As genre films, martial arts films have been a staple of popular Chinese language filmmaking from its inception, rising to a peak in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. However, until Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), no 'serious' filmmaker/international auteur had visibly made a martial arts film for the arthouse/commercial crossover market in the West. Since then, Chinese Fifth Generation filmmaker Zhang Yimou has followed with Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004); Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai with his remastered, re-edited re-release of Ashes of Time (1994/2008) and The Grandmaster (2013); and Taiwan New Cinema's Hou Hsiao-Hsien with The Assassin (2015). This paper suggests that these recent turns to the arthouse/crossover martial arts film by international Chinese auteur filmmakers seem to point to a reclaiming of a kind of cultural 'Chineseness" in the wake of China's rise as a global economic power, and they do so by reclaiming the very mode of genre filmmaking Chinese cinema is best known for in the global cultural market--that of the martial arts film. In so doing, the local and national politics for which these filmmakers are known take on a different inflection as they become global players in the film world. This paper focuses in particular on the more recent films, Wong's The Grandmaster and Hou's The Assassin, which have arrived in the wake of Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang's Hero as progenitors of what have been called examples of 'global Chinese films" (Chan 2009; Rawnsley and Rawnsley 2010).
Martial arts films are built on narratives of abjection and martial arts heroes are constructed from figures of abjection. These films frequently dramatise stories of loss, humiliation, and trauma, whose recuperation is necessitated by the heroes' efforts at restorative justice through the act of revenge, usually achieved through intense individual struggle, hardship and sacrifice. Abjection and agency then may be read as mutually defining concepts: abjection signals a profound loss of agency on the part of individuals and communities, even cultures and nations. Julia Kristeva describes abjection as 'what disturbs identity, system, order ... [and what] does not respect borders, positions, rules' (Kristeva 1982: 4). It is unsurprising thus that the themes of loss, revenge and recuperation in martial arts films have been also easily read as allegories for the struggles of (Chinese) nationhood. Writing of traditional wuxia (martial swordplay) films, Stephen Teo notes:
The wuxia film was and is regarded as a national form, fulfilling nationalist desires for self- strengthening at a time when China was weak. In the present, as China has become a rising power on the world stage, the wuxia film seems to have become an instrument of the state: wuxia as a means to main the myth of a warrior tradition and its historicist concepts of chivalry and knight-errancy in order to justify the modern concept of the nation-state. (Teo, 2015: 8) In this paper, I read the abjection, and the apparent lack of agency, of the martial figures in The Grandmaster and The Assassin alongside the figure of the Chinese film 'auteur'--Wong Kar-wai and Hou Hsiao-Hsien respectively--on the global stage, to the extent that these auteurs may also be seen to be negotiating their cultural agencies within the abject frame of global capitalism, what Thomas Elsaesser refers to as 'performative self-contradiction' (Elsaesser 2016: 21).
In his article on 'Positioning auteur theory in Chinese cinemas studies' (2007), Song Hwee Lim argued that it was necessary to explore 'the relevance of auteur theory to the study of Chinese cinemas' as well as the its relation to 'the auteurist approach institutionalized within Anglophone academia' (Lim, 2007: 224). Lim observed that the new digital aesthetic 'at the start of a new century saturated with mediatized visuality threatens to flatten all images into a simulacrum that simultaneously wipes out the auteur' (Lim, 2007: 224). In this paper, I take the auteur to be a received notion employed both by the film industry and the critical community 'to elevate selected film-makers to the pantheon of artists, thus granting legitimacy to the establishment of film studies as a serious academic discipline' (Lim, 2007: 224); the 'star-auteur' as a 'brand', so to speak (Promkhuntong, 2014). In a further article, Lim reflects on how digital imaging has enabled star-auteurs to transform the reception of martial arts cinema from its populist origins to a spectacle of high artistic value (Lim, 2016: 149). Through the close analysis of the 'poetics of slowness' (Lim, 2016: 150) in these films, exemplified by the 'poetics of virtual objects flying in bullet time' (150), such as raindrops and pebbles, Lim asks how we may read such developments in the politics of culture and labour in the modern martial arts film, when so much of this spectacle is created by digital technology? In other words, these filmmakers have not simply returned to an older populist form of cinema in recent times, but in merging a populist form (previously and still associated with Chinese cultural identity and nationhood) with digital imaging, the new martial arts film aligns itself with the hyper-modernity of present times, one that is 'indexical of a transformation from shame to pride, an imaginary of Chineseness and nationalism that has found a new iteration in the current PRC leader Xi Jinping's slogan of "China Dream" (Lim, 2016: 148-49). My analyses of The Grandmaster and The Assassin explore how the politics that had been previously read in Wong's and Hou's films, viz. the geo-politics of Hong Kong and Taiwan respectively against the hegemonic spectre of the People's Republic of China, continue to work their way through narratives and characters of abjection in the more recent works. Yet. as they are taken on to the global stage of mainstream cinema exhibition (beyond the niche film festival market), including the expanding film exhibition market on the Chinese mainland, they become more directly subject to the capriciousness of the global market and their gatekeepers. In a manner of speaking, these auteurs may be seen as figures of abjection themselves, ones whose creative agency is persistently held to account on the one hand for signs of political compromise, and on the other hand, also subject to instant aggrandisement as blockbuster filmmakers (where previously being known for more intimate films), able to command and draw in vast amounts of global capital (see also Chan 2013).
Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster is one of several 'Ip Man' films to have been released in the early- to mid-2010s. Though he had apparently announced the project in 2002, shooting did not begin until 2010 (Hendrix. 2013). In the interim period, Wilson Yip's highly successful Ip Man franchise (Ip Man, 2008: Ip Man 2, 2010; Ip; Man 3, 2015: Ip Man 4, 2018). starring Donnie Yen in the eponymous role, captured the market, alongside Herman Yau's The Legend is Born--Ip Man (2010) and Ip Man: The Final Fight (2013). and a Chinese television series Ip Man (2013). The historic Ip Man (1893-1972) is a kung fa 'grandmaster' of the wing chun school of martial arts, and is more widely known in popular culture circles as teacher-mentor of the iconic Bruce Lee. The emergence of the Tp Man craze' in this period is worthy of a separate project, however, suffice it to say that all of these adaptations are only loosely based on the actual biography of the historical figure. The broad trajectory of Ip's life spans the politically tumultuous years for China and Hong Kong through most of the 20th century, and his subsequent connection with Bruce Lee (as arguably the best-known transnational Chinese star), allow for the projection by these adaptations of any number of national and cultural allegories, if not anxieties, about Chinese identities, sovereignties and histories.
In researching the film, Wong is said to have travelled extensively and visited numerous kungfu schools and grandmasters to learn of their ethos and histories (Szeto and Chen, 2015: 98), many of which are either diminishing or existing mainly in popular memory through their mediatised movie renditions. Szeto and Chen have noted that Wong's The Grandmaster enacts an anxiety of succession (2015: 108), and draw parallels with Hong Kong's own political anxieties twenty years after its handover from Britain to China, describing...