General overview and opening preamble
(Watch out! This is the first of my blogs on choreography in OUTIC. I comment generally on the choreography in this blog and then comment on some of the fights specifically in the following blogs. In case you’re interested, the blog that preceded this one was about Yam Sai Kwun’s performance as Iron Robe Yim.)
When I came to look at my notes on Once Upon A Time In China (OUTIC) in preparation for writing this particular blog, I was surprised at how many notes I had taken from Bey Logan’s commentary to the Hong Kong Legends DVD release of this film. I have been a fan of these films for many years, but it is only in the last year or so that I have had the time and inclination to become a serious fan. By this I mean that recently I have taken steps to achieve a long cherished goal of watching many more martial arts films and also doing some background research. I have long been fascinated and excited by this genre’s creativity and exceptional quality of choreography and physical performance, but there has been much about the films that I didn’t understand. I find part of the fun of exploring this genre is unpicking a cultural and aesthetic set of codes that are so different from my own culture’s, and not at all prevalent in the Hollywood films I grew up with. I don’t believe that the ‘foreignness’ of these films need necessarily prevent an open minded viewer from enjoying them enormously. There’s something of an adventure in grappling with something you don’t understand and, besides, kung fu movies are so entertaining and dynamic that they are quite capable of transcending any gaps in understanding if the viewer is willing to be entertained. I am sure that there will be many things that I will never understand about these films no matter how much research I do. As Leon Hunt says in Kung Fu Cult Masters:
“This is not to say that there will not be blind spots, nuances missed, partialities all too obvious, some readings based on badly dubbed English-language prints, an experience of the genre inextricably linked to its fluctuating exportability.” p. 19 (1)
But I find that it does help to deepen my appreciation of these movies when I do learn a little about the cultural or artistic references and contexts surrounding them.
Bey Logan has contributed many commentaries to DVD releases of martial arts films, and I enjoy listening to them. He does a good job of demystifying these films, and his huge knowledge of the genre is gleefully communicated with an unwavering passion for martial arts cinema. The many notes I took from his commentary on this film helped to facilitate a more detailed understanding of OUTIC. When I came to write this particular blog I found myself referring to Logan’s commentary many, many times. I, and many other newcomers to this genre, owe him a debt of thanks. The following series of blogs wherein I address the choreography in OUTIC could be read, in part, as my response to Logan’s commentary.
I find Logan’s analysis to be generally sound and insightful. There was one small comment of his on the commentary, however, with which I could not completely concur. Logan has a theory that OUTIC is so well plotted and scripted that you could lift the fight scenes out of the movie and it would still function very well as a straight drama. I agree with him up to a point. OUTIC has a more developed script than most martial arts films, and its detailed plot and script pay more attention to exposition than is usual in this genre. The well rounded main characters are fully realised and exist during a particularly interesting time in China’s history. The film is well produced and looks damned classy. When you read the last few sentences it would seem that there is enough there to make OUTIC a watchable straight drama, and if Logan’s agenda is to draw attention to these strengths then I say ‘Good on him!’. But, I can’t wholly agree with his comment. With the film as it stands, I feel that if you were to lift the fight scenes out it would collapse like a house of cards. If it did somehow hold together, I think you would find yourself watching a very dull and unengaging film (2). Consider, for example, the character of Wong Fei Hung – righteous but stoic and somewhat uptight. This character would come across as being dour and impenetrable if we just had to rely on his dialogue. The choreography assigned to this character, and Jet Li’s nuanced performance, make this Wong Fei Hung engaging and dynamic.
I have a personal theory that when you watch a kung fu movie you are not watching a plot unfold so much as a libretto. After all, these movies give enormous amounts of screen time over to intricately choreographed and elaborately staged action rather than just relying on text as the main means of communication. In his book, Chasing Dragons, David Chase makes this comment on Jackie Chan’s films –
“Plot and narrative are secondary concerns, given less importance than the staging of action and comedy routines”.
“The script is never the primary text and if the films are approached on a narrative level, they are unsatisfying”. p. 153
The same could be said of many kung fu movies, although, I grant you, not necessarily about OUTIC. But the point I want to make here is that these films (including OUTIC) have found ways other than a primary dependence on script and dialogue of captivating an audience, defining characters and their relationships, presenting themes, and moving a plot forward. Somewhere in his commentary, Logan remarks that the story telling in OUTIC happens without the dialogue. A libretto functions to marry plot and (depending on the art form) maybe some text with unspoken, visual and aural story telling devices. In a martial arts movie that ‘libretto’ has to support (and is supported by) the fight scenes in a movie, just as a ballet’s libretto provides a plotted structure for the dancing and mime, and an operetta’s libretto has to make space for music, movement, sung text and a little spoken text.
In 2009 the Melbourne Writer’s Festival had a seminar on writing libretti, at which 3 Australian poets talked about their experience of adapting their work for use in performance. Panel member Patricia Sykes said that in adapting her work she found that she didn’t want a linear narrative and instead focused on writing material that emphasised dramatic cohesion. She said that she felt that when she was working with a non linear narrative then it afforded her the opportunity to concentrate on working with nuances more. I feel that movement makes a different sort of impact on an audience than words, and can impart different nuances. In the absence of explicating words and in the presence of abstract (by which I mean non-naturalistic) movement, an audience has to respond more instinctively and with heightened use of emotional intelligence in order to make sense of what they are seeing.
Kung fu movies are often very melodramatic, and this has inspired me to find out more about the art form of melodrama. In my reading, I came across this quote which intimates the nuances to be had from a performance piece once it has been opened up to use a mixture of expressive devices rather than just being dominated by text:
“... melodrama… implicitly recognises the limits (inadequacies) of conventional representation (for example, exposing the limits of language, its inability to express or articulate certain contradictions). In this way, the ‘beneath’ or ‘behind’ (the unthinkable or repressed) is evoked as metaphor through gesture, music and mise-en-scene. p. 79, Melodrama by John Mercer and Martin Shingler (3).
At the Melbourne Writer’s Festival seminar an audience member made a lovely comment that a good composer or librettist makes space for action. Sykes responded that she absolutely agreed and that she found herself writing to her own inner “music” of the action when she worked on her libretto.
In OUTIC I think the fight scenes work their magic of propelling the plot forward while feeding us visual details that deepen our understanding of plot nuances, character makeup, relationship dynamics, and solidifying a sense of time, place and atmosphere. The movement scenes are more than just entertaining set pieces (although they are that as well). In the following few blogs on OUTIC’s choreography I have written about what I like about the choreography, but also about how I think that the fight scenes contribute to, and shape, this movie’s libretto. I hope that I make a case for the choreography and physical performance being an integral storytelling device in this film, seamlessly interwoven into its structure and sharing the work of the text.
In the next blog, I comment on Lion Dance on the ship, opening credit sequence, brawl in the street and restaurant and the umbrella fight in the tea house.
FOOTNOTE 1 – I can recommend Hunt’s discussion of attitudes of Western viewers of Asian films, especially the way he addresses cultural appropriation and the “camp gaze”. Very interesting!
FOOTNOTE 2 – I do hope that I have not misinterpreted and am therefore not misrepresenting Logan’s ideas here. I have great respect for his work as a commentator.
FOOTNOTE 3 – In fact, I am going to indulge myself and write a blog on the relationship between plot structures and performance modes in melodrama and kung fu movies. I have to do some more reading first.