My favourite action sequence in Shaolin Temple is the drunken boxing duel between Jet Li and Yu Cheng Hui. It is breath taking. I am partial to this kind of dance-like material in martial arts films and for me this drunken boxing scene is the highlight of a film that is packed full of great physical feats.
DISCLAIMER: I am not a martial artist so when I comment on things like drunken boxing I am not attempting to assess them in terms of martial arts technique. I am commenting on them aesthetically and in terms of choreographic and performance techniques.
In this movie the viewer (and Jet Li’s character) is introduced to this form by a solo demonstration by Sun Jian Kui (who plays one of the monks). This solo demonstration is an expression of his character’s melancholy (which has resulted from the death of his wife and child). Later in the movie Jet’s character goes to avenge his father’s death and discovers a female acquaintance of his is being held prisoner by the very man he wants to kill: an evil general who is rolling drunk. Spurred on by his need for vengeance and his decision to rescue the girl he starts dueling with the general and, in order to match the inebriated general’s drunken sword (and therefore to get the better of the general’s unpredictably dangerous movements) he counterattacks with the drunken pole he saw earlier in the film. This fight scene has been well entwined with the sequence of events in the plot and the characters’ motivations (1). In later group fight scenes we see Sun Jian Kui again using this form, thereby neatly referencing earlier uses in the film of drunken boxing (2).
But, for me, all of this fades into the background when I watch these 2 men fight. Drunken pole allows Li to show off his innately fluid quality of movement and his ability to negotiate his way through a passage of movement with precision, grace and energy. The quirky beauty of the choreography brings out these qualities (which are present to some extent in all his fight scenes in all his films) to their full measure.
But who is Yu Cheng Hui? He is featured in all 3 of the Shaolin Temple films but I can’t find any information on him. Compared to the other actors he is very tall and long limbed. I would have expected someone with this lanky build to move awkwardly but instead his movement signature seems to be one of elegance, swiftness and agility. As well as being an entertainingly flamboyant actor of great presence his physical movements are extraordinarily beautiful to watch. In terms of build he is a contrast to the shorter and more compact Jet, but they are equally matched in terms of gracefulness and poise and this is what makes this fight scene so unforgettable.
(1) Actually I think the fight scenes in this movie are quite well integrated into the plot.
(2) This referencing is welcome in a film that largely lacks choreographic cohesion. In Jet Li’s blog on www.jetli.com he explains that Shaolin Temple was not choreographed by any one fight director but as a collaborative effort between cast members.