Corey Yuen Kuei and Jet Li have worked together in many films, the first of which was Fong Sai Yuk (1993). Yuen is a highly skilled choreographer, capable of producing beautifully detailed action sequences and elaborate set pieces. In this blog I have jotted down a few of my thoughts about some of the major fight scenes in this film.
I love the way that so many fight scenes in Hong Kong kung fu movies are based on a relatively simple premise or device and then feature endless choreographic variations in order to respond to this device in a way that is original and entertaining. A case in point is the fight scene in the first half of the movie between Fong Sai Yuk (Jet Li) and Siu Wan (Sibelle Hu) that takes place on and around a wooden platform. Ting Ting’s father, Tiger Lui (Chan Chung Yung) has issued a challenge that any man who can beat his wife, skilled martial artist Siu Wan, will get Ting Ting’s (Michelle Reis) hand in marriage. The martial arts tournament takes place on a wooden tower. The one rule of the tournament serves as the choreographic premise the fight scene revolves around: whichever martial artist is knocked off the tower and touches the ground first loses. Yuen has set himself the creative challenge of coming up with enough material to sustain a lengthy and entertaining fight scene without letting his performers touch the ground. The fight choreography takes the performers over ever nook and cranny of the tower and then off the tower where they continue the fight standing on the backs and heads of the spectators. This always puts me in mind of a sheep dog running over the backs of tightly penned sheep. In finding new ways for his martial artists to avoid touching the ground Yuen’s choreography becomes wittily and inventively baroque.
The fight in the dying house is another eye catching set piece, not least because it is a great opportunity for Yuen to drench various fighters in bright, primary coloured dyes. After a group brawl, this scene ends up being a duel between Fong Sai Yuk and the Nine Gates Governor (Vincent Zhao). As well as being a fight between the 2 humans, Yuen has also seemingly devised choreography for the camera as this beautifully edited duel is filmed with a huge variety of camera angles. The bodies and limbs of the 2 combatants are beautifully angled as well, as Yuen intersperses rapid movement with some elegant poses.*
The fight scene that takes place in the square over the corpse of one of Fong Sai Yuk’s friends has a darker tone than the earlier set pieces. In fact, this choreography is a savage expression of grief more than anything else. To show Fong Sai Yuk retrieving his friend’s corpse and forcing the soldiers guarding it to kowtow does not really serve any purpose in furthering the plot of the movie. Yuen needs to imbue his movie with a darker tone from this point onward, and this scene certainly does that. But its other purpose is to show that Sai Yuk has been deeply affected by the murder of his loyal friend, and that his grief and sense of outrage over the killing goes very, very deep. Up to this point Sai Yuk has been behaving like a big kid, good naturedly and randomly bumbling into things like marriage and involvement with an underground political movement with no more concern or forethought than entering a sports carnival. Although he doesn’t transform into a beacon of maturity overnight (one suspects that this will take quite a while for Sai Yuk) he does start to grow up from this point on in the film. While it has been fun to watch Sai Yuk goof off in the early part of the movie, for the audience to take him seriously as a hero, we need to see him demonstrate some integrity and commitment to some principles. As Sai Yuk lashes out with a piece of rope and brings the soldiers to their knees and forces them to respect their erstwhile victim we can see that he is capable of great courage and loyalty and deplores the injustice of what has happened to his dead friend. Furthermore, the death of his friend and the mutilation of his corpse, along with the capture of Sai Yuk’s father, are motives that galvanise Sai Yuk into rescuing his father and taking on the Manchus.
Aesthetically, it is lovely watching Jet Li manipulate the rope in this scene – I love watching him wield this sort of weaponry. (Corey Yuen does too, I think. About the only worthwhile scene he and Li produced together in the stupid Romeo Must Die is the scene where Li manipulates a fire hose in a similar way). Rope as a weapon has fluid quality in movement unlike stiff implements like poles, swords or spears. In emotional terms we talk about people ‘lashing out’ when they’re upset. By equipping Li with a rope in this emotional scene Yuen enables him to literally do just that. The flailing rope gives the movement dynamic of the scene a free ranging, lavish quality that underpins Sai Yuk’s extravagant display of grief and outrage.
The final fight scene is an extravaganza that befits the climax to a film like Fong Sai Yuk. Before joining in a free for all brawl involving the whole cast Sai Yuk gets to have his final showdown with the main baddie, who dies one of the most definitive deaths in the history of chopsocky movie making. I mean, he doesn’t just die – he’s obliterated simultaneously by spear, dynamite and a well flung shoe. Sai Yuk and this baddie don’t just duel on a wooden stage but in the cramped cavity underneath it. Corey Yuen has a good time seeing just how many interesting shapes a choreographer can come up with when he sets himself the challenge of not allowing his performers room enough to stand upright. Turns out it’s quite a few. After watching them perform the choreography at a crouch I have come to the conclusion that if Jet Li and Vincent Zhao didn’t have good strong thighs and backs before shooting this scene, they sure as hell had them after.
Another highlight of the scene is a dramatic, as opposed to a kinetic, one. Sai Yuk’s tear stained father makes an impassioned speech to his son while waiting for the guillotine to fall on his neck. Of course it doesn’t, and daddy’s speech inflames the onlookers to rise up and take on the soldiery. Cue the entrance of everyone’s favourite delinquent, Fong Sai Yuk’s mum, at the head of the rebels… and then we are well into the all in brawl I mentioned at the beginning of the paragraph.
Corey Yuen is, quite deservedly, one of the better known and admired choreographers and action directors working in Hong Kong movies in recent decades. Fong Sai Yuk is an entertaining showcase for his skill.
* “(David) Bordwell… points out that the rhythmic pulse of Hong Kong action requires stasis as well as movement, with ‘lightning switches between quick, precise gestures and punctuating poses.’” Leon Hunt, Kung Fu Cult Masters, p. 28