Tai Chi Master (1993) starring Jet Li, Chin Siu Ho and Michelle Yeoh, and directed by Yuen Wu Ping, is one of my very, very favourite movies. From the moment a primly dignified Jet Li, dressed in what appears to be a tasteful black negligee,* floats out to take his place at the head of a mass demonstration of blokes doing Tai Chi you know that you are in for a very special movie.
I am working on a few blogs about Tai Chi Master which I hope to publish soon. These blogs are primarily about the actors, characters and choreography. However, this is such a nicely made film that I have jotted down some random thoughts and put them in this blog. They are listed in no particular order of relevance – they are just observations that didn’t fit in my other blogs and that I wanted to share.
Random Thought 1:
In an early scene our 2 heroes wander past some street performers busking, and later turn to using their own martial arts skills to do street performance to earn a living. This is a little nod to martial arts as performance art down through the ages.
“Chinese martial arts have a longstanding association with traditions of performance – Lion and Dragon dances, street theatre and, above all, Beijing Opera…” Leon Hunt, Kung Fu Cult Masters, p. 24
I am not interested in violence, so the pugilistic aspect of martial arts doesn’t interest me at all but I am fascinated by its use as a performative technique. I like it when martial arts movies reference this performative tradition.
Random Thought 2:
The film is full of nice little subtle touches. An example can be found in the scene where Tian Bao and Jun Bao are preparing for bed in the inn. Tian Bao says “my fate” when he flicks away a cockroach. Ironically this turns out to be a self fulfilling prophecy – spiritually he devolves into a cockroach. This is just one of many little instances, and is a reason why this film rewards rewatching – there is always something to be discovered.
Random Thought 3:
There is a fight in the inn between Jun Bao, Qiu Xue and their comrades and Governor Liu’s soldiers. Jun Bao spends the whole fight scene using his head – head butting and actually bouncing around on his head. It’s bizarre and I don’t get it. What do you think the point of this is? Is the head supposed to symbolize something? Enlighten me, please, if you know.
Random Thought 4:
Tian Bao and Jun Bao have a conversation over the corpse of a soldier that Jun Bao has been pursuing and who Tian Bao has just killed. Jun Bao is nostalgic for the past, wanting to return to the simple life they had known as boys, whereas Tian Bao advises looking to the future. For characters that have been brought up in a Buddhist Temple, neither is being very ‘Zen’ at this point in the film. In other words, instead of living in the present and transcending attachment these men are fixated either by the past or future. Tai Chi Master shows Jun Bao getting over his attachment to the past and his previously cherished ideals as to how things should be. Tian Bao can’t do this.
Random Thought 5:
The scene where Tian Bao kills the girl he is infatuated with is, for me, the most disturbing one in the film. He does this ghastly thing to impress the eunuch Governor Liu and states “If girls aren’t for you then they won’t be for me either”. Is it being implied that he will become a eunuch? Or the eunuch’s bum boy? Earlier when he first sees the eunuch arrayed in all his riches, Tian Bao says he would like to be that powerful. His companion (the same girl that he later kills) jokes that he should become a eunuch. He seems to take the idea half seriously.
Random Thought 6:
There is a scene depicting Jun Bao in his madness where Qiu Xue and the Taoist priest Reverend Lin discover Jun Bao submerged in a large terracotta pot. Jun Bao suddenly emerges from the water with a white face (due to the cold of the water), red rimmed eyes and disheveled hair. To me, he looks like an oriental ghost. In another scene, Qiu Xue and the Reverend Lin are trying to get the sleep deprived and distracted Jun Bao to get some shuteye. They strap him to a plank and the Taoist priest sticks a sleep spell (written on the traditional slip of yellow paper) onto him. This puts me in mind of the yellow spell papers that Taoist priests and other adepts stick onto vampires in order to control them in kung fu vampire films. This impression is reinforced by the way that Jun Bao immediately gets up and, due to the fact that his limbs are constricted by being strapped to the plank, starts jumping around the room. Kung fu movie vampires hop instead of walking. Is this a reference to the fact that Jun Bao’s madness has lead to a spiritual death from which he will arise? Later in the film there is a conversation between Qiu Xue and Jun Bao about the cycles of nature – a tree appears to have withered and died but new life is manifested by a new shoot growing out of its trunk.
Random Thought 7:
In his DVD commentary Bey Logan states that some scenes featuring Jun Bao’s madness, and his being nursed by Qiu Xue and Reverend Lin, were cut from the earlier American DVD release of this film because it was feared that American audiences wouldn’t understand or enjoy them.
What I would like to know is, with these scenes cut, what would happen then to the lovely structure Yuen has established in this film whereby scenes of Jun Bao’s madness are alternated with scenes of Tian Bao’s madness (if his untrammeled ruthlessness could be called such)? Too many cuts in this middle section would disrupt the balance between the story arcs of these 2 characters.
The next couple of random thoughts belong to Bey Logan – they are taken from his commentary on my DVD release of this film. I like them:
Random Thought 8:
After the fight scene in the military camp, where the rebels’ attempt to assassinate Governor Liu is disastrously undermined by Tian Bao’s treachery, rain is shown falling on the rebels in the woods. The weather reflects what’s going on inside the characters.
Random Thought 10:
Shots of characters saying farewell are always lingering in this film.
Soon I will be posting the rest of the blogs I have written about Tai Chi Master: 2 blogs on the characters and actors and 2 on the choreography.
*Surely not – is there anyone out there who can enlighten me as to what kind of traditional dress this costume might be referencing?