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Contemporary wuxia films to adopt new narrative strategy to attract audience

Author  :  LI JUAN     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2017-04-25

The House of Flying Daggers, directed by Zhang Yimou, has been lauded as an incredibly beautiful epic film with the focus on scenery, colours, cinematography and mood. However, critics say the film lacks a powerful storyline to match its stunning visual impact.

Wuxia, literally meaning “martial arts chivalry,” is a distinct genre in Chinese literature and cinema.

Martial arts movies often contain imaginative depictions of an idealized realm in an attempt to confront, compensate for or escape harsh realities. Through establishing a symbolic parallel conforming to the inner will and constructing individual values and beliefs, the genre is able to strike a balance between people’s inner selves and the outside world.

As a type of historical fiction, martial arts movies in the contemporary era are still trying to fulfill audiences’ expectations in terms of cultural imagination, either in the art form or narratives.

Imagination of heroes

The word wuxia is composed of two elements. Wu is used to describe martial arts, war or the military, while xia refers to the type of protagonist found in wuxia, and is also a synonym for chivalry. Either way, it carries a spirit that caters to the general public.

The worship of heroes is an eternal theme in martial arts movies. Heroes generally have national characteristics and are icons for an ideal spiritual image of the nation.

Nowadays, wuxia movies have gradually begun to cater to the aesthetic preferences and cultural tastes of the audience by emphasizing real-life logic, morality and artistic expression. The martial arts world in the film serves as a metaphorical space that conveys the cultural imagination of chivalry and the hero complex in the search for national identity and roots.

For example, the Monk Comes Down the Mountain untangles an array of plotlines involving nationalist-communist espionage, warlords, opera stars and kungfu masters in the turbulent secular world. The film plays on contrasts between the monk’s untainted good nature and the twisted minds he encounters in the hero’s quest to find his own place physically and spiritually in a perilous yet seductive world.

More importantly, the film conveys blissful serenity and inner peace in its artistic portrayal of Zen, a school of Buddhism that pursues enlightenment through meditation, self-contemplation, and intuition while epitomizing the philosophical thinking of Taoist life.

Again, the House of Flying Daggers creates visual splendor through traditional sword fighting with high-art aesthetics and its signature long-sleeved dancing.

However, though it is visually pleasing, critics view it as a tale lacking the necessary sincerity and inner logic when unfolding the heroes’ love, betrayal, struggles and ambitions. The storyline appears to be a vehicle for action rather than vice versa.

Jianghu: An outlaw world

Jianghu, literarily meaning “rivers and lakes” in Chinese, is an anarchic domain with its own codes and laws in which knights-errant roam and operate and commit acts of violence based on revenge.

In general, kungfu masters in jianghu uphold heroic Chinese virtues. The masters have a cultural orientation toward a military tradition that characterized by being effective in action and fearlessly doing good deeds in the pursuit of the righteous path. The martial-chivalric genre as a whole stands for the sociopolitical vision and ideal state of life of the constructors.

With the advent of new forms of media, heroes in martial arts epics precisely reflect the appeal of realism, the desire for extraordinary ability and an ideal world, and the bright prospects for spreading Chinese culture across the globe.

The chivalrous narratives have enriched Chinese cultural expression, but the unique humanistic touch behind heroes is relatively lacking in today’s massive literature and screenplays. The desire to create visually breathtaking scenes has inadvertently erased the cultural taste and artistic pursuit in the genre.

As a result, the imagination of heroes in the martial arts movies seems to have in practice become a rampant collective behavior that lacks creativity.

Violent aesthetics

The aesthetics of violence in martial arts movies exists in the cultural logic of a consumer society, and it is the inevitable result of pandering to viewers’ demands. Therefore, the rationale of action narratives makes violence in the movies, in a sense, a cultural original sin, and forms an unbreakable thread of the historicist fabric of wuxia literature.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is an action-packed, visually breathtaking Sherlock Holmes-style mystery that is filled with thrills, adventure, conspiracy and other elements. In the film, violent heroes are the exemplars of justice and bravery. They not only defeat evil forces with wits but also combat gangsters with their fantastical martial arts skills.

In a sense, violent aesthetics in martial arts movies are also moral aesthetics because its spiritual strength lies in the inheritance of traditional culture and also preserving the legacy of the inherent cultural order and ethical morality.

The ending in martial arts movies often implies a doomed fate when it comes to black-and-white contrasts between heroes and villains. Heroes keep their promises and are determined to free those suffering from bondage. Their life philosophy demonstrates a profound humanistic concern that prevails in the chaotic jianghu, so chivalrous behaviour and benevolent personal ideals, though associated with violence, still represent an invisible force that continues to engage audiences.

Feminist touch

There is a shortcoming in the portrayal of the ambitions and heroic actions of righteous swordsmen in jianghu: the female figures are, to a great extent, confined by shackles. It is urgent to enhance female discourse in the martial arts movies.

More often than not, the self-realization in the martial arts world centers on male values and preferences while neglecting women’s pursuit of personal ideals, humanity and struggles in a male-dominated society.

In the New Dragon Gate Inn, the beautiful, intelligent, courageous, upright and sophisticated inn owner Jin Xiangyu cannot help but to head toward destruction for love.

Female figures are never granted absolute legitimate power in wuxia movies. Instead, they either play the love interests of men or they disguise themselves as men, an act that if executed successfully, dissolves their self-existence and self-awareness as women. Tangled with male figures, the emotional structure often rises above women’s self-worth.

However, as time and society evolve, moral norms and ethical values are also changing. More female figures appear in the male-dominated discourse system and offer vigorous and independent voices. In a way, female perspectives in the genre not only demonstrate a narrative angle but also represent an improvement of women’s status.

New narrative strategy

Going forward, Chinese swords-and-sorcery movies need to adopt new narrative strategies and come up with powerful storylines and plots to better meet the aesthetics of domestic and global audiences.

To start with, we should emphasize family ethics in the genre. The new generation of wuxia movies is inclined to focus on action rather than historical memories, thus losing the depth of the storylines.

Films do evolve with time, but what remains consistent is that they carry an indispensable stamp of traditional Chinese culture. It is vital to return to traditional family ethics stories that are generally appealing but at the same time distinctively Chinese in order to reach the audience at home and abroad. The strategy is, in a word, to find a high degree of convergence between nationalization and internationalization.

Next, wuxia movies in the new era should deeply explore the human experience and draw attention to the discussion of man, nature and all beings, thus highlighting the inclusiveness of Chinese culture as well as the beauty of ordinary life and emotions. The martial arts movies should be able to tell their own stories with images while satisfying the audience’s emotional needs, thus accomplishing cultural reflection and humanistic care with Chinese characteristics and encouraging the discovery of individual identity.

Last but not least, the genre needs to adopt a correct attitude toward complex cultural conflicts and reconstruct native culture in the fierce competition with blockbusters. Through a series of proactive transformations and initiatives, Chinese wuxia movies could eventually stand firm on the world stage.

Due to their incomparable advantages in promoting cultural identity, Chinese swordplay films need to engage in a dialogue with world culture in an equal manner while preserving excellent traditional Chinese culture to achieve the harmonious coexistence of diverse cultures.


Li Juan is from the Central Plains Cultural Research under the Henan Academy of Social Sciences.

Editor: Yu Hui

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