When I was younger I loved kung-fu movies; as an adult I completely loathe them. I haven’t changed in regards to my love and support for people exacting revenge for their fallen 师父, and similarly neither have kung-fu movies. They are still the same genre movies as when I was younger, and use the same cliches and devices as before to deliver an action-packed story punctuated by fists. Dot, dot, dot.
What has changed is the world, it’s audiences. The world has made advancements in culture, technology and society, while audiences have been treated to marvelous spectacles one after another that leave them demanding more. What this means for kung-fu flicks is that while people’s proclivity towards more nuanced stories have gotten more sensible, their appetite for entertainment has only become more outlandish. This has resulted in the strained concept of a well-made genre exercise that isn’t actually performed by kung-fu artists anymore as once enjoyed back in the hey-day of the industry during the 70′s.
While having not yet reached the zenith of its post-modern awareness, kung-fu flicks continue to bloat and stagnate in their creativity as they continue to add to their modern bag of tricks. This is seen in the recent use of CGI and 3D to complement the tired rehashing of wire-fu, which in itself is another trick in the bag that builds upon the grubby special effects legacy of blood squibs and the sleight of hand of quick editing. Kung-fu flicks need an invigoration to jump start the spiritually dead car battery of Bruce Lee’s hearse.
It’s with this kind of expectation I looked forward to “Man With the Iron Fists”, the latest vanity project from RZA, the Wu-Tang (武当?) Clan leader who had delved into genre work early with “Afro Samurai” and “Kill Bill”. Hype surrounding the oft-delayed project seemed to suggest a complete “nerd” devotion was adopted to bringing to the screen “a vision that stays as close to the source material as possible*”. All signs pointed towards a collaboration with Eli Roth that would finally provide what Chinese kung-fu films have lacked in quite a while: a parable of kick-assery in which one’s integrity and honor can be upheld through the breaking of bones of others.
Well, despite of of its gore, “The Man With the Iron Fists” didn’t chop its way into the hearts and wallets of its audiences. “The Man With the Iron Fists” received a lukewarm reception that didn’t even singe much of an impression; the best it has seemed to provoke in film critics is that most were resigned to be polite about it – and this is a movie in which a man punches other people’s heads clean off their shoulders. Did I mention the part where that man has fists which are made of iron? Isn’t that an Academy Award category all to itself? This audience response is not befitting a title like that; by all rights, the chances that “The Man With the Iron Fists” would ever be boring would be like RZA not knowing kung-fu flicks like the back of his hand.
Sadly, the best that can be said about “The Man With the Iron Fists” is that the action is passable and the story doesn’t detract from the head-decapitating action if you don’t pay attention to it; most of the audience’s time can be better spent exploring RZA’s psyche from the parade of pastiche that blends different eras and styles to form what is ostensibly the best movie the imagination of a 12 year-old can come up with when trapped in a commute across state.
“The Man With the Iron Fists” takes a lot of time to set up a strained story about people you don’t really care about and desperately wait to have them come in conflict with each other in order to set up the letdown that is the third act** and populates it with a fantastic sense of detail. While this dedication is admirable as is any time you pick up one of those “ship-in-a-bottle” thingies, there is one detail about this film that RZA and Eli Roth completely missed out on – this movie isn’t Chinese in the slightest.
There’s no specific need for a kung-fu movie to be Chinese in tone whatsoever; “The Matrix” (1999) was a kung-fu movie that wasn’t Chinese in content (despite its themes and the obvious parallel between Chinese society and the construct the machines built for the humans). Neither was “Kill Bill” (2003/4) nor “Charlie’s Angels” (2000) for that matter. But for a Chinese story set in 19th century China about Chinese characters in a movie that was shot on location in China in a genre that ostensibly belongs to the Chinese film industry, this is tantamount to populating the film with dogs playing poker.
As such, “The Man With the Iron Fists” emulates the environment and culture of its source material on a surface level but fundamentally isn’t Chinese at its heart. The easiest way to prove this is to show that despite all the work put into getting the details right, this film isn’t readily accepted by Chinese. You’d think that a love letter to Chinese genre films starring several big name Hollywood talent would attract Chinese audiences with its flattery, but no: it barely registers in China.
“The Man With the Iron Fist” is called 铁拳无敌 in Chinese (meaning “Steel Fists Without Equal”) and unfortunately shares its name with many properties including a 1993 sequel to “Five Tigers of Guangdong” and a Jean Claude Van Damme straight to video flick, and it is these other films get more attention on the webs (well, maybe because “The Man With the Iron Fists” didn’t make the slate of accepted foreign films). But the main reason why Chinese audiences can’t accept this movie is because it isn’t representative of Chinese culture.
As per an example, let’s examine “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000), the hit movie that rejuvenated a modern interest in wuxia epics and kung-fu flicks in the past ten years. What is ironic in the purest sense of the word is that “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” isn’t really part of the genres that it conversely went on to influence; rather, Ang Lee was talented enough to break the usual genre limitations of a black and white morality and instead tell an non-contemporary story just using the structure of a genre movie as its basis. As such, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was able to find a larger audience and mass appeal. The flip side is that China has by and large turned its back upon this movie which is better celebrated and revered in the West.*** Honestly speaking, while this was Zhang Ziyi’s breakout movie, it was also her “Cable Guy”.
As film nerds, it appears RZA and Eli Roth have watched Quentin Taratino-levels of 70′s Shaw Brothers movies and have walked away not seeing the forest for the trees in the fall nor hearing any of the fallen trees for resting on the ground. They’ve gotten the little details down like terribly awesome wigs and beards as well as the implementation of bad Chinglish of names that are much too literal. However, they have not made a kung-fu film that is Chinese at its heart and soul.
To start with, the entire beauty aesthetic is wrong. While Lucy Liu and Jamie Chung (the new Miho!) aren’t not pleasant to look at, these ladies are not beautiful in any Chinese aesthetic sense. Lucy Liu looks downright uggo in a classical sense and also in a modern sense; she looks like a cat that is perpetually getting out of the bath. Her and Jamie Chung’s features are too sharp and expressive for Chinese tastes. The traditional Chinese beauty is demure, shy and not mature or confident. These actresses have eaten the apple of Western knowledge and expressiveness and no longer appeal to obstinate, thick-skinned Chinese men.
While the premise of “The Man With Iron Fists” in which a freed slave from the USA has escaped to China to learn kung-fu and hides out as a master blacksmith is already outlandish before considering that everyone speaks perfect English as though this is an episode of Star Trek, the idea that RZA is portraying “just a blacksmith… biding my time” making a honest living in ancient China is ridiculous.
He’s not a simple man, he’s not humble, he’s not Chinese. He’s a US American. He’s an individual. (Yes, even slaves are all snowflakes.) He is neither simple nor humble.
Forget that he’s black. Forget that he’s a smith who is black. In the movie, RZA’s character lives in China and supposedly has assimilated into Chinese culture as a simple man. However, despite all of his experiences getting to that point, RZA still does not act like a Chinese; he’s thinking like an individual who is in total charge of his own life and destiny.
Fool, know not with what you temper? (bang bang)
Chinese society is based upon a regimented system in which everyone and everything has its place. People know which people rank above them and below; even life itself is charted out with the fate that each person is given. For RZA to think that he can make some scratch and then abscond with his hot hooker girlfriend (the new Miho!) is not Chinese thinking at all – everyone is connected to someone, everything is connected to something else. You can’t decide to leave Jungle Village and then be surprised that “the universe had other plans” because you are your fate, you are the universe.
Notably missing from this story is the concept of family. Basically, all that family serves in “The Man With Iron Fists” is some justification for the Korean baddie from “Die Another Day” (2002) to have revenge upon the guy that played Ryu in “Street Fighter” (1994), whereas in an actual Chinese film “family” would be the construct from which you would build a cast of characters that would detail their motivations and levels of exhibited melodrama. The characters in “The Man With the Iron Fists” are all bereft of family – even though the movie takes place in the town where they make their home. As for RZA’s role, he isn’t married nor has a child of his own – this illegitimizes any claim to his being a grown man. With “Iron Fists” or otherwise.
Speaking of which, as hot as Do-Re-Miho! is, it doesn’t make sense for RZA to hook up with Lady Silk, a character who by all rights should be an evil character like all of the other hot Chinese-American Black Widows in Lucy Liu’s whorehouse. Ignoring the fact that sex with Jamie Chung must be mind-blowing for the five seconds you’d be able to last in that thing, the fact remains that no Chinese, back then or now, would ever go to the trouble of dallying with a sex worker (maybe a “barber”, maybe). Compounding this even further is the idea that romantic love is a modern concept in China**** as Chinese people just didn’t have backrubs and candles and slow R+B back then.
We may be inclined to excuse Fist McPunchy from not adopting Chinese customs after a life of hardship as a slave in the USA, but the character had every chance to learn them. Five-Finger Faceplant was saved in a shipwreck and taken to a monastery (near the sea) where he learned the necessary but impractical skill of animating the steel fist prosthetics (how does he wipe his ass or pick his nose?). However, as it’s a Buddhist monastery that he interned in, RZA would have taken a vow that rejected the passions of the world – vows he would later break in an epic way through adopting Jamie Chung (Thundercats! Mi-ho!) as his pelvic sling jockey.
While the listed set of points may just seem like nitpicking performed by a pack of nerds unsatisfied with the tenth viewing of “The Avengers”, it does matter. It matters because despite all of RZA’s best intentions to make an authentic Chinese movie, he still can’t fundamentally understand Chinese culture, something that can be said for many other Westerners who aren’t even trying to make a bad movie. I’m sure the leader of the Wu-Tang Clan will recover just as it’s completely possible to enjoy “The Man With Iron Fists” with the sound off, on fast forward and without paying any attention, but this ardent act of adulation still demonstrates the gap that exists between East and West.
China is it’s own cultural entity. A Chinese kung-fu movie is more than just wire-fu and bad dubbing. This culture gap isn’t immeasurable, but it needs to be addressed that cultures of the East and West are distinctly different and need to be treated as such.
Rated: 2 weak FISTS out of three. Did I mention a guy’s head gets punched off his shoulders? Like right off.
*A line that is frequently piped by Zack Snider for all the wrong reasons, oh and by the way: fuck you – zombies walk, it was a space squid and post-modern cleverness doesn’t negate a sexist message.
**Cung Le vs Lucy Liu? Didn’t that guy thrash Rich Franklin? If he can’t fight Russell Crowe, then can’t Le be more entertainingly be used in a fight against a hat rack encumbered with cutlasses?
*** There’s some weird notion that this film flopped in China because of the bad accents heard in it (Michelle Yeoh and the Chow-meister) but they tend to dub films in China, lip syncing be damned, so that terminates that idea. Rather, it’s the fact that “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” had an outlandish story that people couldn’t accept: a young girl becomes a secret kung-fu master and rejects both her family and her engaged husband so that she can cast herself to fate off the face of a mountain.
**** The Chinese for romantic is “浪漫”; it comes from Cantonese, who got it from the British during the years of Hong Kong as a colony as a transliterated word. 浪漫 is by no means as old as the 三从 (meaning “the three obediences”) in which a Chinese woman of the feudal era was expected to obey her father before marriage, her husband after marriage and then her son as a widow.