A list of random thoughts on this film
Repeat cast: Some of the cast from Shaolin Temple also have notable parts in this film. It is good to see Hu Jian Qiang (as the Shaolin uncle) and Sun Jian Kui (the impostor priest) do well in different roles to their monks of the first film. Hai Yu again plays an earnest and devoted father figure, and the gloriously elegant Yu Cheng Hui is great as the crotchety Wudang patriarch.[i]
The way the films look: The 3 Shaolin Temple films’ sets and costumes strike me (ensconced on a couch in suburban Melbourne in my tracky dackies) as gloriously bright and colourful. I find the lure of what I perceive to be the exotic in these films to be irresistible.
Jet in drag: Jet Li drags up for a few films, including Martial Arts of Shaolin and Dr Wai in the Scripture with no words. In this one he dons a dress and wig to pretend to be a maidservant. He really shouldn’t. When I saw each of these films for the first time I honestly thought it was a woman, and it always took me a few seconds to recognize Jet. When he was young he was much too pretty to get away with this kind of caper and looked disconcertingly good in a frock and makeup. I have noticed a fair bit of cross-dressing in the martial arts films I have seen. In his book, Chasing Dragons, David West has this to say about it:
“This convention can be traced back to Come Drink with Me, and it reflects a Peking Opera sensibility, wherein men played female roles and the audience was expected to accept their impersonation without question” (p 118)
Femo Nazis beware! The female sex gets a bad rap in this film. The patriarch of the Wudang family has 9 fine, healthy, beautiful daughters but he spends most of the film complaining bitterly about how unfortunate he is because he doesn’t have a son. I guess this is just one of those insurmountable cultural differences that a western lassie like me has to put up with (although not necessarily like) in order to watch, and otherwise be entertained by, this film. To be fair, the patriarch seems to be more reconciled to having all these daughters by the end of the film but this is only after he has
a) Finally had a son
b) Nearly drowned a daughter
c) Nearly had all of these daughters carried off by bandits
Only in a kung fu movie: Of course there are some of those wonderfully bizarre touches that fans of this genre love. For example – a dandy bandit masquerading as a cross eyed Taoist priest disguises himself as an Indian guru in order to dump a baby in a sack and a handful of snakes in a cave. As you do. We are given no explanation as to why this happens.
Good acting in the scene in the cave – the one where Jet’s character is trying to prevent Phoenix from returning home to a possibly dangerous situation. In his desperation he ends up throwing a tantrum in front of his adoptive father. Hai Yu, who contributes a nicely understated and sympathetic performance to this scene, plays the latter. This underscores Jet’s highly emotional performance, which isn’t just all about yelling – the look in his eyes convinces you that he really feels desperate. It is an affecting moment between these characters, and contains an indication of the strong and persuasive actor a more mature Jet would become.
A note about the choreography: In many kung fu films that I see I am struck by the way the choreography references and is informed by the setting in which it takes place. I love the way the choreographers use props, furniture, built structures and landscapes to shape their work, and their choreographic responses to these things are often wonderfully creative. There are elements of this in this film, for example:
- The way the performers move over and around the rock formations during the fight scenes in the cave,
- The use of household implements, furniture, garden and architecture in the mansion in the final fight scene
- And even the shenanigans between the kids on the bridge and beside the river.
[i] Apologies for spelling mistakes and incorrect word order in these names. I find tracking down the right names in these movies to be a nightmare. For one thing, when the credits roll, I am never sure if I am looking at the character’s name on the right and the actor’s name on the left hand side of the screen or vice versa. Then, when I see these names written down on websites like IMDB I am never sure if they are following the Chinese practice of putting the family name first and the given name second, or the western practice with the reverse order.