|Donnie senses the presence of a tourist from Torquay & prepares to strike.|
Now, there's nothing new about Japanese villains in kung fu films. Historically speaking the Chinese have good reason to cast them in this role, and in a lot of cases they use the Japanese as default villains in the same way Hollywood uses Nazis or Germans, as in the Raiders of the Lost Ark and Die Hard franchises. What's new is that Westerners have joined the stable of villains in a big way. In the 1970s and '80s Westerners were, in my viewing experience, rarely cast as villains. The trend seems to have started with Jackie Chan's The Legend of Drunken Master (1994), in which nefarious Brits are smuggling Chinese artifacts out of the country. The difference between the kung fu films from the '70s and today's films is that there's a hysterical and fearful vibe to the anti-Japanese/Western theme. In sum, it feels like the Hong Kong film industry has become the unofficial propaganda wing of the Chinese government.
The IP Man films and Legend of the Fist (all starring Donnie Yen, as it happens) are good examples of this hysteria. The Japanese and Brits (and some other Westerners) are vilified and demonized with relentless enthusiasm, far exceeding what's necessary to establish them as conventional villains. After a certain point you begin to realize that what's going on here is an attempt to make Chinese audiences wary, if not actually intolerant, of the non-Chinese world.
What's curious is why the Chinese government feels it's necessary to mount this propaganda campaign. China's economy and political clout is growing every day, but the kind of propaganda on view in these kung fu films feels like it's being created to bolster a fragile sense of self-esteem. Another example of this comes from Skyfall, the latest Bond film. In one throwaway scene a European hitman kills a Chinese security guard. Chinese censors snipped this scene out, apparently because the idea of a Chinese citizen falling victim to a European is too harrowing for Chinese audiences.
I'm guessing that the real reason for this propaganda effort is that some people at the higher levels of the Chinese government are scared at the pace of change in China. Few nations in history have undergone such sweeping changes in the course of one generation, and it would appear that some Chinese politicians and bureaucrats feel that the increasing Westernization of China's culture must be combated. It's also possible that this propaganda effort is also designed to create domestic support for some of China's more belligerent diplomatic efforts; the quarrel with Japan over the Senkaku Islands immediately comes to mind. Whatever the reason, this shift in the tone of some modern kung fu films drains them of their charm and leaves a rather bitter taste.