Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Jackie Chan in the 1980s - The Young Master

Although more a series of disjointed sketches than a strictly structured film, The Young Master is something of a how-to guide for framing action for maximum impact. Director Jackie Chan progresses fluidly between several distinct approaches, always complimentary to the movement and processes being conveyed.

The film opens with an extended, duelling Lion Dance shot primarily in a series of sustained masters that both simulates the point-of-view of the assembled crowd and demonstrates the difficulty of the performance. We spend so much time watching the dancers cavorting inside the bamboo lion heads that the beasts start to register as characters themselves. Chan holds on the performances so that the details can sink in. The lions are bashful and violent, balanced on human legs that strike and trap. Chan's character, Dragon Lung, is introduced as skilled certainly, but more importantly Lung demonstrates the ability to move in perfect harmony with another.

Elsewhere Chan's camera is energetic, participating with the on-screen action in several different ways. During a supplementary fight with a bully from a rival school the frame tracks Lung twirling an ornate fan around his opponent. Chan zooms in and out on particularly delicate actions, timed in the edit to simulate another hit or beat. The camera engages with the fighters, landing its own blows. Chan also uses zooms to crudely replicate emotional states. During a tense, shame-filled moment between a disappointed Kung Fu master and his treacherous pupil the camera repeatedly crashes in on their faces, building a lurching, sickly tempo.

Hwang In-Shik's high-kicking introduction is built around demonstrating the speed and ferocity of this terrifying villain. Freed by his fellow outlaws, Hwang's Master Kim batters everyone in sight. To add to the hysteria, Chan cues up Gustav Holst's Mars, the Bringer of War for background music. Set-ups are edited quicker and quicker, building a demented, thrashing rhythm. Kim's snappy kicks send hapless mooks from one end of the 2.35:1 frame to the other. The camera also tilts down violently to emphasise the descent of the crumbling, defeated bodies. Master Kim is pure, unconquerable power. Even his associates tremble in his presence. He doesn't need them - he's one man acting alone.

The Young Master concludes with an atypical take on final confrontations. Usually there's a sense that two equals are meeting, the bad guy undone by resting on his laurels or a fatal attempt at cheating. The Young Master doesn't attempt either idea. Kim is obviously, persistently the dominant fighter. Over the course of this lopsided battle Lung is subjected to unbelievable suffering. His arms are locked and bent, fingers are broken, his body is tossed around like a rag. It's an approach that shows a refreshing lack of ego on Chan's part. He's not trying to compete with Hwang's skill set.

Dramatically it also makes Kim a mountain to be scaled, playing into the one crucial thing we've learned about Chan's character - he's psychotically determined. When Lung finally lands a punch it's a euphoric moment. Time stalls as he realises what he's done, joy spreading to every corner of his face in glacial slow motion. Of course, this is followed by one of Hwang's trademark Cinemascope kicks. Chan impresses here in his ability to move in and around Hwang's relentless attacks. He doesn't just stand there, heroically absorbing the punishment, he's a victim tossing himself around manically, accentuating the impacts.

Lung then spends a lot of the fight dramatically passive, existing as a vessel to communicate Hwang's world-class talents. Tremendously outclassed, all Lung can do is wriggle around his opponent. He's the stunt man elevated to a leading role, driven mad by the hardships his body has had to endure. When, after almost half an hour of torment, the human punching bag finally gets the upper hand it's because he's guzzled opium water and basically gone insane. The tumbles and catapulting Chan used to accentuate Hwang's assault become Lung's arsenal. His body is completely numb and can therefore be used as an eleven stone projectile. Dragon Lung doesn't win because he's better than Master Kim, instead he triumphs by simply refusing to give up.

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