31 May 2011

Great film duels - Duel Six

Yu Shu Lien vs Jen Yu (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)

I know I said that I was only going to post five duels, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to add a feminine touch to an otherwise male-only series of great film fights. This duel between Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) and Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi) is from Ang Lee’s 2000 wuxia film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which paved the way for the genre’s eventual popularity in the West. Young, impetuous Jen has stolen the sword called Green Destiny, and Shu Lien demands that she return it, if not willingly then by force. Jen, feeling confident of her skills and knowing that she has a superior weapon, chooses to fight Shu Lien.

Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi both come from a dancing background, which is fitting considering the dance-like aspects of a film fight. We get to see Shu Lien wield a variety of Chinese weapons against the seemingly invincible Green Destiny. One particularly heavy weapon provides a moment of humour during the fight.

Overhead camera shots are used several times to show the sweeping movements of the two opponents. This is an uncommon angle in fight scenes, where the camera tends to face the actors in profile. There’s also not as much wirework here as there is in more extravagant wuxia fights. Most of the action rests on the natural agility of the actors and stunt people. These ladies go as hard and as fast as the boys.

Despite Jen’s arrogance (Shu Lien accuses her of having a significant advantage with the Green Destiny), Shu Lien finally lands a well-placed blow that would have killed Jen if not for Shu Lien’s restraint. The older woman is clearly the better fighter.

With that, this series of posts on great film duels comes to an end. It is by no means a definitive selection, and I’m sure I’ve omitted many worthy candidates, especially unarmed fights. But this was never going to be an exhaustive coverage of movie fights. Hopefully the few examples I chose have demonstrated the aesthetic qualities of a well-executed fight scene. May the artform’s future hold more magnificent duels that equal, even surpass, the best that already exist.


30 May 2011

Great film duels - Duel Five

Nameless vs Long Sky (Hero)

Finally we come to a fight scene from a wuxia film. While Chinese films may not be the pioneers of on-screen duels (that honour goes to Hollywood with its silent movie era swashbucklers), the dynamism and exoticism of Chinese martial arts in films have greatly influenced fight choreography – and the perception of martial arts itself – since the golden age of kung fu movies in the 80s and 90s. Bruce Lee and the Shaw brothers kicked things off in the early days of Chinese martial arts cinema. Then Jackie Chan, Tsui Hark, Brigitte Lin and Jet Li took it to the next level during the golden age. The wuxia films of Zhang Yimou and Ang Lee brought the genre into the 21st century, incorporating more sophisticated film-making techniques, special effects, cinematography and of course, fight choreography.

Zhang Yimou’s 2002 film Hero was his first epic wuxia film. This scene takes place early in the story, when an unnamed prefect fights the warrior called Long Sky, who had attempted to assassinate the king of Qin. What makes this duel special is that it pits two martial arts legends, Jet Li (as the nameless swordsman) and Donnie Yen (as Long Sky), against each other. Li and Yen had fought each other before on-screen in Once Upon a Time in China 2, so their duel in Hero was a reunion that pleased the fans.

The gravity-defying wirework ubiquitous in wuxia films is used to dreamy effect here. The elaborate swordplay typical to the genre showcases the amazing skills of Li and Yen, who come from a fading generation of martial-artist actors. The music of a guqin, a type of zither, playing in the background reinforces the Chinese-ness of the scene. No Western-style orchestral score here! The duel is also unique in that it mostly takes place as an imaginary fight mentally pictured by the two opponents – a duel where very little actual fighting happens. I’m going out on a limb here, but perhaps this aspect of the duel is an example of a mystical (and largely Asian) conception of martial arts; you must first defeat your enemy in the mind before you can defeat him in the flesh.


27 May 2011

Great film duels - Duel Four

Nanashi vs Luo-Lang (Sword of the Stranger)

The samurai genre is a staple in Japanese anime. While it clearly draws stylistic influence from the real-life samurai films of directors like Akira Kurosawa and Kihachi Okamoto, samurai anime has the benefit of not being constrained by the laws of physics, the limits of a physical camera, safety concerns in action scenes, and the (perhaps mediocre) fighting skills of actors. When done well, combat scenes in samurai anime can be the most sublime expression of stylised violence out of any storytelling form. And the climactic battle between a nameless ronin and a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Chinese assassin in Sword of the Stranger ranks as one of anime’s finest.

The genre’s conventions are all there in the film. Nameless (anti)hero fleeing a dark past: check. Said hero has renounced violence: check. Events inevitably force the hero to abandon his pacifism: check. Hero’s principal antagonist is a warrior of equal skill: check. Said antagonist displays hyperviolent psychopathy and a morbid obsession with the hero: check.

Clichés aside, the fight choreography is absolutely stunning. BONES, the animation studio that produced Sword of the Stranger, is known for its well-crafted action scenes infused with fluid movement and explosive energy. The duel between Nanashi (“No Name”, of course) and Luo-Lang is perhaps the studio’s best fight work to date. The sheer speed of the combat and the humanly impossible movements of the fighters aptly illustrate the strengths of the animation medium. Elements like wind, snow and the large wooden structure are used to impart a sense of exertion, suspense and danger. The sound effects of steel blades parrying, grating and cutting all ring, screech and swoosh with aural fury.

The score by Naoki Sato is reminiscent of Taku Iwasaki’s haunting music for another samurai anime gem, Samurai X: Trust & Betrayal, especially the flute solos. Maybe I’ve been conditioned to associate that sort of music with awesome samurai swordfights, but Sato’s majestic score acts as a counterweight to the frenzied action. It’s a beautiful package, the whole blood-soaked, snow-blasted affair.


25 May 2011

Great film duels - Duel Three

Darth Maul vs Qui-Gon Jinn & Obi-Wan Kenobi (Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace)

Ok, so this one isn’t technically a duel, but it does contain two duels. I think there’s a consensus among Star Wars fans that this fight is the best of the entire saga. Being the first prequel movie after a sixteen-year gap since Return of the Jedi, the special effects and particularly the lightsaber fight scenes of Phantom Menace were a significant improvement on those in the original trilogy. The lightsabers looked more crisp and the Jedi fighting arts were less… amateurish. The duels had a breathtaking intensity, speed and athleticism that were lacking in the earlier films, all perfectly complemented by John Williams’s rousing score.

Of course, it helps that Darth Maul was played by an actual martial artist, Ray Park. Park’s training made the Sith Lord seem convincing as someone who had dedicated his life to mastering the fighting arts. He truly gave the impression that he was more than a match for his two Jedi opponents.

Exciting as it may be to see three warrior mystics clash laser swords over and over again, it’s the pacing of the fight and the vignettes scattered throughout it that lift this scene above mere swashbuckling. Darth Maul’s tactical disposal of Obi-Wan allows him to focus on Qui-Gon alone. I’d even hazard a guess that Darth Maul led the fight up to and through the energy shields to prevent both Jedi from engaging him simultaneously.

The timed shields also cleverly serve to establish a break in the frantic combat. When they switch on, Darth Maul and Qui-Gon are separated from each other by an energy barrier. The Jedi Knight kneels to meditate and recover his strength, while the Sith Lord paces like a caged animal, hungry for the fight to recommence. These simple gestures succintly convey the difference in character between the two antagonists.

Obi-Wan’s duel with Darth Maul is another brilliant set piece within the larger fight sequence. It’s more acrobatic, and it even ratchets the already blistering pace up a few notches. After being starved of a decent lightsaber fight for sixteen years, Star Wars fans in theatres everywhere must have wet themselves at this point. The climax is perhaps a little incongruous (surely a Sith Lord of Darth Maul’s skill and reflexes would have seen that killing blow being telegraphed from a parsec away), but it’s a tiny flaw in an otherwise highly polished – and now iconic – fight scene.


24 May 2011

Great film duels - Duel Two

Leonardo vs Raphael (TMNT)

If you’re an 80s kid, and you had the privilege of watching cartoons and reading comics, you'd know about the four mutant ninja turtles of New York. I never really got into the TV series, but Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s comics made quite an impression on my pre-teen mind. I still prefer the more edgy look of the Turtles in the early comics over the ‘cute’ TV versions with their colour coded headbands and pads, alphabet belt buckles and baby eyes.

When the first live-action Turtles movie came out in 1990, I remember being amazed by how real the Turtle costumes looked. Although they kept the coloured headbands (for obvious identification purposes), the Turtles’ character design harked back to the grittier comics I loved. It didn’t hurt that the movie’s plot was partly based on a particular Mirage Studios comic that remains til this day the only Turtle story I remember with any clarity (it’s the one where Raphael gets ambushed by the Foot Clan and is badly beaten up).

Like a lot of other cool cartoons I grew up with, the Turtles eventually fell off the pop culture radar. I know that in the intervening years there was a revamped TV series plus new comics, toys and merchandise. But my propensity for nostalgia kept me from giving the new stuff a lookover.

Then in 2007, a fully computer animated Turtles movie was released. And boy, did it look good.

The Turtles got a design update, looking sleeker and meaner, and they could now pull off moves that were impossible for an actor in a rubber suit to do. It was like the Turtles of my childhood comics had been given the breath of life and were now able to run, leap, backflip, somersault, skate and fight like elite ninja dudes. Awesome.

This duel between Leonardo and Raphael is one of the highlights of the film. What makes it special (apart from the gorgeous animation and rendering) is its emotional aspect – Leo and Raph are arguably the more complex characters out of the four brothers. They are in many ways diametrically opposed; Leo is calm, rational and idealistic, while Raph is hot-tempered and impetuous but also more pragmatic than his older brother. This fight is a demonstration of their differences, perhaps even caused by those very differences.

There’s a lot to analyse about the fight. Raph has greater protection with his armour, and even appears stronger than Leo (I don’t know if it’s in the TMNT canon that Raph is the ‘bruiser’ of the team, but it kinda looks that way here). Leo is lighter on his feet and outmanouvers Raph a few times, though whether that’s down to his superior skill or because Raph is encumbered by his armour is up for speculation. I’ll say it’s due to Leo’s skill and Raph’s lack of discipline, but I’m biased.


23 May 2011

Great film duels - Duel One

I recently watched several K-1 kickboxing fights on YouTube, a sport that until then I had only the slightest familiarity with. Being a fan of martial arts films, I was struck by how different real life hand-to-hand combat is from the stylised action seen on screen. The real thing is far more inelegant; strikes are erratic and tend to come in staccato bursts in between periods of cautious feints and footwork. When a punch or kick does connect, it looks – and sounds – rather underwhelming. There is no exaggerated ‘thwack’ courtesy of the sound effects department to emphasise the blow’s impact. Strikes rarely land clean and sharp; they glance, slide, wobble, buckle and bounce. There’s a lot more sweat.

Real fighters also tend to avoid executing fancy moves. It’s a strategic choice – complicated techniques have a higher risk of failure, which can expose a fighter to a counterattack, and they are tiring when used too often. Real life bouts can be rather conservative affairs, especially when compared with their spectacular counterparts in movies.

For all their simulated violence, movie fights are more akin to dancing artforms than combat sports. For one thing, they’re choreographed, just like ballet or theatrical dance routines. There is an emphasis on rhythm, music, aesthetic appeal and narrative. Since the audience knows that no one is actually getting hurt, movie fights can be viewed with the same expectations as one would have of, for example, a ballet performance. The beauty of the fight and the storytelling purpose it serves take precedence over questions of who is the better fighter.

With this in mind, I’m starting a series of posts celebrating the artform of film fights, specifically duels. I chose duels because there’s something primal about one-on-one combat, and also because duels serve as a comparison with combat sports. I have chosen duels featuring weapons, because, well, they’re cooler.

Of course, my selection is a purely subjective exercise in martial arts film geekery. No doubt there are some who will question my choices. I’m aware of the many jaw-dropping quality swordfights in cinema, but since I don’t intend to post several hundred entries on film duels, I’m going to limit myself to just five examples. Each is taken from a specific genre: A swords-and-sandals film, a full CGI film, a sci-fi film, an anime, and a kung-fu (or rather wuxia) film. All five duels represent, for me, some of the best film combat choreography in the history of the moving picture. I hope you enjoy their artistry as much as I do.

Achilles vs Hector (Troy)

The film had mixed reviews, but I was (and still am) impressed with the costume designs and fight choreography. Brad Pitt’s Achilles really conveyed the martial prowess of the fabled warrior, cutting down Trojans with grace, agility and a terrifying ferocity. Much to the wrath of Iliad purists, the screenwriters and choreographers took creative liberties with the depiction of Achilles’s legendary duel with the Trojan prince Hector. I prefer to appreciate the film duel on its own merits, canonical or not.

Achilles’s agility and haughtiness are on show in the fight. This duel contains, to my knowledge, a rare example of non-Asian spear fighting. It’s interesting to see how the choreographers interpreted the way a Greek spear was wielded in single combat. That and the large shields give this duel a distinctive flavour.

The best fight scenes have an element of character exposition. We read in the body language of Achilles his contempt for Hector. We glimpse the not unremarkable skill of Hector when he manages to cut the hitherto untouchable Achilles. We feel that Hector was truly a great warrior – both in arm and heart – and thus consider it an injustice that a mere man, no matter his skill, was matched against a virtual god of war. Brave Hector stood no chance against the dancing, dodging Achilles.


17 May 2011

Baptist minister’s attack on secularism = FAIL

Looks like The Age’s ‘militant secularist’ coverage of the Access Ministries scandal has ruffled Baptist minister Nicholas Tuohy. This man of God believes that The Age and “its buddies at the Humanist Society” are mounting an “unjustified and unfair attack on Christian Religious Education (CRE) in schools and chaplaincy.” Conveniently for me, Tuohy has structured his peevish outburst in a numbered point-by-point format, so I’ll just shoot down his fallacious arguments in exactly the same order he has made them.


Firstly, why shouldn’t children have the right to learn about Jesus and, if they so want, become a follower or, ready for it, a Christian? One example in The Age article refers to a child who ended up taking herself and her parents off to the local church after having CRE classes. Shock horror, call in the troops! A family heading off to church together? The Age thinks this is somehow sinister.

Sorry to burn down your strawman Tuohy, but no one, not The Age, not their ‘buddies at the Humanist Society’, not the Australian Education Union, not even baby-eating ‘militant’ atheists like me are denying anyone, children or adults, the right to learn about Jesus / Mohammad / Krishna / Satan’s friend Buddha / Odin All-Father / Gandalf the White. The issue here is about the state funding of personal religious ideology. Public schools are no place for religious indoctrination. Places dedicated to such ‘instruction’ already exist. I believe the public venue for the Christian variety has the technical designation of ‘church’, while the private one is commonly referred to as ‘home’. Go mess with people’s heads there.

16 May 2011

Remember kids, Buddha is Satan’s friend

A Christian organisation that supplies chaplains to Victorian schools under Australia’s National Schools Chaplaincy Program (NSCP) has been caught breaching the program’s guidelines by calling for students to be made ‘disciples’ of the Christian faith. Surprise surprise. The CEO of Access Ministries, Evonne Paddison, has explicitly told a church conference in 2008 that they have a “God-given open door”, courtesy of both state and federal governments, which allows them to “take the Christian faith into our schools and share it”. Paddison made it clear that it is the duty of Christians in general and Access Ministries in particular to win converts for their faith. “We need to go and make disciples.”

Expecting evangelical Christians to abide by secular laws is only one of the foolish mistakes made by the Howard government when it created the chaplaincy program in 2006. The following is taken from the Stop the National Schools Chaplaincy Program website:

The National Schools Chaplaincy Program (NSCP) was announced in October 2006 by the Howard government. It provided $90 million of Commonwealth funding over three years for school chaplains which was subsequently increased to $165 million. The Rudd government announced that it would honour these funding commitments and that the program would be reviewed and expanded to include secular counsellors, but only if a suitable religious chaplain could not be found by the schools. As it currently stands the Commonwealth is committed to funding religious chaplains in around 2600 schools across Australia.

14 May 2011

“Science is not a tradition”

Harold Camping is one of the latest in a noble line of doomsday prophets stretching back to antiquity. The evangelical Christian broadcaster has announced, reportedly with a straight face, that the end of the world is nigh – on May 21 to be exact. At least the Almighty, in His infinite compassion, has allowed us to catch the Eurovision finals on the 14th before enacting the Rapture.

The Washington Post caught wind of this somber news and proceeded to ask none other than Richard ‘The God Delusion’ Dawkins what his thoughts were on this clearly consequential matter. Dawkins promptly replied:

Why is a serious newspaper like the Washington Post giving space to a raving loon? I suppose the answer must be that, unlike the average loon, this one has managed to raise enough money to launch a radio station and pay for billboards. I don’t know where he gets the money, but it would be no surprise to discover that it is contributed by gullible followers – gullible enough, we may guess, to go along with him when he will inevitably explain, on May 22nd, that there must have been some error in the calculation, the rapture is postponed to . . . and please send more money to pay for updated billboards.

So, the question becomes, why are there so many well-heeled, gullible idiots out there? Why is it that an idea can be as nuts as you like and still con enough backers to finance its advertising to acquire yet more backers . . . until eventually a national newspaper notices and makes it into a silly season filler?

The esteemed professor sure gave the Post a good slapping. Can’t say they didn’t deserve it.

In the question posed to Dawkins, there was this phrase: ‘What does your tradition teach about the end of the world?’ Dawkins took issue with its implication that science is merely a ‘tradition’, a product of customs and beliefs handed down through time. He set the record straight:

Science is not a tradition, it is the organized use of evidence from the real world to make inferences about the real world.

Precisely. We can thank sloppy thinking and the postmodernist assault on knowledge for the annoying refrain that science is just another religion/ideology/cultural construct/power structure/tradition. Sorry relativists, it isn’t. Science is a process, and a bloody effective one at that. Calling science a tradition is like calling the act of putting fuel in your car to make it run a ritual.

Skepticblog’s Donald Prothero has written about science’s unique truth-finding and knowledge-producing characteristics, which can be summarised as follows:

1. It works.
2. It is self-policing.
3. It tells us inconvenient truths.

No tradition does all that.