Choreography in Once Upon A Time In China – Blog 3

Fight at the Chinese Opera venue

(The last blog commented briefly on the choreography in the Lion Dance on the ship,  opening credit sequence, brawl in the street and restaurant, umbrella fight in the tea house. I ended the last blog with this paragraph:

During its (the tea house fight) 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.)

Now read on…

These aforementioned qualities can be seen in the fight scene which takes place during a Chinese Opera performance. My fascination with kung fu movies has lead to me becoming interested in finding out more about Chinese Opera, as these movies are hugely influenced by this art form (among a whole slew of influences). This interest was initially sparked when I learnt that Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Corey Yuen, Yuen Wah (and many other martial arts film performers and choreographers) initially trained in Chinese Opera. People with a Chinese Opera background working on this film included Yuen Wu Ping, his brothers Yuen Cheung Yan (who fights Iron Robe Yim in front of a bonfire) and Yuen Shun Yee (as the Honourable Manchu Soldier), and the famous Yuen Biao as Leung Fu. I have always loved the overt theatricality of martial arts movies and felt that a lot of their aesthetic must be linked, at least in part, to Chinese Opera, which for decades has supplied trained performers and story ideas to this genre of films. In her introduction to the the book Chinese Opera, Gong Li writes:

In fact, Chinese cinema owes much to the opera and they share a long history.” p. 6

I feel that it is apposite, therefore, for a fight scene to be set during a Chinese Opera performance. This feeling was reinforced when I listened to Logan’s commentary, where he stated “It all focuses around Chinese opera… and the real kung fu”. Logan also provides 2 bits of interesting information. The first is that, as legend would have it, one of the real Wong Fei Hung’s disciples had a famous fight in a Chinese Opera venue. The other is that during the showing of old black and white kung fu movies (and I imagine this would include the Kwan Tak Hing / Wong Fei Hung series) it was a convention that the movies be stopped and some Chinese Opera would be performed during the interval. These traditions and histories dovetail into Tsui’s decision to stage a fight (about half way through the movie) during a Chinese Opera performance in the plot. In fact, the conflict in this scene is initiated by the characters of 2 Chinese Opera acrobats / dancers suddenly leaping off stage mid performance and attempting to assassinate Wong with some rope darts. Chinese Opera is simultaneously present as being actually performed in this scene  which is taking place in a film made, in part, by real life Chinese Opera trained choreographers and performers.

Before the martial arts fighting in this scene really gets into full swing, we are shown a massacre of the audience members by Western soldiers. There is no beautiful choreography here – the violence is realistic and terrible to watch. It is a sobering moment that contrasts with the dance like action that is about to happen. What is interesting here is the use of guns in this scene. One of the themes that Tsui Hark is addressing in this movie is the impact of the West, and Western technology, on China at the time. By showing the use of guns in such an unflattering light alongside martial arts at its most graceful and dynamic he is underscoring the portrayal of the undermining influence of the exploitative and colonising West, and reinforcing our idea of the richness of Chinese culture that could potentially be lost if allowed to be subsumed by the incoming Western culture. Patriot Wong Fei Hung briefly appropriates a pistol at the beginning of the fight, but soon discards it in favour of his own martial arts technique.

This fight scene contains some of my very favourite choreography during this movie. One of the things that I think Hong Kong choreographers do exceptionally well is respond inventively to the structure of the set their fights happen in. In this movie, we have already seen Lau Kar Wing’s good use of the furniture and architecture of the tea house for Wong Fei Hung’s umbrella fight with the gangsters, as well as his inventive use of street architecture and restaurant fittings in the first street brawl. Yuen Wu Ping, in particular, utilises built structures very well and we can see some of his ability in this area during this fight scene. Wong Fei Hung starts off by fighting on the raised platform he was sitting on as a member of the audience of the Chinese Opera performance. He then moves on to do a series of intricate rolls and splits  across some bleachers in a different part of the venue. The next section of the fight happens on a large rectangular floor in front of the stage; with the fight ending on the platform it began on. The choreography overall is a nice balance of the flamboyantly acrobatic and more grounded actions, and the quality of movement deployed ranges from precise, crisp and rhythmic to flowing and elegant. The ability of Hong Kong choreographers to think in 3 dimensions (1) is demonstrated here as the choreography is filmed once again from all angles, including a beautifully executed split jump and some acrobatics filmed from underneath.

This use of the architecture also reflects the structure of this particular fight scene, which is strongly delineated by the use of music. At the beginning of the fight the action is accompanied by incidental music, but when Wong moves onto the floor in front of the stage, the movie’s catchy theme tune (‘Under the General’s Orders’) kicks in (2). This gives the first part of the fight on the platform the feeling of an introduction, with the fight in front of the stage being placed as a climax in the action. Wong has started off this scene as a passive participant (and potential murder victim) and fittingly he has started off the scene by being located as an audience member. The fight choreography gradually moves him from the seating area to the performance area as this character becomes more active and takes control of the fight, moving from passive potential victim to dispenser of justice.

My favourite piece of choreography in this favourite fight scene happens on the rectangular floor in front of the stage. Curval linear shapes seem to dominate for a few moments here (making an interesting contrast to the angularity of the long pole Wong is using as a weapon). The staging of this part of the fight sees an encircled Wong  defending himself against the baddies, and his choreography follows a circular path and uses a series of movements that twists the body in a spiral. Bey Logan comments that in the use of filmic techniques such as the choice of camera angles, slow motion, and editing the filmmakers working on OUTIC are using “every trick in the book” to shoot this fight (and the others in this film) and that this is an example of great martial arts filming. This particular section is shown in slow motion and for this I am grateful, as this allows you to watch the action in detail. We can even see the smallest and subtlest shifts in weight in Jet Li’s torso and hips that he uses to initiate each movement. It is luscious – the movements flow like honey out of a jar, and the sheer grace and fluidity of it makes me drool. When I worked as a dancer, a million years ago, I would have sold my soul to have moved this well. The sequence finishes by snapping out of slow motion to normal speed to show us Wong executing a series of quick, tight turns (in other words, more circular shapes).

The next section of the choreography uses more angular shapes, featuring quick thrusts and sharp and precise footwork. I love Li’s footwork in many of his movies – it is so deliberate and exact, and he seems to be able to effect such subtle and quick transfers of weight. This section makes an enjoyable contrast to the choreography just shown in slow motion and emphasises our hero’s speed and power. Whereas the slow-mo action was beautiful for its circular shapes and fluidity, this sequence is beautiful for its rhythms and subtle angles.

It is common knowledge amongst fans of this film that Jet Li was extensively doubled during the action scenes of this movie (3), and it is not always clear if it is him doing the fighting or not (4) (kudos to his stunt doubles and the editors). But in the sequences mentioned in the last couple of paragraphs I am fairly sure that it is Li himself doing the fighting – you can see his face. What makes Jet Li such a favourite of mine is his quality of movement. He has a grace, elegance and fluidity married with a precision and clarity of line that just can’t be duplicated. I feel that Yuen Wu Ping (who is very partial to creating particularly elegant choreography) makes beautiful work on Li, especially, in their films together and gives this unique performer ample opportunity to display these qualities, and they are showcased in this particular scene.

In the next blog I write about the choreography in the Fight in front of the bonfire – Fight between Yim and Wong in the rain – action leading up to the climactic fight scene

FOOTNOTE 1 – Bey Logan, commentary.

FOOTNOTE 2 – pun unintended.

FOOTNOTE 3 – apparently mostly by Xiong Xin Xin, who would get parts of his own in the rest of the OUTIC franchise. In OUTIC 2 he has a humdinger of a fight with Jet Li when he plays the leader of the White Lotus cult. Thereafter he was to play Wong disciple Club Foot in the rest of the OUTIC franchise.

FOOTNOTE 4 – I know it is a sport amongst a lot of chopsockie fans to use rewind, pause, and slow playing Functions on their DVD players to spot when stars are being doubled. But generally I don’t do this. Admittedly, my DVD player is too cheap and crappy to do this well but I also genuinely don’t want to ruin the illusion. The Wong Fei Hung character works so well for me in these films that, fanatical Jet Li fan that I am, I am happy to accept the idea that Wong in this film is the creation of a team of people. Not least the editor.

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3 Responses to Choreography in Once Upon A Time In China – Blog 3

  1. Norbert says:

    Great post, you always choose the right words to put emotion in your writing. I’m not sure if I’ve read it on your blog before, what stopped you being a dancer (if this is not a too personal question to ask)?

    Like

    • No it’s not. I just got burnt out – too much hard work in a too bitchy industry for unsustainable financial returns. It was a creatively rich experience but it took more than it gave and I just got exhausted. But now my choreographer / dancer’s brain has found a new place to live, at least for a little while, which is in these blogs.

      Glad you enjoyed the blog. I enjoyed writing about it (as you can tell!). Thanks for reading.

      Like

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