Books: A Point of View: Flying People, Flagrant Piffle |
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Flying People, Flagrant Piffle : on martial arts

(S01E04, broadcast 23rd and 25th February 2007)

"Bare fists, flying bullets"
— the Kung Fu king

A journalist who lives near Clapham High Street in London recently wrote a piece in which he wondered why that famous street was turning into what he called a demilitarized zone. Judging from the context he so frighteningly evoked, I think he must have meant a militarized zone, but he could be excused for losing his grip on the English language. Stray into the wrong side of that road and you can be in gangland. The now commonly canvassed idea that the nation’s youth is sinking into a state of hopelessness just one step away from open warfare is hard to accept, but only if you haven’t actually seen one young man being assaulted by a couple of others, or, more likely, by half a dozen others.

The best way not to see it is to live somewhere else. I myself spend a lot of time in south London, but so far it’s the right part of south London. The chances of getting mown down in the cross-fire between permanently dazed crack-heads accusing each other of ‘disrespect’ is still quite low. The only thing to be afraid of is that I might meet Danny on the bus. Danny, who has been named and shamed because Britain lacks the means to send him into orbit, is barely tall enough to nut you in the groin, but he has accumulated so many ASBOs for meaningless violence that he is no longer allowed upstairs on the bus, where, apparently, his meaningless violence is especially likely to be unleashed. As far as I can figure out on my pocket calculator, this altitude restriction on Danny’s activities increases my chance of meeting him downstairs when I struggle aboard. Meaningless violence from Danny has driven a lot of people to fear for their sanity already and I’d hate to be in a position where I would have to use my martial arts skills on one so small.

My martial arts skills were learned from martial arts movies. Nowadays, having attained the status of black belt with gold tassels and diamond clasp, I no longer need to watch these movies, but they’re everywhere and some of them are disguised as art, so they can sneak up on you. An art martial arts movie, or martial arts art movie, makes meaningless violence meaningful, or so we’re told. I was able to test this claim all over again the other night, when, still shaking from a newspaper close-up of Danny’s face, I accidentally tripped the switch on my television set’s optical fibre sidereal satellite cable box and was confronted once again, on channel 723, with the allegedly classic martial arts movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Many film critics, not all of them on medication, think that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is still the acme, apex and apotheosis of the Chinese meaningful violence martial arts art movie, mainly because of the purportedly balletic beauty with which its featured personnel run up the sheer walls of the Forbidden City and along the treetops of the enchanted forest while slicing at each other with whirling swords made from fragments of a meteorite forged in the book-lined cave of a Confucian philosopher, with extra boiled rice.

Ancient Chinese swords, despite the legendary sharpness proved by their ability to purée a passing butterfly, rarely make contact with swordsmen, or swordswomen, in such a way that the victim loses a limb or even a little finger. Two opposing swordsmen or swords-women — let’s just call them swordspersons — will emerge untouched from a fifteen-minute stretch of virtuoso choreography, a pas de deux for interlocking whirlwinds. If, after all that spinning, diving, somersaulting and grimacing, a sword strikes home, it makes only a small neat puncture which in no way lessens the loser’s capacity to speak that special dialogue from the Orient that actually sounds more Chinese after it has been dubbed into English.

‘Your skills are great,’ says Falling Snow. ‘Your sword was quick,’ says Rising Cloud. ‘Your quest is finished,’ says Passing Wind. Passing Wind is Rising Cloud’s mentor. Passing Wind is old, older than the hills, visible in the background for purposes of comparison. Yet he, too, can fly. He’s been flying since before the Wright brothers. He’s been flying since long before mainland China started turning out sword operas with flying people in them, and you probably remember him from the very first such epic that made an international hit: ‘Flying People, Flagrant Piffle’. He was a veteran even then, and by now he has run up every wall in China. All the young swordspersons fall to their knees before Passing Wind.

The sub-genre of meaningfully violent martial arts art movies grew out of the sub-sub-genre of kickboxer movies. Ever since Bruce Lee was at the height of his histrionic powers back in the early seventies, kickboxer movies have been coming out of Hong Kong like a trail of oil behind a sampan. Those who believe that Liberace was a better actor than Bruce Lee tend to neglect the fact that Bruce, though unable to narrow his eyes without flaring his nostrils and vice versa, had hidden powers of hypnosis. A dozen assailants, strangely unequipped with guns, would corner Bruce in a car park behind the studio and sportingly give away their numerical advantage by running at him one at a time, shouting so as to ensure that he could see them coming and kick each one of them in the chin with the sound of a slamming door.

As each assailant reeled back stunned to be replaced by the next, a close-up on Bruce’s face revealed that his narrowed eyes and flared nostrils had been joined by pursed lips. Try it with your own face and you’ll find it isn’t easy, but when I saw my first Bruce Lee movie in its place of origin, Hong Kong, the whole audience was doing it. Needless to say, they were all young men, and suddenly I got the point. They were just ordinary, hard-working stiffs in suits, like those many millions of Chinese young men, everywhere in the world except in China, who had a good job and a mobile telephone.

Mobile telephones were as big as lunch-boxes in those days but the jobs were already proving that you could have a salary and still feel powerless. Soon, most of the jobs in the developed world would feel like that. And what do we dream of when we’re powerless? We dream of having amazing personal martial arts skills. The same dream spread to the West, as it were, when oriental martial arts started invading Hollywood B-movies. It was bad enough when they invaded television in the form of a long-running American series called Kung Fu, starring David Carradine as a saintly oriental figure who would withstand an hour of provocation by hoodlums armed with rocket launchers before he finally cut loose with the barefoot martial arts skills taught to him by a master even more ancient than Passing Wind.

But it got worse when the saintly figure was Jean-Claude van Damme. Once again he didn’t want to fight, but when bad people opened up on him with a four-barrelled 20mm cannon he was forced to kick them in the chin. Jean-Claude’s face is a bodybuilder’s bicep in worried search of its original arm but he looks like Bertrand Russell when compared to Chuck Norris. With two eyes sharing the one socket, Chuck is an action hero whose countless movies kick their way straight to video. Master of every military weapon, Chuck would still rather fight barefooted, which gives you a clue. Personal, stylized cinematic violence is really a way of giving you a holiday from the world in which guns are decisive.

Much further upmarket than Jean-Claude and Chuck, it happened again in An Officer and a Gentleman, when Richard Gere, who was born with narrowed eyes, was a trainee jet pilot who turned out to have kickboxing skills hitherto unsuspected until he and his girl were harassed by provocative hoodlums. Soon he would be flying a Tomcat off the deck of the USS Nimitz with enough firepower under his wings to melt a city, but now he was kicking the eyebrows off a bunch of bar-room thugs. And they all picked themselves up and slunk off to their lairs, and not one of them came back with a gun.

And that’s what the bare hands are all about, and it’s even what the swords are all about. It’s even what the movies with guns in them are all about, because Hollywood bullets swerve around the star and anyone on the feature list that the audience might like. Real bullets don’t do that. Real bullets don’t care who they hit. Real bullets fired by a real gun turn your highly trained kickboxing feet into instruments for running away with if you’re lucky. You don’t get to rise into the air, spin around, and elegantly kick the weapon from the nerveless fingers of the awed assailant. It’s a lie to suggest otherwise, and we could tie ourselves in knots worrying about how a free society can persuade its most powerful medium of entertainment to stop peddling drivel, but there’s at least the bitter consolation that the people who most terrify us are probably the ones who spend least time watching exquisite mid-air ballets of acrobatic combat. They’re out there on the lower deck of the bus, heading for the demilitarized zone.


As with the previous broadcast, the underlying topic here is about our helplessness in the face of youthful violence in the streets. Despite continual assurance from the police that the incidence of adolescent gun crime was going down, everybody knew that it was always going up: not in your street, perhaps, but in other streets you’d heard about. You don’t, however, need to see a gun in order to feel uneasy. It is enough to have your home burgled a couple of times. Ours was burgled twice, and neither time was I at home, or I would have ... would have what? A favourite newspaper horror story is about the homeowner who retaliates and is jailed for excessive violence against the thief. Though this apparently inverted judicial procedure is not without merit — electing yourself as the executioner of some dolt who nicks your videos does seem a touch excessive when you come to think about it — dreams of retaliation are hard to quell. But unless you really are a master of martial arts, you lack the means. So the dream machine takes over.