This blog follows straight on from my previous blog:
I am fascinated by the sense of theatricality inherent in many kung fu movies, and I find the fight scene in the White Lotus Temple in Once Upon A Time In China 2 (OUTIC 2) to be more theatrical than most. The traditional music and a high degree of acrobatic content in the choreography, plus the declamatory and flamboyant performance styles required to make the scene work makes me wonder if Tsui Hark and Yuen Wu Ping are heavily referencing Chinese Opera, and / or other forms of Chinese performing arts. Unfortunately all I know about Chinese Opera I have had to glean from a couple of books and viewing excerpts on YoutTube so I can’t draw a conclusion on this. But, according to Bey Logan’s DVD commentary, Tsui is referencing Chinese religious and mystical tradition in this scene. This probably adds to the feeling of theatricality, as all ritual has an element of performance in it and it has been suggested that many forms of theatre, including some forms of Chinese Opera**, grew out of shamanistic or spiritual ritual in ancient times. In this part of the fight Wong is deliberately staging a performance (playing the part of a man possessed by a God) in order to bluff his way out of the temple. From the moment his mad laughter jars on Luke’s musings to the moment that Priest Gao Kung makes his entrance, Wong consciously stages and deliberately forces his role play. It is telling that Wong stages his performance on the altar. The link between ritual and performance is made obvious here.
This link is further reinforced by Gao Kung’s entrance – a gloriously fruity moment. The next time I want to enter a room remind me to come crashing through a window and perform a series of back flips across the floor.
In placing such a theatricalised piece of entertainment in a temple this scene’s directors are making sure that the film’s themes are intersecting with the film’s duty to entertain its viewers. The sect are fakes, they are dissembling and using artifice to convince their ‘audience’ (the average man in the Chinese street) to believe in something that is attractive but unreal (i.e. the invincibility of the White Lotus sect followers to Western weaponry). But the White Lotus sect get their comeuppance in a scene that wears its playacting heart on its sleeve – the deliberate use of performative and choreographic craft behind the spectacle of this scene is constantly signaled to the audience. We want to get bound up in and swept away by its artifice and spectacle, and as we do so, that same artifice is manipulated to clue us in on the entertainer’s craft that is being used to create the spectacle for us.
An important leitmotif through out the duel between Gao Kung and Wong is the setting up and destruction of temporary altars throughout, along with the focus of keeping priest Gao Kung’s feet from touching the ground. According to Logan, a tenet of Chinese mysticism dictates that when someone is channeling the Gods or spirits then their feet should not touch the ground and, in fact, the higher they are the more effective a channel they will be. Wong Fei Hung has regarded the White Lotus Sect as morally dubious and fakes from the moment he first sets eyes on them, and he wants to expose their particular brand of mysticism as the dangerous flim flammery it really is. “Put your feet on the ground” he snaps at Gao Kung at one point during the fight. Gao Kung’s attempts to keep up the pretence of his spiritual elevation, by literally elevating himself physically, are constantly attacked by Wong Fei Hung who wants to prove that Gao Kung is just a man like everyone else, and that therefore the occult wares he is peddling must not be trusted.
This setting up and deconstructing of altars and elevated platforms during the course of the fight gives Yuen the opportunity to explore and exploit every nook and cranny of the set. In effect, Yuen is engaging in a cycle of setting up and destroying makeshift stages for his performers to show off their virtuoso moves and his own choreographic resourcefulness. After the temple’s actual altar is trashed the performers find themselves fighting on makeshift altars on (in no particular order) the top of a lintel / archway, a tottering pile of desks, fabric stretched tight to make a platform, shields balanced on the shoulders of 2 sect members, and standing in a brazier of flames and glowing coals. The choreography and cinematography focuses the viewer’s attention on the colours and textures of wood, cloth, ground earth, and live coals, making the viewing of this fight scene a sensual, as well as visual, experience.
The first makeshift altar is a mad tottering tower of tables, and Gao Kung’s lieutenants efforts to throw it together constitutes a marvelous piece of performance art in itself. Yuen Wu Ping intensifies his exploration of space, and has his fighters slide, bounce and surf on their tower. Bodies are posted and threaded through and under the tables. This is shot in slow motion, which makes it possible for the viewer to follow and enjoy the fighters’ complicated pathway through this rickety makeshift structure.
The next makeshift altar is a length of cloth stretched tight between Gao Kung’s 2 helpers. As he stands on this, Gao Kung has another moment of over the top performance. Australians who were teenagers in the 80s will know what I mean when I say he has his Angry Anderson moment here.
As Gao Kung calls on the Gods who will aid him, he ends up sounding like a heavy metal rock singer. This is another deliberately theatricalised moment in this vaudeville of a scene.
If this fight scene puts me in mind of theatrical forms like Chinese Opera and vaudeville in general, the section where Wong and Gao Kung fight on the lintel puts me in mind of a puppet show. This is the sort of wire fu that I am happy to allow, because this choreographic / special effects technique allows Yuen Wu Ping to shift his choreography for 2 fighters to a narrow strip of wood high up above the ground. In so doing I feel that the choreography is achieving several things.
In terms of pure aesthetics, the sequence plays its part in allowing Yuen to utilize his set. During this fight we have sequences of movement in many parts of the set, and in this Yuen can position his performers up very high, giving the cinematographer new angles to play with and the viewer a new perspective to see. Yuen responds to this constricted physical space with an amazingly inventive array of movement and positions – the performers crash through the wood partition backing onto the lintel and dangle into the space below it with one hand, they hang from the top of the frame and lash out with their feet, they flail out into the empty space beyond the lintel while gripping onto it with their toes. At one stage Gao Kung performs a particularly elegant backwards split up the wall.
But this ‘puppet show’ has functions other than the purely aesthetic. One of the main themes that the narrative of this movie undertakes to illustrate is the plight of the Chinese at this point in history. China is depiceted as being under pressure from external sources (Western countries) as well as the internal (the xenophobia and unsound superstition peddled by factions such as the White Lotus sect, as well as being destabilized by the Qing dynasty’s political vulnerabilities). Much of the plot of this film revolves around people being pushed, pulled, manipulated and controlled by various forces. When I watch Wong and Gao Kung on the lintel, cheered on by a crowd of sect followers chanting in unison (this makes it seem more theatrical – ‘staged’ – rather than spontaneous and I am always reminded irresistibly of a puppet show. The choreographer of this scene will know that the audience will know that these performers are on wires – Li and Xiong are Yuen’s human puppets. The rectangular, narrow performance space ressembles a puppet theatre. Is Yuen or Tsui tipping the audience a wink here? This film is about people having their strings pulled. We know that in order for Xiong and Li to perform these moves they are having their wires pulled. The directors of this scene have given us a puppet show within a movie that has manipulation as one of its themes.
Is this choreography really meant to reference puppetry? Who knows? As a director, Tsui Hark often references and uses Chinese Opera in his films. For example, there is a marvelous fight scene set at a Chinese Opera venue during the first Once Upon in China. Tsui Hark’s film, Green Snake, is based on a myth that has had an incarnation as a popular Chinese Opera. And he has directed a film called Peking Opera Blues. One of Tsui’s strengths as a director seems to be his ability to incorporate aspects of Chinese culture and history into his films. (As does the Chinese Opera trained Yuen Wu Ping). Who knows? Maybe puppetry was an actual point of inspiration for this particular sequence in this very theatrically styled fight scene. Or maybe I am just drawing a long bow here.
After leaving the lintel there is some elegant choreography involving the length of cloth that was used for an altar earlier. A brief spate of ground based movement sees Gao Kung propelled onto the most dangerous makeshift altar that has been left until last. A desperate Gao Kung defies Wong while standing in a brazier full of glowing hot coals, before leaping down to attack him. There is a gloriously detailed section of ground based choreography here. What often sets Asian martial arts fights apart from martial arts choreography in Hollywood films is the use of more complex and varied rythyms. The combination of rythyms from Gao Kung and Wong in this section is particularly rich. Wong’s attempts to parry, dodge and retreat before Gao Kung’s quickly paced, double timed attack sees him perform a rhythmically steady stream of movements based around twists of the torso. Gao Kung’s more unevenly delivered blows creates an elaborate, almost contrapuntal, rhythmic counterpoint to this. You just don’t see anything like this in The Matrix or Kill Bill.
After dispensing Gao Kung with one final kick, a smug Wong states “Your show is over now”. This mini film within a film is drawing to a close.
There is a final coda that happens behind the altar. I could just as well say ‘behind the scenes’ – the main fighting arena / performance space was in front of and around the temple’s altar. This coda happens behind the altar. It shows us that Gao’s show really is over. He is killed and the secret behind his sham mystical powers is exposed, and a truly magnificent and gob smacking fight scene comes to an end.
*The following quote from David West, in his discussion of Chang Cheh’s Men from the Monastery (1974), got me thinking about this:
“… there is no attempt to critique the violence of the Shaolin fighters, as the bad guys always strike first, thereby placing the blame for the ensuing blood on their shoulders.” P. 104 from Chasing Dragons
** In his (bloody huge) (but very interesting) book, The Chinese Conception of Theatre, in which he writes about Chinese Opera in encyclopaedic detail, Tao-Ching Hsu discusses theatre’s origins in religious ritual and practice in great detail in Part 3 – The History of the Chinese Theatre