The Depiction of Martial Artists in High Risk.
“Cross referencing is a constant in Wong Jing’s scavenger movies. Their in-jokes are too opportunistic to count as homages.” David Bordwell, Planet Hong Kong, P. 175
In his direction of his movies, Wong Jing goes nosing and scurrying after opportunities for gag making like a hungry rat after cheese. Some of the most opportunistic cross referencing that occurs in High Risk is that involving famous martial artists Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee. One of the main characters in the movie is Frankie Lane, a top Hong Kong martial arts action star. This character, played by canto pop singer Jacky Cheung, is played purely for laughs, and is used to pillory many of Chan and Lee’s recognisable traits. Frankie wears a bright yellow jump suit, wields numchuckas and makes lots of yelping, whining noises when he fights a la Bruce Lee. Jackie Chan is recognisable in Frankie Lane’s watermelon grin and the constant attendance of Frankie’s grey haired, sailor hatted papa.
So far, so good. These character traits are easily recognisable because they are a feature of either Chan or Lee’s consciously constructed performance or celebrity imprimatur. They have long been out there in the public domain, mainly through the efforts of Chan and Lee and their PR reps, and as targets for a few harmless laughs it must be said that they are up for grabs. But it gets nastier. Frankie Lane is depicted as an egotist, fool, womaniser and drunk who lets other people do his thinking for him. Are we the viewers, then, supposed to infer that these characteristics belong also to Chan and Lee by extension? Where Wong really aims for the jugular is in his depiction of Frankie as a martial artist. Although we are told that Frankie was an expert martial artist when he was younger, for much of the film he is depicted as a cowardly dud in this area. The implication is that his martial arts prowess has waned due to too much indulgence of the flesh and the comforts of a celebrity lifestyle. Frankie does get to redeem himself in the final climactic fight of the film, but not before we have watched him fighting like a big girl’s blouse and taking lots of prat falls beforehand.
One of the elements that defines the celebrity profile of both Chan and Lee, and is a major part of the appeal they hold for their fans, is that of authenticity. Both Chan and Lee have reputations for being able to authentically perform the actions that are featured in their movies. The outtakes at the end of Jackie’s movies are designed to prove that he is a genuine risk taker and a performer of athleticism and courage. He has virtually staked his reputation on being a person who does all his own stunts. Most fans of Bruce Lee consider him to have been a penultimate martial artist during his lifetime, and take their idol’s reputation very, very seriously(1). Of course, any proof needed of the physical skills and (martial) artistry of either of these men can be found by watching their movies. There is much footage where you can tell that it really is Jackie or Bruce doing the amazing stuff on screen, and both have built up legends based on the fact that fans hold the belief that they are never doubled. So it is extra nasty of Wong to link their personas not just to a drunken fool of a
character, but to a drunken fool who is a hopeless fighter and who needs to be doubled. In the character of Frankie Lane, Wong has given the tough guy persona of the authentic martial arts movie star a running kick up the pants.
“In the process the Hong Kong martial arts tradition is mercilessly travestied.” David Bordwell on High Risk, Planet Hong Kong, P. 177
But Wong’s assault on the concept of the authentic martial artistry of Hong Kong’s action stars doesn’t quite stop there. If Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan could be seen as 2 of the Hong Kong martial arts film genre’s major names, then surely a 3rd could be said to be Jet Li, who stars in High Risk as Frankie Lane’s bodyguard, Kit(2).
In the film Jet Li’s character is not played for laughs – he is shown to be decent and courageous. He wears cool clothes, sports a cool hairstyle and does cool things. Being an ex-dancer and a fan of Tai Chi Master, I always consider every second of screen time during which Li is not featured doing highly choreographed movement (that could be lifted out of the repertoire of a modern dance company) to be time wasted. So it is a pity that Li does not get more martial arts to do in this film. But it would seem that, as a performer, Wong has spared him the satiric broadsides that he aims at Bruce and Jackie via the character of Frankie Lane.
But does Li really get off so lightly, and does his presence in the film really fly the flag for martial arts authenticity in Hong Kong movie making? Li’s character, Kit, is a soldier turned bodyguard and stunt man. Kit performs all of Frankie Lane’s stunts for him in secret (Frankie pretends that he does all of his own stunts in order to generate admiration among his fans). There is a nasty twist here for Jet Li fans. Li’s celebrity persona is constructed along slightly different lines to that of Chan’s. He has never had the reputation for doing all of his own stunts. Many of the films he has been in have contained a large amount of wire work for which Li is regularly doubled by stunt men who specialise in this difficult area of stunt work. Due to injury or time constraints we know Li has also been extensively doubled for martial arts sequences in other of his films (the most famous example being the doubling of Li by Xiong Xin Xin in Once Upon A Time In China). This has not deterred Li’s huge number of fans from believing in his real life martial arts skills. It is a rite of passage for a dedicated Jet Li fan to get over the disappointment that accompanies the realisation that it is not always little Jet’s body that we see whirling and twirling on screen during his films. We learn to focus on the moments when we can see that it obviously is him (3). The authenticity of Li’s extensive and comprehensive training is widely publicised, and has been used to construct Li’s celebrity persona in the eyes of diehard martial arts movie fans – we can believe in him as a martial arts stylist and wu shu specialist, at least, if not as a dare devil stunt man, Chinese Opera acrobat or wire fu aerialist.
However, the ‘is it or isn’t it him’ conundrum that faces Jet Li fans during a viewing of his movies never quite goes away. For Li to play a stunt double in High Risk could be seen to be ironic. In an early scene, Li’s character is shown doubling for Frankie in a stunt that involves taking a high dive off a tall building. So the viewer knows that Jet Li is pretending to be a stunt man, Kit, who is pretending to be a movie star, Frankie, who was supposed to have once been a martial artist, but who is played in the film by Jacky Cheung who, in real life, has never been a martial artist. When we see the character Kit fall off the building, we know that the actual body falling through the sky cannot be that of Jet Li who we know doesn’t do big dangerous stunts. Therefore the falling body of the character of Kit who is a stunt double pretending to be a martial arts star is played by a real life
anonymous stunt double to a real life martial artist (Jet Li). Enough of a mind fuck for you? And so it goes on – the character of Kit fights and tumbles his way through the mayhem of the film, and the cool clean way he does so helps to reinforce Jet Li’s celebrity persona as an action hero. But, of course, sometimes the amazing body we see on screen is really Jet, and sometimes it isn’t. Li only gets one martial arts fight in this film, so the area of authenticity he can genuinely lay claim to – his expertise in martial arts – is mostly denied to him as a proving ground for his fans.
The big climactic martial arts fight instead goes to Jacky Cheung’s character Frankie. In this scene we know that Frankie is either being doubled by a real, but anonymous, martial artist, or that the moves that Jacky is performing have been partly chosen by the choreographers(4) as moves that are quickly learnable by a non-martial artist. Billy Chau, another performer in the film with an
authentic martial arts background, plays one of the villains, Kong, and is shown getting beaten up by a character, Frankie, who is a lapsed martial artist who is played by a pop singer, Jacky Cheung, who does not have a real life schooling in martial arts.
I have long believed that as a film maker Wong Jing is trying to bring his art form down from the inside, and his take on martial arts and stunt performance in High Risk proves just what a nasty and subversive little mind he has. At first glance it would seem that Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan draw the most fire from Wong as he utilizes the character of Frankie Lane to mercilessly send them up. But it is in the casting and use of martial artist Jet Li that Wong subverts any claim that action stars have to authenticity and heroism.
(1) Try suggesting to one that you don’t like Bruce Lee and see what happens. Their brows cloud over and they grow all lugubrious and troubled. For some reason they always counter by whispering “He had a beautiful philosophy”. I’m quite sure he did – he was a philosophy major, after all, who studied martial arts theory extensively and who was writing his own treatise when he died. But I just don’t like the guy. His talent, charisma, good looks, intelligence and audacity are obvious to me, but I just don’t like the guy. But if you say this to a Bruce Lee fan they try to persuade me that I am wrong somehow. I am not wrong. I am allowed to just not like the guy.
(2) I don’t know if the choice of name for this character has anything to do with the fact that the phonetic pronunciation of Jet Li’s real name in Cantonese is Li Lin Kit
(3) And these moments are magnificent ones. That’s what hooks us.
(5) Yuen Tak and Corey Yuen Kuei