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IFFR 2011. Question of the day (On Sammo Hung's "Pedicab Driver")

A question for you.  In Pedicab Driver (Sammo Hung, 1989) the roly-poly Hung (star and director) crashes his bike, along with his girlfriend, through the window of a Macau gambling den after escaping the clutches of a lascivious pimp.  Eyeing the damage, the boss, played by famed kungfu fight choreographer and director Liu Chia-liang, challenges Hung to a fight to determine who will pay for the destruction. After several thrilling minutes of back and forth mayhem (see video below), Liu stands triumphant (specifically: pinning Hung’s feet behind his ears).  But Liu then says that he’s never seen a man fight as well as our chubby Sammo, forgives the damages and even gives money to Hung’s girlfriend, who lost her’s in the accident.  This acknowledgement of good training and impressive execution, so common to the amorphous brotherhood-of-fighters world that makes up the wuxia andkungfu genres, changes the meaning of the fight afterwards—gone is the conflict as to who will owe who money and the contest instead is re-defined as being about showing prowess.  It wasn’t about winning, it was about exhibition.

Or was it?  How do action scenes work in violent cinema when the violence comes first and the meaning comes second?  Do Liu’s comments contextualize the meaning of the fight we just witnessed, do we take away our own independent meaning from the fight (like: boy, that fat guy is damn dexterous), do we synergize the two, the during-interpretation and the after-interpretation?  What if there was a greater ethical or even moral meaning placed on the scene instead of the throwaway plot point of money owed and forgiven?  Can the fight exist or be treated as if it exists without the post-fight context of meaning?

Liu Chia-liang, or as he is also known Lau Kar-leung, is something of a master of the non-fight fight or fights where the context is everything. In Dirty Ho, he has Gordon Liu, or Liu Chia Hui if you prefer, as the 11th Prince fight his opponents while not wishing to appear he is fighting them since he doesn’t want to distract from the more important things in life. In doing so, of course, we can see and admire Prince Wang’s great ability but also his devotion to his principles. Sort of a win win for the audience. Here’s a scene where he fights using a serving girl he pretends is his bodyguard. The man he is fighting, Dirty Ho, is someone he wishes to take under his wing and train to follow his ideals. (If embedding doesn’t work you can find the clip here: ) In 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Return to the 36th Chamber the fighting is secondary to the training which is every bit as physically demanding and visually interesting as a fight, but the context is shifted to preparation and mind set required to fight. This preparation does eventually lead to a real fight, but there our attention is as much drawn to how the hero has implemented what he has learned into his fighting style that the winning or losing becomes less the point than the how of it. In Return, the hero learns to fight by building bamboo scaffolding around the entire compound of the chamber as he is ordered to fix up the walls. He learns to fight then by not even being aware he is being trained, but the skills he developed while building scaffolding gives him the abilities required to beat the villain he had been suffering under at the start of the film. (In the clip, it takes a little while for the hero to realize where his advantage is so the scaffolding style fighting cmes in after the 2 minute mark.) Finally, in Heroes of the East, the fighting is contextualized as a battle between Chinese and Japanese fighting techniques. The hero has to fight seven Japanese masters of various weapons and styles famous in Japan while using their Chinese counterparts, for example a Japanese nunchucku versus the 3 section Chinese staff. The purpose of the fights is for the Japanese to learn respect for the Chinese ways, but while watching it you are drawn into the different techniques being used at least as much as the concern about the outcome. The plot establishes why the fights have to happen and how they will be contested, but I think the fights themselves show the respect deserved by both practitioners and further commentary after the fact becomes virtually unnecessary, other than a few aspects of tradition that the hero was unaware of. There are too many fights to link to all of them, and I can’t pick a favorite so here’s a link to the Youtube page that has them all for anyone who wants to check it out, although I would suggest just getting the movie instead. Legendary Weapons of China is also great for this type of look at technique as well. Other directors have different takes on fighting, and I think some of the better ones manage to carry through their ideas into the staging of the fight itself and not just in talking about it afterward.

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