Last night I watched The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. A collaboration between Shaw Brothers and Hammer studios, this production is an odd blend of eastern and western themes and talents. It stars David Chiang and Peter Cushing, and the plot revolves around Dracula taking the form of a corrupt Chinese mystic and decamping from Transylvania to China in order to lead an army of the undead and terrorise hapless peasants. Westerners were responsible for the writing and direction of the movie (Don Houghton, who is also credited as a producer along with a member of the Shaw clan, and Roy Ward Baker) and influential martial arts choreographers, Tang Chia and Lau Kar Leung, are responsible for the action. The film is… OK, I guess. But it doesn’t really fire on all cylinders. It isn’t scary enough and doesn’t generate enough tension in order to succeed as a bona fide horror movie, although the vampire scenes are a good exercise in camp (if that appeals to you). There is plenty of martial arts but, surprisingly, given the talent staging and performing it, the action looks pedestrian. It doesn’t feature those moments of stunning invention and / or elegance that I normally expect to see in the work of these choreographers. I would love to know the reason why this is – perhaps the story, characters, or on set production methods stifled the choreographers’ creativity. One of the reasons why the action just plods is that the fight scenes seem to just be about good guys trying to beat up bad guys. In many martial arts films, the choreography is often more layered and nuanced than just being an exercise in mere violence. The choreographers (especially the good ones like Tang, Lau, or Corey Yuen Kuei) often embroider into the pugilism visual effects that deepen characterisation, illustrate a movie’s themes, or experiment with an aesthetic quality such as rhythm or the dynamics of different styles. This layered approach to choreography, and the richness of the kinetic content of these films, allows martial arts film makers to impart a lot of information or stimulus to their audience in even a short fight scene.
I have recently been blogging about My Father is a Hero, which features action direction by Yuen Tak and Corey Yuen Kuei (who is also the film’s director). The 2 fight scenes I am going to focus on in this blog are so brief that they barely rate as scenes at all (scenelets?). But they both have an impact on the movie and serve an important dramaturgical purpose. They both mirror each other in a way – in each the film’s titular hero, Kung (played by Jet Li), has a brief bout of sparring with one other character. Both of these (quite elegant) little scuffles serve the purpose of introducing and connecting Kung to this other character. Corey Yuen gets a lot of mileage from these little fights. The choreography and dynamism of the movement helps to articulate more than dialogue could do just on its own within the constraint of these scenes. Through using movement Yuen is able to add layers of meaning to the interactions between his characters.
The first mini fight happens between Kung and the film’s main villain Po (played by Yu Rong Guang). This tiny bit of sparring serves as an introduction between Po and Kung – it is the first exchange between the 2 and, in true kung fu movie style, movement stands in for, or augments, dialogue. The fight takes place on a ledge on the edge of a dizzyingly high rise building, and the fact that Po, seen for the first time in this movie, initiates a challenge there introduces him as a mad crazy bastard in the minds of the audience and undercover cop Kung (who is trying to ingratiate himself with Po in order to infiltrate his gang). Po uses the fight to cultivate an atmosphere of menace and intimidation and struts his stuff as alpha male within his group of attendant thugs. He tests and probes Kung to see how he responds to the pressure. For his part, Kung displays guts and presence of mind. Po decides that he could be useful and the audience decides that Kung could be a match for Po. This brief bout of sparring prefigures the serious clashes between Po and Kung that will occur later in the movie, and introduces a sense of tension between these 2 men.
The second mini fight happens when Fong (Anita Mui) and Kung spar in Fong’s flat. They have encountered each other before in the film, when a masked Kung takes Fong hostage after the Po gang’s raid on the Lithuanian arms dealers, but as Kung was masked and posing as a gangster then it could be said that Fong didn’t really know who she was dealing with. By the time they meet up in Fong’s flat, Fong has established that Kung is an undercover cop. Importantly, Fong has spent time bonding with Kung’s son and now dead wife and has had a chance to form an interest in, and an opinion of, the kind of man he is. As with the scene showing Po and Kung squaring up on the ledge, this exchange is extremely brief. But it shows some elegant choreography that adds more layers of meaning to the actual dialogue. There is a lot going on in this little scene, and a lot needs to go on for it to serve the objectives of the movie. By now, Kung knows that Fong is a cop but is still extremely mistrustful of and angry with this woman who has possibly placed his son, Ku (played by Xie Mao), in peril by bringing him to Po’s stamping ground in Hong Kong and who may, for all he knows, be using them as pawns in her quest for an arrest and promotion. Even though Fong knows that Kung is in Hong Kong with Po’s gang on an undercover mission, she is fresh from the ordeal of seeing Kung’s wife Li (played by Bonnie Fu Yuk Jing) die and empathising with Ku’s grief. She has seen the straitened circumstances of Li and Ku’s life in Beijing in the absence of the man of the house, and during her stay in Beijing she bonded with them and came to feel great sympathy, liking and admiration for the gentle and virtuous Li. She cannot help but be angry with Kung for deserting his family and shows this by lashing out at him. However, the final scene of this movie indicates that Kung and Fong are on track to become romantic partners and that Ku has accepted Fong as a replacement mum. Poor Corey Yuen has to find ways of making his audience find this as being plausible when Kung and Fong spend very little screen time together during the rest of the film! He has to grab his chances at creating a sexual and romantic frisson between the 2 where he can, and the snatch of choreography in this scene serves to do this. The dialogue and the fact that the 2 characters are lashing out at each other demonstrates their mistrust and anger, but the loveliness of the shapes, the dynamism of the movement and the physical proximity of the 2 bodies lends a strong erotic undercurrent to the encounter. The fight is shot in near silhouette, and this focuses our attention on the movement of the bodies and the shapes they are making very strongly.
Clearly Yuen intends for the choreography to constitute an important part of the text in this scene. As with the Po fight on the building ledge, he has been able to use the choreography to add layers of text to these encounters between these characters.