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.