The James Clayton Column: martial arts overkill

James is off to see Blood: The Last Vampire. But there are no short cuts to martial artistry, he argues...

Blood: The Last Vampire

It contains vampires. It’s partly an Asian production based on a long-running manga and anime series. What else could possibly make Blood: The Last Vampire an even cooler proposition? Yes, film geeks, the newly released horror-action flick contains a fair amount of martial arts and all. It meets the criteria: this has cult otaku material written all over it.

The live-action movie – directed by Chris Nahon and starring Gianna Jun as Saya the vampire-slaying lead – is pretty much a cocktail of concepts that captivate my imagination. Out of all the diverse elements that form the basis of Blood: The Last Vampire, it’s probably the presence of martial arts action that acts as the clincher and guarantees my attendance in line at the box office. Perhaps I’m a bit simple or maybe a bit sad, but at the slightest sniff of kung fu my senses are roused. Most of the time, that’s pretty much all it takes to register on my radar.

Having been raised on Bruce Lee films and developed to maturity (or, rather, immaturity) under the influence of Jackie Chan’s exhaustive output, I find feats of Far Eastern physicality in film reassuring in a nostalgic way. They touch my inner child and take me back to a time when you only needed an animal howl from Bruce and a few silly faces from Jackie and Sammo Hung to sort the world out.

Now – so it turns out in the adult world – we need gatherings of global political leaders to resolve the disastrous state of the planet and the plight of its people. Ah, things used to be so simple. Nevertheless, I don’t see how it can hurt to invite Sammo to sit in on just one G8 panel. Who needs the UN when you have Yuen Biao and Jackie Chan?

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Seeing as I’m a sucker for chop-socky, and most often too content to suspend any sense of cynicism at the sight of an agile sidekick, Blood: The Last Vampire would have to be exceptionally poor as a movie to not get my seal of approval. However, I’m not sure that I should salute the film for bringing some more Asian action to the mainstream multiplex or whether, in fact, I should stop for a moment and say: “More martial artistry? Is that really the answer?”

My issue is not that there may end up being an excess of Oriental-flavoured fight scenes in the movies. On the contrary; the more martial arts the better. Casablanca is perhaps the most acclaimed cinematic romance of all time and rightly so. Despite this, due to the fact that at no point does Ingrid Bergman or Humphrey Bogart belt a Nazi with a karate chop blow, I’m afraid to say it’ll be an imperfect masterpiece.

My worry is instead in the ideology that underpins the surfeit of martial artistry. In the figure of Saya we’ve got a character that kicks the arses of the evil undead. Once upon a horror film such resistance to the fanged revenants would be done by dabbling mystics or wise clerics, but the notion proposed by Blood: The Last Vampire is that what’s really called for is the kind of wuxia moves seen in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero.

There is undoubtedly power in the practise of martial arts. Codified forms of combat such as taekwondo, hapkido and jeet kune-do provide a way in which body, mind and soul can be honed into immense instruments that can overcome tremendous obstacles. Yet is it reasonable to suggest that such measures can surmount the darkest forces of the supernatural realm?

Despite the exhilarating swordplay and athleticism employed by Saya in Blood: The Last Vampire to beat the demon legions, I’d rather see paranormal protagonists put to a definitive end through more traditional methods. I can’t help but think that the way to firmly thwart a vampire is to drive a stake through their heart, burn them with a crucifix or baste them in garlic butter before toasting them at sunrise. Showing Count Dracula what you learnt at the dojo doesn’t strike me as the most effective method of opposing vehement, bloodsucking evil.

The implied understanding that martial arts makes you invincible against even the most nefarious nasties of the supernatural world is perhaps irresponsible. I fear that, faced with Nosferatu on a night out, many naïve yellow belts could meet their grim doom as they try to fight the parasite in their path.

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I won’t begrudge the new wuxia-horror hybrid, though, as Saya – being a half-vampire government operative with training and experience – is a specialist. It’s when half-baked, unconvincing practitioners pop up and pummel the enemy that motion pictures get it all wrong. People thought that bullet-motion was the main cliché ushered in by The Matrix. They were wrong. Following the release of the Wachowski Brothers’ vision of cyber-dystopia, martial artistry became an absolute must, never mind if it was logical or necessary.

As I said, you can never have too many martial artists. You can, however, have too many amateur martial artists. Mastery of the combat practice should come after years of mental and physical training, preferably under the tutelage of a bearded, sagacious sifu. Batman Begins had Bruce Wayne undertake an experiential journey to the Himalayan home of the League of Shadows in order to receive his ninjutsu education. Apart from that and the gruelling Pai Mei flashback scenes in Kill Bill, Vol. 2 as exceptions, though, I can’t think of any sequences showcasing kung fu schooling under a venerable master figure in recent mainstream Hollywood movies.

The effect is that every Sam, Rick and Mandy reckons they can excel at athletic forms of fighting by reading a free supplement from a weekend newspaper or – as in The Matrix – downloading the skills from the web. This is not the truth. Real martial arts mastery comes from years of vigorous observance, acceptance of harsh punishment and complete acquiescence to the authority of a cranky master. Mentally and physically, it’s not simple.

If kung fu fighting is to be de rigeur in the movies, I don’t want to see upstarts simply proclaiming “I know kung fu” before kicking arse. I want proof that they’ve been through the proper process of meditative retreat at a Shaolin monastery, brutal beatings at the hands of a Sam Seed or Pai Mei-type mentor figure and ingested some underpinning ancient wisdom. Note the ‘art’ in ‘martial art’, and prepare to spend a long time down the dojo.

James’ previous column can be found here.