Kung Fu History, by Maeve O’Dwyer

I’m not sure what I was expecting at today’s Kung Fu History event at HCA, run by Felix Boecking, but what the audience was treated to was the perfect mix of film clips and dry-humoured commentary from Felix, a lecturer in Chinese history.

Arriving with a pile of DVDs, he informed us that since he didn’t wish to spoil the plot of any of the films he would be talking about, we would watch specific clips only. One of the most interesting angles was a comparison of the opening sequence of each film, as we heard how many of the martial arts films released by the People’s Republic of China in recent years have moved away from the 20th century history of films produced in the 1980s, in order to tell stories set in safe, uncontroversial historical settings. These films can reach huge audiences, owing to China’s pirated DVD market.

Our first film was the well-known Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and it was a surprise to note how in comparison to other films, its setting remained very vague, with only the men’s hairstyles and references to Beijing as the capital of China to guide the viewer as to the timing of events. Our narrator Felix Boecking pointed out how the martial artist is often pure of heart, sometimes with anti-gravitational powers arising from such spiritual purity, as well as some thoughts about the individual nature of martial arts and thus the necessity for a corrupt, failing imperial or dynastic background to create the need for heroic acts. We also watched scenes from House of Flying Daggers, Warlords, Fearless and Let the Bullets Fly, finishing up with a light-hearted look at some of the Western film tropes about martial arts seen in Kung Fu Panda.

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