Lau Kar-leung with Walter Benjamin: Storytelling, Authenticity, Film Performance and Martial Arts Pedagogy

Luke White
2014 JOMEC Journal  
How might we understand the politics of corporeal identification that stands at the heart of the pleasures of kung fu cinema? And how might this be built on the forms of pedagogy -the 'embodied knowledge' -of the martial arts themselves? Might the forms of visual-corporeal communication at the heart of 'kung fu' (as cinema and physical practice), harbour emancipatory impulses, even if -or paradoxically because -they are rooted in a 'premodern' past? In order to argue that this is indeed the
more » ... , this essay examines the work of Lau Kar-leung, one of kung fu cinema's most innovative auteurs during the 1960s and '70s. Lau's work as a choreographer and director entailed an extended reflection on his own position not only as a filmmaker, but also a martial arts practitioner. It meditates on the kung fu traditions of which he is a part, and the forms of heritance within which these place him. His films, furthermore, are themselves pedagogical works, capturing their audience within processes of transmission and remembrance that extend from the training hall into the spaces of the media. In the case of Lau's films, made in the wake of the countercultural and anticolonial turmoil of 1960s and '70s Hong Kong, the 'radicality' of martial-arts cinema's pedagogy is suggested by the fact that the kung fu traditions in question (primarily Lau's own Hung Gar lineage) are posited as part of a culture of resistance. Many of Lau's cinematic protagonists (also ostensibly his own martial arts ancestors) revolt against Manchurian occupation and semicolonial domination by the West, and in this they connect to a longer history of the Chinese martial arts' involvement in resistance from below. To understand the ways that these histories of resistance are threaded into a cinematic aesthetic of kung fu, I turn to Walter Benjamin. Though Benjamin's famous Artwork essay primarily posits 'authenticity' and 'aura' as retrograde, some of his other late essays open up ways of thinking the auratic body of the kung fu performer in a more positive light. I draw on Benjamin's essay on the 'Storyteller', arguing that there are strong parallels between the forms of embodied memory and experience (Erfahrung) transmitted in storytelling and the oral pedagogies of Chinese martial arts. Kung fu cinema itself, furthermore, draws on older told stories of the martial arts and on their epic rather than novelistic form. 'Kung fu' culture thus entails a storytelling mode that, in the context of (post)modern, (post)colonial, globalisation, presents a counterforce to the abstraction, atomisation and instrumentalisation that characterise capitalist social relations. It resists the erasure of historical depth, and of our ability to embody and transmit our experiences, and so facilitates the formation of resistant subjectivities and identities. As a reserve of Erfahrung, Lau's cinema -and by extension the martial arts on which they are based, and the wider kung fu genrecontains seeds of heterology through which the order of the present might be challenged.
doi:10.18573/j.2014.10277 fatcat:vusewnqpxrasfmubkc6b7goire