(This is the second part to a blog about Li’s performance as Wong Fei Hung. The first part dealt with the acting of the part.)
Having done a little research into Jet Li’s background, I am amazed at how right he looks in the part of Qing dynasty hero, Wong Fei Hung, in Once Upon A Time in China (OUTIC). In 1963, Li was born into a poor family in China during a very different period of history, and with radically different social conditions, than those experienced by the character he plays in OUTIC. Li’s formative years overlap with the Cultural Revolution, surely one of the bizarrest and most distorting times in contemporary Chinese history. The Cultural Revolution was a time when the Chinese were persuaded, and often forced, to expunge all traces of their traditional culture and history. Blameless people were imprisoned (in re-education camps), beaten, persecuted, uprooted and disenfranchised for working in, or even showing an interest in, anything that hinted at the existence of a middle class or bourgeois history in China. I get the impression that during the Cultural Revolution life was all about wearing those grey cardigans, quoting madly from Mao’s Little Red Book, going off to watch a film about working in a tractor factory, and being rostered for work on the local pig farm. How could someone, like Li, come from this grey, unromantic, modernity-obsessed, history-hating society and bring to life a Qing dynasty hero in a film like OUTIC? There can’t have been anything present in his life as a child or teenager to have helped him prepare for such a role by understanding the society Wong Fei Hung lived in. But he glides through the film in Wong Fei Hung’s cheongsam looking easy, elegant and natural.
I have written blogs on the choreography in OUTIC in which I gush about aspects of Li’s physical performance in some of the fight scenes, so I wont repeat that here. Fans of the film will know that Li is extensively doubled throughout the film, as he suffered from a broken ankle early during filming and couldn’t perform many of Wong Fei Hung’s fighting movements. Although I was initially disappointed to learn that the Wong Fei Hung doing all the fighting wasn’t all Jet Li, it still didn’t diminish my admiration of Li’s interpretation of Wong Fei Hung one jot. A benefit of knowing about the doubling is that in re-watching the film I now have a better appreciation of how good the editing in the film is, and the depth of martial arts talent available in the ranks of the less famous Hong Kong performers who are able to double for the likes of Jet Li so well (1). The end result of this cunning use of film makers’ craft is that the first time I watched the film I had no idea I wasn’t watching one person play the role. Even now, in re-watching the film, I undertake to ignore what I know about the stunt doubling and just take the character of Wong Fei Hung on board as a cohesive whole. The appeal and romance of the movie overall is so strong that my enjoyment is not really diminished by knowing that Wong Fei Hung is created by a team of people (editors, stunt doubles, etc.) rather than just Jet Li by himself. The most important thing, for my enjoyment of the movie, is that for its duration I am a fan of Wong Fei Hung more than I am a fan of Jet Li and, thanks to some beautiful performing by Li and some damned slick work by the stunt doubles and editors, this is what comes to pass.
But I reckon it would be a mistake to completely dismiss Li’s contributions as a physical performer in this film. His ankle wasn’t broken for the whole of the filming and so he does do some of the fighting. Even in scenes shot while he was carrying the injury, there are still shots showing him fighting from the waist up. In an interview on the DVD extras, veteran martial arts performer, Yam Sai Kwun (who plays the film’s antagonist Iron Robe Yim), praises his physical performance, saying that his wushu is “graceful” and “methodical”. Logan is of the opinion that a component of good wushu training and performance is the ability to hold poses (2). He notes that Li can really sell a performance in close up shots and when he has to strike a pose. Leon Hunt writes that “Bruce and Jet… are magnificent posers – Lee’s fifty-yard stare, Li’s combination of intensity and calm.”p. 44
Striking a pose might sound simple, but you try it and see if you can captivate a large audience. Any discussion of Li’s ability to be a magnificent holder of poses points to his ability to energise every inch of his body in such a way that the audience is riveted, and to inhabit it with the sort of emotional energy that makes the character of Wong Fei Hung come alive on screen. There is an actual physical skill to this, a way of moderating and channelling the energy that flows through certain muscle groups, that physical performers know about (3), and which Li can do so well.
Similarly, to comment that Li contributes to the action in this film by being shot doing upper body actions might sound like a throwaway line. But this kind of close up shot focuses our attention on the physical detail in Li’s hand movements. When I watch Jet Li’s movies one thing that I always look for as a kind of performative signature of his is how well he can perform small, detailed movements. I enjoy his precise and clean execution of these small movements. I also enjoy the tiny variations in timing that can be seen – Li performs with a kind of rhythmic ‘wit’ that makes even the most punctuated sequences of movements seem to sing. No matter how rapid fire the performance of detailed movements are, Li seems to be able to flavour them with character and nuance.
This might sound odd coming from a martial arts movie fan but I hate violence. I see the martial arts in these films as a performative and story telling device. I don’t care if the actors in the movies are really any good at inflicting genuine physical damage on other people in real life. Would Jet Li really be any good in a real street fight. Who cares? If you are the kind of viewer who does, then I think you need professional help. But is Jet Li any good at colouring his movements so that they portray a character, or engage an audience because of the dynamic or grace with which he moves? This is a whole different question and, ironically, because Li was injured and some of the movie’s most spectacular action probably isn’t performed by him, it actually becomes more important when assessing his performance in this film. It forces us to take more notice of Li’s physicality when it is used in a way that is minimal or detailed rather than virtuosic. I remember when I was a ballet student, studying full time in one of the best schools in Melbourne. I would share a class with maybe 25 other dancers. We could all do the splits, or wave our legs up around our ears, or many other tricky things that the average man on the street couldn’t do (4). So what? The majority of those dancers would not go on to work professionally. Among that class were a lot of good athletes and a few genuine artists. It takes more than doing the splits, or some other extreme physical jerk, to make a performer that someone wants to watch. The challenge is to be able to inject a certain quality or dynamic into your movements so that you are able to use them to portray different characters or dynamics. It is this challenge that Li’s physical performance in this film successfully meets, and, alongside his authoritative but sensitive acting, surely contributes to his exceptional performance of Wong Fei Hung.
The next blog I will post is a brief one commenting on the romance between Aunt Yee and Wong Fei Hung in OUTIC…
FOOTNOTE 1: I now know that Xiong Xin Xin (who, deservedly, was to have accredited parts in the OUTIC sequels) did a lot of the doubling for Li.
FOOTNOTE 2: Wushu is a term that can mean both martial arts, in general, and the martial arts sport that Jet Li won medals in as a youngster.
FOOTNOTE 3: Martial artists must know it too. I am not a martial artist so I would prefer not to comment about the finer points of martial arts technique. Perhaps any martial artist out there who happens to read this would like to leave a comment on this point.
FOOTNOTE: it would put me in traction if I tried to do these things now.