Netflix’s Iron Fist and the Failed Expectations of Chinese Martial Arts Cinema

So I’m finally getting around to Iron Fist (I’m only 6 episodes in at the time of this writing) and I think I’ve come to certain realizations. Episode 6, in particular, helped crystallize a lot of the thoughts that were bubbling and percolating in my head throughout the first five episodes.

Let’s start with the big one: Chinese martial arts.

And I see now how I may have set myself up for disappointment on this one. I stayed away from all the promos for the show, assuming (in hindsight, a foolish assumption) that the show would naturally embrace the formal qualities of Chinese martial arts cinema. It’s a subject I’ve written about before (here and here and here), and which is near and dear to my heart. I mean, it seemed like a safe assumption to make: the main character is a superhero whose superpower IS Chinese martial arts. And with the incredible fight choreography and cinematography on display over at Daredevil, it seemed only natural that Iron Fist would embrace what felt like its inherent characteristics more fully. But they didn’t. At all. At least not in these first 6 episodes. And even if that drastically changes in the second half of the season (which would be weird in itself) it still wouldn’t make up for how the character’s already been introduced.

To be clear, all of the formal elements of Danny Rand’s fight scenes have been completely in line with – and in some cases better than – your “typical” Hollywood-produced action narrative. But, and here’s the important part, they do not fully embrace the aesthetics and traditions of Chinese martial arts cinema, which brings with it very specific expectations:

Expectation #1: Longer Takes, Fewer Cuts, Wider Shots

On a purely formal level, Chinese martial arts cinema employs fewer cuts, and longer takes. In terms of the fight choreography, I’m talking about the ability to see the performers execute a larger number of strikes, blocks, and martial arts moves in between each cut. It’s the difference between this sequence from The Matrix, in which we get 1 block, 1 kick, 4 strikes, another kick, and a few more punches in a shot that begins at 2:18:

And this one from Kickboxer, in which we get one kick…and two cuts:

And so far, where Danny Rand is concerned, the editing leans more towards the latter than the former. As seen here:

And especially here, where these reverse shots of close-ups on his face seem to serve no other purpose than to break up the flow of physical demands on the performer(s):

A big part of the aesthetic of longer takes and wider shots is related to the next expectation, which is at the heart of the Chinese martial arts cinema aesthetic.

Expectation #2: Our Focus is on the Actual Physical Ability of the Performer

All of the great Chinese martial arts cinema stars trained in their art since childhood. And “trained” doesn’t really feel like an adequate word to describe what the likes of Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, Jet Li, and Donnie Yen went through in terms of their martial arts education. On a certain level, it doesn’t feel right using the same word to describe Jackie Chan’s grueling time at opera school  as we use for the actor who trains for a few months before filming begins on a particular movie. Now I don’t know how long Finn Jones trained for Iron Fist, but based on what movements we do see, it’s more than clear that this isn’t really a lifestyle for him.But there are ways that the editing and cinematography can amplify what skills a performer does have, or at least show what they do know. For example, even though I still maintain that The Matrix was a turning point in the style of Hollywood action cinema due in part to its embrace of Chinese martial arts aesthetics, Keanu Reeves and Hugo Weaving in the clip above look pretty stiff and amateurish compared to clips of Jackie Chan and others who’ve been doing it all their lives. But Reeves and Weaving feel more impressive than Jones in Iron Fist, because the cinematography and editing actually let us see what they’re doing. And ok, so they’re not as good as someone like Jackie Chan, but they’re clearly doing all that stuff themselves. With Iron Fist, I can’t help but think that a) he’s not as good as the pros, and b) the show doesn’t really think he’s that good either, because the editing seems more focused on making up for his lack of ability as opposed to enhancing and adding on to his talents.

I think being aware of that balance between actual performer skill and production-enhanced apparent character skill is further illustrated through Jessica Henwick’s character – and consistent scene stealer – Colleen Wing. Her cage match is a good example. She clearly has the talent as a martial artist, which is then further enhanced by the show’s formal elements:

There’s an even better scene in Episode 6 where she swiftly dispatches a thug in the hospital, but I can’t find a clip of that. But I hope I’ve made my point. The higher the actual real-world skill of the performer, the more opportunities for longer takes and wider shots, which together can lead to a higher production-enhanced skill for the character. (I’m going to talk to a mathematician friend to see if he can come up with an actual equation for this.)

A key point to remember: slow motion does not a great fighter make.

Expectation #3: Environment- and Prop-Based Improvisation

This particular expectation led to a spectacular let-down with Episode 6. One of the elements of the Chinese-opera-based martial arts cinematic tradition is the way that performers will manipulate otherwise every-day items in awesome ways. Ladders, tables, and chairs are the most usual suspects, but they can include all sorts of weapons, jugs, brooms, mops, dragon masks, and pretty much anything else. They also use the environment in cool and unexpected ways. So that as a fight forces the performers into new spaces, your eyes are immediately scanning the surroundings to see what items or environmental elements might be incorporated into the fight.

So, in Episode 6 of Iron Fist, in the middle of the third and presumably final duel, the fighters suddenly find themselves in a room that looks like this:

My first thought was, “How are they going to use those frames and scaffoldings in this fight?!” Because there’s a history and a tradition that, whether the show realizes or not, it’s being a part of by saying its character is a Chinese martial artist. Here’s Jackie Chan coming across that kind of structure:

And here’s Jason Statham doing some similar work in Transporter 2:

 

Notice how in both cases, the characters are “naturally” pushed towards a particular environmental element that they are then forced to incorporate into their fight.

Unfortunately, Iron Fist does nothing of the sort. I can’t find a clip of the fight in question, but those metal frames and bars are mainly used as shields and things to duck under, instead of ways to gain advantage as a skilled and analytical fighter. It’s all in the last 10-15 minutes of Episode 6. Check it out and tell me what you think.

Honorable Mention: The Axe Gang

Come on! They even messed with the Axe Gang! Again, whether the show realizes or not, it’s entering an existing conversation. Martial artists fighting a gang of axe-wielding thugs is practically a trope of Chinese martial arts cinema. Even if they specifically – and kinda awkwardly – make clear that they were “hatchets,” not axes, it’s still the Axe Gang.

I’ll end this post with a comment-free exhibition of various takes on the Axe Gang, ending with one from another current American show, Into the Badlands, which I highly recommend for anyone interested in seeing what it looks like when an American show more fully embraces the Chinese martial arts cinema aesthetic. Spoiler alert: beautiful (and violent) things happen.

You already saw Iron Fist‘s take on the Axe Gang in the “Hallway Fight” scene above.

Here they are in a badly dubbed clip from 1994’s Drunken Master II:

And in 2004’s Kung Fu Hustle:

And in 2008’s Ip Man:

And, finally, from the first season of AMC’s post-apocalyptic, western, kung fu drama, Into the Badlands. Warning: graphic violence.

 

Looks like my fawning over Claire and Colleen will have to wait for another post. Perhaps a Part 2 on Iron Fist?
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7 thoughts on “Netflix’s Iron Fist and the Failed Expectations of Chinese Martial Arts Cinema

  1. I love your post and your videos and your writing. Prefaced by saying that I have not watched iron fist because I was simply dissuaded by the acting and scenes in the previews (coming from a pretty hardcore marvel fan) my question is the following: Although this series is apparently about a Chinese martial artist super hero, why do you feel like it needs to conform to Chinese martial art cinematography? Are all martial arts movies supposed to be held to that standard?

    • Dear Secret Admirer,

      Thank you for reading and for the excellent question! Two things come to mind in reply to your question:

      1) No movie, show, or media production of any kind exists in an isolated vacuum. Whether they like it or not, as soon as a product drops into view of consumers’ eyes, it takes on a life of its own, and its perception is affected by a network of other movies, shows, traditions, conventions, genre tropes, rules, actor histories, celebrity, etc. Some refer to this as intertextuality: the way in which media products refer to, draw on, and are influenced by each other. IRON FIST is part of a larger conversation. It has no say in whether or not it joins this conversation. It does so by the tropes it mobilizes (mystical kung fu temple, chosen one, outsider, etc), the aesthetic traditions it calls upon in its cinematography and editing (action cinema generally, martial arts cinema specifically), and not to mention the fact that there’s a comic book source material and 3 other Netflix shows it’s supposed to connect with, among other things.

      2) Consistency. I’m working on another blog post about IRON FIST that will hopefully get at this issue in more detail. But ultimately, the show itself lacks consistency in the aesthetic traditions and formal qualities it wants to use. Movies, whole seasons, and individual episodes tend to have a language of their own. There are rules and conventions that are established and carried out for the viewer that tend to remain consistent from episode to episode. In the specific case of IRON FIST, the language changes even within one single episode and can be pretty jarring. I’m going to write up a specific example of this, but the short of it is that even within a single episode, different fights are filmed in very different ways, which is essentially switching between different cinematic languages.

      So, the short answer to your question is: yes, this specific show does need to conform to Chinese martial arts aesthetics. Because there’s a history that it’s desperately trying to tap into, but it’s only doing so halfheartedly at best, ignorantly at worst. It keeps throwing references to significant Chinese martial arts tropes and conventions that include, but are not limited to: the title of each episode made to sound like mystical martial arts moves, the inclusion of an “Axe Gang,” a fight against an opponent using drunken fist/drunken style boxing, the difference/rivalry between Japanese and Chinese martial arts, the mystical nature of kung fu, Shaolin monks, the harnessing and directing of the inner force known as your “chi” or “qi,” and they even superficially (and kinda awkwardly) get at the rich history that connects American hip hop to Chinese martial arts. But they don’t follow through with what those traditions look like when fully embraced. It’s like someone who wants to be cool, but all the people they think are cool happen to wear sunglasses and a backwards cap, so they put on some sunglasses and a backwards cap and think they are now officially cool. Even though they lack the authenticity that so often goes hand-in-hand with being cool. Does that make sense? Maybe not the best example, but I think it’s kind of the same thing here, only with Chinese martial arts traditions. It’s like they found all the superficial “pieces” that Chinese martial arts movies need to have, but they don’t quite know how to put it together in a more meaningful and authentic way.

      Sigh, there’s so much more I want to say, and I’m not even convinced all of the above made sense. But hopefully we can continue this conversation after my next post, which I think will clarify things a bit more. Won’t you come back for that??

      • I think we agree that Iron Fist itself is not the best series. Your explanations on inconsistency are a good facet as to why. As far as entering an already ongoing conversation, this brings me to two questions.

        1. The matrix was loved by the general public, which brought it’s huge success. How much of that success was in part to adhering to these cinematic rules vs it just being great (as a layman would not recognize these constructs)? Would you say the bullet time scene, which brought much of its popularity, was a deviation from this construct?

        2. If we gave a hip hop artist some hip hop music from today, they may be sorely confused. Is that the same for chinese martial arts? Or is that genre of art evolving at a slower pace because of rigidity? Is that a good or bad thing?

          • Dear Super Secrets,

            Now this is getting good!

            I think THE MATRIX is an interesting example to bring up, which might take us down an even deeper rabbit hole (and yes, that was a Matrix reference). Now personally, I very much believe that a major factor in the success and popularity of The Matrix had to do with its embrace of Chinese martial arts cinema aesthetics. It’s a tradition that has masters, legacies, and basically dynasties. And the Wachowskis clearly knew this, because they used one of THE masters of martial arts cinema, Yuen Woo-Ping, as their fight choreographer. He is the guy responsible for pretty much every single classic Jackie Chan and Jet Li film, as well as the original CROUCHING TIGER, both KILL BILLs, and dozens of other productions.

            So although these traditions had been used in Hong Kong and Chinese filmmaking for decades before THE MATRIX was ever even conceived, I believe it was really the first time it showed up in mainstream Hollywood cinema. As I briefly mention in a previous post (https://munibrezaie.com/2012/10/08/keanu-reeves-and-the-future-of-martial-arts-cinema/) I truly believe that Hollywood action cinema AFTER THE MATRIX looks VERY different than action cinema before it. And the video I have up there of the fight from LETHAL WEAPON 4, which features one of the all time great martial artists (and which was made the year before the Matrix) is a good example of how different things have really become. And I do think the success of the Matrix played a big part in that evolution. It also helped that Crouching Tiger, which was released the very next year with the same sensibilities, became a huge hit. It continues to hold the title of highest grossing foreign language film of all time in the US to this day.

            And though I never thought about it before, we could even say that the bullet time thing goes right along with those aesthetics, which are partly about focusing on being able to see the performers’ actions. Although, to be fair, BLADE – which was released a year before the MATRIX – actually did something similar first. Though perhaps not as beautifully: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7RppfiZ50jQ.

            I’m not entirely sure I completely understand the second question. Would the martial arts equivalent be something like, if we went back to the 70s and 80s and showed Yuen Woo Ping, who choreographed so many of the classic kung fu movies from that era, THE MATRIX or something even more recent like IP MAN, would he still recognize it as the same kind of work he was doing back then? And are we talking about specifically the way Hollywood has been using the aesthetics? And who’s behind the movies that we show the person from the past?

            Maybe a fair hip hop analogy would be the different reactions we might get from a frozen-in-the-80s Grand Master Flash listening to Limp Bizkit vs listening to Tupac or Jay Z? He might see how his pioneering work may have influenced all of them, but maybe Limp Bizkit wasn’t doing it with as much knowledge and understanding of the history that led to their own creation. Does that make sense?

  2. Pingback: Iron Fist and the Lack of Stylistic Consistency | Munib Rezaie: Media Blog and Academic Portfolio

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