This is the first time I’ve been able to sit down and write without interruption for a week – whew! My son has been back from visiting his dad’s family, and we’ve been having a great time watching Jackie Chan movies together. This week, we’ve enjoyed Snake in Eagle’s Shadow (1978), Fearless Hyena (1979), The Young Master (1980), Wheels on Meals (1984), Project A 2 (1987), The Tuxedo (2002), The Karate Kid (2010). Previously, we’d seen Drunken Master (1978), Project A (1983), and Legend of the Drunken Master (1994).
While I wouldn’t say that the Jackie Chan movies I’ve seen thus far do much to showcase women as characters or martial artists, I do find the lack of typical Western romantic narratives to be extremely refreshing. Well, uh, there was the embarrassment of The Tuxedo (2002), which, as one critic put it, starred “Jackie Chan and Jennifer Love Hewitt’s cleavage (source) “. It was really terrible, for the most part. My son enjoyed it, but then he’s 10, and the conceit of a suit that can give you amazing physical powers is pretty cool. But man, all the “leering camerawork” (as Grady Hendrix, again, brilliantly put it) makes it seem like a 15 year old boy made the movie. I plan to make it an example for my son in discussing how not to make a movie, and what the worst sort of examples of “male gaze” look like, but I didn’t have the time to get into it this time around.
But leaving The Tuxedo aside, I love the lack of love interests in most of the movies, especially the early ones. For example, in The Young Master, Jackie gets into a fight with the daughter of the police chief who is arresting him (who happens to be the only female character in the movie). She’s able to handily beat him by cleverly and effectively using her environment against him, which in this case, includes her long skirts to confuse him and obscure her attacks. The central motivation for Jackie’s character in Fearless Hyena (1979) was revenge for his grandfather’s death, and there are no female characters in this one at all. In Drunken Master (1978), he makes a bet that he could get a beautiful young lady to embrace him, which he succeeds in doing by tricking her. Her mother notices this, and beats him up with her superior and utterly graceful kung-fu. The central theme revolves around Jackie’s character’s (Wong Fei-Hung) personal growth in responsibility, discipline, and kung-fu. Which, in a twist, involves getting drunk to fight, but hey, it adds another layer of levity to the plot. In Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1978), there are also no female characters of note, and the central themes are again personal growth in kung-fu, as well as fighting against enemies whose only wish is to destroy you and the knowledge and skills you possess.
So, at least in the films I detailed above, there are no damsels in distress, no girlfriends getting kidnapped, no princesses to kiss and wake up and marry. For me, this means that I’m free to identify with the main protagonists, Jackie Chan’s characters, without feeling split and pulled into also identifying with characters of my own gender. Women are not prizes to be won here. Also, they can be admired as clever and skilled fighters in their own right. Even though I understand that part of the comedy shtick here is the “Look at him, he’s getting beaten by a girl!” factor, it’s a pretty minor factor, as he goes on to demonstrate that he’s not a bad fighter at all when he’s able to best, for example, a man with a sword in the next scene (Drunken Master).
I’m looking forward to exploring more kung-fu movies, especially those with Sammo Hung (with whom Jackie went to Peking Opera School, and who is a masterful choreographer as well as martial artist). Apparently, they’ve released the Shaw Brothers archives to iTunes and made some wonderful new trailers for the movies on YouTube. My son and I watched a couple together, and he’s really excited to see the full movies.
Because adventures don’t require romance, and relationships like friendship and family and brotherhood and student-teacher, matter.