How do film directors direct battle scenes

Martial arts


For the choreography of fight scenes in martial arts films

A fight sequence from a classic martial arts film can be easily recognized by its noises. There is the "Klingklongklang!" of swords that strike each other. There is the drawn out "Wuuushsch!" That the bodies of the fighters, and the "rattle!" That their robes cause when they twist through the air in flight. There are the energetic cries of attack and the groaning sounds of the fighters signaling hits. And of course there are the noises that accompany the clash of limbs. Dull, rhythmic and fast, like hitting a sandbag.

How out of this world

Hero (Hong Kong, China 2002)
The tonal level of a martial arts sequence is the onomatopoeic equivalent of the acrobatic events that are performed on the image level. Those involved jump like rubber balls, fly like birds, hit and defend themselves as fast as lightning, handle weapons as if they had grown together with them. These weightless fighters appear as out of this world in their arguments. But appearances are deceptive: there is work, training, discipline and body control behind the brilliant whirlwind - and a few tricks.

Ti Lung, Chun Shih and Cheng Pei Pei, the cast of the martial arts classics by directors Chang Cheh and King Hu, would not rise a meter from the ground if it weren't for the diving boards and trampolines that are well hidden on the set not the support of the so-called wire-works specialists who pull the actors through the air suspended on wires and guide their trajectories, on which they take poses and perform figures.

This mechanical trick technique of the cinematic tightrope act has not been displaced by the advent of modern computer technology. The brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski and Quentin Tarantino, their Matrix trilogy (USA 1999-2003) or its Kill Bill two-parter (Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, USA 2003 and 2004) are also considered to be the most passionate western appropriations of Martial arts elements apply, Yuen Woo Ping and his stunt team brought in experts from the Far East who took over the choreography of the fight scenes as well as training and instruction of the actors.

When comparing a classical Chinese with a modern western one
However, the martial arts film scene shows the different lengths of the shots. King Hu and Chang Cheh can afford long shots and long shots because actors practiced in martial arts act in front of their cameras. The Wachowskis and Tarantino, on the other hand, have to cut quickly and skillfully in order to cover up any mistakes and bumps, since even several months of training from Keanu Reeves or Uma Thurman cannot make a kung-fu master or master (and certainly not from a karate kid actor Jaden Smith). It is also interesting that in the adaptations of the West, a driving film music often replaces the often very poetic noise composition of a traditional martial arts sequence, which is definitely related to the different cutting frequency and thus the inner speed of the scene.

The opposite pole to the fast cut is often the (super) slow motion, which stretches particularly graceful sequences of motion with pleasure. This effect was perfected in Matrix by the Wachowskis' camera team, who achieved the impression of a 360 ° camera trip with the help of several single and moving film cameras. This "bullet time" effect went down in film technology history. The use of these special recording methods, the execution of wire rope stunts in front of a green or blue screen or the insertion of computer-generated images (CGI) are not, however, limited to the West aids that make the event look even more spectacular. This becomes clear in recent films by Zhang Yimou, for example in Hero (Ying xiong, Hong Kong, China 2002) or in House of Flying Daggers (Shi mian mai fu, China, Hong Kong 2004), where he used computer effects lives out not only his weakness for crowd scenes, but also an unconditional aestheticism.

Fightgirl Ayse (Denmark 2007)
The fight scenes that emphasize the kinetics offer considerable viewing values, but are by no means always just the meaning and purpose of the films. A (western) martial arts adaptation such as Fightgirl Ayse (Fighter, Natasha Arthy, Denmark 2007) pulls out all the stops - from down-to-earth kung-fu fights to slow-motion time-lapse recordings and complex tight-rope movements - to get from to tell the emancipation of a Turkish girl. Both the artificiality of the violence that is expressed in them and the rather abstract dramaturgical function that the fighting scenes play are explained by the roots of martial arts in Peking Opera: a hundreds of years old, spectacular and highly stylized form of theater, that combines singing, dance, play and fighting to stage melodramas, myths or historical events. Accordingly, the fight as the external design of inner experience has a central function in the context of the respective story, although there are of course also "bone breaker" films in which the fights function as pure action elements, or films such as the two Karate Kid films from 1984 and 2010, whose fight scenes seem comparatively down-to-earth despite the rapid montage of the pictures, because they do without spectacular aerial acrobatics.

Even in a Bruce Lee film like Death Greetings from Shanghai (Jing wu men / Fist of Fury, Wei Lo, Hong Kong 1972), in which the hero fights to kill, the violence he exercises must first be legitimized. Lee heroes only strike when someone close to them is threatened. But then the canvas explodes. In a film such as The Blood Brothers of the Yellow Dragon (Ci Ma / Blood Brothers, Hong Kong 1973), Chang Cheh, on the other hand, uses the mass struggle as a circus arena, in which he stages the death of his handsome male heroes with almost daring opulence.

Deadly beauty, beautiful death

On the other hand, King Hu's masterpiece A Touch of Zen (Xia nu / A Touch of Zen, Taiwan 1969) serves one of the central scenes in which hundreds of enemy soldiers fall, the purification of the hero, a scribe and scholar, who uses combat as an intellectual challenge and not understood as human drama. This figure wonderfully sums up the dilemma that can overwhelm you in the face of a well-choreographed martial arts sequence: the morning after the fight, he wanders across the battlefield and is happy about the success of his plan - until the dimension of what happened Mordens dawns and his laughter passes away. So much beauty, so much death.

Author: Alexandra Seitz, freelance journalist and film critic, June 20, 2010

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