When pitching Kill Bill to some studio executives, Quentin Tarentino showed them John Woo’s The Killer, to give them an example of the kind of style he was trying to achieve. Perhaps not understanding what Tarentino was trying to show them exactly, they said Woo “certainly knows how to direct an action scene”. Tarentino replied “Yeah, and Michelangelo can paint a ceiling!”. As the worldwide popularity of Kung Fu and other Hong Kong action films shows, when it comes to exciting, physical action Hong Kong cinema has always out-shined it’s richer and more polished Hollywood equivalent. But why? What makes Hong Kong the so much better at shooting the action scene? In this post we will try to explore a few of the possible reasons.
Firstly, let’s watch a typical Hollywood action scene and see if we can point out a few of the things wrong with it.
Well, it’s horrible. You just can’t see what’s going on. In this 15 second clip I think I counted 17 camera cuts. The camera jumps around all over the place, the constant cuts are just confusing and the whole scene takes place in a badly lit blue street. Out of all the times she supposedly hits the two guys, the only scene where you actually see the blow, the attacker and the person being hit all together in a shot is the one time she hits him with her briefcase. The others are all obscured. The effect of this is the none of the blows feel ‘real’, none of them have impact, the scene is confusing and hard to follow. Terrible.
Now let’s watch a competently shot action scene.
Much better! The camera uses much longer shots, so you can see what is actually going on. The scene is well lit, the actors are fully shown all together within the scene, the camera only cuts 3 times and when it does it’s to show you what’s going on better, not to hide it away. As a result the scene is easy to see, is exciting and is fun to watch. The other scene is liable to give me motion sickness.
So now we have established the way in which they are different, let us try to think of why they are different. I will propose three ways which will hopefully show why action cinematography in Hollywood was being held back, and how a small island with a comparatively tiny film industry managed to outperform them at their own darling genre.
1. Hollywood action actors can’t act action
The reason the Hollywood scene above is so hard to make out, is because it’s supposed to be. The reason you don’t see the main actress in the same shot as the guy she’s punching, is because she isn’t punching him. A stunt double is. The scene is in 17 quick shots because it had to be filmed in a completely schizophrenic manner, different actors and body doubles rushing in and out to play different parts of the same 15 second scene. Then in editing it had to be stitched together in a way that no one would notice. The result is a hideous Frankenstein’s monster; what was intended to be beautiful is a horrible shambling mess which frightens children. To obscure it further they coloured it dingy and blue. It’s horrible.
In Hong Kong, actors are used who can actually do they things the do on screen. Whether it’s Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Gordon Liu, all of these Hong Kong action stars had serious martial arts backgrounds before breaking into film. The fact that the guy throwing punches in the script and the guy who actually has to throw punches on camera can be played by the same person means they can be filmed in a clear and straightforward way, allowing the audience to actually see what’s going on.
2. Everything is expensive in Hollywood
Props are expensive, you can’t break the same chair 50 times. Filming is expensive, you can’t shoot 50 roles of the same film. Actors are very expensive, you can’t pay Scarlett Johansen to film the same scene 50 times when once-is-good-enough-and-we’ll-fix-it-in-editing. This means that the action you see in Hollywood films is stuff you have to be able to get right in a few takes, then you got on with the shooting schedule. Things were very different in 1970s/80s Hong Kong. Your budget was small, but doing things with it was cheaper. This meant no expensive one-offs like big explosions or complex special effects, but there was plenty of time to practise and choreograph a complex and engaging fight scene between two trained performers, and practise it over and over again until it was just right. This lead to more focus on wowing audiences with physically impressive feats trained to perfection, as opposed to the big Hollywood stunts like blowing something up or crashing expensive cars. These things are entertaining too, but just once. A complex, well choreographed and well executed fight scene is going to be rewarding each time you see it. They took the time to make it that way.
3. Hollywood is afraid to electrocute people
Jackie Chan got second degree electrical burns sliding down that pole in Police Story. He knocked a tooth out in (the amazing) Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow. He’s broken his nose on four separate films. Hong Kong film expert Bey Logan makes the point in his commentary to The Killer that the difference between Hollywood stunt people and Hong Kong stunt people is that Hollywood stunt people are guys who are good at avoiding danger; Hong Kong stunt people are guys who can’t wait to throw themselves at danger, hoping to prove themselves. Jackie Chan had to get beaten up by Bruce Lee as a stuntman before he earned the right to be a star. The willingness of actors and stuntmen to face real danger, again, led to directors being able to show audiences something exciting and dangerous, not something that used camera trickery to give the appearance of being something exciting and dangerous.
Being able to really show exciting things, as opposed to having to find a way to give the appearance of exciting things in the nub of why Hong Kong manages to shoot so much more engaging action scenes. Not being able to rely on big budget effects like a Star Wars or Jaws meant that Hong Kong had to find a new way to entertain people. They did this by eschewing special effects, showing the audience real impressive feats of physical prowess, practising them to a T, and using actors who knew what they were doing and weren’t afraid to face danger or even injury in the process. This allowed them to show something really impressive, not just that had the effect of seeming like something impressive had happened, and they could show it clearly on camera, because it was really happening. The result is a legacy of great films that can still inspire awe in audiences today, to whom the Ewoks look like puppets and Jaws looks as convincing as that fakakta plastic Jaws toy I had in the bath.