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My Unladylike Obsession With Martial Arts Films

When other teenaged girls were drooling over sappy love-is-forever films and reading Mills and Boon, I was reading up on wushu, the Chinese martial art.

I don`t know if I can call myself a man`s woman, but I can safely say I’m ladylike, for the most part. I mean, I’m quite typically feminine in my appearance; I love fripperies and fuchsia lipstick; I can giggle with the best of my sisters, pout for selfies and attempt to match my yoga mat to my favourite gym bag. But I have a secret pleasure. No, let’s cut the pfaff and call a spade a bloody shovel — it’s an addiction. Put me down in front of a screen, play me a certain kind of movie, give me a can of Coke and some popcorn and watch me slowly, pleasurably sink into the addiction, like Charlie in that Chocolate Factory. Or, more appropriately, like the late great Bruce Lee, when confronted by belligerent young louts. There, that’s a small reveal for you. My kind of movie is the martial arts kind. It can be grainy (some of the old classics have not been released in remastered prints yet), it can contain the corniest of plots (almost all of them do), it can star the most wooden actors ever, but it will fill my (feminine) heart with unholy joy.

I will watch enthralled and after a while, I may even unconsciously start to emulate some of the hand movements. I will chuckle when the goof blunders into sticky situations, I will sniff a little when the hero`s sidekick dies a noble death, and I will nod solemnly when the Chief Abbott of the monastery makes some profound observation — like “Pray when you must, take up the long pole when you must.”

I’ve been practicing Tai Chi for some years now, but the fascination for MA films preceded this by many years. The bug bit (hit?) early. When other teenaged girls were drooling over sappy love-is-forever films, I was deifying Bruce Lee. When they were reading Mills and Boon, I was reading up on wushu, the Chinese martial art. For ages, the Shaolin films were my go-to, the way others watched the Pink Panther series or binge-watched Pretty Woman/Ghost/Sleepless in Seattle. The highlight of a recent trip to China was watching a slickly choreographed martial arts ballet called the Legend of Kung Fu, at Beijing’s Red Theatre.

What I love about these films is that the fighting is pure poetry in motion — the gravity- defying body contortions, the feather-light way the proponents land on their feet, the grace which does not hide the lethality of their movements. Of course, this is balletic art that breaks a limb or two as it plays out. I love the little homilies that the movies contain, that the ego needs to be suppressed, that ‘The True Path’ lies in nature, or when the hero goes off into the muted sunset, looking to find an unsullied place to live a quiet life.

These films don’t have feet of clay — they are mired in a field of mud. Their plotlines are the opposite of convoluted, following arrow straight lines. There is no place for subtlety here; villains are steeped in villainy; no wimpish disclaimer of animals not being harmed during the making of this movie are shown; the humour is so basic, you have to be a fan to even smile, leave alone chuckle. But all the trite passages of being down on both love and luck, being poor but happy, eventually give way to endless moments of pure, clean martial arts. And if the fight is executed with some modicum of style, the film is one heck of a good one.

Somehow, Hollywood has not been able to pull off the basic essence of these films, for all its slick production values. The Matrix trilogy borrows deeply from MA films, yet only confounds the viewer with its mystical mumbo-jumbo. As for the Kung Fu Panda films, the first one was amusing, but the sequels are just tiresome.

The MA films have been valuable to me for another reason: the simple life lessons that I have picked up over the years of watching them. Listed below are some of the more priceless ones:

White Crane Spreads Its Wings. Or, she who cuts to the chase knows the real path. It`s all about calling a spade a bloody shovel. There`s a time and an age for obfuscation, and we no longer live in that age. So, make clear what you are saying, doing what you want. Whether you get it is altogether another matter but at the very least, there will be no confusion. And Confucius would be pleased.

Dragon Turns Its Head. Or, composure is the answer, whatever the question is. You don’t see the impassive, enigmatic hero lose his cool, ever. Only the vile villain spews invective, flails his arms like windmills, uses up energy… and gets thoroughly routed. You get my drift, don`t you? Embrace The Moon. The true-blue MA fan will utterly, completely and totally understand that there is a time and place to do what has to be done, and that time must be caught at its flood.

Wield The Single Whip. Or, put your life on the Shaolin default. The Shaolin way of life is deeply rewarding. It’s about calmness and composure, about meeting life head-on with good humour, the art of stillness, about — and this is a gem — praying when you have to and picking up that long pole when you have to. Useful navigation points, I promise you.

Watch The Flowing Water. Or, observe with the eye of the poet. Poetry is all about us, especially in the world of wushu. As one monk said in an MA film, qi is the art that makes flowers bloom!

Snake Creeps Down. Be graceful while being lethal. Or, the reverse: be lethal while being graceful. The MA films do not glorify violence, there is nothing crude about this fighting, yet do not mistake its grace for being any less lethal. So, maybe we need to work hard on being graceful and the lethal edge will come. Conversely, we can practice our martial art moves and soon, grace will come.

Split The Mountain. Or, the all-seeing gaze is a direct one. In MA films, subtlety usually goes by the board. The main thing is how to handle life and the fights of life. That`s all that matters.

Fair Lady Works The Wok. A senior abbot of a major monastery said (in an MA film) that cooking, too, is the way to enlightenment. This makes all that rotirolling and dal-tadkafying such an elevating task.

Tiger Pounces On Prey. The enigmatic smile will win the day. Or at least, it will win you time, when you want to break a head or two. This will have your foe thinking you are a wimp. What you are doing is a classic Bruce Lee precept: balancing thoughts with action. Once you have thought the thought through, you are ready to act.

Jade Lady Sits Alone. Nothing empties your corner at a lunch, cocktail party or dinner as quickly as a light remark on the nimble footwork in The Grandmaster or how Iron and Silk gave the Hong Kong films a run for their money. Or how Van Damme, Jason Statham and all are very well, but can’t hold a candle to Cheng Pei-Pei even on her bad day. Suddenly, the Jade Lady sits alone.