Choreographer / director Yuen Wu Ping and Jet Li have made several films together. Released
in 1996, Black Mask had the most contemporary setting of any film they had made together up to that point in time. In Black Mask, Yuen has not constructed the dancelike choreography on Li that was a defining aesthetic of their earlier films (like Tai Chi Master or Once Upon a Time in China 2) but the less florid style of movement that Yuen makes on Li as Black Mask is entirely appropriate for the look and setting of this movie.
A driving theme in the action direction of this film is Yuen’s response to a modern urban environment. The action is cram packed with Yuen’s nifty creative use of sets and props – roller blades, electrical wiring, motorbikes, a front end loader, even laser guns; these are just some of the elements that come into play during the action scenes. At one stage during the final fight scene, Black Mask and Commander Hung (Patrick Lung Kong) find themselves locked in a room that is fast filling with poisonous gas. This reminds me of the climactic fight scene featuring Jet Li and Ngai Sing in Corey Yuen Kuei’s The Defender. The choreography in these scenes depicts each pugilist trying to cope with not being able to breathe and trying to capitalise on the effect the gas is having on their opponent. In both these scenes the choreographers have been able to use the action to take us right into the scene and sketch the unseeable for us. We cannot only see what is going on, but we know how it smells or what the texture of the air feels like to breathe in this industrialised setting.
Yuen Wu Ping is a choreographer who, apart from maybe Tony Ching Siu Tung, most loves to take his performers up into the air if he can manage it. There is a lovely shot during the King Kau car park fight that shows Black Mask parachuting silently down onto his enemy. A major set piece in this film is an action sequence involving a creatively staged scrambling pursuit by Leuk Yan (Francoise Yip) of Black Mask and Tracy (Karen Mok) all over some sort of a high rise industrial metal tower. I just don’t think Yuen can be completely happy unless he suspends his characters either in mid-air or on some sort of high rise structure during his films.
To my mind, air can be seen as a defining element for the character of Yeuk Lan. We first meet her hanging bound and gagged S & M style, awaiting the attentions of a kinky drug dealer. When, during the fight scene that ensues shortly after, she first encounters Black Mask and recognizes him as her former beloved coach, she is resting in a forward splits suspended across chains hanging from the ceiling. After the fight she is then rehung in the S & M harness but, as she dangles there, she remembers falling off a bridge during a previous training exercise during her army days and being saved by her coach Tsui Chik who she has just recognized as Black Mask. This image – that of Tsui Chik holding onto the bridge with one hand and grasping a dangling Leuk Yan with the other – is replayed a few times during the movie. At another point in the movie, Tsui Chik releases a dove to fly away as a prelude to a dialogue scene between him and Leuk Yan. When Black Mask saves Leuk Yan from hospital, they make their escape by abseiling down the side of a high rise building. Leuk Yan’s final big scene takes place up in the air on a big metal tower, when, as mentioned above, she is in pursuit of Black Mask and Tracy. When she dies, we see her body toppling off the great height of this tower. This character seems to be connected to images to do with suspension, space, flying or falling an inordinate amount of times, and this is a lovely linking device for this character in the movie.
The action and its aesthetic is, of itself, an important framing or consolidating force in this movie and this makes Yuen’s input vital. As mentioned in a previous blog this movie references several different styles of film, and, when scrutinised closely, the plot line is episodic with scant, even inadequate, exposition of facts or cause and effect*. And yet the film makers have successfully swung it so that when we watch Black Mask we feel that we are watching a satisfyingly cohesive and coherent story rather than an hour and a half of loosely connected skits about some dude called Black Mask. The sense of one story line progressing and any sense of cohesiveness comes from elements other than narrative explication. Some of these elements include the art direction, the soundtrack, the constant underlining of the film’s central themes, a consistency in the depiction of well-defined characters, and the compellingly brisk pace of the movie. The action has such dynamism and momentum that it powers us through the movie and overpowers our need for narrative exposition. Yuen’s response to the urban environment the film is set in, and the action potential posed by the outlandish abilities of Black Mask and Squad 701, means that an important component in the construction of the film is the piling of one flamboyant set piece on top of the other. This makes Yuen’s vision for the film’s action, articulated through his usual masterful direction, an important and central component of the film.