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The Return of Martial Arts Films to Mainland China in the 1980s and 1990s

Martial arts films embodying anti-imperialist nationalism continued to play a role in Chinese cinema in the 1980s (Wang 2008, p. 52), despite having become less popular in Hong Kong. The descent of martial arts films of this kind coincided with a decline in popular nationalism in Hong Kong. One of the possible explanations for this decline is that Hong Kong was approaching the handover from the British government to mainland China in 1997. There were concerns and anxiety regarding the uncertain political future of Hong Kong, such as the application of the Basic Law,[1] which is based on the principle of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ and guaranteed that Hong Kong’s previous capitalist system and lifestyle would remain unchanged for 50 years.

This low level of public confidence in Hong Kong’s future could be witnessed in the upsurge in the number of emigrants leaving the territory to go to Anglophone countries such as Australia, Canada and the United States (Zhang 2004, p. 253; Skeldon 1990). In fact, Hong Kong was the primary source of Chinese emigrants to Canada between the 1940s and the 1990s (Li

2005, p. 13). Between 1968 and 1994, 68% of the 500,000 immigrants into Canada came from Hong Kong (Li 2005, p. 12). The annual number of emigrants leaving Hong Kong had also been steadily increasing during 1986— 87 (Li 2005, p. 14; Wong 1992, p. 918; Skeldon 1990, p. 503). The annual outward flow of people reached a peak of 62,000 in 1990 (Wong 1992, p. 918). Of these, 30,000 went to Canada and the number choosing this destination continued to increase in the following three years (Li 2005, p. 14). The large immigrants to Anglophone countries further extend the Chinese diaspora worldwide, which provides the foundation for the success of martial arts films in the new millennium in a global scale. The immigration wave also explained that there occurred a concomitant equivocation in nationalist sentiment among Hong Kong citizens. This in turn led to an absence or reduction of nationalistic themes in martial arts films produced in Hong Kong at that time.

However, Chinese National Cinema finally re-emerged in mainland China in the 1980s thanks to the newly instigated economic reforms and open-door policy. It was also an age of liberation - the liberation of people’s mind and lives, which contributed to the vitality of film industry. Between 1980 and 1984, 120 films were produced in mainland China, of which Mysterious Buddha (Zhang Huaxun 1980) was one of the earliest. This film marked the re-surfacing of martial arts films in mainland China after being absent for more than 30 years (Gong 2009). In other words, rather than saying that martial arts films were in decline in Hong Kong, it could be said that the industry had actually moved back to where it started - mainland China. Mysterious Buddha was set in the Republic of China era (1912-1945), opening with a Japanese conspiracy to steal a national treasure from the Forbidden City and bury it under the Buddha. As a detective story with martial arts elements, a strong sense of national sovereignty and dignity is embedded in the film. After the resounding success of Mysterious Buddha, a number of martial arts films were produced in the years that followed. Interestingly, these films were still set in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries, telling stories of defeating foreign invasions. Therefore, nationalism was a common theme in these martial arts films.

Moving into the 1990s, ‘made-in-Hong Kong’ martial arts films seemed to find their way back to prominence, regaining popularity with Chinese audiences. Like those produced in the 1960s, some of the martial arts films made in Hong Kong in the 1990s continued to feature plots based on historical events in modern Chinese history. The stories of key martial arts masters, like Wong Fei-hung and Fong Sai-yuk, were passed on to the next generation in the form of filmic discourse. In other words, anti-imperialist sentiment has been a recurring theme in martial arts films. However, the theme of Chinese- Western confrontation also began taking on a new form in Chinese martial arts pictures. Instead of being set against a historical background, some films were produced in contemporary Western countries. For example, Jet Li’s The Master (Hark Tsui 1992), set in San Francisco, and Jackie Chan’s Rumble in the Bronx (Stanley Tong 1995) in New York. Both films told the stories of Chinese martial arts experts who travelled from Hong Kong to the US and helped the local Chinese regain confidence by defeating the Western gangsters who had been threatening them. This kind of martial arts film marked a change in Chinese cinema by adapting traditional martial arts to a contemporary context. The Western settings of the films attracted the Chinese diaspora worldwide. The nationalism represented in these martial arts films was no longer merely based on anti-imperialism, anti-feudalism or patriotism. Instead, they started to explore the nature of being Chinese from a new perspective. The theme of the retention of Chineseness can actually be seen to form the essence of constructing the Chinese National Cinema nowadays, which will be discussed below.

  • [1] The full name of the law is ‘The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region’.It consists of the basic policies of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) regarding HongKong that were agreed between the Chinese and British governments on 19 December1984, when the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed.
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