You can read “Old and New Masters – Part Two” here.
Hong Kong cinema probably has the most advanced wire work in the world. I’m talking specifically about wire rigging for use on human beings; not hoisting airplanes or boat sails or other inanimate objects. By now most of us know how it works: Using a fairly simple pulley system, some guys yank around an actor who is harnessed to wires. Actors can look like they are falling off skyscrapers, being violently thrown through walls or gliding gracefully over the tops of bamboo forests.
Hong Kong film started out with just a bunch of guys manually hauling the actors up and down but now they have cool gizmos, as seen in this behind-the-scenes shot from Robin Shou’s excellent documentary “Red Trousers: The Life of The Hong Kong Stuntmen” (2003).
Through clever lighting or cgi, the wires are not usually visible onscreen. Unless movie makers with tight schedules forget to try to hide them.
The earliest Hong Kong wirework I have been able to see is in the 1950’s-1960’s wuxia films. I haven’t been able to get my hands on much pre-Shaw cinema so I don’t know if it was used earlier than the 50’s. The 1964 wuxia series “如來神掌” / “Buddha Palm” was one of the biggest cinema events of its time. It doesn’t use a whole lot of wire work, and from what I have seen of this series, it is limited to rudimentary up and down or side-to-side movements.
In the above gif Ms. Chan pretends to jump off a table, then there is a jump cut to a stuntman being lowered from the ceiling as he moves forward and past the enemy. Although the movement is a little too slow for my idea of how fast somebody would have to move to actually jump like this, it works well enough for me. I guess.
Master action choreographer Tong Gaai says in an interview* that he first saw wires being used in overseas film making, which gave him the idea to make a swordswoman fly for the 1966 Shaw film “雲海玉弓緣” / “The Jade Bow”. He says that this attempt was popular with audiences and that this is how wire work began to get popular in Hong Kong cinema. As much as I adore and respect Tong Gaai, his statement doesn’t quite make sense to me. We can see wire work in use only two years earlier in “Buddha Palm”. It might be that Tong’s was the very first wire work done for Shaw Studios. I’m missing pieces of the puzzle and would be delighted if anybody can fill me in on the story.
Anyway, early Shaw flying swordsmen can be seen in films like Chang Cheh’s 1970 wuxia film “遊俠兒” / “Wandering Swordsman”.
Here David Chiang is just moving like a giant pendulum. “Wandering Swordsman” features (too much) swinging and jumping on trampolines to show the wuxia hero’s flying and running skills (i.e. his amazing inner qing gong lightness technique). I personally find it hard to suspend my disbelief for trampolines and swinging. But that’s just personal taste.
It would take only ten to fifteen years for Hong Kong cinema to turn wire work into an art form.
Nowadays Ching Siu Tung is considered by Hong Kong film makers to be the ‘Wire King’. His choreography for films like “倩女幽魂” / “A Chinese Ghost Story” (1987) and “笑傲江湖之東方不敗” / Swordsman 2″ (1992) totally raised the bar with their ethereal, dreamlike beauty. He is still creating amazing wire stunts today.
There are also many Hong Kong film makers who use subtle wire work to enhance realistic fight scenes. I think a pretty good example is Master Yuen Woo Ping’s choreography in the 1994 Jet Li film “精武英雄” / “Fist of Legend” . The wire fu in this film is never terribly obvious. The fighters don’t do anything extraordinary like fly; they just jump a little higher and fall back with a little more force than regular human beings. Except for one or two awkward bad-gravity moments, the wires simply help the fighters look cooler and kick more ass, thereby making the scenes more exciting to watch.
Because Hong Kong film makers use wires all the time and are so good with them, a lot of people (including me up until recently) think that wire work was invented in Hong Kong. But wires have actually been around for a very long time.
I started wondering about the origin of wire work when I saw a stunt in Roscoe Arbuckle’s 1918 American silent comedy “The Bellboy”. Below, Buster Keaton appears to be helplessly seesawed up and down by a plank of wood.
Little wire stunts like this appear often in silent comedies. The earliest wire work I’ve seen is used in a comedic dance in Mack Sennett’s “Teddy at the Throttle” (1917). I know very little about early American cinema but I’d venture a guess that wire work was being used in vaudeville and other stage performances long before the advent of motion pictures. Popular vaudeville routines were some of the first subjects filmed for public display (e.g. for Kinetoscopes), and many comedians like Buster Keaton were career vaudevillians before they started making movies. It seems safe to assume that stage traditions and tricks were, in the beginning, simply transferred over to movies. I assume that wire work was probably among that bag of tricks.
Below is a screencap from a 1923 comedy that reveals some of the mechanics of early wire work. The wire attached to the man on the left seems to be attached to his clothing rather than to a harness underneath the shirt. The point formed by the pull of the wire on the back of the shirt is pretty obvious. The man is also pretty obviously ready to be yanked back hard even before Stan Laurel (right) jumps onto the board that will send him “flying” over Laurel’s head and out of the stationary camera shot.
The man is swung fairly hard, pendulum style, straight into another man and a wall stacked high with fruit crates. Everything falls down in a funny mess. Ha ha ha.
American film makers seem to begin to abandon wire work in the late 1920’s – early 1930’s when sound came in and movies steered away from short gag reels and toward dialogue and drama.
Where did it go between the 1930’s and the 1950’s when it started being used in Hong Kong? I don’t know. Japan was using wires for Kaiju cinema in the ’50’s; Hong Kong and Tong Gaai’s “overseas” (somewhere in Asia; maybe Taiwan) were using them in the 1960’s. By the 1980’s Hong Kong had become the world master of wire stunts.
In 1999 Yuen Woo Ping introduced wire work back into American cinema for a little movie called “The Matrix”.
American audiences fell in love with Hong Kong style action. Since”The Matrix” blew everybody away with its coolness, the use of wires has been growing steadily in Hollywood. This is a good thing because wire work is beautiful and it rocks.
While writing this article, Tony Jaa was filming a scene in Thailand that looks like it might be pretty freakin cool:
What I find so interesting and delightful about seeing wire work in early American film and in Hong Kong cinema is this: Wires seem to have originated (maybe) in America, travelled all the way around the world to Asia, and then come back to the country that had forgotten how to use them. I’m glad that so many dedicated American choreographers are enhancing their fight scenes with wires now, and that Hollywood has embraced Hong Kong choreographers like Yuen Woo Ping and Dion Lam. And with the Mainland Chinese “invasion” of Hollywood, I hope there will be a lot more crazy flying and mid-air sword fights.
When Hollywood heroes start using their inner qing gong lightness technique to fight in the sky and glide through bamboo forests, I’ll definitely pay $55 to line up at the Million-Plex theater to watch movies in IMAX 3-D HD with my 10-gallon drum of soda. No question about it. Let it be so!
I would like to learn more about early wirework. If anybody has any information that I can add to this article, please share!
Read “Old and New Masters – Part Two: Dance of the Bread Rolls” here.
* A Tribute to Action Choreographers, the companion book to the 30th Hong Kong International Film Festival Special Programme (2006). An amazing, wonderful book full of interviews with the masters. Much gratitude to Thomas Pod of HKCinemagic for generously gifting me a copy. You can read a review of the book at Kung Fu Cinema. You may be able to find the book on WorldCat.