No, I don’t think of myself as a good director. I made the decision not to direct any more movies. Jet Li from his essay about Born to Defence, retrieved from http://jetli.com/jet/index.php?l=en&s=work&ss=essays&p=4
I really don’t think that Born to Defence is that badly made. I get the impression that the biggest failing Li felt he had as a director was because he couldn’t get the ideas behind the film across. As he says in his essay (see weblink above): I don’t think that I was a very successful director, because I did not achieve my purpose, namely, to get a lot of people to recognize my ideas or understand my point of view.
I think he did a better job with this than he gives himself credit for – my previous blog discusses this in more detail. But other aspects of this film are also quite well done.
I like the structure of the film. Most of the middle part of the film is dominated by 3 fights in a boxing ring. These fights are separated by text driven scenes that focus mainly on the emotions of the characters (which in turn give an emotional context for the fight scenes). The fights get progressively more savage and elaborate in their choreography, and the film’s action culminates in a spectacular set piece in a large abandoned factory. Although the dramatic scenes are involving, the structure of the film is built around the action scenes. I like this aspect of kung fu movies – the choreographed action is central to the films and drives the plots along, rather than just being the token noisy bits that they are in western movies, where you can nip out of the lounge room and go to the loo because you know you’re not going to miss anything really important.
The fight choreography is very brutal but also well crafted. By that I mean that it utilises a good variety of shapes, rhythms and movement dynamics (I am not a martial artist so please understand that I am not commenting on martial arts technique here but rather the aesthetic affect of the choreography). The physical settings of the fight scenes are used inventively. The factory setting for the final scene, in particular, looks fantastic and provides the choreography with the chance to open out and use many different site specific elements to shape the staging and movement vocabulary of the choreography after being mainly confined to the square shape of the boxing ring in the 3 fight scenes in the middle of the movie. The advantage of confining the combatants to a boxing ring for the earlier fights is that it neatly focuses the audience’s attention on the choreography as well as heightening the sense of emotional tension between the fighters. Each of the boxing ring fights uses the shape and construction of the ring more and more creatively – bodies start to bounce off ropes, and spill over into the watching audience. The choreography also reflects the characters appropriately, with the Americans (the villains of the piece) using movements that emphasise power, raw aggression, and force, and with the character of Jet using movements that emphasise adaptability, skill and resourcefulness. The contrast between Western style boxing and Asian martial arts adds visual interest (as well as underlining the theme of cultural differences within the movie) and is utilised effectively.
I felt that the acting was also quite good. Although he has not yet arrived at the level where he can call on the subtlety and depth that he was to show in later films like Fearless or Warlords (or even Once Upon A Time In China) Li’s acting style shows signs of settling down and moving away from the broader, camper style of acting of the Shaolin Temple films (mind you – I didn’t mind the performances in the Shaolin Temple films – they were appropriate to the kinds of films they were in). The rest of the Asian cast is quite good to. The only performances in the film I have misgivings about were those of the Americans, but quite often in chopsockies the hammiest and most amateurish performances are those of westerners.
I find Born to Defence a hard film to watch, such is the anger it inspires in the viewer and the brutality of some of the action. But I much prefer it to War / Rogue Assassin which, for all of its slick and glossy production values, is morally bankrupt. By the time Jet reaches the final fight scene in the factory in Born to Defence you still care about what happens to his character, whereas by the time Li and Jason Statham face off in their final factory showdown in Rogue Assassin I couldn’t care less what happens to either of them.
So Born to Defence isn’t a bad film, I reckon. Existing within a genre of films notorious for its shoddy production values it actually looks fine in this respect. It moves along at a good brisk pace, and has a nice balance of action and text driven scenes. The acting is mostly good, the choreography and physical performances are better than good, and it has a moral point to make.