The Choreography in Swordsman 2

(This is the first in a series of blogs I have written about Swordsman 2. If you would like to read a plot summary and cast list for this film then check out my previous blog.)

My response to Swordsman 2 is somewhat schizoid. As a martial arts film, by which I mean a showcase of martial arts choreography and performance, I find it highly disappointing. As a roll-the-jaffas-down-the-aisle and break-open-the-popcorn experience, it is entertaining. As a study in gender and sexual dynamics it is as confounding as it is fascinating. In this blog I am going to discuss the aspect of the film that I find the most disappointing – the choreography.

The director and main choreographer for this film is the highly esteemed Ching Siu Tung, assisted by choreographers Yuen Bun and Cheung Yiu Sing. Other films Ching Siu Tung has made with Jet Li (who stars in Swordsman 2) include Dr Wai in the Scripture with No Words, Hero and Warlords. I think that his work as a director on Swordsman 2 is extremely good. It is his work as a choreographer on this film that I have issues with. In general, I have mixed feelings about Ching’s choreography in most of his films, due to his frequent use of wire fu (or aerial based fight scenes with lots of wire stunts). Wire fu, it has to be said, is not my favourite choreographic device. When he constrains himself to making work that is mostly based on the ground Ching comes up with some lovely material. There are a few fight scenes in Dr Wai in which there is a good balance of wire fu and ground based stuff, and these look inventive and dynamic. There is an enormous amount of wire fu in Hero, but somehow the epic scope and director Zhang Yimou’s aesthetic vision for this movie accommodates it. The scene in Hero where Jet Li fights Donnie Yen is the fight scene with the least amount of wire fu, and is a very favourite fight scene of mine. The beauty of the choreography, cinematography, music, art direction and physical performances make it a little piece of choreographic perfection for me. Warlords, although an action movie, is not a martial arts movie (despite Li’s presence). The choreography in this film is quite different from that of the other films mentioned in this blog, as it shows very realistic looking fighting. Ching does a good job here, as the action supports the story and historical setting of Warlords very appropriately. I have also seen other movies he has choreographed and they contain some nice looking ground based passages of movement. So Ching is capable of producing dramaturgically useful and aesthetically pleasing choreography for a range of different contexts and aesthetics. But, for the most part, Ching’s choreography relies heavily on the use of wire fu. And I wish it didn’t. Too much wire fu bleeds all of the detail and nuance in movement dynamic out of a film’s choreographic vocabulary. In Swordsman 2 the fighters’ feet rarely seem to touch the ground and I feel this detracts from this movie.

To be fair, I suppose that I should acknowledge the fact that Swordsman 2 is a wuxia pian, based on a famous novel by contemporary Hong Kong wuxia novelist Louis Cha. Wuxia means ‘martial arts’ and wuxia pian means ‘martial arts film’, and usually refers to martial arts movies that feature swordsmen in a historical fantasy setting. Wire fu will always have to be a component of films made in the wuxia pian genre, I think. When I first started watching martial arts movies I assumed that wire fu was a filmic device – a visual gimmick that had arisen from the realisation of martial arts film makers that the technology of cinema would allow them to make their characters do things that can’t be achieved in the real world, such as flying through the air or standing on top of slender bamboo foliage (a la Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). I was fascinated to learn that these feats were actually a literary convention that existed long before the invention of cinema, and had their roots in wuxia literature. For 100s of years Chinese authors writing in the wuxia genre have been writing about the feats of wandering swordsmen. A  famous wuxia novel, The Water Margin (which has been the source of both Chinese Opera and kung fu movie plots and characters), was written in China as long ago as the 14th century. Long before cinema was even a glimmer in the Lumiere Brothers’ eyes in France in the 1890s, wuxia novelists in China were describing characters whose chi had been refined by their martial arts technique to such a powerful and refined level that they could leap over tall buildings in a single bound and perform other supernatural feats. So a film like Swordsman 2, which is set squarely within the wuxia genre, is bound to have a lot of wire fu in its choreographic vocabulary. To adequately depict the heroes within a wuxia pian, and their mastery over their chi, their ability to perform superhuman feats must be shown and wire fu is a good way of doing this.

But to make ALL of the choreography of Swordsman 2 into aerial battles was, in my opinion, a mistake. The fight scenes look too sameish – we are just shown a cavalcade of bodies twirling and pinging through the air in a clash of swords. The staging of all of the wire stunts seems to demand quite similar rhythms and framing of camera shots. By not choreographing more ground based material, therefore, Ching robs us of the opportunity for variations in kinetic and cinematographic rhythms that can be found in other martial arts movies. There is also a lack of opportunity to show case different martial arts styles and techniques, which is such an enjoyable and dramaturgically useful aspect of many chop sockies (as I am writing this I am thinking of Jet Li versus Jackie Chan in their fight in the temple during The Forbidden Kingdom. This duel references various different styles of kung fu, and is a rich viewing experience as a result).

In discussing Jet Li’s performance as 2 different characters in The One (each visually defined for the viewer by a different martial arts style), Leon Hunt remarks:

“The specificity of the film’s fighting styles, and particularly their use as shorthand characterisation, indicates The One’s debt to the Hong Kong martial arts tradition, which frequently makes economical, accessible and instructive use of characters with contrasting fighting styles.” p. 178, Kung Fu Cult Masters.

No such “shorthand characterisation” occurs in Swordsman 2. All of the characters have the same movement dynamic. This is reduced to and defined by the impact of momentum and gravity on the human body as it is catapulted through space on the end of a wire. Consider that the cast of this film includes martial artists of the calibre of Jet Li and the distinguished Yam Sai Kwun. There is no room for their knowledge, training and finely honed and expressive kinetic abilities to be used in this choreography. What a waste.

Critic Paul Fonoroff complained in his review of Swordsman 2:

“But there are so many battles that they totally dominate and obscure the fragile plot that ties them together.” p. 238, At the Hong Kong Movies.

I partially agree with Fonoroff – the action does threaten to “dominate and obscure the fragile plot” in this movie. To be honest, even though I have watched this film 4 or 5 times now I still don’t completely understand what is going on the whole way through. However, it is not the number of battles that I have a problem with, but the way they are choreographed and edited (1). Many other martial arts films devote an enormous amount of screen time to physical performance, and this does not necessarily inhibit the movie’s story telling aims. The next Jet Li movie I will be rewatching is Once Upon A Time In China 2, which has a lot of fighting and in fact the last half hour or so is dominated by 2 lengthy fight scenes (2). Yet, I never lose touch with the plot, and the choreography takes us deeper into an understanding of the characters’ personalities and experiences. In Swordsman 2 it seems to distance us from them and the performers who are playing them. When discussing this film Leon Hunt comments

“… there is a great deal of physical skill on display, but the style totally overwhelms it…Most significantly Ling is played by Jet Li and yet there is not 1 single shot to ‘guarantee that he is actually performing the character’s moves (3)” pp 26-27, Kung Fu Cult Masters

The choreography is so dominated by wire fu that there is not the level of detail or sufficient differences in movement dynamic between characters that would normally serve the story telling / character defining purpose that it does in other martial arts films. Unfortunately Ching’s reliance on wire stunts renders the plot largely incomprehensible, and the characters shallower than they might be.

FOOTNOTE 1 – The editing makes the movement sequences too disjointed for my taste.

FOOTNOTE 2 – Fonoroff also complains that this film has too much fighting in it. I don’t agree.

FOOTNOTE 3 – A slight exaggeration, but I agree with the essence of what he says

The next blog I will be posting is about the sexuality of the characters in Swordsman 2.

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6 Responses to The Choreography in Swordsman 2

  1. dorkarama says:

    I often struggle while watching Hong Kong swordplay movies because of the overwhelming predominance of wire stunts. I would rather see a display of authentic Chinese martial arts than watch people flying through the air, however graceful it might be.
    Historically you could make a case that swordplay films, or wu xia pian if you prefer, were the province of Mandarin language cinema. It was only with the rise of Cantonese language filmmaking in the 1940s that kung fu came to the screen.
    King Hu’s wu xia pian in the 1960s were Mandarin language productions and for a time prior to the success of Bruce Lee, wu xia pian was the dominant mode of action filmmaking in Hong Kong, eclipsing kung fu movies almost entirely.
    The fortunes of Cantonese language filmmaking were revitalised by the Hui Brothers in the 1980s, without whom it is difficult to imagine the subsequent success of Stephen Chow and his proclivity for gags based on Cantonese wordplay.
    I don’t really know where I’m going with this. I appear to be rambling.
    Basically I don’t like wire fu movies either! Right on!

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    • I wouldn’t say rambling – I think this is all interesting background. I enjoy learning about the background of these films because it can help us understand and appreciate them more. Thanks for the long and interesting comment.

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  2. Norbert says:

    Flying without the aid of a device has always been something we humans dream about. Why else would there be comic superheroes with this ability or Asian films where gravity is being defied?

    I think of Hero as an art film, so I agree with you that the wire fu helps its aesthetical storytelling. On the other hand I wasn’t happy when watching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. For my taste there were too many air fights. Still, when rightly (or sparsley) used I really like watching wire-fu.

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    • What is it about Crouching Tiger? I don’t really like that film but I can’t understand why. The production values are high. I think Michelle Yeoh is terrific, I quite like Zhang Zhiyi (sp?) and Yuen Wu Ping is my favourite choreographer (wire fu aside). I have seen a couple of films by director Ang Lee and liked them (Pushing Hands whichwas delightful, Eat Drink Man Woman and Sense and Sensibility). Cheng Pei Pei was a standout in her role. But I just can’t get into Crouching Tiger. I usually think Chow Yun Fat is a terrific actor but he didn’t convince me that he was a martial arts master in this film – he looked stodgy and awkward when he moved. Also the film just came across as slow and turgid and dreary. When the character of the young girl leaps off the bridge I just find myself thinking – “Oh good, it’s over.”

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  3. dorkarama says:

    I really didn’t like Crouching Tiger either. I think there are major problems with the pacing and plot of the film – that whole middle act in the desert is tiresome and completely hobbles the pace. The script lacks focus. Who is the protagonist? Chow Yun-Fat’s character sleepwalks through most of the movie. Zhang Ziyi’s character drives most of the plot, but then is little more than a bystander to the final confrontation that is supposed to be the climactic moment of the film.
    Somehow, the movie winds up being less than the sum of its parts. I think part of the reason it received such acclaim in the West was that most of the reviewers had never seen a Hong Kong swordplay film before so it was all new and exciting to them. The film didn’t even make the top ten box office list for the year in Hong Kong, where it was all old hat.

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