It was past midnight and the only sound in the dead of night came from an old TV set in a bedroom. In front of it sat a nine-year-old boy, keeping his eyes peeled, beads of perspiration forming on his forehead, showing signs of anxiety as he thought about the already extended watch hour he was able to negotiate with his parents on the completion of his homework approaching its deadline. His eyeballs were fixed on the television screen, on which a young man fought off a big bulky wrestler, against all odds. From punches to drop-kicks to chokeslams to various carefully executed high-risk acrobatic moves, all set to the rhythm of the 1990s Bollywood upbeat background score, the entire atmosphere mesmerised the child and introduced him to a brave new world of action films. The scene was from the 1996 action flick Khiladiyon ka Khiladi, starring Akshay Kumar. Since then, I have grown up quite a bit and so has the world of cinema. But something fundamental from those early years has carried itself to my adulthood: to see a fight sequence and be able to appreciate it in all its aspects, from the storytelling to the craft itself. My aesthetics for action sequences have only been refined as I grew out of Hindi cinema and into numerous regional and international avenues, all in the search of a perfect blend of cinematography, direction and writing that weave an electrifying combat scene with a cohesive, coherent and apt narrative.
Actions spawn from conflicts, and conflicts arise from emotions; and humans are fairly complex creatures, both in body and mind. So when the characters in a story engage in such violent altercations, it says a lot about the characters, and the flawed human condition. The act also denotes a watershed moment for the overall story. Because such actions always bear consequences, and for better or worse everything changes after the fact. Hence, an action scene can be a vital device in the relating of a deep, meaningful and effective story in fiction or otherwise. In general, a fight scene can be broken down into 3 acts: the prelude to the fight, where the audience gets an initial grasp of the character's psyche and the cascading events leading up to the inciting moment, then the fight itself, where the director adds flavour to the mix and sets the style and tone of the scene, and finally, the post-fight scenario, where the viewers must feel the impact of the fight reverberating throughout the rest of the story.
Now these action sequences can be of many types, depending upon what parameters you have in your mind, ranging from a melee attack and long-range combat to a confrontational, one-on-one standoff to cat-and-mouse-style fights taking place across a montage of changing backgrounds as the characters keep moving from place to place to crowded 'every man for themselves' tight battle scenes. But for me, fights are performing arts incorporated into cinema to accentuate the conflict, the drama born from the interactions of the uniquely complicated characters in a story.
I want you to think of these scenes as a spectrum: lying at one end are the realist action sequences that try to mimic the real-life fighting scenarios as much as possible, while at the other end we have artistic action sequences designed specifically to bring out the kinetic pleasures of a combat. Fight scenes from Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950) would be classic examples of the former while bouts from Asian martial arts movies, where each motion is dramatised and exaggerated, would be examples of the later. High-end Hollywood action movies like the John Wick series and the recently released Nobody tend to lie somewhere in the middle. I am now going to be talking about an action scene that falls at the the artistic end of this spectrum.
Over the years I have come across many action flicks; some, fortunately, have stood head and shoulders above all others. Selecting one of those action gems for the purpose of presenting here has proven to be quite difficult a task and after going through an arduous vetting and reviewing process, at last, we have a winner in the form of a 2011 release, Wu Xia, directed by Hong Kong filmmaker Peter Ho-sun Chan and starring Donnie Yen. When I saw this movie, it made an impression on me, and I still think about it a lot and marvel at the perfect amalgamation of cinematography, direction, narration, choreography and performance.
In the pre-fight scenario, our protagonist Liu Jinxi is shown to be a simple family man working in a local paper mill in a small village in China. His attitude, his run-of-the-mill morning routine, the way he interacts with other villagers – everything about him points to the fact that he is as plain and ordinary as they come. And this is vital information for the contrast that is to come when he is placed supposedly at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Two seemingly violent, rough-and-tough men enter the village and decide to rob a general store on their way. This is going to be the biggest mistake of their lives. Because our protagonist is there at the store on a job. Now pause. The thing that made an impression on me the day I watched this was neither its prelude to the fight nor its post-fight impact. It was this moment that we are slowly approaching: the clash itself and it cinematic execution. The best part of this is that the narrative has two distinct layers to it. In the first segment, we are shown that in the beginning Liu Jinxi hides himself as any meek person would do under such circumstances while the two hooligans go on beating and bloodying the old man and woman in the shop. But in time Jinxi cannot keep to himself and, in a desperate attempt to save them, charges right toward the bigger of the two men and clings to his waist. He tries to shake him off but Jinxi will not budge while the other man starts flailing his wide sword around. What follows is what looked like the two robbers hurting each other almost comically but with equally deadly martial arts moves, resulting in their demise, while Jinxi emerges without any visible scratch let alone a fatal wound – all thanks to pure luck, or so it seems at first glance.
Now it's time to pick the second layer of the act, when the investigator Xu Baijiu, played by Takeshi Kaneshiro, enters the scene. He discovers that two robbers were, in fact, hardcore criminals wanted for multiple homicides and becomes suspicious of Jinxi, wondering how a paper mill worker is able to bring down such heinous criminals by means of sheer luck. It seems unlikely. He starts interrogating Jinxi and tells him to describe in detail what went down in the store on that fateful day. As Jinxi narrates his perspective, a different course of the combat starts to unfold inside detective Baijiu's mind, supplemented by his own knowledge in forensics. And that was it for me: a retelling of an action sequence with a forensic and detective commentary going on in the background, adding to the authenticity of the scene. Also, this fight is about to send echoes throughout the rest of the movie.
There is something of a literary aesthetic to this type of depiction that is only intensified in an audio-visual medium. For instance, the slow motion movement of the fists, the pacing of exchanges of blows in accordance to the pacing of the music – every element contributing to a holistic package of storytelling and cinematic experience. Another aspect worthy of note is that both versions of the fight take place in a general store crammed with miscellaneous and daily utility articles, thereby reserving itself a spot in the long history of fights in confined spaces.
Many would remember the corridor fight scene from the movie Oldboy (2003), which lies at the realist end of the spectrum. While Oldboy uses a lengthy no-cut filming sequence to its advantage, Wu Xia makes use of its environment to break, block or facilitate dynamic movement. Both are great examples of the creative use of space and adopting the best method or technique suited to bring about the director's intended outcome. Besides, there is always something poetic and beautiful about the controlled, fluid motions of martial arts, one move flowing naturally to another, almost like a graceful dance form. Each movement is choreographed to an exact and artistic effect. That is the essence of performance. That is an action sequence worth revisiting.