Towards a radical aesthetics of kung fu cinema: authenticity and the pedagogy of performing bodies in Lau Kar-leung’s Shaolin Cycle

White, Luke ORCID logoORCID: (2011) Towards a radical aesthetics of kung fu cinema: authenticity and the pedagogy of performing bodies in Lau Kar-leung’s Shaolin Cycle. In: Radical Aesthetics and Politics: Intersections in Music, Art and Critical Social Theory, 9 December 2011, Roosevelt House, Hunter College, CUNY. . [Conference or Workshop Item]


RESEARCH QUESTIONS - To what degree can Hong Kong martial arts cinema be understood to contain within it currents of radical, emancipatory or resistant content? How can we understand such emphatically 'popular' cultural products as connecting to a 'longue durée' of the struggle of the oppressed? How should we understand the political valences of the performing body in martial arts cinema? RESEARCH CONTEXT - The paper was produced for an international conference exploring the intersections between radical political, intellectual and aesthetic practices. It drew together artists and other cultural producers, curators, historians, anthropologists, and those working in visual culture/art history and related fields, in order to set up interchange. The conference was set up by Critical Studies in Expressive Culture, a collective 'aimed at rethinking intersections between aesthetic practices and social theory'. My paper was the first formal output in a developing body of work on martial arts cinema. This larger project will be looking at the politics of such a cinema, in relation in particular to problems of the popular, and of popular culture as a vehicle of cultural counter-memory. The conference organisers are currently negotiating a deal with Cambridge Scholars Publishing for a book based on the conference, and I have been asked to develop my paper for this. RESEARCH METHODS - The paper draws on contemporary discussions of the body in 'kung fu' films, especially by David Bordwell and Leon Hunt, and wider theories of stardom and the action genre. The essay takes as its focus the work of martial artist, star, fight choreographer and film director Lau Kar-leung. Picking up on the questions of 'authenticity' that are so often posed around martial arts performance, it expands an analysis of the body in kung fu through a close reading of Walter Benjamin. Rather, however, than linger on the account of aura in the famous Artwork essay, I draw on "The Storyteller" to draw out a more positive take on authentic and auratic modes in Benjamin's work. I use such a theoretical angle to examine the relation between the myths and stories told in martial arts cinema, Cantonese folk cultures, histories of resistance and rebellion in that region, and the pedagogy of the martial arts themselves. I examine the forms of what Benjamin might term first or second 'technology' that we are faced with in these films, to understand further the figure of the body itself in relation to forms of industrial and capitalist modernity. FINDINGS - Lau's films, in particular, insistently retell the stories of his own martial arts lineage, that he traces back to Cantonese revolutionaries in the eighteenth century. I argue that such kung fu films link to longer storytelling histories in Cantonese popular culture, and these in turn are integrated into the oral forms of the transmission of martial skills, culture and values, keying the martial arts and their cinematic representations into forms of resistant 'low' culture. Just as Benjamin suggests that storytelling is a technology of the body, the martial arts as storytelling arts involve the preservation of memory, culture, identity and 'authenticity' in globalising and postcolonial contexts. Benjamin offers a way of thinking the martial arts, their cinematic portrayal and the forms of identification they elicit as offering a form of corporeal technology that runs counter to alienating industrial forms of technology.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Keywords (uncontrolled): Walter Benjamin, Lau Kar-leung, Leon Hunt, David Bordwell, kung fu, martial arts, cinema, Hong Kong, Braudel, popular culture, memory, identity, the body, storytelling, postcolonial, technoogy, aura, authenticity, experience
Research Areas: A. > School of Art and Design > Visual Arts
A. > School of Art and Design > Visual Arts > Diasporas
A. > School of Art and Design > Visual Arts > Visual Culture and Curating cluster
Item ID: 8506
Useful Links:
Depositing User: Luke White
Date Deposited: 30 Mar 2012 09:09
Last Modified: 28 Mar 2022 10:33

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