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Can Poetics Break Bricks?

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The Poetics of Chinese Cinema

Part of the book series: East Asian Popular Culture ((EAPC))


This chapter examines the use of digital technology on the genre of martial arts films and argues that this practice has implications for the notions of both spectacle and poetics. In particular, the use of bullet time engenders a new kind of spectacle that eschews epic scale, fancy camerawork, loud sonic effect and fast speed for a poetics of smallness, stillness, silence and slowness. Drawing on recent wuxia and kung fu films, the chapter revisits an earlier appropriation of the Chinese martial arts genre, the situationist film Can Dialectics Break Bricks? (René Viénet, 1973), to question the notion of labor. If conventional martial arts films had relied on actors' ability to physically break bricks to perform bodily spectacles, this chapter asks, in the post-Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon martial arts films in which virtual small objects in slow motion are created by digital technicians, can poetics break bricks?

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  1. 1.

    As Slavoj Žižek suggests (here paraphrased by Paul Bowman), the ‘strong appeal of martial arts films in ghettos across the world over was initially class-based’ because ‘[t]hose who have nothing […] have only their bodies, only their discipline, only their desire’ (Bowman 2013, p. 174).

  2. 2.

    It must be qualified that the boundary between arthouse and mainstream is not always clear-cut, and it can be argued that directors such as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige started as arthouse directors but have become more mainstream over the years, whereas an arthouse director in Hong Kong (like Wong Kar-wai) still faces commercial pressure to cast stars in the lead roles in a way that arthouse directors in Taiwan do not.

  3. 3.

    On the consumption and cultural prestige of slow cinema, see Lim (2014) and Schoonover (2012).

  4. 4.

    Today the fascination with Bruce Lee is as strong as ever: a five-year (from 2013 to 2018) exhibition on his life and art is currently running at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum; and books on him, academic (Bowman 2010, 2013) or otherwise, continue to be published. This fascination has been extended to his former master Ip Man, who has recently become the subject of no fewer than six films: Ip Man/Ye Wen (Wilson Yip 2008), Ip Man 2/Ye Wen 2 (Wilson Yip 2010), The Legend is Born: Ip Man/Ye Wen qianzhuan (Herman Yau 2010), Ip Man: The Final Fight/Ye Wen: Zhongji yizhan (Herman Yau 2013), The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-wai 2013), and Ip Man 3/Ye Wen 3 (Wilson Yip 2015).

  5. 5.

    My use of the term ‘decorative’ echoes Andrew Darley’s discussion of visual digital genres (such as spectacle cinema, music video, and computer games) that are deemed as ‘“lesser” forms of art or culture’ since they ‘tend greatly to play up form, style, surface, artifice, spectacle and sensation, and they dilute meaning and encourage intellectual quiescence’ (2000, p. 6).

  6. 6.

    I believe Vivian Lee is here referring to visual effects (created in postproduction) rather than special effects (generated in-camera).

  7. 7.

    I thank Jia Tan and Jessica Chan for bringing Whissel’s work to my attention.

  8. 8.

    I thank Rey Chow for reminding me of this.

  9. 9.

    In the DVD (Pathé P-SGB P916301001) commentary which features Zhang Yimou and Zhang Ziyi in conversation, the director disclosed that he engaged a dance choreographer six months in advance for the choreography of this sequence. However, he decided at the last minute before shooting to adopt an action rather than dance approach to the sequence, and recalled the martial arts choreographer Ching Siu-tung from his vacation in Hong Kong to shoot the sequence.

  10. 10.

    The coupling of action cinema and spectacle is evident in the book title, Action/Spectacle Cinema (Arroyo 2000), and the coupling of epic film and spectacle can be seen in the book title, Epics, Spectacles, and Blockbusters: A Hollywood History (Hall and Neale 2010).

  11. 11.

    Note that there are three versions of the film with varying lengths. The one released in East Asia and to which I refer runs for 130 minutes, whereas the US version is 108 minutes because, as Wong explained to an audience in Los Angeles, ‘[w]e have an obligation to give the picture [to The Weinstein Co. for U.S. release] within two hours, so we have to create a shorter version’ (Appelo 2014). The version submitted to the Berlin film festival in 2013 was 120 minutes long (see; date accessed 7 October 2015).

  12. 12.

    It is only in the scene introducing a third protagonist, The Razor (Yixiantian, played by Chang Chen), that the tiles and cement are smashed when The Razor flings an opponent onto the pillar at the end of a fight sequence set outdoors in the rain.

  13. 13.

    My argument here is inspired by Paul Bowman’s suggestion of the scene’s ‘tai chi aesthetic’ in his feedback to a draft of the chapter. A character watching the duel between Ip Man and Gong’s father also comments upon it using a tai chi analogy.

  14. 14.

    I highlight ‘relative’ here because Gong still needs to beat Ma to his feet in order to regain ownership of her father’s legacy.

  15. 15.

    In fact, physical force—its restraining control rather than brute execution—is a recurring theme in all Ip Man films. I thank Paul Bowman for highlighting this to me and for this reading of control and transference of force.

  16. 16.

    In this we return to Linda Williams’ notion of body genres, in which ecstasy is shown in pornography, horror, and melodrama by, respectively, ejaculation, blood, and tears (1991, p. 9).


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Lim, S.H. (2016). Can Poetics Break Bricks?. In: Bettinson, G., Udden, J. (eds) The Poetics of Chinese Cinema. East Asian Popular Culture. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

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