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Chinese Martial Arts Film

Course Overview

This course guides students to view classic works of Chinese martial arts cinema critically, and teaches them to examine a variety of topics related to this genre. The topics include the historical roots, ideology, worldview, cinematic aesthetics, transnationalism, globalization, spectatorship, and collective memory. The course provides students with a meaningful experience with both depth and breadth of knowledge in this genre from four perspectives, the characteristics of the genre, the director’s aesthetic choice, the actor’s stardom and film persona, and the spectator’s film viewing experience.


Through viewing, discussing, interpreting, and analyzing a number of representative Chinese martial arts films from different eras synchronously in Zoom live sessions, students will develop a profound understanding and appreciation of this particular cinematic expression and visual construction. Ultimately, students will apply their gained knowledge to create their own short martial arts film by developing a screenplay, a storyboard, and producing a final cut, using Adobe Premiere Pro.

Course Content

Unit 1: Introduction to Film Languages

The first unit of the course introduces cinematographic principles and film terms. Through reading and live session discussions, students will learn the concepts behind different types of camera work, including shots, angles, movements, lighting, lenses, and mise-en-scène. They will also explore the concepts behind different types of video editing and sound editing, and will glean how camera work and editing serve the purpose of narrative. Students will first apply the knowledge to analyze short clips of martial arts fights scenes, and then expand the analysis to a feature-length martial arts animation film.

Unit 2: Historical Roots, Ideology, and Worldviews

This unit provides opportunities for students to study and gain knowledge of the historical roots of Chinese martial arts film. It also guides students to explore the ideology and worldview reflected in the genre. Students will watch two Chinese martial arts films–Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon–and read film analyses on the two films. Through critical viewing, reading, and class discussion, students will obtain understanding of the characterization of the Chinese knight-errant (xia), the fictional martial arts world of “rivers and lakes” (jianghu), and the historical, social, and cultural contributions and dimensions of the genre.

Unit 3: Cinematic Aesthetics

This unit guides students to explore Chinese martial arts film’s cinematic aesthetics by focusing on the artistic and narrative styles of three directors: Zhang Che, King Hu, and Chu Yuan. Students will compare and discuss the different ways the three directors portray the gender prototypes of Chinese knight-errant (xia) and their distinct self-fashioning of the presentation of martial arts violence. The films students watch are Blood Brothers by Zhang Che, A Touch of Zen by King Hu, and The Sentimental Swordsman by Chu Yuan.

Unit 4: Transnationalism and Globalization

This unit aims at directing students to associate the global popularity of Chinese martial arts film with contemporary, real-world contexts by focusing on three internationally recognized martial arts film stars: Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li. Students will watch Be Water (a documentary film about Bruce Lee), Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master II, and Jet Li’s first film, Shaolin Temple. Students will examine how all three stars represent both nationalism and transnationalism at the same time; how they all struggle, compromise, and negotiate when working outside of Chinese social context with Hollywood; and how they embrace the increasingly transnational filmmaking environment while maintaining their unique cultural identity and film persona in the global context.

Unit 5: Collective Memory and Spectatorship

This unit teaches the students to explore the audience’s aspect by examining how two Chinese martial arts films, The Grandmaster and The Assassin, evoke the collective memory of the members of a culture, e.g., history, cultural achievements and traditions, generational experience, to serve storytelling. Students learn that such evocation guarantees appropriate understanding, and/or meanwhile, creates collective memory among the audience by providing collective viewing experience with visualization of the concepts of the fictional martial arts world (jianghu) and the images of the Chinese knight-errant (xia).

Unit 6: Martial Arts Film Project

The last unit brings all the knowledge from the previous units together by providing an opportunity for students to experience the martial arts filmmaking process. Students will be guided to participate in three basic stages of a martial arts film production: screenplay, storyboard, and final cut. In the screenplay stage, students will learn how to write a short film, how to format a screenplay professionally, and how to design and structure a martial arts fight scene. In the storyboard stage, students will learn about the elements of a storyboard and how to storyboard. In the final cut stage, students will learn to utilize Adobe Premiere Pro and demonstrate their understanding of the artistic process and cinematographic principles of the Chinese martial arts film genre by producing an original short martial arts film. Each student will produce a film no more than 10 minutes long.