Like any national cinema, Hong Kong’s is complex and deep. Certain genres tend to dominate, though, and one of the more obvious ones is wuxia. This is a sort of Chinese historical drama, often (but not always) based on real characters or events, centring around the use of martial arts. The hero is generally the martial arts expert, fighting for what is right and good. As wikipedia points out, these heroes ‘can be compared to martial codes from other countries, such as the Japanese samurai‘s bushido tradition, the chivalry of medieval European knights and the gunslingers of America’s Westerns.’ Film can reflect the history of a nation; if the western, for example, is America’s conversation with itself about how their country came to be what it is, then wuxia serves a similar function in China; it is (sometimes) a working out of historical events and processes which came to form China and Hong Kong.
Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China is one of the classics of the genre, and a good introduction in that it is both very conventional and extremely well-done. The hero, played by Jet Li, is Wong Fei-hung – a fictionalised version of a real person and the subject of an awful lot of wuxia movies. In this version, Wong is the leader of a local militia (essentially a martial arts club – the ‘jianghu’ which features in so much wuxia.) He is very much framed as part of this group – he is hardly ever seen alone – thus reflecting and reinforcing the veneration of the collective which is such an important part of Confucian and Communist thinking. The film opens and closes with beautiful shots of him training his men, their movements perfectly coordinated. As is common, we see him struggle against local gangsters and another martial arts master (‘Iron Vest Yim’) to defend his community. There is a love story too, between Wong and ’13th Aunt’, a relationship which is the embodiment of the courtly and restrained love considered ideal in the genre. Already, we see how Wong represents tradition, decency, collective responsibility; we can see why this is such a popular and traditional genre in China.
Most interestingly, though, the film deals with China’s recent history with foreign countries. At the beginning, we hear how China is being divided up amongst foreigners (‘Hong Kong went to the British… Macau to the Portuguese…’) and the primary villains in the film, apart form the local gangsters, are the British and American military leaders. The binary opposition between China and ‘elsewhere’ is established earlier; we see foreign soldiers firing guns at a dragon festival (Wong heroically interjects himself to save the dragon, quickly being established as the embodiment of Chinese tradition), we hear Christian hymns competing with Chinese traditional music as Jesuit priests attempt to establish Christianity in China , wee see Wong refuse to wear a Western suit. (‘Chinese are Chinese,’ he says. ‘Westerners are western.’) These representations and oppositions are established powerfully when Wong goes to meet the Western leaders in order, supposedly to iron out conflicts which have been disturbing the peace. Located in a huge, white “colonial” hotel, littered with all the iconography of Western rule, the meeting soon becomes the first big fight of the film and the audience realises that Western arrogance will never co-exist peacefully with Chinese tradition. Against his will, Wong is drawn into the fight; he is represented throughout as a natural peacekeeper, though obviously when he does fight, he kicks ass all over the place. (He is Jet Li, after all.)
So, then, the fighting. Wuxia are martial arts films of a particular type; the fighting is generally highly stylised, with huge dependence on wire-work and impossible leaps. Martial arts are often under threat of banning in these films, and the discussion of martial arts itself is common. Obviously, kung fu is of enormous symbolic importance in wuxia; it represents Chinese tradition and all that is exceptional about China and her people. Here, Wong’s kung fu is pitted against the Westerners with their guns; his skill and power is opposed to their brutality and cowardice. No prizes for guessing who wins. The whole film is, thematically, an exploration of Chinese exceptionalism (just as the traditional Western is a reinforcemnt of white, Anglo-Saxon American exceptionalism.) When 13th Aunt tells Wong that the West has technological advantages (‘they invented the steam train and other things’) but that they don’t have the ‘people’ that China does, this is the point; Chinese people have more soul and spirit, more morality and decency and worthiness, than those from elsewhere. All of this Chinese spirit is symbolised by kung fu.
Martial arts need to be combined with a sense of decency, though, and it is in this regard that the hero of wuxia most closely represents the cowboy in American film or the samurai in Japanese film. For all of these figures, fighting ability, toughness and courage are a means to an end; the end is the defence of a way of life regarded as the epitome of moral goodness. Wong is not defending himself or even, primarily, his jianghui: he is defending China’s past and battling to ensure that the future is as much like that past as possible. As such, wuxia is an ideologically very conservative genre, designed to construct and glorify a vision of Chinese tradition as the best possible way of life. Nationalism is common her and the representaions of foreigners are rarely sympathetic (this is common in martial arts movies generally; see, for example, the representation of Japanese people in Wilson Yip’s Ip Man.)
We see the effects of separating kung fu from its accompanying ideology of morality and decency (‘chivalry’ in Western terms or ‘Bushidō’ in Japan) in the character of the other martial arts master in the film, Yim. His kung fu is almost the match of Wong’s – in their first fight, he actually emerges (through an accident) as the winner.
He wants to establish his own school of martial arts in the school and must first defeat Wong (this is a very common plot device in the genre.) Wong treats him with respect and deference, which is not returned by Yim. Already we see that he lacks the important moral component of kung fu and this becomes much more obvious when he joins forces with the local gangsters and their paymasters, the thuggish American military. This is reinforced in the final fight between the to when we find that Yim has a secret blade hidden in his queue (his pigtail.)
There is much more in the movie, not all of it good. Comic relief is provided by Porky Wing the butcher and Bucktooth So, the American-educated medic. There is the love story between Wong and 13th Aunt. Typically of the genre, there are many elements thrown together to maximise audience appeal; in this regard, it is very like the Indian masala movie. Some of the humour in particular is cringeworthy, but overall the film is a classic of its genre ad one of the clearest examples of the nationalistic and conservative impulses informing wuxia.