The more I watch old school kung fu movies, the more I realize how different the Chinese version of the Hero’s Journey is. A lot of stories in the west involve magic or coincidence – to pick one example, Harry Potter wakes up as a muggle one day and through no effort of his own wakes up the next day as a wizard. His story still involves hard work; after all, Harry Potter spends years in school trying to prove that he’s worthy of the mantle that was thrust on him. But it seems like Chinese movies require a lot more discipline than that – it doesn’t seem like the idea of waking up as a hero would occur to them.
Take the Mystery of Chess Boxing. Our hero starts off the story by looking for a teacher to improve his kung fu; it’s implied that he’s already learned some, but not enough to avenge his father. (His father was killed by the Ghostface Killer, one of the most wicked martial artists to ever live, so our hero is going to need be nigh on unbeatable if he’s going to get his vengeance.) Before he can enroll in the school he has to prove himself to his teacher more than once, and after he joins the school he has to start at the bottom rung, serving all of the other students at meals. When he’s kicked out of school because of a mix up with the school’s abbot he goes to a hermit’s mountain hideaway where he trains more, working sixteen hours a day till he can dance on the top of poles.
What’s interesting about the comparison between the two philosophies is that they both make use of the training montage, but they do so in completely different ways. Harry’s days of studying are presented mostly in ellipses so that the movie can spend most of the time focusing on other (less pedestrian) affairs. In contrast, the Mystery of Chess Boxing only indulges in training montages once our hero’s work ethic has been established. The montage is not used as a shortcut, it’s used to reduce redundancy. Since we’ve already seen him train in the town we don’t need to watch him train in the mountains.
There’s a lot that could be said about this comparison, because I think it says something about the idea of specialness in the two cultures. We tend to emphasize the talent someone might have innately, but it looks like the Chinese emphasize the technique that someone gains from practice. There’s also something to be said about the difference between a culture where people train to fight as part of a monastery and one where there is a lot more independence involved in learning. There are also interesting points to be made about the difference between a hand to hand combat culture and a gun culture. (Given his physique I doubt John McClane would be able to have stopped the terrorists in Die Hard if he had to punch all of them to death.)
Unfortunately, I don’t have enough of an understanding of Chinese culture to be able to write that essay myself with any level of confidence. No, the only essay I’m prepared to write is one about how if Ghostface Killer had punched my father to death I would have been like “sorry, pops, if a wizard showed up and gave me a wand I’d try to avenge you, but this spending ten years lifting bricks with my crotch while doing the splits ten feet off the ground stuff is not for me.”