Jackie Chan – authentic comic Kung Fu athleticism
Like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan is seen by most practising martial artists as an authentic martial-artist-as-actor and his films reflect this by being centred on his skilful performing body. In many ways, Chan is the most successful specialist martial-artist-as-actor ever in the film industry. The development of Chan’s martial body is worthy of a study in its own right. It came into being from Chan serving out a ten-year childhood contract in Sifu Yu Jim Yuen’s highly respected, structured and often brutal training environment in the Chinese Peking Opera School in Hong Kong. Here Chan learnt a variety of well-known Kung Fu styles (including Northern and Southern) alongside acrobatic and acting skills. Training was long and harsh. An English cultural description for his way of life would be ‘Dickensian’.42 This hardy martial body habitus has become a hallmark of Chan’s performances and is used to emphasize the genuine skill of the performing martial body that exists beyond film editing (as a single fight scene in Chan’s films can incorporate 20 or
30 individual movements).43
However, Chan’s performing body has another particular claim to authenticity not found in most martial-artist-as-actor’s bodies. Unlike Lee, Chan was not trying to construct a new philosophy or martial art, rather, entertainment through his communicative martial arts body was his main inspiration. Recently, Needham reflects that Jackie Chan’s films represent a second phase in the evolving martial arts film genre, commenting, ‘Like Lee, Chan is a martial arts expert, and he makes it a point of honour to perform all the action stunts himself’.44 Undeniably, Chan’s stunts have taken their place in martial arts and cinema folklore. This authenticity is further enhanced by the long list of injuries he has sustained from performing them over the years. Indeed, Witterstaetter devotes an entire chapter to the Chan injury list, all of which builds upon the charismatic aura of ‘vulnerable invincibility’.45
In addition, many also attribute Chan as having created a genre that is often referred to as Kung Fu Comedy, and it is through this aspect that he develops his own particular form of charisma to add to the authenticity of his martial habitus. His self-directed and performed acrobatic style appealed to both Eastern and Western audiences alike and was characteristic of the Peking Opera style, especially during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, thus, echoing the long history of martial arts being a form of comic theatrical entertainment in China dating back to 209 BC.46 Elsewhere, Witterstaetter considers that in a Western sense, ‘Chan’s peers are not Schwarzenegger, Van Damme and Stallone, but Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Fairbanks’.47 In doing this Chan used his performing body in quite different ways from martial artists such as Bruce Lee, as Stokes and Hoover explain: Whereas Bruce Lee kicked high, Jackie Chan kicks low. Lee broke through walls with a single punch; Chan hurts his hand when he strikes a wall. The former was serious, the latter a comic.
Jackie Chan is, in effect, an anti-Bruce Lee, a conscious and calculated polar opposite.48 Chan’s performing body draws attention to the body’s movements rather than making broader salient social commentaries through evocative symbolism or gritty pugilistic realism. Witterstaetter considers that his technique, ‘like that of Gene Kelly in his dance sequences, is always in the service of the moving body, which for Chan remains a spectacle forever fresh and fascinating’.49 Very few of Chan’s opponents get hurt badly and especially not by him. The focus of most of the fighting is not on the consequences of the techniques but on the interplay between the opponents’ bodies. Furthermore, Chan’s characters rarely seek to ‘prove’ themselves against their opponents, so the fights are rarely personal but more of a necessity to achieve certain extrinsic goals. The Police Story series is probably the best example of these aspects.50 The result is an almost dance-like choreography of comic ‘authentic acrobatic’ Kung Fu. Therefore, in opposition to the
Bruce Lee styled body performance of concrete hardness, power and invincibility, Chan’s charismatic authority is built not only on Kung Fu and athletic prowess but also on the comic admission of his body’s vulnerability, while performing painful, dangerous and reluctantly heroic deeds.51 In this way, his charismatic Kung Fu body is far less dominating and more communicative than many other martial-artists-as-actors in that his bodily presence is always making itself felt by others. Witterstaetter insightfully summarizes
Chan’s body charisma and his communicative body type in the following commentary:
It is the tragedy of the overachiever, which can be transformed into comedy – into success – only by achieving even more ... It’s been noted that this self-styled combination of self and sacrifice allows men to love Jackie Chan movies because he makes the superhuman seem possible. Women love Chan because he makes the superhuman seem human.52
Chan thus constructs an ambiguous gendered and ethnic position as a martial arts
superstar because his performances seem to avoid serious ego confrontation, gender or ethnic chauvinism, and almost always stops short of completely dominating or being dominated by other bodies. He therefore constructs a self-authorizing masculinity through a physical authenticity that is softened by comedy but nevertheless refuses to yield to outright complicity or marginalization in relation to the prevailing Western hegemonic norms. Unlike Lee, Chan’s performing body calls to an audience who is in need of a different kind of Kung Fu entertainment. The calling to other bodies is not purposefully symbolic nor does it carry any pretence to gravitas, no disposition towards conversion to a Kung Fu or religious philosophy is needed, just an appreciation of the body in movement and a sense of humour. Of course, people have responded to the call of his performing body in their millions. Many martial arts practitioners respect his authentic martial abilities and non-practitioners are drawn to his humour, movement aesthetics and morally defensible, non-gratuitous, martial actions. The performing body in the Jackie Chan movie
is culturally ubiquitous, both in presence and impact.
SOURCE: SPORT IN SOCIETY