The following blog contains a discussion of one of my favourite fight scenes – the first fight scene between Wong Fei Hung and General Lam in Once Upon a Time In China 2:
In Once Upon A Time In China 2 (OUTIC 2) the hero Wong Fei Hung (played by Jet Li) finds himself combating 2 bad guys in this film – General Lam (played by Donnie Yen) and the Priest Gao Kung of the White Lotus Sect (played by Xiong Xin Xin). It is interesting to compare these 2 characters. Priest Gao Kung is a snarling, grimacing, declaiming type of villain. The fight between him and Wong comes across as a fine piece of vaudeville. Gao Kung is like something out of a cartoon and functions as spectacle. We don’t get any sense of depth to his character and nor do we need to. The flamboyance of the choreography and Xiong’s gurning tells the audience everything we need to know about this character – he exists as a back flipping, high kicking catalyst for Wong Fei Hung to demonstrate his own virtuosity as a martial artist and his integrity as a character.
The character of General Lam is an important one in the film and we are allowed to view him as a much more dimensional character. While he represents a genuine threat to the good guys he is not just the Chinese equivalent to a moustache twirling black caped melodrama villain (as Gao Kung could be seen to be)*. As we watch the film we get a strong sense of Lam being driven by not so much as straightforward evil but a more complex array of emotions. I sense ambition, arrogance, competitiveness, machismo, frustration, anger, and stress in this character to varying degrees and at varying times during this movie. But the interesting thing about this character is that he does not have huge amounts of dialogue during the film. The short scenes featuring this character speaking have mainly to do with plot exposition and not with character motivation. The one exception to this is a few lines of dialogue that Lam swaps with Wong immediately following their first fight. Wong has asked Lam to protect some children and Lam has to explain that he does not have the manpower to do so, and that he is ashamed. This is a highly telling statement coming from such a lofty and arrogant man. But for the most part we do not hear Lam talking about his feelings or motivations. So how do we get a sense of such a 3 dimensional character? Part of this is down to the skills of the direction, writing and cinematography – what little we see of Lam outside of his 2 big fight scenes is crafted and presented so that the force of this character’s personality has a maximum impact on the audience. An example of this is a close up camera shot of General Lam’s eye. This takes place after Lam has exited the British Consulate and has had a brief conversation plotting with his officers. The close up fills the screen with Yen’s eye. Even though this has been a brief scene, and we haven’t heard Lam say anything that is revealing of his inner state, this close up takes us right up close and practically into this window to Lam’s soul.
Yen’s ability as an actor also must be given credit. He has an intense onscreen presence and can do the ‘still waters running deep’ thing so well. But I think that the choreography, and physical performance of that choreography, is one of the elements that helps reveal shades of Lam’s personality to the viewer. The most screen time Lam gets is during the 2 fight scenes with Wong Fei Hung. On the simplest level these fight scenes are just plain beautiful to watch, but they also do an excellent job in illustrating aspects of Lam’s character, especially the first fight one.
At the beginning of this scene, which was co-choreographed by Yen and Yuen, we see Lam practicing martial arts by himself in a courtyard. At one stage he uses a twisted wet sheet of cloth as a sort of staff. His movements are (typically of Donnie Yen) precise, powerful and elegant. Wet cloth would seem to be an unlikely weapon but in the hands of Lam it is a worryingly effective instrument of destruction. Lam uses it recklessly to smash parts of his courtyard, and the wanton destructiveness of this contrasts strikingly with Lam’s dignified and aristocratic bearing. In his interview on the special features of the Hong Kong Legends DVD release of OUTIC 2 Donnie Yen has this to say about his unusual choice of weapon:
“So it was my idea to try and find an object to interpret this character’s martial arts physical ability is so advanced that he can transcend his power, his energy into any object. So, for example, we could just use a soft cloth and by interpreting his skill into the cloth, the cloth becomes a stick, it becomes so hardened that even a cloth can be devastating.”
Following this introductory section featuring Lam’s martial arts solo, Wong Fei Hung arrives and Lam initiates a duet – some sparring with bamboo poles between the 2. The choreography for this section is fast and furious and shows Lam driving the fight by lashing out at Wong, who proves equal to the challenge both in terms of martial arts technique and nerve. The thrusts and strikes of the weapons set up an intricate and baroque sequence of angles and lines. The precision of the placement of the poles, and the rhythms of the strikes, contrasts beautifully with the fluidity and animal grace of the movement dynamic flowing into the 2 performers’ torsos and legs as they power their way through the space to wield their weapons. The fight ends with Wong nudging an upright bamboo log with his pole and Lam smashing another in half in response. Lam then fixes Wong with a stare – penetrating doesn’t even come close to describing it (I defy even Bruce Lee to match its intensity) – before suddenly breaking into a polite chuckle, calling for refreshments and exchanging social pleasantries with Wong. In a witty post script to this fight scene, Lam’s guards discover that Wong’s last, apparently light and inconsequential, nudge of the bamboo log left it damaged just enough to break in half when they poke it with a finger, but not so damaged that it fell over during the fight. The implication is clear – Lam’s aggression is recklessly applied and, compared to Wong, carelessly controlled, whereas Wong Fei Hung has a mastery of his technique and feelings of aggression that gives his martial artistry a subtlety and lightness of touch that Lam doesn’t have.
So we know from this scene that Lam is a dangerous and mercurial bugger, able to switch from being combative to calculating to charming in the blink of an eye. The choreography and physical performance in this short scene display for us Lam’s power, martial arts adeptness, ruthlessness, competitiveness, aggression, and cunning. During the short snatch of dialogue following the fight he expresses a feeling of shame but I feel that this has also been hinted at during the action – Lam’s lashing out and destructiveness during his training and the sparring bout reveal an anger and frustration. This mixture of emotions, and the potency of having them expressed kinetically, quickly makes Lam a fascinating and vivid, if not likeable, character for the audience. Because we have been given the opportunity to invest our interest in this character the final fight scene between Lam and Wong takes on a meaning that transcends just the resolution of an action movie plot.
*For a discussion on the difference between an antagonist like Lam and a villain like Gao Kung refer to my blog on Iron Robe Yim from the first Once Upon A Time In China film:
Yam Sai Kwun as Iron Robe Yim in Once Upon A Time in China – Part 1
One of the most satisfying elements of Once Upon A Time in China (OUTIC) and Once Upon A Time In China 2 (OUTIC 2) are the characters of the main antagonists in these 2 movies – Iron Robe Yim (played by Yam Sai Kwun) and General Lam (played by Donnie Yen) respectively. In his excellent commentaries to the Hong Kong Legends DVD release of these films, I was interested to hear Bey Logan use the word antagonist to describe these characters, as opposed to words like villain or baddie. He is right to do so. This might seem to be a small distinction, but it is an important one. In both OUTIC and OUTIC 2 our hero, Wong Fei Hung (Jet Li), has to face down both an antagonist as well as villains, and they are quite different types of characters with different functions within the films.
The villains in these films are easily recognisable characters. They are cliched but still used very effectively within the context of these movies. In OUTIC we have a Chinese gangster and his cronies, and in OUTIC 2 we have an evil fraudulent mystical priest heading a cult of wild-eyed followers. The villains are played to the hilt – snarling, declaiming, gesticulating. They belong to the melodramatic traditions that are an innate part of the cultural baggage of martial arts films.
“Melodramatic characters are monopathic: that is, lacking more complex mixes of feelings and psychological depth” (Linda Williams in Melodrama Revised) (1).
The villains in these films represent and facilitate menace and danger. This is their main purpose and it is not necessary for us to understand much more about the characters than that. Peter Brooks has this to say about the villain in melodramas in general:
“He is reduced to a few summary traits that signals his position… But he is strongly characterised, a forceful representation of villainy… The villain is simply the conveyor of evil, he is inhabited by evil” (Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination, p. 33) (2)
The antagonists mentioned above, however, are handled differently by writer and director Tsui Hark. While, like the villains, they represent a considerable threat to our hero, they are far more complex characters and the viewer is allowed to know more about their personalities and motivations. Text, choreography (especially), and the way the characters are portrayed by the performers, combine to present us with more layered and engaging (if not likeable or admirable) characters. This adds drama and emotional depth to their storylines within the movies and this is one of the reasons why these 2 films are among my favourites.