As stated in a previous blog, I find The Defender to be reasonably entertaining and competently made but a little slow and overloaded with lovey-dovey scenes. What Corey Yuen lacks as a director of romance he (with the assistance of action co-director Yuen Tak) makes up for as a director of action. This film has some great action scenes and culminates with a fantastic fight scene.
The early fight and action scenes in the film are crisply directed and energetically paced. The big set piece at the shopping mall is good fun, and the shower of balloons falling on the grim faced combatants is the sort of almost incongruous touch that Hong Kong action directors like to introduce into their films and which endear them to action movie fans all over the world. Most of the action in this film is centred around gun play which is less interesting for me to view than martial arts. I am not a martial artist myself and so cannot really appreciate the technical side of martial arts shown in films. Anyway, precisely because it is the movies, as opposed to real life, I assume that the technique has been doctored so that the martial arts shown have become a performative technique, as opposed to a real life combative one. It is the aesthetic appeal of the way the choreographers construct movement that attracts me to these movies (I am extraordinarily squeamish when it comes to real life violence – as I think we all should be). I have read many critics and fans praise the staging of gun battles in Hong Kong movies. The master director John Woo often attracts the adjective “balletic” for his direction of shoot outs. Fair enough, and staging of gun play in Hong Kong films often really is more graceful, inventive and dynamic than in Hollywood films. But martial arts exchanges are even more kinetically wrought and allow for more complex detail of movement than even the most physical and athletically staged gun battle. It is this intricate choreography, with its baroque combinations of movement, rhythmic subtleties, and inventive responses to set and props that I really come looking for in Hong Kong movies.
The action scene in The Defender that holds the most appeal for me, therefore, is the final fight scene in the kitchen at the end of the film. Some wittily staged gunplay, during which a large contingent of thugs gets dispatched, serves as an energized prelude to the climactic duel between Jet Li and Collin Chou. As is so often the case with Hong Kong martial arts films, the choreographers are not just content with having 2 guys belt each other up. They introduce some element into the fight that complicates things for the characters and forces the choreographers to invent extra creative solutions to answer the choreographic challenge they have set themselves. In this particular fight scene Corey Yuen and Yuen Tak contain their action in an enclosed, airtight open plan living room and kitchen (full of nice sharp implements) and then turn the gas on. The combatants have to contend with the effects of the gas as well as each other, and their efforts to attack each other are punctuated by desperate attempts to get to a tap and water (to alleviate the effects of the gas) while keeping the other away. At one stage Jet Li, holding his coat in front of his face, looks like a matador with his cape and the choreography reflects this. The Spanish flavour is sudden and unexpected, but also natural looking in the context of the fight – of course the characters would hold their coats over the faces, and of course a man under threat from an enraged Collin Chou would move in a similar way to a man under threat from an enraged bull.
When I watch the choreography of Yuen Wu Ping I am often struck by the special focus he seems to have on the relationship between movement, the architecture of his sets and the space his performers have to move about in. With Corey Yuen I feel that he has a special fascination with stuff. If Yuen Wu Ping relates to architecture, Corey Yuen relates to elements of interior design. Many Hong Kong choreographers dream up witty and imaginative ways of using props, but Corey Yuen seems to be extra good at it. For example, during the gunplay section which serves as a prelude to the final fight, the tension is built up by the clever use of props with small lights – torches, a brief burst of the telly, the boy’s shoes, and a beeper.
In terms of sequences of pure movement there is much in the final fight to like. The choreography includes some sequences of the pugilists fighting back and forth, with both performers coming up with some great dodging movements and blows that catch the eye with their precise body placement, varied hand positions and interesting rhythms.
Yuen’s choreography focuses not just on the use of objects or fittings, but somehow seems to vividly suggest the textures and sensual qualities of the physical setting of his fights. In this particular fight scene the audience is forcefully invited to imagine the smell and taste of the gas and the taste and smell of water. The scene has been lit so that the light gleams off the metal implements and hard surfaces in the kitchen, which the performers interact with during the course of their duel. At one stage Li uses a wet hand towel as a weapon and the texture of this prop is forcefully suggested every time it slaps into Collin Chou. There is one lovely sequence where Li and Chou become entangled in a silvery Venetian blind. There is a fight scene in The Bourne Supremacy during which Venetian blinds also come into play – I can never help wondering if director Paul Greengrass had seen The Defender. In his commentary on the DVD version of The Bourne Supremacy Greengrass mentions that he loves the texture of the blinds, that they make you feel the physicality and texture of the fight. I feel that this is what Corey Yuen is especially good at, and this quality is very much in evidence during this fight scene.