Lion Dance on the ship – opening credit sequence –  brawl in the street and restaurant – umbrella fight in the tea house

(This blog follows on from one where I get some general thoughts about choreography in martial arts films – OUTIC in particular – off my chest).

In the brief pre-credit action scene Wong Fei Hung leaps in to save a Lion Dance from going belly up. According to Bey Logan’s commentary on this film director Tsui Hark constantly references classic martial arts films (especially previous Wong Fei Hung movies) and the mythology surrounding this iconic character. He does so here, as the character of Wong Fei Hung has always been associated with Lion Dancing. In having him save the Lion Dance, Tsui Hark right away establishes Wong Fei Hung as a patriot, hero and defender of Chinese traditions. Bey Logan makes the nice comment at some stage during this commentary that Hong Kong choreographers seem to be able to think in 3 dimensions, and we see that ability on show here (1). The Lion Dance ends up taking place on the ropes on the masts of a ship. Jet Li and his Lion’s head is filmed from all angles including underneath. This filmic ability to think in the round or in 3 dimensions is further shown off during the film, especially in the climactic fight scene.

Opening credit sequence: My friend Sharna announced once that this is the best opening credit sequence in the history of film making, and I agree with her. Line upon line of wiry blokes performing a beautifully choreographed martial arts sequence on a beach accompanied by a stirring theme song (2) – I love it! In Shaw Brothers films there used to be a trend for showing a martial artist doing a display of kung fu against a plain red or black backdrop during the opening credits. Perhaps Tsui Hark is referencing this trend and reproducing it in OUTIC on an epic scale that suits the scope of this film?  

Brawl in the street and restaurant: Bey Logan comments that this is reminiscent of street brawls in old black and white movies. It has a free wheeling, anarchistic energy that suits the scene’s dramaturgical purposes – which is to get Wong Fei Hung and his men in trouble, establish enmity between Wong and the Shaho gangsters, and to suggest that this is a time of near anarchy in China.  

Umbrella fight scene in the tea house: Wong Fei Hung is rather nattily decked out in a straw boater and what looks like John Lennon type granny specs (3). With the aid of a well aimed and deftly swung umbrella he combats a gang and captures a stand-over merchant. This fight scene has some nice witty choreography, especially in the way the umbrella is deployed. Logan points out that the umbrella is a symbol of righteousness in Buddhist iconography. He also points out that in the old Wong Fei Hung films there was always a fight set in a tea house – Tsui Hark is referencing classic films again. Wong Fei Hung, who is a walking, talking and fighting manifestation of righteousness uses the umbrella in a fight again in OUTIC 2 when he takes on the sinister White Lotus cult. If you don’t know about the symbolism of umbrellas or iconic Kwan Tak Hing films then you can just enjoy a clever piece of choreography centred around the inventive use of a prop and furnishings and architecture of a tea house (and that’s fine). However, knowing about these references deepened my appreciation of what the character of Wong Fei Hung stands for, and also the wit and craft of Tsui Hark and his creative team. Kung fu movies are such rich films, and I am fascinated by how their choreography can often incorporate layers of meaning. 

According to Logan’s commentary Lau Kar Wing choreographed this scene. During its filming Jet Li broke his ankle and filming was suspended for a while. When filming resumed Yuen Wu Ping took over more of the choreography workload. Logan points out that stylistically the choreography takes a different direction for the rest of the film, and I am inclined to agree. Logan uses the word “grounded” to describe the choreography in this scene, and the choreography from this point onwards makes more extensive use of wires (a hall mark of Yuen’s style). Although I am ambivalent about the use of wire-fu, I still love Yuen Wu Ping’s choreography very much. Although the choreography in the film up to this point has been entertaining, dynamic and often witty to watch, and most appropriate dramaturgically to the scenes it is used in, for me the choreography in the film from this point onwards is invested with extra grace, theatricality and emotiveness, and these qualities appeal to my personal taste.  

In the next blog I have a stab at analysing some of the choreography in the fight scene at the Chinese Opera venue. 

FOOTNOTE 1 – “The most prominent and important feature of the Chinese theatre is the protruding stage, open at the sides as well as in the front and surrounded on 3 sides by the audience. All Chinese theatres have such a stage. However, there are 2 standard types of theatre building: the tea house theatre and the temple theatre.” p. 19, The Chinese Conception of Theatre by Tao-Ching Hsu

*In film the camera can give us many view points of a performance, unlike the audience’s viewpoint in a proscenium arch theatre traditionally used in the west? Is this why Hong Kong choreographers so adept at developing filmable choreography? They are used to thinking of staging action from many different view points rather than just the front on? 

FOOTNOTE 2 – this song is ‘Under the General’s Orders’ which I have seen variously described as a traditional folk melody and a tune from Cantonese Opera. It’s probably both. It has been associated with the character of Wong Fei Hung since the early black and white Kwan Tak Hing movies. 

FOOTNOTE 3 – He wears these things in other movies in the OUTIC franchise. Was there a trend for Chinese men to wear these accessories at the time the movies are set?

2 thoughts on “Choreography in Once Upon A Time In China – Blog 2

    1. While there is use of wire fu – notably in the climactic fight scene (and I have written a blog about this scene that I will post soon) – I don’t think there is TOO much. Not for my tastes anyway. Funny you should ask – I am just writing a blog on the Jet Li film Swordsman 2, where I think there IS too much wire fu (although in other respects it is quite an entertaining film).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s