I first met Jackie Chan in 1980, in a coffee shop in Dinghao, Taipei. Then in 1993, while lecturing on combat choreography at Yale School of Drama and wishing to improve as a fight choreographer, I was Jackie’s guest at Golden Harvest’s Studio 2, where he was filming the final fight of Drunken Master II (1994).
Chan revealed, “My body’s always in pain and I know I can’t do this when I’m 62, but I’ll keep going as long as I can and as long as I enjoy it. I do this for fun.”
To me, a Jackie Chan film is a Jackie Chan documentary.
It pained me to watch Chan in Kung Fu Yoga (2017), the fights seemed to lacked his usual ling gan. Ling-gan is a conceptual phrase reflecting the creative process of an idea, expanding upon it. If they think the idea is not good, they will start the process anew. Some critics referred to Chan’s performance as Old Man Jackie Chan and it’s here to stay. These folks haven’t seen Chan’s latest The Foreigner.
Jackie Chan the man is 62. He holds the record for being the most injured movie stuntman in the business who’s still alive and kickin’. No one argues that over time his fights have looked diluted, which began with Rush Hour (1998) and continued with most of his Hollywood hits. Yet it looks like he’s still having fun. Playing second fiddle comic to his Hollywood co-stars dampened his Clown Prince of kung fu comedy image. Yet, Jackie wanted to tackle more serious film roles that reflected his changing world-view attitudes.
As Kung Fu Yoga ended, where the finale fight was akin to a yoga guru who had just learned to levitate in a room full of ceiling fans, it felt like the perfect time to continue with this 62-year-old’s documentary. It reflects on how Chan completely changed the face of kung fu cinema and fight choreography twice throughout his career.
After Bruce Lee died, Hong Kong searched for the next Lee, which created Bruceploitation movies that featured look-alike actors impersonating Lee. Director Lo Wei, who directed Lee’s first two films, entered the fray with Jackie Chan.
Jackie Chan wasn’t going to be the next Lee but something different, so Lo gave Chan more freedom to experiment. In Shaolin Wooden Men (1976), by combining Tommy Lee‘s kung fu and choreography training with Chan’s opera background, Chan forged a new fighting look for himself. Because Lo told Chan that he’s too ugly to be a leading man, Chan disappeared for a year to Japan where he had cosmetic eyelid surgery. After fully recovering, Lo let Chan develop his own fight choreography style.
The first thing I learned about fight choreography while working in kung fu movies in Taiwan was to focus on the yells of the fighters as a way to remember the choreography and develop timing. Then eventually the faster the fighters yelled, the faster I could deliver the techniques. Yells also act as cues as to when an attack is about to occur.
I also learned that bobbing the body up and down helps fighters, especially during one-on-one fights, to develop a rhythm. As fighters bob in unison, with each bob comes an offensive or defensive technique (punch, kick, roll, duck, parry, etc.).
After Chan perfected these two choreography skills (and others), by seamlessly breaking the rhythms, he could subtly affect the fight’s emotion. He also began to end each hand and arm movement with a snap or pop, and freeze the arm or hand in place for a split second before doing the next movement. By doing this he could mimic the look of power and speed, and the audience could clearly see and feel the intention of each technique.
Chan’s opera training made him stand out. In opera school, he learned how to avoid being pin cushioned by spears and swords, even to the face, while doing acrobatics, blocks and strikes. On stage it must look real, regardless of where an audience member is seated.
He does this perfectly against three spearmen in Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin (1978; SCAS). The fight is pure danger as they show spear jabs at Chan’s head in close shots. So we see just how close Chan is to being skewered. In one shot, when a spearman pokes the spear right at his face, Chan quickly leans toward the spear, then shifts his head to the side at the last millisecond. And you know the sequence was probably shot several times.
By the time Dragon Fist (1979; DF) was complete, Chan had straighter back posture, which helped make fancy fist maneuvers look cooler and gave the fight a pleasing rhythmic cadence. He also began one of his signature moves in which he’d begin to strike, stop, then continue the strike on the same path. It’s not a feint to fake out an opponent, it’s intention is to increase the strike’s emotion. Though looking great on camera, Chan was also beginning to look mechanical.
Before Ng See-yuen borrowed Chan from Lo to star in two 1978, Yuen Woo-ping directed films Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master, Chan had already completed SCAS and DF. Yuen created a new character persona for Chan as a lovable oaf and cuddly bumpkin. Despite being humiliated and bullied, he’d smile and never complain…people associated with the new Chan. The icing on the cake was that throughout all fights, Chan’s face was all about anger but using comical grimaces, rubbing his body pains with childish repose, and flashing innocent frowns as if being caught with his hand in a cookie jar.
Yuen also smoothed out Chan’s mechanical delivery and choreography flaws. He taught Chan valuable lessons in camera choreography and how to capture fight emotion with pans, tilts and camera angles. The end result was two box office hits where Chan gave Hong Kong a new action-fight blue print to copy, which used physical comedy.
Then Chan wondrously transformed kung fu films to where even today. His genius has been affecting most Martial Arts influenced action scenes shot worldwide.