One of the elements that keeps me addicted to kung fu movies is the sophistication of the choreographic craft. Not always, but quite often, the fights seem to work in layers – the pure entertainment value of the action can overlay choreography that informs or deepens our sense of character, plot or the themes of the movie.
Legend of the Red Dragon (otherwise known as The New Legend of Shaolin, 1994, Hong Kong) is a rollicking kung fu film showing the adventures of legendary martial arts figure Hung Hei Kwun and his son. Directed and scripted by Wong Jing, it includes many of the humorous and light hearted (and, to my mind, bizarre) touches for which Wong is renowned. In this little essay I am focusing on my favourite fight scene from some of the great fight choreography in the film (credited to Corey Yuen Kuei, Yuen Tak and Chan Sek). This is not one of the lengthy set pieces but a little fight scene that occurs early in the film between Miss Red Bean (played by Chingmy Yau) and Hung Hei Kwun (played by Jet Li). Presenting as a mystery to each other, the two characters have been thrust together in the household of a wealthy man: Hung has been retained as the man’s bodyguard and Miss Red Bean, a cheeky con artist of the first order, has charmed her way into being his fiance. Hung, focused on his duties as security enforcer, is suspicious of Red Bean’s presence in the household while, for her part, Red Bean is by equal parts wary of and attracted to the reticent Hung.
Why do I love this little scene? Because it does what so many fight scenes in kung fu movies do so well – as well as being a sequence of movement that is entertaining to watch it has other purposes. In the case of this fight it helps to define characters, tease out their relationship dynamic, and propel the plot forward.
The fight is initiated by Hung rebuffing Miss Red Bean’s attempts to measure him for a new suit she wants to make for him (actually what she really wants to do is to go the grope on the handsome Hung). After lunging after Hung with her measuring tape and trying to lasso him with lengths of fabric, a frustrated Miss Red Bean tries to stick him with sewing needles threaded with colourful cotton. Hung’s martial arts proves just a little too good for her and during the fight he literally ties her in knots – at which point she lets slip the fact that she is not the innocent ingénue she is making herself out to be. Miss Red Bean eventually resorts to trickery to regain the upper hand but, in doing so, reveals yet more about herself to Hung.
The movements of Miss Red Bean and Hung help to define their characters. In attempting to entangle Hung in fabric and tape, and then rather cruelly going after him with needles, Miss Red Bean gives us the impression of a character who is resourceful, provocative, cheeky and just a little bit nasty. In resisting her, Hung demonstrates that he is determined to remain upright and proper. But, as his son later observes, he doesn’t go as far as giving Red Bean the arse whupping he is capable of giving her. So the audience is let in on the secret that, for all his sense of decorum, Hung is still a red blooded guy who may be more interested in Red Bean than he is prepared to admit.
Jet Li doing his still waters run deep thing. (Image courtesy of www.sonymoviechannel.com)
This fight scene is witty and cruel, but also very sexy. The characters demonstrate flirtiness and antagonism in turn, and we can see that they are experiencing a mixture of mistrust of and interest in each other. As a character, Hung is pretty buttoned down and not given to explication. Red Bean is a more demonstrative character, but at this stage of the film she is playing a double game and is therefore secretive. We need this little fight to spell out the fact that there is a definite sexual tension between these two that, at this point in the narrative, they are not sure how to resolve.
Another purpose the fight serves is to provide impetus to the plot by supplying Hung with some information about Red Bean. As mentioned above, when she is completely entangled in embroidery thread, she lets slip that she is a woman with secrets to keep. Right at the end of the fight she feigns death by holding her breath before biting Hung. This shows him that she knows “the kung fu of holding breath”. With such a high level of martial arts at her disposal, Hung concludes that Red Bean must be the notorious female criminal he has heard about. This motivates his behaviour towards Red Bean over the next few scenes.
In just a few minutes the sewing fight in Red Dragon tells us a lot about its characters and helps to set up the next few scenes – all this as well as being just a fun piece to watch. A common criticism levelled at kung fu movies is that the scripts are often weak. But who needs dialogue and wordy explication when you have choreography like this?