Action in tranquility
: sketching martial ideation in kung fu cinema

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Inspired by operatic and theatrical traditions such as Peking Opera, cinematic kung fu is considered by David Bordwell to be the condensation and expression of “motion emotion” through rhythmic, exaggerated, and spectacular movements. Leon Hunt takes a different approach and focuses on the authenticity of cinematic kung fu by highlighting the significance of real martial arts styles, unmediated performances, and physical risks. While these two major frameworks offer valuable insights into the action aesthetics of kung fu cinema, their emphasis on the visual and visceral pleasures of kung fu cinema has reinforced and reproduced the stigma of kung fu film as “chop-socky” bodily spectacles. Their frameworks also preclude consideration of the literary dimension, such as what Stephen Teo calls the wuxia (martial chivalry) tradition, and the sociopolitical dimension, which explores issues of local (national) identity, masculinity, and (post)coloniality. 
In extant scholarship on kung fu cinema, from Bordwell to Hunt and beyond, the major weakness has proven to be the failure of scholars to connect the five major domains of kung fu cinema, namely the cinematic, the martial, the aesthetic, the philosophical, and the sociopolitical. Not only has this failure made the theorization of cinematic kung fu rather uniform and facile, but it has also reinforced the idea that the martial arts tradition is aesthetically and philosophically deficient. 
Against this backdrop, this dissertation formulates a new conceptual framework anchored by the concept of wuyi (martial ideation) and addresses the current methodological and epistemological shortcomings in kung fu cinema scholarship vis-à-vis the prioritization of authenticity and expressivity above all else. Martial ideation is the synthesis of action and stasis that contains the powerful overflow of emotion in tranquility. With reference to the key role that tranquility plays in kung fu cinema, it is possible to open a constructive dialogue between Euro-American film theories and Chinese aestheticsphilosophy. Specifically, the tranquility of martial ideation has three manifestations: Stability, adaptability, and sensitivity. Philosophically, these three are rooted in Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism via the concepts of ren (humaneness), wu (nothingness), and guan (perspicaciousness); martially, they are embodied in the martial arts styles of Hung Gar, Jeet Kune Do, and Wing Chun; and cinematically, they are represented by the early Wong Feihung films in 1949 and 1950, Bruce Lee’s kung fu films in the early 1970s, and the Ip Man biopics from 2008 on. 
By assessing various different configurations of martial ideation in different periods, one is afforded the opportunity to gain more comprehensive and more profound insights into the ways that kung fu cinema operates in myriad different domains. From this perspective, the new framework developed in this thesis brings together, for the first time, previously separate domains in the study of kung fu cinema and provides a more integrated and holistic account of kung fu cinema and its probative aesthetic and philosophical contributions to the art of cinema.
Date of Award2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorHo Lok Victor Fan (Supervisor) & Aaron Han Joon Magnan-Park (Supervisor)

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