To state the bleeding obvious: Tai Chi Master is a martial arts film. A cursory glance at the title and plot synopsis may suggest that it is a film ostensibly about pugilism and violence. Why is it, then, that my repeat viewings of this film always leave me with the impression that it is imbued with gentleness? The villains are sadistic bastards, to be sure, and there are scenes showing truly nasty violence. However, director and choreographer Yuen Wu Ping never dwells on these but always moves the film briskly on. What he does dwell on, with lengthily choreographed sequences and frequent recourse to slow motion camera work, is more unrealistic but very beautifully choreographed action sequences. These sequences feature martial arts choreography at its most dance like and theatrical and the emphasis is on the visual impact of the choreography, and the ways in which it contributes to character development and entertainment value. Like many martial arts films Tai Chi Master has a healthy quotient of gore on display, but I feel that the purpose of the action sequences is not to show violence for its own sake but to facilitate story telling and aesthetic impact.
A case in point is the fight scene showing the rebels’ failed attempt to storm the military camp to assassinate the evil eunuch, Governor Liu (played by Sun Jian Kui). Their plan fails and most of them are slaughtered by Liu’s troops. This slaughter comes about because the rebels walk into an ambush that has been facilitated by the betrayal of Tian Bao (played by Chin Siu Ho). The rebels are cut down by packs of soldiers bristling with swords and spears. While there are lashings of tomato sauce on the bodies, none of the deaths look in the least bit realistic. We are treated to many close ups of bodies being whacked with swords – and there is not an open wound on display at all. The sword blades just bounce off unmarked skin. I am not complaining – I don’t like violence. I do like theatricalised physical performance, which Tai Chi Master has in abundance. This particular scene, with its revelation of the depth of Tian Bao’s betrayal and its dramaturgical function of starting the gentle Jun Bao (Jet Li) on the road to disillusionment and madness, packs more melodrama into its few minutes than most Greek Tragedies do into a whole full length play. This choreography does not intend to show us the realistic mincing of 10 or so bodies (thank God!) but to use massed human movement, theatrical props and music to create a scene of dramatic intensity that is appropriate to this stage of the movie. The impact of the brutality and tragedy of the fighting is conveyed via the dynamics of the choreography and the performances of that choreography.
The action and choreography play an important role in definition of character in this film. This is very obvious in the final scenes. Having recovered from his madness and experienced an epiphany that leads to the discovery of the principles of Tai Chi, Jun Bao’s movement dynamic is flowing, graceful and harmonious. By contrast, the transgressive Tian Bao moves in a way that accentuates thrusting brute power.
But the choreography helps define character right from the beginning of the film. The choreography for the child and adolescent monks is lively and playful. Yuen uses a lovely device to show the passing of time and Jun Bao and Tian Bao’s transition from childhood to young adulthood: as the 2 boys are dueling with brooms in an empty temple hall (they are supposed to be cleaning it as a punishment) the camera moves behind a pillar and when it comes out the other side, the 2 characters are revealed as adults. But they are still naughty, still dueling with brooms instead of sweeping the floor, and, by inference, still being set punishments. In the scenes that follow we are shown Jun Bao and Tian Bao either getting up to more mischief or zealously following a rigorous training programme. The action here is full of outlandish stunts and high jinks. Many kung fu films (especially those set in Shaolin temple) feature training sequences. Yuen honours this convention by giving us some training sequences here, but directs it in such a way that the youthful light hearted and playful atmosphere is maintained.
This playfulness appears in many fight scenes in the first half of the movie and balances nicely the more melodramatic elements of the story. An example would be the scene where Qiu Xue (played by Michelle Yeoh) fights with Governor Liu’s bitchy sister. Prior to the actual fight Qiu Xue confronts her husband, who has abandoned her to become the consort of this sister. The drama and pathos of the dialogue is then juxtaposed onto a high energy fight scene between the 2 women, which has fun but slightly bizarre touches of circus (Yeoh ends up fighting on stilts).
But the film’s choreography also diverges into darker territory at times such as the scene where Tian Bao fights the black studded leather clad soldiers in Governor Liu’s military camp. This, and quite and few fights following it, look more cringe inducingly brutal and focuses our attention on the fact that the combatants are getting seriously hurt. As stated above, however, I don’t feel that Yuen is dwelling on gratuitously violent content. The purpose of the action here is to trace Tian Bao’s path towards corruption, and Jun Bao’s trajectory into the circumstances that drive him to madness. Yuen shows us the brutality but still keeps the pace moving briskly on to the next scene. He never gets bogged down in thuggery and gore to the point where these elements distort the film’s overarching thematic and narrative drive towards the discovery of the harmonious principles of Tai Chi.
However, the playful tone is not completely lost. As sad as the circumstances leading to poor Jun Bao’s madness are, the scenes showing him being nursed by Qiu Xue and the Taoist priest (Yuen Cheung Yan) have lots of humorous touches. This is a film packed with choreography with a fight scene seemingly occurring every few minutes. Even though there aren’t any fights shown in the scenes depicting Jun Bao’s break down, his madness is still illustrated with a lot of physical business and slapstick.
The second to last scene where Jun Bao and Qiu Xue capture Governor Liu also has an upbeat feel thanks to a boppy soundtrack and razzamatazz choreography. This fight is, in a way, a teaser as it is designed as an opening act for the mini drama that is the final showdown between Tian Bao and Jun Bao in the military camp. It gives Qiu Xue a chance to have her moment of reckoning when she comprehensively beats Liu. Yuen also uses this fight to show us how the principles of Jun Bao’s new found fighting style works in combat (we have already seen it demonstrated solo) and how it contrasts to the fighting style of everyone else.
The final confrontation between Jun Bao and Tian Bao is, befittingly, imbued with a more melodramatic atmosphere and there are no throw away gags to leaven the seriousness of a fight to the death between these 2 former comrades. The stakes are high for Jun Bao in this fight scene. Tian Bao has morally gone completely off the rails and his shocking penchant for sadistic violence means that he must be stopped. Jun Bao’s recovery of his mental and spiritual health, and his growth as a person, contrast with the devolution of Tian Bao’s moral identity. At one stage Tian Bao refers to the childhood affection he and Jun Bao once shared, and the loss of this, along with the loss of Tian Bao’s sense of integrity and innocence, gives these lines of dialogue a touch of pathos.
But as grave as the implications surrounding the final fight are it is still not bogged down in the nasty and the grim. For sure, there are instances of goriness and brutality (the choreography has to make the fight look dangerous after all) but these are leavened by the aesthetic appeal of the choreography and the way it is performed. This fight scene is a showcase for Jun Bao’s newly discovered martial arts technique (and therefore a showcase for Jet Li’s quality of movement). Yuen relies on a heavy use of slow motion footage which allows us ample opportunity to watch Li perform some of Yuen’s most exquisitely flowing choreography with his trademark dancer’s grace. Chin Siu Ho continues to perform Tian Bao’s martial arts with a sense of power. These dynamics ensure that the primary focus of this fight scene is on the aesthetic appeal and glorious movement dynamics of the fight, rather than on the actual violence. Given that Yuen, as director, has cleverly linked character definition with movement vocabulary and dynamic all the way through the film this means that the focus has remained on character, and character psychology, during this final fight scene rather than the pugilism being employed by these self same characters. Perhaps this is why I feel that the film is imbued with gentleness. Yuen directs the film, and arranges the action, in such a way that the discovery of the precepts behind Tai Chi remain central to the story, and any displays of brutality only exist to progress narrative and character explication.
Every time I watch Tai Chi Master I find myself thinking ‘You can tell this was directed by a master choreographer’. Yuen’s ability to use movement to establish character, narrative and thematic content is incredibly assured as evidenced by this movie. Individual fight scenes, along with other physical performance business (such as slapstick), have been delicately and skillfully placed to contain the film’s narrative within a tight and compelling choreographic structure. One of my pet theories is that kung fu movies have libretti rather than scripts. That is, they are structured in such a way that non-dialogue elements (such as action sequences) are given the space to live and breathe to the extent that they become the main organisms around which a work is built (rather than just as flashy adjuncts to a told story as is the case with many Hollywood films). I feel that Tai Chi Master is a case in point.
My last blog about Tai Chi Master specifically focuses on the choreography and performance of Jun Bao’s epiphany.