In perpetual motion: Chan finds and uses the empty space inside—Rumble in the Bronx.
Jackie Chan in “feminizing” make-up while Michelle Yeoh looks on in “masculine” uniform, playing with stereotypes of Yin and Yang as well as referring to ChanÕs background in Beijing Opera—Supercop.
Demonstrating both Yin and Yang, Michelle Yeoh (trained in ballet) strikes a martial pose Š simultaneously tall and graceful; strong yet fluid—Supercop.
The camera shows the danger to Chan in a dynamic stunt: Yang-like expansive energy even while dangling in a Yin-like position of vulnerability— Supercop.
In “hard style” Qikung, force meets force as boards are broken over a ridged, muscular body—Supercop.
Chan avoids the attack with “soft style” mobility: deflecting rather than absorbing the blow, flowing around and attacking in circular rather than straight planes—Supercop.
Classical symbol for Yin and Yang.
The marketing of Jackie Chans films, likewise, speak to placement within this continuum but in a different way. Jackie Chan uses the distinction between “real” and representational movement to his own advantage by blurring the distinction between them. He is commonly regarded as the successor to Bruce Lees legend and is one of the most popular action film stars in the world. He has performed in over forty-three feature films and is famous in the West largely because he performs many of his own stunts. Rumble in the Bronx was the film that successfully broke Chan into the U.S. market. The advertising for this film in the United States reads: “Jackie Chan: No Fear. No Stuntman. No Equal.” An article in Forbes magazine describes Chans star persona this way:
The star of Rumble is 42-year-old Jackie Chan, long a movie idol in Asia. Chan is no Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger. He says his models are the silent-era comedians Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, who communicate through stylized movement rather than by dialogue. . . .Chan uses the stylized movements to give audiences a thrill of danger. Chans movements are based on the martial arts he is a kungfu expert adored by audiences for his hair-raising, acrobatic stunts and deftly choreographed fight scenes. To achieve believability, Chan refuses to use a double, even when filming his most dangerous scenes. “Jackies philosophy is that the audience pays to see him, not a double,” says Willie Chan (no relation) . In Hollywood now, action is not real life,” insists Jackie Chan. Schwarzenegger uses a double and doesnt know real action. In Terminator 2, the special effects are better than Schwarzenegger. If the audience wants to see a real action figure, they should look at Jackie Chan..” . . To remind audiences that theyre seeing the real thing and not some double or computer-generated superman, Chan shrewdly advertises his botched stunts and real-life crippling injuries in his signature outtakes following each film. (Tanzer 229)
As I discussed, if an audience member knows that part of what they are watching is illusion or done with special effects, they will experience a different physical or kinesthetic response than they will while watching what they think is more authentic or “real” movement. Thus, viewers watching a film where Steven Seagal breaks a mans arm at the elbow intellectually know that certain tricks or special effects created the illusion and that an actual, human arm was not “really” broken while filming the scene. Viewers may allow themselves to be fooled and indulge in the “willing suspension of disbelief” in order physically to enjoy the spectacle, but they have a different physical response to the spectacle than what they would have felt if watching “real” movement closer to their baseline response. Film critic Roger Ebert describes the act of watching Jackie Chans movement this way:
The knowledge that Jackie Chan performs all of his own stunts brings a certain intensity to the act of watching his movies: A real person in real time is really doing something dangerous. Theres an element of Evel Knievel to it. (Operation Condor)
Essentially, Chan uses the fact that audiences are aware of the differentiation between special effects and “real” movement and uses this to his own advantage by advertising the dangerous aspects of the stunts he himself performs and that he does not resort to elaborate special effects or other stunt-performers. Viewers gain an added physical thrill from their intellectual knowledge that Jackie Chan himself performs the movement seen onscreen, a viewing context that heightens the audiences kinesthetic response to Chans films—and it is in part this kinesthetic thrill which differentiates his films in the marketplace. This marketing strategy capitalizes on the different physical responses that comes from watching his films as opposed to watching other martial arts films. And the fact that viewers know Chan does his own stunts has created a cottage industry of fan publications listing the details of Chans most spectacular fights, most dangerous stunts, and most severe injuries incurred while filming. 1
This viewing intensity comes also from understanding the dangerous consequences implied by the movement itself. When, in the middle of a fight scene from Rumble in the Bronx, we see Chans character, Keung, leap from the roof of a garage onto the next buildings fire escape twenty feet away and several stories above the ground, we intellectually know that what we are watching is “real” insofar as Chan himself actually performs the leap. We also intellectually know that the movement of the leap itself is inherently dangerous and that the possible consequences of a misstep include injury or even death. Not only does this intellectual knowledge heighten our physical response, but this movement spectacle is further enhanced through the films editing technique, which emphasizes that Chan himself does the stunt. Chans leap is shown across a series of four cuts from three different angles—there is a slow-motion shot which shows both Chans body and face as he begins the leap; a long shot from below emphasizing the distance and height of the jump; and two long shots from above showing the entire leap itself and the dangerous height involved.
Film editing techniques are similarly used to emphasize the inherent danger of the stunts in many of Chans films. For instance, in Operation Condor, two stunt sequences are replayed in their entirety from three different angles. In the first, Chan flips over a bar as a car hurtles past him in the air, narrowly missing him. Three camera are used to catch the action, one positioned behind and below, one from the side, and one from the lower front. The stunt is then shown in the film in its entirety from all three angles. In the same film, less than forty seconds later, these same three camera angles are used to show Chan jumping a motorcycle off the end of a pier and catching a loading net in midair as both his motorcycle and his pursuers crash into the water below. The final film sequence shows the entire stunt first from the front with a zoom-in on Chan, then once from side, and finally once from above, showing the two pursuing cars and rider-less motorcycle crashing into the water below. Likewise, in the middle of a fight scene from the film Fearless Hyena, a slow-motion view of Chan is inserted into an otherwise normal-speed sequence. This shot clearly shows large chunks of hair being chopped off of his scalp —in essence emphasizing the sharpness of the weapons involved. These editing techniques serve to focus the audiences attention both on the fights movement itself as well as on the inherent dangers of the movement. This creates an unique physical thrill.
The insertion of these specific editing techniques into what are otherwise essentially linear narratives also implies that the thrill of watching these sequences is valued over the more conventionally valued elements of visual continuity or narrative. In fact Roger Ebert suggests that the narrative itself in a Chan film exists only in order to allow these displays of spectacular movement:
The way to look at a Jackie Chan movie according to my friend . . . is the same way you would look at an Astaire, Rogers movie: “The plot exists only to connect the production numbers, and the movie exists only because of the production numbers.” Hes right about “Rumble in the Bronx,” . . . . The film uses the flimsiest of plots as an excuse to string together astonishing action sequences in which Chan exhibits the physical grace and athletic control of a Buster Keaton. . . . The plot (Jackie visits his uncle, helps him sell his grocery store, then befriends the young woman who has bought it) is simply a clothesline for the stunts and action. . . . Any attempt to defend this movie on rational grounds is futile. Dont tell me about the plot and the dialogue. Dont dwell on the acting. The whole point is Jackie Chan—and, like Astaire and Rogers, he does what he does better than anybody. There is a physical confidence, a grace, an elegance to the way he moves. Hes having fun. If we allow ourselves to get in the right frame of mind, so are we. (Rumble in the Bronx)
Yet Ebert does not seem to share the view of action film theorists such as Yvonne Tasker who argue that muscular display is primary to the action film aesthetic (Spectacular Bodies) or other theorists who simply dismiss the entire action genre by noting its plots formulaic nature. Ebert here gives primacy and value to the spectacle of movement itself. Furthermore, if we accept Eberts view—which describes movement as central to the film—then we need critical language able to describe elements of bodily motion. Fortunately, movement analysis techniques modeled on dance analyses can do exactly that.
In western culture, martial arts movement is not usually considered dance. This exclusion largely depends on the fact that martial arts movements are primarily designed to be functional. Aesthetic elements in the movement seem incidental to the functional attributes and therefore have less of a defining character. However, I would contest excluding martial arts movement from definitions of dance, especially when considering choreographed fight sequences designed to be performed for a viewing audience. Without getting too deeply into debates about the definition of dance, I will refer to that offered by Constance A. Schrader in A Sense of Dance (based on Judith Lynne Hannas definition in To Dance is Human 19). Schrader describes “four components that distinguish dance from nondance activities: 1] dances have a purpose. 2] Dances have intentional rhythm. 3] Dances contain culturally patterned sequences. 4] Dances have extraordinary nonverbal movement which has value in and of itself” (Schrader 10). As I argued in “Action in Motion,” choreographed and performed martial arts sequences contain all of these elements, and so I will not repeat the argument here. Instead I include this definition in order to draw attention to fundamental elements of movement as dance.
Jackie Chan, in fact, often describes his fight scenes choreography and performance not as imitating physical violence but rather as danced spectacles. He wishes them to transmit a violent and yet often funny story to an audience primarily for aesthetic entertainment:
Its like tap dance. Before I choreograph the fighting, I write down all the tempos —because our fighting is so long—then music. When the music comes up, you just keep punching, keep kicking. And then, “ah, yeah”—its not violent anymore. (TNT interview)
His description here gives primacy to elements of “intentional rhythm” in his choreography exactly in the manner of dance movement, but even more to the point, his description of music as a clue that signals “its not violent anymore” closely resembles the findings of the psychological and sociological studies detailed earlier.
Musics emotional impact in film is complex. In violent displays such as this, music serves apparently contradictory functions: it both signals “its not violent” and yet also increases the emotional intensity of reception. The possibility of a rasa-like emotion—a qualitatively different emotion for dramatic or imaginary experience—serves as a possible way to understand this contradiction. Since music may frame the combats non-reality, one would expect that viewing musically choreographed violence would result in a lessened degree of emotional impact. However, other studies indicate that this is not always the case, instead finding increased intensity of emotions while viewing violent images tied to music or sound scores. An emotional experience similar to the rasa described in the Natyasastra may be possible here. That is, music in conjunction with other framing elements could first establish the spectacles non-reality in order to view the violent images as entertainment, and then—by directly affecting the body—music could act to intensify this qualitatively different emotion. In short, the presence of rasa would allow both emotional intensification and perception of non-reality at the same time.
In any event, whatever one thinks about the possible existence or non-existence of rasa in western viewers, the fact remains that Jackie Chan himself views his fight sequences not as violence but as dance. And so the question then becomes this: Besides playing with the boundaries of the continuum of real to imaginary violence, what other experiences do these fight movement dances transmit? One answer to this question is immediately apparent on even a cursory viewing of any of Jackie Chans films—part of the pleasure of viewing is clearly the sheer spectacle of watching Jackie Chans body move through and interact with space. And as with dance, this spectacle of a body moving through space has value in and of itself.
The fundamental aesthetic of Jackie Chans choreography and movement performance is his unique artistic use of space. In addition to his own agility, large part of his films appeal has to do with his ability to transform otherwise apparently everyday objects into weapons, movement props, and obstacles around which to fight, defend and perform. Chan describes his use of the environment as a type of art:
I want to show audiences I can grab everything; everything becomes a weapon. And when you choose a weapon, its not like, wham, wham. I want fighting to be like dancing. Everything is pretty. Its like dancing. Even fighting somebody, its all pretty. At the end, you have a pose like a ballet. Thats what I want. I want to show audiences fighting is an art. Its not like I want to kill you. Its an art.” (TNT interview)
One of the most dynamic fight sequences in Rumble in the Bronx illustrates Chans aesthetic philosophy here. The fight begins when Keungs (Chans) adversary, Tony (Marc Akerstream) discards his gun by throwing it over his shoulder; that act of discarding the weapon heightens the audiences anticipation of the movement spectacle to come. Tony and Keung stand face to face for a moment on top of a pool table. Then, in keeping with Chans artistic philosophy, background music begins with the first martial movements of the fight, and this background music will be accented by musical rhythms and tempos within the movements of the fight itself. As Chan and Tony spar back and forth, their movements are also accompanied by the rhythmic sounds of connecting blows slapping bodies and missed blows whistling through the air. The result is to emphasize musicality so that the entire exchange is rhythmically and dynamically performed as movement set to music.
The greater fight sequence exploits the spectacle of Chans movement virtuosity and use of space. After Keung/Chan dispatches Tony by spectacularly flipping him backward through the air onto a pinball machine, the rest of Tonys gang begins to attack. A long movement sequence follows, and the whole sequence creatively displays Chans use of his environment as a weapon:
First, Chan flips backwards over a chair and kicks an ottoman into an attacker. Then he slides backwards in another chair to avoid the gang members running after him. He strikes an attacker first in the stomach with a refrigerator door and then in the face with a freezer door. Chan spins a chair at another attacker, flipping the attacker over it and than leaps into the air to avoid being crushed by yet another refrigerator being pushed at him. He summersaults down the falling refrigerator to punch an attacker in the stomach, and then uses that refrigerator door to avoid being crushed with a television set. He leaps over the refrigerator, spinning and kicking multiple attackers; then he uses another refrigerator door to block an attack from a gang-member wielding a base-ball bat. He then punches another attacker in the face, throws him inside the open refrigerator and closes the door. When the attacker opens the door, Chan punches him in the face twice more and re-closes the door. He is then immediately attacked with a rolling shopping cart. He dodges an attack with a baseball bat and kicks the attacker in the face using the swinging back of the shopping cart as a weapon. He then jumps completely through the shopping cart to avoid another attack and deftly scampers up a wall to avoid any further attack for a moment. This entire sequence is set to the same music as before and bears little resemblance to any actual or “real” martial arts combat. However, it displays a very inventive use of props, choreography, movement virtuosity, and an almost gravity-defying use of space.
Chans movements in particular display an almost magical ability to interact with the space around him. Most of Chans adversaries move through space and attack as one would expect of a “real” fight, with strong vertical stances and deliberately direct attacks. Chan, on the other hand, moves and fights along all the planes of movement. When attacked directly, he moves to the oblique. When knocked to the floor, he attacks from the horizontal. When attacked on the ground, he leaps in the air.
In addition, Chans choreography displays his uncanny ability to find and use the empty space around him. When pinned behind a refrigerator, he slides into the space underneath. When pinned behind a shopping cart, he leaps through the space of the cart itself. When his base of support is pushed from beneath him, he rolls with the fall, using the moving side of the refrigerator as a space on which to fight. Even when trapped against a wall, he finds the space above the wall, leaping up to avoid; finding new space from which to attack. Thus Chans use of space becomes almost a partnership with the environment. Or as novelist Donald E. Westlake put it, “Jackie Chan is Fred Astaire, and the world is Ginger Rogers” (Corliss).
This movement virtuosity also reflects aspects of movement found in other parts of the “reality continuum.” If Chans movements were part of a “real” fight, his ability to find the empty space would equate to “real” power. In fact, the fan literature has many reports about fight scenes in which Chan and his opponent “really” fought as part of the choreography, as in Chans fight with U.S. champion kickboxer Benny “The Jet” Urquidez in Wheels on Meals (Chan 322). In terms of “sports,” Chans movements recall the best of movers such as Muhammad Ali or Michael Jordan, whose ability to move to where their opponents were not built the magic of their successes.
The result of this kind of agility, in terms of “representation,” is that Chans filmed movements recall the best performers from all of the other movement categories. Sometimes Chan overtly plays on “reminiscent” movement, as when he performs a dangerous clock tower jump in an “homage to a similar stunt in [Harold] Lloyds Safety Last” (Project A 1984), or when he barely avoids being crushed by a wall falling around him by passing through a paper window in an homage to Buster Keatons Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Project A II 1987, Chan 339). However, most other times it is simply the virtuoso nature of Chans movement that conjures up images of previous performers. As film critic Richard Corliss writes, “To see your first Jackie Chan movie is to fall in love with what movies once were: a comic ballet of bodies in motion.” Thus by virtue of similarity to other performers movement skills, this kind of connection becomes part of Chans attraction.
Jackie Chan himself describes the aesthetics of his movement spectacles in terms of art. However, definitions of art are endlessly subjective and open to interpretation. In The Modern Dance, early art critic John Martin defined movement art in the following way:
When the word “art” is used it may be taken to mean the process whereby one individual conveys from his consciousness to that of another individual a concept which transcends his powers of rational statement. This concept need not be anything profound or esoteric, else we would have to exclude the decorative arts. It may be merely that contemplation of abstract perfection which never ceases to titillate the aesthetic sensitivity by exquisite design. The cover of a book, the design of a wall, the border on a dress, may all produce an aesthetic effect through form rather than through content. Form, then, is capable of operating of itself. It may, indeed, be defined as the result of unifying diverse elements whereby they achieve collectively an aesthetic vitality which except by this association they would not possess. The whole thus becomes greater than the sum of all its parts. This unifying process by which form is attained is known as composition. (35)
Chans skilled use of mundane, non-martial objects such as chairs, television sets, refrigerators and shopping carts as weapons clearly falls within the description of “unifying diverse elements” in order to “achieve collectively an aesthetic vitality which except by this association they would not possess;” and his choreography clearly includes a large degree of creative “form” and “composition.” It follows then that at least subjectively “the whole” of the movement in this example from Rumble in the Bronx may be considered in some way “greater than the sum of all its parts.” Ultimately, though, it is the existence of subjectivity itself which allows for any definition of art at all.
Part of this subjectivity may depends on differing kinesthetic responses through differing bodily memories. Rhythmic patterns can enhance an audiences understanding of and appreciation for aesthetic elements within performed movement. Movement in and of itself is the medium through which kinesthetic and metakinetic communication takes place, but rhythmic patterns contribute significantly to our enjoyment and understanding of movement. We feel the presence of our own internal rhythmic heartbeat and breathing patterns and learn a more esoteric understanding of the rhythmic cycles of the tides and seasons.
Thus, rhythmic understanding clearly has some basis in physical and bodily “memory.” Created rhythmic patterns are inherently referential to bodily rhythmic patterns, and therefore these created patterns quite naturally assist in the recall of bodily feelings. In fact, rhythm itself is a privileged mechanism of emotional recall, in part because “our physical understanding of rhythm enlists the co-operation of a whole series of bodily motor reflexes in the work of remembrance” (Connerton 76). Rhythmic patterns can increase or decrease an aesthetic appreciation and understanding of movement, which can in turn affect ones subjective definition of movements artistic nature.
In any event, whether or not Chans movement spectacle qualifies as art to all viewers, it is clear that it may qualify as such to some. To these viewers, then, Chans movement may be both art and dance. Following Schraders definition of dance, this movement has a purpose, and according to Chan, his purpose is to show audiences that fighting can be an aesthetic art like dancing in which everything can become a weapon. This movement has an intentional rhythm—which may signal the violences “non-reality” while at the same time intensifying viewers physical reaction to the movement by acting directly on their bodily memory. And this movement, due to its extraordinary nature, has value—and possibly art— in and of itself. The last part of this definition of dance refers to the “culturally patterned” nature of the movement sequences. To consider at this point these cultural patterns of movement in terms of Chans international appeal leads us to some illuminating complications.
Reading across culture: gendered movement
In western culture, hand-to-hand combat is usually considered in terms of a teleology of male aggression (as addressed in Goldstein) or at the very least in an almost exclusive purview of masculine movement, as when boxing is described as “the manly art of self defense” (Fleischer and Andre). Dancing, in contrast, is often considered a feminine or feminizing activity (Banes, Burt). However, at odds with these supposedly “natural” divisions, Chinese martial arts movements are not so easily divided into masculine and feminine, fight and dance.
Jackie Chans martial arts movements originate from his early childhood training in Beijing Opera (Chan 1-122). This training combines elements of dance and acrobatics along with a variety of kung fu styles. Many styles of Chinese kung fu are derived from or practiced as elements of dance, as in the modern educational and performance “syllabus” of Wushu (Cromption 132], and they often combine stylized dance-like sequences modeled on the movements of animals such as the tiger, crane, snake, monkey, or praying mantis, or they mimic human conditions, as in the case of “drunken” kung fu. In fact, throughout the long history of Chinese movement forms, the connections between kung fu and dance have been particularly strong. For example, in China currently the practice of festival “lion dancing” is conducted mainly in the many “kung fu clubs” that exist throughout the country. But perhaps the strongest connection between performance dance and martial arts practice resides in the mythology surrounding the legendary Shaolin Temples fall and the temples connection with Beijing Opera.
The origins of Chinese kung ku are obscure, but the most commonly accepted version holds that it began with the founder of Chan/Zen Buddhism, Bodhidarmas entrance into China and residence at the Shaolin Temple in Hunan province around 500 AD.2 Many styles of kung fu are said to have originated with the monks in this temple. However, the Temples political views and the reigning governments did not always coincide. As a result, sometime around 1735, in order to stop subversive practice of kung fu, the temple itself was burned to the ground and most of the monks killed by an army of the Manchu government. Legend has it that only five monks, known as the “Venerable Five,” survived to pass on their fighting styles. Several of these teachers hid and continued to teach their fighting methods by disguising them as dance performance in the stylized Beijing Opera.
Later, even when no longer necessary to disguise the martial nature of the opera techniques, in Beijing Opera training the connection between “actual” combat and “representational” dance-like combat has firmly continued —as is evidenced by Jackie Chans descriptions throughout his autobiography, I Am Jackie Chan, of daily martial arts practice as a fundamental part of his childhood opera training. And although describing the modern practice of kung fu in terms of the myths of its origins is in many ways an essentialist and therefore misleading view of the form, my point in including this story is simply this: Even on a narrative foundational level, kung fu and dance are not necessarily in opposition in the way that their western counterparts are.
Supporting this is that fact that Chinese martial-arts do not incorporate the same masculine-only categorization of Western hand-to-hand combat; rather, the Chinese practice is often divided into “hard” and “soft” combat forms. Such a distinction in combat styles is linked to concepts of Yin and Yang, familiar in the West mainly as a male-female dichotomy/combination usually represented by two “fishes” encircling each other to form a circle, one “fish” black with a white “eye” and the other white with a black “eye.” However, the concept of Yin includes much more than a simple signifier for “female” just as Yang represents much more than simply “male.” In Chinese Taoist philosophy, and hence in most Chinese martial arts,
Yin and Yang are two movements of the formed universe—one contracting, the other expanding; one cold or hot, male or female, day or night. Although nothing is solely Yin or Yang, everything has either a Yin or Yang expression. [In martial arts combat] a forceful move such as a punch or push is Yang, while yielding is Yin. A foot that is weighted is Yang, while the unweighted is Yin. [If attacked] one yields to the opponents Yang and fills in what is Yin. Yin and Yang are complimentary parts of the whole and harmonious in nature. (Sieh 80)
The result of this philosophy is that Chinese martial arts movement cannot necessarily be considered or described in terms of a simple dichotomy of masculine versus feminine. In contrast to western conceptions of movement paradigms, in Chinese martial arts to fight is not always to be male, to yield is not always to be female, and attack and defense are not always opposites.
The complicated nature of reading movement across culture is particularly evident in Jackie Chans 1992 film, Police Story III: Supercop which won Chan the Golden Horse Best Actor Award in Taiwan. Chans co-star in this film is a former Miss Malaysia, Michelle Yeoh. Her character, Police Director Yang, is shown as a strong leader and proficient martial artist— both traits contradict the western stereotype of former beauty queens. Chans character likewise contradicts western stereotypes for action heroes, as he is sometimes timid and less proficient than his female counterpart. These contradictions are, in fact, evident throughout much of the film.
For instance, the initial meeting between Chan and Yeoh in the film immediately sets up contradictions for western paradigms of masculinity and femininity. For instance, Yeohs character first appears wearing a “masculine” military uniform and is briskly efficient in her movements and posture. Her job title, “Chief of Security,” likewise evokes traditional paradigms of masculine power and protection. Chans character, in contrast, is timid or inefficient in his bearing and posture, and during a photo session that refers back to his Beijing Opera heritage, he even wears “feminine” make-up and lipstick. The narrative joke is that his manner belies his nickname, “Supercop Chan of the Royal Hong Kong Police,” which itself refers to quintessentially “masculine” power. The films contradictions in its characterization are not easily reconciled within western paradigms of gendered movement. Thus, scholar Mark Gallagher, among others, note the discrepancy in most of Jackie Chans action sequences between the western action film ideal of “immobile” masculine power in contrast to the “feminizing” nature of Chans “perpetual motion.” From my perspective, these contradictions cultural aspect is better understood by analyzing the movement not in terms of a masculine/feminine dichotomy, but rather as a dynamic interchange between elements of Yin and Yang.
In this manner, Yeohs characters name, Comrade Yang, Chief of Security for the Chinese Police, makes direct reference to Yang, the “masculine” essence of strength; thus the name both plays against her actual gender while at the same time it comments on the official gender-blind philosophy of communist China. Chans character, on the other hand, draws on the other side of the equation, Yin. Thus when Chan appears in “female” Beijing Opera make-up, the make up both plays against the masculine nature of his “Supercop” status and comments on his well-known early training in that performance form. In fact, throughout the entire film Yeohs strength and movement ability are highlighted in terms of yang energy while Chan is shown to have great indirect movement ability and agility in the manner of yin.
Yeohs character is in almost constant control and/or in power throughout the film. She, not he, uses a rifle, the ultimate western phallus symbol, to shoot Chans pursuers. Armed and perched like a sniper, she becomes Chans protector during a staged prison break out. In this scene, her “masculine” roll as immobile, strong protector is directly contrasted with the “feminizing” aspect of Chan as mobile pursued. In addition, throughout this scene, Chans movement abilities are highlighted, not in terms of yang aggression or strength but in terms of yin avoidance and vulnerability—as when he desperately pants for air while running up a steep hill. Later, when the police again try to capture Chan, Yeoh comes to his rescue, and again she ends up holding the gun.
The film portrays Yeohs physical ability to fight is as good as if not better than Chans. For instance, when Chan is immobilized with a stun gun and she literally leaps to his defense, her movements are strong and fluid, her pose tall and graceful. And when Chan is again stunned, she again physically defends him, this time showing an extreme mastery of kung fu by using thrown chop sticks as weapons. Chan is juxtaposed as inept at using this particular weapon, so that the juxtaposition clearly shows how the yang in Yeohs character matches that of any Supercop man.
However, as with all things having to do with yin and yang, neither Yeoh nor Chan possess only one or the other characteristic. Although Yeohs character is clearly predominantly associated with yang energy, she is also shown in very yin-like, in feminine pigtails disguised as Chans little sister. And she occasionally performs traditional “passive” roles as when she helps Chan avoid detection by pretending to massage his back, or as the object of a male gaze when Chans character accidentally walks in on her undressing. Likewise, although Chans character throughout the film is predominantly associated with yin energy, many of his martial movements are unmistakably yang in nature. In fact, almost all the stunts for which Chan is famous involve yang-like, expansive energy—as when he leaps from a rooftop onto a suspended rope ladder; or when he desperately clings to this same ladder as it hurtles high in the air beneath a flying helicopter.
Separations of yin from yang are never entirely clean in actual cultural practice, and clearly there are other kinds of references to yin/yang in the film as well. For example, the macho Communist woman has become a standard comic role in recent Hong Kong films, so that the yang in Comrade Yang can also be seen as a joke referring to the caricature. Also, in the Beijing Opera tradition, a male (usually a young boy) historically would have played the role of heroic or strong woman; thus, we must acknowledge a distinction between womens actual cultural status and that implied by analyzing the representations flowing from this performance tradition. In actual cultural practice, the divisions of yin and yang are often anything but equitable; instead they must vie with strict (some would say oppressive) Confucian notions of gender hierarchy. My point is simply this: movement in this film cannot be fully understood by referring to (Western) categories of “masculine” and “feminine” movements. The division of movements in it rather seem aligned in terms of a unification of energy with both Chan and Yeoh displaying an overall aesthetic of grace and power.3 In addition, these unified elements of grace and power —yin and yang—take on distinctly political overtones in one of the films more spectacular fight scenes.
Early in the film, after his photography session in Beijing Opera make-up, Chans character is led by Yeohs on a tour of a communist Chinese martial-arts training facility. The trainees in this facility are all shown wearing various “masculine” uniforms. Chan himself is the only one not wearing a uniform, which visibly distinguishes the individualist nature of his origin in Hong Kong with the uniformity of communist China. This contrast is then developed in terms of yin and yang in the movements that follow:
The Chinese police train in “hard” style Qikung—breaking boards and bricks against their muscular bodies—and are thus depicted in terms of yang energy.4 Chan says that he has “avoided” such training because he is “too delicate”—his comment plays against Chans star persona and reputation for physical resilience and also refers to elements of yin in his character here. Likewise, when Chan and Comrade Wang, the Chinese military police coach, engage in a hand-to-hand martial arts demonstration, the entire exchange can be viewed in terms of muscular Chinese yang expansion against reluctant, yet not weak Hong Kong yin agility.
Comrade Wang wears a red muscle tee-shirt. He is aggressive, muscular, strong, and proficient in hard-style Qikung (as evidenced by the many boards and bricks broken over his uniform-clad body). Chan, in contrast, dresses as an individual in jeans and a white (non-muscle) tee-shirt and moves with casual ease. The Chinese communist audience “takes seats” in position around the demonstration area with crisp, military precision and uniformity while Chan engages in the demonstration only indirectly and reluctantly. The demonstration begins as Wang takes a classic hard-style pose with muscles flexed, rigid and strong.
Chan, on the other hand, circles around the perimeter of the fighting area with his body loose and shoulders rounded in classic soft style manner, relaxed and in constant indirect motion. Chan does not attack but instead gives his opponent an almost feminine wink and a smile, which in turn provoke Wang to attack with direct hard-style punches and kicks. Chan thus begins the fight as yin: on the defensive, avoiding and blocking the attacks, counter-attacking only by filling in the spaces left by Wangs attacks. The fights attacks and defenses present a unified whole of yang flowing into yin in a display of both combatants movement agility.
However, when Chan is forcefully struck in the stomach, he returns the attack with a yang kick of his own. Although Chans kick sends Comrade Wang sliding back across the room, Wang outwardly shows no signs of pain. Chan, on the other hand, visibly displays his pain by doubling over and grabbing his stomach. This is in keeping with many of Chans movement performances, which visibly show the effort of moving while at the same time presenting an amazing degree of movement virtuosity. Although Chans movements may at times appear to stretch the limits of human potential, his facial expressions and visible shows of effort almost always ascribe to his characters a human, everyday normality. In contrast, Wang is presented as almost machine-like in his single-minded relentlessness and lack of outward signs of pain.
As the fight continues, Chan moves back and forth between hard and soft styles of kung fu; first coming on guard in an angry hard-style stance; and then deliberately softening—smiling, rounding his shoulders and loosening his movements. With the opening of the second phrase in the fight, Chan first jabs twice in rapid succession to test Wangs defenses; and then jabs twice more, opening a path through the defenses; but ends up literally hurting his hand on Wangs head as Wang blocks the follow-up punch with the hard Qikung of his own forehead. Wang then uses the yang strength in his head like a battering ram and pushes Chan backward across the floor. Chan attempts to push back but is overpowered by the stronger opponent. When Chan tries to grapple with Wang, he is again overpowered and put into a head lock. Chan escapes, not through strength, but through superior agility, first flipping his opponent into a cartwheel and then using the momentum of this flip to flip himself over Wangs back. Wang turns and attempts a hard kick to Chans leg, which Chan, yin-like, avoids. After blocking a second kick from Wang, Chan follows up this motion with two rapid hard style kicks to Wangs chest and face. This is immediately followed by a hard-style jumping knee strike to Wangs head and a spinning back-kick to Wangs chest. This last attack sends Wang flying backward into a concrete pillar, but once again, Wang shows no outward pain. Chan returns to a hard-style guard but then as before deliberately softens his posture—rounding his shoulders and loosening his movements. In this phrase Chan demonstrates superior martial ability, not through superior strength, but through superior mobility coupled with the tactical ability to shift between both hard and soft fighting styles.
In the third phrase of the fight, Chan combats Wang directly, hard style against hard style, using direct blocks and absorbing blows with his body. Here as before, Chans facial expressions clearly show the effort of the motions and the pain of the blows while Wang remains robot-like in his own movements. Chan ends the movement sequence by unexpectedly twisting Wangs nose with his thumb—literally tweaking the nose of communist China. As Wang begins to advance again, Chan retreats, disarming the situation through the very yin-like movements of retreating and asking for a “time-out.” Chans movements in this sequence, as before, display a superior martial ability over that of his opponent. And although this sequence shows that Chans character can move and fight in a yang-like hard style, it also clearly shows that his character wins by using more yin-like indirect and unorthodox tactics. Here, although Chans character possesses both yin and yang elements in his movements, he is also shown to have a much greater propensity towards and effectiveness in using yin elements.
The dual nature of this movement is further amplified through other elements in the scene codified as Chinese yang aggression against Hong Kong yin agility. Thus, these movement may also be read as transmitting aspects of an underlying anxiety about the then impending 1997 return of Hong Kong to communist China. These political overtones resurface again at the end of the film as Chan and Yeoh quarrel about which government—Chinese or Hong Kong—should get the recovered money. Here Chan ends the quarrel by asking, “What difference does it make? After 1997 well be working together, eh?“