(In which I discuss how this character is portrayed)
(Part 1 of this blog was concerned with a character analysis of Iron Robe Yim.)
As masters of Chinese kung fu, antagonist Iron Robe Yim and protagonist Wong Fei Hung are both characters who represent China and its traditions. The threats they both encounter during Once Upon A Time In China (OUTIC) represent the things that were to undermine China during the downfall of the Qing Dynasty and China’s exploitation by the West. It is hateful to watch Iron Robe Yim’s moral unravelling and, by comparison, impressive to watch Wong Fei Hung resist the temptation to unravel in a similar way. In his book Chasing Dragons, David West says about the character of Wong Fei Hung in the old black and white movie series starring Kwan Tak Hing:
“Fey Hung defeats the villains because he is a superior person, not just in kung fu, but in terms of his moral character.” p. 94
The same can be said of Jet Li’s Wong Fei Hung. He outlasts the brutal power and near supernatural techniques of Iron Robe Yim because of his moral strength.
Iron Robe Yim’s demise is tragic because during the film we have come to have an insight into his character’s potential for integrity and human feeling as well as his capacity for ruthlessness and moral decline. This is complex psychological territory to map and the successful depiction of this is due to a combination of the effective use of choreography, script and plot devices, and Tsui Hark and his crew’s sophisticated film making techniques. Tsui Hark and his team of writers have built a well structured and cohesive script, and Tsui’s directorial approach is full of detail and rich in cultural references and symbolism. I love the way he uses elements such as fire, earth, metal, air, wood and water in this film. Yim’s first fight scene is a duel staged in front of a roaring bonfire, which reflects the aggression of this character. He seems to be particularly equated with rain. We are introduced to his character when we are shown him busking for a few coins out the front of a brothel in a downpour. After the bonfire duel he is seen talking to Leung Fu again in the rain, and his first fight scene with Wong Fei Hung is dominated by heavy rain fall. Tsui Hark underlines this character’s desperation and vulnerability by showing him at the mercy of the elements – wet, bedraggled and shelterless. Tsui Hark was also clever to pair the character of Leung Fu up with Iron Robe Yim, as this humanises Yim. The rapport between Yuen Biao and Yam Sai Kwun in their acting of these characters is strong and affecting.
A big part of the successful depiction of this interesting and tragic antagonist is, of course, Yam Sai Kwun’s interpretation, both as a physical performer and as a screen actor. I do not know much about his background. From his brief interview on the special features on the Hong Kong Legends DVD release of OUTIC I have learnt that martial arts runs in his family and that his father was involved in black and white kung fu movie making in Shanghai. I have also recognised Yam Sai Kwun in quite a few chop sockies (such as Jackie Chan’s Fearless Hyena), usually playing a villain. In other words, he arrived at the set of OUTIC as an experienced martial artist and screen performer. He has become a favourite performer of mine and I feel that his performance of Iron Robe Yim is his best that I have seen*. In his interview on the DVD special features he mentions that OUTIC is a favourite movie of his because of the fight scenes, the story and, of course, the character.
As an actor his work is superb in this movie. He inhabits his character with a quiet dignity that contrasts poignantly with his down at heel appearance. His performance is one that suggests strong and sometimes conflicting emotions tempered by the character’s surface reticence and toughness. Yam manages to manifest an intensity that suggests the drive and ambition of this character. Many closeups show the expressions on his face and in his eyes to vary from the menacing to the haunting.
His interpretation as an actor is effortlessly married to his physical performance. His movement quality as this character imparts an impression of power and technical finesse mixed in with a quality of raw brutality. The movements channel the emotional qualities suggested by the acting. It is an impactful performance of depth, poignancy, and subtlety.
Because this is a martial arts film, a lot of what we know about Iron Robe Yim is communicated through choreography and physical performance. Yam Sai Kwun’s ability to communicate through the medium of martial arts, as well as his finely judged performance as a screen actor, makes his portrayal of Yim one which I consider to be the very best kind of martial arts performance. I feel that great martial arts actors have a performative technique all of their own which, when given well conceived and choreographed material, is unbelievably engrossing to watch. I recently watched The Bourne Supremacy and listened to the commentary of its director Paul Greengrass. At one point he was discussing the performances of Matt Damon and Karl Urban in the context of talking about acting in an action film where a character does not have much dialogue. He made the comment that “to compel attention without dialogue” requires “acting of the very highest order” and a certain “intensity in the eyes”. Of course, he wasn’t talking about martial artists when he said this. Damon and Urban, not being in possession of the advanced kinetic abilities or body awareness of highly trained martial artists, rely on a different set of performative strategies to depict their characters (and do a fantastic job). But the intensity Greengrass is referring to here is something you can also see in the performances of Yam Sai Kwun and Jet Li in OUTIC, or Donnie Yen and Jet Li in OUTIC 2, and it is just one part of their armoury of performing techniques (that they happen to share with their ‘straight acting’ brethren).
Another thing that Greengrass said is “all good acting is about detail, about fighting generality.” One of many moments in OUTIC that demonstrates this, and encapsulates for me the effectiveness of the performance techniques (or instincts may be a better word) of great martial arts actors, is in the scene where Iron Robe Yim has just introduced himself to Wong Fei Hung at Wong’s apothecary, Po Chi Lam, and has challenged Wong to a fight. Wong, ever upholding the Confucian virtue of courtesy, invites Yim to sit down and have tea. The camera pans from Jet Li sitting on one side of a table in a wide open legged position to Yam Sai Kwun seated opposite with one leg tucked under his chair, almost in an approximation of the starting position for a runner. These seated positions aren’t naturalistic, but that doesn’t matter – we are in the middle of a martial arts movie where these performers will soon leap up and perform a choreographed sequence and their acting style has to be in sympathy with that. What the body language of the performers does at this stage is convey an electric feeling of tension that presages the fight scene with great drama, and lets the audience know just how invested in this duel these 2 men will be. This little moment lasts seconds but I love it. It demonstrates how a highly trained and talented physical performer can take a simple position and charge it with meaning. These performers have inhabited their bodies so intensively for so many years that their abilities to express themselves physically go far beyond the range of actors schooled in different performance methodologies. In his book The Chinese Conception of Theatre, Tao-Ching Hsu describes the performance techniques of Chinese Opera performers (bearing in mind how many Chinese Opera trained performers and choreographers have worked in martial arts films over the years)
“His mind is like a puppet player and his body like the puppet, in order that absolute control is maintained throughout the performance… It is this control that gives the Chinese actors their poise and bearing which makes it a pleasure to watch them even when they are standing still.” p. 133
A lack of naturalism is often a criticism that is levelled at martial arts actors and kung fu movies in general, but I think the people who make this criticism are often missing the point. Naturalism is not required or appropriate to these films and their aesthetic, cultural or entertainment aims. The performances of people like Yam Sai Kwun, Jet Li or Donnie Yen eschew naturalism in favour of performance styles that serve the purposes of martial arts movies better. These performers use their training and instincts to turn in interpretations that are emotionally complex, and subtle and powerful in execution. In the hands of Jet Li, Wong Fei Hung seems to be a walking manifestation of the saying ‘still waters run deep’. And in the hands of Yam Sai Kwun and Donnie Yen, the antagonists come across as satisfyingly dimensional and involving for the viewer, rather than just cardboard cut out villains.
*Although his depiction of a depraved monk in Yuen Wu Ping’s Iron Monkey is good fun; and he puts in a good turn as a deranged father in Swordsman 2, also starring Jet Li
The next series of blogs I will post will be about the choreography in OUTIC.