Once Upon A Time In China 3 (OUTIC 3) begins and ends with Lion Dancers, and they feature often in fight scenes in between. The first movement sequence is a massed Lion Dance in a courtyard in the Forbidden Palace. It is a gorgeous, colourful spectacle and sets the tone for much of the choreography to follow – the action sequences have been conceived on a grand scale and devised for large numbers of performers interacting with big sets.
The final climactic fight scene takes place during an epic Lion Dance competition, and features hoards of Lion Dance teams trying to beat each other up. This scene features what is good and bad about the choreography in this film. Colour, flamboyance, energy, dynamism are all present, and there is good use of large scale crowd movement. The effect is exciting, entertaining and energetic. But the lovely intimacy and tension that one gets during a fight between 2 individual opponents isn’t there – as a point of contrast consider the heightened dramatic intensity of the showdowns between Wong Fei Hung (Jet Li) and Iron Robe Yim (Yam Sai Kwun) at the end of Once Upon A Time in China, and Wong and General Lam (Donnie Yen) in Once Upon A Time In China 2. By staging so much choreography on crowds the choreographers give us much physical busyness but do not allow us to focus our eyes on detail. This robs the choreography of a level of complexity and subtlety. The choreographers trust to the dynamics of crowd / mass movement to build up a sense of excitement and vitality and have concentrated less on teasing out detailed sequences of nuanced movement with complex rhythms.
I am generalizing of course. There are moments of action in this film where the choreography does much more than portray a mass brawl. In an early fight scene, Shun Lau (as Wong Kei Ying) briefly gets to show off his Chinese Opera training with some gracefully performed acrobatic moves when his character fights against main villain Chiu Tim Ba’s men. In the scene where Wong Fei Hung and Chiu Tim Ba’s enforcer, Club Foot (Xiong Xin Xin), fight after Aunt Yee (Rosamund Kwan) has been kidnapped in a rickshaw we get to see an impressive turn of speed from these 2 performers, and the choreography reinforces the impressive but brutal brand of athleticism that defines Club Foot’s movement dynamic.
I particularly like the fight scene where Wong Fei Hung breaks up a street brawl between 3 martial arts schools by using his jacket as a weapon. The fluid quality of the jacket’s fabric seems to be an extension of Jet Li’s own quicksilver way of moving. My favourite fight scene in the whole movie is based around another choreographic conceit that is well suited to highlight Li’s fluid movement dynamic. This is the scene featuring Wong trapped in a restaurant, fighting off a large gang of baddies equipped with hatchets and swords and having to contend with an ultra slippery, oil smeared floor. It’s a mad scene, with the bad guys showing a commendable attention to detail in order to pull off their implausibly elaborate assassination plan – they equip themselves with spiked shoes, acid, nets over the windows and lots of edged weapons. After leaping about the room and, by riding piggy back, manipulating one of his assailants into doing the fighting for him, Wong slides, pirouettes and glides in arabesque through the remainder of the fight scene. “Are we having fun yet?” he gleefully taunts his opponents at one stage, and the scene really is lots of fun. The choreography reminds me of the icecapades and highlights balletic qualities in Li’s way of moving. As an ex-hoofer, this kind of martial arts choreography has huge appeal for me personally.
But my overall impression of the choreography in this film is that the viewer has to wait too long and watch too hard to pick up moments of choreographic intricacy. Too much of the action in OUTIC 3 is given over to a flurry of wriggling, barging and kicking Lion Dance teams. For all that Club Foot is an interesting character with an engaging story arc, the opponents that Wong faces are not compelling enough somehow. The fact that gangster Chiu Tim Ba is a skilled martial artist emerges too late in the film, and is revealed in a seemingly perfunctory, rushed aside. Although we are convinced that Chiu Tim Ba is a scummy bastard and a corrupting influence we have not been allowed enough time to invest in the idea of him as a personal physical threat to Wong. The prime antagonists of the first 2 films (Iron Robe Yim and General Lam) were depicted first and foremost as supremely dangerous martial artists and therefore of really genuine threat to Wong. A lot of the definition of these 2 characters actually came to us via the fight scenes, with the choreography and the qualities of the physical performances conveying to us the moral and psychic energetic states of these men. In OUTIC 3 Club Foot gives Wong a run for his money in the martial arts stakes early in the film, but then capitulates and becomes Wong’s disciple in the latter stages. Seeing Club Foot make this moral choice and transcend his dubious past is nice, but it robs the film of a pugilist who can be a believable opponent to Wong in the final fight scene. Instead we see too much footage of Wong kicking papier mache Lion heads or beating off flailing multitudes of run of the mill thugs. This serves to dehumanize the action scenes, and dilutes the sense of emotional and moral investment that characters often bring to major fight scenes in kung fu films. For all that the choreography in this film has some nice moments, and is very dynamic overall, it lacks the inventiveness, emotional immediacy and aesthetic appeal, and therefore is not as compelling as, the choreography in its 2 prequels.