Martial arts movies are an unapologetically over-the-top art form, and I deeply appreciate them. Jackie Chan’s one of my favorite kung fu stars. When I watch him spinning like a cyclone to ward off a gang of axe-wielding thugs, I feel grateful and empowered. Performers like Chan promulgate potent ideas — namely, that justice really does prevail, and that evil is instantly recognizable, and can be defeated with cheesy humor and a flying knee to the face. It’s Chan’s utter concentration that wows me. The timing and flow, the here-and-now urgency, creative solutions to a life-or-death dilemma, and — most of all — laughter in the face of danger.
Those who know my softer side seem to find my indulgence in martial arts films either amusing or downright perplexing. I practice yoga; compose airy songs for piano; and write gentle characters. And yet I insist on seeing Tony Jaa movies on opening night, and Matt and I usually leave the theater fake-elbowing each other and screeching, “Hiiii-ya!” That an apparent peacenik like me is a fan of Muay Thai boxing seems the ultimate contradiction.
Just as the beatific Seane Corn balances on her hands with ease and grace, so, too, Jackie Chan achieves absolute mastery of body and mind in close-combat scenes. Of course, his dazzling heroics are pure movie magic. He’s not really beating up misogynists, thieves, murderers, drug-lords, and other assorted bad guys. But that’s part of the thrill: the illusion he creates is so convincing, it makes us cringe, laugh, and root him on.
Martial arts films and Halloween draw from the same aspect of make-believe. We can open the door to the trick-or-treater wielding a plastic knife and a scary mask, knowing it’s innocent fun, an expression of the yang. We can file out of the movie theater without a scratch.
According to Halloween’s pagan roots, the veil that separates the dead from the living becomes very thin, so thin as to allow us contact with loved ones passed. Rules that govern every other day don’t apply. The dead might walk, and if they do, candles in pumpkins will light their way. In this sense Halloween honors themes of the greatest stories ever told: love, chance, fear, adventure, danger, reverence, fate, mystery, mortality, and courage. As do the most farcical martial arts movies, by embracing the idea that dancing with death is, in effect, celebrating life.