One of my very favourite fight scenes of all time is the fight that takes place in Once Upon A Time In China 2 (OUTIC 2) between hero Wong Fei Hung (played by Jet Li) and the sinister White Lotus Sect in their temple.
Gloriously lurid and fruity, this extravaganza packs more over the top antics, melodrama and exotic trappings into one fight scene than can be found in whole movies. It rewards repeat viewings, as once you get past the surface madness it is evident that this scene has been carefully and skillfully constructed with great choreographic and dramaturgical sophistication. The performances are virtuoso turns, and do Yuen Wu Ping’s gorgeous choreography full justice. Be warned – I have written LOTS about this fight scene and ther are more blogs about it that are to follow. Truth be told, I feel I could write a book about it. This blog is just a warm up exercise containing some thoughts that didn’t make their way into my main blog about this marvelous fight scene.
It is interesting to consider where this fight is placed in terms of plot structure, and the effect this has on this film. This scene is almost 15 minutes long. It and the final climactic showdown between Wong Fei Hung and Commander Lam (played by Donnie Yen) dominate the last half hour of the movie, providing a kinetically charged resolution to the film. In terms of the sequence of action scenes, it falls between the White Lotus’ invasion of the British Consulate and the final fight scene. The final fight scene is the second between Commander Lam and Wong, and is a resolution of some alpha male business initiated by Lam in their first encounter, as well as being a reckoning for Lam’s treacherous actions during the movie. The fight in the White Lotus Sect’s temple sees Wong challenging the sect and their sham mystical head priest Gao Kung (played by Xiong Xin Xin). After this he goes straight on to a fight in which he defeats Lam. The first 2 thirds of the film see Wong and his companions trying to understand societal unrest and unearth some convoluted political machinations. The background to this turns out to be the Qing Dynasty’s ruthless intrigues against the exploitative British and Sun Yat Sen’s rebels, and the Chinese falling prey to the superstition and xenophobic denial of the White Lotus Sect (surely referencing the real life Boxer movement). After the White Lotus Sect’s attack on the British Consulate, followed by Commander Lam’s ruthless murder of the British Ambassador during the same scene, Wong, disgusted by the immoral actions he has been seeing, feels galvanised to swap investigation and defensive action for a positive attack on the White Lotus Sect and direct support of Sun Yat Sen’s rebels (this last puts him on a collision course with the morally compromised Lam). In the last 2 fights, therefore, Wong has some tidying up to do. As exciting as the earlier fight scenes have been, the almost manic energy of the fight in the White Lotus Sect temple seems to be an indication that Wong’s pugilistic instincts and sense of moral disgust have come to a head, and that, in terms of the movie’s story arc, a climax is about to be reached and resolutions are in the offing.
For me, the 3 outstanding fight scenes in this movie are the 2 between Lam and Wong and the fight in the White Lotus Sect temple. The White Lotus temple fight comes between the 2 Lam / Wong fights and provides an effective contrast. Warm and earthy colours and lighting prevail in the art direction and cinematography of this scene. In the Lam fight scenes colder, bluer colours predominate. The White Lotus Sect are clearly established as being extremely dangerous and sinister, and yet I can’t help but think of this fight scene as a bit of vaudeville compared to the more serious tone of the Lam fights. Although most of the White Lotus temple fight involves Wong fighting Gao Kung, the first third of the fight sees Wong having to take on multiple members of the sect. Even his duel with Gao Kung happens in front of a barracking mob of sect members, and Gao Kung frequently relies on his 2 offsiders for assistance. The press of bodies is one of the elements that makes this fight scene feel like a Hollywood musical production number, whereas the fights between Lam and Wong feel more personal and private somehow. It is true that there are bystanders present in both Lam fights, but they are more subdued than the White Lotus Sect members and have less impact on the fights. If I were to compare the White Lotus Sect fight and the Lam fights with dance numbers, I would suggest that the White Lotus Sect temple fight has the flamboyance of a Busby Berkley or Gene Kelly routine, whereas the 2 Lam fights are closer to the severe elegance of some Balanchine choreography. Despite the cruelty and anarchy of the White Lotus sect, Wong’s fight with them has a feeling of light relief in between the drama, tension and austere tone of the Lam fights.
One thing these 3 fight scenes have in common is that they happen in sets that surround and constrain the space the action happens in. Yuen Wu Ping is able to demonstrate his genius for responding creatively to his sets. His forcing of spectacular and complex choreography into constricted space heightens a sense of energy and dynamism in these scenes. The set has to contain the very dynamic and athletic choreography of this fight and Yuen Wu Ping explores and exploits every inch and angle of this space that is cluttered with bodies and the accoutrements of mysticism. In my following blog I will comment on this choreography in more detail.