“An astonishing number of kung fu movies are about innovation. A common feature of the genre, and one that is often held against it, especially by Western viewers, is a recurring plotline that underpins these movies time and time again. If classic Hollywood movies relied on the boy-gets-girl / boy-loses-girl / boy-gets-girl-again story arc (and, funnily enough, this isn’t held against this genre) then kung fu movies often have the following:
- Villain slaughters hero’s entire family and nearly does for the hero, who escapes by the skin of his teeth;
- Hero, knowing he can’t beat villain, as he is a far technically superior fighter, goes into hiding and broods on how he can extract revenge on the bastard;
- Hero has a flash of inspiration and discovers or invents or adapts a technique or weapon that can counter the villain’s technical advantages;
- Hero kills villain.
Thus, in Executioners from Shaolin (1977), the young hero experiments with, adapts, and combines the Crane and Tiger techniques of his parents to avenge himself on the killer of his father (a villain who has mastered technique so completely that he can, at will, make his testicles retract inside his body, thereby creating a groinal cavity that, when his opponent goes to kick him in the bollocks, entraps that opponent’s foot leaving him flailing and powerless). (I’m not making this up). But sometimes different storylines emerged to deal with the theme of innovation. Kung fu and wuxia movies are also mad keen on featuring snazzy and devastatingly destructive gadgetry – weaponry or booby traps – and some movies look at the invention of these.
One such movie is The Flying Guillotine (1975) … In this movie, a callous emperor commissions the invention of a new weapon that can be deployed against some particularly pesky subversives and strike the fear of God into everyone else into the bargain. He is presented with the Flying Guillotine, which, for the purposes of this movie, looks like a bee keeper’s helmet with a retractable metallic mesh hood that plops down over the head of the intended victim. At the bottom of the mesh is a ring of blades. When the emperor’s squad of especially trained assassins throw this lethal headgear at their victim, it engulfs and neatly slices off their heads. The assassin retrieves the helmet and newly decapitated head via the agency of a long chain attached to the Flying Guillotine, and disappears into the night, leaving any witnesses to reel about in horror. One assassin becomes morally disgusted with all this and escapes, the rest of the squad is sent after him. But he beats them all by inventing a brand-new weapon – actually an adaptation of a hitherto harmless domestic implement – that he can use to counter the effects of the Flying Guillotine. So, behind the joyfully disgusting impact of watching the Guillotines whizz about onscreen, this film is about innovation – taking an invention and figuring out how to adapt and deploy it in new ways to achieve a desired result.” pp. 69-71, Ask for the Moon.
I fully intended to write a blog about the theme of my book, Ask for the Moon, this morning. I turned up to a writers’ group, equipped with my trusty laptop, all on fire to do it. I got to talking to another writer sitting nearby. He asked me what my book was about, and I explained that I was using the making of martial arts movies by a famous Hong Kong based movie studio as a case study exploring business model innovation and creativity. His response: “COME AGAIN?” I re-phrased and re-explained. He pulled a face and said, “That’s unusual” and I pointed out that, if I was writing a book about innovation, it had better be.
The word innovation has been so freely, and non-discerningly, bandied about that, like many buzzwords, it has lost its meaning. But the word actually means applying creative thinking to do something different in the name of adding value.
Human beings are innately creative creatures. From our knuckle dragging ancestors onwards we have been tinkering and experimenting with things to make them beautiful and / or better. Innovative practice can be found in all walks of life but at certain times and places in history it does seem to cluster and concentrate. I believe that Shaw Brothers Studios was one of these places. The business model of the studio was unique for its time and place; the Shaw Brothers could be seen to be innovators as entrepreneurs. From a filmmaking perspective, some of their directors did things differently, advancing their art form as creative innovators. In looking at these two forms of innovation co-existing, we can learn much about the nature of innovation and the conditions that support it.