May 23rd, 2010
Yeah, this one’s been brewing for a while….
Back during the May Day holiday, up at the farm, I watched Once Upon a Time in China/《黄飞鸿》 1, 2, and 3. I was reminded of a certain phenomenon I have noticed in the films of both Bruce Lee and Jet Li.
When we got back to Beijing, I noticed this short piece about Ip Man/《叶问》 2 (scroll down to 015: Ip Man and Chinese Nationalism).
And then I finally got around to watching Ip Man 2. And my wife remembered that good, old Scottish word “Sassenach” and used it to great effect.
What has always intrigued me about the films of both Bruce Lee and Jet Li is that they take such a strong Chinese nationalist stance, and yet never present a simplistic “Chinese good, foreigners evil oppressors” narrative. Both regularly feature good foreigners and bad Chinese. The Once Upon a Time in China series is particularly good at this, especially the first two installments, as it presents a conservative Confucian gentleman Huang Feihong and 13th Aunt, in love with all this new Western stuff, as they try to navigate a confusing, rapidly changing society bullied by Western imperialism and ruled – at least nominally – by a rapidly collapsing Qing empire.
These films can be extremely harsh on ordinary Chinese. In the first, the local merchants refuse out of petty fear for their own interests to serve as witnesses against the marauding Shaho gang for Huang Feihong. Indeed, it takes a Jesuit missionary – a member of a class of people not generally viewed favourably when the talk turns to Western imperialism – to stand up and say, “I’ll be your witness”. Other Chinese help Americans to round up indentured labour and prostitutes for the goldfields of California.
And this missionary intrigues me (why, oh why can I find no mention of him in cast lists?). He’s not a major character, but he seems to me to add something unusually extra to the pathos of the film. He shows up first marching through the streets of Foshan with his fellow missionaries and a handful of converts singing, “Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”, and in response, the Chinese band in a tea house plays extra loud to drown out this foreign nonsense, leading the teahouse patrons to have to shout to be heard by each other. The mournful, foreboding blast of a ship’s horn puts a temporary stop to the din.
After his first fight with the Shaho gang and the refusal of all the bullied merchants to serve has his witnesses to the local magistrate, Huang Feihong is wandering lost, troubled in the cacophony. In the background is a stage from which charlatans lure their compatriots into lives as indentured labour on the California goldfields with false promises so wild it’s a wonder anybody listened, but Foshan is in such a desperate state that people are eager to hear. The missionary approaches Huang with a leaflet and an offer of salvation in Christ. “Will Jesus be my witness?” asks Huang, leaving the missionary with a look of pity, empathy and perplexion. He seems to be fully aware and understanding of the situation Huang has found himself in.
The missionary gets another look in, observing and being observed as the Shaho gang sets up their attack on Baozhilin.
Then he steps through up to the gate of Baozhilin, only to have the ever-impulsive Porky rush at this foreign devil who dares intrude. When Porky is brought under control, he offers to be Huang’s witness.
His final part in the film is when this missionary takes a bullet for Huang in the big fight at the theatre.
I am confused and fascinated by this minor character in the film. After his first appearance singing, “Hallelujah!”, his every subsequent appearance seems to show the very same weight of suffering and confusion that Huang Feihong feels as he tries to negotiate the turbulence Foshan has been thrown into under the assault of imperialism and the chaos of a slowly dying dynasty. And yet, as a missionary, he is also very much a part of the imperialist assault. His role in the film is so minor that we can’t really speculate as to what might have been going through his head, but his actions and expressions give tantalising little hints that perhaps he just may have been motivated by Christian love for the suffering people and his sense of righteousness. Perhaps.
And how different is Huang Feihong? A conservative Chinese martial artist and doctor, disturbed by the foreign presence in his country, upset about the unequal treaties forced on China and the attitude of superiority demonstrated by these foreigners in their treatment Chinese, and confused by how attractive all this Western stuff is to so many Chinese, especially 13th Aunt. However, he does not fall into the trap of blind, reactionary, kneejerk nationalism like the White Lotus Sect of the second film, but maintains his sense of justice, righteousness and love. He is unfailingly courteous and respectful, including towards foreigners, until the situation demands he fight. Nobody is turned away from his clinic or denied medical care. He doesn’t seem to want the foreigners out of China so much as to be allowed to deal with them on equal terms with recognition of Chinese sovereignty over its own land. He seems to begin to gradually, perhaps a little grudgingly, understand through 13th Aunt the need for China to modernise in the face of the rapidly changing situation. If only order could be restored and justice upheld, all would be well. Indeed, he does seem to be partly motivated by a nostalgia for the time before the chaos.
And like apparently all kung fu masters, he has a crowd of young disciples who still need to be trained to rise above the impulsiveness inherent in all youth.
And what is this man supposed to do when foreigners trample over his country, trigger-happy and ignorant foreign soldiers all-too-easily open fire on poorly educated Chinese confused by this situation they’re in, Chinese bully Chinese for protection money, other Chinese sell other Chinese into indentured labour and prostitution in a far off land, and the government can no longer be trusted to act in the interests of its own people?
This is a film that creates a dark air of existential crisis, and yet at the same time, in the person of Huang Feihong, it presents hope that the strength of traditional Confucian culture will endure. Huang maintains his integrity through the chaos, and brings a temporary, at least, restoration of order to Foshan.
I’m a little surprised to read on Wikipedia “the Once Upon a Time in China series is clearly politicised.” I’m glad that’s followed up with a statement about “non-partisan nationalism”, because Huang Feihong always sides with who he perceives to have been wronged. In the second film he helps Sun Yat Sen, while in the third he protects Li Hongzhang from an assassination attempt. Li Hongzhang does not seem to have acquired for himself the best reputation, and in the film he certainly does not get a very sympathetic portrayal, whether or not he was a good person is irrelevant. Murder is wrong and assassinating a government official is equally wrong, regardless of the merits or virtues of the target for assassination, and so Huang steps in to foil the plot. I struggle to see these films as “politicised”, and I don’t think “non-partisan” goes quite far enough in describing this kind of nationalism. The three themes these films seem to push are a restoration of order, an upholding of justice, and a strengthening of China. Perhaps Confucian benevolence could be added to that list. And this is done in as unpolitical a way as possible.
But that raises the question: How can nationalism not be political? But considering this post has already acquired a gazillion topics, perhaps that should be left for another time, perhaps also another place.
Ip Man 2 is an awesome film. But in a way it is also a little disappointing. Where Once Upon a Time in China presents a very complex, chaotic situation, and where it takes care to add detail and nuance into all its players, Ip Man 2 takes a very simplistic “good Chinese being bullied by evil English” approach. Chinese characters that should be decidedly unsavoury all very quickly turn into goodies. “Should” is perhaps a dangerous word to use, so allow me to explain: Sammo Hung’s Hung Chun-nam is a kind of “capo di capi” of the Hong Kong martial arts world, but in a way is not much more than a Triad, running a protection racket for the corrupt British police officer. He bullies Ip Man, and when Ip refuses to pay the fee all the masters pay Hung, Hung Ga disciples are sent to bully Ip Man’s Wing Chun students and interfere with the school’s business. The Hung Ga disciples themselves behave like little more than low-level Triad thugs – Ip meets Hung because one of Hung’s disciples picks a fight with Ip’s top disciple Wong Leung, and when he loses, gets his mates to help him kidnap Wong and hold him for ransom. In the first part of this film, it’s hard to see Hung as having any redeeming features. And yet he seamlessly makes the transition from thug to hero who dies defending China’s honour against the crude, arrogant Englishman. How?
Maybe I missed some little subtlety. Maybe I need to watch the film again and more closely. I can understand Hung wanting to stand up for his country. I can understand Ip standing up for his country and wanting to avenge Hung’s death. I don’t see how they become friends so quickly and easily, nor do I understand how Ip would have any respect for a man of the character Hung displayed in the early part of the film.
Is it in the scene in which, having gone to Hung’s school to complain of Hung Ga disciples making trouble for Wing Chun, Hung says their original fight was never completed and he wants to continue? The two go at it for a minute or two before Hung’s son suddenly appears right in the path of Ip’s foot. Ip stops his foot as rapidly as he was moving it, picks up this extremely chubby little boy, and follows up Hung’s wife’s question of when lunch will be with a suggestion that eating with one’s family may be more important than proving one’s superiority at the martial arts. It’s an extremely sudden scene and one that provides a definite turning point, but a bit too sudden in that all the distasteful aspects of Hung’s character suddenly disappear and he magically turns into a goodie and a hero. His relationship with the corrupt cop is maintained, but suddenly his protection racket and the thuggish behaviour of his students disappear under the carpet.
And I can’t help but notice that where Once Upon a Time in China presents a situation in a myriad of shades of grey, where foreigners can be good and Chinese can be bad, Ip Man 2 gives no suggestion there may be any good foreigners until after the climactic fight between Ip and Twister, when Ip calls for mutual respect and most of the British spectators, who had been until that point thoroughly behind Twister, give Ip a standing ovation. “Most” is an important word in that sentence: The standing ovation serves to highlight those Brits who walk out in disgust. Still, “most”. But what bugs me is that that is the only moment in the film in which any suggestion is given that there might be any good in any foreigner.
It was a strange sensation I had having just watched Ip Man 2. My country was once a British colony. My ancestors came from countries that once were – still are, in one case – English colonies. I can fully understand and sympathise with, indeed, I fully agree with the anti-imperialist view put forward by Ip Man 2. And from a purely aesthetic point of view, it’s a great film. Perhaps I timed my viewing of Ip Man 2 poorly, but in comparison with the complexity of Once Upon a Time in China, Ip Man 2‘s simplicity just doesn’t quite satisfy.