So far I have written blogs on My Father is a Hero that have focused on the theme of the movie (here) and its melodramatic form (here). In the next series of blogs I will be focusing on the action and how director and choreographer, Corey Yuen Kuei, and choreographer and action director, Yuen Tak, have used the choreography of the action to strengthen the film’s dramaturgy.
It is perhaps important to consider the melodramatic form of My Father is a Hero. By melodramatic form I mean that this movie has the plot structure and many of the stylistic hall marks of traditional Western stage melodramas of Victorian times. I find that comparing martial arts movies, and particularly My Father is a Hero, to Western melodramas explains a lot about the way kung fu movies hang together and how they function as entertainment. As mentioned in my blog on melodrama some of the action in this movie allows the filmmakers to manifest the interior state of the characters, and that this is one of the defining features of traditional melodrama. In the melodrama blog I reference the scenes showing Kung’s violent physical explosion on learning of his wife’s death as a manifestation of his sudden grief; and Ku’s strangulation scene as a manifestation of the film’s darker themes as examples. I won’t go into these scenes in detail in the blogs to follow (read my melodrama blog – go on, you know you want to). But it is worth bearing in mind that a lot of the choreography in this film, and its mise en scene, serves to frame or even to manifest outright the emotions of its characters. I give more scenes as examples of this in the blogs
Structurally, My Father is a Hero evolves from a film that, in its first half, is dominated by a preponderance of dialogue heavy scenes despite the presence of some dynamic and important action scenes; and ends up being dominated by choreographed movement by the finishing scenes. The action scenes that do happen in its first half play an important role in varying the rhythm of the overall structure and injecting energy and vitality to leaven the intense (albeit necessary) emotionally expositional dialogue scenes. The action scenes in the first half also help to reinforce character development – Yuen is too good a choreographer not to be able to do this. An example of a scene that breaks into the dialogue heavy part of the movie and injects some pace and dynamism into the family soap opera is the scene where Ku (played by the prodigious Xie Mao) tackles some playground bullies in spectacular high kicking style. This scene contains an example of some nifty prefiguring – Ku cradles his loyal friend Fatty after Fatty has been brutalised. Fatty’s plight,
brought about through Fatty trying to physically shield Ku from the bullies, prompts Ku to fly into action. Towards the end of the film Ku does some more cradling. This time it is a dying Darkie (played by Blacky Ko Sau Leung) he holds and comforts, and once again Ku is motivated to take on the bullies who have brought the downfall of his friend when that friend had been trying to protect him(1). Prefiguring action and referencing earlier scenes is an important story telling tool for Corey Yuen as it adds a sense of cohesion to the overall plot structure. I give other examples of his use of prefiguring in a couple of the blogs to follow.
Another early scene where the movie changes pace and briefly cuts loose for some over the top fun is the scene in which the Po gang ambush an illicit arms deal and trash a glass building(2). Yuen also manages to cram some opportunities for character or plot exposition into this action scene: we are introduced to efficient and tough lady cop Fong (Anita Mui) and are shown how deeply she feels about her lover when she offers to be a hostage in his stead; Kung and Fong are pitted against each other and the plot development of Fong going in pursuit of Kung is initiated; and Kung establishes his bona fides with Po (Ru Yong Guang) and his gang. So this scene is useful in a few different ways as well as being fun to watch.
This is a fast paced, high energy scene featuring a mixture of martial arts, gun play, car crashes and explosions. Human bodies, motor vehicles, guns, tables, chairs and a brief case ricochet and slither over the surfaces and structures of this set. Yuen seems to have delighted in playing with the textures of a building that is composed mostly of glass attached to metal frames. As the performers
and their accoutrements career about the building we are given a vivid impression of the brittleness or smoothness of the glass, the hardness of a concrete floor or the coolness and slipperiness of a large water feature. When I watch Corey Yuen’s films, I often find myself reflecting on the fact that he has a definite talent for evoking the tactile impressions of his sets.
The first half of the movie’s dialogue driven scenes set up demanding emotional and psychological challenges for its characters that need to explode into, and be articulated and resolved by, over the top action in the second half. “The laying out of the problems ‘realistically’ always allows for the generating of an excess which cannot be accommodated. The more the plots press towards a resolution the harder it is to accommodate the excess. What is characteristic of the melodrama, both in its original sense and in the modern one, is the way excess is siphoned off (Nowell-Smith).”(Shingler and Mercer, Melodrama, p.23)
The turning point in this structural change seems to be the fight Fong and Ku have with Po’s thugs at the seaside jetty. From this point on the rhythm of the film changes. Generally speaking, most of the dialogue scenes become shorter and more focused on moving the plot forward. The action scenes become more frequent and longer. By the end of the film, choreographed movement dominates its text.
In terms of narrative structure this jetty scene is important. By this stage, My Father has become very sombre, with Kung’s wife’s moving death bed scene throwing a pall over the tone of the film.
Its main characters are entrenched in difficult situations and demanding emotional terrain. From this point on, the movie must increasingly rely on choreographed movement to manifest the film’s themes and concerns and to carry its characters to a crowd pleasing finale.
This jetty scene is a neat little display piece that provides the choreographers with a chance to squeeze a little character development into the choreography of the action, as well as picking up the pace. Fong and Ku combine to beat the baddies and, in so doing, bond a little more. Having seen Fong in devastating action, Ku guesses that she must be a copper from Hong Kong. Fong trusts Ku with her idea that his father, Kung, is really a policeman. During the fight scene, we see Fong risk her safety to retrieve a letter that was entrusted to her by Li to give to Kung – we can understand just how completely Fong intends to honour her promises to her now dead friend. The scene as a whole also enforces the idea that Fong and Ku have embarked on a journey that will place them in real peril.
As Fong and Ku continue their journey towards meeting up with Kung, the peril and the emotional intensity increases. The excess mentioned in the quote above is accordingly generated and choreography takes over from dialogue in order to accommodate this excess in flamboyant action that is at times brutal and at other times gloriously virtuosic. The last 35 minutes of the film is dominated by 2 major fight scenes, and by the time the final scene of the film rolls around the
dialogue that follows the climactic fight scene (in the second last scene of the movie) sounds a little awkward and perfunctory.
I have always noticed that many kung fu movies end practically as soon as the climactic fight scene is over. How many of the old glorious Shaw Brothers films roll the finishing credits the second after the bad guy’s body hits the ground at the end of the final fight scene? There doesn’t seem to be the same need to show scenes to resolve characters’ feelings or to indicate a life for the characters beyond the film (as there is with western films). I think that maybe this is because western films have plot structures that are essentially linear in nature (of course I am generalising broadly here) – the characters in western films must be allowed a plausible point of recovery or reckoning so that the audience is able to sense that they are in a fit state to progress their stories beyond the end of the movie’s structure. But Hong Kong movie plots are episodic in nature (3) and there is not the same need for or emphasis on constructing a story that is believable in linear terms. Thus when My Father finishes we are shown a perfunctory scene showing Ku recovering from strangulation and drowning without a skerrick of psychological or permanent physical damage in evidence. Despite Kung being newly widowed, Ku having just had his mother die, and Fong just having dumped her long term lover, these characters are shown to be settling down into a family unit after getting over a few awkward moments and having a group hug and a bit of a self-conscious giggle. But this scene is not the payoff for the audience – it is just tying off a few loose ends and ticking the boxes marked
“Good guys win”, “happy endings are good”, and “we can’t kill little kids”. For all that it packs some heavy emotional punches at times, My Father is a Hero is a martial arts film and by the time the virtuosity of the final display piece reaches its pyrotechnic conclusion(4), choreography has overwhelmed any other agenda the film may have had and constitutes the major pay off for the audience.
I will post a series of very brief blogs that will deal with many of the other action scenes in the film and the dramaturgical purposes they serve.
(1) Darkie’s death scene strikes a moralistic note. Despite being a career criminal, Darkie isn’t a bad bloke. He has been a loyal and generous friend to Kung, and he is genuinely distressed by the violence meted out to Ku and moves to save and protect the boy. But he has lived a life as a career criminal and fate (and Wong Jing) punishes him for this by handing him out a violent death at the
hands of Po. But Darkie dies a self-sacrificing and heroically redeeming death by shielding Ku and announcing defiantly to Po that although he has lived like a dog and he now wants to be a man.
(2) I would love to know under what circumstances the producers of this film obtained this doomed building. It must have been slated for demolition.
(3) David Bordwell, for one, refers to the episodic nature of kung fu movie plots:
“Episodic construction favors tonal ruptures. Vulgar comedy can be slapped alongside pathos or suspense.” Planet Hong Kong, p. 184
“And endings? Episodic construction makes resolutions harder to predict than in most Hollywood films.” Planet Hong Kong, p.184
(4) I discussed this final fight scene in detail in the most recent post about My Father here