More than just chop socky

I’ll start off by saying that I’m a huge martial arts nerd, so don’t let it surprise you that the North American release of Fearless, Jet Li’s last martial arts epic, brought a nostalgic tear to my eye—I’ll admit, I’m choking up even as I write this. I grew up with Jet Li and Jackie Chan movies, but I never truly started appreciating them until a couple of years ago.

There are regular nerds and buffs, and then there are martial arts nerds and buffs. People like me don’t just watch obscure movies; we study fight choreography in those movies the same way tennis fans study Roger Federer’s game (or Andy Roddick’s, but we won’t get into that). Most people will be satisfied with watching a fight scene and going “Wow, that was cool,” but I will take the same scene, watch it once, then go back and watch it on repeat half a dozen times more.

You might be asking yourself why I’d be so obsessed over something clearly intended to be a spontaneous, vicarious rush for the moviegoer. I would reply with a swift slap to your head, much like how Bruce Lee admonishes his student at the beginning of Enter the Dragon, proclaiming: “Don’t concentrate on the finger, or you will miss all that heavenly glory.” In that scene, Bruce was pointing towards the sky, while the young boy was stupidly gazing at Bruce’s finger.

As fellow English majors can attest, stare at something long enough, and you’ll notice things that weren’t there before—real or imagined. To my eyes, every movement, every shot in a fight scene is a splash of visual poetry. Whether it’s Jackie Chan’s comedic acrobatics or Donnie Yen’s confident, exaggerated strikes, martial arts actors pour their energy and emotion into their movements and express themselves through the interplay between each other. Like dancers and singers, watch a martial artist long enough and you’ll get a glimpse at their actual selves, just from the way they move. That, in fact, was what Bruce Lee touted decades ago: his self-made style, Jeet Kune Do, held self-expression as its utmost ideal.

I am not raising the proverbial glass only to Jet Li’s Fearless, but to him and the generation of Asian martial arts actors he represents. Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung— all of these greats, whether you know them or not, are getting old, and they’re starting to bow out of the industry. I’m slightly uncertain of the future of martial arts films: Who will carry the torch into the next generation? No doubt some of you have heard of Tony Jaa and his Elbows of Doom, but are splits, spinning jumps and other “extreme tricks” the future tradition of these physical poets?

Perhaps I’m thinking too much about this. After all, they’re just martial arts films, right? You know, the chop socky flicks with no plot, cheesy dubbed dialogue and painfully artificial sound effects? You can argue with me on this, but martial arts films today are polished works of art—especially, Fearless, Jet Li’s swan song.

Anyone have a tissue? I think I’ve got something in my eye.

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