The characters of Fong Sai Yuk and his mother (who also happens to be his sifu) are central to the film Fong Sai Yuk, and the teamwork of the actors who play these characters – Jet Li and Josephine Siao – is central to this film’s success as a piece of entertainment. Below I have jotted down some random thoughts about these characters and performers.
Random Thought 1:
“There is something about martial arts star Jet Li and Qing-era martial arts legends that go hand in hand.” Paul Fonoroff, At the Hong Kong Movies, p. 281
The Qing-era martial arts legend that Fonoroff is referring to in the instance of this particular film is, of course, Fong Sai Yuk who was a real life martial arts exponent. I don’t know much about him but in his book Chasing Dragons, David West mentions that he studied at Shaolin Temple and, at the age of 14, killed a man (page 89).
It isn’t specified in the film as to how old Fong Sai Yuk is meant to be but, judging from his behaviour, and how young folks were when they married in the era in which this film is set, I would guess that the character is meant to be a teenager – maybe even only in his mid teens. This film was made and released in the early 1990s, and Jet Li must have been about 29 or 30 years of age when he made it. In other words he was much older than his character. Considering this he did a very good job at acting the teenager. Compare Fong Sai Yuk with the other famous Qing era martial artist with whom Li’s name has become synonymous – Wong Fei Hung from the Once Upon A Time In China films. Li’s portrayal of the dignified sifu Wong is hugely different from his performance in the 2 Fong Sai Yuk films and yet all of these films were made within a few years of each other. This is a good indication that Li’s ability and versatility as an actor (which I feel is often underrated) had developed significantly by the early 90s.
Random Thought 2:
“Siao manages to steal every scene in which she appears… her quirky drollery always hits the spot.” Paul Fonoroff, At the Hong Kong Movies, p. 281
Anyone who has seen this movie is bound to agree with Fonoroff here. Siao’s performance in this movie is a real virtuoso turn. For the most part she is hilarious and plays her part with an engaging and beautifully modulated bombast. However, she is so in control of her craft that she can switch gears when required. When she flirts with Siu Wan (disguised in drag as a swaggering devil may care youth called Dai Yuk) she draws on her extensive experience in film performance, especially as the star of teen romance and wuxia movies, and performs in a manner that suggests a classical romantic hero. This is still a tongue in cheek performance, but the humour is of a quieter, wittier brand in comparison to the broad slapstick contributed by Siao’s performance as the delinquent Mrs. Fong. During Siu Wan’s death scene, Siao, imitating Dai Yuk once again, switches to yet another gear. There is no humour in this scene, and the performances of both actresses contribute great pathos.
Random Thought 3:
“There is a deceptive stillness, even diffidence, about Li, and he can… ‘disappear’ as an actor, deferring to scene-stealing and more experienced performers like Josephine Siao and Eric Tsang.” Leon Hunt, Kung Fu Cult Masters, p. 142
Li does this in quite a few of his films. He is an actor who seems to tune into and respond to the other actors in his movies and this often gives a sense of a strong rapport between characters. In Fong Sai Yuk his performance ably supports the brilliant and authoritative performance of Josephine Siao.
Random Thought 4:
Fong Sai Yuk and his mother are “partners in disobedience who carve out their own anarchic world of fighting, dressing up and postponing responsibility” Leon Hunt, Kung Fu Cult Masters, p 148
In other words, they are a pair of delinquents and much hilarity ensues. Cross dressing pops up reasonably frequently in martial arts films, and it is utilized in Fong Sai Yuk. Siao impersonates a young man in both this film and its sequel, and carries off the swaggering mannerisms with flair. Jet Li even pops on a frock and some lippy in one brief scene. He drags up in 2 other films – Martial Arts of Shaolin and Dr Wai and the Scripture with no Words. He really shouldn’t have – in makeup he actually can convincingly pass as a girl.
Random Thought 5:
Fong Sai Yuk was a martial arts prodigy – as stated above legend tells us that he killed a man when he was just 14*. Jet Li has also been described as a prodigy although not one with any murders to his name (Thank God!). Li started training in martial arts from when he was 8 and full time from when he was 10. He was a national champion in Wu Shu in China during his teens before he started making movies in late adolescence. Josephine Siao also had a busy early life which saw her going into film performance during childhood and becoming a full fledged movie star and teen idle in her adolescence. There is a nice synchronicity to the fact that former child performers Li and Siao are working together on a film (and its sequel Fong Sai Yuk 2) which has a precocious martial artist as its protagonist.
*Little bastard. Perhaps he was not a very nice boy…
The next, and final, blog I will post about Fong Sai Yuk is about its choreography.