen Kaige 1984),

Farewell My Concubine (Chen Kaige 1993), Raise the Red Lantern (Zhang Yimou 1991).

Crouching Tiger indeed explores Chinese cultural nationalism to a large extent since the script was adapted from a work of Chinese martial arts fiction written by Wang Dulu in the 1930s, as well as through the choice of martial arts, the use of the Mandarin language throughout the film, the exploration of the indigenous notions of wuxia and jianghu,n and even the choice of shooting locations set in the stunning landscape of mainland China, such as the Gobi Desert and bamboo forests (Chan 2004; Klein 2004).

There is no doubt that the success of Crouching Tiger has provided a model for Chinese martial arts films to prosper in the international film market. This model usually stresses the following characteristics: the adoption of the martial arts genre and the portrayal of elements of Chineseness, a panAsian cast with film stars from different Asian countries or areas, a global makeup in the film production team, international sources of funding and planning for marketing worldwide (Chan 2004; Wang and Yeh 2005; Chung 2007; Wu and Chan 2007; Teo 2008). Since the success of Crouching Tiger, there have been attempts to replicate this model (Teo 2008). For example, Hero (2002), House of Flying Daggers (2004) and Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) by Zhang Yimou (Levitin 2006; Chung 2007; Lau 2007; Larson 2008); The Promise (2005) by Chen Kaige (Teo 2008); A Battle of Wits (2006) by Jacob Cheung Chi-leung; The Banquet (2006) by Feng Xiaogang; The Warlords (2007) and Wuxia (2011) by Peter Ho-Sun Chan; An Empress and the Warriors (2008) by Tony Ching Siu-tung; Red Cliff: Part 1 (2008) and Part 2 (2009) by John Woo.

The changes of the directors’ career demonstrate the cyclical generic rise of martial arts pictures. Both Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige are leading figures of the fifth generation of Chinese cinema who were the first group breaking into the circuit of international film festivals (Zhang 2004, p. 226). Their films are usually characterised with “scant dialogue and music as well as abundant ambiguities”, which increases the difficulty in film appreciation and leads to an obvious absence of box office in China (Zhang 2005, p. 235-236). However, both directors joined the evolution of martial arts by making films in this genre. Feng Xiaogang is usually known for directing ‘New Year [3]

comedies’[4] and thought to be the most successful commercial director in China (Kong 2009, p. 149; Zhang 2008, p.1; MacGrath 2005). The Banquet, which is adapted from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and infused with Chinese martial arts, contrasts dramatically with his previous works and therefore is thought to be a turn of his career through an attempt of following Crouching Tiger model. John Woo is well-known in Hollywood for directing films such as Broken Arrow (1996), Face Off (1997), Mission Impossible II (2000) and Windtalkers (2002). The production of Red Cliff: Part 1 and Part 2 (and he later codirected Reign of Assassins) is considered as a gesture of Woo’s returning to Chinese history and Chinese genre which he once worked within and might be foreign to him nowadays (Desser 2011). Space does not permit discussion of this unceasing trend of martial arts production even after ten years of Crouching Tiger, e.g., Reign of Assassins (Su Chao-pin and John Woo 2010), Tai Chi Zero (Stephen Fung 2012), The Guilotines (Andrew Lau 2012).

These pan-Asian productions aim to embrace transnationalism and globalisation by replacing the anti-imperialist nationalism with a cultural nationalism. In other words, they have attempted to reiterate the diaspora’s cultural nationalism through an “indirect experience of China - a simultaneous intimacy with and alienation from China” (Klein 2004, p. 23). Specifically, this intimacy-alienation bipolarisation can be seen through the use of the martial arts genre, unique to Chinese cinema, versus the unidentifiable or inaccurate ancient Chinese historical background, figures from Chinese martial arts literature or Chinese history versus a pan-Asian cast and/or a production team, the graceful fighting scenes based on the Beijing opera and traditional dance versus the Shakespeare-style dialogue, the adoption of Mandarin throughout the film versus the use of the English language in the scriptwriting (Chen and Yang 2012; Wu and Chan 2007; Chan 2004; Klein 2004; Lee 2003). The Crouching Tiger type of film indeed introduces a new approach to representing Chinese martial arts, seeking consensus from the Chinese diaspora and Western audiences, which in return contributes to the construction of a Chinese National Cinema in this more and more globalised world.

However, some Chinese themselves seem to have had difficulty accepting the Chineseness portrayed in Crouching Tiger. The responses from Chinese audiences tended to be ambivalent. While admitting the global success of such a film, Chinese audiences also declared their “disappointment” regarding the lack of authenticity in this martial arts film (Chan 2004, p. 4). These films deliberately set the context either in an unidentifiable period of history (e.g., The Promise and Wuxia) or adapt the stories in a way that inaccurately reflects history (e.g., Hero). Therefore, apart from cultural nationalism, the second characteristic of these martial arts films is the emphasis on and the association with Chinese history (Wang, 2008). The history is not only setting a story in a Chinese context, but is also used as a mean “to work through the new reality of China as an emergent power on the world scene” (Desser, 2011, p. 2). This might be a plausible explanation for some Chinese audiences to inevitably felt the films were inauthentic and so found that they did not live up to their expectations. Crouching Tiger and its followers demonstrate a new genre of martial arts film that Chinese filmmakers pioneered. It would take time for Chinese viewers who have been familiar with the traditional martial arts films to appreciate their innovation. Indeed, this new-style martial arts saga can be said to have sought to reproduce martial arts through transnational filmic discourse in an era of globalisation and transnationalism (Wang 2008; Wu and Chan 2007; Wang and Yeh 2005; Chan 2004). As Desser (2011, p. 2) points out, the third characteristic of these films is to reclaim “the martial arts genre from Hollywood and the forces of globalisation as a unique brand for Chinese cinema.”

As mentioned earlier, the contemporary Chinese cinema was known to the West by the fifth generation directors’ films entering and being awarded international film festivals. On the one hand, these small independent art films did not gain popular acceptance by the Chinese government or the general public (Chan 2009, p. 91-92; Zhang 2004, p. 235-6;), which explained the desire of Chinese filmmakers to be accepted by their own country as well as the world stage through the new-style martial arts saga. On the other hand, the martial arts cinema is a genre that might be able to outperform Hollywood blockbusters. The importation of Hollywood pictures commenced in 1994 with a strict quota of ten films per year and later this quota has been increased to twenty because of China’s 2001 entry to the WTO (Yeh and Davis 2008). Nowadays the quota has been lifted to thirty-four a year (BBC 2014). Along this importation, Hollywood blockbusters immediately dominated mainland China’s market with around 70-85 per cent of the total box office (Berry 2013, p. 220), which also means the loss of local films in the domestic market. The decline in local film production has also been evident in Hong Kong and

Taiwan (Berry and Farquhar 2006, p.206-207).[5] In fact, Hollywood productions almost took over Taiwan’s film market. In Taipei alone, where presumably half of all ticket sales in Taiwan took place, the percentage of Hollywood films’ market share increased dramatically from 50% to 93% in 1992 and 2000 respectively (Curtin 2003, p. 239). While Hollywood taking over Chinese film industry and the apparent triumph of Crouching Tiger in the box office worldwide, Chinese filmmakers experimented with different genres to contend against Hollywood blockbusters, such as The Opium War (Xie Jin 1997), Devils on the Doorstep (Jiang Wen 2000) and City of Life and Death (Lu Chuan 2009) which expressed (at least partly) political nationalism. But none of these led into a cyclical imitation as the martial arts saga did. Chinese filmmakers at least have been trying to use the martial arts genre which originated from China to “reject [Hollywood’s] totalising command for Chinese and pan-Asian audience” in its territory (Desser 2011, p. 18).

Therefore, one should try to avoid a pitfall which merely perceives Crouching Tiger and its followers as commercialised Chinese martial arts for Western consumption (see also Berry and Farquhar 2006, p. 73-74). While bearing in mind the critiques of Orientalism or self-Orientalism, we need to admit that martial arts genre is “by its nature traditionally ‘ethnic’ and exotic in its appeal” and so such critiques “may ultimately deny the genre any possibility of presence” (Chan 2009, p. 80). Instead, Desser (2011, p. 19) argues these pioneer filmmakers exploit cultural resources to resist Western hegemony through reclaiming the martial arts legacy.

The beginning of this chapter introduced the problem of employing the notion of Chinese National Cinema in an era of globalisation. The chapter uses the martial arts films and nationalism reflected within to examine this notion. Despite the interruption to its development in mainland China from the 1930s to the 1980s, the tradition was continued and revived in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and finally re-emerged on the mainland to continue its development at its point of provenance. Chinese national identity as an imaginary unity can be traced within this continued tradition in an unfixed and heterogeneous nature. In the exploration of cultural nationalism, Chinese filmmakers not only inquire what it is to be “Chinese” in a global world (Berry and Farquhar 2006, p. 7374), but also reclaim and retain Chinese National Cinema from Hollywood’s domination in the domestic markets and worldwide. Besides, with the process of marketisation of Chinese film industry, the martial arts saga might be able to contribute to a hyper-national cinema proposed by Yeh and Davis (2008).

Comparing the relatively mixed reception of the films that have followed Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon in the Chinese diaspora, such as Hero and The Promise, with the better-received anti-imperialist martial arts films (e.g., Ip Man 1 and Ip Man 2), further research on the contribution of both types of martial arts films to the development of Chinese cinema is needed.

  • [1] In China, the islands are called the Diaoyu Islands, while in Japan, they are called Senkaku Islands.
  • [2] Although this Japanese imperial war shrine is used to commemorate individuals who died in wars, it also commemorates war criminals from World War II, including those whocommitted war crimes during the Sino-Japanese War.
  • [3] Jianghu [11ЭД usually refers a cultural imaginary space in martial arts literature and films. It is“a figure for the world at large, the world “out there”, as distinguished perhaps mostusefully from ‘home’”’ (Chan 2001, p. 491).
  • [4] ‘New Year comedies’ or ‘New Year’s celebration films’ are a genre developed from a series oflighthearted romance comedy films directed by Feng Xiaogang since 1997 (Zhang, 2008).Films in this genre are usually casted by top star talent during the holiday season spanningChinese New Year (MaGrath 2005).
  • [5] Please note that Hong Kong is a free trade port which does not need to join the WTO. Taiwanentered the WTO soon after mainland China in January 2002. Taiwan has been lifting thefilm import quota since 1980s and a further increase in the foreign film quota was put inplace after WTO entry (Wang 2003, p. 100).
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