Fong Sai Yuk 2 is jam packed with lots of great action, which is hardly surprising considering that Corey Yuen Kuei and Yuen Tak are credited as action directors for the film. Hong Kong kung fu movies are often derided as being crap by many westerners, and I consider this to be unfair. Many aspects of these films are actually very well done, and the choreographic and physical performance aspects, in particular, are very highly developed.
This blog is devoted to analyzing one of the fight scenes in Fong Sai Yuk 2. This fight scene is the second to last in the film. It is a particular favourite of mine and I feel it demonstrates refined choreographic craft.
In this scene, Fong Sai Yuk (played by Jet Li) takes on a large crowd of bad guys. He must get past this mass of villains in order to fight the film’s lead baddie and rescue his captured and imperiled Mother. The lovely warm tones of the mud brick walled laneway, which is where the fight is set, contrast with the bright blue of the sky. Sai Yuk’s costume, mostly matching the earthy tones of the wall, is nattily accessorized by red and white braids, while the baddies are all dressed, predictably enough, in black. The music* and the dust blowing down the lane call to mind the scenes of classic western gun fights and this always reminds me of the influence flowing between the filmmakers of Hong Kong kung fu movies, Japanese chambara movies and Hollywood Westerns in the decades preceding the making of Fong Sai Yuk 2.
As a finishing, poetic touch to the setting there are masses of red autumn leaves swirling throughout the scene. I have gazed lovingly at this fight scene many, many times. I am amazed that it was only after many viewings (I must have been into double figures) that a cynical inner voice inside my head first whispered “They’re not leaves. They are bits of torn up tissue paper.” And they are. The filmmakers have not even bothered to cut the paper up into proper leaf shapes. But I had viewed this scene countless times and happily bought into the director’s conceit that the red roughly rectangular thingies blowing about are, in fact, autumn leaves. Now, I am sure that many sneering westerners would point to this as evidence that these kung fu films are, in fact, crap movies. But I honestly do think that these ‘leaves’ indicate something other than the fact that Yuen’s crew let the work experience kid take over the set decoration on the day they shot this scene. I often feel that these movies are filmed physical theatre and that realism is honestly not of primary concern to either the filmmakers or the film’s original intended audience. Maybe it was enough for this original audience that the tissue paper represented leaves, rather than that audience believed that real leaves were blowing around what they know to be an artificially constructed film set anyway. Director Corey Yuen has Fong Sai Yuk face overwhelming odds by not just having to single handedly defeat numerous opponents, but to do so blindfolded. According to the (badly) dubbed soundtrack on my DVD, Sai Yuk is doing this to prove that his actions are guided by the heavens. This is an ostentatiously theatrical flourish that sits comfortably within the obviously aesthetically theatrical space that Chinese Opera trained Corey Yuen has made for us. This conscious and knowing approach to the theatrical, rather than the filmic (in Hollywood terms), is a common one among kung fu movie directors.
The rollicking, sprawling narrative of Fong Sai Yuk 2 has bottlenecked to this point of the plot. This second to last fight scene shows us Sai Yuk taking on a crowd of bad guys. All of the fighting bodies are jam packed into a long narrow laneway. The fight scene after this one is the main climax of the movie during which Sai Yuk rescues his mother and, with her aid, defeats the film’s main villain. Therefore the second to last fight scene serves as an introductory act to the climactic fight scene (as well as being a lovely set piece in its own right). Just as bodies are funneled down the narrow laneway in which the fight scene is set, so Corey Yuen has channeled the plot’s happenings so that they bottle neck at this point. In this scene the choreographic structure of the fight satisfyingly parallels and consolidates the narrative structure of the film.
By setting this fight in a narrow space like a laneway Yuen has set himself the creative challenge of doing without movement that needs width. He has constrained himself to setting action that must follow the length of the space – in other words Yuen must make his performers move forwards, as there is not enough physical space to move them outwards. This is where the shape of the set reflects the shape of the narrative – Fong Sai Yuk must find a way forward. Lives depend on him doing it and he can’t go back. His options have narrowed and, plot wise, there is no dramaturgical space for Sai Yuk to move in any other direction.
I love the way that Corey Yuen** has structured the rhythms of this fight scene. He has given us a loose rhythmic structure based around passages of rapid fire movement punctuated either by poses or slow walking steps. This is not an unusual rhythm to find in Hong Kong kung fu movies –
“(Critic David) Bordwell… points out that the rhythmic pulse of Hong Kong action requires stasis as well as movement…” Leon Hunt, Kung Fu Cult Masters, p.28
Yuen exploits this rhythmic dynamic effectively in this scene.
This pattern anchors the choreography and gives the viewer’s attention something to latch onto. This is important when you are asking an audience to deal with detailed choreography (which this fight scene has much of). I have never been a martial artist but I used to be a dancer and choreographer. I found that when I devised choreography it was hard to get the balance between simplicity and complexity right – too much detail and you will confuse the audience, too little and you will bore them. I always had to remind myself that while I was working on the choreography repeatedly during numerous rehearsals the audience would only see it once. It is important to give the audience a way into the choreography, a point of accessibility or reference or something that can anchor their focus. If you do this then they will be able to take on board any amount of detail and go with any sort of material. Yuen has given his audience this rhythmic structure as a point of reference, and within that structure he has created little variations on his loose overarching rhythmic theme in order to make the fight scene look interesting.
The fight scene begins with Sai Yuk executing a few brief, but elegantly positioned sword thrusts. After a held pose, Yuen has Li move forward by a series of turns. This is a nice touch from Yuen, as this scene is one that is likely to be dominated by sharp linear shapes. It is set in a narrow laneway, so the staging of the movement will necessarily follow one straight line. The weapons involved are mainly swords (plus a few spears) which are, of course linear in shape. By having Li perform the turns Yuen has found a way of breaking up all of this linear business. The rapid turns also are a way of suggesting contained energy and momentum. The turns are then followed by Li slashing at the legs of his opponents in a series of low crouching runs (ye Gods! But he must’ve had strong thighs). By doing this Yuen brings some low levels into his choreography to break up the predominance of mid level action in the scene. After a pause Yuen has Li attack the baddies with a series of sword thrusts that emphasizes angular positioning of the torso and the arms. In transitioning from position to position Li’s incredibly precise movement is smooth and quicksilver, but in some of the transitions he seems to find time to use his usual rhythmic wit (and don’t ask me how – he would have been dealing in nano seconds in this fast paced choreography). He introduces a subtle hint of a bounce that gives this slick display of sword play a nice little visual lift. After the next pause there is another flurry of action which ends with a backwards movement from Li as he stabs 2 baddies attacking from the rear by stepping and stabbing backwards with both arms. This is a nice moment. It is perfectly logical for Sai Yuk to defend himself from being attacked from behind. But Yuen has spent the whole of the choreography building up a compelling forward momentum (and has chosen a set that has a shape that facilitates – in fact demands – this). With this move he has found a moment to send the movement back the opposite way for a couple of seconds. Although brief, it nevertheless catches the viewer’s eye for this backwards stab is an organic response to a threat coming up behind Li’s body but it is still unexpected. This fight scene ends with Sai Yuk’s slow determined prowl down the rest of the laneway and into the square, punctuated by a few last thrusts to quell his opposition.
This one fight scene shows off Yuen’s skill as a choreographer. Even though he has set himself the creative challenge of working in a constrained space he has still come up with a variety of movements and inventive and dynamic choreography that supports the dramaturgy of his film.
*Especially in the US DVD version, which has a different music soundtrack to the Hong Kong version.
**I am assuming it is Corey, and not his ex performance partner from the 7 Little Fortunes and assistant choreographer on this film, Yuen Tak, who choreographed this. I may be quite wrong!