This is the last installment of my blog about the action in Fist of Legend (choreographed by Yuen Wu ping). The previous installment dealt with the character of Funakoshi (played by Kurata Yasuaki), and his duel with Chen Zhen (played by Jet Li) in front of Huo Yuanjia’s tomb.
Following on soon after the brilliant duel between Funakoshi and Chen, in which Funakoshi teaches Chen about adaptability, is another movement sequence which also involves some learning, for all that it has a different atmosphere to the Funakoshi duel. I am referring to the campfire scene in which Ting An (played by Chin Siu Ho) and Chen reconcile after their earlier falling out. As a gesture to restore trust between the 2, and as insurance against his getting killed in his duel with Fujita (played by Billy Chau), and therefore carrying his family’s knowledge to the grave with him, Ting An demonstrates and teaches his family’s exclusive fist method to Chen.
This is a delightful scene to watch, featuring, as it does, 2 of the most gifted screen fighters in the kung fu movie genre. It is easily the most aesthetically beautiful scene of the movie. The 2 performers demonstrate solo, so there is no emphasis on brutal violence to detract from the beauty of the movement. According to director Gordon Chan’s interview on my DVD, Jet Li’s sequence was not choreographed and pre-rehearsed, but was improvised by Li in front of the cameras (and I am assuming, but I may be wrong, that Chin Siu Ho did the same). So in this scene we see the performers’ personal response to their character’s essence in pure movement terms.
Ting An is an interesting character who has to traverse some tricky and complicated emotional terrain in this film. In his performance of this character Chin Siu Ho turns in some superb screen acting, somehow communicating a complex mixture of emotions such as loyalty, affection, grief, anger, and deep envy in a single glance. As a life long practitioner of martial arts and as an experienced screen fighter (1) it is no surprise that his physical performance is equally superb. Dressed for most of the film in the gorgeously coloured silk clothing of a dandy, Ting An comes across as a young man who is trying to bury grief and insecurity underneath bravado. Chin and Yuen collaborate to furnish Ting An with a movement dynamic that at once combines the graceful with the pugilistically impressive, while coming off as just a bit flashy. In movement terms it is the perfect representation of a most complex character.
An earlier movement scene featuring Ting An and Chen is the one in which they fight each other prior to Chen walking out of Ching Wu. The choreography in this fight (shown to great effect by the skillfully controlled execution of the performers) demonstrates the contrast between the 2 characters perfectly. The movement of Ting An is florid and flamboyant in contrast to the more pared down aesthetic of the efficient Chen.
In his Special Features interview, Chan states that the best scene that shows the difference between Jet Li and the other fighters is not a scene where he is fighting but when he is moving in front of the campfire. Chan cites this scene as a perfect example of the art in martial arts, and says that from the beauty and expressiveness of the movement you can tell a lot about Jet Li (and by extension, I would argue, about his character; the same goes for Chin Siu Ho and Ting An). Chan states that martial arts is about the elevation of oneself and one’s spirit, and that he intended Chen’s duel with Funakoshi to demonstrate this theme (2). The audience gets a strong sense of this spiritual side of martial arts through watching the camp fire demonstrations of Chen and Ting. It is no accident that the campfire scene follows so quickly after the Funakoshi duel. The duel deals out the lesson to Chen, and the campfire scene shows that he has absorbed it. Although differing in movement dynamic, the movements of both Li and Chin exhibit flow and poise that indicates a sense of harmony. The audience knows that both these men have arrived at a place of calm and acceptance. They have reconciled their differences and responded generously to each other.
It is in front of the campfire that Chen’s movement is at its most expressive. His action scenes up to this point have featured a crisply efficient, almost machinelike, style of martial arts. Chen deals with his emotions at the murder of his sifu, and the pervasive racial prejudice he encounters, by becoming emotionally terse and filtering his grief and anger through an unadorned and ruthlessly effective fighting style. When he practices in front of the campfire, we see Chen invested in the movement not to beat a hated opponent but for its own sake. Li moves with incredible precision, and with a kind of delicately placed and channeled power, and this references the skill Chen has shown in the earlier fights in the film. But his solo demonstration utilizes a range of graceful positions and quality of movement that allows poor buttoned down Chen a moment of poetry, soulfulness and emotional harmony. This sense of free flowing harmony is referenced briefly during the brutal final show down between Chen and Fujita, when Chen executes a series of graceful movements when he uses his belt as a weapon. This shows us that his new found philosophical maturity and emotional balance are working for him during this do or die fight scene.
Film critic Elvis Mitchell commented (3) that in Fist of Legend there is a real sense of Chen’s emotional arc being worked out. Although the choreography in this film masterfully helps to define the character of the other screen fighters by providing them with distinct movement dynamics, its greatest dramaturgical achievement is in tracking the evolution of Chen both as a fighter and as a person. Dazzling displays of ornery butt kicking and pugilism seem, at first superficial glance, to be the hall mark of the choreography of this film. But deeper analysis shows that the action has been shaped by a most refined and sophisticated use of the choreography in giving nuance and depth to Fist of Legend’s characters, narrative and themes.
(1) Chin went through the Shaw Brothers Studio Stunt School and then worked for directors like Chang Cheh and Sammo Hung.
(2) The Man Behind the Legend (Gordon Chan), Special Features, Dragon Dynasty DVD release of Fist of Legend.
(3) A Look at Fist of Legend with director Brett Ratner and critic Elvis Mitchell, special features, Dragon Dynasty DVD release of Fist of Legend