By Conor Hunter | May 2012
Junsui Films examines the evolution of Asian cinema and the unmistakable impact it’s had on the Western industry…
“Never the Twain?”
East Asian Cinema and its Influence in the West
In 1919 director D.W. Griffith (Birth of a Nation) directed Broken Blossoms, otherwise known as The Yellow Man and the Girl. The film’s Chinese protagonist Cheng Huan, played by white American Richard Barthelmess, is portrayed as weak and feminine compared to the strong and powerful Americans.
Such stereotyping and Orientalism was not uncommon for the time, Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed released in Germany in 1926 is the oldest surviving animated feature film and portrays a fat, demonic king of China with clawed hands and head-wear resembling horns. Due in part to cultural exchange between the countries, the West’s depictions of East Asia and it’s inhabitants has come a long way since the early days of cinema, though it is perhaps naïve to claim that Europe and Hollywood are now free of all Orientalism and stereotype.
At the same time Griffith and Reiniger were working, Asian countries were developing their own film industries. Film technology had been available in the East from the turn of the 20th century and by the 1930s the Shaw Brothers studio, now one of the most prolific producers of martial arts films, had been established and Thailand was experiencing what is now referred to as their ‘golden age’ of cinema.
But it wasn’t until the end of the Second World War when the work of a certain Japanese director started to gain attention from the West. In 1950 Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, based on two short stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and The Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
This was the first Kurosawa film to star Toshirō Mifune and the two would go on to collaborate on sixteen films including Seven Samurai, Yojimbo and Throne of Blood, an interpretation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The films of Kurosawa have inspired many Western films now considered classics, from Seven Samurai being remade as The Magnificent Seven and later inspiring Pixar’s A Bug’s Life to Sergio Leone’s unofficial remake of Yojimbo as A Fistful of Dollars. Star Wars, the movie that gave birth to one of the most successful franchises of all time, heavily borrowed plot elements from 1958′s The Hidden Fortress. Kurosawa continued to produce films into the early 1990′s including the award-winning epics Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985).
By the start of the 1970s a new brand of Asian cinema was on its way to becoming an international sensation, bringing its very own superstar with it. By this point martial arts films had been produced in China for decades, both traditional wuxia films set in historical China and the more modern kung-fu films coming mainly from the Hong-Kong studios. However, with videotapes becoming more affordable a new Western market opened up for cheaply-dubbed copies of the large back catalogue and newly produced films. Thus began the cult kung-fu craze in the West, late night showings in cinemas and in kung-fu theatre slots on television. A genre of exploitation film, they featured extensive choreographed martial arts sequences linked together by varying levels of story quality.
Perfectly placed to take advantage of the zeitgeist and explosion in popularity of the genre was Bruce Lee. Despite starring in only five films, Lee’s impressive martial arts skills and his portrayal of Chinese nationalism solidified him as an iconic figure synonymous with the kung-fu genre. Enter the Dragon became the first kung-fu film to be financed by a major Hollywood, though it was one of Lee’s earlier films Fist of Fury also known as Chinese Connection that arguably had the most impact on the genre.
In the film Lee plays Chen Zhen who returns home to Jingwu school to find his old master has been killed in suspicious circumstances. The film is set in the Shanghai international settlement and examines the international tensions at the time, allowing Zhen to fight not only for his own and his master’s honour, but for the honour of the Chinese people. The fight scenes range from large choreographed group fights to one-on-one confrontations and the film is the first time we see Lee using his signature weapon – the nunchaku.
Whilst all the films in the genre were associated with extended and complex fight scenes, there was a large variation in their themes and tone as can be seen with the 1981 kung-fu comedy The Prodigal Son. Yuen Biao plays Leung Jan, a young naïve martial artist desperate to learn kung-fu from Lam Ching-ying’s Leung Yee-tai. The action scenes are no less fast and furious than those in the classic Bruce Lee films, yet they are interspersed with many elements of slapstick humour and visual gags. The film’s individual style has characters frequently breaking the fourth wall to direct their speech to camera. Yet behind the fighting and comedy is an emotional relationship between student and master that delivers an important moral message.
The popularity of the kung-fu genre continued through the 80s and 90s and two actors in particular were able to use the crossover appeal of the genre to break into Hollywood. Jackie Chan began his acting career as a stunt-man, appearing briefly in both Fist of Fury and Enter the Dragon. After a number of commercial failures including the sequel New Fist of Fury, Chan achieved success in the comedy kung-fu film Drunken Master. From that point Chan carefully cultivated his image as a star of the comedy kung-fu genre, taking inspiration from silent film stars such as Buster Keaton, who also performed his own stunts. Chan combined complex stunts and martial arts with sight gags and slapstick comedy.
As well as performing, Chan has directed a number of his own films, including the highly successful Project A and Police Story series. The first film in the Police Story series won best picture and best choreography at the Hong Kong Film Awards and Chan himself has stated he considers it one of his best in terms of action sequences. Michael Bay borrowed elements of the plot, which sees protagonist Ka Kui (Chan) protecting a police witness, and an entire action sequence for his Bad Boys series. After starring in a number of commercial failures in America, Chan became more careful in selecting his roles, refusing to play a villain for fear of typecasting and tarnishing his comedy image. He finally found success with Rumble in the Bronx and has gone on to star in numerous films including the Rush Hour series, even giving birth to his own cartoon series.
Jet Li began his career as a member of the Beijing Wushu Team, winning fifteen gold medals. At the age of nineteen Li starred in his first film Shaolin Temple and went on to make two more films in the series as well as starring in the Once Upon a Time in China series and Fist of Legend, a remake of the Bruce Lee classic Fist of Fury.
Fist of Legend complicates the international tensions of the original by giving protagonist Chen Zhen a Japanese girlfriend, and also adds a sub-plot of competition between Chen and his master’s son Huo Ting’en (Chin Siu-ho). The Wachowskis were so impressed with the fight scenes featured in Legend that they hired choreographer Yuen Woo-ping for their martial arts sci-fi classic The Matrix. Unlike Chan, Li’s first major Hollywood role was playing villain Wah Sing Ku in Lethal Weapon 4. He has gone on to leading roles in Kiss of the Dragon, Romeo Must Die, Unleashed and recently starred in the all-star action cast of Sylvester Stallone’s Expendables, a role he reprises in the upcoming sequel.
Whilst Hong-Kong may have been the centre of the explosion in popularity, the martial arts film is a common genre in many East Asian countries. The 1997 South East Asian financial crisis began with the collapse of the Thai baht and the damage to the country’s economy was felt hard by its film industry. Since the Millennium however, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the industry has rapidly expanded in what critics dub the Thai New Wave. This included films such as ghost story Nang Nak, western Tears of the Black Tiger and Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior the film that propelled Tony Jaa to Stardom.
The plot revolves around Ting’s (Jaa) quest to track down a stolen idol. But it is the variety and quality of stunts that has made the film such an international success, from the opening scene of young men racing to steal a flag from the top of a tree, bare-fisted muay Thai (Thai kick-boxing) fights, to high-octane chase scenes, the adrenaline is kept racing throughout. Jaa collaborated again with director Prachya Pinkaew in the film Tom-Yum-Goong, also known as Warrior King, in which he travels to Sydney to search for his stolen pet elephant. Like Ong Bak, the film sometimes feels like the action and story were written completely independently, but the quality of the action makes up for it, especially a single take fight scene up a long spiral staircase.
Martial arts films are not the only style of East Asian cinema to gain popularity in the West. In 1984 Hamish McAlpine established Tartan Films and coined the genre term Asia Extreme to market East Asian horror and thrillers to the West. The films distributed ranged from hard-boiled action thrillers such as the Hong Kong classics Infernal Affairs and Hard Boiled to the creepy, psychological horror of Japan such as director Hideo Nakato’s Ringu and Dark Water.
But there was perhaps no director more suited to the modus operandi of Asia Extreme than Japan’s Takashi Miike. Paradoxically Miike has made a wide variety of films whilst maintaining a very distinctive style. While some of his work is family-friendly, in the West at least, it is his extreme, bizarre splatter-fests for which he is most famous. From Battle Royale, a futuristic Lord of the Flies with exploding dog-collars, to Imprint, the only episode of the Masters of Horror series not broadcast on US TV, Miike’s work has often courted controversy, none more so than 2001′s Ichi the Killer.
Inspired by the manga of the same name, the film follows sadomasochistic protagonist Kakihara, whose scarred face complete with Chelsea smile has become a iconic cult image, as he tracks down the titular Ichi – a deranged and guilt-ridden mass-murderer. During the film’s screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, sick-bags were handed out to the audience due to the extreme violence depicted in the film. While some of its extremity may seem tame by today’s standards and the computer graphics have dated, it is the trademark inventiveness of some of the analogue gore that cement the film’s classic status.
This inventiveness is also seen in Miike’s adaptation of Ryu Murakami’s Audition, where he added a grotesque left-field reveal to the ending, which achieves more through its bizarre surprise than intense levels of violence and gore could hope for. The popularity of Asia Extreme movies has spurred the gore-porn genre in the West with films such as Saw, Hostel and A Serbian Film constantly trying to one-up each other in levels of shock and disgust. However Miike’s approach of complex themes such as gender and sexuality, clever genre subversion and expert pacing, put his films far ahead of simple, exploitative, shock-value cinema.
Another director Asia Extreme shone the spotlight on was South Korea’s Park Chan-Wook, most famous for his vengeance trilogy. The most well-known of the trilogy is the Grand Prix winning Oldboy, based on a Japanese manga, which combines a bleak storyline, impressive fight-scenes and an outstanding performance from lead Choi Min-Sik.
Oldboy along with the other two films in the trilogy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and the earliest and bleakest Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, all feature characters who convey feelings of suffering and longing for change. Critics have noted this as a common theme within the films of Korea and described it as haan (a word that literally refers to a tree – an analogy to the characters’ and country’s deeply rooted suffering), this along with an attempt to resolve divisions is a common theme in the Asia Extreme films from the country such as the horror films A Tale of Two Sisters and Acacia.
It has been suggested that the feelings of division, suffering and longing in South Korean cinema stem from the country’s history and a contradiction between the desire to distance themselves between the politics of the North and to deal with a joint history and culture. One film that approaches the countries’ divide in a more direct way was South Korea’s submission for the 2012 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, The Front Line.
The film follows a South Korean company during the Korean War who, like the troops of the Kubrick classic Paths of War, are engaged in a constant battle over a single hill. As the film progresses the relationship between Alligator Company and their North Korean counterparts is complicated and examined. Like Kubrick, director Hun Jang presents a bleak and futile view of the atrocities of war whilst examining an international relationship that remains complex and frayed in the current age.
Of course, this is no way meant to encompass the whole of East Asian cinema; such an attempt would be futile. Kung fu and Asia Extreme may be some of the most popular East Asian genres in the West, but the continent has far more to offer. There are the beautiful Japanese manga films of Hayao Miyazaki and Satoshi Kon and the modern takes on Chinese wuxia such as House of Flying Daggers and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Taiwan has its own collection of classics from the early culture clash comedies of Hollywood favourite Ang Lee to Tsai Ming Liang’s beautifully quiet depictions of urban decay.
The films of East Asia have taken influences from a variety of Western sources – Kurosawa’s reinterpretations of Shakespeare’s Lear and Macbeth, John Woo’s Mafia inspired gangster films and Hayao Miyazaki’s manga version of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers. Likewise the East has shown it’s own influence, from the backhanded compliment of inferior Hollywood remakes – The Eye, The Grudge, The Ring, Dark Water – to the vast majority of directors, choreographers and actors brought over to work on original films and the obvious influence on movies such as Kill Bill, The Karate Kid and Kung Fu Panda. Both industries have come a long way since the days of D.W. Griffith’s Yellow Man and further dialogue between these varied and vibrant cultures, can only be a good thing for anyone with a love of film.