Tuesday, April 20, 2010

36th Chamber of Shaolin and Batman Begins

Here's a paper I handed in today for my World Cinema Traditions class. The assignment was to compare a foreign film with an American film. After spending weeks racking my brain about what movies I would compare, after a four-hour conversation I had with someone the other day about "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight", I finally knew what I would compare.
The paper's title is "A Couple of Dudes Who Learn How to Kick Ass and Fight Injustice: The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Batman Begins".

Lau Kar Leung’s The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins each tell a story of a young man who removes himself from general society and enters an organization devoted to training and achieving a particular ideal. In both stories, the young man re-enters society in order to fight what he sees to be injustice. While they are united by some common story elements and themes, the two films differ drastically in style and cultural background.

Lau Kar Leung (also known by his Mandarin name, Liu Chia-Liang) directed the 1978 Shaw Bros. classic The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (also known as 36 Chambers of Shaolin and Master Killer). Lau was raised in a kung fu household. Taught from a young age by his father, Lau grew up to be a skilled martial artist. Schooled in the Hung Gar method, Lau eventually found work as an extra and choreographer on films depicting fictional adventures of the style’s most famous practitioner, Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-Hung. Lau parlayed this work into more and better film work, going on to choreograph such classics as the 1967 One-Armed Swordsman and the 1975 Master of the Flying Guillotine. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the history of chop-socky flicks, however, came in 1978 with The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.[i]
Starring Lau’s “martial brother” Gordon Liu (Liu studied under Lau’s father and the two became life-long friends), the film tells the story of San Te, a young man who rebels against the oppressive Manchu government during the Qing Dynasty era. Wounded in a fight after his family and friends are killed, San Te seeks sanctuary at the Shaolin Temple (actually a monastery). There, he asks to be trained in kung fu so that he might take revenge against the evil Manchurians. Though initially rejected, he begins his training by sweeping floors. After a year, his training begins in earnest and he swiftly progresses through the thirty-five chambers at the monastery. After years of training, he returns to general society and attempts to fight the Manchurian soldiers. After taking revenge on his family’s killer, San Te establishes a thirty-sixth chamber at the monastery, in which lay people are taught kung fu so that they can defend themselves against an unjust government.

The film’s depiction of an oppressive, militaristic government is interesting to note in light of the film’s release in 1978. The war in Vietnam had just officially ended in 1975. Many Hong Kong residents had fled the People’s Republic of China. Hong Kong had also suffered under Japanese occupation in the early 1940s. In 1978, Hong Kong was still under British rule. The then-recent history of Hong Kong and the anti-military sentiments popular in western societies combined to influence many kung fu films, in which lone heroes or small teams would fight against oppressive occupying governments or evil invaders. Though common in Hong Kong kung fu films, the RZA (of Wu-Tang Clan fame) points out that the lone hero’s struggle against oppression is a universal theme. [ii]
While the political climate of Southeast Asia may have influenced the story, it’s unlikely that it had any influence on the style of the film. The style of the film is primarily influenced by two things: Lau’s background in the martial arts, and the method by which most Hong Kong films were made at the time. Lau’s kung fu proficiency and background as a choreographer dictated that the film’s primary focus would be the training and the fights. Hong Kong kung fu films are of a different nature than western action films, and the performers and directors often prefer to showcase skill through lengthy fight scenes rather than make action sequences tenser with tight editing. The fight scenes in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin are long, and Lau shows off his and the performers’ skills. Almost as important as the action is the set design. Though not necessarily an accurate representation of the Shaolin monastery in Dengfeng, or the training apparatus contained therein, the temple setting and the various kung fu training set-ups presented in the film are lovingly imaginative and service the story and San Te’s character development.

Aside from Lau’s martial background, the film’s style is partly determined by the “assembly line” method of production of Hong Kong films at the time. A biographer of Bruce Lee writes of the Hong Kong film industry:
"The Hong Kong-based film industry made films the way Detroit made cars: on an assembly line. They could wrap up a production in three days; a big-budget extravaganza might require a week. The Shaw brothers – Runjy, Runme, and Run Run – had almost singlehandedly set up the Hong Kong film industry. Shaw Brothers Studios was a mixture of purpose-built sets and sound stages where everything from pagodas to concentration camps were perched on a windy hillside overlooking Clearwater Bay. Shaw Brothers was the biggest studio outside of Hollywood and Europe, accounting for two-thirds of the “Chinese” films produced in the world. An average of seven features were always in production, while the sound-dubbing rooms were shared on a tight schedule of three shifts daily.
The secret of Shaw studios’ success was a hard-nosed policy geared to speed and economy. Films were shot without sound and, like Italian-made “spaghetti Westerns”, were later dubbed into whatever language was required. The films were often shot without a written script, more or less made up by the crew as they went along and “edited” directly on camera with few retakes. …"

This method of filmmaking often resulted in pictures that western audiences might think of as lesser in quality. Like most film studios, Shaw Brothers’ primary concern was profit, and the assembly line method worked just fine to that end. Even if Lau had wanted to make a sweeping epic that would take a lot of time and a lot more money, it probably just would not have happened.

Nearly thirty years after Lau Kar Leung and Gordon Liu made The 36th Chamber of Shaolin for Shaw Brothers, Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale made Batman Begins for Warner Brothers. In the film, Bruce Wayne is a child when he witnesses his parents gunned down in an alley. Unable to cope, he eventually runs away from Gotham, traveling the world and winding up in a Bhutanese prison. He is found and recruited by a secret organization devoted to their master’s concept of justice. Wayne is trained in the martial arts and ways of the ninja, but when asked to be an executioner he betrays his master and flees the organization. Returning to Gotham after seven years of absence, he dons a costume and uses high-tech gadgets to fight crime. While he attempts to take down organized crime and fight against the corruption that permeates the city, his master and the secret organization attack Wayne and attempt to devastate Gotham. He fights off the ninja, defeats his master, and saves the city, establishing himself as a symbol and weapon of justice.
The film is directed by Christopher Nolan. Half-British, half-American, Nolan blends different sensibilities when it comes to writing and directing. Batman Begins is a big-budget action movie that is an adaptation of an iconic American comic book character, while Nolan’s previous studio films could be considered psychological thrillers. He was born in England and received most of his education there, but he also spent time during his youth in the United States. Even as a child, he enjoyed making films, and continued to do so through his college years. His work as an independent filmmaker eventually led to his current status as an A-list Hollywood director.[iv]

Batman Begins was released in 2005. The major events affecting America at the time were the war(s) in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the presidential election of 2004. While Nolan was filming in Iceland, England, and Chicago, American soldiers were fighting in the Middle East. In November of 2004, George W. Bush “won” his re-election. Perhaps the period of war and the political landscape influenced the development and success of the film. In the film, Batman does utilize technology that is specifically intended for use by the military (it’s noted that he essentially drives a tank). A part of what Batman is fighting against is the corruption of the city’s government. While those events may have influenced the film, it should be noted that the source material also provided suitable influence. In Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s Batman: Year One (1987), Batman fights against the corruption that infects Gotham City. In Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986), Batman drives a tank-like vehicle and references are made to Ronald Reagan and American military action. In Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again (2002), the government controls the country through fear and the tactical use of the media, with the evil villain Lex Luthor behind it all.

The style of Nolan’s film is drastically different from that of Lau’s. While Lau’s kung fu classic is shot on a shoestring budget with relatively limited movement, Nolan’s big budget Hollywood production features much more movement and aerial shots of the grimy metropolis that is Gotham City. While Lau’s film is sparsely cut so as to show of the martial arts skills of the performers and Lau himself (as well as save time in post-production), Nolan uses much tighter editing in the fight scenes. This style of fight scene is supposed to have a jarring, confusing effect because Batman fights his enemies quickly and with deceptive tactics. While Lau’s color palette is broad, but typical, Batman Begins seems to be dominated by black and orange. Lau’s film is predominantly devoted to the training of San Te in the Shaolin Temple, but Nolan devotes less than a quarter of his film to Wayne’s training in the ninja camp and does not feature nearly as many training methods or apparatus. Also, while Lau tells a fairly straight-forward story, Nolan attempts to explore the psyche of his film’s protagonist by delving into his childhood and searching for what makes a man devote himself to an ideal (and what could possibly drive one to dress up like a bat).

While the films are very different stylistically, they share a great commonality in that they are stories about angry young men who work hard towards the goal of fighting some sort of injustice. San Te wishes to fight an oppressive government and avenge the death of his friends and family. Bruce Wayne at first wants revenge, but when he is robbed of the opportunity, he travels the world in anonymity, not knowing what he wants; he eventually makes it his mission to fight the evils that plague his city. San Te spends years training in the martial arts at a Buddhist monastery, eventually using his skills to take revenge. Bruce Wayne trains in martial arts and tactics with a secret ninja society, returns to Gotham to take down organized crime, and eventually saves his city from imminent destruction by defeating the organization that trained him. At the end of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, San Te begins to teach kung fu to lay people so that they might rise up against the oppressive government and defend themselves against tyranny. By the end of Batman Begins, Wayne’s alter-ego has become a symbol for justice and he hopes to inspire Gotham citizens to stand up for themselves and eradicate corruption as he wages war on the criminal underbelly. Their journeys are certainly similar, though their intentions and the details differ.
The differences between the two films could be attributed to a number of different factors. One cause for the differences may be the time periods in which the films were made. Technological developments, as well as an increase in the “sophistication” of filmmakers (over time, people have had more access to a greater variety of films, so it stands to reason that filmmakers have a greater potential to make good films since they have an increasing number of films and filmmakers to learn from) could explain the differences between a film from 1978 and another from 2005. Another cause could be related to the cultural differences. While Hong Kong culture has partially been influenced by British culture and both Lau and Nolan would be used to crowded, polluted cities, the vast differences between Chinese and European-American sensibilities should be taken into account. The educations of the filmmakers should also be considered. Nolan is a college graduate, while Lau’s major skill is the kung fu knowledge passed to him from his father. Perhaps most important to consider is the simple fact that the filmmakers are different people. Different people naturally have different tastes, and when you add different time periods and different cultures, two films with similar story elements and themes are still bound to have many differences.

[i] Commentary/special features on DVD. Lau, Kar Leung. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Hong Kong: Shaw Brothers (Dragon Dynasty, DVD), 1978 (2007, DVD).
[ii] Commentary/special features on DVD.
[iii] Thomas, Bruce. Bruce Lee: Fighting Spirit. Berkeley, California: Frog, Ltd., 1994.
[iv] "Christopher Nolan". Wikipedia. April 20, 2009 .


Monday, April 19, 2010


Here is an essay I recently wrote for a World Cinema Traditions class. It is entitled "Nihilism, Chaos, Warfare, Samurai, and Disobedient Sons: The Joys of Akira Kurosawa’s Ran".
Ran is written and directed by Akira Kurosawa. What can be written about Kurosawa that hasn’t been written a million times before? Genius. Visionary. Apologetic for his samurai heritage. Like many artists, he suffered from depression, particularly later in his life. This film was made in a time when Kurosawa had great difficulty securing funding and had to seek foreign investors. 1985’s Ran is worth noting not simply for its artistic merit, but for its connection to Kurosawa’s past and future.

Like most of Kurosawa’s most famous work, Ran is set in feudal Japan, the time when the warrior class known as samurai ruled. The Edo period, when samurai had been fully established as the ruling class, is one of the most well-known and important times in Japanese history. The era’s importance is evidenced by its continued representation in Japanese narrative fiction. Kurosawa’s films are evidence not only of the era’s importance to Japanese history in general, but also of the importance to Kurosawa’s personal history. Akira Kurosawa was descended from samurai. While many would think of samurai ancestry as a point of pride, Kurosawa was well aware of the harsh realities of life for the common people under samurai rule. He was apologetic about his family’s status as members of the class that personified inequality in Japan. While samurai were supposed to embody and exemplify honor, justice, discipline, loyalty, and service, in reality many were just as crude and cruel as any other warriors in human history.
The film Ran, however, is not a commentary on negative aspects of samurai per se. Instead, its primary focus in regards to samurai is that of loyalty. Hidetora, the head of the Ichimonji clan, is betrayed by two of his three sons. The only supportive son is the one Hidetora banished because of his early disapproval of Hidetora’s decision to abdicate responsibility. The disloyalty and conspiracy presented in Ran, as well as the story’s status as a tragedy, bear a striking resemblance to William Shakespeare’s King Lear. While Kurosawa did admit to seeing some inspiration in the play, his film is much more relevant to samurai history. While Lear makes mistakes, Hidetora has a distinctive past as a cruel warlord. The wife of one of his sons is in fact from a family that he had slaughtered in a power struggle.

Kurosawa’s films are rarely about one simple thing, however. Ran is more than a typical samurai film, and much more than a loose adaptation of a Shakespeare play. Aside from conspiracy and disloyalty, themes of the film include chaos, nihilism, and warfare. The very title can be translated in English as “chaos”. This is distinctly exemplified by the eruption of violence following Hidetora’s abdication. The protagonist spent most of his life waging war and slaughtering others, and in his twilight years he desires instead a more peaceful life. Shortly before handing de facto leadership to his oldest son, Hidetora holds a conference with neighboring daimyo (“warlord”, a feudal ruler of a Japanese fief) and uses diplomacy to end conflict and prevent further bloodshed. However, the peace is ephemeral, as the wife of his oldest son fuels the ambitions of her husband and his younger son, pushing them to wage war on their father. Hidetora descends into madness as the result of his Critic Michael Sragow refers to this as Kurosawa’s “trickle-down theory of anarchy”: "Kurosawa's monarch, like the Bard's, overburdens the bonds of family when he places his security on the shoulders of unsuitable and unready offspring. Hidetora's wishful thinking blinds him to the honesty of his third and youngest son, whom he banishes for bad-mouthing his scheme.
For Kurosawa, more than for Shakespeare, the monarch's real erosion of authority has its roots in the way he acquired power in the first place: through systematic pillage and slaughter."

The chaos that Kurosawa demonstrates is perhaps simply a product of a depressing period in his life, and could very well be considered subsidiary to the theme of nihilism. There is nothing resembling happiness in the end. The characters are dead. Violence trumped diplomacy. Even the saintly Lady Sue, devout Buddhist wife to Hidetora’s second son, ends up beheaded. According to Sragow, Kurosawa said in 1986,
"What I was trying to get at in 'Ran,'and this was there from the script stage, was that the gods or God or whoever it is observing human events is feeling sadness about how human beings destroy each other, and powerlessness to affect human beings' behavior.”

If there are gods watching these characters and events, they either will not or cannot change them. The three possibilities this presents are all depressing in their own ways. The first possibility is that the gods will not intervene and cease the destruction; this can be depressing because it implies that the gods do not even care. The second possibility is that the gods are unable to intervene; this can be depressing because if the gods are powerless then one must wonder what humans could possibly do. The third, and perhaps most depressing, possibility is that the gods don’t exist and that humans are alone and solely responsible for their actions against one another.

This element of nihilism could simply reflect a general world-weariness of Kurosawa’s, or perhaps more specifically his views on his own old age. In his seventies, he could have been described as old-fashioned by audiences and critics looking for more exciting fare and shots that did not linger languorously over fields of dewy grass and immobile bodies. Roger Ebert touches upon this very idea:
"Akira Kurosawa’s Ran is inspired by King Lear but may be as much about Kurosawa's life as Shakespeare's play... Kurosawa has not told the story of a great man whose sin of pride drives him mad, but the story of a man who has waged war all his life, hopes to impose peace in his old age and unleashes even greater turmoil. There are parallels not only with kings but also with filmmakers, who like royalty must enforce their vision in a world seething with jealousy, finance, intrigue, vanity and greed. …
He was preoccupied with mortality in his later years. His eyesight was failing, he attempted suicide…
Ran is set in medieval times, but it is a 20th century film, in which an old man can arrive at the end of his life having won all his battles, and foolishly think he still has the power to settle things for a new generation. But life hurries ahead without any respect for historical continuity; his children have their own lusts and furies. His will is irrelevant, and they will divide his spoils like dogs tearing at a carcass."

Perhaps the nihilism in Ran is a filmic expression of Kurosawa’s depression and Hidetora is as much Kurosawa as he is Lear. While the inter-connected themes of chaos and nihilism are important and universally understood, the third inter-connected theme of warfare is certainly more tangible and could be considered more relevant to the Japanese. Kurosawa was in his thirties when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were devastated by atomic bombs. He lived for decades afterwards, able to witness and experience the long-term psychological and sociological effects that the loss of the war and ensuing globalization/Americanization had on Japan as a whole. According to critic Michael Wilmington,
"The secret subject of Ran—as Kurosawa explained to me in a 1985 interview—is the threat of nuclear apocalypse. The film is saturated with the anxiety of the post-Hiroshima age."

The film is actually set during a turning point in Japan’s history, when fairly effective rifles were introduced and their use established in feudal warfare. A matchlock model plays an important part in the destruction in Ran. The people of Japanese know all too well the effects of the newest, deadliest weapon available at the time. Even the fire that besets Hidetora’s retirement castle can be interpreted as a comment on something that can so easily wipe out everything it touches. (However, it should be noted that because Japanese homes have primarily been made of wood and crowded together, fire has been a problem throughout Japan’s history.) After all, the film was made toward the end of the Cold War, and Japan had fought with both the US and Russia before. The only country to have suffered a nuclear attack, the Japanese people were perhaps more susceptible to fear of nuclear warfare than any other nation.

Like most of Kurosawa’s films, Ran is a complex work of art produced by a complex man. The film is about no single thing. No single aspect of humanity is the primary focus. Akira Kurosawa was a master filmmaker, suicidal painter, and an elderly man who had great difficulty getting work and whose wife died during the production of this film. It should come as no surprise that this film portrays some of the worst aspects of humanity. When disloyalty causes a descent into madness and terribly destructive war, the world can seem as nothing but nihilistic and chaotic.

[i] Sragow, Michael. "Lear meets the energy vampire". salon.com. March 1, 2010 .
[ii] Sragow
[iii] Ebert, Roger. "Ran (1985)". rogerebert.suntimes.com. March 1, 2010 .
[iv] Wilmington, Michael. "Ran: Apocalypse Song". criterion.com. March 1, 2010 .

I highly recommend this film. Also, I totally cop to getting plenty of info from Wikipedia.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Last week I was fortunate enough to attend a screening and see "Kick-Ass" early.
I have only read the hardcover collection once, but I would qualify myself as something of a fan of the comic book.

I can say with confidence that the film does a great job. In some ways, it could be considered a bit better than the comic. This is because the director, Matthew Vaugn, does not simply use one method/style of directing. He tries different things for the action scenes throughout the course of the film, and the use of music is always a great bonus that doesn't come along with the comic.

While it isn't a perfect film, it's a damn near perfect movie. It's a lot of fucking fun.

Chloe Grace Moretz definitely steals the show as Hit-Girl. Nic Cage also does a great job as Big Daddy (in fact, his take on a Batman-esque character is his coolest action role since "Con Air"). Aaron Johnson at first seems like a strange choice for Kick-Ass, as the character is a skinny wimp in the comic, while Johnson kinda has a build. Nevertheless, the actor delivers. Mark Strong is pretty good as mob boss Frank D'Amico. Christopher Mintz-Plasse (commonly known as "McLovin") is typical as Red Mist (I'm just not a fan of the guy, he's always the same; also, he has a very distinct voice, so there's no way he could have a secret identity).

Some people might complain that plenty of the details are changed from the comic, but I think it all works out to be an exciting, fun, great movie. Comic fans should love it for all of the references made to comic books and the depiction of the world of fandom.

The jokes are good, the music's good, the violence is good. Just about everything in this flick is good. When it hits theaters, everyone should definitely go see it.

(On a personal note, the only thing that's ever really bugged me about the comic [and now the movie] is the idea of anyone going out to fight crime with NO martial arts training. I don't think even the lowliest of idiots would actually think to survive crimefighting without so much as a single boxing lesson.)

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Batman -- Martial Artist - 06.04 - Tien-Hsueh

Tien-Hsueh is the Chinese martial art that focuses on attacking vital points.

This art can be as simple as striking the obviously vulnerable parts of the body (i.e., groin, throat, kidneys, etc.), but ultimately it entails the ancient and difficult-to-master art of acupressure. Just as in acupuncture, this art relies on certain lines of energy ("meridians") that are alleged to connect a certain point on the body's surface to an internal, vital organ.

The training essentially takes the form of years of training for accuracy of strikes (most often with the index and middle fingers), and intensive study of anatomy as presented in traditional Chinese medicine. Basically, learning where the vital points are, and training to be able to strike them while fighting.
Traditionally, one must learn how to heal in concurrence with learning how to do damage using acupressure.

While one may not put a lot of stock in ancient ideas like meridians and chi, over thousands of years there has been a vast accumulation of anecdotal/empirical evidence for the efficacy of this art. There are modern scientific explanations for these things (i.e., nerves, impulses, etc.), but this is a traditional art/science.

Now, would Batman bother with Tien-Hsueh? Most likely. He would find it beneficial to know at least the basics of a system that has lasted for millennia. Also, if he can take out a perp without needing to exert himself to much, all the better. It would also make sense for Batman to know this art so as to be able to defend himself from its practitioners.
The best way I can answer this question is actually to point out that Batman has learned something similar. In the episode "Day of the Samurai" (BTAS: Season 3), Bruce Wayne travels to Japan at the behest of his old sensei in order to defeat his old rival. The ninja rival has sought out an ancient pressure-point technique that can kill a man with a single, well-placed strike. Batman deduces this very pressure-point in his investigation, and is able to protect himself. Since he knows where this point is, he could therefore use this technique (not that he ever would).

Chinese Boxing: Masters and Methods

This book, by Robert W. Smith, published by Kodansha in 1974, is a short tome detailing some of the experiences of the author in Taiwan in the 1950s.
Smith writes about several different kung fu instructors he meets and learns from, as well as the methods taught.

The chapters are as follows:
1. The Not-So-Little Elephant
2. The Monkey Boxer
3. The Guerrilla General
4. Master of the Five Excellences
5. Master of Relaxation
6. A Policeman's Pa-kua
7. Bone-Locker Extraordinary
8. The Wrestling Champion
9. Other Teachers
10. Teachers in Southern Taiwan
Appendix A: Chou Chi-chun's Views on the Origins of Tai-chi
Appendix B: Sun Lu-tang's Principles of Tai-chi Chuan
Appendix C: Chi-Kung, Exercise of Internal Energy
Appendix D: Tai-chi in the People's Republic of China
Appendix E: Wu-Shu Forms in Taiwan

The book primarily focuses on the author's three or so main instructors over the course of about three years in Taiwan. The styles covered most are Tai Chi and Pa-kua. These both rely heavily on internal concepts.
Oddly, the author warns the reader against charlatans who make outlandish claims about their chi power and abilities, yet he consistently exalts his own teachers and their (only seemingly outlandish) abilities.

He also offers some descriptions of Chi-Kung (a purely internal discipline), Shuai Chiao (Chinese wrestling), and Chin-na (joint locking). However, these chapters are lacking.

Overall, the book is lacking of substance. It is primarily a listing of masters to be found in Taiwan at the time, with little-to-no worthy elaboration or description of techniques.
This book is ONLY for the traditionalist interested in master's names and lineages.