A common aesthetic device used in kung fu movies of the 70s and 80s was to show the opening credits of the film against footage of the main stars performing displays of martial arts in front of a plain (often boldly coloured) backdrop.* This was often used in films that had, as part of their narrative themes, an especial focus on the history, development or efficacy of a certain school or style of martial arts: it was a useful way of cluing the audience into the visual signature and movement dynamics of a particular style of martial arts that could well be an important signifier of character or plot development during the movie that followed.
Over the course of many films this device, although often used and recognisable, was nevertheless treated to many variations on its theme. Sometimes the martial arts displays were flashy and dynamic, sometimes earnest and technical, and sometimes played for laughs. The Disciples of Shaolin features a solo Alexander Fu Sheng performing a Hung Gar form. The mood of this opening sequence is striking for its stark intensity, and makes this display a particularly eye catching one within the pantheon of kung fu films.
This 4 minute opening sequence begins with Fu Sheng performing a Hung Gar form called Taming the Tiger in front of a yellow backdrop, before moving onto showing him training with wooden poles in front of a white backdrop and then finishing with him training with more equipment in front of a red backdrop. There is no music during the ‘yellow section’ which lasts for 3 minutes; but the shorter ‘white’ and ‘red’ sections are accompanied by a swelling soundtrack.
I am particularly taken with the ‘yellow’ section and it is on this that the comments in this blog are centred. The martial arts choreographer / director for Disciples of Shaolin was Liu Chia Liang (a.k.a Lau Kar Leung), who comes from a long line of, and was trained in, Hung Gar. Liu apparently found Fu Sheng to be something of a muse, and I can only assume that he took care in coaching and directing one of his favourite performers in the execution of his family’s hereditary style of martial arts. Liu and director Chang Cheh have made an apposite choice of using a display of Hung Gar to open a movie called Disciples of Shaolin as Hung Gar is known to have originated as a southern Shaolin Temple style.
But the appeal of this opening sequence goes beyond the historical appropriateness of establishing Hung Gar as Fu Sheng’s character’s signature style of martial arts. Fu executes his movements with a measured slowness, taught muscle control and intensely focused breath control that gives this sequence an intensity and drama that foreshadows the morality tale in which his character is about to participate.
As mentioned above, this sequence is accompanied by no music, and this helps to create a sense of austerity despite the bold yellow of the backdrop. The sounds that accompany the movement – the jangle of the heavy metal rings on Fu’s forearms, his breathing and moaned and sighed exhalations – are sounds that are caused by or are a response to the initiation of movement by the performer. Thus the performer’s body creates its own percussive soundtrack that marries our visual sense of the dynamic of the Hung Gar form with aural evidence as to the energetic focus of performing that form.
As well as the lack of music, another thing that strikes me about this sequence is the pace of the performance. Many of these opening sequences in the old kung fu films were performed at a brisk and breezy pace, setting up the viewer for a rollicking adventure. Fu Sheng’s execution of this form here is markedly slow in comparison. This gives the viewer time to focus on each separate shape that makes up the form, as well as the intense concentration of energy that Fu is investing in each movement.
Fu gives an uncompromising performance, letting us see and hear each grimace, each greedy inhalation and laboured exhalation of air, each deliberate placement of his body without self consciousness and with complete focus. This makes the viewing of his performance feel somehow very personal and intimate. We can feel that we know the quality of Fu’s energy as he executed the form and this takes us right into his performance. As a couch potato of long standing I will not ever know what it feels like to perform Taming the Tiger myself, so any performance that gives me an inkling as to what it feels like is an important strategy to get me as a viewer feeling more invested in the movie.
And it is important for the viewer to feel involved with Fu Sheng’s performance in this movie. In Disciples of Shaolin his character struggles with conflicting values and temptations that are thrown up by his coming into renown as a martial artist. Many of the kung fu movies from this era, especially those of Chang Cheh, examined the responsibilities and values that are inherent for anyone functioning as a hero. It is important that at the outset of Disicples of Shaolin we connect with Fu Sheng’s performance as the particular martial artist in this narrative so that we feel the full impact of his character’s story arc.
But its use as a strategy for developing character and engaging the viewer aside, this opening sequence also stands out for pure aesthetic appeal. If it were possible to lift Fu Sheng out of a Shaw Brothers studio in the 70s, swap his plait and traditional clothes for a more modern hairstyle and pair of pants, plonk him onstage at the Melbourne Arts Centre and tell its audience they were watching a modern dance performance I doubt that they would be any the wiser (unless they were Hung Gar students, that is). As an ex-hoofer, I have long felt that the choreography and physical performance techniques on show in kung fu movies equal those in the world of contemporary dance or classical ballet for sophistication of craft. Sequences like this one are proof of that. The integrity of Fu’s performance and the pure beauty of the form stand clear and true. I can’t believe that a movement director and designer who is as inspired as Liu and, as his body of work shows, so attuned to the dramatic and aesthetic capacity of martial arts has not seized an opportunity, in his direction of this sequence, to revel in the lines of the form, the flow of its dynamics and the eliciting of such a performance from his protégé Fu. In opening Disicples of Shaolin with this display, Liu, Chang Cheh and Fu Sheng invite us to rejoice in the joy and drama of human movement.
*Tsui Hark effectively referenced this tradition in the credit sequence of his seminal 1991 film Once Upon A Time In China. Typically of Tsui, his use of this device was on an epic scale. I love it and blogged about it, as well as the other choreography in this film, here.