This blog focuses on the fight scenes in Once Upon A Time In China 2 (OUTIC 2) between the characters of General Lam (Donnie Yen) and Wong Fei Hung (Jet Li). These were mainly choreographed by Yuen Wu Ping with some input from Donnie Yen. An excerpt from the second fight can be viewed here:
A visual theme that links these 2 fight scenes is the presence of bamboo, which is used both as weaponry and also in the set construction in these scenes. This also constitutes a nice link to the first OUTIC film. In that film Wong faced his nemesis, Iron Robe Yim, in a bamboo bedecked set in their climactic fight scene. That scene was set in a warehouse, in other words an industrial space, and that prefigured the dye factory with its bamboo scaffolding that Lam and Wong fight in at the end of OUTIC 2.
In OUTIC 2 Wong and Lam’s first fight scene takes place in a narrow courtyard crowded by upright bamboo logs and lanterns. Their second fight in the dye factory takes place in a space even more crowded by bamboo scaffolding. In his commentary on the Hong Kong Legends DVD release of this film Bey Logan quite rightly says that the environment itself becomes a key element in the fight (as it so often is in Yuen Wu Ping’s choreography). For me the sets in these fights represent something about the psychological setting in which the characters of Lam and Wong find themselves operating. As with Wong and Iron Robe Yim in the first film, Wong and Lam share something despite their differences in situation and character. They are both martial arts adepts, and, as such, proponents and representatives of this area of traditional Chinese culture and its associated principles and values. In the OUTIC films Tsui Hark is exploring the undermining of Chinese culture by the pressures of Western expansion, and one way he has of doing this is by showing us the pressures that are brought to bear on characters who are deeply immersed in traditional Chinese culture such as martial artists like Wong, Lam and Iron Robe Yim. Wong proves himself to be a man of integrity as he refuses to abandon his personal code of ethics and values regardless of any confusion or difficulties he encounters. Yim and Lam, however, allow their personal code of honour to be undermined and this manifests as a failing in their mental focus and discipline as martial artists at key points in their fights with Wong. The crowded courtyard in which Lam and Wong first encounter each other represents the psychologically crowded and obstructed world these 2 characters now find themselves in. In a China that is under pressure from Western ambitions Wong and Lam have less freedom to move through their lives – they can’t express themselves as martial artists without nudging or bumping up against something, whether that literally be a bamboo structure or, metaphorically speaking, political intrigues. Their final fight scene takes place in an even more crowded space, and this reflects the fact that during the film their lives have become even more psychologically cramped, complicated`and obstructed by external events.
The fights between Lam and Wong are beautifully choreographed spectacles, but the genius of these scenes is that the enmity between Wong and Lam feels intensely personal and intimate. I think this comes from a sense that these fighters are so evenly matched. Their extreme adeptness as martial artists places them in a world of their own, and there is a sense that, as different as their motivations are, they still share a commonality in experiences and backgrounds that other non-martial artists cannot appreciate. This sense of a shared space is manifested not just physically but psychologically by the way the sets interact with the choreography of the fights.
Apparently, martial arts are not just composed of external energies but internal ones as well. The flow of chi, mental focus, philosophies, codes of behaviour all are a manifestation of and have a bearing on someone’s martial artistry. What kung fu movies do so brilliantly is find a way to show these things to an audience externally and artistically. Through the art of choreography, plot structure and set design OUTIC 2 has found a way to show its audience the psychology behind the violence in the Lam / Wong fights.