Watching, reading, listening: Ip Man vs. GK Chesterton

May 27, 2011 § 2 Comments

Watching: Ip Man 2

When I was eleven, we spent a week in Hong Kong on our way to China to meet my mother’s relatives. As our taxi took us from the airport, it was more than raining; it was a typhoon. The little sky visible was a low, opaque smear; the windows clattered with the blows; and the sound of the tires across the wet road was like the peeling up of some great piece of tape. Between close, gray towers, I watched signs in Chinese flap like laundry on wires stretched over the middle of the avenue. I was repulsed. Everything and everyone was Chinese! I had thought Hong Kong was British. Why didn’t they speak English! I marched about speaking English as loudly as I could so no one would mistake me for Chinese. No one bothered to tell me why the Chinese had no particular fondness for English. I was left to piece it together from hints here and there.

The psychic wound left by the foreign powers in China has been regularly and lucratively reopened in films, at least since Bruce Lee howled and let fly a kick at a park sign reading “No Dogs and Chinese Allowed” in Fist Of Fury.

(Uh, nice “Sikh.”)

Ip Man 2 boils down to a (fictitious) grudge match between a large gorilla with an English accent—beetle-browed Darren Shahlavi playing a British boxer—and Wing Chun master Ip Man—played by Donnie Yen, with frustratingly Obama-esque serenity. Ip is fighting, naturally, for the honor of the insulted Chinese and their martial arts.

The scene is easy on the eyes: 1940s period set and costume design, with dingy tenements and alleys in a muted palette, are interrupted joyously by saturated turquoise and lemon yellow on doors or shutters, or bright saffron laundry drying against a grid of viridian windowframes. The camera spies on a conversation through slats in a wall, pans across city scenes from the rooftops to the street, but holds static precisely when less trusting filmmakers switch to obfuscating quick cuts and closeups: in fight scenes and conversations.

The plot has been purchased on clearance at the Hong Kong Action-Movie Bargain Plot Bin. There are rival schools, rival masters, the perennial problem of which style is most effective, to be settled with a match. The choreography contrasts fight styles to great effect, and a few good chaotic melees give you all the pleasures you desire from a kung fu movie. The characters even manage to be about as complex as you’d get in a graphic novel, instead of a Saturday morning cartoon.

Yet when the (terribly acted) English bark viciously at the ludicrously innocent Chinese collabos, I quailed. “They’re pouring it on a bit thick with the evil English,” I said. L raised an eyebrow and reminded me: “I’m pretty sure they were exactly like that. Probably worse.”

(For a less forgiving treatment of Chinese collabos, see Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, but be warned it’s really rather porny.)

Reading: The Ball and the Cross (1910); The Innocence of Father Brown (1911); The New Jerusalem (1920)
by Gilbert K. Chesterton

Coincidentally, the next night I opened up my Kindle app for Mac to read a bit of Chesterton, and I apologize to the makers of Ip Man 2: the English were abominable. Never stop kicking their asses in movies. I’ll never again complain.

I had to halt reading The Ball and the Cross, the first in the collection, which was up to that point silly and manipulative but quite inventive, when I came upon this passage:

I have suggested that the sunset light made everything lovely. To say that it made the keeper of the curiosity shop lovely would be a tribute to it perhaps too extreme. It would easily have made him beautiful if he had been merely squalid; if he had been a Jew of the Fagin type. But he was a Jew of another and much less admirable type; a Jew with a very well-sounding name. For though there are no hard tests for separating the tares and the wheat of any people, one rude but efficient guide is that the nice Jew is called Moses Solomon, and the nasty Jew is called Thornton Percy.

There was no sticking around in such a novel after that, so I moved on, with charity, hoping it was youthful folly and he would improve.

But The Innocence of Father Brown, one of the collections of murder mysteries solved by a falsely modest Catholic priest for which Chesterton is best known, is better called The Ignorance of Father Brown. It is even more reprehensible for being so entertaining. To be simultaneously so clever and so stupid is worse than merely being stupid. It makes stupidity attractive. Brown’s French sidekick, the thief-turned-detective Flambeau, reminisces about the artistry of his thieving youth, stating he liked to stage his crimes in appropriate milieus:

Thus squires should be swindled in long rooms panelled with oak; while Jews, on the other hand, should rather find themselves unexpectedly penniless among the lights and screens of the Cafe Riche.

Jews are not the only ones who inspire narrative disgust, though they’re the most plentiful. A manservant Magnus, at first suspected of murdering his master (it transpires that he has only tried to secure the victim’s assets from being stolen by the real murderer) is described:

Then he stood back again, and his slits of eyes almost faded from his face in one fat Chinese sneer. Merton felt an almost bodily sickness at the sight of him.

Shortly afterward, the boyfriend of the girl whom Magnus has accused decides to attack her accuser.

His huge shoulder heaved and he sent an iron fist smash into Magnus’s bland Mongolian visage, laying him on the lawn as flat as a starfish.

This is followed by a mild warning from a police officer that if this continues, the attacker will be arrested for assault. The story giggles on, for want of an Ip Man to lay them all flat.

Perhaps the most startling and honest declaration of Chesterton’s phobia in these stories is in “The Wrong Shape,” in which an eccentric English poet of means is murdered.

The victim is one of those Englishmen possessed by a mania for the exotic, and Father Brown condemns him for it throughout the story, with an unforgiving, uncomprehending disgust, exceptional in a priest so otherwise mild with violent fratricides, adulterers, atheist assassins and burglars.

The murdered man “had turned his genius so wholly to eastern art and imagery; to those bewildering carpets or blinding embroideries in which all the colours seem fallen into a fortunate chaos, having nothing to typify or to teach.” (Father Brown apparently nurses a hatred of Persian carpets for not being didactic.)

Examining a jeweled knife from the poet’s collection, Father Brown declares it’s the wrong shape. When asked by his sidekick to clarify, he says:

“It’s the wrong shape in the abstract. Don’t you ever feel that about Eastern art? The colours are intoxicatingly lovely; but the shapes are mean and bad– deliberately mean and bad. I have seen wicked things in a Turkey carpet.”


“They are letters and symbols in a language I don’t know; but I know they stand for evil words,” went on the priest, his voice growing lower and lower. “The lines go wrong on purpose–like serpents doubling to escape.”

Father Brown’s idea of evil is simply the unfamiliar. Worse, he’s aware that this is what he hates, and yet he remains confident that fearful ignorance is a trustworthy guide. When a perfectly innocuous (so it turns out) Hindu friend of the poet is seen strolling around the grounds, the various characters spend some time watching him with disgust and suspicion, beyond tiresome to read.

Surprise: the fatly-Chinese-sneering Mongolian Magnus and this supposedly arrogant Hindu are red herrings. They are just loathsome characters there to soak up suspicion, before Father Brown’s eye can light on the correct murderer, inevitably a person who lies within the scope of priestly forgiveness. Murdering someone is human and understandable, after all, unlike being oriental—with the wrong sort of carpet, the wrong sort of knife, the wrong sort of face—which is devilry beyond Christian salvation.

Some apologies are always made for a writer like Chesterton: he was a man of his time, one could say, or instead, he couldn’t have known better. It is untrue, of course. Better persons knew better.

I condemn him for not knowing better because I am convinced he could have. He would be utterly harmless and not worth the breath it takes to condemn him for these lapses if he were not exceptionally gifted creatively and, when not immorally lazy, brilliant—if he did not sometimes put it just so. For how could I, a onetime resident of Kentish Town and rider of the 24 bus, not lurch with sympathy toward the page on reading this passage:

[T]he long roads of the North London suburbs seemed to shoot out into length after length like an infernal telescope. It was one of those journeys on which a man perpetually feels that now at last he must have come to the end of the universe, and then finds he has only come to the beginning of Tufnell Park. London died away in draggled taverns and dreary scrubs, and then was unaccountably born again in blazing high streets and blatant hotels. It was like passing through thirteen separate vulgar cities all just touching each other.

Or help smiling at this:

[T]he chocolates were all wrapped in those red and gold and green metallic colours which are almost better than chocolate itself; and the huge white wedding-cake in the window was somehow at once remote and satisfying, just as if the whole North Pole were good to eat.

There are many more like that, delicious and thrilling. But then in The Ball and the Cross, which presumes to be a comic novel, an atheist and a devout Scotsman plan to duel over religion and demand the right to do so in a Jewish shopowner’s garden. The shopowner replies:

“Well, this is a funny game,” he said. “So you want to commit murder on behalf of religion. Well, well my religion is a little respect for humanity, and—-”

“Excuse me,” cut in Turnbull, suddenly and fiercely, pointing towards the pawnbroker’s next door. “Don’t you own that shop?”

“Why–er–yes,” said Gordon.

“And don’t you own that shop?” repeated the secularist, pointing backward to the pornographic bookseller.

“What if I do?”

“Why, then,” cried Turnbull, with grating contempt. “I will leave the religion of humanity confidently in your hands; but I am sorry I troubled you about such a thing as honour. Look here, my man. I do believe in humanity. I do believe in liberty. My father died for it under the swords of the Yeomanry. I am going to die for it, if need be, under that sword on your counter. But if there is one sight that makes me doubt it it is your foul fat face. It is hard to believe you were not meant to be ruled like a dog or killed like a cockroach. Don’t try your slave’s philosophy on me.”

Ah, that wholesome, old-fashioned English humor.

There is much more of this clumsy idiocy, but it is boring to collect it. If you’re curious anyway, download the Kindle file and simply search one by one for the terms “chinaman” or “jew” or “hindoo” and while you’re at it, download Ip Man 2 for a purifying ass-kicking afterward.

Note: Although the Wikipedia page on Chesterton surprisingly absolves him by citing the Wiener Library, which declared him not an anti-Semite, I don’t buy it. I have skimmed his later non-fiction statements on the subject and do see that he was both anti-Hitler and pro-Israel. It’s reasonable to ask why. Like many Englishmen around the time of the world wars, Chesterton thought the militant Prussian to be even more barbaric than the “sinister and unhuman Chinaman.” He also sensibly determined that unless the Jews had a home of their own, there would be no getting them out of England. To me, those don’t sound like the sentiments of a friend of the Jews. And since I’m sinister and unhuman and a Yank to boot, I say I qualify to make the call.


For dancing in the kitchen, remembering the tango guitarists of Buenos Aires.


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