"Old Man Your Kung Fu is Useless": African American Spectatorship and Hong Kong Action Cinema

By Tzarina T. Prater

Within the isolated ethnic and raced enclaves of Boston in the late sixties and early seventies, we met "the East" through the porous conduits of popular culture. I remember Sundays in Boston’s China Town, watching three full-length karate movies for $5.00. The floor was sticky, covered with spilled soda, candy and God only knows what else. I swear the occasional fur-covered critter brushed against my ankles, but despite the mice and cockroaches, we endured. After the movies ended, we my friends and I spilled out into the street, where numerous mock battles ensued. We all tried to emulate Bruce Lee--well, in my case it was Lady Kung Fu, Angela Mao, with her three-foot long braid with the steel balls at the end of it. The results were sometimes disastrous, as a scar on the back of my head attests. I also remember the posters of Bruce Lee that my brothers, uncles and male cousins had on their walls (I had one too, but it was because I wanted to bear his children, not fight like him) alongside Shaft (Richard Roundtree), Black Belt Jones (Jim Kelly), Foxy Brown (Pam Grier) and Cleopatra Jones (Tamara Dobson). By the late 70s, my neighborhood had more than one martial arts dojo; "Kung Fu" was one of the most popular TV shows (with a very non-Asian Carradine); Aretha Franklin had sung "Send in the caped crusader, Green Hornet, Kato too"; and one of the most popular disco songs was Carl Douglas’s "Kung Foo Fighting."

My love for Hong Kong Action movies did not dissolve with adulthood. By the time I entered college for the third time at 25, I had a tattoo of a dragon holding a pearl (of wisdom no less) in an "Asian" style. I also had begun to acquire a critical language. When I began thinking about this bodily acquisition in the context of that new language, I was left considering the unattractive possibility that I might be engaging in the infamous term so bandied about my sophomore year: the dreaded "A" word, appropriation.

Just learning to sling terms like "Other," "marginalization," "colonialism," and "imperialism," could I possibly be committing the very same sins that made me look at white b-boy kids with diva-like condescension? Or was there something else going on? What was it in that moment of identification with Kung Fu, what was being transmitted to me from those filmic texts? Did I have the same relationship to them that my white male peers did? Was I enacting a kind of unconscious Euro/ego-centric violence with my own ostensible appropriation?

Charting transmissions between African Americans and Eastern culture presents slippery, confusing routes, and roots. How do we begin to describe exchanges between what are now being termed "emergent cultures" without reducing them to crude cultural relativism, and/or obfuscating the materiality of the processes of exchange? How do we talk about these exchanges without diminishing their transformative potential, particularly when the obvious nexus includes Western imperialist discourse, identity politics, capitalism and colonialism?

Appropriation is a deficient term to describe the confluence of ideological exchange and representational strategies that get signified in and across cultural production and reception. These "transmissions," instantiated between cultures and facilitated by global capitalism, create a space in which western constructions of the self, the individual, and community undergo radical revision. My project is to explore instances of cross-cultural transmission that fall out of current exegetical frameworks which describe this exchange reductively, only in terms of colonized and colonizer.

Hong Kong: Borrowed people living on borrowed land

" Disorder is the order!"—Stokes and Hoover, City on Fire: Hong Kong Cinema

Hong Kong cinema has been dubbed a crisis cinema. One of the crises enacted is that of immigration, emigration, and diasporic identity formation and consciousness. For films of the 80s and 90s, what is often depicted as a romantic coupling is a tension that reproduces anxiety around the unification of Mainland China and Hong Kong. This nexus of coupling presences, absences, removals and identity, colonial and capitalist encroachments, whether immediately understood in its own historical and social context--or not--for American spectators, is often conveyed thematically as anxiety (r)evolving around the figure of the warrior/hero.

Themes of cultural alienation, the questioning of identity, quests for self that involve encounters with other cultures and generations—and the fantastic--make up the constellation around which the warrior/hero must navigate. This displacement is also signified by the transposition of time and place, a strategy consistently used by Hong Kong filmmakers from the industry’s genesis to comment metaphorically on Hong Kong’s socioeconomic and political relationships to Mainland China, British colonialism, and global capitalism. Narratively, what emerges are allegories of colonialism and its consequences, haunting questions of the right to self-determination, identity and hybridity.

Hong Kong’s movie history begins symptomatically with Stealing the Roasted Duck (1909), a short financed by an American businessman, Benjamin Brodsky, founder of the Asia Film Company. Hong Kong cinema did not gain international attention until well after the Second World War: in 1972, Hong Kong action movies entered the international arena at the Cannes film festival. Later that year, Warner Brothers bought the rights to the Shaw Brothers film Invincible Boxer, which was released in the U.S. under the title Five Fingers of Death. Out-grossing all of Warner Brothers’s domestic productions that year, Five Fingers of Death proved particularly popular among black American audiences, thus initiating a stream of Hong Kong action film importation to the States (Rayns 1, 21). Critically panned, these films were subsequently embraced by lower and darker classed communities (Tasker, 317).

By 1973, the first American-Hong Kong production, Enter the Dragon, was popular in both American and Hong Kong domestic markets (Rayns 2, 139). In 1974 film critic Tony Rayns anticipated that the already hybrid forms of Asian cinema would not only find their way into the parlance of the West, but that they would have an indelible influence on Hollywood movie-making.

This influence was felt in the 70s by the genre’s unmistakable contribution to Blaxploitation--not one Blaxploitation hero/heroine does not know how--usually inexplicably--to use some form of Kung Fu. More recently, the entire generation of Hollywood action films in the past fifteen years bears the stamp of Hong Kong influence. John Woo, whose films reflect the influences of both Hollywood and French cinema, has seen his trademark intricate staging and filming of action sequences imitated ad infinitum.

Rayns cites the "impure origins" of Hong Kong action films: "ancient Chinese drama, pulp fiction, the Italian peplum and the Hollywood fantasy." Further, "directors have leant so far towards variety that their model is no longer decipherable" (2, 138).

Hybrid spaces: not the last word but a word

" Hybrid sites of meaning open up a cleavage in the language of culture."—Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture

Hong Kong, "the most international city in the world," is a postmodern urban space that is not only the location of a heteroglot culture, with Cantonese, Mandarin and English languages spoken and intermingling, but a space of absolute technological saturation. Critic Paul S. N. Lee describes Hong Kong as the encounter between East and West, citing four ways in which its cultural production is informed by this encounter. The fourth (preceded by the adoption of form and content, and two different modes of assimilation), is indigenization, whereby foreign and local cultures are left indistinguishable (qtd. in Stokes and Hoover, 34). It is this last configuration that enacts what Homi Bhabha calls a "split space of enunciation" enabling a conceptualization of an "international culture based not on exoticism of multiculturalism or diversity of cultures, but on the inscription and articulation of culture’s hybridity" (38).

Two recent Hollywood films greatly influenced by Hong Kong action cinema, 1998’s Blade and 2000’s Romeo Must Die, both configure the metropole as a site of ethnic polyphony while critiquing the movement of capital and capitalist interests (in their most degenerative senses) along axes of race and ethnicity. As products of a complex process of transculturation, these films place cultural syncretism at and between the margins and the mainstream, resulting in "a creative intermingling of cultures as part of a general movement of American history by which indigenous, African American, and local-immigrant experiences flow into broader ‘non finalized’ polyphony" as film critic Robert Stam sees it (266).

In considering ideology and cinematic production, film critic Ella Shohat argues that, far from being objective, cinematic space is "the subliminal site of competing ethnic and racial discourses having specific resonances for spectators, themselves constituted by and who constitute these discourses" (218). Cinema, then, is a signifying practice, a mechanism that reproduces social relations and positions embodied in actors who take up literal, corporeal, as well as ideological space on the screen.

Romeo Must Die, starring world renown Chinese martial artist Jet Li, is an example of how the centrifugal motion created by global capitalism and the Hollywood machine create a flattening of signification. We see networks of meaning attached to bodies; these networks, with their iconographies of race, sex, gender and national identity, are political, hierarchical, and subjective, and cannot be adequately understood outside a framework of specific economic relations (Hall, 19).

The film was conceived by producer Joel Silver (of The Matrix and Lethal Weapon series), after he conducted market research that profiled his audience as "urban" (read: lower class and pigmented). Based on this research, Silver decided to create a film that would combine martial arts and Hip-Hop, clearly aiming to capitalize on the mass-marketed aspects of the two "subcultures." To that end, the film also stars rap artist DMX as Silk, a machine-gun-toting club entrepreneur (who appears, like the movie’s co-star R&B singer Aaliyah, on the soundtrack). Romeo Must Die explicitly maps a symbiotic partnership between rap music and action, two leading signifiers of aggressively heterosexual masculinity (McDowell, 375).

The message of the film is represented by one character’s—a lieutenant for the Asian crime family at the center of the film—Darwinian description of the conflict between two rival families, one black, one Chinese: Rampant capitalism has made conflicts inevitable, and the only thing left to do is grab your piece of the pie. In Romeo Must Die, the black family patriarch’s dream of going straight/ corporate is foiled by the Machiavellian workings of the appropriately named "Mac" (also an obvious nod to the Blaxploitation pimp figure, "The Mac"), who kills Colin O’Day, the black male heir to the throne of power.

Fascinating in its articulation of capitalism’s ability to flatten and commodify cultural production as sheer surface, this film subordinates and obscures the very real complexity of transcultural exchange. Romeo Must Die enacts the social inequities and disruption that the free market engenders, without really questioning the inevitable economic crises created by laissez-faire business policies.

Based on a Marvel comic character and set in an unspecified "now" time and generic urban landscape, Blade is a tale of the fantastic, and the film’s use of the fantastic, as with Hong Kong Wuxia Pian (swordplay kung fu) films, allows it to substantially address contemporary political and social issues. In this case they are technologies of blood, both late 19th century anxieties around blood as a signifier of race, and 20th century anxieties around blood as a signifier for both race and sexuality, particularly homosexuality.

An encounter between Blade (Wesley Snipes), a day walking, sword wielding vampire (not only half human but also black and white—his black human mother having been contaminated by a white vampire) and his arch nemesis, Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff) encapsulates the transhistorical critique of the film. Blade meets Frost for the first time in a generic China Town. During their meeting, Frost holds a small Asian girl captive, trying to seduce Blade into joining forces with him. Naturally, negotiations break down as Frost reveals his plan to enslave the entire human race. He rebukes Blade for being concerned about these "cattle," demanding Blade not give him "that Uncle Tom routine." Blade, in turn, fires silver bullets at Frost, filmed to Woo-like effect (Woo’s cinematic aesthetic, graceful and furious, has been likened to a "ballet of violence").

While this film, with its fantastic elements, can be read in the context of pure escapism and amusement, diversion and distraction, and as such a masking tool for dominant structures (a la Horkeimer and Adorno), what is clear is that Blade, as with the majority of Hong Kong Cinema, represents a world that is fraught with anxiety, confusion, fear and grappling with obsolete notions of humanity, identity and individualism. Ultimately, what is privileged in this text, along with the hypermasculine black male, is a form of hybridity represented by Blade’s choice at the conclusion of the film. When offered a "cure" by quasi-love interest Dr. Karen Jensen, a hematologist, Blade refuses. This refusal to become human is both a way to retain his "specialness" as a warrior, as well as to sustain the fulfillment of desire to exist beyond and or between the categories set up in the "real" world. Blade’s choice here is particularly helpful in considering the hero’s body as the point of identification for African American spectators who are disciplined in two powerful ways: by the threat of always being seen, and by the specular scene (Weigman, 2, 13). The specular scene involves the historical power relations inherent in who have done the looking, and who have been configured as the objects of that gaze.

4.

African American Spectatorship and Identification

" I don't want to be Chinese!…I only want to be what I can be, which isn't the greatest fighter in the world, only the best fighter I can be." –Charles Johnson, "China"

The black viewing subject’s identification with the Chinese warrior illustrates a phenomenon that ruptures the illusion of fixity and as such is the radical potential of film (Flitterman-Lewis, 155). "China," a 1983 short story by black American author Charles Johnson, is set in the early seventies, about a run-down middle aged black postal worker, Rudolph Lee Jackson. Rudolph is unfulfilled in his marriage, and in his spiritual and social life. One evening, out at the movies, he and his wife Evelyn see previews for martial arts films. Rudolph observes the superhuman leaps and elaborately choreographed fight sequences, and asks, with the wonderment of a child, "can people really do that…leap that high?" Evelyn, responding cynically, points out the trampoline at the bottom frame. Although disappointed, the revelation of the "impossibility" of the Chinese warriors’s ability to fly does not deter Rudolph from attending more martial arts movies the first chance he gets. After viewing a karate demonstration and two films, one of which is the classic Five Fingers of Death, Rudolph begins a quest for mental and physical renewal through martial arts and Zen philosophy. His involvement with the philosophies and practice of martial arts allow him to literally change his body, spiritual perspective, and to finally exist outside of western rationality. This journey via the disciplining of his physical body leads Rudolph to a psychic and subsequently spiritual balance:

After working out he felt as if there were no interval between himself and what he saw…In this after glow he said he saw without judging. Without judgment, there were no distinctions. Without distinctions, there was no desire. Without desire… (85)

This passage enacts a meditation that interpolates the reader through repetition of sounds, "Without judgment…Without distinctions…Without desire." The language creates a structural presence, then abandons that presence and embraces absence as the text trails off into the ellipses. Is Rudolph’s meditation a suspension of disbelief, the temporary injection into a fantasy solely of wish fulfillment, or can his transformation actually have a reality-correcting function?

Here, the process of transculturation instantiated in spectatorship facilitates Rudolph’s metamorphosis. His identification with the fantastical, filmic "Other," in this case the Chinese warrior, enables him to imagine himself outside of Judeo-Christian, American social/racial constructs, as well as the corporeal limitations of the physical world: his spectatorship has transformative potential. Specifically, the transformation of a black subject engaging with the martial arts is a circumstance that Ghost Dog director Jim Jarmusch has named a cross pollination where disparate cultures meet and discursive sites are generated.

Rudolph’s primary cinematic identification is based on the act of looking itself, which creates a subject position that has the illusory capacity to be everywhere at once (Metz, 48-49). This gaze can occupy any position represented by the film’s characters, and this identification can be total or partial, as the relationship between spectator and film text is based less on what is being represented, than on the ideological positioning of power depicted on the screen. It is his secondary identification--defined as the empathetic response to characters--that allows Rudolph to align himself with the warrior figures on the screen. Secondary identification is based on subjectivity created by a complex grouping of imaginary identifications. In this sense, neither text nor spectator is ever static. Rather, cinematic experience creates an endless dialogical process that troubles reductive models of cultural exchange and allows for the transfigurative (Shohat and Stam, 349).

Multiple points of identification, then, are involved in transcultural spectatorship. No one can deny the seductiveness of the declaration that "we" have "our own history our own gaze" in an effort to gain collective strength, but it is dangerous to totalize black experience and spectatorship to one collective subject position (Roach, 142). In analyzing the dialectic between production and consumption of film, we want to avoid rhetoric that flattens this process, and casts spectatorship in any way that capitulates to monological, dichotomy bound, ideologies of difference. According to Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, what Rudolph experiences in the theater with the Chinese warrior(s) on screen is an agglutinative process of cross-racial identification and an alliance imagining that is not only "possible" but also offers a way out of the "impasse of unity implied by the monolithic idea of primary identification," whether in multiply constituted subject positioning of spectators or "positions suggested by alternative cinema" (154).

As Robert Stam and Ella Shohat argue, a "member of a minoritarian group might look for him/herself on the screen, but failing that, might identify with the next closest category, much as one transfers allegiance to another sports team after one’s own team has been eliminated from the competition" (351). Thus, the viewing subject of martial arts films (as with any other type of film) has to enter into a series of negotiations with the figures represented on the screen, particularly when dealing with a text that does not allow for a seemingly simple one to one correspondence of identification. (Spectatorship can also be about dis-identification.)

Transcultural spectatorship, then, functions not only as wish fulfillment, but also, as suggested by Stephen Heath, as a reality-corrector, a process of re-narrativization and re-memory. In the engagement of African Americans with the "Asia" represented in Hong Kong action cinema, we may want to consider this desire, the voluntary displacement of "self" into the warrior culture, as figuratively reproducing the fantasy of "an early form of imaginative activity whereby the child fantasizes ideal parents to replace the actual ones which are considered to be inferior" (Flitterman-Lewis, 156). Rudolph Jackson’s desire to be like the Chinese warriors on the screen enables him to transcend the determinations of local morality, social milieu, and ethnic affiliation, and to interpolate himself into a fantastic familial structure of warriors. This transcultural identification has a multi-tiered ontology, where warrior identification is psychically split between constructions of the fictive African and Chinese warriors as well as the "urban warrior" who occupies, if not an ambiguous racialized subject position, a distinctly classed one.

If we consider the popularity of martial arts action films with black (and white) working class audiences in America, we see the obvious fantasies of physical empowerment, fantasies that "respond to the constitution of the body through limits" (Tasker, 317). These limits are not just corporeal but are also the limits of western rationality. Hong Kong action cinema, particularly the Wuxia Pian films (swordplay kung fu) films and Chambara films (Samurai tales) blur the distinctions between fantasy and reality with the use of wire work, intricately choreographed battle sequences, and cinematic special effects that collapse present and past, perception and imagination. (In all cases when Han Sing in Romeo Must Die delivers the incapacitating or fatal blow, the movie viewer sees a CGI--Computer Generated Imaging--rendering of the injury from the inside, an x-ray image of bones and cartilage breaking. In the case of a Chinese female assassin fighting Han, we actually see the representation of her heart being penetrated by the wooden stake he uses to kill her.) Warriors, the primary figures of identification, become extraordinary, superhuman, fantastic. In these films, familiar objects become uncannily "other," enacting play in the construction of the (un)real.

Fantastic Warriors

" I got knife-scars more than the number of your leg’s hair!"—Wong Kar-Wai’s As Tears Go By, 1988

Martial arts films have frequently been lost in the conflict between style and content, primarily due to the fallacy that such films are anti-intellectual, ahistorical, apolitical and without discursive import or effect. By extension, the popular nature of these films has led to the problematic assumption of their universality. Film scholar Stephen Teo notes that in the case of Hong Kong cinema, "their film language is now easily understood. Western audiences have acculturated themselves to the exotic quality of Hong Kong Movies; the Hong Kong cinema is now as universal as Chinese food" (xi).

Wahneema Lubiano’s 1992 " To Take Dancing Seriously is to Redo Politics" explores Western rationality and its inevitable epistemic violence on the cultural production of non-white and/or non-western groups. Her discussion of reason, rationale, and its theoretical opposite (dismissed variously as the fantastic, supernatural, cultural, irrational, emotional - or even the feminine) is pertinent to an analysis of the martial arts action film in which the fantastic functions as one of nodal points of identification and "play" for the spectator (18). Lubiano argues that "deployments of the grand narratives that construct universal truths which undergird our conventional sense of and strategies for politics have been inadequate to the task of delineating the messy overlap areas of things like group cultural practice, racial identity, gender re-imaginings, and play, as well as the relation of those things to historical circumstances and change" (20). By destabilizing "grand narratives" we consider how conduits of pop culture facilitate avenues of resistance to oppressive neocolonial capitalism through "play," while they also simultaneously engage in full-on exoticization.

"Play"’s primary element is the use of false consciousness, and it can indeed become a site of subversion, allowing us to comprehend and analyze the complicated and efficacious politics instantiated in transcultural spectatorship occurring between African American spectators and the martial arts film genre. Such a location is the messy overlap area in which a participating audience—and audience participation is certainly a group cultural practice for "urban" African Americans—re-imagines the screened image of the Asian warrior "Other." These martial arts films have to be viewed as objects of analysis that frequently destabilize Western epistemological framing: the transformative potential of spectatorial identification and communication between cultures cannot be relegated to simplistic constructions of colonizer/colonized exploitation or appropriation. There is political significance in the destabilization that is instantiated in a nexus of pleasure, ritual history, and collective experience, both inside the theater and out.

The fantastic elements of violence represented in martial arts films provide an image of empowerment that allows the spectator the "pleasure" of safely, for two hours, enacting violence through identification with the warrior figure. As Frantz Fanon argues in 1963's seminal The Wretched of the Earth: "At the level of individuals, violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect" (94). The cinematic space of the martial arts film enables the black viewing subject of these films to empathetically imagine a subjectivity for him/herself that is not based on powerlessness and abjection.

What is at the center of the fantastic in the majority of martial arts films, particularly those that have had the greatest popularity among African American audiences, is the figure of the warrior. This figure has a several points of appeal for Western audiences, including, most importantly, "specialness" and otherworldliness. First, there is the construction of the warrior as unique, translated in the American context as "rugged individualism," coterminous with an identification with a "community." The warrior is often depicted as part of an (imagined) community of warriors, with whom s/he shares a "deep, horizontal comradeship."

The hero is both ordinary and extraordinary, in terms of sheer physical talent combined with the ability to transcend the corporeal. S/he is the ultimate liminal figure who resides beyond the pale of normative social structures (hence the migratory hero shifting in and out of geographic and social boundaries).

The warrior’s failure, or rather refusal, to enter into heteronormative coded society, places him/her not just at the fringe of sexuality, but in a potentially subversive liminality that evokes indomitable desires by/for and between insiders and outsiders in all directions. Johnson’s Rudolph Lee Jackson desired a monastic life from a young age; as a married middle aged man, he has little interest in sex with his wife Evelyn: Rudolph is indeed removed from the ordinary heterosexual economy.

The warrior can also enact socially unacceptable violence but is rarely allowed to integrate into the community that s/he protects and/or restores. The American warrior, in particular, is a product of a society that celebrates freedom of individual action at the same time demanding limitation on such action. The warrior’s moral stature is dependent on the exercise of violent--often extra-legal--activity in the service of the group/society s/he protects. Paradoxically, the warrior’s actions also serve to marginalize and render him/her isolated from society. Warrior tales are thus both celebratory and cautionary; idolizing the paladin, yet ultimately stressing the importance of community (Donohue, 66).

The warrior tale, then, in conjunction with the dialogic relationship between spectator and film, empowers the black viewing subject to cathect to the warrior figure as well as retain allegiance and strong ties to the community of origin or choice as the case may be. We also have the possibility of the warrior figure/tale as a construction that feeds a fantasy of assimilation. The warrior does gain admittance to and acceptance from the greater society at large, even if only temporarily. This fantasy of assimilation is pertinent for the marginal subject. However, these tales characteristically allow for only transitory assimilation and acceptance, and as such function as a tacit admission that permanent assimilation is never entirely possible.

For the Western spectator, the desire for specialness is a mixture of Orientalism/racism as much as it is an articulated desire to break through to a higher realm of consciousness (or at least through bricks and boards). This process of longing suggests a complex cultural system and psychological response that simultaneously involves physical efficacy and other vehicles for the transmission of culture, philosophy, and ideology, based on voluntary affinities. Desire for a higher realm of consciousness is also the desire to transcend the pain of the material world—thus, in martial arts films, the obligatory near crippling injury, usually involving temporary blindness or maiming, which necessitates a spiritual intervention.

The second crucially appealing aspect of the warrior is his/her otherworldliness: affiliation with powers of the occult, or quasi-supernatural mystery and mysticism. The warrior’s relationship to the fantastic is integral to the figure’s subversiveness. As a figure, the fantastic warrior disrupts monological vision, the illusory coherence of subjectivity and reality, and creates "a dialectical space where the relationship of self to the world is foregrounded. In this space ideas and perception, mind and body, mind and matter merge and become indiscernible, thus drawing explicit attention to the process of representation" (Jackson, 84). In addition to the rules of the physical world being cast aside (thus the tenability of vertical climbing up walls and flying through the air), there occurs a destabilization of temporality. Many martial arts films are set in periods of political strife, usually a pre-colonial/revolutionary past, or post-apocalyptic future--and hence set up a scheme of future/pastness that is less a sign of history than a representational strategy, as Bhabha asserts (35).

For the spectator who identifies with the warrior, cathecting to this fantastic figure involves a tacit admission of the impossibility to attain such preternatural accouterments alongside the vocalization of the need, and will, to survive. A further complication arises when we consider the unsettling aspects of this fantasy. One such example is the superior status of the warrior achieved through training, a process that marks both the warrior’s communal identity and his/her exemplarity. In "China," Rudolph becomes part of a community, joining a Kwoon (martial arts dojo) problematically depicted as a multi-culti fantasia. Among the students there are a Vietnamese go-getter, a belligerent Puerto Rican, and a "delicate young man named Andrea," all of whom, when practicing together, move "like a single body" (82). This nexus of cultures, and existences, is at once neither mechanistic in its construction, nor devoid of cliched multiculturalisms:

Her husband liked them, Evelyn realized in horror. And they liked him. They were separated by money, background, and religion, but something she could not identify made them seem, those nights on the porch after his class, like a single body. They called Rudolph "Older Brother" or less politely, "Pop." (82)

The Kwoon is a site of union and sameness, and for Rudolph’s wife, it is a preternatural zone, a site of the unfamiliar and alien, bearing the stamp and threat of the homoerotic.

The training of the warrior through physically grueling rituals provides the spectacle of physical strength along with a dancer’s grace and rhythm. The repetition and focus on disciplining the physical body allows for a fetishistic focus on the body (for Western audiences) that both disrupts and is complicit with Orientalist constructions of the Asian body.

Representations of "training" in martial arts films contain not only the obvious disciplining of the body and the world around that body, but most importantly, represent the psycho-affective constitution of mental and spiritual health. The figure that we see on the screen can be read as serving the psychic needs of spectators, channeling our reactions to—and managing--emotional trauma, aggression and fear.

Similar to the construction of Africa as the Dark Continent, a template for the unconscious, primitive and retrograde, the fantastic "Asia" is cast as simultaneously premodern, modern and postmodern. Neocolonial capitalism produces an "Asia" that has been re-presented, reformulated, and redefined within a tropology of the psychic, which posits the Asian/American subject a particular set of mental and spiritual capabilities and weaknesses, dispositions, encumbrances, and values (Palumbo-Liu, 12). The proliferation of "Asia" and all things "Asian" in American popular culture has been predicated on the movement of capital (Miyoshi, 223). In configuring an "Asia" for the Western spectator, we may want to take a cue from theorist David Palumbo-Liu, who suggests that "Asia" should be read as a fantasy in itself, one that is ideologically driven to substantiate America’s claim to democracy and cosmopolitanism (87). And yet, it may be this "fantasy" conveyed through the conduits of popular culture that facilitates a reciprocal (but not necessarily equal) exchange, a merging or confluence of cultures, between signified interlocutors (African American and Chinese) that are both highly mediated--on the screen and in the audience. Potentially nefarious, it is yet through the very combining and staging of encounters among different vernacular idioms that alternative cultures converge, enabling films to resist reductively mapping the subjectivities organized by the characters on the screen. The result is a reconfiguration of local and global relations, the disruption of prior territorealities, and, as author Michael Shapiro suggests, a "[challenge to] traditional ways of mapping exchanges and power configurations" (98).

 

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