The Man with the Iron Fists: Issues of Race, Gender, and Genre
The film The Man with the Iron Fists is a 2012 martial arts film directed by RZA. It is set in 19th century china in the mythical town of Jungle Village. With its extreme violence and martial arts action, the film serves as an homage to both the martial arts and exploitation film genres. Although made purely for entertainments purposes, this work brings up important thematic subjects and issues related to the portrayal of the East Asia in Hollywood. One issue this film repeatedly invokes is the presentation and role of Oriental women. These women are at once presented as seductresses, dangerous “dragon ladies”, and damsels in distress all at once. In this way, the film helps to perpetuate classical Hollywood modes of presenting the Oriental female. To perhaps understand this representation of Oriental women, it would be best to consider that this film means to pay tribute to martial arts cinema, particularly that of East Asia during the seventies. The extreme violence, the choppy editing, and the poor dialogue are all tropes incorporated throughout this film to invoke this form of cinema. Hence, a complex and thorough reading of this film may not be fruitful, as the main point of the film is to set up the martial arts action . A third theme presented in the film is the idea of the West as being dominant caretaker of the East. This can be seen clearly in the juxtaposition of the character of Jack Knife, played by Russell Crowe, with the other Asian characters. Here, we see the idea of the “white knight” who serves as a moral authority and saves the subordinate Eastern “other”. The final subject of interest is the film’s use of the exotic and wild East Asia as the geographical backdrop for the action. East Asia is presented as exotic and alluring, but at the same time lawless and dangerous. These subjects and issues related to the portrayal of East Asia in this film will be examined in greater detail below.
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The Presentation of Oriental Women
By Chris Arndt
In the movie The Man with the Iron Fists, the portrayals of Oriental women in many ways conform to those previously represented in classical Hollywood films. Oriental women are at once presented as seductive, having loose morals, dangerous, and in need of rescue all at the same time. The film serves as an homage to the martial arts and exploitation genres of film. As such, it may not be surprising that instead of challenging classical depictions of Oriental women in film, it serves only to perpetuate and even exaggerate such depictions. Three major representations of Oriental women can be found throughout the film. The first is the depiction of Oriental women as seductive. Most of the female characters in the film are prostitutes, and each possess a seductive nature that the male characters give in to. The second representation coincides with the seductive nature of these women, namely that there is a hidden element of danger and moral perverseness inherent in these women. The final depiction is that these women, despite their powers of seduction and the danger they represent, are in need of saving. This film could hardly be called a cinematic masterpiece, and as such it is not surprising that its representation of Oriental women seems over-the-top and clichéd.
In Western literature and popular culture, the orient has always been represented as having an inherent seductiveness and allure. The promise of seduction and excitement feeds the popular Western imagination, and has been recycled in countless works of literature and film. As Gina Marchetti writes on depictions of the Orient, “ Feminized in the Western imagination, the entire continent becomes an exotic, beckoning woman, who can both satisfy the male Westerner’s forbidden desires and ensnare him in an unyielding web of deceit”(67). In the film The Man with the Iron Fists, this description is literally embodied by the female characters in the film. As mentioned before, most of the female characters in the film are prostitutes. Early on in the film, a British stranger, known simply as Mr. Knife, enters the brothel owned by Madam Blossom. The mis en scene suggests all the opulence and allure a westerner could come to expect by visiting the Orient. Mr Knife, played by Russel Crowe, then asks for a lavish sweet and three more than obliging prostitutes. This one scene embodies all that a Westerner could come to dream of the Orient, from the seductive nature of the women to the material opulence and lavishness.
The next depiction that pervades throughout the film is the idea of these seductive women being both dangerous and deceitful. This is probably best exemplified by the character of Madam Blossom, played by Lucy Lui. She is the beautiful owner of the brothel, who possess both wit and a seductive charm. But while she is outwardly alluring, she is also treacherous and deceitful. In one scene, Madam blossom convinces the Lion Clan, who have just stolen gold from the Governor, to hide the treasure under her brothel in an old tomb. The women then convince the men to celebrate, as they each take a prostitute to bed. But then, with each signal from Madame Blossom, the prostitutes turn on the men and murder them. They quite literally use their prowess as seductresses to lure men into their beds, then betray and kill them. The character of Madam Blossom can most commonly be associated with the character of the “dragon lady”. This term is used to refer to a powerful Asian woman, who possess a seductive mystique and danger. While these women seem generous, as author Sheridan Prasso writes, “ Rather, her every thought and gesture is a clever, calculated ploy”(82). By including the stereotype of the “dragon lady”, the film perpetuates the notion of Oriental women as being seductive, but dangerous.
The final theme presented throughout the film is the Oriental woman as being in need of saving. This is embodied by the character Lady Silk, who serves as the Man with the Iron Fists love interest. She is a prostitute who is owned by Madam Blossom. Thus to save his love, the Man with the Iron Fists must save enough money to buy Lady Silk from Madam Blossom and thus save her from a life of moral degradation. Although not quite fitting into the figure of the “white knight” , an analysis of this idea will give insight into the presentation of Oriental women in the film. As Gina Marchetti writes, “the heroic knight promises salvation from any number of woes ranging from simple lack of self-esteem, boredom, and sexual frustration to poverty, oppression, or the stifling confines of the family”(114). This movie does not quite use the figure of the white knight, as the main character is black; as such, this character does not serve the often racist notion of the white male saving the female “other” from the “darker” morality. However, the notion of the male saving the Oriental female from her decrepit lifestyle still appears in this film, and thus serves to only perpetuate classical Hollywood myths of the Oriental female.
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Understanding The Man with the Iron Fists: A homage to the Martial Arts Sub-genre
by Antonio Douglas
The Man with the Iron Fist pays homage to the martial arts sub-genre that came into international prominence during the 1970’s. In fact, those who watch the film without this understanding will most certainly be confused by the seemingly non-existent plot, absurd fight choreography, and poor dialogue. However those are the pillars of martial arts cinema, and the standards of merit for modern cinema: character development, plot, and setting only serve to provide reason and space for the action to transpire. A measured critique reveals that The Man with the Iron Fist follows these tropes religiously and that any major flaws found within the film originate from its poor execution of these kung- fu cinema standards.
The plot of the film presents itself as a capable, albeit somewhat convoluted tale towards its latter half. Set within the backdrop of nineteenth century China, a blacksmith (played Wutang Clan founder RZA) living in the aptly named Jungle village finds himself making weapons for the multiple warring clans surrounding the town in order to accrue the needed the capital for a much awaited departure with his longtime prostitute girlfriend, Lady Silk. It is of note that this relationship is almost exactly parallel to Suzie Wong and the White Knight complex Gina Marchetti argues. In addition the film supports the image of a barbaric far east with the civilized westerner having a civilized role through Russell Crowe. However, chaos ensues when The Lion Clan’s leader, Golden Lion is betrayed by his lieutenants, Silver and Bronze lions while on a mission escorting a shipment of the Emperor’s gold to his soldiers in the north. This prompts Golden Lion’s son, Zen-Yi to seek revenge for his father’s death. Meanwhile, an undercover emissary Jack knife (played by Russel Crowe) arrives in Jungle Village, to ensure the gold shipments safe passage. Further complicating matters is Lady Silks owner, Madame Blossom (played by Lucy Liu) who also has designs on stealing the gold shipment. All of these elements come together to create a maelstrom of violence and gore, leaving none its path unscathed including the blacksmith and Lady Silk. By the final act the film has lost some its coherency with too many threads being weaved at once, however most kung fu connoisseurs will excuse this, as it does a decent job setting up the action.
The characters themselves, while played by high profile actors, are one-dimensional, and leave much to be desired in the way of acting. However, as the film progresses it becomes apparent that the main reason these actors were cast, was not for their acting prowess but rather for their skills in martial arts. With actors such as Byron Mann, and Rick Yune, the fighting pedigree of the film is decidedly high and is undoubtedly the films strongest point. Any attempt to develop the characters past their fighting capabilities falls flat its face impeded by poor delivery, and hammy dialogue. The best attempt at creating an engaging character comes from the treatment of the blacksmith, who during the course of the film loses his arms and lover, creating prosthetic limbs of iron, becoming the titular character. This transformation from simple blacksmith to the man with the iron fists should represent a change in character, however due RZA’s reserved acting, the metamorphosis and only results in an improvement in fighting capability.
The ultimate critique by which The Man with the Iron Fist will be judged is the action, which is fortuitously its crowning element. With excellent use of wires and blood effects, the film keeps the screen filled with enough blood spray, physics defying flips, and general chaos to engage viewers past its shallow plot. The film is presented by Quentin Tarintino, and all the blood spray can be considered a nod to Tarantino films such as Kill Bill or more recently Django Unchained. In the same vein, femme fatale Lucy Liu plays a similarly lethal role as she did in Kill Bill, wielding two bladed fans that artfully manage to make massacre look graceful.
Lucy Liu’s fans are not the only inspired weapons at use throughout the film. Rarely will a minute go by without someone being dismembered, beheaded, or broken in the most creative of ways. The film is very nearly a showcase for ridiculous what-if weapons, such as twin swords that join to deal death all while maintaining the shape of a yin yang symbol. If that’s not enough then there are enough, hidden blades, staffs, and gauntlets sure to appeal to any kungfu fan.
In review of The Man with the Iron Fists acts as an homage to Martial Arts films it is undeniably a serviceable rendition of the genre in a decade where it’s all but forgotten. However serviceable is the only way to describe, it the film does not carry the same inspiration and direction that greats like Enter the Dragon and Drunken Master have. In paying tribute to the genre the film loses the opportunity to move genre forward or reinvigorate rate it for a society that bears it with an overall indifference.
The Dominant West
By Matthew Argao
Throughout American history, there have been key points which piqued American interest in Asia. As Christina Klein points out in her book Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, one of these major turning points were the 1940s and 1950s which marked the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War. East Asian politics were brought to the fore and a movement quickly grew towards the acceptance of Asia as potential allies in the war for “democracy”– a far cry from pre-World War films that often painted Asian characters in a negative light. Despite this growing positivity, an underlying and distinctive American philosophy reemerged that stressed Western dominance. This philosophy of dominance can be traced back to the colonial era of American history, where the imperialist concept of “Manifest Destiny” was popular among the American populace. A key tenant of Manifest Destiny is the concept of predetermination or prearranged; the West was inherently dominant over the East by nature and in some cases, it was their duty to save those who were incapable of doing so themselves. Though rooted in history decades in the past, we see some of its philosophy occur even in modern cinema. Director Robert ‘RZA’ Diggs presents a film titled The Man with the Iron Fists which displays these ideologies within characters and while not always immediately apparent, upon closer inspection reveal just how ingrained these ideas are within Hollywood cinema. The actor Russell Crowe plays a character named “Jack Knife” and is the only Caucasian actor to be featured within the film. Russell Crowe’s portrayal of the character Jack Knife presents a strong case for Western dominance, creating a racial dichotomy between the capable West and the inferior East that stems itself from traditional Hollywood motifs of the past: the West acting as the savior and bringer of justice amongst a lawless society and the haplessness of Eastern characters juxtaposed against the capable West.
From the beginning of Jack Knife’s introduction, we are presented with a man clad in distinctly Western American clothing; he features cowboy boots, a cowboy hat and a shawl reminiscent of characters from spaghetti-western films, such as Clint Eastwood in The Good the Bad and the Ugly. Juxtaposed against his Asian surroundings, Jack becomes the center of attention within the character Madam Blossom’s brothel.
Shortly afterwards, we are presented with the following scene:
The larger Asian man can be seen in this context as representing the general Asian male populace. Though the more pertinant Asian male characters appear in the film are portrayed in a “good” light, such as Gold Lion and Zen-Yi, they escape the label of “general Asian male” by being characters born into royal standing. At the films core, this is one of the only few general depictions of the Asian male which we are able to see and thus when Jack Knife appears it can be meant to metaphorically represent the relationship the general Western male, cowboy, has with the general Eastern male, grostesque brute. The most revealing line in this exchange is when Russell Crowe’s character replies, “I seek no quarrel with you, my stout fellow. I am merely trying to save this damsel from what would be the most traumatic experience of her young life.” From his dated grammatical mannerisms, the most obvious connection to be inferred between Jack Knife and Western culture is the concept of the “White Knight”. Touched upon within Gina Marchetti’s Romance and the Yellow Peril, the concept of the “White Knight” lies in his moral purity and “his unquestionable natural right to carry the heroine away without being accused of abducting her”. It is no mere coincidence that the “White Knight” Jack happens to be Caucasian and it is no coincidence that the plot finds it necessary to establish Jack as a moral authority by having him save a “damsel in distress”. While the Asian is depicted as brutish and uncouth, it is strange that Jack, the White Knight, is able to cut down a man with little remorse, however, perhaps what is even stranger is that we as the audience feel he is justified in his actions. A veritable image of David and Goliath is present through the “fight” between Jack and the Asian male, dubbed “Crazy Hippo”, and thus we find multiple facets in which the killing is justified. Though perhaps unintentional, the concept of White Knights bringing justice and protecting the weak can be seen in this scene as patronizing towards females as well as perpetuating the image of Orientalism which Edward Said writes as “defining the East in relation to the West through a series of oppositions, each of which located the East in a subordinate position.” We see the film firmly plant the Caucasian White Knight above everyone else and seated at a higher moral standing and physical ability over the East. In another scene we see Jack Knife further uphold the Orientalist distinction between “us” and “them” in a climactic battle between him and the character Poison Dagger. Within the fight scene Jack says, “That’s the difference between you and me; I see my jobs through to the end.” It is interesting to note that the “you and me” referred to in the line can be seen as a metaphor for the lawless East and the capable West. In essence, Jack is capable of ending his fights because he comes from the West as opposed to Poison Dagger whose sneaky tactics and immorality are products of Eastern society.
Though not overtly undermining of Asian culture the film does find deeply rooted Hollywood tropes emerge through the character of Jack Knife and his interactions with East Asian characters. Recurring themes from Hollywood’s past, especially during the Cold War era, of Asians in the subordinate position and the West bringing law and morality to the East are shown to be present even in this modern day film; this is perhaps one example of how deeply entrenched within American culture concepts of Western superiority from decades past really are.
Exotic East Asia: China’s Depiction in The Man with the Iron Fists
RZA’s 2012 film, The Man with the Iron Fists is set in East Asia and depicts China as a lawless, exotic, and hedonistic environment. Just as various films from the past also set in the Orient show Asia as being morally lax, so does The Man with the Iron Fists illustrate China as being of a similarly flexible moral character. Laws are typically disregarded as any conflict is settled by bloodshed and death. Characters seeking refuge from the law settle in remote mountain villages free from governments or order. Finally, the women shown in the film are sexually adventurous, subservient, and lack complex personalities. Thus, The Man in with the Iron Fists conform to traditional depictions of East Asia from previous films, most notably in the absence of law, the exoticism and otherness of the sets, and the overly sexual and submissive female characters.
While there are forms of authority and government present in The Man with the Iron Fists, a functional legal system is notably absent from the overall setting. Conflicts between characters frequently escalate with threats and end with death. Justice is not upheld, and vengeance must be extracted personally through more violence. In the opening shots of the movie, nameless characters engage in bloody combat, and soon the scene descends into an orgy of destruction and violence. The ending of the scene is unclear, but it is immediately established that the film is set in China (based on the lettering and font choice) and that physical prowess is the only measure of who is right. No legal consequences for the scene are shown. Jungle village is even explicitly described by the Blacksmith as “ruled by many savage clans, constantly at war.” This setting is reminiscient of the setting in The Bitter Tea of General Yen, where China is shown to be in a state of civil war and therefore anarchy. The soldiers in The Bitter Tea of General Yen show no inclination to follow the legal documents presented by Dr. Strike and openly mock his de jure authority. Thus this particular interpretation of the Orient portrayed in The Man with the Iron Fists is reminiscent of the versions present in previous films.
In a similar vein, much of the décor and architecture looks particularly exotic or otherwise non-western. Monks rescue the blacksmith in one scene and teach him acient oriental secrets in what appears to be an underground, ornate Buddhist temple.
The flickering multitudes of candles, the robes, beads, and shaved heads of the monks, and the reclining, enormous statue of the Buddha all indicate a very non-western setting and an exotic locale. The objects in the set are reminiscient of the lair of Fu Manchu in its heavily eastern appearance. In particular, scenes set at the brothel The Pink Blossom are rife with visual cues of the unfamiliar and deviant. Jack Knife’s room has leopard skins on the walls and brass chains hanging from the ceiling. He is also shown drinking a great deal of alcohol and mentions consuming opium. The implied sexual escapades could be considered fetishistic and taboo in western society, but they are tolerated and welcomed by the prostitutes in a land unbound by such western constraints.
Finally, the women in the film are shown to be sexually seductive, docile, and dangerous. Almost all the women are associated with the brothel and prostitution, and few have any dialogue. Even the primary love interest, Lady Silk, hardly gets any screen time or character development before being killed off. Women are frequently shown in revealing and impractical costumes. Much of the depiction is similar to The World of Suzie Wong. Both films feature the majority of the action in brothels, though Suzie is a much more manipulative and less docile than most of the characters in The Man with the Iron Fists. In both films, the women are defined primarily by their relationship to men and have no distinct purpose otherwise. Aside from Madam Blossom, the proprietor of the Pink Blossom, few women have any impact on the plotline at all. The majority of the women in the film again conform to previously established themes of women as seductive, sexually adventurous, and servile. The exception, Madam Blossom is a “dragon lady” or femme fatale. She iterates as much in the quote: “The nature of power is that it has to be seized! Seized through sex, violence, gold…” Madam Blossom also is dressed in garb which heavily emphasizes the eastern connection. Thus while Madam Blossom initially appears to be an exception to the rule, she in fact still conforms to the archetypes previously established.
Therefore the film The Man with the Iron Fists is very much in the same tradition as other films set in East Asia. China is a fantasy land where laws do not apply, the environment is clearly foreign, and the women are all idealized sexual servants. Needless to say, this version of China is pure Hollywood fiction, yet previous films have firmly established many of these themes as staples in any film set in the Orient.
Marchetti, Gina. Romance and the “yellow Peril”: Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction. Berkeley: University of California, 1993. Print.
Prasso, Sheridan. The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls, & Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient. New York: Public Affairs, 2005. Print.