Ponder for a moment Yuen Wu Ping’s central creative problem in making a film called Tai Chi Master, which shows the discovery of this internal martial art. The protagonist of the story, Jun Bao (played by Jet Li), has to undergo a spiritual transformation that will allow him to arrive at the realization of the principles behind Tai Chi. Yuen basically has to tell a story that is about the transformation of his protagonist’s qi and his accompanying philosophical understanding of that. Yuen has to show his audience an intangible process that his protagonist has internalised, and has to do it in such a way that the audience’s expectations of an entertaining and rollicking kung fu movie are met and satisfied.
As far as I can tell*, the most authentic Tai Chi that is shown in Tai Chi Master is a demonstration of Tai Chi forms during the opening and closing credits**. In the special features on my DVD copy of this film (by Dragon Dynasty) there is footage showing the demonstration of a real life Tai Chi master sparring with another martial artist. The way this man moves looks very little like the way Jun Bao moves during the film and illustrates the difference between real life martial arts and martial arts that has been adapted into a performance technique for film. The opening and closing credits are pleasant to watch as it shows us the harmonious, flowing and graceful movements that make up Tai Chi. But it is not dynamic, and it would be hard work for a director or choreographer to get a feature film’s length worth of riveting material from it. Nor would I fancy unadulterated real life Tai Chi’s chances, as a vocabulary of movement, in adding much by the way of manifesting emotions and moods, character traits, or moments of humour or savagery.
Yuen and his assistant choreographers jettison genuine Tai Chi forms for much of the film, and instead base their choreographic vocabulary on a much more theatrical lexicon of movements. Part of this sense of theatricality comes from the setting up of motifs to support the themes depicted by the choreography. Yuen cannily prefigures Jun Bao’s discovery of Tai Chi by inserting references to nature, Buddhist and Taoist philosophy, and round shapes and objects such as medicine balls, buns and bald heads (that suggest the circular, flowing movements of Tai Chi) into the first two thirds of the film.
Yuen and his martial arts team are also careful to delineate between Jun Bao’s Tai Chi movement after his epiphanous discovery of its principles, and his (and other characters’) movement dynamics beforehand. Generally speaking, apart from the transfigured Jun Bao’s fights in the last few scenes, the movements in many of the fights in the film demonstrate the use of aggressive, thrusting power, brute strength, athleticism and speed through forceful, impactful movements and bodies and limbs arrayed in angular, straight lines.
Jun Bao (played by Jet Li) is shown to undergo many travails on his journey to discovering the principles of Tai Chi. His ultimate ordeal is undergoing a bout of madness – an almost shamanistic process that leads him to cleave to the realization of the forces of nature, and to rediscover writings about qi that were given to his companion, Tian Bao (Chin Siu Ho), by their former Buddhist master. His epiphany – his arrival at a place of wellness and inner harmony where he can realize and access the essence of Tai Chi – is not verbalized at all but shown in a dance like passage of movement that is accompanied by the movie’s theme song.
Movement-wise this is the climax of the movie. It looks more like something from the repertoire of the Nederlands Dans Theatre than a demonstration of martial arts. I have always found Yuen Wu Ping to be a particularly elegant choreographer, and I feel that the elegance quotient gets ramped up by quite a few notches when he makes work on Jet Li, that most elegant of all martial arts performers. This climactic sequence is shown in slow motion, which is great as it allows us ample opportunity to enjoy the soft, flowing movements that suggest the aesthetic dynamic of Tai Chi. Yuen has embroidered this smooth outpouring of movement with sudden shifts of the torso to suggest an inner current of rich energy being channeled through Jun Bao’s body.
I have seen fans online rave about Jet Li’s flexibility (and it is mighty), strength and speed. He is a highly trained athlete, a former wu shu prodigy and champion who trained in internal and external martial arts under elite teachers since he was a little boy. I am very happy to assume that he is no slouch in terms of speed and power. But cinematic trickery must contribute to the fans’ perception of these attributes – teams of filmmakers make sure that his characters are seen as the penultimate martial artist in his films because the stories of those films demand it.
But what I love is his grace and interpretive abilities – these things can be developed by teachers and flatteringly captured by filmmakers but they can’t be taught. The epiphany sequence in Tai Chi Master captures the qualities as a physical performer that make Li such a favourite of mine. The slow movements are performed with a steady control and softness that seems to overlay a deliberately tempered strength, and the quicker movements show a beautifully sure positioning and articulation of the hips, torso and feet. This is brought together into a performative whole by a kinetic intelligence and subtle rhythmic wit that always informs Li’s work.
So how do you show that which cannot be shown? How do you externalize an internal martial art and serve it up for the entertainment of the kung fu movie going public? You theatricalise it by placing it in a story that is a nice mixture of playful comedy and melodrama, and where elements of the mise-en-scene can be used to symbolize aspects of the story. You use dramatically appealing choreography to suggest the aesthetics and dynamics of Tai Chi, rather than presenting a dry demonstration of the form itself. And you give this choreography to a performer whose own personal movement style is a perfect match with those same aesthetics.
*And, God knows, I am NOT a martial artist so I may be wrong here.
**This is a nice referencing of earlier Shaw Brothers films that showed martial arts demonstrations during the opening credits.