A masked man in black bursts out of the water, brandishing a sword. An emerald bamboo forest sways as a warrior in white soars through the air.
These images were broadcast before the kick-off of every World Cup game on China's sports TV channel, promoting The Banquet (Ye Yan), the latest offering from Feng Xiaogang, one of the most popular directors on the Chinese mainland.
Despite a one-minute trailer packed with power kicks, Feng denied he has made a martial arts film. The Banquet, he says, is a serious historical tragedy with Zhang Ziyi playing the leading role as an oriental Hamlet.
Until The Banquet, Feng was better known for a series of well-received wry comedies about modern urban life that earned him massive domestic box office success.
The action trailer, it would seem, was therefore a conscious decision about packaging the product not just for the domestic audience, but also for an international audience. Of the Chinese films that earned more than US$200 million in the United States last year, 60 per cent were martial-arts flicks, notably The Promise (Wu Ji) by Chen Kaige and Seven Swords (Qi Jian) by Hong Kong director Tsui Hark, according to the Film Bureau of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television.
The revival of martial arts films in recent years is the result of increasing commercialism in the Chinese film industry, says Jia Leilei, director of the culture strategy research centre at the China Academy of Art. There were only a handful of martial arts films among the total 260 produced on the Chinese mainland last year. But all attracted big budgets, and involved grand spectacles and sizeable box office takings.
Directors Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, who made their names through internationally acclaimed works such as To Live (Huozhe) and Farewell My Concubine (Bawang Bieji), have attempted to change their style to meet market demand, says Gao Jun, general manager of the Beijing New Film Association Company.
Martial arts films are preferred by foreign distributors and therefore have more chance of being screened in mainstream cinemas abroad, he added.
"Big budgets, the hottest stars and luxurious production values conform to the tastes of global audiences," says Gao.
For the moment, the special effects have replaced the actual fighting, says Jia. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, he says, is famed as a "dance drama without any actual dance," because of its arty fighting style.
Ang Lee agrees his martial arts action film involved more dance than actual martial arts. The ritual comes from Peking Opera, he says. Hong Kong action choreographers have rich experience in the choreographed violence of Peking Opera, Lee told the Guangzhou-based newspaper Southern Weekend in June.
"Such a style of martial arts, like body language, poses fewer cultural differences and earns greater acceptance from overseas audiences."
Nobody disputes the visual spectacle is important. But for Jia Leilei, the soul of martial arts films is its traditional Chinese moral philosophy. For instance, the father is nearly always placed in an authoritative position. Plotlines tend to focus on filial piety: a son taking revenge for his family. Battle strategy is rarely pre-emptive, but restrained until the last unbearable moment when violence becomes as inevitable as it is unavoidable.
"The plot should be the core," says Ding Jie, an office worker and movie buff. "Dazzling martial arts and grand scenes are pleasing to the eye, but if the story is not well-constructed or the characters unimpressive, I will forget the entire thing as soon as I walk out of the cinema."
Ding says she was a little disappointed by the trailer for The Banquet. "The costumes resemble those in The Promise and the action reminded me too much of Crouching Tiger. Is it original?"
The Banquet, which is to be screened in September, was choreographed by Yuan Heping, who earned fame for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix series. Although Feng is well-respected in China he has yet to conquer Hollywood; The Banquet might be his best shot.
Martial arts films embody Chinese culture and diffuse it to the world, says Jia. Take Shaolin kung fu as an example: Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the Shaolin Temple this March. And the abbot of Shaolin Temple, Shi Yongxin, was the only Chinese invited by FIFA President Joseph Blatter to watch the World Cup final in Germany.
"It's a sort of a dream of China, a China that probably never existed, except in my boyhood fantasies in Taiwan," says Ang Lee of his epic.
"His fantasies may have been triggered by the kung fu movies of his youth, but he has turned them into a world of dreams, richer and more satisfying," says Jia.
Following Lee, Zhang Yimou made Hero (Yingxiong) in 2002 and House of Flying Daggers (Shimian Maifu) in 2003. Chen Kaige in 2005 made The Promise. All enjoyed no small measure of box office success, but none earned the lasting critical acclaim of the groundbreaking Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
A milestone in kung fu film history, Lee added haunting beauty, poetic grace and astonishing power to the medium. His martial arts movie was not merely the product of Chinese popular culture, but a more thoughtful exploration of Chinese mythology and Taoist philosophy, ultimately embracing a gentle romantic humanism.
But despite all his innovation, Lee never let slip his grasp on the Chinese storytelling tradition of wuxia fiction. Wuxia is a chivalrous type of Chinese folk hero, a wandering warrior who lives apart from ordinary society and above the law, bringing justice according to his own moral code.
The tradition can be traced back directly to Bruce Lee, the legendary Hong Kong hero whose mixture of charisma and versatile kung fu wowed the world in the 1970s: Fists of Fury, Way of the Dragon and Enter the Dragon broke kung fu into Hollywood.
Since Bruce Lee, kung fu has invaded mainstream Hollywood, most noticeably through Jackie Chan in Rush Hour, Michelle Yeoh in Tomorrow Never Dies, Jet Li in The One, and even Lucy Liu in Charlie's Angels.
And so it is fashionable for purists to complain that "genuine" kung fu fighting of the kind pioneered by Bruce Lee in the 1970s and Jet Li in the 1980s has been replaced by trickery special effects, stunts and lavish production.
"This is the spirit of advancing with time," says Gao Jun. "On the one hand, technology facilitates production. On the other, most audiences are no longer interested in real fighting with fists and swords."
(China Daily July 31, 2006)