The Forbidden Kingdom, a 2008 produced American film infused with Chinese martial art, is directed by well-known American filmmaker, Rob Minkoff. Led by actors who are the epitome of Chinese martial art, Jackie Chan and Jet Li, this spectacular film is one that keeps the audiences in awe.
This film is undoubtedly transcultural, or as another would say, globalised. “The Forbidden Kingdom” was created with the basis that it had to cater to an American audience, but with the central theme focused on wuxia. Hence, for it to be popular in the West and all over the world, it is likely that the film has to be transcultural (Chan & Wu, 2007), to feed the targeted audiences’ preferences.
The screenplay’s male protagonist is American teenager Jason Tripitikas (Michael Anragano), who fantasizes Chinese cinema and kungfu classics. Just by looking at Jason Tripitikas, we get to see an English boy whose surname is Tripitikas, where we can form links with his surname ‘Tripitikas’ to the prestigious Chinese Buddhist monk, Tripitak. As the whole gist of the film revolves around Jason and his quest to return a relic (the ru yi jing gu bang) to its rightful owner (the Monkey King), we can see that this film has established connection to one of the 4 Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature – Journey to the West (Shen Yun, 2016). On a deeper hindsight, Jason Tripitikas is as though Tripitaka on his Journey to the West.
Besides male protagonist Jason, “The Forbidden Kingdom” also starred 2 of the greatest stars, drunken kungfu master Lu Yan (Jackie Chan) and Silent Monk (Jet Li), who are familiar names when it comes to Chinese martial art films. They are international celebrities (Flannery R., 2015) that Americans would be familiar with. Despite their popularity, English boy ‘Jason’ remained as the main focus throughout the film. Towards the end of the film, Jason unsurprisingly surfaced as the ultimate hero. That brings us to the commonly anticipated ‘white saviour’ at the end of a story, and while this may be deemed to be forced and essentially grandiose, such an ending certainly aims to reach out to the mass of the American population who are essentially white (US Census, 2016).
Next, we take a look at a sophisticated scene where Jason and Lu Yan were drinking at a traditional Chinese-style tea house, where they were subsequently attacked by the Warlord’s men and they managed to escape by riding on a horse through a Chinese brothel as seen.
In this one single scene, it uniquely combines equestrianism, which has American origins (Rask L., 2008), placed together in a Chinese setting. Such depiction offers perspective on the transcultural attempt of this film. While it is evident that “The Forbidden Kingdom” Americanizes the wuxia genre, there are certainly efforts to preserve the Chinese inspirations. That being said, I would boldly express that this film also aimed at retaining wuxia roots, originating from the rich Chinese history.
In film studies, wuxia genre is one the oldest in the Chinese cinema (Teo S., 2009). It encompasses of Chinese history and culture, as wuxia is a popular culture amongst Chinese communities (Xiao X., 2012). “Wuxia” by itself is a compound word that combines the word xia which has reference to being honourable and chivalrous, capturing the Chinese knight-errant philosophy, whereas wu meant martial art. However, despite wuxia longevity, the wuxia culture has not been proactively shared in the West. Director, Rob Minkoff, probably recognised that. Together with his love of kungfu (Silent Monkeys, 2008), “The Forbidden Kingdom” gives American outsiders a tour of the wuxia genre where it briefly presents the staples of the genre.
While several critics offered the perspective that “The Forbidden Kingdom” is an unabashedly innocent movie with simple intention to sell the martial arts fantasy (Tyler J., 2008), I beg to differ. This film has incorporated a large amount of the Chinese tradition and culture as it runs. One would even say that “The Forbidden Kingdom” manifests the intention to influence the positivity of Chinese culture through the wuxia genre that stems from the rich Chinese history.
As Jason venture on his quest to return the staff to its rightful owner – the Monkey King, he learns of values which we derived as the moral of the story. Thus, looking on a macro level, this film embedded underlying Chinese virtues which include honour, loyalty and relationships (mentor-mentee relationship, friendship), signifying the true meaning of kungfu. These portray the beauty of Chinese culture whereby the true essence of kungfu embodies traditional Chinese virtues.
Examining on a micro level, different aspects of Chinese culture are being displayed. As Jason transverse across the jianghu, he has 3 other companions. Besides Lu Yan and Silent Monk, there is the vengeance kungfu beauty, Golden Sparrow (Liu Yi Fei). In the film, there are multiple scenes of the Golden Sparrow playing the pipa, a classical Chinese musical instrument (Millward J., 2011). As she looked perfectly poised stringing the instrument elegantly, it speaks of the beauty with regard to the Chinese music heritage that is stunningly rich and spiritual.
On a side note, an interesting thing to note would be the director’s background. Rob Minkoff, despite being an American, is relatively familiar with the Chinese culture. This can be attributed towards his passion towards the Chinese martial art and his marriage to a Chinese descendent of Confucius (Churnin N., 2014).
All in all, in today’s globalised world, it presents more opportunities as well as challenges for the Chinese film industry. For films to be successful, it ought to integrate and assimilate into different culture whereby it needs to be relatable. Similarly, Chinese film industry has been integrating into Hollywood’s production and distribution system (Chung P., 2007). Overall, while “The Forbidden Kingdom” at first glance may seem to be a simple film for kungfu fanatics, it is actually a pastiche of wuxia films and I would consider this film to have successfully Americanizes the wuxia genre without losing the Chinese inspirations.
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