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Kung-Fu movies: Tacky or terrific?

Well, this is awkward. Nothing has been happening in the news with a few exceptions: there’s been Obama’s executive order protecting over 5 million illegal immigrants from deportation; we landed a probe on a comet; Russia has been all up in Sweden’s business; Gamer-gate; and Pointer-gate (and Gate-gate). But I’m only following the comet thing, and I already talked about How cool space is, so I’m instead going to talk about my favorite thing in the world: kung-fu movies.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that you, fearless reader, dislike kung-fu movies. That’s ok, most people do. Or at least, most people think they hate kung-fu movies. They see poorly-dubbed flicks with ridiculous sound-effects and plots that accomplish nothing beyond moving the characters from one fight to the next (which also describes Nebraska). And most people are probably not into action beat-em up movies. Here we have run into the intersection of the global film industry and American expectations of quality art.

Those issues with kung-fu movies – the poor writing, direction, performances, and editing – are actually systemic to a lot of foreign cinema. America got a huge head start when it came to creating our film industry. We were the first to have cameras, thanks to Edison. We had Hollywood, where large sets could be cheaply made on a huge scale and close enough to both mountains and desert to allow for pretty much any setting imaginable. We also had the demand: because a movie only had to be filmed once and then could be recreated, they were far cheaper than the closest alternative, a play. Finally, laypeople were able to enjoy a performance without breaking the bank. Not to mention, have you ever seen any movies from the earliest parts of the 20th century? They can be surprisingly racy at times, and Americans have a long tradition of relishing naughtiness.

We’ve had over a century learning how to make movies well, not so in many other countries. Nollywood, for example, is Nigeria’s film industry and is the 3rd largest in the world after the other two “wood’s,” “Holly” and “Bolly”. Nollywood has only been productive since the ‘60s, and only began making international waves in the ‘90s. They haven’t had enough time to even raise a generation of children who grew up watching and studying movies, something that didn’t really happen in the U.S. until around 1970, when most of our great directors entered the scene.

The second biggest obstacle facing foreign films in the United States is our own rigid market. I used to wonder why the only Chinese movies I could ever find were kung-fu or fighting movies. Why couldn’t I rifle through the giant bins in Walmart and find a Chinese rom-com, or a Chinese medical drama? I realized that it’s because fighting movies are the only ones that would sell in America. If Chinese movies are of a generally lower quality, then American consumers would logically turn to the more expertly made American alternatives, and would only buy Chinese movies for which there was no substitute, i.e. kung-fu movies. And this line of reasoning applies to nearly all foreign film industries with only a few exceptions.

This has had a fascinating impact on foreign films, especially fighting movies: they sneak in the substance. “Fighting movies” is no longer a genre, it’s more of a delivery system. Are you interested in political drama? Go watch “Red Cliff,” a Chinese political thriller that pretends to be a fighting movie. Do you like fantasy? Try out “Legend of the Tsunami Warrior,” a Thai fantasy incorporates enough muay-thai to trick you into believing it’s a fighting movie. Are you into history? Rent “The Rebel,” a Vietnamese “fighting movie”. There are examples from every genre.

As you start to get to know these movies, you’ll watch how the industries from these countries have grown over time. You’ll see that they aren’t all poorly-directed and worse dubbed, and that Hollywood is about to get some serious rivals in the next few years. You’ll learn to look past the action you hate (or love, like I do) and find the hidden genre. It’s only by putting money into those foreign industries that we can raise their production values and allow their movies to compete with American movies, and I’ll finally get my Chinese rom-com. So go out and rent a kung-fu movie; if not for you, then for me.

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