Choreography in Once Upon A Time In China – Part 5

The climactic showdown between Wong Fei Hung and Iron Robe Yim

(This is the final blog about the choreography in OUTIC. In the previous one I discussed the choreography in Iron Robe Yim’s duel in front of the fire, his fight with Wong Fei Hung in the rain, and the action leading up to this fight scene.)

The climactic showdown between Wong Fei Hung and Iron Robe Yim demonstrates these characters’ abilities in external kung fu, as well as choreographically referencing what has been established about their internal kung fu and their personalities’ makeup in previous fight choreography. This fight scene also makes much use of wire fu. These 2 things aren’t wholly unconnected. Previous fight scenes have demonstrated use of internal kung fu. The conceit that wire fu is based on (1) is that martial arts masters have such a refined command of their highly developed chi that they are able to do things like leap over buildings or repel weapons with their skin (hence Yim’s Iron Robe technique). Wire fu gets a mixed response from fans of martial arts movies (including me) but perhaps there is a rationale for it being used here. This fight scene is not just about superior technique or physical prowess, but about the spirit, or inner state, of the combatants. Given that one of the purposes of wire fu is to signal to the audience that a fighter has highly developed chi and internal martial arts techniques, maybe it isn’t an inappropriate choreographic technique to use in this fight between 2 martial arts masters. I am not sure if Wong wins this fight, or if Yim loses it. In terms of composure, Yim DOES lose it, badly, towards the end of this fight. He starts behaving like a mad man, or an animal. The implication clearly is that he is no longer in a fit state to be competing, and Wong Fei Hung simply walks away.

Choreographer Yuen Wu Ping has a nice big multi-storied warehouse to play with here, cluttered with lots of ropes, iron bars, stacks of bales, and ladders. In his DVD commentary, Bey Logan says that Yuen is looking at how to use the environment to make the action interesting. In my view, someone needs to write a book on how Yuen has practically spent his whole career using a whole slew of environments to make his choreography interesting. As mentioned before, I feel that Hong Kong choreographers respond inventively to their sets, but I think Yuen is in a class of his own in this respect. I feel that he has a special fascination with the space in which his fight scenes happen (2). He responds to space as it is defined by grounded architectural forms in the set, as well as ‘invisible’ and fantsatic elements such as wires. In many of his fight scenes he not only thoroughly investigates the opportunities for staging suggested by built structures but also uses wirefu to construct a crisscrossing set of trajectories and pathways through the air. Through doing this he suggests virtual structures that sit askew and / or on top of the symmetrical built structures below or around them. In this particular fight scene he has his fighters construct a mad web of ladders within the square frame of the warehouse that they fight on, under and around.

Generally, I am ambivalent about wire-fu. If there is too much of it then I feel that it bleeds the intricacy and inventiveness out of choreography, but I accept Yuen’s use of it because, as much as he loves the aerial stuff, he is always judicious and discriminating in the way he uses it. It is always a pleasing and organic extension of a sequence of movement that has begun on the ground, and there is always a good reason for it to be used. This might be because it is there to illustrate something about the situation or characters (for example, showing us Wong’s famous shadowless kick), or the reason might be an aesthetic one – the best resolution to a sequence of movement, or way of emphasising a fight’s dynamic or momentum, might be to send the initially earthbound choreography sweeping up into the air. And for every section of choreography in the air that Yuen devises, he always gives us some nice juicy phrases based on the ground.

Yuen’s discriminating use of wires allows him to send his choreography to different levels, and to animate the set in which it happens. One problem I have with wire fu, in most martial arts movies, is that fight scenes featuring it tend to look all the same – 2 little figures pinging through space to meet for a simple clash of swords or a kick, and this then repeated ad nauseum. Yuen Wu Ping always finds a way to use it more creatively than that. Not all of the action in this wire fu dominated scene in OUTIC happens predictably up high – one memorable moment happens when (whichever stunt double is playing) Wong Fei Hung drops into a lovely forward splits (with his torso lying flat on his front leg) to avoid a flat suspended on ropes that has been kicked towards him by Iron Robe Yim at dizzying speed. You can’t get much closer to the ground than Wong is at this moment, as the flat whizzes inches over his head (3), and yet this is as much a wire fu stunt as any full blown flight through the air.

Yuen’s use of bamboo ladders is also very clever, as well as being visually spectacular. The ladders are not as solid or substantial a manufactured thing as, say, a plank or a crate, but they are still a tangible thing. In a mundane sense, their purpose is to help us humans to get higher up. By having his fighters construct a network of flimsy bamboo ladders within the warehouse, Yuen has used this prop as an intermediary device between the solid building of the warehouse and terra firma and the intangible space in which the unrealistic wirefu takes place. The wire fu, therefore, facilitates choreography that takes place both in mid air and on these ladders, and the viewer is treated to a rapid fire exchange of wire fu unassisted earth bound action, somewhat unreal looking action on real ladders (where performers are stabilised through the use of wires), and unreal action in an unreal space (wire fu in the air). When a performer takes to the air in this fight scene, it is not such an assault on our sense of the incredible as in other movies when we see performers suddenly leap into space as if jet propelled. Yuen uses these intermediary props, the ladders, to construct a physical context in which his performers can graduate from the ground to the air by stages – there is a kinetic, if not scientific, logic to it.

I am also interested in the angles of the ladders in this scene. The warehouse is constructed on symmetrical lines. The ladders are knocked together in a sort of web that is constructed along asymmetrical lines which contrast with the structure of the building. Yuen has had his performers colonise the empty space in the middle of the warehouse with these ladders, and by doing so he has found a way of slashing into, redefining and enlivening empty space. This way of treating space is something he does time and again in many films (4). Yuen seems to have gotten past the fact that wire fu can place a performer in the air (for some choreographers the use of wire fu begins and ends here), and exploits this technique as creatively, but pragmatically, as any other choreographic element at his disposal. Wire fu informs and inspires much of his choreography, but it is never allowed to dominate it at the expense of originality or drama.

In writing about this particular fight scene I realise that I have focused almost exclusively on the technical aspects of the choreography as it relates to the set and its use of wire fu. I have not spoken much about the choreography for the human body, and I am not going to do so, except to say that it looks great! We have seen plenty of fights in this movie that focus, primarily, on choreography for the body and have been given plenty of opportunities to see Wong Fei Hung and Iron Robe Yim in action. By the time we arrive at this fight scene we know these characters, in a kinetic as well as a psychological sense, pretty well. But Yuen’s choreographic response to the physical environment the fight is set in is an incredibly important aspect of this fight scene, more so than in any other of the film. I think maybe this full blown and elaborate use of the built environment consolidates the sense of climax in this fight. And I have to ask myself what would have happened to the choreography had Jet Li been totally fit? With the need to double Li extensively, and therefore the need to indulge in some cinematic slight of hand to disguise this, perhaps it made sense to draw the audience’s attention to other choreographic elements rather than keep the bodies of the 2 main actors front and centre, in a more unadorned space, the whole time.

In his excellent book Kung Fu Cult Masters, Leon Hunt discusses the growing use and effect of technology and special effects on martial arts movies and asks:

“But does this mean that kung fu loses its ‘physical dimension’, with performers ‘simply support props for the intensive effects work’, or is it more the case that new technologies are being valorized through the retention of bodily spectacle?” P. 18

In this scene I would argue that it is the latter. As much as Yuen’s response to the set and his use of wire fu dominate his choreography for this fight, I never get the sense that the characters of Wong Fei Hung and Iron Robe Yim are eclipsed by these things. The miracle of this scene is that, as grandiose as it seems, we remain focused on the spychology of the 2 opponents. This is a testament to the craft of not just Yuen Wu Ping and the actors, but also on Tsui Hark and his crew.

This blog has now run to roughly 10.5 pages (including footnotes) and this is why I have split it up into 5 smaller blogs to post on the internet. But 10.5 pages of writing on this one aspect of this film? This might indicate just how much I like the choreography in this film. Many of the fights are lovely set pieces to watch in their own right, but I also love the way the choreography reveals things about characters and facilitates the development of the plot. I feel that Tsui Hark and his team of choreographers and martial artists have done a superb job of seamlessly interweaving the choreography into the other components of the film, and this is one of the reasons why OUTIC is such an outstanding example of a martial arts film.

Okay, I just have 2 more blogs to post. The next one is on the elements (fire, water, etc.) in OUTIC.

FOOTNOTE 1 –  going back to the wu xia novels that originally used it before cinema was even invented, apparently.

FOOTNOTE 2 – just as Corey Yuen has a special fascination for stuff and materials.

FOOTNOTE 3 – jeez Hong Kong stunt men must have guts.

FOOTNOTE 4 –  think of the rooftop chase in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

FOOTNOTE 5 – Hunt is quoting from ‘Muscles and subjectivity: A Short History of the Masculine Body in Hong Kong Popular Culture’, Camera Obscura, p. 119

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2 Responses to Choreography in Once Upon A Time In China – Part 5

  1. Norbert says:

    “…2 little figures pinging through space to meet for a simple clash of swords or a kick, and this then repeated ad nauseum.” – such fights really get boring.

    In House of Flying Daggers I remember a fight scene where bamboo is involved. The fighters are using them for a great choreography

    Like

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