I have written many blog posts about how quick cuts and shaky cam are used to mask the fact that the actor themselves do not know how to fight in Hollywood films. In this post I wish to talk about the differences in choreography between Hollywood and Hong Kong action films and see if it is possible for Hollywood to break the trend as discussed in prior posts. Choreography is defined as the technique of representing the various movements in dancing by a system of notation, but this definition can be applied to action scenes as well.
Hong Kong films use actions scenes as part of the story line while Western films’ actions scenes stop the story line. In an article by Offscreen, written by Melaine Morrissette, states that “the fights in Hong Kong martial arts films need not be considered only as confrontation but as a narrative elements.” Fight scenes are non-verbal narratives and as an audience, we should be able to understand the narrative and meaning behind that. Hong Kong action films are well known for their clear, easy to see action and we can clearly see it in any martial arts based film. Yuen Woo-Ping, a Chinese martial arts choreographer and film director, famous for his works in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and The Matrix, will not even select an actor who does not know martial arts to play a role of a character that requires them to know martial arts. He states in an interview ” In Hong Kong, if the stars have little experience, they all have some kung-fu knowledge; also, on set they rehearse the upcoming scene, so we can shoot the scene right away. Here, in United-States, the Western actors don’t know martial arts; so we need to train them, sometimes three months in advance, and after that can we shoot.”
In the article, Morrisette also compares the difference between the comprehension of choreography and it’s representation between Hong Kong and Western films. She simply states “There is one thing that Hollywood will never be able to absorb, it’s the combat on that level, Hollywood is simply not up to par.” She also states that “An understanding of choreography is a major asset in increasing dramatic tension of a fight scene” and it is something that Hollywood films lack. One of the biggest difference is also the role that the choreographers play in the actual production of the movie itself. Choreographers in Western films usually only play a minor role and “could explain the fractured representation of fighting scenes” (Morrisette) while choreographers in Hong Kong “often not only arrange fight scenes, but also plan the shots; they virtually take over the role of the director in some instances” (Morrisette). In Western films, directors have no knowledge of martial arts that in order to compensate they have to use certain camera techniques, cuts and editing which ultimately give off a “false sense of rhythm, often destroying spatial coherency” (Morrisette).
“ Put generally, the actor’s performance is minimized and other cinematic techniques compensate for that. The rapid cutting, the constant camera movement, and dramatic music and sound effects must labor to generate an excitement that is not primed by the concrete event taking place before the lens.” -David Bordwell
I believe it is possible for Hollywood to break from the current trend. If choreographers in Hollywood can play the same major role in the production of the movie as in Hong Kong films, shaky cam and quick editing can disappear and we will be able to see the action clearly. In the article, Morrisette makes a good point by saying, “In musical movies, like in martial arts cinema, the best films have been made by people who know the object being represented, whether it is dance or martial art” and I agree with that. Let the professionals do what they do best.