A neat directorial strategy that Tsui Hark uses during the first 3 films of the Once Upon A Time in China (OUTIC) series is that he builds up a series of leitmotifs and artistic reference points that link the films together. This lends cohesiveness to the audience’s viewing of the experiences of the main characters of these films, and lends weight to certain themes that Tsui has chosen to explore. After OUTIC 3 there were to be a further 3 films featuring Wong Fei Hung and his companions, but I think the series runs out of steam from this point forward so I am confining my discussion in this blog to the first 3 films only.
Some of these leitmotifs and connecting themes are broad, overarching narrative and set devices. All 3 films are set against interesting historic events, mostly to do with western incursions into China. Sets featuring bamboo are also featured in key fight scenes in all 3 films. The choreography of the showdown between Iron Robe Yim and Wong in the wool store in OUTIC makes heavy use of bamboo ladders. In OUTIC 2 Wong and General Lam weave in and out of bamboo poles in their first fight, and are surrounded by bamboo scaffolding in their second. In the 3rd film, the final climactic Lion Dance competition takes place on and around a giant bamboo tower.
An important narrative line that is built upon from movie to movie is the romance between Aunt Yee and Wong Fei Hung (see my last blog). This is one of the narrative elements that gives heart and feeling to these action movies. A creative device that Tsui uses in scenes that depict the development of this romance in all 3 films is the use of shadowplay. In all 3 films, there are scenes showing the sihllouetted shadows of Yee and Wong projected onto the walls. These scenes are always ones of emotional intimacy between these 2 characters. In the first film Yee is measuring Wong for a suit while she is simultaneously dropping hints that she feels for him and is imaging what it might be like to stroke his head. In the second film the shadowplay depicts Yee’s fantasy of dancing in the arms of the man she loves – this fantasy being a welcome respite from a lesson in self defence that Wong is briskly dispensing. In the 3rd film the shadowplay shows Wong stroking Yee’s head in reconciliation after one of their rows. Wong (especially) and Yee are constrained by accepted standards of etiquette in their society that preclude them from being publicly demonstrative with each other (indeed, it takes a whole 3 films for a deeply enamoured Wong to be able to cup Yee’s face in his hand even in private). Tsui indicates the social constraint this couple is functioning within by showing some of their tenderest moments not directly to the gaze of the viewer but indirectly in shadow and through sihllouette.
This use of shadowplay is somehow very consciously filmic of Tsui and shows how discriminatingly he made certain creative choices in the making of these films. As well as filmic techniques, he also references traditional theatrical forms. Lion dances and Chinese Opera are prominently featured in 2 of the 3 films. The 2nd film contains a lengthy fight scene during which Wong takes on the ravening White Lotus mystical sect. The choreography in this fight scene takes certain ritualistic and mystical tenets as its central conceit. I feel that ritual and theatre are closely connected anyway, and this particular fight scene has a very Chinese Operatic feel to it. So it could be said that Tsui has used traditional theatrical forms and aesthetics in all 3 of these films. This is further supported by the fact that Iron Robe Yim is shown busking in the 1st film, and the second film features singing by a street performer in an inn.
Another performative device that is repeated is the use of stock characters that will be familiar to kung fu movie fans, particularly in the form of the over the top villain. In the first film there were the Shaho gangsters, lead by a scarred and flamboyantly disgusting thug. The second film had the aforementioned mystical sect, lead by the backflipping and high kicking Priest Gao Kung. The third film has the satin bedecked and uproariously laughing Chiu Tim Ba. Out of laziness I am now going to quote from a blog I wrote earlier: “The villains in these films are easily recognisable characters. They are cliched but still used very effectively within the context of these movies…These villains are played to the hilt – snarling, declaiming, gesticulating. They belong to the melodramatic traditions that are an innate part of the cultural baggage of martial arts films.” In this blog I mention the fact that as well as these villains, Wong Fei Hung is also often opposed by antagonists (Iron Robe Yim in OUTIC, General Lam in OUTIC 2, and Clubfoot in OUTIC 3). I distinguish antagonists from villains because they are portrayed differently from the stock characters of the bombastic villains in that the antagonists are allowed more dimensional characters. But this pairing of villain and antagonist is another pattern that Tsui uses in these 3 films. (To see what I wrote on distinguishing anatgonsist and villains in these films please see my blog http://dangerousmeredith.wordpress.com/2010/05/22/yam-sai-kwun-as-iron-robe-yim-in-once-upon-a-time-in-china-%e2%80%93-blog-1/ )
This referencing of theatrical forms and its use as a bridging motif in these films does not just lend the series some cohesiveness, but also helps Tsui to create the overtly theatricalised atmosphere in which kung fu films must exist. Kung fu films have no truck with reality – the characters (including the larger than life stock characters) are liable to take to the air, perform supernatural feats or break into virtuosic displays of movement at the drop of a hat. The paradox that Tsui faces in these films is that he has set himself the creative challenge of making honest to god kung fu movies, with all the flamboyant bells and whistles business that entails, while setting them against the background of readily identifiable historic settings and events. Tsui creates the theatrical atmosphere where the unreal feats of his “Chinese Rambo” (as he refers to Wong) and his opponents can be allowed to happen, without undermining or being undermined by his real historical settings, by importing and embedding in his films real Chinese performative traditions. The featuring of traditional Chinese performance and ritualistic forms also helps Tsui carry out another area of investigation – the clash between Western and Chinese cultures.
“Dressed in Victorian clothes, educated in England, she (Aunt Yee) both introduces a kind of Confucian screwball comedy into the series and mediates Wong’s encounter with Western modernity…” p. 146, Leon Hunt, Kung Fu Cult Masters
Western and Chinese cultures meet harmoniously in the character of Aunt Yee, even if Tsui positions these elements so that they clash less harmoniously in other parts of the films. Aunt Yee is very comfortable in embracing western culture and especially western technology. She is particularly interested in cameras – both still and moving. This forms a nice link between Tsui’s exploration of Western culture and his referencing of filmic and performative traditions. In his book Kung Fu Cult Masters, Leon Hunt comments on the scene where Wong Fei Hung, his students and father watch footage of themselves doing kung fu for the first time:
“As Wong’s father, Wong Kei-ying / Huang Qiying wonders at his son’s phenomenal speed and (more importantly) whether it is genuine, he anticipates the musings of many a kung fu cultist to come. This is a characteristically witty piece of revisionism, synthesising the Cantonese legend and the 1990s action superstar in order to retrospectively create the first kung fu film. But Master Wong’s excursion into movie-making also suggests the martial arts legends had a complex relationship with cinematic technology from the start.” p. 21
Other scenes that show Yee mediating Wong’s encounter with the West include her measuring Wong for a Western style suit in OUTIC, and coaching Wong and Leung Fu through a Western style meal, replete with unfamiliar cutlery and food, in OUTIC 2. This second scene happens on a train at the start of the film, and Wong is also shown arriving on a train at the start of OUTIC 3. In this film, his father is eager to show off his latest acquisition – a newfangled Western steam engine, that will power the mass production of Chinese medicines. Although he has enthusiastically recognized and incorporated Western technology into his professional life, Wong Kei Ying experiences a challenge when he is asked to soften his adherence to traditional Chinese values by approving his son’s engagement to their relative by marriage, Aunt Yee.
Another harmonious meeting between Western and Chinese cultures is shown in OUTIC 2 when Wong meets up with Dr Sun Yat Sen, and the 2 find ways in which to appreciate and combine Western and Chinese medicine techniques. Perhaps the most destructive encounter with Western culture and technology that the Chinese characters have is when they encounter the greed of Western imperialist agents, and the killing power of their guns. The commercial interests of the West are depicted by Tsui as being a sinister, dehumanizing influence – their human agents inspire and sometimes facilitate the most dastardly schemes in these movies (although Tsui is fair enough to show that their agendas are always further facilitated by corrupt, venal, or weak Chinese).
These are serious themes, and what is even more sobering about watching them is that history proved that the lives of many ordinary Chinese really were undermined by Western capitalists and the power plays of a failing Qing Dynasty. But OUTIC, OUTIC 2, and OUTIC 3 are movies, and Wong is a “Chinese Rambo”*. Wong always finds a way of avoiding or overcoming Western guns and bullets, and resists the temptation to abandon his core values. As Bey Logan says in his commentary, the message of the films is that although the Chinese will change due to the influence of western technology / modernization, the Chinese sense of ethics and honour needn’t change.
OUTIC 3 ends with a fired up Wong ticking off a Qing Dynasty official for his part in subverting a Lion Dance competition for political ends. The first film ends with a scene showing Wong wearing the Western suit he was so dubious about earlier in the film. A further concession to Western culture is indicated by the fact that he is being photographed wearing the suit. However, Wong has not capitulated entirely to the lure of the West – he receives obeisance from a new disciple in the manner as befits a thoroughly traditional Chinese sifu. Regardless of any superficial Western styled trappings, Wong Fei Hung retains the value system that will sustain him through the challenges presented in the next 2 films.
*Quote from Tsui Hark from an interview with Tsui Hark, Special Features, Hong Kong Legends DVD release of OUTIC 3