(This blog contains mostly a character analysis of Iron Robe Yim – a discussion of Yam’s performance is in Part 2)
(This blog follows on from one I just wrote about the romance between Aunt Yee and Wong Fei Hung in this film.)
One of the most satisfying elements of Once Upon A Time in China (OUTIC) and Once Upon A Time In China 2 (OUTIC 2) are the characters of the main antagonists in these 2 movies – Iron Robe Yim (played by Yam Sai Kwun) and General Lam (played by Donnie Yen) respectively. In his excellent commentaries to the Hong Kong Legends DVD release of these films, I was interested to hear Bey Logan use the word antagonist to describe these characters, as opposed to words like villain or baddie. He is right to do so. This might seem to be a small distinction, but it is an important one. In both OUTIC and OUTIC 2 our hero, Wong Fei Hung (Jet Li), has to face down both an antagonist as well as villains, and they are quite different types of characters with different functions within the films.
The villains in these films are easily recognisable characters. They are cliched but still used very effectively within the context of these movies. In OUTIC we have a Chinese gangster and his cronies, and in OUTIC 2 we have an evil fraudulent mystical priest heading a cult of wild-eyed followers. The villains are played to the hilt – snarling, declaiming, gesticulating. They belong to the melodramatic traditions that are an innate part of the cultural baggage of martial arts films.
“Melodramatic characters are monopathic: that is, lacking more complex mixes of feelings and psychological depth” (Linda Williams in Melodrama Revised) (1).
The villains in these films represent and facilitate menace and danger. This is their main purpose and it is not necessary for us to understand much more about the characters than that. Peter Brooks has this to say about the villain in melodramas in general:
“He is reduced to a few summary traits that signals his position… But he is strongly characterised, a forceful representation of villainy… The villain is simply the conveyor of evil, he is inhabited by evil” (Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination, p. 33) (2)
The antagonists mentioned above, however, are handled differently by writer and director Tsui Hark. While, like the villains, they represent a considerable threat to our hero, they are far more complex characters and the viewer is allowed to know more about their personalities and motivations. Text, choreography (especially), and the way the characters are portrayed by the performers, combine to present us with more layered and engaging (if not likeable or admirable) characters. This adds drama and emotional depth to their storylines within the movies and this is one of the reasons why these 2 films are among my favourites.
Iron Robe Yim is a kung fu master reduced to begging and busking on the streets to survive. The implication in the film is that a rapidly changing China has undermined the place in society of men like Yim, and his character in OUTIC is depicted as ragged in appearance and ruthless in behaviour.
Yim is driven by frustration and desperation to make his mark and establish himself as a martial arts master and the head of his own martial arts school. We are shown during the fight scenes that Yim’s claims of martial arts superiority are not bogus – he really does have rare and highly refined techniques at his disposal. The choreography (mostly by Yuen Wu Ping) does a fantastic job of defining this character for the viewer as it shows us Iron Robe Yim’s displays of technical prowess. This choreography, in combination with Yam Sai Kwun’s physical interpretation of this character, gives Iron Robe Yim’s movement dynamic a jarringly brutal flavour. This deepens the viewer’s sense of the threat that Yim represents in the movie.
Interestingly, as dubious as some of his actions during the course of the movie are, Yim is shown as having a ragged type of integrity. During the wonderful duel with another kung fu master (played by Yuen Cheung Yan, I think) Iron Robe Yim’s martial arts techniques and ruthless attitude are both in play, however he does also display an adherence to some sort of code of behaviour. For example, he is disgusted when his opponent arbitrarily abandons his stated intention to allow Iron Robe Yim the first 3 strikes. During the duel he gives the man the opportunity to withdraw before he is killed. When the opponent fights on Iron Robe Yim shows no hesitation in dispatching him, but, still, the offer had been made. At the end of his next duel, which the movie’s protagonist Wong Fei Hung loses because he is distracted during the fight, Yim curtly announces that he won too easily and and wants a rematch. As desperate as he is to turn his back on his straitened circumstances, Iron Robe Yim cannot accept a win that he did not earn fair and square.
At the end of the movie there is a scene in which Iron Robe Yim and his one student Leung Fu (played by the brilliant Yuen Biao) meet up and enter into a partnership with the Shaho gangsters. Iron Robe Yim puts on a display of martial arts for the entertainment of the gangsters, and, as much as this character has been a real menace to our hero Wong Fei Hung during the movie, the lack of dignity inherent in this display is saddening to watch. In his commentary, Bey Logan points out that Iron Robe Yim has been so reduced in circumstances that the applause of these immoral thugs is like music to his ears. This scene is interesting because it shows us a meeting between the movie’s villains (garden variety type Qing Dynasty gangsters) and the more complex character of the antagonist Iron Robe Yim. The one dimensional characters, the villains, provide a rowdy background sound and action track, while the more emotionally rounded (if damaged) Yim is granted centre stage focus in this scene.
Leung Fu remonstrates with his master and tries to warn him about the risks attendant on getting involved with these criminals and accidentally knocks over a box of coins as he does so. When Leung Fu refuses to bow before the criminals to pick up the money Iron Robe Yim draws him aside and, quite gently, tries to talk him around. He makes the interesting remark that “Nothing in this world is perfect… virtue is often found among the lowly” and tells Leung Fu that after they establish a school they can afford to behave more respectably. A close up shot of Yam Sai Kwun’s face as he says this leaves the viewer in no doubt that Iron Robe Yim actually believes what he says. After Leung Fu leaves it is Iron Robe Yim who stoops before the jeering gangsters to scoop up the money. This is a telling scene, as it continues to depict Iron Robe Yim’s descent into morally dubious territory. It re-establishes him as a further danger to Wong Fei Hung and the decent society he represents, all the while eliciting the audience’s concern and even sympathy for how low this potentially great master has fallen.
Following soon after this scene comes the movie’s climactic fight scene between Wong Fei Hung and Iron Robe Yim. During this fight the end of Yim’s cue (3) is cut off. Yim is shown writhing and clawing the air in a fit of hostility and aggression, blinded by the dust of the floor they are fighting on and disorientated by his free falling hair. The sound track features a few seconds of a tiger snarling (4) . Wong Fei Hung is shown looking on in shock, perhaps horror. Iron Robe Yim is not just physically, but morally, disorientated. His downfall is complete and he is now operating at the level of an enraged and wounded animal. Importantly, it is not Wong Fei Hung who kills Yim. Rather, he dies when he blindly rushes into a hail of gunfire from Westerners’ rifles. He dies in Wong Fei Hung’s arms, whispering to him, in the one moment of fellowship that these 2 masters share in this movie, that their kung fu is no use against bullets (and by implication the Western exploiters who use them). Iron Robe Yim has been a real problem to Wong Fei Hung during this movie, and has shown himself to be a character in moral decline. But his death is absolutely tragic, and this stems from the fact that we as an audience have been allowed to view him as a man whose position in society has been undermined by forces of history outside of his control, for all that part of the cause of his downwards trajectory has been caused by his own poor moral choices. There is a hint that this is a man who perhaps, had he been given a chance, would have preferred to have been left alone to follow more honourable tenets of behaviour.
As mentioned above, I discuss Yam Sai Kwun’s terrific performance in Part 2…
FOOTNOTE 1: I actually got this quote from page 94 of Melodrama by John Mercer and Martin Shingler
FOOTNOTE 2: quoted in Melodrama by John Mercer and Martin Shingler, pp. 101-102
FOOTNOTE 3: What is the spelling here? I mean the long plait worn by men during the Qing Dynasty.
FOOTNOTE 4: How did Tsui Hark pull this off without it sounding ridiculous?