My favourite action sequence in Shaolin Temple is the drunken pole and sword duel between Jet Li and Yue Sing Wai’s characters. It is breathtaking. I am partial to this kind of dance-like material in martial arts films and, for me, this scene is the highlight of a film that is packed full of great physical feats.
In this movie the viewer (and Jet Li’s character) is introduced to this form by a solo demonstration by Sun Jian Kui (who plays one of the monks). This solo demonstration is an expression of his character’s melancholy (which has resulted from the death of his wife and child). Later in the movie Li’s character goes to avenge his father’s death and discovers a female acquaintance of his is being held prisoner by the very man he wants to kill: an evil general who is rolling drunk. Spurred on by his need for vengeance and his decision to rescue the girl he starts dueling with the general and, in order to match the inebriated general’s drunken sword (and therefore to get the better of the general’s unpredictably dangerous movements) he counterattacks with the drunken pole he saw earlier in the film. This fight scene has been well entwined with the sequence of events in the plot and the characters’ motivations. In later group fight scenes we see Sun Jian Kui again using this form, thereby neatly referencing earlier uses in the film of drunken boxing*.
Jet Li squares up in Shaolin Temple
Image sourced from jetli.com
But, for me, all of this fades into the background when I watch these 2 men fight. Drunken pole allows Li to show off his innately fluid quality of movement and his ability to negotiate his way through a passage of movement with precision, grace and energy. The quirky beauty of the choreography brings out these qualities to their full measure.
Yue Sing Wai.
Image sourced from hkmdb.com
But who is Yue Sing Wai? He is featured in all 3 of the Shaolin Temple films but I can’t find much information on him. Compared to the other actors he is very tall and long limbed. I would have expected someone with this lanky build to move awkwardly but instead his movement signature seems to be one of elegance, swiftness and agility. As well as being an entertainingly flamboyant actor of great presence his physical movements are extraordinarily beautiful to watch. In terms of build he is a contrast to the shorter and more compact Li, but they are equally matched in terms of gracefulness and poise and this is what makes this fight scene so unforgettable.
It seems to me that when many fans of the genre discuss drunken boxing they straight away think of, and often favour above all others, Jackie Chan’s extraordinary and seminal performances in the Drunken Master films. Fair enough, and I love Chan’s take on this style very,very much. But as an ex-ballet dancer, I must admit that I have a personal preference for the graceful aesthetic shown by Li and Yu in Shaolin Temple.
*This referencing is welcome in a film that largely lacks choreographic cohesion. In Jet Li’s essay on www.jetli.com he explains that Shaolin Temple was not choreographed by any one fight director but as a collaborative effort between cast members.