Since March 2016, around the edges of my day job, I have been writing a book about Shaw Brothers studios and some of their directors, framed against the theme of innovation. As you can imagine, this has been a lot of hard work but also highly enjoyable. It has been particularly interesting to track down various sources of research. As well as various books and papers and what not, there are, as fans of the genre will know, some terrific interviews and documentaries to be found as DVD extras.
At one point in writing the book, I was trying to illustrate a point about screen fighting, and how it’s practically an art form of its own. Fortunately, I remembered I had, sitting on my shelves, an interview with Donnie Yen where he talks about this very thing. The interview is on the Hong Kong Legends 1995 DVD release of Once Upon a Time in China 2 – one of my favourite films, and one in which Yen distinguishes himself in his performance as the film’s villain, Commander Lam. Come to think of it, the Once Upon a Time in China films were among the first films I saw in the martial arts movie genre, and I reckon I was lucky to be introduced to it via such beautifully made movies. Anyhow, if you happen to be watching this DVD, be sure and check out the interview with Yen as he’s a very articulate subject with some interesting things to say.
Here is a short excerpt from my current draft in which I use a quote from this interview:
“… it takes more than just being a good kung fu technician to look like a good screen fighter. Performance is different to real life pugilism. The kung fu moves that will win you a street fight will not necessarily look good on screen. Donnie Yen, also a (brilliant) performer with a genuine martial arts background, has this to say about the difference between onscreen fighting as a performance compared with off screen pugilistic technique:
‘However, this is action film making, this is martial arts film making. It’s not about how great you are throwing all those punches and kicks. It’s how great you look in front of the camera. It don’t matter if you can do all that if at the end of the day you look horrible on film, you look like shit on film, nobody wants to watch you so throw that martial arts BS, the years of whatever you’re claiming, out of the window. You’ve come into the film industry. This is film making. Can you kick across that camera without even touching the lenses, like 20 takes, same precision, can you do that?’
Donnie Yen can, Lau Kar Leung could, all the great martial arts performers can. Oddly enough, I simply hate violence and am probably the most pacifistic person you could come across, but what I think excites me about martial arts filmmaking is seeing this technique transformed, choreographically and performatively, into an expressive art form.”