Thursday, October 13, 2011

Ip Man: Hong Kong's colonialism

Ip Man (2008).

The Mel Gibson of Chinese historical revision finds its place in Ip Man. The movie tells the (admittedly mostly fictional) tale of Ip Man, a Wing Chun grandmaster who trained Bruce Lee (heavy marketing point). The basic plot, before some unfortunates:

Ip Man is a wealthy, dignified kung fu master who dislikes taking students. He engages in incredible kung fu matches when forced, which happens frequently. When Japan invades his home city during the second Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese take over his mansion, then attempt to force him to teach them his martial art. His refusal culminates in a glorious fight with a Japanese general, who also happens to be a black belt in karate. Ip Man is victorious.

In actuality, such as actuality is, Ip Man actually taught kung fu without much reservation, which is why Bruce Lee, and many others, learned something from him. Ip Man didn't duel a Japanese general karate master, and he did not end up working as a coolie to provide for his family during the occupation. Rather, he was a policeman, both during and after the occupation. Inaccurate in a historical sense, yet a cute, entertaining story, with surreal and fantastic choreography.

The inaccuracies, though, are sadly revealing. Ip Man is, in truth, a western assault on, and theft of, mainland China and its people and history, as well as a personal insult to Bruce Lee's philosophy. How so?

Historical background is in order. During the early stages of the Cold War, imperial America attempted to dominate Asia and China's closed market for the exploitation of raw materials and cheap labor. To do this effectively, Americans allied with Chinese elites to assist them with cultural lubrication in extracting labor and resources from China and its people. When China had had enough of this, its troublesome sans culottes fought back.

America, and its subjugated western allies, armies and cash, were ready to fight this independence. Much as America and the west had already murderously crushed the Philippines, and would (and had already) burned a path of death and destruction across Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Korea, and the rest of the world as it saw fit, America strengthened its alliances with the local elite and fought back to crush and sanction the Chinese mainland. Its faux-nationalist rebels allowed the wealthy elites to flee to Hong Kong, where they maintained, with massive Anglo-American support, a fake "China" that attempted to dehumanize and delegitimize the bulk of the people actually born in, and living in, said "nation."

"Mainland" (actual) China had and has its own problems, much as did Iraq and other places the world's Great White Colonists have variously butchered: most (all?) of them caused by centuries of invasive, violent, James-Bondish colonialism and cultural interference by the respective continental, British, then American rapine. Rather like the Iraqi parliament "elected" by those still alive after the 2003 American invasion, Hong Kong is a useful Anglo-American cat's paw, providing wealthy people who are genetically similar to those on the Chinese mainland, and help offer their foreign allies/overlords a legitimacy in interference.

This pattern later played out in Iran, where the U.S.-imposed Shah aided a small westernized elite in stealing resources from the locals, until he was deposed, prompting the Americans to sell Saddam Hussein advanced weaponry to use in the eight-year Iran-Iraq proxy war.

The wealth stolen from mainland China by the elites who fled to Hong Kong under American protection is a great part of the reason mainland China's people suffered many hardships in the 20th century.  Much of this wealth found its way to protection on American shores, where those who got the hell out of Dodge after robbing the bank found a place that would never extradite them back to the "evil Red menace" of China. These elites fit smoothly into America's homeland security, investment banking and ownership apparatus, having already prepped for the job by screwing over those back home. Naturally, the China-based Chinese people wanted their resources back, but casting this desire, Vietnam-War-like, as a "nationalist struggle between democracy and communist totalitarianism," while buying and paying for said struggle, helps keep the docile Anglo-American populace ready for a noble and just war, should the Chinese ever try to recover their stuff. (Anglo-American generals froth at the mouth with the hope that China, North Korea, or somewhere else appropriate will do something that gives them enough of an excuse. Missiles stand ready; budgets stand high.)

Imperial Japan sucked, and--though much could be, has been, and should later be said elsewhere about who helped motivate said entity along--deserves, of course, its own heap of shame for the invasion of China.

Why is Ip Man a western movie? Created by Hong Kong filmmakers, Ip Man's characters portray a number of grossly inaccurate cultural behaviors that indicate the sad motivations, and sinocultural failures, of their creators. For example, a young man in the film (humble kung fu student) grabs a respected older man (and local kung fu master), speaks loudly to him, gives him orders, and pushes him back. He then speaks the same way, and gets similarly physical, with an older policeman. No private encounters, these, but in front of a crowd of townspeople--and no one blinks an eye in surprise! The Chinese traditions of community, respect of elders, and respect of authority have no place in western remakes when not plot-convenient.

Ip Man himself is also uncannily characterized like a late-90s American male father. (No surprise, this, coming from Hong Kong filmmakers allied with Hollywood)  He works hard, and through no fault of his own, is forced to occasionally neglect his son, rather like a Chinese version of Jingle All The Way or Liar Liar. His wife--rather more stunningly than the ridiculously disrespectful behavior of the younger student to the older master discussed above--also has a latter-half 20th century attitude toward her husband. She gives him orders, speaks crossly to him, and encourages him to spend more time fathering his child. It's possible, of course, that Ip Man happened to be 60 years ahead of his time socioculturally, not to mention being simultaneously and thoroughly westernized despite living a conservative life as an heir in Foshan, but this one thinks the camera falls heavily across reality.

As the wealthy hero, with a very clean, very fine set of mandarin clothes, beats his way through the poorly-dressed peasant workers with kung fu less strong, and flees the occupation to Hong Kong, he casts in a heroic light the national heist and mass murder of the White Terror and the long-term western plot to dominate the resources of eastern Asia through fomenting internal conflicts and resource wars across the entire region.

More insulting, in a deeply personal way, than the attack on China and its history, is the use of Bruce Lee, as a marketing tool and as a story component. The historical context here is even more simple. Ip Man taught wing chun kung fu. Bruce Lee learned some of it, from Ip Man and many other instructors and friends.

Bruce Lee then realized that "old form" martial arts, as practiced by the older masters in China, were not primarily useful or realistic in genuine street fights/personal combat. He developed at first his own system of kung fu, then abandoned kung fu entirely for an even more open martial art, which he named jeet kune do. Before long, he went beyond even this, wishing he had not limited himself by the name (trans. "way of the intercepting fist").

Old, traditional kung fu masters ("sifu," plural "sifus") ordered him to stop teaching anything kung fu-related to white people, so he defeated some of their flunkies to prove himself. He spent the rest of his life not only acting, but further developing a more modern, more flexible art. To employ his memory in the service of glorifying an old, wealthy, fixed-form grandmaster is a contradiction in terms, and to do so in the context of an airbrushing of the White Terror and the complicit traitors of the western colonialism of China is woeful and revealing. The subtle message is, "this guy trained Bruce Lee." While Bruce Lee studied with him for a time while young, Ip Man is the essence of what Bruce Lee spent the rest of his life rebelling against. The Ip Man in the movie offers quotes stolen from Bruce Lee; the movie's Ip steals Bruce's "forms aren't important" line, handily defeats numerous masters who employ excessively-formal positioning and traps, and essentially claims credit for everything Bruce Lee and later martial artists did. Chaining the future to the past is the glorification of the dead; it is the implication that new ideas do not arise in new generations, but that, instead, they are passed down from wise (landed, bourgeois elite) elders. As Martin Luther King was permuted, his message and persona of peace and resistance to genocide bought out in such a way as to bolster, rather than resist, the killing machine, Ip Man shamefully buys out Bruce Lee.

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