If Last Hero in China’s director, producer and writer, Wong Jing, is the master of inventive crassness, then its choreographer, Yuen Wu Ping, is the master of inventive elegance. In this movie Yuen continues his frequent collaboration with that most elegant of martial arts performers, Jet Li (who plays Wong Fei Hung). Yuen and Li have to be in silly mode for this film, but they still construct some lovely moments. “(Yuen)… has choreographed some battles that are as visually and pugilistically exciting as anything Wong Fei-hung has hitherto experienced.” Paul Fonoroff, At the Hong Kong Movies, p. 291
The first fight is fun – Yuen has assigned himself the creative task of responding choreographically to the challenge of Wong Fei Hung having to fight 3 assailants without damaging a bouquet of flowers he is holding. I also like the Lion Dance scene early in the movie where a lion inhabited by Wong’s students from Po Chi Lam is shown canoodling with the lion inhabited by prostitutes from the brothel next door. This is a clever way for the filmmakers to create a sexy atmosphere without showing anything that will put this film in the wrong classification.*
Last Hero in China is notable as it features the only pairing of the legendary Gordon Liu (as the head priest of a corrupt and depraved order) with Jet Li. I actually wish Liu’s character had been given more screen time. His big fight scene with Wong Fei Hung takes place in a marvelously fantastic set and has some fun elements – I enjoy the way Liu keeps appearing and disappearing into the dark behind his cloak, and the giant red floating lotus prop looks great. But I find the choreography to be overly dominated by wire fu. Gordon spends too much time floating and not enough time fighting with Li. An opportunity to see 2 of the martial arts film genre’s great performers moving together has been sadly underutilized.
The final stages of the film sees Jet Li dressed as a giant chook fighting a giant centipede (equipped with flame thrower) powered by a team of Lion dancers. This is surely the stupidest fight scene Li has ever participated in and maybe one of the silliest fight scenes in the genre. When watching his films, I can never shake the feeling that Wong Jing likes to make his audience cringe. But the performers execute Yuen’s inventive choreography with gusto. Li struts to good effect and strikes some lovely roosterish poses. Even if secured by wires, the guys inside the giant centipede perform some pretty amazing synchronized acrobatics. This is important to note – even at their silliest many kung fu films still seriously invest in skill, energy and resources. This is a compliment to us viewers. We are not asked to just sit with a whacky notion, but are treated to the pleasure of watching even a crazy idea that has been developed into a dynamic set piece, underpinned by real expertise and talent.
For me the standout piece of choreography in the film is the final duel between Li and Alan Chui Chung San – I simply love it. It features Li doing drunken boxing and I could watch him do this for hours. It makes the cringe making moments in this film well worth sitting through – Yuen and Li redeem themselves for going in this movie with this single fight. Li and his opponent perform Yuen’s super graceful and creative choreography with aplomb (even though there are wince inducing moments when poor old Wong Fei Hung gets his toesies crushed – ouch!). But lest we forget that this film is being played strictly for laughs this display of virtuosic elegance is briskly finished off with its final manouevre looking as if it has been lifted out of a rock and roll wrestling tournament.
The next blog I will post continues to discuss drunken boxing in this and a few other kung fu movies I have seen.
* Another Jet Li film with a flirty, sexy Lion dance is Kids from Shaolin (http://dangerousmeredith.wordpress.com/2010/02/25/funny-buisness-in-kids-from-shaolin/). Please read this blog – I am rather proud of it.