(This is part of my blogging series about some of the choreography in OUTIC 2. My previous blog was about Wong Fei Hung’s first fight scene against the White Lotus sect.)
Once Upon A Time In China 2’s (OUTIC 2’s) plot is structured around the action scenes. This movie has, for a kung fu film, well developed dialogue that joins scenes like mortar joins cement blocks. The dialogue therefore plays an important function, but the action set pieces are the building blocks that the film is constructed on and around. Among 2 of the important set pieces in this film are the 2 fight scenes between the film’s hero, Wong Fey Hung (played by Jet Li), and General Lam (played by Donnie Yen). The first fight scene shows how Lam, motivated by sheer cussed competitiveness and riding high on arrogance and aggression after a martial arts training session, initiates a struggle to be top dog between himself and Wong. Their first fight is a sparring session, initiated by an attack (almost an ambush) by Lam. It comes as an unwelcome surprise to Wong, but Lam allows them both to walk away from when he abruptly breaks off the fight. Their second fight scene is more serious and the enmity between Lam and Wong is now informed by political pressures as well as by male ego. But I see it as a resolution to the earlier fight that was started but never really finished. In this sense I could argue that we are not dealing with 2 fight scenes here, but one stretched over 2 acts. This gives the structure of this film a satisfying sense of build. The second fight scene is more loaded not just because it is important for Wong to put paid to Lam’s corrupt political machinations but also because of the psychological dynamic that was set up between these men in the earlier fight scene. This cross referencing and using earlier scenes and visual themes to set up later ones is something that Tsui Hark does particularly well in the OUTIC films.
In the long history of martial arts film making Hong Kong choreographers have developed a sophisticated and finely honed choreographic craft. One thing that they seem to understand particularly well is how to construct choreographic sequences that inform and support the aims of the films in terms of plot and character development, as well as reinforcing the audience’s perception of the space and time in which the film is set. On top of this they may also be exploring different styles and aesthetics of movement. Yuen Wu Ping is a master choreographer and (as we can see in films like Tai Chi Master) also a fine director. In this film he is working with director / writer Tsui Hark who seems to have an excellent understanding as to where to position fight scenes in his plot to maximum effect.
The 2 fight scenes between Lam and Wong are preceded by Wong’s introductory fight (where he takes on the White Lotus sect in the street), and then separated by 2 other scenes featuring the White Lotus sect: their raid on the British Consulate and Wong’s fight in the White Lotus Temple. The White Lotus sect are presented as being thoroughly ghastly throughout the film but there is a flamboyant, lurid quality to their action scenes that contrasts with the more austere atmosphere of the Wong / Lam duels. The White Lotus action scenes are somewhat burlesque whereas the Wong / Lam duels have a terser, more dramatic feel to them. The gloriously over the top fight between Wong and the White Lotus Sect in their temple is a piece of light relief, injecting a mad vaudeville quality into the film that leavens the tension and leaves the reviewer refreshed and ready for the drama of the high stakes final duel between Lam and Wong.
(My next blog will continue a discussion about Wong versus Lam, with a particular focus on the relationship between the choreography and the sets.)