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Peking Opera and the Aesthetic Freedoms of Avatar

The Kung fu, Wuxia and Opera in Avatar

I was listening to a famous opera actress speak of her transition to film and her telling of how much control she had to bring her face and gestures under called to mind a connection between the operatic and Cameron’s film Avatar. As I argued in my post Two Vectors of Avatar’s Cinematic Achievement: Affect and Space Interface, Avatar exhibited a new relationship between actorly expression and synthetic environment, facilitated by new, data-dense facial motion capture. The face became the plane of an artifice’s reality, taking advantage the power of the Hollywood close-up. The entire virtual world is in a sense sewn to the actor’s plane through the directorial affective synthesis of event, movement and volume. What occurrs is that cinema indeed went through a similar transformation in the genre of Hong Kong “kung fu” Action Film, which became an aesthetic expression of Peking Opera (a highly stylized, acrobatic and often melo-dramatic or mythological artform). In Kung Fu films of the 70s and 80s, the extreme physicality of Peking formal expression was married to the fantasy tradition of “chivalrous knight” wuxia literature from early in the century (the Shaw Brothers among others), then splitting into more gritty conflict themes, or the spatial expansions of famed “wire-fu”. Throughout strong moral and fantasy elements struggled in an invented space, imbued with spiritual messaging and social criticism. In a feature now almost lost to action cinema, one saw the character of a martial arts figure expressed in his or her fight style or capabilities, in world imbued with moral positioning. 

Many see all sorts of ethnic or sociological loom-work in Cameron’s Avatar, and perhaps this is much to be analyzed there, but in many ways it is an unfurling of the mythological, wuxia elements found in 70s and 80s that found their telling of personal development and realization from early films as diverse as the immortal death scene gangster classic The Boxer from Shantung to mytho-poetic gender questioning in The Fist of the White Lotus all the way to the CGI Tsui Hark remake of his own wire-fu fantasy icon, The Legend of Zu (to which I had already compared the film, among many others: Avatar: The Density of Being ).These are a vast array of an cinematic ouvre, and make perhaps the very best interpretative touchstone for both the seemingly simple-minded moral spritualism (much criticized), and the acute physical actor and environmental acrobatics. What seems likely is that while the wuxia and Peking purities began to lose much of their character force as the wire-fu transformations of space and human expression became more baroque and absurd, and budgets became bigger, the genuine transformation of Peking Opera’s masked formalism though the Hollywood close-up that Hong Kong action brought about, the way that it was able to stitch subjectivity back into the historically momentous and mythological scene and enable a person to conceive of the moral force of every angle and posture of their physical frame, has been reborn in Cameron’s technological re-invention of 3D and Capture. It can be argued that Hong Kong wire-fu with its elaborate in-space camera swing was the first 3D directorial interface of the kind that Cameron synthetically achieved in Avatar. In Cameron’s allegory, the simple, mythological and personal are woven through, but this time the acrobatics of the performer are embodied in the almost muscular transformations of space itself. Environment becomes the mutual expression of anatomy and technology. It is no longer spiritual and physical geniuses transcending the mundane world, but rather a realization that a world itself is intimately linked to both anatomy and character. What remains is of course the acolyte, studying to find the rudiments of graceful and powerful exposition, the same story of the warrior seeking to perfect or unlock a secret power, but here the metamorphosis is that of trying to enter into and fit both an anatomy and a world, a world full of capabilities beyond our common reconnoiter. A question of conscience.

Avatar: The Density of Being

Let’s just say that I am recovering. It is a carefully sculpted onslaught, discretely spaced with only a few flaws, but an onslaught nonetheless. And I am recovering. It’s Pocahontas meets Full Metal Jacket meets The Diving Bell and the Butterfly meets Alien meets Coming Home meets Dragonheart meets Dersu Uzala  meets Brainstorms meets Total Recall meets The Legend of Zu meets Tron meets Dances with Wolves meets Final Fantasy IV meets Logan’s Run, all of this meeting Ecological Crisis ideology meets Indigenous nostalgia meets Disney ethnic cliché and New Age ascension, and all of that sum colliding with the categorical mytho-aesthetic effect of the first Star Wars and possibly 2001. The storylines and plot topologies proliferate at animation-cell frame rates so synthesized, so graced, they are no longer borrowings, but rather operate like flipped gateways for infusions that simply cannot be qualified, nor controled. The movie downloads the viewer with such ferocity and such poetic space the film bends back cinema upon itself, and introduces its content – the question of Avatarship – into the very experience, pulling out from technological increase and its inherent relatability the buried question of sensitivity, connection and projected identification, in short, the implied organic mutuality in everything our machines have brought us. Cameron and his magicians in such a threshold defying 3D invade our bodies and throw out our affects into the arms and sinews of operators which defy all of our repeated attempts to take map of where we are. This past movie recognition, this ethnic familiarity – are the Pandorans African Maasai, elegant Native American Indians, Thai-Myanmar Pa Dong Karen, naked Amazon natives, or even cats – inundates and torques the viewer in a transport that is more than pleasured, more than reflective. It is free…free in only the sense that aesthetic renewal can be free. One is tossed outward amid the equally familiar ideological landscapes of ecological nightmare (however this reads for you), and you are vividly aware of its artifice. But in that practical synthetics the technological nervature examines you and opens you out across the help even to your well-honed intellectual compass. You rifle through cartographies, all of them familiar, all of them critically engaged, but grid on grid, none of them suffice. The imagined-to-be trite self-discovery of the main character’s authentic warrior thymotic spirit (that template) sheds all of is scales amid an interaction with image and physical movement that perhaps only equals the dislocations and alien projections of scuba or spacewalk. If anything else is communicated here, technology is sense, and sense is technology, within the scope of global concern. Nevermind that every Na’vi looks the connotations of every supermodel distortion of mundane biology. Nevermind that videogame freedoms populate with every stigma of ideological absorption. Nevermind that mythologies fragment into flattened space confrontations. The whole thing escalates far beyond its means, revealing how Ideals throw us forwards, how when technologies and techniques are sufficient, they compel the spirit into new-born orbits of extreme decay and apogee, flights that must have been there in the thousands of memory verses when one of Homer’s avatars was repeating the invented history of the Greeks with muscular hexemeter and rhythm in the residue glow of camp-fires.