Kung Fu Cult Masters: From Bruce Lee to Crouching Tiger

Leon Hunt,
Kung Fu Cult Masters: From Bruce Lee to Crouching Tiger.
London: Wallflower, 2003.
ISBN: 1 903364 63 9
229 pp
£15.99 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Wallflower Press)

Like some of the performers he writes about, Leon Hunt performs a difficult stunt with Kung Fu Cult Masters. He walks the fine line between fandom and academic criticism, trying not to pitch over into either cult obsessions or “pointy-head” hair-splitting. For the most part, he succeeds admirably. This readable and intelligent introduction to Hong Kong kung fu cinema covers the cinema and the debates around it from the seventies to the present. Full of lively detail, it is required reading for anyone with an interest in action cinema. Although the structure is roughly chronological, the book is not a history but rather a discussion of key topics.

The particular strength of Kung Fu Cult Masters is a focus on the various reception contexts of the films in Hong Kong and the West. Hunt eschews formalist universalism and understands that any account of the worldwide success of kung fu must acknowledge that the films have different meanings for different audiences. My only very minor reservation here is that I wish he had included a greater range of audiences, for kung fu is successful in South Asia, in Africa, and in many other parts of the world in addition to Hong Kong and English-speaking Western countries.

Unlike many earlier discussions and to his credit, Hunt does not take an auteurist approach to Hong Kong cinema. The “cult masters” the title refers to are mostly stars and choreographers, although many also direct. This rightly foregrounds performance. For as Hunt points out in his introduction, like porn, the weepie, and horror, kung fu is what Linda Williams and Steven Shaviro describe as a “body genre.” In his first chapter, he develops this theme further by noting both the importance of authenticity to the success of kung fu, and the fact that authenticity is not a simple thing.

To address this complexity, Hunt differentiates between three forms of authenticity, each important to different types of kung fu film in different periods. “Archival authenticity” designates attention to use of traditional martial art forms in the films, rather than special inventions like Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do. “Cinematic Authenticity” is the use of long shots and relatively long takes to signify that what we are watching is “real.” Here, Hunt emphasizes that the length of the take is less important than the number of moves that are completed, unbroken, within a single take. While he acknowledges that Bruce Lee is usually cited in this regard, he has better examples to give. Finally, “corporeal authenticity” is signified by bodily danger, regardless of whether wires and fast editing are used. The outtakes shown during the credits of Jackie Chan films are a prime instance.

Each of the remaining chapters takes on a particular topic, arranged chronologically. They are the myth of the Shaolin temple, the Bruce Lee legend, kung fu comedy, women in kung fu, Jet Li, the transnationalisation of Hong Kong cinema, and the interaction between kung fu and computer games. Because Hunt has been careful to avoid going over familiar topics – for example focusing on the Bruce Lee clones rather than writing yet another essay only on Lee himself – almost all the chapters are fresh and engaging. Even though I confess I am one of those unappreciative viewers who finds Jet Li to be wooden, I was pleased to read what I think is the first in-depth English-language treatment of this major figure from someone who clearly loves the films. Equally admirable is the discussion on gaming, and how games appropriate from kung fu at the same time as recent wire-assisted kung fu responds to the challenge of the computer game. Hunt is highly conscious of kung fu’s intertext, attending to its roots in Chinese opera, street performances, and martial art sports elsewhere in the volume, and it is heartening to see someone attend in detail to the imbrication of film and computer games rather than just noting it in passing.

Hunt structures each chapter by first giving a lot of colourful and detailed background and history. He covers some of the controversies and arguments that both academic critics and fans get into as he moves through this material. Theoretical frameworks for Hunt’s own analysis usually only appear half way through each chapter. Hunt usually simply selects one such framework for application and does not make the material “speak back” to further develop the theory itself. Wallflower aims its texts at the high school and undergraduate market, so this is not surprising. But one of the advantages of engaging more with debates about theory is that it can build a bridge linking the particular topic being analysed to a wider debate, thus reaching a wider readership. For example, Hunt deals admirably with the complexity of Hong Kong’s relation to the heritage of colonialism and its connection to globalisation in his discussion of kung fu masters in Hollywood. However, I would have liked to hear more about how this Hong Kong experience might inflect or challenge existing understandings of globalisation and the cinema in general.

Although there are illustrations in every chapter, there are no shot-by-shot analyses with frame breakdowns. No doubt, this also avoids accusations of “pointy-head” tendencies. But given how carefully Hunt attends to analysis of the execution both of moves – or “shapes” as he follows the fans in calling them – and their cinematic presentation, the conventions of close analysis might have afforded even greater clarity in places. However, these final remarks are not major criticisms. Rather, they are merely suggestions on how an excellent book might possibly be made even better.

Chris Berry
University of California, Berkeley, USA.
Created on: Friday, 30 April 2004 | Last Updated: 30-Apr-04