Friday, 3 November 2017

Youth, Rebellion and the Kung Fu Comedy

Jackie Chan as a kung fu 'brat' in Drunken Master (dir. Yuen Woo-ping, 1978). Video still.

Today I’m in Cheongju, South Korea, where I’ve come to give a paper at a conference on martial arts. This is being held in conjunctionwith an international, inter-style martial arts tournament, the ‘Youth Martial Arts Masterships’. It seems to me that this event – posited around friendly international competition, comparative testing of national traditions or cultures, and fostering a healthy ‘body politic’ through youth-physical-educational projects – sits squarely within modernising traditions of martial arts (and more broadly sports) reform of the early twentieth century. This would certainly be the case, at least, in the account given of the Chinese context by Andrew Morris in his influential book Marrow of the Nation. Here, organisations like the YMCA pioneered sporting cultures which were taken up enthusiastically by urban middle class intellectuals as part of a programme to ‘modernise’ China and challenge its status as the ‘sick man of East Asia’.

My paper will engage some of these contexts. The conference theme – loosely – is around youth and the martial arts, and so I will be exploring the representations of youth in the Hong Kong cinema that I have been writing about, and in particular in the kung fu comedies that have been the focus of the book I completed over Summer (currently still in the process of peer review with a publisher!). At the heart of these is a figure who becomes popular in the 1970s, the unruly kung fu xiaozi, the bratty or (in American slang) ‘punk’ kid, who was ubiquitously the hero of the first wave of kung fu comedy films at the end of the 1970s. (Think Jackie Chan before he took on the role of the dutiful cop; think Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Elton Chong, Leung Kar-yan, Gordon Liu, Wong Yue... Think Drunken Master, Knockabout, Magnificent Butcher, The Prodigal Son, Mad Monkey Kung Fu...)

The question of youth in these films interests me because in many ways it is little discussed – youth takes a back seat in thinking about cinema with regards to the categories that cultural theory has tended to see as more fundamental, with analyses of cinema revolving in particular around the classic variables of gender, sexuality, national identity or class. Of course, within the original moment of cultural studies, generational identity, especially in relation to popular music and youth subculture, was also a primary interest, so it’s interesting that youth is so little discussed in relation to martial arts cinema – which is (or was), after all, a cultural phenomenon profoundly linked to such youth subcultures. Youth also, it struck me after the invitation to the conference, is a persistent and central thematic of martial arts cinema, even stretching back beyond the period in which 'youth subcultures' grew up into prominence.

My overall analysis, as I will present it in my paper later today, will begin by historicising the notion of ‘youth’, which I locate as a peculiarly modern idea (a by-product of the ‘invention of childhood’ discussed by Philippe Aries and Hugh Cunningham amongst others), and an idea in fact profoundly intertwined with how modernity itself is constructed. Youth for us is, after all, aligned with the future, in opposition to old age’s association with the past and with tradition. I sketch 'youth' out as an ambivalent concept perched between sociological anxiety about the effects of modern, urban life (juvenile delinquency, etc.) and a Romanticism: for many (including the early Walter Benjamin, to name just one example) youth is the explosive energy which will bring about utopian transformation. Such Romantic ideas of youth were embedded in the Wandervogel movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and in the birth of artistic ‘modernism’ in movements such as Jugendstil. The youth movements and the pedagogies that surrounded them were often deeply intertwined with ‘physical cultures’; the active body was central in modern society’s production of ‘youth’ as a category and an experience.

This, of course, was brought into the modernising martial arts movements of early and mid twentieth century East Asia. In the Chinese context (which is the one I know most about), ‘youth’ was a central motif, I argue, in the ‘May 4th’, 'student’ and ’New Culture’ movements, which sought a radical nationalist and anti-colonial politics through a programme of modernisation. 

This radicalism and its images of youth can be traced forward even into films like Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury (dir. Lo Wei, 1972), which locates its plot in this very movement of early twentieth century martial arts reform and nationalist self strengthening. As I’ve discussed elsewhere in this blog, it includes the iconic image of Lee in his white ‘student suit’, resisting colonial domination with his transformed kung fu body.

Bruce Lee's white student suit in Enter the Dragon (dir. Lo Wei, 1972)

Lee’s youthfulness – and that of many of the stars (both male and female) who were his contemporaries in the late 1960s and early 1970s – stands in contrast to the most iconic figure of the martial arts cinema of the preceding moment, Kwan Tak-hing, who played the character of Wong Fei-hung in some 80 films during the 1950s and 1960s. Kwan was already in his late forties when he first took up the role, and Kwan's performance of it exudes nothing else but a patrician maturity.

Kwan Tak-hing as Wong Fei-hung, during the 1950s

The emphasis on youth in the Bruce Lee era, however, marks change as well as a continuation of the way it is envisioned around the martial arts. A new context is opened by the growth of the youth subcultures (and counterculture) that appeared in the wake of post-war consumerism. This is dealt a further spin in the Hong Kong context, where increasingly identity (in the context of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, just across the border) is drifting away from the ‘national’ as a pole of identification, and towards the international flows of money, culture and people in which Hong Kong was increasingly becoming a key node. In such conditions, the ‘nationalist’ body no longer provides an appealing figure of modernity through which to imagine the self.

Image result for wang yu

Youth and the kung fu star. From left to right – David Chiang, Lo Lieh and Wang Yu, who all paved the way for "Little Dragon" Bruce Lee (Li Xiaolong).

Josephine Siao, who engineered a star persona that spanned contemporary 'youth films' and period swordplays.

And this, of course is where the kung fu comedy enters the picture, with its more anarchic figures. Jackie Chan’s version of Wong Fei-hung in Drunken Master (dir. Yuen Woo-ping, 1978), in contrast to  Kwan Tak-hing’s is a troubled and delinquent teenager, not an upright and adult exemplar of manly virtue. In contrast to Lee’s ‘rebel with a cause’ in Fist of Fury, furthermore, Chan’s characters are apolitical and even for some commentators (prominently Leon Hunt) entirely amoral.

The argument I’ll set out in my paper today, however, (perhaps too much for a blog post) is that the xiaozi of the kung fu comedy not only accedes to the expectations and virtues of the new order of globalised capitalism and flexible accumulation (adaptability, lack of respect for tradition, cunning, etc.), but also seeks a source of value beyond this, that can neither be found in tradition (in Wong’s father's brutally authoritarian and patrician attitude to bringing up his son) nor in capitalist modernity (embodied in Wong’s arch-foe, the mercenary and cynical Thunderfoot), but entails a rebellious re-working of human relations. Jackie Chan's young Wong Fei-hung manages this by building a genuinely warm friendship (and discipleship) with the unorthodox ‘drunken master’, Beggar So. In this regard, the rebellion of youth in Drunken Master retains – at least to a degree – the utopian charge of its modernist predecessors.

Jackie Chan and Simon Yuen as Wong Fei-hung and Beggar So in Drunken Master.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Hysterical Film Style in the Kung Fu Comedy – Drunken Master Slippery Snake (1979)

As my recent post on Jackie Chan and the body has mentioned, I'm currently working on Kung Fu comedy. As part of this, I'm examining whether the notion of hysteria might be a useful one in understanding the features of the kung fu comedy style. My argument is that in spite (and perhaps precisely because) of its many problems, hysteria seems indeed to be a helpful idea in thinking about kung fu comedy. Further theorising the notion of hysteria, and further examining the questions around the ways that it might be a useful way of discussing the complex politics of the body in 1970s Hong Kong action cinema will have to wait for another moment – and perhaps for the actual essay I'm currently working on – rather than this blog post. For now, interested readers might look at two attempts to use this concept in relation to martial arts cinema – Bhaskar Sarkar's 'Hong Kong Hysteria: Martial Arts Tales from a Mutating World' and Mark Gallagher's 'Masculinity in Transition: Jackie Chan's Star Text'.

Instead, in this post I wish to look a little more empirically at the film style of the genre itself, and the ways that editing and the body interact, and to thinks about the ways that this might entail a 'hysterical' film style. To do this I'm going to dissect a single sequence from the film Drunken Master Slippery Snake (dir. Ho Meng-Hua / Yu Cheng-Chun, 1979, also known as Mad Mad Kung Fu and Ol' Dirty Kung Fu).

Hysterical Kung Fu Comedy

First I will at least have to sketch at least briefly and descriptively some of the attributes that I will be associating with the 'hysterical'. Hysteria, though largely rejected as a diagnosis today, had its heyday in the nineteenth century and primarily designated mental illnesses whose symptoms played themselves out in the bodies of patients. As grasped by psychoanalysis, hysteria entailed repressed material that, unable to come to representation otherwise, presented itself in what seemed like inexplicable and causeless physical illnesses. Hysterics presented fainting fits, epilepsy-like seizures, catalepsy, blindness or deafness, tics, paralysis or weakness, sudden rigidity of the body, vomiting, phantom pains, uncontrollable tears or laughter, and many other things besides.

Often suffered by those who were most silenced by society – young women living under Victorian patriarchy – the body was converted into a medium for the expression of otherwise buried, unconscious trauma and desire; hysteria was, as one theorist put it a maladie par representation (a 'sickness by representation'). [1] This sense of the body as possessed by the representation of traumatic memory or repressed desire is one of the things that makes it, perhaps, a useful idea for thinking about martial arts cinema, and for thinking about the 'madcap' genre of kung fu comedy in particular. Kung fu comedies also, of course, involve an amplified 'theatricality', and other accounts of hysteria have emphasised this 'theatrical' and even 'pantomimic' – or, to highlight the kung fu connection, operatic – aspect of hysteria. Jean Baudrillard, for example, has described it as 'the pathology of the exacerbated staging of the subject, a pathology of expression, of the body's theatrical and operatic conversion.' [3]

As it has entered a more 'everyday', non-technical discourse, hysteria tends to suggest the excessive, (over-)emotional and unrestrained (or even unrestrainable). All this may well match the anarchy, melodrama and corporeal excess of the kung fu comedy – in terms of its manic visual style, its disorderly narrative form, and its exaggerated acting and performance style, which consistently seeks out the extreme.

Whilst we tend to think of hysteria in terms of tears, feinting and of 'weak', overemotional women (it is a highly and problematically gendered concept, though further discussion of this, too, will have to wait for another moment), hysteria also involved peculiarly athletic symptoms. Elisabeth Bronfen has described one phase of the hysteric attacks diagnosed by the famous neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot,  as: 'a period of grands mouvements, of contortions and bodily dislocations [...] [In these,] the hysteric would exhibit an extraordinary expenditure of muscle power. In this phase Charcot thought to have detected eccentric body turnings and grotesque postures, marked by an unusual flexibility, mobility, and sheer physical force.' [4] Charcot's description, certainly as recounted by Bronfen here, could well describe the performance and choreographic style of Jackie Chan or Sammo Hung. In Charcot's account, the fits of such patients often resembled 'an embittered battle with an imaginary enemy'. Furthermore, just as the kung fu comedy often involves a 'becoming animal' as one learns mantis, monkey, snake, cat, crab or other exotic and preferrably bizarre martial arts, Charcot also 'emphasised the similarity in this phase between the hysteric and the animal, as if the body had transformed into a dislocated and foreign body.' [5]

A relation to kung fu comedy might further be suggested by the fact that Charcot called such seizures 'clownism'. For Allon White, this emphasised a historical relation between hysterical symptoms and the 'grotesque body' of European carnival, with the former carrying the latter on after its repression by the stiff and idealised body of the bourgeois era. [6] We might also read it in terms of the tradition of (martial and acrobatic) opera clowning on which the kung fu film draws, and on the older, ritual, grotesque inversionary forms of the body that this has entailed in Chinese as well as Western culture. Again, however, this is starting to take us elsewhere than can be contained in this post.

Film Analysis – Drunken Master, Slippery Snake (1979)

In all of this, then, we might find a series of analogues between kung fu cinema and notions of hysteria. I will turn now, however, to look at some of the ways that this 'hysterical' style is manifested in a fight sequence from Drunken Master, Slippery Snake, examining in particular a short section of a scene of combat (about 45 minutes in) between the film's protagonist (played by Cliff Lok) and two villainous henchmen. I'm interested in the ways that the film's camerawork and editing support and emphasise a vision of the body in excessive, hyperkinetic, 'hysterical' motion.

Shot 1

Setting the scene we have the 2 villains, who block our hero on a path, setting up the confrontation, and starting a shot-reverse shot sequence. The angle is low, looking up at the henchman who speaks, adding 'drama' to the scene. The other villain, lounging in the foreground emphasises this low angle of view. Such low angles – taken to further extreme – would become a staple of the overwrought cinematic style of the swordplay films of the 1990s, which Sarkar treats in terms of 'hysteria' in his essay (mentioned above). The unusual angle – which doesn't directly present us with the point of view of the protagonist perhaps suggests a psychological state in which the villains loom as a threat, rather than describing the space. Its drama breaks with what's necessary in terms of storytelling, and already marks a form of cinematic excess, one located in relation to the body of the performers. It marks, already, the ostentatious, gratuitous stylisation typical of the genre – an aspect, again, taken forward in the 1990s swordplay.

Shot 2 – reverse shot

Reverse/reaction shot, of the protagonist. A series of unstable emotions play across his face – surprise, anxiety, bravado – the expressions exaggerated in 'operatic' rather than 'method' style – in spite of the director's use of a technical device (the close-up) which allowed this more nuanced and subtle, 'naturalistic' acting style to develop.  The head-shot allows the magnification of this already magnified expressivity.

Shot 3

The angle is reversed again, now looking over the shoulder of the hero, giving a head-and shoulder shot of the villain. The subtle shift between this and the previous low camera angle underscores a mobility of the camera, which in the sequence will be rapid and hyperactive. As the villain speaks, the camera zooms suddenly out into a half-figure shot, and the other villain stands up, emerging into the frame. Utilising the potential of the recently available hand-held camera for such zooms and to make the viewpoint mobile had become a trademark device in Hong Kong action and martial arts cinema, a marker of its stylistic excess that was taken to the point that the 'over-used' snap zoom has been repeatedly satirised. The use of such technology was pioneered as early as 1967 by Chang Cheh for The Assassin and One-Armed Swordsman. I have argued elsewhere that this allowed Chang a new energy and dynamism in his depiction of , the camera itself becoming choreographed, its mobility mirroring that of the frentic Jimmy Wang Yu as he leaped around the sets, placing the viewer's gaze and imaginary body in motion, too. [7] Whilst Chang's Assassin held this within the limits of a certain classicism, and whilst the action sequences contrasted to the slow pace and static camerawork of the other scenes, by the late 1970s, in the kung fu comedy, such questions of 'taste' were largely jettisoned for the dizzying effects of a saturation of rapid camera movement. The zoom is a prominent device within the upcoming sequence.

Shot 4

A final reverse shot, before the action ensues. Again this is framed differently for our first reaction shot of him.

Shot 5

A full-figure long shot establishes the space of combat. The viewpoint is from right angles to the previous sequence of reversals. The camera is unusually still for the combat that follows, but this allows a frenetic movement of bodies within the frame – drawing on the style developed by Lau Kar-leung and which sought to present the 'authenticity' of the movements of performers to their maximum. One villain leaps with a flying kick from left of right of screen, and the hero dodges first into the depth of the frame and then towards the camera and to its left, establishing a diagonal movement. He then crosses between the two villains to be in the front right of the frame, on the other diagonal. The movements rapidly map a series of different spatial relations, with the bodies – espcially that of the protagonist, spinning through space to do so. In an 'elastic' relationship, the bodies are drawn together and thrown apart repeatedly in the sequence.

Shot 6

As he's thrown backward, the camera cuts to a close up of the protagonist, again rotating 90 degrees from the previous shot. The close up emphasises the bodily effect upon him, eliciting a mimetic effect in the audience. Close shots are often used in the sequence to magnify a sense of the effect on a body. The moment of cutting also cuts out some time – cuts often happen before a movement ends to emphasise the sense of continual motion and increase the impression of frantic speed and movement. As the hero moves back across the frame one of his antagonists follows him into shot from the left, with wildly flailing arms (Choy Lee Fut style) clashing dramatically. As it pans across to the right tracking the protagonist, it begins to pull its zoom outwards – the hero pulls one attacker past him but the other is drawn into the shot as it comes out and the protagonist is assailed on both sides. The antagonists seize him. Space seems to be fragmented in a number of these sideways cuts – on inspection, though the orientation of bodies and velocities seems to hold us within a defined space, the background to the scene often seems unrelated to that which we see in the previous shot. The effect is a peculiar spatial drift or dislocation.

Shot 7

Cutting to another right angle, in a long-shot, we see the two protagonists throw our hero, as he somersaults through the air to land on his back. The villains follow up their attack whilst he is on the ground, rushing after him, but he flips up athletically sending them flying back. Landing, he immediately springs through the air in a full backward somersault to land on his feet, the circle he describes neatly contained within the frame of the shot. As he lands the furthermost attacker assaults with a flying kick, throwing the hero's body flying upwards through the air again and towards the camera, hitting the ground in the start of a roll. Here, an unusually still and distant camera angle is used to make clear the extent of the acrobatic movements of the figures. The emphasis has been on a series of aerial flips and spins in the protagonist. This use of the longer shot to underscore aerial virtuosity echoes the flying kick of the attacker in the opening shot of the sequence. David Bordwell has noted the preference in Hong Kong cinema to show the whole of an action as clearly as possible, rather than, as in Hollywood, to imply it. [8] Here, however, (and in much of the comic repertoire) such shots, which impress us with the unthinkable skill of the performer, are mixed with much more mobile and 'impressionistic' shots that emphasise affect, and involve the movement of the camera and viewing subject, too.

Shot 8

Again, a close-up (this time without a change of angle) allows impact to be registered, and as the protagonist rolls toward the camera, it zooms rapidly outwards. The villain in black executes an inside lotus kick that sends the protagonist staggering backwards to the right of the frame and into the arms of the other opponent, who holds him for his partner in crime to hit. The dark-costumed attacker shifts to a pantomime/comic mode, rolling up his sleeves; and as he approaches, the camera zooms back in. There's a shift in register here from the acrobatic fighting to a sort of slapstick, and this changes the 'pace', offering a pause amidst the burst of manic activity. This (repeated) switching between 'action' and 'slapstick' within a sequence is, again, typical of the genre. In keeping with the exaggerated, comic mode of performance, Lok's body ripples exaggeratedly with the impact of the strike.

Shot 9

Lok's body still ripples with impact as the camera cuts, at a right angle again, to a closer shot, emphasising Lok's overwrought reactions and clownish grimmaces. Again, in pantomime slapstick mode, the villain looks at his fist, spits on it and winds up to punch Lok in the face. With a look of mad panic, Lok drops down out of the bottom of the frame, escaping the clutches of the man holding him, who unwittingly takes the telegraphed blow of his opponent.


The fight, of course, carries on. Comic close-up reaction shots show us the two attackers bemoaning their fate, the first looking bemusedly at his fist and the second rubbing his nose, before the sequence turns once again to acrobatic violence. This continues to be depicted with the same mixture of mobile hand-held camerawork, rapidly shifting point of view, snap zooms in and out (mainly out, blending a reaction shot registering impact into the continuation of combat), with longer shots used to showcase virtuoso leaps, spins and flying kicks and mid-shots allowing the maximum impact of flailing arms and punches to the body. There's an extreme mobility of performers across the space delineated in the shots, constantly changing direction. Fighting and slapstick alternate, mixing pain and laughter, courting inconsistency and fragmentation. Operatic reactions are telegraphed to the audience. Good taste or measure is given up in order to pile on kinetic and kinasthetic effects and to elicit 'Carpenter effect' responses from the audience. The theatricality and artificiality of the style are underscored by the soundtrack – dramatic music and the percussive special effects of thwacks, whooshes, yelps and thuds that accompany the action. The affective register here is a piling on of excess on top of excess, sunk deeply into both viewers' and performers' bodies. The technical effects of cinema used here seem calculated to further exaggerate this load that the body takes on within representation.

All this of course, may offer what is hopefully a fairly convincing 'match' between the use of body and cinematic apparatus in the kung fu film and qualities that might be described as 'hysterical'. But this in itself can only be a part of an analysis – it is far from exploring what such a match might mean. If we are dealing with 'hysteria' in some form, what might be the repressed trauma or desire at stake within these representations? Why might hysteria be a useful concept in thinking about these films? What might it actually explain about them, rather than simply offering or fleshing out a descriptive term for their qualities? All this, of course, is beyond what I can deal with here today...


[1] Bhaskar Sarkar, 'Hong Kong Hysteria: Martial Arts Tales from a Mutating World', in Esther C M Yau (ed.), At Full Speed: Hong Kong Cinema in a Borderless World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), pp. 159–176; Mark Gallagher, 'Masculinity in Transition: Jackie Chan's Star Text', Velvet Light Trap 39 (Spring 1997), pp. 23–41.

[2] Pierre Janet, cited in Elizabeth Bronfen, The Knotted Subject: Hysteria and Its Discontents (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), p. 58.

[3] Jean Baudrillard, 'The Ecstasy of Communication', in Hal Foster (ed.), The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays in Postmodern Culture (Seattle: Bay Press, 1983), p. 132.

[4] Bronfen, Knotted Subject, pp. 180–1.

[5] Bronfen, Knotted Subject, pp. 181.

[6] Allon White, 'Hyseria and the End of Carnival: Festivity and Bourgeois Neurosis', in Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse (eds.), The Violence of Representation: Literature and the History of Violence (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 157–170.

[7] See Luke White, 'A "Narrow World, Strewn with Prohibitions": Chang Cheh's The Assassin and the 1967 Hong Kong Riots', Asian Cinema 26.1 (2015), p. 92. (Full article: pp. 79–98.)

[8] David Bordwell, 'Aesthetics in Action: Kungfu, Gunplay and Cinematic Expressivity', in Yau (ed.), At Full Speed, pp. 74–6. (Full essay: pp. 73–94.)

Friday, 10 June 2016

The body in Jackie Chan's Project A

Colonial Comedy Kung Fu – the opening shot from Jackie Chan's Project A (1983). Video still, from the Hong Kong Legends 3-disc 'Project A Collection' DVD set, 2005.  

I’m currently working on some writing that attempts to think through the kung fu comedy film, and its rise in Hong Kong during the mid 1970s. I’m interested in writing about this genre in part precisely because it is one that has been relatively overlooked, and relatively undervalued. The epic martial arts film – clearly often nationalist or anti-colonial in its content – is relatively easy to understand as ‘political’, and hence for academia to valorise as ‘important’ and worthy of scrutiny. Relatively speaking the martial arts comedy is less easy to read in terms of a political ‘content’ or ‘position’. Its lack of ‘seriousness’ makes it harder to think about as a worthy topic of analysis – though perhaps a more positive way to think of this ‘un-serious’ nature would be to count such films as irreverent.

A number of authors – including, for example, Leon Hunt (2003, p. 102) – have thus proposed that whilst still in the shadow of the decolonisation movements of the 60s, the Hong Kong Riots, and the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, Hong Kong’s martial arts cinema, in its heroic mode, expressed something of this heavily politicised moment; but they argue that the rise of kung fu comedy in the mid 1970s marks a depoliticisation of the genre, reflecting the increasingly ‘taboo’ nature of politics in the colony during this period. In my recent article on Chang Cheh’s The Assassin (White, 2015), I came quite close to making such and argument myself.

However, I’m ultimately not convinced that these comic films are ultimately any less worthy of a political reading than their tragic-epic counterparts. A certain radical ‘redemption’ of these films seems to me to be in order. After all, they surely constitute the most ‘popular’ form of martial arts cinema, and, for a left-wing critic, the popular has to count for something. My proposal is that in such films, made as they are at a moment of rapid social change (one that it might once have been fashionable to mark as the moment of the rise of the ‘postmodern’), politics simply migrates ‘somewhere else’ from where it had been previously.

What’s interesting about working with these films is that one is thrown increasingly away from narrative readings and forced to engage with aspects of the visual, the cinematic, and perhaps in particular with aspects of performance. This in itself might mark a certain resistance in them to ultimately ‘bourgeois’ forms of narrative, marking the appearance of a cinematic ‘excess’ (Thompson, 1977) in relation to such structures. It seems to me that the various images and fantasies of the body that are represented in these films are central to how we might negotiate them critically.

At the moment I’m working on a section of the writing that attempts to think about these films in relation to Walter Benjamin’s writings about Mickey Mouse and Hollywood slapstick; and Jackie Chan is the main figure I’m thinking about. As part of this work, I’ve just been re-watching Chan’s Project A (1983), and, I might add, with huge pleasure.

It seems to me to be the film where the political stakes of the body in kung fu comedy emerge most clearly, largely because of a prominence of historical reference that is unusual in the genre. This historical reference brings the film close to a kind of political and social satire. I’d argue that some of the politics that attains this unusual visibility in Project A is in fact merely more latent, less explicit in many other kung fu comedy films, and that it helps us understand the broader signification of the body in a genre that had been under development since at least Lau Kar-leung’s Spiritual Boxer (1975).

Project A – made towards the start of a period that has often been understood by critics as always overdetermined by the looming of the 1997 hand-over of the colony to Chinese ownership – is set back in ‘old Hong Kong’, in what seems to be the late nineteenth century, in the heyday of unreconstructed British colonial rule. Though perhaps in some ways somewhat tender and nostalgic in its recreation of the past, there’s a strong strand of satire, which mocks the general chaos, ineptitude and corruption of the colonial regime, as exemplified by both its British and Chinese representatives. The plot is ultimately not terribly relevant for our purposes here, but revolves around the rivalries between the coastguard and the police force, and the attempts of the former to capture a band of pirates who are halting trade to and from the island.

What was most striking to me in rewatching the film, however, was Chan’s famous ability not just to stage fights but to work creatively with the environments and objects in which he sets his characters – something, of course, that is hardly a new observation about his comic or choreographic style. It has, however, been argued that something very similar was at the heart of Charlie Chaplin’s comedy, which often built its humour out of the transformation of objects from their mundane uses to new and surprising ends, based not on convention, but on the morphology of the object itself, presenting us with a rehumanisation of the alienated world of things as produced by capitalism, and a new mastery of the modern environment (Clayton, 2007, pp. 32–3).

This all happens, in hyperbolic form, in the action scenes of Project A. A chair is no longer an object that rules, determines and orders the human body through our very use of it. (If you are anything like me, you will remember well the constant commands from childhood: ‘sit up straight!’; ‘don’t tip the chair backwards!’; ‘Don’t put your feet on the table!’; ‘stop shuffling and sit still!’; etc., etc. In this, the chair is not just a chair, it’s a tool for the discipline and socialisation of the body.) Rather than something to be sat on in the ‘proper’ manner, a chair in Jackie Chan films is also for leapfrogging over, rolling across, or even for a momentary headstand. With a strike coming towards one, the body may well spin around to lie on the chair, ducking underneath the strike. And tipping the chair back in what would normally be a disastrous fall, the acrobatic kung fu comedic body might turn the chair into a form of shelter in which the body might momentarily nestle, before rolling away, or flipping it around yourself to move into a new point of attack or retreat. Wielded in the hands of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung or Yuen Biao, the chair is no longer a chair, but a shield, a tool for disarming or trapping an opponent, or a heavy bludgeon. Tucked rapidly under the body, it might become, again, a launchpad, or kind of a perch on which to posture and pose before the next exchange with an opponent.

When is a chair not a chair? When it's in a Jackie Chan movie... Stills from Project A.
Similarly in Project A, coat-stands become tridents; vases become boxing gloves; bamboo poles are no longer for hanging washing on, but become a jousting lances for knights mounted on bicycles; bedpans become missile weapons, fired with a flick of the foot using a bicycle wheel as a launching device; tables become battering rams or vaulting benches; windows become portals to exit and enter a space. Banisters are for vaulting over or sliding down; flagpoles are for climbing up, out of harms way; awnings break your fall; chandeliers are useful to swing from…

We are thrown into the anarchic and surrealistically re-enchanted world, in permanent flux, which Benjamin (1931; 1933) lauded in the first Mickey Mouse cartoons. If machinery and capital had set the world into a state of permanent, disorientating change – and one which more often than not was experienced as a violence on the human subject, its body and its capacity for experience – Mickey Mouse, for Benjamin, also revealed the dialectically complementary side to this. The cartoon imagination foregrounded an underlying utopian desire for the power to transform the world that Benjamin saw modern technology itself as expressing, if in distorted form. In early Disney animations (and in the Hollywood slapstick of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd), this power was envisioned as re-rooted within the body itself. This power was rehumanised, bracketed off from a capitalist use of technology that had been turned away from the benefit of humanity and placed in the hands of a small elite who – as Benjamin suggested first in ‘Experience and Poverty’ (1933) and then more emphatically in the final version of the ‘Artwork’ essay (1992 [1939]) – used it not to liberate but to exploit, and perhaps ultimately annihilate, the rest of humanity. This rehumanisation might be read as entailing a reconciliation between the body-intensive nature of Benjamin’s archaic ‘first-technologies’ and the modern forms he termed ‘second technology’, the true essence of which, he proposed, lay not in their alienating use for war and capitalist organisation, but rather in the institution of ‘play’ between humanity, technology and nature. (For more on Benjamin on first and second technologies – and their relation to such corporeal arts such as yoga, as well as his pursuit of the erotic, drugs and ‘running downhill’, see Hansen, 2002, pp. 52–3.)

A bedpan used as a projectile weapon, fired with a flick of a bicycle wheel. Video still from Project A

Chan’s Project A was made at a time in Hong Kong of rapid modernisation that competed with the Europe of Benjamin’s day or the America of Buster Keaton (Duncan, 2007), and seems to envision something of the same re-appropriation of the alienating world of things that Benjamin saw in the cinema of his own time. Through the re-enchanting magic of their transformation, humanity reasserts a creative mastery over the objects about him. However, in Project A this takes on a very particular significance in terms of the film’s re-imagination (and re-appropriation) of an emphatically colonial landscape.

Frantz Fanon, describing the colonial experience, proposed it as a ‘narrow world, strewn with prohibitions’ (Fanon, 2001, p. 29). If 1970s Hong Kong was not the most nightmarish of colonies (involving an altogether ‘softer’ form of colonial governance than the French-held Algeria that Fanon knew), with its crowded urban spaces it at least made Fanon’s figure of speech a matter of literal, physically experienced constraint, and this surely forms a significant context for Chan’s corporeal art. Walking in Hong Kong’s bustling streets even today, or looking up at the huge and tightly packed vertical towers of tiny apartments, a visitor to the island gets some kind of small insight into such an experience. Fanon makes much in The Wretched of the Earth of the ways that the colony is structured around spatial exclusion and control. It is around such spatial organisation that colonial violence is instituted and made a part of the everyday, embodied experience of the ‘native’. Much of Chan’s physical performance in Project A involves a renegotiation of such spaces, bringing an anarchy into them through his physical traversal and refunctioning of their logic. This is perhaps most spectacularly envisioned in the bicycle chase through old Hong Kong’s narrow alleyways, where the protagonists have to zig-zag their ways through the cheek-by-jowl lives of its inhabitants, navigating impossibly tight right angle turns as fantastical leaps, or climbing up walls to escape speeding pursuers. Here the relation between the human body and the bicycle becomes radically refashioned to make them tools for a superhuman traversal of the colonial metropolis.

The 'narrow world' of Hong Kong's alleyways reconfigured in a new composition of architecture, bodies and bicycles. 

This logic that pits the body against the colonial organisation of space is even set up in the opening sequences of the film, for example, as we see Chan, in his colonial coastguard uniform, rushing to a meeting at the police and coastguard headquarters. After leaping from his still-moving bicycle, which crashes madly into the bicycle rack, disintegrating as it does so, Chan rushes up the evocatively colonial staircase of the building and along its wooden balconies. Chan vaults and spins over a handrail to get past oncoming employees within the narrow space available, without breaking his stride, defying the ‘proper’ function of the Western architecture. His wild running contrasts to the neatly regimented marching columns of his colleagues, and, as he reigns himself in in front of a superior officer, his mode of propulsion is clearly a transgression of correct protocol.

The architecture of the colonial police headquarters is also renegotiated by Chan’s coastguard hero later in the film, when he decides to spy on his superior officers, hoping to hear good news about the reinstatement of shelved plans to attack the pirates. Chan transforms a chimney into a tunnel that takes him into the heart of the administration, bypassing the normal security that keeps social inferiors away from the private discussions of their superiors. Chan, however gets more than he bargains for when the (English) Governor steps aside from his (Chinese) commanders into a side room to do a deal with a wealthy businessman who is in fact in league with the pirates. The Governor’s inner-sanctum-within-an-inner-sanctum sets up a further spatial divide in rank and privilege between him and his high-level subordinates. Chan, however, has come into this very room, and it is his illicit eavesdropping on this conversation, discovering his superior’s guilty secret – and his superior’s discovery that he has done so – that allows him direct access to the ears of the very highest level of authority. Being in the centre of the administration, Chan gets the privilege of putting the moral case to the Governor for fighting the pirates rather than doing a deal with them. Chan’s physical renegotiation of the environment thus becomes a parallel challenge to the normal hierarchies of the film’s world, which are realised in the architecture of the police headquarters and its regime of physical exclusion.

Chan turns a chimney into a passageway to enter into the heart of the spaces of colonial privilege.

One of the key fights in the film takes place in a high-class club, where the police have gone to arrest a suspect harboured by the club’s well-connected owner. The film labours the fact that this is a space from which the police are normally economically excluded (as well as linguistically so – the head waiter insists on talking to them in English). Then, when the fight breaks out we have a tour-de-force of the transformation and re-use of its fittings and furnishings, from the Rococo-style staircase through the antiques which litter its walls, to the furniture itself, as all these things are, in their turn, transformed into weapons. The scene is one where Chan’s stunt team get to ‘do their stuff’, performing a series of the spectacular falls for which they are so well known, crashing the human body (thrown, spinning, often from great heights, and with great kinetic force) into the various props or scenery provided. In most cases, though the body certainly gets an awful punishment, it is ultimately the club itself which comes off worst, the high-class environment being reduced, by the end of the scene to little more than fragments of wood, ceramic and plaster. If this was a space of colonial (and class) exclusion and privilege, a kind of a ‘kung fu revenge’ has been waged upon it in the scene through the collision of the environment with the rubbery bodies of the stunt team and their cartoon-character-like resilience. In fact, the film overall seems to have a point to make through our extra-diegetic response to performance, in the ways that (even where taking a thrashing) the performers’ bodies take on new, fantastical relationships to their environment, performing unusual forms of movement through it at new velocities.

Colonial space being reduced to rubble in Project A, as Chan hurls an opponent through and over the balcony of the exclusive club.

In the light of such a reading, the theme established through the early part of the film of the discipline of the body makes another kind of a sense, too. When Chan’s rather anarchic and incompetent squad of coastguards are disbanded and sent back to train with the police, this is to instil in them physical discipline, such as standing straight to salute, in the proper (Western) military manner. The training itself, however, becomes peculiarly subversive or carnivalesque in nature. When two recruits on parade are discovered mouthing a lewd comment about a passing woman, they are punished by having to repeat the comment ad nauseam, only serving to multiply, rather than negate its obscenity. A further recruit, who fails to salute correctly, is made to salute repeatedly, but this makes the gesture of deference into an absurd and mocking simulacrum of itself. The recruits are stood on alert in the middle of the night by an officer who claims to be concerned that they have drunk too much soup, with Chan having to call a militaristic ‘charge’ to the latrines. The next day involves the recruits stripped to shower, and interrupted, half soaped, and called out of the showers with only water ladles to protect their modesty. The whole training section (a peculiar parody, perhaps, of the training montages that had already become a staple of the kung fu comedy) serves to re-libidinise colonial discipline and to re-inject a sort of anarchy into it, through a failure of the ‘proper’ mimesis of the colonial masters. This ‘failure’ to conform seems to be celebrated throughout the film, as a productive, creative and ultimately transgressive and liberating act.


Benjamin, Walter (1931) ‘On Mickey Mouse’, in Jennings, Eiland Gary Smith, eds. (1999), pp. 545–6.

Benjamin, Walter (1933) ‘Experience and Poverty,’ in in Jennings, Eiland Gary Smith, eds. (1999), pp. 734–5.

Benjamin, Walter (1992 [1939]) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn. London: Fontana, pp. 211–244.

Clayton, Alex (2007) The Body in Hollywood Slapstick. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Duncan, Sydney (2007) ‘The Traditional Thing in the Modern Age: Contextual Perspectives on Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan’. New Review of Film and Television Studies 5.3 (2007), pp. 353–367.

Fanon, Frantz (2001) The Wretched of the Earth. London: Penguin.

Hansen, Miriam (2002) ‘Benjamin and Cinema: Not a One-Way Street’, in Gerhard Richter, ed., Benjamin's Ghosts: Interventions in Contemporary Literary and Cultural Theory. Stanford: Stanford UP, pp. 41–73.

Hunt, Leon (2003) Kung Fu Cult Masters: From Bruce Lee to Crouching Tiger. London: Wallflower.

Jennings, Michael, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith, eds. (1999) Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, vol 2, part 2, 1931–1934. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Thompson, Kristin (1977) ‘The Concept of Cinematic Excess’. Ciné-Tracts: A Journal of Film, Communications, Culture and Politics 1.2, pp. 54–64.

White, Luke (2015) ‘A “Narrow World, Strewn with Prohibitions”: Chang Cheh’s The Assassin and the 1967 Hong Kong Riots’. Asian Cinema 26.1, pp. 79–98, doi: 10.1386/ac.26.1.79_1.