The beginning of this fight scene (choreographed by Yuen Wu Ping) shows Wong Fey Hung (played by Jet Li) and his offsider in this scene, Luke (played by veteran Shaw Brothers star David Chiang), being greeted by a creepy little girl who is some sort of a child-mascot in residence at the sect’s temple. This child has previously been shown in the opening scene of the film smiling happily while a Dalmatian was burnt to death by the sect – not something calculated to endear her to the film’s audiences. Wong and Luke have arrived at the temple from the British embassy. Their farewell scenes at the embassy included a moving exchange between Luke and a group of abandoned child scholars that he and Wong had taken under their protection. The attachment to Luke of these little scholars is heart warming – they cry when he leaves to go to the temple. It is not long after that Wong and Luke are being guided into the temple by the girl belonging to the White Lotus sect, and the contrast between her and the adorable child scholars is striking and helps set an atmosphere of eeriness and danger within the temple.
The actual fight between Wong and the White Lotus sect gets off to a cracking start. As Wong pretends to want to join the sect, a shifty eyed sect member attempts to stab him in the back during the initiation rite, and Wong starts fighting a large group of sect followers. Note that the fight is initiated by a favourite plot device in Hong Kong films. The villains strike first, thereby forcing the hero to react and defend himself. This ploy allows the hero to keep the moral imperative*. Maybe this is a bit of a technicality in this scene, as Wong has come to the temple with the specific intent of destroying the sect. But still, a moral box has been ticked – the sect started it, they are the bloodthirsty ones, and the outnumbered Wong represents the forces of good.
The first third of the fight can be seen as the introductory act in this mini Chinese Opera. Wong takes on multiple opponents in free wheeling style. There are a couple of little moments in this section of the fight that encapsulate things about kung fu films that are worth noting. When the shifty cultist prepares to stab Wong we are given a couple of close ups of his facial expressions, which are exaggerated and feature much eye rolling. Many westerners are turned off by this broad and exaggerated style of acting (typical of chopsockies), accusing it of being hammy and camp in comparison to the acting they are used to seeing in contemporary Hollywood style films. But I tend to think of kung fu movies as filmed physical theatre, and many of this genre’s performers (prior to this decade at least) came to film performance via the intense physical disciplines of martial arts practice and / or Chinese Opera. Kung fu movies, in part, have their origins in the stylized world of Chinese Opera. I don’t find this ‘large’ style of acting to be bad, but just different, and appropriately matched to the extravagant choreography these performers have to execute. One of the joys of the fight in the White Lotus Temple is its overt theatricality. These close-ups, along with the flamboyant fanfare of music and exotic set, helps the viewer to adjust their expectations for a highly theatricalised experience.
The other moment worth mentioning is what happens to the cleaver that the shifty eyed cultist was trying to stab Wong with. A few moves show how Wong kicks this cleaver first out of the cultist’s hands, and then into a trajectory that sees it whizzing around the room to end up stuck in a pillar. The interesting thing about this is that the camera work doesn’t focus on the flight of the cleaver – we see its starting point (under Wong’s foot) and its end point (in the pillar) but nothing else. Hong Kong movie making, at this stage (in the 1990s), didn’t have access to the kind of special effects technology which would have allowed Tsui and his team to show the flight of the cleaver. Instead we are given information about its trajectory through reaction shots of the characters. This is a nice reminder of an aspect of these films that many die hard fans find so exciting – they have no technological guff to hide behind. The human beings in these films must be their own special effects, and in order to achieve an impact on their audience they push both their physical abilities (as acrobats and / or martial artists) and their performance dynamics (as actors) to the limit.
During this introductory act, the sect followers attack Wong with an alarming array of sharp edged weaponry. The only weapon that Wong is able to use in defence is Luke’s umbrella, which he wields to devastating effect. This is a neat cross reference to a witty fight scene in the first OUTIC film in which Wong fought a gang also with an umbrella. And thanks to Bey Logan’s DVD commentary for the Hong Kong Legends release of OUTIC 2, I have been able to find out that when Wong Fei Hung uses an umbrella in a fight it is not just a matter of a quirky choice of weapon, but a case of referencing Buddhist symbolism in which an umbrella represents righteousnous. This is also a nice example of intertextual referencing because, according to Logan, Kwan Tak Hing often fought with an umbrella when he was playing Wong Fei Hung in the seminal black and white movie series that made this Cantonese folk hero into a cinematic mainstay. The choreography here is ground based (i.e. no wire fu) and features lots of quick, sharp, angular movements. At one stage Wong leaps onto the temple’s altar and trashes it with his feet and the brolly. Jet Li performs what is surely one of the most elegant tantrums ever captured on film. He just can’t help himself – he can make even an act of delinquency look like a solo from the repertoire of the Nederlands Dans Theatre. The rapid fire movements in this section start this fight scene off with a feeling of pace and high energy that only continues to build.
This energy builds to fever pitch when poor Luke, kind hearted protector of lost orphan scholars, accidentally shoots the child mascot. As the cult leaders go berserk and the energy of the scene reaches fever pitch, director Tsui Hark cleverly changes the pace of the scene and allows us a few reflective moments before the fight scene switches back into top gear with the arrival of Priest Gao Kung. This change of pace comes with the delivery of a few lines from Luke as he gazes in dismay at the collective hysteria of the White Lotus Sect.
The casting of David Chiang in the part of Luke is interesting and effective. As many fans of kung fu movies would be aware, Chiang was a popular leading man in many martial arts movies in his youth. He is an actor with an enormous amount of experience in this genre. His performance of Luke is excellent. His maturity as a performer shows and he interprets his character with an understated assurance. This understated quality contrasts nicely with the more flamboyant performative styles required of the high kicking and gravity defying martial artists in this scene. If this fight scene were a piece of music then Chiang’s performance would be a nice subtle background theme accompanying the beautiful and baroque melody line that is provided by the performances of the fighters. After so many films where, as a young man, David Chiang graced the screen as a kung fu movie matinee idol he puts all that experience into play in this film and acts his heart out in this scene. I always get a strong sense that when Chiang’s character says “There’s nowhere to run to. We can’t escape” he is not just referring to the danger that he and Wong are in at that moment, but the potential fate of the Chinese at that point in history. It is an affecting and serious moment that director Tsui Hark slides into this vaudeville of a scene, and effectively links this set piece into the serious themes of this film.
Having deposited the audience into a moment of emotional intensity and slowed pace, the directors need something special to ramp the energy of the scene back up to its original frenetic pace in order to deliver a lengthy duel between Priest Gao Kung and Wong. The answer is to have Wong Fei Hung pretend to be possessed by a God (as you do). Li’s performance style here is big. He erupts into a bout of manic laughter that cuts right into Luke’s despairing mumbles, and then leaps onto the altar and has a sort of fit. Except, because it’s Jet Li we are dealing with here, this case of supernatural possession looks like another Nederlands Dans Theatre solo.
This is an effective moment. The performance style gets pitched up to a whole other level, and Li’s movement during Wong’s fit is fluid, energised and dynamic. The energy and sense of momentum has been picked up again and the viewer is ready for the next stage of this mini Chinese Opera. Hats off to not just Tsui Hark and Yuen Wu Ping for bringing off these changes of pace and dynamic, but also to Li. Effecting changes of dynamic and atmosphere in short order is not easy for even a trained actor. Jet Li’s formal education was wholly and solely in martial arts, not drama. His performance here serves the scene well.