My Father is a Hero begins with its opening credits being intercut with footage showing a large squad of impressively drilled children, who include one of the main characters Siu Ku (played by Xie Mao), doing a wu shu routine. By doing this director Corey Yuen has established this film’s martial arts credentials right from the get go, and this is perhaps not such a bad idea as the first half of the film is very dominated by dialogue. The dialogue scenes focus on establishing characters and the way they relate to each other, which makes them important and engrossing for the viewer to watch. However, they are slow and word heavy. The few action scenes early on in the film are important, therefore, for 2 reasons: they break up the slow pace of the film and prevent it from being too lugubrious; and they allow choreographed movement to stake a claim. My Father is a
Hero is dominated by elaborately choreographed action in the later stages of the film, and for this to be accepted by the audience as an integral and appropriate creative strategy for bringing the film to a conclusion, Yuen needs to establish choreography as being one of the film’s most important aesthetic and story-telling devices right from the beginning.
The wu shu display also has another purpose. It, and some scenes showing Ku competing in the wu shu competition that follows, lets the viewer know that this little kid is martial arts adept. This makes his (very active!) inclusion in the fight scenes that follow easier for the audience to accept. Intercut with the wu shu competition are scenes showing the first fight of another of the film’s main characters – Kung (played by Jet Li), father of Ku and an undercover cop, is shown taking on a gang of passport forgers. Thus both father and son are introduced to the audience as skilled fighters. Kung’s fight starts in an alley way and then reconvenes in the stairwells and roof cavities of the stadium where Ku is competing.* In his direction of these fights, Corey Yuen is indulging the Hong Kong martials arts choreographer’s typical love of exploiting architecture in the staging of fight scenes – he also does this to great effect in this film when he stages a shoot-out in a large glass building to explosive effect. In bringing Kung’s fight with the passport forgers into the same building that is housing Ku’s wu shu competition, he has also cleverly brought the martial arts of father and son together into the one space to allow them to collaborate. There are some nice moments featuring rolls, backward bends, somersaults and pole fighting, where the movements of the father, fighting a bad guy on a walkway in the roof cavity, mirror or suggest the movements of the son sparring down in the auditorium below, and this consolidates the audience’s sense of connection between these 2 characters. This prefigures the last climactic fight scene where father and son once again crucially cooperate to bring the villains down. It also establishes the central conflict of Kung’s story arc, which is the conflict between his duty as a policeman and his duty as a father. In the first few minutes of the film we see him fulfilling both duties, but only just. It becomes very apparent during the rest of the film that he is virtually unable to reconcile these duties as successfully as he does in the moment when he watches his son competing, while shouldering a sack containing the criminal he has just nabbed.
It pays to bear in mind that this film has one of the martial arts movie genre’s major box office attractions, Jet Li, headlining its cast as well as having one of the genre’s most respected martial
arts choreographers, Corey Yuen, as its director. I may be wrong, but I imagine that the Hong Kong audiences who would have turned up to watch it in cinemas in 1995 would have had the expectation that they were going to see martial arts. For them, scenes featuring a wu shu competition intercut with scenes of Jet Li’s character beating up a couple of bad guys would have answered this expectation and perhaps made the preponderance of slow dialogue driven scenes
in the first half of the film easier to take on board.
The script writer and producer of this, at times, dark and intense martial arts soap opera is none other than Wong Jing. The films that Wong directs in his own right are notoriously juvenile and politically incorrect and always determinedly played for cheap laughs, and it is hard to believe that the author of My Father could be the same man. However, there is one stylistic hall mark that all Wong’s films have in common – “The opening is likely to be breathless. Within the first sixty seconds there will be a gag, a chase, or a suspenseful encounter.” (David Bordwell, on Wong Jing’s films, Planet Hong Kong, p. 172). Wong Jing’s High Risk, for example, opens with terrorists invading a school and blowing a bunch of kids up in a bus. My Father opens with a wu shu competition and Jet Li taking down a ring of passport forgers.
Under the skilful direction of Corey Yuen, the action scenes right at the beginning of My Father play an important part in getting this film off to a good start. Yuen has other dramaturgical uses for choreographed movement, and I will address these in some short blogs to follow.
*(footage of Kung thumping a struggling bad guy he has trussed in a sack and slung onto the back of a bicycle, all the while he is peddling towards to stadium to watch Ku, could only ever happen in
a kung fu movie)