One of the reasons why I love Once Upon A Time In China 2 (OUTIC 2) so very much is because of the choreography by Yuen Wu Ping. Entertaining and beautiful, it also provides an object lesson in how choreography can be used to further plot and deepen our understanding of character. The more sophisticated choreographic craft in kung fu movies works in layers, by which I mean that it fulfills several different functions within the same fight scene. It can not only be aesthetically pleasing, but also packed with symbolism and mythological references and/or plot details and/or character definition and/or intertextual references to other works of art. In OUTIC 2 the fight in the White Lotus Sect Temple and the 2 fights between Jet Li and Donnie Yen can be seen as examples of this.
But one of my favourite fight scenes in this movie is just a brief and simple scene which perhaps is not as layered as some of the aforementioned set pieces. This particular fight scene occurs when Wong Fey Hung (Jet Li) fights the White Lotus Sect for the first time. The scene starts when Wong bounds across the heads and shoulders of bystanders (like a sheepdog running across the backs of penned sheep) to rescue his love interest, Aunt Yee, from the sect. The choreography is delightful and shows off Li’s beautiful movement dynamic. As Li starts to fight he uses his fan to deliver some sharp smacks to the baddies, and positions his body in a series of taut poses that feature the shoulder line twisting in opposition to the hips. Li moves from position to position with crisply placed footwork and sharp pivots. The presence of the fan and body positions always reminds me of a flamenco dance, giving this section of the choreography a flamboyant quality. The choreography then explodes into spiraling jumps and high kicks, which move Li’s body from lunging at ground level to leaping, dance-like, through the air.
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’ ”. p. 28
This fight scene is a good illustration of this, especially in the first part of the choreography. One of Li’s special qualities as a physical performer is his ability to move from position to position cleanly and with grace despite the lightening speed he employs. The speed with which he can organise his limbs and transfer his weight means that he can shave off nanoseconds and maximise the time he gives to a completed pose. Expert command of his body and technique means that he can invest ‘still’ poses with energy and, by doing so, give them presence and impact. His speed and grace while moving, along with this energised posing, gives the viewer the impression of watching something enormously dynamic and alive.
I couldn’t give a rodent’s derriere if Jet Li would be any good in a real combat situation. I am not one of those chopsockie fans who argue over who would win in a duel between Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan or whoever. I actually don’t even like violence. I love fight scenes in martial arts movies for the inventiveness of the choreography and the skill of the physical performance. I love this fight scene for Yuen Wu Ping’s elegant combination of movements, and the flow, precision, and lightness of Jet Li’s execution of those movements. For me, Jet Li is a truly unique physical performer not just for the virtuosity of some of his movements (and this particular fight scene includes his signature kick which sees him slam his leg flat across his torso with the foot flexed to, supposedly, kick someone standing behind him). I am sure that many of the anonymous martial arts fighters and Chinese Opera acrobats who worked on these films had virtuoso moves. What sets Li apart is his quality of movement. He is a creature of rare grace whose physical performance style features movements of sensuous fluidity punctuated with cleanly defined and crisply performed rapid fire sequences. Like the greatest ballet dancers, he is always able to imbue the choreography he performs with style, elegance, and feeling.
In OUTIC 2 Jet Li, as Wong Fey Hung, goes on to fight other great martial artists (Donnie Yen and Xiong Xin Xin) in longer, more elaborate and, dramaturgically, more important fight scenes. This little fight scene is really just Wong Fey Hung’s introductory fight in this movie. But it is a pleasure to be able to just sit back, relax and enjoy the pure beauty of the movement in this scene for its own sake.
(In this blog I have indulged in a rave about Li’s qualities as a mover. But OUTIC 2’s cast boasts other great martial artists including the magnificent Donnie Yen. The next few blogs will be about the fight scenes between Yen and Li).