Fun, furious and far out, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, is a female driven fable that is a fab and fitting finale to the original film’s foundation from forty years ago, Star Wars (1977).
Directed and written by Rian Johnson, in The Last Jedi, for the fading remnants of the Resistance, it’s no longer about fighting and defeating the First Order, but a last-gasp effort for survival.
The key to that survival hinges upon Rey (Daisy Ridley) finding and learning the ways of the force and lightsaber from the lone surviving Jedi Knight, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who lives a self-imposed, ascetic existence on a secluded planet as he pines over his inability to produce a new Jedi force to fight the New Order.
Though uneasy with Rey’s naturally strong force, Luke reluctantly teaches Rey as a way to release his own guilt that’s been preventing him from fulfilling his destiny. Reaching catharsis and armed with renewed faith and accepting that failure is the best teacher, Luke reconnects with the force and realizes that a Jedi’s got to do what a Jedi’s got to do.
The force is conceptually divergent. The philosophical aspect of George Lucas’ force originates from Carlos Castaneda’s book, The Teachings of Don Juan (1968), where a Native American Yaguin Toltec tells him about a life force, which makes us luminous beings and based on one’s personality this force can be used for good or evil. The force also has a religious affinity based on the Catholic dictum, “May the Lord be with you.”
Yet in a 2012 interview, Lucas Porg-ly squawked that Star Wars is not a religious event. However, in The Last Jedi, Luke has become the keeper of the Jedi faith, which is explicitly identified as a religion, the foundation revealed in Jedi secret manuals hidden in a cave. Adding further to the religious influence is Vice Admiral Ailmyn Holdo’s (Laura Dern) final solemn word to Princess Leia, a Middle English Catholic word so retrospectively heart wrenching due to Carrie Fisher’s sudden death…Godspeed.
The combative aspect of the force is derived from how martial artists in film and literature can harness their chi (one’s life force) to powerfully strike their opponent and send them flying backwards without touching them, perform feats of telekinesis and jump high or safely land when leaping down from great heights.
Yet there were more Chinese martial arts reality and film influences in Star Wars: The Last Jedi than all the other Star Wars films, one being the thematic device of the existence of a secret training manual that only masters know the knowledge, and where the books are hidden.
The second best fight in The Last Jedi is Finn (John Boyega) using a large taser-like weapon similar to the saw-tooth bladed sword with a tonfa swiveling handle used by Ti Lung in Magic Blade (1976), dueling with the silver armored, slender steel spear wielding stormtrooper, Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie).
In one uncut sequence, while continuously moving forward and striking at Finn, he’s retreating backwards and blocking each of her strikes. It’s a wide angle moving side shot, a filming technique perfected by Hong Kong’s Ching Siu-tung in the early ’80s. You can see the hesitation in Christie’s attacks as Boyega adjusts his retreating footwork so the action remains tight and the strikes and blocks of each fighter remains within reach of each others counters. It’s a beautiful shot where audiences can see and appreciate the actors’ efforts.
Visually, the best fight in the film is when Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Rey team up to battle Snoke’s shiny blood-red armored bodyguards where each guard wields a traditional Chinese kung fu weapon that has a glossy space-age sheen.
One wields a long handled da dao (big sword), a smaller lighter version of the large, heavy bladed pole weapon known as a guan dao, which was historically made famous by the Chinese kung fu god, Guan Gong. Another guard uses a long pole with twisted ends, which splits in two as the guard continues fighting with a stick in each hand. In wuxia novels and film, fighters often have weapons that can be broken down into other weapons.
Yet the coolest weapon is a sword length pole that breaks into solid flexible sections so it can be used like a whip to trap an opponent’s weapon. It’s a transitional weapon modeled after the evolutionary process of a Chinese soft whip known as a nine section whip (jiu jian bien), which is comprised of nine slender pieces of steel connected together, its distal being a steel knifepoint. This soft whip was originally a solid iron weapon with nine vertebra-like sections fused together like a pagoda and was called a hard whip. Although the history isn’t clear, the hard whip transitioned into a 9-section soft whip. The guard is able to use the weapon like a hard and soft whip at the same time.
The shot of Ren and Rey both fighting multiple attackers within the same frame is filmed like Donnie Yen‘s pole fight in Rogue One…low angle, with a wide angle lens and using a dolly to track the movement in a slight semi-circle to the left as the fight frames right. The wide angle allow us to see both actors flowing from one movement to the next one.
What’s so engaging about both of these fights, and it’s a reflection of each actor’s confidence, the actors are making solid contact with each other’s weapon to the point that if they don’t block correctly, it looks like they’ll get hit. So under these conditions the fight look more authentic. This in comparison to a lot of weapon fights in other movies where the strikes waft through the air short of each other or strike to either side of the opponents body so if an actor misses their block they don’t get hit. Sure that’s safer, but when that happens the fights are a waste of time and there’s no sense of danger.
Another common theme in Chinese kung fu films is the emotion that comes when a most trusted disciple turns on his shifu (teacher) and tries to kill him for whatever purpose he has. Obi-wan Kenobi had Darth Vader and Luke has Ren. In reality, kung fu and qigong shifus would rather die than teach the wrong person thus the reason why many arts have vanished throughout Chinese martial history. Other shifu’s will omit teaching one secret technique, so if a student turns bad, the shifu has a failsafe skill that the student has never seen and wouldn’t know how to counter. Luke takes the later approach.
The finale duel we’ve been waiting for between Ren and Luke begins with a Western gunfight glare down, each waiting for the other to make the first move. And when that happens…well, not wishing to spoil things…I’ll just say Luke’s secret skill is akin to something we saw at the beginning of the Jet Li and Donnie Yen weapon duel in Hero (2002). It’s rarely done in Chinese film and to see it in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, is awesomely awesome!