Rethinking the Visceral Aesthetic of Martial Arts Films in the Age of Immediacy
Man-Fung Yip, University of Oklahoma
In my article on the visceral experience of late 1960s and 1970s Hong Kong martial arts films for Cinema Journal (Summer 2014, 54.4), I argue that rapid industrialization and modernization in postwar Hong Kong brought with it a new intensified sensory environment and created a different matrix of perceptual and affective conditions. It is these transformations in social, economic, and experiential realms that helped propel a paradigmatic shift in the martial arts film genre, which increasingly embraced a trend of what I call “sensory realism”—i.e., a realism grounded not so much in visual resemblance between representation and reality as in the correspondences between a film’s perceptual-visceral sensations and the viewer’s real-life sense experiences.
Underlying my argument is the idea that human sense perception has a history and operates differently in different social contexts, and that changes in perceptual and experiential modes translate, in some ways, into new cultural and artistic trends. If this is the case, how, one might ask, have the sensory milieu and experience of Hong Kong society altered since the 1960s and 1970s, and in what ways have these changes reshaped the visceral aesthetic of contemporary martial arts (and action) films?
There is no question that Hong Kong has intensified its march toward urban and capitalist modernity since the 1980s and particularly the 1990s. But instead of simply saying that this process led to a concomitant escalation of sensory stimulations in the city’s mundane social existence and, by extension, its cultural products, I believe that the changes at stake are as much qualitative as quantitative. As Hong Kong remade itself from an industrial to a post-industrial society during the 1980s and 1990s, the sensory-perceptual dynamics of its everyday life also underwent a profound transformation, shifting from a “solid” and “embodied” experiential order (associated with manual labor, mechanical speed, etc.) to one characterized by lightness, fluidity, and disembodiment (as manifested in electronic speed, affective labor, and other emergent social/cultural phenomena). Such a change, I hasten to add, is not unique to Hong Kong but can be found in most developed societies. According to John Tomlinson, who focuses specifically on the transformations of speed culture in today’s globalized and telemediated societies, this new social order entails a new kind of vibrant, immediate experience that is nevertheless “light” and apparently devoid of (concerted) effort. He refers to this emergent social condition as the condition of “immediacy.”
A similar lightness and conjuring away of effort can also be observed in many contemporary martial arts and action films from Hong Kong, especially those that rely heavily on high-tech special effects. Films like The Storm Riders (Andrew Lau, 1998), The Legend of Zu (Tsui Hark, 2000), and Storm Warriors (Oxide and Danny Pang, 2009) have ratcheted up the speed and intensity of on-screen action through their use of digital technologies, but there is again a qualitative, not merely quantitative, difference between the experiential impact of these films and that of their predecessors in the late 1960s and 1970s. While the earlier martial arts films tend to accentuate the solid materiality and intense labor of the action body, contemporary effects-laden martial arts films are fast, flashy, and noisy without, however, a clear sense of concrete bodily effort. In other words, no longer conceived and depicted as a vehicle in which concrete labor is concentrated, the body of the action hero or heroine is increasingly eclipsed by the lightness and effortlessness of digital sensations. This does not mean that contemporary martial arts and action films are less “sense-ational” or intense, but rather that the films, like the larger condition of immediacy from which they emerge, give form to a new mode of sensory-perceptual experience, one that is light yet powerful, ubiquitous yet diffuse, and fundamentally banal (because of its effortless delivery).
Of course, the above sketch is by no means the whole story. For one thing, with the success of New Police Story (Benny Chan, 2004), S.P.L. (Wilson Yip, 2005), Flash Point (Wilson Yip, 2007), Invisible Target (Benny Chan, 2007), and the Ip Man series (Wilson Yip, 2008, 2010), one may talk about the “return of the body,” and the resurgence of a more “solid” and “concrete” viewing experience, in recent Hong Kong martial arts and action films. Does this trend signal yet another shift in the sensory-perceptual dynamics of Hong Kong society? Probably not. Rather, it seems to me more an effort to rethink the past, to reaffirm the centrality of effort and labor at a time when Hong Kong was trying to rebound from a series of demoralizing crises (the 1997 Asian financial collapse and its aftermaths, the dotcom meltdown of 2000, the outbreak of the SARS epidemic in 2003, etc.). In this sense, the experiential qualities of the films do not necessarily pertain to the prevailing mode of perception in contemporary Hong Kong, but rather reflect the changing cultural values associated with different experiential realms and the ideologies they embody.
 John Tomlinson, The Culture of Speed: The Coming of Immediacy (London: SAGE Publications, 2007).