Enticingly about kick flicks

Anna Kavoura
University of Jyväskylä, Finland

PTJ Rance
Martial Arts: The step-by-step companion to the Martial Arts genre
280 sidor, hft., ill.
London: Virgin Books 2005 (Virgin Film)
ISBN 978-0-7535-1078-0

I have to admit that I wouldn’t have called myself a martial arts movies fanatic before reading this book. As a martial artist myself, I used to find more excitement in actually practicing the fighting techniques, than watching them on the screen. Having watched not more than ten kick flicks, I was very skeptical when I was asked to review Martial Arts. However, I started reading the book thinking that the worst thing that could happen to me would be that I would learn something new. What actually happened was the beginning of a love affair with martial art movies. While Penelope Rance was discussing the development of the genre through the examination of twenty carefully selected films and television series, I became eager to watch a bit of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. It ended up with me watching kick flick movies every night, from early Chinese wuxia to modern Asian and Hollywood movies. Most likely, the same will happen to every reader of Martial Arts.

One thing that needs to be said is that Penelope Rance has done very serious research work on the development of martial art movies as a genre in order to produce this book. As an experienced journalist and editor who had written on a variety of subjects, she appears to be a very talented writer. In addition, as a student of White Crane kung fu herself and as a martial art films fanatic, she is very knowledgeable on the topic. Her text flows easily and there is a dose of humor here and there. This way, Martial Arts is not only interesting, but also fun to read.

The book comes with an eye-catching paperback cover: An iconic image of the late Bruce Lee that would make the book attractive to any kick flick fanatic. There are no pictures scattered across the chapters, but there’s a collection of images from various classic movies in a section in the middle of the book. A list of contents in the beginning of the book and an index at the end help the reader to easily locate information. In addition, the sources that were used can be tracked with the help of a bibliography and an index of quotations.

Overall, the book is well produced and structured. In the introduction the author clearly states the purpose of the book and provides a good description of the methods used during the selection and the analyses of the films. In addition, she explains the difficulties that she ran into, and dealt with, as well as the limitations of the book. Thereby, Rance leaves no space for question-marks regarding why one film was selected and not another, or why specific martial art styles (like kung fu) were more favored in this book than other disciplines.

The films that are examined have been divided into six branches and there is one separate chapter for each branch. The first chapter deals with the early days of the martial art film industry. Back in the 1920s in Mainland China, wuxia movies were produced on a massive scale to be consumed by Eastern audiences. In the second chapter, films produced in Hong Kong during the 1970s are examined. Many of these films were dubbed and imported to the U.S. and it was then that the martial art film genre made its debut to the Western audiences. Some of the best Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan kick flicks belong to this era. The next chapter is looking into the era of Modern Asian Classics, with films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero. These films were produced and marketed in quite a different way than the earlier movies, because international audiences were targeted from the beginning. Martial art movies are not a foreign product anymore and the West starts producing its own kick flicks. Thus, a chapter with Hollywood martial art movies, such as Karate Kid and Kill Bill, could not be missing from this book. Finally, there is a chapter about martial art movies made in other countries around the world and one about martial art television series.

Rance is commenting on issues such as gender, sexuality and heroism in martial art movies, taking into account the dual contexts of Asian and Western perceptions.

Three to four films are examined in each chapter. The author provides rich information on a variety of aspects, such as actors and directors, the themes of the movies and their significance, as well as the fighting styles, the martial battles and the special effects that were used. Moreover, Rance is going even deeper by examining the films as products of cross-cultural exchange. For example, the author explains that different audiences, according to the ethnic background of the viewers, received some movies differently. Each chapter ends with a summary that reviews the importance of the films and their place within the genre. Throughout the chapters there are boxed sections detailing the careers of some of the genre’s most famous and influential actors.

In general, this book provides information on so many levels that you don’t need to be a kick flick fanatic to find it interesting. For example, one of the reasons that I was delighted to read Martial Arts was that I found information regarding how women are depicted in different martial art films and how the image of the female warrior has changed during the development of the genre. Rance is commenting on issues such as gender, sexuality and heroism in martial art movies, taking into account the dual contexts of Asian and Western perceptions.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading this book and I totally recommend it, whether you are passionately into kick flicks or not. If you own a collection of Bruce Lee films, this book cannot be missing from your library. If you just got excited by watching Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi getting wild in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and you are wondering which film to watch next, this book is for you. If you (like me) are interested in issues such as cultural exchange, Orientalism and transnationalism, or the depiction of gender and heroism in movies, Martial arts will gain your attention and will probably leave you with a hunger for watching action and martial battles.

Copyright © Anna Kavoura 2012

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