Choreography in Once Upon A Time In China – Blog 4

Fight in front of the bonfire – Fight between Yim and Wong in the rain – action leading up to the climactic fight scene

(In the last blog I analysed the choreography in the fight at the Chinese Opera venue)

The next fight I scene I want to examine is another favourite of mine. This is the fight in which Iron Robe Yim (played by Yam Sai Kwun (1)) fights and defeats a rival kung fu master (played by Yuen Cheung Yan). We have just seen our hero Wong display his signature clean and graceful movement dynamic in the urbane surrounds of a Chinese Opera venue against the backdrop of a beautiful blue sky. The dangerous and desperate Iron Robe Yim, is shown killing a man at night in front of a huge fire. The movement signature here is raw and savage and more, well, violent. It leaves us with an impression of Iron Robe Yim’s power and potential for damage and sets him up as an awe inspiring combatant and potential menace to Wong. The darkness of the night’s sky and the primitive, elemental look of the fire suggest the dark and less civilised place in life that Yim finds himself in.

This scene is very beautifully shot, with the light of the flickering flames captured and rendered in such a way that it adds hugely to the drama of the scene. The upwards looking camera angles that shot performers from underneath, that were featured in the last fight scene, have no place in the filming of this one. The camera mostly uses a right to left motion, as it tracks the back and forward thrusts and parries of the fighters and thus aligns itself with the structure and shape of the choreography, which is masterful. It’s structure hangs on bursts of rapid movement punctuated by moments of stillness. I recently read in Leon Hunt’s book Kung Fu Cult Masters:

“(Critic David) Bordwell… points out that the rhythmic pulse of Hong Kong action requires stasis as well as movement, with ‘lightning switches between quick, precise gestures and punctuating poses’ (2) ”. p. 28

I am going to have to make sure that I track down Bordwell’s work and read some more of his analysis, because this is what I have always thought myself. In this particular fight scene the choreography regularly resolves itself into dramatic poses that are held during the moments of stasis, and the stillness of the bodies contrasts beautifully with the movement of the flames in the fire and the wind rippling the hair and clothes of the combatants. It makes use of steeply inclined angles in limbs and / or torsos in these poses, and these steep angles have a feeling of forward movement which contrasts strikingly with the stillness of the bodies. This theme of arrested movement generates a feeling of tension and excitement in this fight, and adds a beauty to the savage display. The final position is particularly striking. The 2 performers’ bodies meet – one by leaning forward, the other by arching in an extreme back-bend – and combine to make one large curve. The beautiful tension of this shape suggests a loop of energy, that is broken as one of the bodies falls dead to the ground. It is a wonderful, if devastating, image to end the fight on.

In his commentary Bey Logan makes the point that the choreography shows us not just the external kung fu of the combatants, but Iron Robe Yim’s mastery of internal kung fu (his Iron Robe technique). He is not just showing us his physical or muscular abilities but also something about how he directs his internal spirit or energies. The choreography is working in layers here (and it does this in many other parts of this film, and, indeed, in many other martial arts films). On one level it gives us an entertaining or striking physical display, but on another level it is telling us something about the makeup of an important character in this film (3).

Fight between Yim and Wong in the rain: This fight is the first encounter between this film’s protagonist and antagonist. It is a teaser, a prelude to the climactic fight scene between the 2 in the warehouse. This scene is shot in the pouring rain, which is a contrast to the firelight in the fight before it. The emphasis seems to be more on choreography for the camera, the rain and an airborne log, than on choreography for the performer’s bodies (although there are some pleasingly intricate combinations of grappling movements, and exchanges of kicks and blows at times (4)). In order to whet our appetitee for the final showdown, perhaps Tsui Hark did not want to give too much away in terms ofexplicitlyy or lengthily showing us an exchange of techniques between Yim and Wong.

The action between this point and the climactic fight scene is mainly there to serve the plot. Unleavened by graceful choreography or elaborate martial arts, some of the violence meted out in the next few scenes is ugly to watch (for example, the abuse and attempted rape of Aunt Yee by the gangster, and the beating of Leung Fu by his gang and Iron Robe Yim). As horrible as it is to watch, it is serves the purpose of establishing the villainy of the gangsters and their allies in our minds.

An interesting point is Iron Robe Yim showing off his martial arts virtuosity by performing tricks for the gangsters. This provides a brutal counterpoint to inter-cutting images of Aunt Yee’s attempted rape. He bashes into the warehouse around him, bursting ropes, recklessly flipping off walls and smashing into the building’s fixtures. The destructiveness of this and the disregard for his own safety constitutes an alarming, if awe inspiring, display of his internal and external kung fu. This morally lost man unwittingly betrays the desperation and recklessness that consume him.

Logan points out at this stage that the difference between his style of kung fu and Wong Fei Hung’s is clearly demonstrated here. The attention to styles and aesthetics of movement of different characters is a favourite aspect of mine in the genre of martial arts films. In Kung Fu Cult Masters, Leon Hunt beautifully describes this as:

… shorthand characterisation… which frequently makes economical, accessible and instructive use of characters with contrasting fighting styles.” p.178

Not only is the difference between Wong and Yim’s kung fu shown, but as stated before,  the difference between their choices in channelling their emotional and psychic energies are also exposed. Not many film genres can use a physical technique to do this so clearly. The manifestation of a person’s inner / spiritual state in a code of physical movement makes for a very direct and intense experience for the audience watching. I am not a martial artist, and am therefore blind to the finer points of martial arts technique. The aesthetic impact of the movements and the information they convey about characters is therefore of vital importance to viewers like me.

In the next, and final blog, about the choreography in OUTIC, I tackle the climactic showdown between Wong Fei Hung and Iron Robe Yim.

FOOTNOTE 1 – Yam Sai Kwun is so great in this role that I have written a blog just about him.

FOOTNOTE 2 – Hunt is quoting from Bordwell’s ‘Aesthetics in Action: Kung-Fu, Gunplay and Cinematic Expressivity’ in Fifty Years of Electric Shadows, p. 86

FOOTNOTE 3 – I feel the same happens in Donnie Yen’s introductory fight in OUTIC 2. I hope that I find the time to blog about that one day.

FOOTNOTE 4 – I had better make a disclaimer that I am not a martial artist. I am not trying to comment on martial arts technique – that would be presumptuous of me – but rather on the aesthetic impact and performance and choreographic techniques involved in the movement.

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2 Responses to Choreography in Once Upon A Time In China – Blog 4

  1. Argh! I want to read these so badly, but I want to wait until I review those films first-OUATIC is coming in the next few months-getting Jet’s mostly horrid American films out of the way first…

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    • And AREN’T they horrid. Such a pity. I don’t mind the films he made with Luc Besson – Kiss of the Dragon and Danny the Dog. Jet seems to fair better with the Europeans, do you think?

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