It’s been criminally overdue, but I’m finally catching up on Season 2 of Into the Badlands, and – mark my words – I will never let another season go by to be caught up later! I feel like AMC developed a technology to go into my head, scour the depths of my psyche for everything I love – and didn’t even know I loved – and created a show from their exploratory efforts. To name a few of its Munib-approved elements: post-apocalyptic settings, kung-fu action, western aesthetics, fantasy-ish elements, Daniel Wu, a diverse cast, strong female characters, father-son relationships, Chinese martial arts cinema aesthetics, appropriate and knowing nods to martial arts cinema history, etc.
Since the last time I wrote about Into the Badlands – both here and over at In Media Res – I’ve also experienced and written about Iron Fist – not once, but twice – a show that I criticized for poorly doing many of the things that Into the Badlands does amazingly well. And that’s one of the things I want to focus on today. When I wrote about Iron Fist, I alluded to the show wanting the best of what martial arts cinema has to offer, but not really appearing to fully commit to the idea or to taking the time to really learn about its particular history. I used the show’s lackluster and kind of weird use of the axe gang and drunken fist visual props as two examples of what I was trying to say. I didn’t get the feeling that it earned the use of those tropes, because it didn’t seem to fully understand it.
It’s like that friend who did a week-long study abroad in Shanghai when they were in undergrad, and came back with a bunch of “authentic” Chinese items. And they wear traditional Chinese clothes to events, and talk about how the Chinese are really “beautiful, simple, people.” And part of you is like, wow, that’s really cool how you really got a lot out of your experience and loved this other country. And part of you is like, maybe you don’t reeeeeaaaallly know what you’re talking about? And haven’t really earned the right to take on elements of this culture as your own? And you’re torn because you’re happy for your friend’s newfound love, especially because it’s a love you kinda share with them, but you also feel a little embarrassed for them and you’re not sure how or if you can help them. We all have that friend, right? That friend is Iron Fist for me. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of intentional thinking behind some of their choices.
But let me tell you about my other friend, Into the Badlands. This is the friend who actually knows China. they’ve been there for years, they’ve lived and studied the culture and language, they’ve approached things with a humility that has given them access to the fullness of its particular history and culture. And they’re happy to share it with you.
I want to tell you about this beautiful moment in Season 2 Episode 5 of Into the Badlands that, while brief, brought together multiple aspects of my own interests and academic history in a most unexpected way. Towards the end of the episode, Quinn is smoking some opium as he slowly loses his mind out of guilt. Behind him, we see and hear the flicker of a film projector, with its light traveling to a point off screen. As the camera gradually moves and brings the background into focus, we see the film being played. Now, before the big reveal, my film-history-loving self got excited and curious about what the producers would have chosen to be playing. What a great opportunity to be very intentional in their thinking, I thought to myself. And man, they did not disappoint! The clip comes from Harold Lloyd’s 1923 film, Safety Last!, where Lloyd famously climbs up a skyscraper and hangs precariously off of a clock face. Here’s a screenshot of the nearly blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, followed by the scene from Lloyd’s film:
For those who don’t know, Harold Lloyd was a silent comedy star and contemporary of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. While retrospectively less popular than the other two, Lloyd was actually the biggest comedy box office star of his day, with his films frequently outselling those of Chaplin and Keaton. Why the discrepancy? Largely due to Lloyd himself, who was famous for wanting and having complete control over every single aspect of his films, including extremely specific requirements for how they were to be exhibited across all media in perpetuity. This meant that, while Chaplin and Keaton’s films were regularly played on television and eventually celebrated by the French critics at Cahiers du Cinema, Lloyd refused let his movies play on anything except the occasional theatrical revival. He did not like the difference in frame rates between his original filmmaking and the television requirements of the day. It would have forced his film to appear sped up, and he simply would not have it. In fact, the Harold Lloyd DVD box set released in the early 2000s was really the first time his films were made available on home video.
How do I know so much about Lloyd? Because I went down a deep Harold Lloyd rabbit hole during my M.A. work when I wrote a seminar paper about him, devouring every book I could find and watching every single one of his films that I could get my hands on. During this study, one of the parallels I began to draw came from Lloyd’s obsessively controlling nature, over both his filmmaking as well as his “brand.” He was a pioneer of using early audience screenings and feedback to determine additional cuts and reshoots that his films might require, always seeking to balance between staying true to his art and making audiences happy.
Lloyd’s approach to filmmaking (and stuntwork) bore a striking resemblance to that of one Jackie Chan. And guess who very specifically references the same clock-face-hanging scene from Safety Last!? JACKIE CHAN! In 1983’s Project A:
“But Munib,” I hear you saying. “Wasn’t it just a coincidence that Quinn was watching a Harold Lloyd film? He could have been watching anything! Would you have written the same thing if the clip was from a Chaplin movie or an even earlier Lumieres Bros. film?” No. And no. That’s the point! Every single thing we see on screen is selected. Now, how intentionally something is selected varies from production to production, but I feel like Lloyd was chosen with a whole lot of intent in this case. You’re right, imaginary arguer, it COULD have been any other old film. But then that’s all it would have been. Any other old film. And that’s exactly what Iron Fist would have done. But picking a Harold Lloyd film, and THAT specific film, and lining it up with THAT specific moment reveals an awareness of the history and continuity to which Into the Badlands is consciously contributing to.
“Hmm…maybe,” you reply. “Or maybe the producers just got lucky. And you’re overthinking it.”
I hear you, but allow me to take you through another project I worked on that I believe addresses your concern: my MA Thesis on the career of Jackie Chan and, more specifically, the representation of his masculinity through three different phases of his career: pre-Rush Hour in China, post-Rush Hour in the US, and post-Rush Hour in China. As I undertook a massive Jackie Chan movie marathon for my thesis, something interesting happened. I had gone into it preferring Rush Hour to Shanghai Noon, but came out of it very clearly swapping those two. I just about loathe the Rush Hour trilogy now for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the crazy racism in them. But one of the things I found was that out of Chan’s English-language films, Shanghai Noon stayed the truest to his Chinese martial arts roots. Not only in the respect his character is afforded within the narrative, but also – and more importantly – in the approach to the film’s martial arts aesthetics. Which he had a LOT of control over. More so than on many of his other Hollywood films.
Are you still with me here? Quick recap:
Into the Badlands —> Harold Lloyd —> Jackie Chan —> Shanghai Noon
But here’s where things get crazy for me: you’ll never guess who wrote Shanghai Noon…
ALFRED GOUGH and MILES MILLAR. Otherwise known as the creators and showrunners of Into the Badlands.
OH, BUT WE’RE NOT DONE YET. It’s about to come full circle.
Gough and Millar went on to write the film’s sequel as well, Shanghai Knights. And while the sequel is problematic for a number of reasons, it does feature the fight scene below.
That takes place in a clock tower.
And ends with Owen Wilson and Jackie Chan hanging off of a clock face.
I’d forgive you if you’re feeling like this right about now:
“Ok, Munib,” you say. “You’ve convinced me that Gough and Millar knew about the connection. But what’s the big deal? You’re still way too big a nerd.” You’re right! And I’d be a shameful disappointment to my doctoral advisor if I wrapped this up without answering the all-important question: SO WHAT? So I’ll give it a go.
I think this particular example provides a clear illustration of the inherent intertextuality of film and television. No work of art exists in a vacuum. Undergrads in film studies courses often ask the question of why they should learn anything about the history of film if they just want to make movies. But the fact of the matter is, great works of art are most often the result of intentional and informed thinking guiding the artist’s every choice. That intent and knowledge can only come about from study and practice. Among other things, this includes a study of the history of your art form: what’s been done; by whom; under what circumstances; to what end; in response to what; and so many other bits of information that guide the artist’s decision-making process in beautiful and sometimes mysterious ways.
So when I see an American TV show that:
- Features a Hong Kong martial arts actor – who was mentored by Jackie Chan – in a lead role,
- Is produced by another Chinese martial arts filmmaker who has made some of the most refreshing modern takes on Chinese martial arts films,
- Is created by American writer/producers who, through their previous work, have shown a clear understanding and respect for the Chinese martial arts cinema tradition,
- Employs fight choreographers who are masters in the Chinese aesthetic traditions,
I can’t help but see intent in just about every choice they make. The people on this show’s production know their history. They know exactly where their show stands and how it adds to the “conversation” of martial arts cinema and television. This knowledge and intent are precisely why Into the Badlands has been uniquely successful in so seamlessly combining the formal conventions of Chinese martial arts cinema with the narrative conventions of Hollywood storytelling. And they’re clearly having fun doing it!
And I hope they never stop. #20Seasonsand6Movies
For an example of what happens when a production wants to be a part of this conversation, but has clearly not done their homework, look no further than the “immortal” Iron Fist. But I’ve written about that already.