The final fight scene of My Father is a Hero is an absolute corker. It is set in the metal encased confines of a cargo ship that is hosting an illicit antiques auction, and this means that the frenetic action bounces about in a relatively small space, which adds to the impression of contained energy that pervades the fight. The fight is bound by a time, as well as a space, limit too, as a bomb (hidden beforehand by the film’s villains) is ticking away. Director and choreographer, Corey Yuen Kuei (along with action director Yuen Tak), utilises the space and its fittings fully – the fight moves between different levels, and the fighters slip between railings, over plinths and under slabs of antique statuary.
Although this fight is set in an industrial (as opposed to theatrical) looking space, it has a self-consciously performative aspect that I find intriguing. By performative, I mean that there are moments where the film makers seem to have taken a step back from the film and to have included components that indicate that there is a narrative being made, a performance being constructed or tricks being performed. Prior to the fight proper actually starting, the child Siu Ku (played by Xie Mao) is shown watching on security camera the auction’s guests boarding the ship and walking, unawares, by and over the bombs that have been planted there by the Po gang. Ku then adds a narrative function on top of his role as a spectator, as, via a pager service, he feeds instructions to his father, Kung (played by Jet Li), to defuse the bombs. At one point we see him talking to the pager service about his father in the 3rd person, which reinforces the sense that Ku is providing a narrative to the action we are seeing. Just before the actual fighting breaks out we see an auctioneer’s spiel which reinforces the performative / presentational context, and then after Kung’s first spate of fighting he is actually applauded by Po (Yu Rong Guang), seated on a balcony like ledge. After immersing us in the emotive content of the rest of the film, it’s as if the filmmakers want us to disengage slightly from all of this dark emotion for a while. Maybe they are saying “Hey folks, it’s just a show. Enjoy the virtuosity.”
And there is plenty of virtuosity. The rhythms are quick and urgent, and the choreographers have found a great variety of movements and positions to add substance to this extended fight scene. A substantial chunk of the first half of the fight is given over to Kung to beat up a bunch of bad guys with a pair of cudgels*. In this section, particularly, Yuen exploits Jet Li’s ability to execute a series of rapid fire movements with crispness and clarity, and to resolve what seems to be a blur of movement into a well-defined held position.
After Po draws everyone’s attention back onto him by applauding and goading Kung, the fight moves onto these 2 men duelling on a walkway. This references the first time in this movie when these characters traded blows on a ledge on the roof of a high rise building. The long, narrow shape of the set in both instances momentarily focuses on the intensity of the enmity between these 2 particular pugilists. The choreographers explore this walkway and a stairwell thoroughly. Not content to have the performers stand merely on their feet, they have them slot themselves through the rails, and dangle by their arms while they lash out at each other with their legs and feet.
The Po and Kung fight moves down onto a raised plinth where, intriguingly, they use one of Po’s hapless henchmen as an actual barrier / weapon in their duel. This use of another human’s body prefigures the use of little Ku’s body in another part of the fight later on. The last part of the Po versus Kung section of this fight (before it broadens out to include more combatants) features a section where Po’s gloves and coat are highlighted. As I have mentioned before, Yuen seems to have a particular yen for highlighting the tactile essences of his set and props. In this part of the fight you can hear the silk lining of Po’s coat sliding up and down his arms. The choreography at this point is fantastically inventive, with the coat and the performers’ bodies making a myriad of different positions and combinations of movement. Po’s villainous nature is highlighted here – he flourishes his coat like a vampire’s cape, and waves his white gloved hands menacingly at Kung in a way that suggests a snake sliding towards its prey. Shortly after this, Po and 2 of his attendant thugs emerge from a cloud of vapour covered in white dust, with Po shouldering an antique sword, to be confronted by Kung and Ku suddenly appearing, resolute and still, from behind a giant slab like characters in a pantomime. This reinforces the dehumanising of Po, making him appear like a melodrama villain at some times, or perhaps like a monster from a cartoon at others.
But in between the end of the exclusively Po versus Kung section and this moment of pantomime, Kung takes on not only Po but 2 of his sidekicks in addition. This is an intentional pun on my part as this section of the fight features a lot of kicking and leg work. Yuen also finds a chance to work with levels – Kung has a section of groundwork and the fight moves back onto the walkway with a variety of body positions.
The next section of the fight contains something that literally made my jaw drop the first time I saw it and even now, many rewatches later, is something I find utterly bizarre. There is a long honoured and well mined tradition in martial arts movies of appropriating unlikely objects and using them as weapons. The extraordinary inventiveness of Hong Kong fight choreographers is well demonstrated in this and I am sure that fans could nominate many unusual props being used to lethal effect. But I tend to think that tying a small child to a length of rope and swinging that child around as a weapon is carrying things a bit too far. I suppose there are mitigating factors – during the movie we have been shown that the child in question is a tough little bugger, quite fearless, and a skilled martial artist in his own right. There is nothing to suggest that he is anything less than an enthusiastic and willing participant in this particular piece of improvised weaponry.
The fight moves into its final section with more frenetic action along the walkways and stairwells and moving into the upper levels of the space. Inspector Fong (Anita Mui) bursts (literally) into the scene to participate (so that we have all of the good guys finally united against the villain) and a defiantly gleeful Po manages to cause one last explosion. Po’s monstrous nature is reinforced to the last – he keeps coming back and seems to be impossible to kill. But Kung manages this at last. We always knew that he would.
The next series of blogs I will post will look at the use of the choreography in the film overall, and will look at ways in which the director and choreographers of this movie have used it dramaturgically.
*These weapons actually have a proper martial arts name – something to do with crutches. Does anyone out there know what it is?