So I finally watched Yuen Woo Ping’s True Legend (2010) last night and had a thought. Well, I had many thoughts, most of them negative, but one main thought. Martial arts cinema – especially from Mainland China – seems to be adapting to the requirements of a globalized cinema audience in all the wrong ways and making history repeat itself in the process.
I’ve written before about the historical connection between martial arts cinema and Chinese opera traditions. A key feature of traditional Chinese opera was its minimalist sets and backdrops. A single sheet might have hung in the background, and, depending on the actors’ performance, could signify a variety of different settings. Chinese opera sets only became more elaborate and excessive as a direct result of the competition it received from motion pictures. Advertisements of the time would sometimes specifically call out the addition of new and fantastical sets, hoping to draw back some of the audience they lost to the movies. Arguably, this was a very superficial change to the format, focusing on furthering the spectacle while keeping all other elements relatively unchanged.
I think a similar thing is happening to Chinese martial arts cinema today. Though the past year or two has brought about some major industrial changes, Chinese audiences still tend to prefer Hollywood imports over domestic productions. Meanwhile, the domestic productions that are regularly drawing the biggest crowds are often low budget comedies. Kung fu cinema is falling behind. In response, they – like the opera troupes that inspired them in the past – seem to be providing more elaborate backdrops to attract new audiences.
In the case of many of the films I’ve recently seen, this is the new backdrop of choice:
The green screen.
True Legend, Wu Xia (2011), Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (2011), The Sorcerer and the White Snake (2011), Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010), and other recent films are characterized by massive computerized sets, sweeping flying cameras across gigantic digital kingdoms, fly-by’s alongside poorly rendered birds of prey, alternating slow- and fast-motion cinematography, rapid zooms and pull-backs across huge physical distances, and increasingly deficient characters and plots. Even the editing and cinematography during fight scenes have changed to an almost illegible level. Smooth, infrequent cuts have been replaced with rapid editing, effect-heavy shots, and frantic pacing. I almost stopped True Legend 10 minutes into the opening brawl. My eyes couldn’t take it. My respect for Yuen’s previous work is honestly what kept me going.
My appeal to Chinese martial arts cinema is this: drop the increasingly elaborate CGI backdrops. It’s an unsustainable trend. It feels like the genre is trying to get a last hurrah before it temporarily falls completely out of favor. Focus instead on changing a different aspect of martial arts films which has remained mostly unchanged since even the days of Chinese opera: character development and plot. That is seriously where the change needs to be. Chinese opera and kung fu films, by definition, emphasize action over plot and character. I think it’s time to change that. Start with a compelling character and story, and then incorporate some fight scenes. Doing it the other way around will always leave the characters flailing with little consistency in traits, motivation, and/or development. True Legend – and the other films above – made that abundantly clear. I’m probably going to come back to this topic again in the future…
(If you haven’t seen any of the films I mentioned, I’m including the trailers for a couple of them below. It may give you a sense of what I’m getting at, especially in terms of the CGI backgrounds)