The dreams of our childhood have a lot to tell us.
“I felt my life was two-dimensional and black and white, while I wanted three dimensions and full color. I wanted fun and adventure! The Kung Fu movies of my childhood offered that dream—that escapist experience. So I quit my job and moved to Hong Kong. I know it was an extreme reaction . . .”
These were the inspiring words of Bey Logan, producer on Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon 2: Sword of Destiny at a recent conference on Kung Fu cinema.
What struck me about the conference, was that one theme just kept on popping up all day. It was the motif of men chasing their childhood love for these movies—all the way into adulthood.
This went far beyond childishness or self-indulgence. The stories we heard were about men being drawn instinctively to these films; and from there onto their own path of self-actualization, and towards their authentic calling in life.
Here are the three variations on that theme which struck me most during the day:
Bey Logan – Martial arts movie expert and producer
Chased excitement and adventure; and over time grew into the role of Well Keeper
Bey was initially attracted to the movies for their color and excitement. But he soon came to see them as also having a mysterious power to deeply change people’s lives. In his view, a good Kung Fu movie can open doors and inspire us to pursue real-life training regimes and spiritual pathways, in a way that (for example) watching a James Bond or Superman movie doesn’t.
Bey has particular admiration for Bruce Lee’s ability to change and inspire people, with an intensity that most movie stars could never dream of. He believes this is because in our complex and confusing world, it’s comforting and uplifting for us to watch Lee effect his will on the world with such natural grace, control and simplicity
People often say that arts such as Kung Fu are anachronistic in the age of MMA.
To which Bey’s view is: who cares? He has no personal aspiration to fight in a cage; and is an ardent champion for the value of classical martial arts practice and culture; and the lifetime goal of unifying mind, body and spirit.
Another inspirational aspect of Kung Fu movies for Bey, is their powerful celebration of the male body in motion; and their promotion of genuinely empowered female characters, in contrast to many Hollywood movies.
Bey’s career in the movies has been rich and exciting; and he is well aware of his blessings. This has created in him a profound sense of the responsibility to “give back” to society through his work.
As well as discharging this through his work as a movie producer, Bey thoughtfully confided his increasing desire to now take on a role which he calls the Well Keeper, i.e. the guardian of the source of the water. Part of this is about acting as a curator and steward for the wealth of martial arts movies he knows and treasures; and helping to make them accessible. Becoming the Well Keeper is also about nurturing and developing new talent to carry on the legacy.
Various older, highly-successful movie directors
Seeking to recapture boyhood fun at a mature age, and explore cultural and political themes at the same time
Dr Felicia Chan (University of Manchester) chose the Taiwanese movie The Assassin directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien as a starting point for her talk, as it was such an unusual film to be picked up for UK distribution. This was Hsiao-Hsien’s first martial arts movie. Felicia then reflected on why so many successful Chinese directors make martial arts movies later in their career.
They certainly don’t need to do this to prove themselves in any way, as their careers are already rock-solid. But Felicia’s intriguing theory was that making a martial arts movie later in life is a way for these directors to do two important things at once.
The first reason is to revisit childhood memories of fun.
For example, Ang Lee is quoted as saying of the first Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon movie:
The film is a kind of dream of China, a China that probably never existed, except in my boyhood fantasies in Taiwan. Of course, my childhood imagination was fired by the martial arts movies I grew up with and by the novels of romance and derring-do I read instead of doing my homework. That these two kinds of dreaming should come together now, in a film I was able to make in China, is a happy irony for me.
The second reason is to explore issues around the director’s own cultural identity.
For Felicia, making a martial arts movie is not just a childish diversion for these men. She proposed that they are also using martial arts in a more serious way at the same time, as a signifier of “Chinese-ness”.
For example, The Assassin is about a young woman being trained as a killer and separated from her family. Felicia explained that the trauma of separation from mother / father is a theme which Hsiao-Hsien has explored before. It alludes to Taiwan’s complicated history since 1945, with the parents representing the State.
Felicia also believes that in this particular film, Hsiao-Hsien is seeking to recapture and recuperate an older China, modeled nostalgically on the Tang Dynasty golden age of literacy, cosmopolitanism and democracy.
In other words, on one level these directors are indeed probably chasing their boyhood dreams and memories of fun. But this is not an end in itself. The martial arts movie then becomes a vehicle for them to explore their own cultural identity. Ultimately, it enables them to communicate matters they deeply care about to their audiences—through the power of colorful, engaging story.
Kyle Barrowman – PhD student
Obsessed with martial arts movies since childhood; which has drawn him into their potential to express moral philosophy
Kyle’s presentation focused on the instructive moral elements in MMA movies. His most favorite childhood film—Champions (1998)—has a simple, classic plot. It’s based around a violent, seedy underground fighting organization, which recalls John McCain’s dismissal of MMA at one point as “human cock fighting”.
But against this morally degenerate world, the heroes of the film display nobility, incorruptibility and commitment to a “martial code”—which of course prevails over evil in the end.
Kyle also highlighted other inspirational themes found in MMA movies such as the power of friendship; the impact of training on an individual; reaching one’s potential and encouraging others to do the same.
As Kyle reached adulthood and began his academic studies, he learned that these “entertaining” movies actually expressed powerful human archetypes.
In support of the morally uplifting qualities of MMA movies, Kyle quoted one of his favorite philosophers, Ayn Rand:
What people seek in thrillers is the spectacle of man’s efficacy: of his ability to fight for his values and to achieve them. What they see is a condensed, simplified pattern, reduced to its essentials: a man fighting for a vital goal—overcoming one obstacle after another—facing terrible dangers and risks—persisting through an excruciating struggle—and winning.
Kyle’s passion for MMA was clearly visible, as was his desire that movie makers must grasp and use the power of martial arts movies to influence the audience’s hearts and minds for the better.
His career is still in its very early stages; but from hearing his talk, and speaking to him over lunch, it was clear that he is on track to somehow make the world a better place in one way or another, through the medium of his boyhood passion.
It’s all too easy to say that men and women should grow up and put away childish things, to quote St Paul. And life is hard; and full of barriers to following the paths we may always have dreamed of.
But counter to that is a sad essay Mark Twain wrote about having watched many of his friends abandon their boyhood dreams over time:
In the pride of his young ambition he had aspired to be a steamboat mate; and in fancy saw himself dominating a forecastle some day on the Mississippi and dictating terms to roustabouts in high and wounding terms. I look back now, from this far distance of seventy years, and note with sorrow the stages of that dream’s destruction […] and now at last there he lies—Secretary of State, Head of Foreign Affairs. And he has fallen like Lucifer, never to rise again. And his dream–where now is his dream? Gone down in blood and tears
Ah, the dreams of our youth, how beautiful they are, and how perishable! The ruins of these might-have-beens, how pathetic!
And in any case, these boyhood dreams may not be as fanciful or trivial as they seem.
Nicole Williams, connection director at LinkedIn says, The dream jobs we aspire to as children are a window into our passions and talents. Identifying and understanding those passions are key to improving our performance and enjoyment of the jobs we currently do even if they aren’t specific to the careers we dreamed of as kids.
So if you have a boyhood (or girlhood) dream still lurking in the recesses of your heart, perhaps it’s time to give it some attention. Very likely your current life circumstances won’t allow you to run away to Hong Kong and make movies—but there may still be a way to reclaim and integrate elements of your childhood dreams somewhere.
Because it’s not a zero sum game between chasing those dreams and being a “good” adult. As the men profiled in this article show, the two goals may well even end up being one and the same thing …
Bey, Felicia and Kyle were speaking at the conference: Kung Fury: Contemporary Debates in Martial Arts Cinema organised by the Martial Arts Studies Research