Alexander Darwin on The Combat Codes being inspired by Hong Kong action flicks

Alexander Darwin on how Hong Kong action flicks and his experience as a mixed-race Asian American inspired The Combat Codes.


To coincide with publication of his debut science fiction-fantasy novel, The Combat Codes, we are honoured to have author and martial artist Alexander Darwin talk exclusively to us about his love of martial arts flicks.

In the ‘90s, I remember scouring the foreign language cinema section at Blockbuster Video to see if I could score the latest Jet Li or Donnie Yen DVD. When I got my hands on something, I’d watch the same film several times in a week, rewinding to the good parts to burn the action into my brain. I was ravenous for Hong Kong martial arts cinema, but neither Blockbuster nor my dial-up modem could keep up with my thirst.

Today, those same movies are readily available on streamers, accessible to a new generation of martial arts and foreign film buffs alike. And foreign-language martial arts films like RRR have become international mega-hits. But long before the streaming market took hold, Hong Kong action flicks had already been captivating audiences like me around the world.

What was the allure to these films? Was it purely that such martial arts were not found in western action movies? That clearly wasn’t the case, as Hollywood stars like Van Damme and Steven Seagal had already proliferated the market at that time. And Bruce Lee had punched into the cultural consciousness with tremendous impact in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

So what was it about these foreign films that made me wander into a rental store looking for my next hit?

For me, part of it was about seeing martial arts at the center of something epic. You could tell that some of these Hong Kong flicks were big budget. Once Upon a Time in China was said to have a budget up there with Hollywood action blockbusters. In the film, Jet Li portrays legendary Cantonese folk hero, Wong Fei-hung, as he leads a rebellion against foreign occupiers. The cinematography, choreography, and scope of the movie is truly grand, conveying a wonderous world reminiscent of the wuxia films that took off in China in the early 20th century.

In the 1994 film, Fist of Legend, Jet Li portrays another defender of Chinese culture, this time against the occupying Japanese forces prior to WW2. Though Fist wasn’t as big a hit as Once Upon a Time, it still captivated audiences with amazing martial arts displays, often pitting a variety of styles from different cultures against one another.

And though both of these films were rooted in historical reference, they were also fantastical, steeped in wuxia, which was an antithesis to the standard Hollywood action flicks at the time, which primarily relied on guns and explosions to bring audiences to their feet.

Another big part of my infatuation with Hong Kong action cinema was seeing actors like me portrayed in these epic pieces. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my Schwarzenegger and Stallone flicks, but Asians were non-existent as lead roles on the big screen. Of course, that all changed with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000, which provided a watershed moment to bring Hong Kong style wuxia cinema, along with an all-Asian cast, to western audiences.

Crouching Tiger won more Academy Award nominations than any foreign language film in history. And of course, it was a predecessor of sorts to the most recent Academy Award Winner, Everything Everywhere All at Once, which also starred Michelle Yeoh.

My own debut novel is a clear reflection of my Hong Kong cinematic influences; combining my desire to create action sets in fantastical worlds with characters that are reflective of my own lived experience.

The Combat Codes is a science-fantasy story that takes place in a world where wars have been replaced by single, martial arts style combat between champions. And though you won’t find characters that can magically fly across landscapes as you would in a wuxia film, you will discover a fantastical world filled with old masters, mysterious heroes, and tons of action.

And though The Combat Codes doesn’t portray historical events or real world cultures as so many Hong Kong films do, the characters I write do represent my own experience as a mixed-race Asian American. I wanted to convey the feeling of not quite belonging to any single place, or group, along with the need to seek found family, throughout the narrative and characters arcs in The Combat Codes.

There are even a few easter eggs in The Combat Codes as an homage to my love of Hong Kong action cinema. But if a savvy reader doesn’t ferret out those tidbits, they will certainly feel the influence of the many martial arts films that shaped me.

The Combat Codes by Alexander Darwin is out 15 June from Orbit Books.
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