The Master – Choreography

The Master – Choreography.

Veteran martial arts movie performer Yuen Wah’s presence in this movie is a definite bonus. His acting is good, his movement is lovely to watch and his choreography is interesting and often elegant. Among the highlights in the action sequences are the following:

  • Jet Li performing a training sequence where he belts a lot of red balls strung on ropes. This looks pretty nifty.
  • The fight scene between Li, the 3 latinos, Sifu Johnny and his followers at Po Chi Lam*. There is lots of stylish looking choreography, particularly in the stuff involving the sword and also in the duel between Jet’s character and Sifu Johnny outside. This choreography gives us a chance to see Jet’s graceful body placement as well as his clean delivery of movement.
  • The final fight scene uses the architecture of the setting very creatively. This is something I notice in a lot of Hong Kong martial arts movies. The choreographers respond to the structures in the sets or locations around them in a very creative way. This is one of the reasons why I believe the choreographic craft in these films to be very developed, and why I admire it so much.

Tsui Hark’s foot fetish is well in evidence. During my repeated viewings of Once Upon A Time in China (OUTIC) I have noticed that there seems to be an inordinate amount of close ups of feet – especially Jet Li’s (unless Jet Li has a foot double. Which he probably did in OUTIC, come to think of it. He filmed most of that movie with a broken ankle). I am not complaining about this – it is always a nice touch and gives the viewer a chance to admire neat and perhaps even elegant footwork. But I have noticed that there is lots of attention on feet in The Master as well. Characters are shown pulling shards of broken glass out of their feet in 3 different scenes. Feet are shown stepping carefully through broken glass lying on the floor in the same scenes. Jet’s character gets his foot stuck in a piece of machinery in the final fight scene, and is forced to fight off Sifu Johnny (and his hair) with just 3 limbs. Again, Yuen Wah’s choreographic abilities are on show as he finds some nice ways of resolving this movement sequence.

This is another thing I have noticed about choreographers in Hong Kong martial arts movies. They often seem to set themselves challenges within their choreography by setting up a rather contrived starting point for a sequence of movement – in this case, immobilise the foot and leg of a character so that he can’t use it in a fight. Then the choreographer has to get extra inventive to get themselves out of this creative jam. Yuen Wah had to come up with interesting combinations of movement to keep the fight going and not let it look either boring or contrived. Instead, this section of the fight scene is attention grabbing and interesting to watch. It also gives Jet Li a chance to show off his sense of balance, and suggests to the viewer that his character is so resourceful in his use of kung fu that he can fight even when stuck to the spot and using 3 limbs.

When I used to work as a choreographer (in classical ballet and modern dance – not martial arts movies!) I used to do the same thing. I used to set myself a challenge (say, decide to work in an extra small space or with an awkward prop), or find that something about an assignment or commission I had been given would constitute a challenge anyway (an example would be finding out that I would be dancing on cement so that, in order to avoid injury, I would have to cut jumps and ground work out of my choreographic vocabulary). In one way, this makes the choreography harder, of course. You find yourself working with a more limited palette of movements. But I also enjoyed the challenges and felt that they taught me a lot about the craft of choreography. I was forced to be extra creative with the limited movement vocabulary that I did have to work with and really explore it thoroughly. My aim was to present the constraining aspect I was working with to the audience as a defining feature of the choreography rather than a limitation. This strengthened my creativite practice and made me a more resourceful artist. I feel that in many of the chopsockies I watch the choreographers often deal with unusal or contrived premises for some of their choreographic sequences, and never fail to do so very inventively. As an ex professional choreographer I am always impressed, and as a punter I never fail to be entertained by their ability to do this.

I often ask myself why I – a western, non martial artist living in Melbourne in 2010 – am so fascinated by these very different and foreign movies made for Asian audiences in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. There are many reasons, not the least being that the movies are just so much fun. But on a less superficial level I feel that these are very rich films in many ways and one aspect that I love about them, and feel enriched by, is the choreography. When I was a choreographer the issues I used to ask myself about my own choreographic process are the same issues being successfully addressed in the choreography in these films. Some of these issues are things like the use of rythym, how the choreography will respond to its physical setting and any props in use, does it evoke or deepen an audience’s understanding of character, can it define or consolidate a relationship dynamic between 2 characters, how does it affect or shape the plot or structure of a piece, what are the different movement dynamics that can brought into play, what qualities can it potentially bring out in its performers, is it interesting or entertaining or beautiful to watch?

Jet Li’s first films, the Shaolin Temple films, are a lot of fun to watch, and the action is full of virtuoso movements. But, with the exception of the 3rd film Martial Arts of Shaolin (which is obviously the work of master choreographer Lau Kar Leung), I wouldn’t say that they display well crafted choreography. The emphasis is on stringing a bunch of amazing tricks together, rather than shaping a sequence of movement which not only entertains the audience but relates to the characters and their story and the overarching structure and themes of the movie. Jet Li comments on the choreographic process of his first film Shaolin Temple and basically admits that the focus was very much on displaying the wushu techniiques he and his fellow cast members had been practising at the Beijing National Sports Academy:

We didn’t know how movies were made. And there were no action choreographers. Instead, the director told us the basic story, and we took what we had learned in class to design our own fight scenes.

The choreography of Martial Arts of Shaolin is magnificent. The choroegraphy of Born to Defence (Jet Li and Tsui Siu Ming) and The Master (Yuen Wah) is interesting, inventive and appropriate to character, plot, atmosphere and setting within these films. After The Master Jet Li would be working on OUTIC which would see him working with choreographers including Yuen Wu Ping. Yuen is one of my very favourite choreographers and I really love the work he created on Li in the 7 or so films they were to make together. In Li’s films from this point on the choreography is something that I particularly enjoy watching and analysing.

*Po Chi Lam is the name of the Chinese apothecary owned by Yuen Wah’s character and a nod to the Wong Fei Hung legend, as Wong also had a clinic going by the same name. Wong, of course, is the main character played by Jet Li in the next film he was to make with Tsui Hark in OUTIC. Li was to play this character in about 5 films.

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2 Responses to The Master – Choreography

  1. I really like your views on fight choreography, since they are so much like dance choreography, I’ve always been interested in how someone like yourself views this as someone who does practiced movements. After all, Zhang Ziyi and Michelle Yeoh had dancing backgrounds, not martial arts, and yet both, especially Michelle, have turned it into a career as action heroines.


    • I was aware of Zhang Ziyi and Michelle Yeoh’s dance backgrounds. Zhang does a beautiful dance in House of Flying Daggers (I think). As I have stated in my blogs I am not a martial artist so I can’t comment on martial arts technique. But I have always been knocked out by how great these movies and their stars are in terms of choreographic craft and using martial arts as a performance technique. I am in the middle of writing blogs about the choreography in Once Upon A Time in China and intend to revisit this theme in blogs about other movies in the future. So glad that you enjoyed this blog.


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