Chasing Dragons: An Introduction to the Martial Arts Film

David West,
Chasing Dragons: An Introduction to the Martial Arts Film.
London, New York: I. B. Tauris, 2006.
ISBN: 978 1 85043 982 0
£12.99 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by I. B. Tauris)

The cover of this book tells us that the author is a martial arts practitioner and manager of “former Ultimate Combat World Champion Pierre Guillet.” With Leon Hunt’s Kung Fu Cult Masters (Wallflower Press, 2003) appearing not too long ago, we might be starting to see a movement in people moving from the dojo to the writing desk. Maybe we will soon see the day when panellists at SCMS conferences bounce each other off the walls or break housing tiles with their foreheads. No matter how attractive such fantasies may be, the reviewer must approach volumes such as Mr West’s with a degree of trepidation. Perhaps one day our paths will cross at the Chinachem cinema and I will feel the sting of his no-shadow-kick hurtling me across the foyer.

West’s book attempts an introduction to Japanese and Hong Kong martial arts films and to the ways that these skills have been taken up in American cinema. It is a mark of the vitality of this area of filmmaking that its community of interest has not ossified into tenure-seeking academics speaking the arcane language of their cultish tribes. Academic readers, however, will ask whether sections of the book might constitute a general introduction for undergraduate students. It is important to note at the outset that this is not a book written by, or for, academics or film historians. In his first section on Japan, we pick up the martial arts film only with Kurosawa’s first foray into the genre, Sanshiro sugata (Japan 1943) with no mention of Tsumasaburo Bando or the vigour of the chambara during the silent period.

West writes as a knowledgeable enthusiast – the kind of guy with a goodish dvd collection and a couple of Donald Richie books on his shelf. Thankfully he’s not one of those Tarantino-esque fanboys whose appreciation is based solely on the outré and the esoteric. He doesn’t strike me as the type of guy who had a subscription to Asian Trash Cinema. He’s more likely to stress the philosophical aspect of the martial arts over the visual thrill of the arterial spray, the taming of the self rather than the allure of having a beautiful woman kick you in the chest.

The fact that books such as this are published indicates the importance of these genres, their resilience and their ability to transform themselves as they pass across borders. The author proceeds by giving some historical context concerning Japan and China before launching into short analyses of favourite works in the Japanese chambara (sword film) and Hong Kong wu xia (martial gallantry) and kung fu genres. He works his way through a selection of films he likes and dislikes with the main criterion being that he sees the films as representative of their genre at a particular historical moment.

The broad outline of his thesis concerning Japan is that there is a golden age in the 1950s and 1960s, of which Kurosawa is the emblematic figure, in which post-war humanism provides a philosophical framework for criticising the code of bushido with its emphasis on the sacrifice of the self. West’s narrative extends through a fall from this golden age in 1970s where slickly violent films such as those of Sonny Chiba and the Lone Wolf and Cub cycle are repeatedly berated for their “nihilism.” (This should be a tip-off that there is little here for the Tarantino set and that those including this book on their reading list will be offering their fanboy students a significant provocation.)

While West is most sympathetic to Kurosawa, the section on Hong Kong is the longest in the book largely, I suspect, because the martial forms are the closest to West’s areas of personal expertise. He cites Christian Metz in the text (though suspiciously not in the bibliography) for a grand narrative of genre progression and then shoehorns the films into two cycles. Just as there is no mention of the pre-Kurosawa chambara, there is no reference to the pre-war Shanghai martial arts film. The first cycle he identifies is from 1940 to 1982, with a second cycle recommencing the process at that point, though when he comes to discussing a Hong Kong “new wave” West locates it in the 1990s rather than the 1980s as is customary. He puts the break between cycles in 1981 despite there being no deconstruction phase to his first cycle as his model would seem to demand. As you might expect, his reason is the large scale historical explanation that this is the moment when the locals see the writing on the wall concerning the 1996 reversion to China. According to West, Hong Kongers become obsessed with ‘identity’ at this point, and henceforth, he ruthlessly interrogates every film for any composition that can be turned into a metaphor of HK caught betwixt Britain and China.

There are times when the book unfortunately reads as though it has been edited by Zatoichi. In Run Run Shaw’s centenary year, West tells us that the great man was born in 1918 and died in 1981 (96-97). There is a reference to ‘ex-patriot’ martial arts choreographers working in the west (195) and the use of Chinese names is surprisingly inconsistent with Yuen Wo Ping called Wo Ping, King Hu referred to as King, and Tsui Hark labelled Hark (95) and later Tsui (179 onward). If there is a code of honour among editorial staff, I can only presume that several little fingers have been detached.

By now I can picture David West reading this review and preparing to unleash Pierre Guillet on me in order to re-enact scenes from certain Sonny Chiba films. In an attempt to save my scrawny pencil-neck, I’d like to turn to the author’s potential strengths and imagine the valuable book that I think he’s capable of writing. When West describes Chuck Norris’s fighting style, or when he discerns between different fighting stances and tactics, we get a glimpse of the ways in which this author might make a more sustained contribution to the history and analysis of these genres. West begins with the thoughtful observation that what he calls screenfighting is a distinctly modern adaptation of martial arts, developed to display athletic combat rather than to execute it. Rather than re-heating the thematic beans of the martial arts film, West might have the ability to make a real contribution to our understanding of the staging of forceful action and the stylistic means employed by filmmakers to capture this action in novel and exciting ways. Martial arts movies are more than pale reflections of middle-brow thematics or large scale social history – at their best, they involve a celebration of the athletic potential of the human body and the capacity of cinema to re-fashion that athleticism into spectacles which can excite profoundly emotional responses. Now that’s a theme for another history which has recently started to move historians and film analysts, just as it has excited audiences for so long.

Mike Walsh,
Flinders University, South Australia.

Created on: Saturday, 9 June 2007

About the Author

Mike Walsh

About the Author

Mike Walsh

Mike Walsh is Senior Lecturer in Screen and Media at Flinders University. He holds a PhD from the Communication Arts Department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a contributing editor to national arts magazine RealTime and Metro.View all posts by Mike Walsh →