The film is set in the fictional town of “Jungle Village” during pseudo-Qing Dynasty, where the governor has tasked the Lion clan with the protection of his gold shipment through the village. When the head of the Lion clan is overthrown by a traitor, war erupts between rival clans for the gold. Caught in the middle of this conflict is Thaddeus, a blacksmith tasked with providing weapons for both sides, and eventually lost his arms due to the involvement. In the end, the Blacksmith channels an ancient energy to turn himself into a living weapon–the man with the iron fists–and eventually saves the Jungle Village from the violent evil. The Man with the Iron Fists pays tribute to kung-fu movies of the 1970s. While it attempts to emulate these films, it makes no significant attempt at improving the representation of East Asians. Concepts of Chinese culture such as kung-fu and qi energy are misrepresented for the entertainment factor. RZA opted to showcase ridiculous fighting moves instead of the practical styles of the several professional martial artists that starred in the movie. Orientalism is another them that is implicit in the film. The Chinese in this film are often shown as lacking morals, and this image is often juxtaposed with representations of the West. While RZA’s depiction of elements rooted in Chinese cinema is not by any means maliciously racist, the influence of racial stereotypes and broader themes of the East-West juncture of Orientalism are always present.
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Application of Chinese Kung Fu in Hollywood Films
by Yi Zhu
Obviously, adding the Chinese aspects into film narrative pattern has already been a trend in the Hollywood industry. Chinese cultural aspects, commercial utility, and famous landmark have been maximized and dissimilated somehow in those films. 2012, a 2009 American science fiction disaster film, set the ultimate safety zone for human in Tibet; Skyfall, the newest Bond film, putted the whole story background into Shanghai and Macao; and of course this film The Man with the Iron Fists created a pseudo Chinese setting to sell its Kung Fu.
Kung Fu is the Chinese art form with easily transformative characteristics and thus it has been broadly chosen to be introduced to American audience in those Hollywood films. It is purely involved with actions, it is highly visualized and it somewhat caters to the appetites of general public. From Bruce Lee to Jackie Chan, American’s enthusiasm flowered. However, interestingly, because lots of Hollywood Kung Fu films only specifically focus on the actions rather than sprit, the appearance rather than essence, many American audiences mistakenly think China is a country full of swordsmen, Kung Fu masters and different clans.
As the presenter of this film, Quentin Tarantino played a vital role in the production and publicity of this film, and inevitably this film featured heavily with Quentin’s own style which is why this film is similar with Kill Bill, another mashup work dealing with Chinese Kung Fu. Quentin is actually a huge fan of Chinese Kong Fu, precisely, of Hong Kong action films. Therefore he invited Gory Yuen, a famous action choreographer in Hong Kong to help design some martial styles and systems. However, apparently, this film largely enlarged and exaggerated authentic Chinese Kong Fu to serve the cinematic effects but in an improper and lowbrow way.
1. Endowing the Kung Fu with Caucasian actors. Brass Body and the blacksmith. This approach lead audience to a more compatible way to enjoy Chinese Kung Fu (Not only Chinese but also white people can master Kung Fu), and reset the hierarchy of Kung Fu in a relatively mundane position.
2. Exaggerated Kung Fu styles for stronger visual impact. For example the Gemini states, the Gemini couples put so many efforts to make this pose but only attack enemies with some following kicks and hidden gun, and therefore they were just easily killed by hidden weapons soon after the fight scene. Apparently, the director weighted too much on the creativity of Kung Fu but somehow ignore the essence and utility of those actions and movements.
(Click here for a fight scene involving with Lucy Liu which exemplified the visually fabulous action design)
3. The film mostly highlights the sexually suggestive contexts and violence to get into the lowbrow culture. Though there is no explicit sexual situation, still the film chose a brothel as a main setting with most fights occurred, meanwhile, there is a segment that involved that the prostitutes turned to be Kung Fu fighters which though rediculous but dramatic enough to serve the plot. Besides, all the fight scenes underscore the violent aspect of Kung Fu, there were lots of scene dealing with littered corpses, splashing blood and amputated body parts. The diversity of aspects in this film obviously attract some specific types of audience.
4. Modernizing the costumes and background music. In this film, those prostitutes wear extremely exposed costumes to explicitly distinguish their identities and at the same time underscore the sexual contexts as well. On the other hand, Zen Yi’s modern iron armor with hidden weapon beneath it also emphasized his identity as a Kung Fu master. Furthermore, RZA used his own music as the background music to match up with fighting scenes, but unfortunately the hip-hop songs didn’t really reinforce the fighting scene but, to some extent, weaken the seriousness of Kung Fu.
5. This film also simplified (distorted) the specific existence of Chinese Kung Fu. For example, the Brass Body. “Brass” the word should be understood as metaphor because in authentic Chinese culture, Brass Body is described as existence between general human being and Buddha, because they have advanced Kung Fu skill and strong body to resist attacks from regular enemies. But here in this film, to intuitively explain such existence to audience, the film portrayed the Brass Body as a brutal fighter with brass muscle. At the same time, the film just simply distinguished the different clans in ancient China with animal features. Wolf clan, lion clan, rat clan and so on. Besides, for distinguishing the different clans, the film just simply designed those clans with different animal decorations.
I think this film did not really understand the essence of Chinese Kong Fu, either culturally nor literally. Instead, it try too hard to attract audience with showy martial arts, violence and catharsis. Though, The Man with The Iron Fists might not be regarded as a commercially and critically successful Kong Fu film, but it is an eligible cult film which caught the trend of Chinese elements in today’s film industry.
Afro-Asian Kung Fusion
by Lisa Kong
One of the biggest misconceptions about “The Man with the Iron Fists” is that it is a Quentin Tarantino film. It’s easy to see why most audiences would think this. The visuals and capricious gore play homage to Kill Bill and Grindhouse, and the film is actually advertised as being “presented by” Tarantino.
But it’s not a Tarantino film. It’s a RZA film, in almost every aspect. RZA conceptualized the story, wrote the screenplay, provided the soundtrack, and directed and starred in the film. “The Man with the Iron Fists” is RZA’s genuflection to a genre which played a massive impact on his life and career, and speaks to the topic of Afro-Asian martial arts in film.
RZA’s connection to kung-fu films is well known. The hip hop group Wu-Tang Clan, which RZA is a founding member of, takes its name from the 80;s Hong Kong film “Shaolin and Wu Tang,” and quite a few of the group’s songs either reference kung-fu or sample sound bites from the films themselves.
In an interview, RZA talks about the beginning of his obsession with the kung-fu genre: “In 1979, my cousin took me to 42nd Street to see some kung fu movies and I was blown away. We started going every weekend after that. There was a movie directed by Chang Chen called Five Deadly Venoms and when I saw it, I was totally geeked out. The plot was crazy, and the characters…The Toad, the Lizard, the Scorpion, the Snake, the Centipede! They seemed like superheroes.”
If this sounds familiar, it is because RZA uses this same story idea in “The Man with the Iron Fists.” In his original, four hour-long screenplay, RZA details several animal-themed clans which are eventually cut down to just a few: the Lion Clan, the Wolf Clan, the Rat Clan, etc. RZA in fact references numerous distinctive kung-fu genre tropes in the film (seen through an equally distinctive hip-hop lens) which in part contributes to the often confusing and disparate feeling of the plot. Another member of this group details more along these lines in his analysis.
It may seem asynchronous for a young African American boy growing up in Brooklyn to be so strongly influenced by Asian martial arts films, but this phenomenon is actually not so uncommon. Vijay Prashad writes about this in his book “Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity” in the chapter titled “Kung Fusion: Organize the ‘Hood Under I-Ching Banners.”
Prashad writes in particular about Bruce Lee, not just his role as a massive Asian film actor, but also his role of being one of the first to encourage training non-Asians in martial arts. Bruce advocated the idea that anyone could become a sifu, a master. This infectious, unifying idea appealed to the working-class youth, and soon dojos were being established in major US cities, designed to be refuge for “youth in the ghetto.” The Black Karate Foundation (BKF) was founded in the late 1960s and some of its more famous members went on to appear in martial arts films themselves—an example being Jim Kelly, who appeared in “Enter the Dragon” with Bruce Lee.
Prashad writes that the BKF “continues to preach the path of karate as the path to…facilitate a sense of unity among a diverse community, provide leadership and guidance for youth and their families, narrow the gap between cultures,” (134.) Martial arts, Prashad argues, was a form of cultural exchange between Afro-Asian communities that linked them in the face of racism in the 60s and 70s.
In terms of what RZA thinks of Bruce Lee, in response to an interview question about race and equality in the US, RZA made an interesting comment about Bruce’s martial arts overcoming race boundaries: “Give everybody a fair chance, you know. Not because he’s Asian or Black. Who’s going to say that Lucy Liu is not one of the prettiest women in the world? Before, they thought that slanty eyes were not beautiful…To think that Tony Jaa can be a sex symbol. Even Bruce Lee. I was watching Bruce Lee with my girl, and she says, ‘You know, Bruce Lee is a handsome guy’ …He has a nobility about his face. He’s not just a martial artist. He’s a great man. That’s what martial does for him.”
RZA’s experiences with martial arts may have served as his inspiration for the metaphor that takes place in “The Man with the Iron Fists” to RZA’s character. Subjugated and humiliated in his home country as a slave, he is discovered by a group of Chinese monks who teach him an ancient, mystical art. This ancient art later enables the blacksmith’s ability to control the iron arms and fight. And in the very last scene of the movie, the blacksmith implies that he will use his strength for good and to keep Jungle Village clean from evil—much like martial arts dojos in the 70’s did the same in their communities. (Link to video of relevant scene.)
Orientalism in The Man with the Iron Fists
by George Deng
RZA’s The Man with the Iron Fists is a homage to some of the earlier martial arts movies of the 1970s. The film features many over-the-top fight scenes and outlandish characterizations. It lends itself to depictions of several aspects of Chinese culture, however inaccurate or archaic they might be. As Gina Marchetti mentions in her book Romance and the Yellow Peril, “…Hollywood’s romance with Asia tends to be a flirtation with the exotic rather than an attempt at any genuine intercultural understanding.” The film takes concepts such as qi energy and martial arts and twists them for the audience’s entertainment rather than giving them any honest or meaningful representation. The presentation of the Chinese culture in this way serves to make China appear as an exotic and mystical place. The audience can then find amusement and derision in the sexual promiscuity and excessive violence that is enabled by the setting of The Man with the Iron Fists. The film can be seen as a subtle narrative of Western domination over the East under the guise of a classic kung-fu film pastiche.
The Pink Blossom is one of the more obvious examples of exoticism in the film. With its vibrant interior accommodating scantily-clad Chinese prostitutes along with their degenerate clients, the brothel is a place where immorality thrives. Not only does it showcase sexual taboos, but the Pink Blossom also serves as the film’s final slaughterhouse, where our heroes fight the forces of the Lion Clan. This depiction of vice and violence implicitly puts China on a lower moral pedestal compared to Western society. To help bolster this orientalist notion is Russell Crowe’s character, Jack Knife. Although Mr. Knife does partake in lewd sexual acts with the brothel workers, he is shown as superior to the normal Chinese man in other ways, such as being more articulate, charismatic, and of a higher social standing (he was a British soldier). He is an embodiment of the West that takes advantage of the submissive and promiscuous nature of the Asian women, along with the copious amounts of opium that would not be readily available in his home country.
The setting of Jungle Village itself takes the characters even further away from any familiar human society. Most of the characters are called by a nickname rather than an authentic Chinese name, with the exception of Zen-Yi. It’s no mistake that the most influential clans of Jungle Village are named after animals. Some of the clans featured are the Lions, the Wolves, the Rats, and the Hyenas. The bestial nomenclature makes the Chinese seem like savage animals rather than humans, all constantly fighting to be the king of the jungle. Greed becomes an overpowering force in the village, as the Lions betray their own leader at the prospect of gold. Jungle Village needed to be rid of these corrupting influences. The Chinese governor ordered a group of military troops known as the Jackals to ensure the safe delivery of gold through Jungle Village. Right when the Jackals were about to decimate the Lion Clan in the brothel, Jack Knife emerges and proclaims that everything is under control. By not allowing the governor to fully exercise his authority, he is left emasculated by the British soldier. The eventual cleansing of the warring clans could only be accomplished with Western influence.
Chinese Buddhism and the concept of qi energy is featured prominently whenever RZA’s character, Thaddeus (or the Blacksmith as he’s usually referred to), appears. After the main villains cut off both the Blacksmith’s arms for not turning in Zen-Yi, he sits in bed recuperating and tells Jack Knife about his past. Thaddeus was an American slave, but after being emancipated, he accidently kills a White man who refuses to let him go. He flees from his life in America, but the ship he was travelling on crashes in China, with him as the sole survivor.
Thaddeus becomes the pupil of the abbot of a Buddhist temple. In one of the abbot’s teachings, he says that everyone possess the nature of Buddha, but we are blinded by the design of our flesh. Once we learn to look past the color of our skin, then “we see that all men are the same, and all life is precious.” His lesson is particularly relevant to Thaddeus, who dealt with a lifetime of discrimination based on his skin color. In part, the scene exemplifies Klein’s Cold War Orientalism. As Thaddeus learns from the abbot, there is a cultural exchange between representatives from the U.S. (Thaddeus) and China (the abbot). It stands in stark contrast to the rest of the film, where the warring clans of Jungle Village and the denizens of the Pink Blossom brothel are made inferior based on their moral reprehensibility. It may seem that the filmmakers are presenting a redeeming side of Chinese culture, but ultimately it is a presentation of qualities that a Western audience would approve of. The abbot’s teachings are an echo of American democratic ideals of racial equality. The Blacksmith, in the end, uses his iron fists to defeat the evil Lions along with Brass Body. The ability to use his iron fists are enabled by his mastery of qi energy, which came in close association with his Buddhist education. Sentimentalist notions of integration and acceptance are shown in triumph over greed and immorality. The West is once again shown in triumph over the East.
RZA’s Cung Le Bungle
By Ian Akamine
Among the mix of actors is Cung Le, who plays the villainous second-in-command of the Lion Clan’s insurrection, Bronze Lion. While The Man with the Iron Fists is not Le’s first appearance in film, he is far more famous for his work on a different canvas: the professional fighting ring. First as an undefeated kickboxer and now as a mixed martial artist in the Ultimate Fighting Championships, Le built his career on fighting for the entertainment of audiences of combat-aficionados around the world. However, in translating Cung Le the professional martial artists into Bronze Lion, RZA errs in his homage to wuxia and other genre of martial arts film and delivers, to borrow one of Le’s signature combinations, a symbolic front-leg-side-kick-to-spinning-back-fist to the faces of movie-going martial arts fans.
Stylistically, The Man with the Iron Fists draws from the wuxia genre films from China and Hong Kong. Wuxia is a broad category of Chinese fiction that began as literature a couple thousand years ago and enjoys modern popularity in cinema. The term, which separates into Chinese words for militarism and heroism, has no convenient English equivalent yet should be at least somewhat familiar to casual movie-goers. Two recent examples of wuxia films that have garnered success in America are Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Hero (2002), films that feature gallant martial artists capable of moving in ways that ignore Newtonian Physics through their training and often, but not necessarily always, exhibit mastery of a particular weapon. Additionally, the heroes of wuxia often come from humble backgrounds and rise to challenge a corrupt authority, a feature that particularly resonates with RZA’s story of a blacksmith battling with the fearsome Lion Clan.
An off-shoot of wuxia cinema that should also be familiar to American audiences is the kung-fu genre of film. Although not thematically mutually exclusive from wuxia, kung-fu films apply a different, more realistic approach to the depiction of combat. Bruce Lee is often the first name to come to mind in America when thinking of kung-fu films and while his physical abilities certainly do flirt with the superhuman, Lee’s movements on film are essentially organic. Lee himself was not fond of the theatrics associated with Chinese martial arts; Vijay Prashad quotes him in Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting as asserting that “Ninety percent of Oriental self-defense is baloney”, which helps to explain the more realistic portrayal of combat in Lee’s movies. Needless to say, such films rely on polished skill in martial arts or dance that can allow for eye-catching choreography without the use of outside effects.
Enter Cung Le. Regarding Bruce Lee’s claim, Cung Le has decisively proven himself as an artist among the remaining ten percent. Cung (referred to herein by his first name to avoid confusion with Lee) is perhaps the only professional mixed martial artist to employ Chinese martial arts with success in the full-contact stage where the striking skill sets of fighters all but universally stem from western boxing or Thai and Dutch kickboxing. While Sanshou, Cung’s technical background, is perhaps more accurately described as an organization rather than a style, its techniques descend from traditional Chinese martial arts refined through the inclusion of foreign skills, much like Lee’s Jeet Kune Do. Briefly dipping into the lexicon of MMA, Cung’s approach to fighting uses a fundamentally different system of relying on the direct thrust of side-kicks and spinning-back kicks to maintain an unusually distant range and attack with snapping wheel kicks. While a less-knowledgeable viewer will not understand the subtleties of Le’s style, he is a dynamic striker that anyone can enjoy watching.
With Cung as a member of the cast, RZA has the talent of the premier Chinese martial artist of this generation and an excellent means to draw in the rapidly growing population of MMA fans. However, in choosing to overlay the characteristics of wuxia choreography onto Cung’s character, Bronze Lion, squanders this potential. While it was likely not his intention, RZA seems to base his decision on race; while Brass Body the supernatural ability to solidify his body into metal at will, the Blacksmith can use his mastery of qi acquired in a random training montage (one perhaps reminiscent of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin) to articulate his iron arms, and Jack Knife possesses incredible dexterity with his small knife-gun, all of the non-Asian characters move in ways that seem more akin to kung-fu choreography rather than the characteristic gravity-defying movements of wuxia, which all of the Asian characters exhibit. To refer to this distinction as racism is definitely an undue assertion, yet one cannot deny that racial stereotyping is implicitly at work. By binding Cung Le to the stereotype of a wuxia character along with the other Asian actors, RZA limits Bronze Lion to an awkward claw-based style that allows for only glimpses of the dynamic Chinese martial arts Cung has introduced to the world of no-holds-barred fighting sports.
RZA’s The Man with The Iron Fists seems inhabit a margin between a wuxia and kung-fu film, one perhaps fitting for a multiethnic cast. As an unfortunate result, however, the racial division of roles creates an unfortunate nod to stereotyping. However, RZA’s most egregious error, at least in the eyes of this MMA fan, is wasting an opportunity to work with one of the most exciting professional fighters in the world. On all counts, perhaps an homage to Bruce Lee’s multiethnic classic, Enter the Dragon (1973), would have been more suitable.