When you think about a movie montage showing growth and achievement, what comes to mind? Kilgore Trout at his typewriter, throwing away rough drafts and making edits in red pen? Llewyn Davis sanding the edges off his first hit single as a solo act?
The two archetypal montages that probably come to mind are the training montages from either Rocky or The Karate Kid.
But why are these our go-to depictions of training and self improvement? Because martial arts are so popular? Because everyone’s gone through the experience of training to be a martial artist? Or because the martial artist is (at least in film) an effective vehicle for depicting the experience of all artists?
Art in Action
As a primarily visual medium, film needs to portray visible action. That’s one of the reasons that the inner-monologue quality of comic books translates to film so poorly.
As compelling as art is, the process behind making it can be quite…dull.
The film editor processing cuts and shots over and over to capture the best vision of the story doesn’t make for an exciting film. Watching the writer go back through her work to remove adverbs? Unlikely to be a box office sensation.
But Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburn in the dojo, running simulations to train for the fight against the machines? This has become one of the most recognizable moments in a revolutionary film depicting the rise of an artist.
Neo’s a hacker not an artist, you say? What’s a hacker other than an artist whose medium is technology? It’s this artistic ability to adapt and create that separates him from the people stuck in the matrix itself and from the machines who seek to impose their sterile brand of order on the human species.
Artist Tropes and the Martial Artist
The martial artist is distinct from the fighter. Where the fighter may seek to prove his worth or combat injustice, the martial artist seeks a perfection of self through craft. If you apply Shalom Schwartz’s universal values, the martial artist values self-direction, where the fighter often exemplifies achievement or power (especially true of a villain) or stimulation.
Let’s start with a common trope of the fanboy or wannabe. This is Po in Kung Fu Panda or Jason in The Forbidden Kingdom. Both start off as enthusiasts of martial arts and end their tales having transformed into a martial artist through their work and determination. And this is true for the development of so many artists. You see an exhibit for Ansel Adams at the museum and want to pursue an interest in photography, only to realize how much more involved the process is than pointing and shooting.
Through the action of martial arts, these movies make visible the level of dedication necessary to excel at any creative passion.
What about once the artist has become a devoted student of their craft?
Chen Zhen portrays this version of the artist in Fist of Legend. Not only is he literally a Chinese student studying abroad in Japan, he also excels as a martial artist by studying and adapting the moves of his opponents. It is the expression of artistic creativity that allows him to excel at the craft.
But art doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it exists in the real world. Often it addresses real world crises or injustices. How often does the artist also play the role of disrupter or political dissident?
Ultimately, this becomes Chen’s role. So, too, is it the role that Wong reluctantly takes on in The Legend of Drunken Master. As outside influences seek to exploit Chinese artifacts and citizens, it is the martial artists who must stand up to confront the power structures. Though they are accompanied by friends who take on the roles of fighters, it is the artists alone who can challenge the corrupt institutions.
Martial arts films also recognize that, despite an artist’s contributions, there is danger in revering them to the status of celebrity.
We see this in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon through the character of Li Mu Bai, in Fearless through Huo Yuanjia, and in the Matrix sequels through Neo. These show what happens when the artist stops being an artist. This aspect of artists is probably the one that most easily is expressed outside of the surrogacy of the martial artist — Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, Rick Dalton in Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, Mr. Brainwash in Exit Through the Gift Shop (I’m at least 22% sure he’s playing some kind of character), Randy Robinson in The Wrestler…the list goes on.
When the artist stops growing, stagnation sets in. A fixation of the past poisons any future work, preventing it from achieving that same kind of impact. It’s much of why we find the Matrix sequels so disappointing; Neo stops being hacker martial artist and becomes celebrity political hack trying to ride the coattails of his previous successes. The meaningful transformation takes place within the primary antagonist rather than Neo himself, who has become so powerful that the story has to warp itself into knots to keep him from just instantly resolving every problem.
The final artist trope that martial arts movies explore is the aging artist as mentor — Shifu in Kung Fu Panda, Li Mu Bai in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the silent monk and Lu Yan in The Forbidden Kingdom. Again, this taps into a clear, visual representation of a talented artist passing wisdom of craft on to the next generation and could stand in for any art form: sculpture, painting, cooking, music.
So the next time you hear someone giving a martial arts film a hard time for being mindless violence, tell them to consider the martial artist as representative of all artists seeking to improve their craft. These films just make that self-development easier to visualize.
Drop a comment sharing your favorite martial arts movies so we can all enjoy. What observations do you think it makes about art? If you’re an artist, are there any martial arts movies that influence your craft?