Remember what I said about how for this movie, finding the bad guy is not a “major” plot objective? Well, this is what necessitates the qualifier. And it’s quite the bench-clearer.
“Just three people for this fight? I bet we can double that.”
2) Tsai, May, Bo and Li Mu Bai vs Jade Fox and Jen Yu
- Tsai, a police detective from another province, on a vengeful hunt for Jade Fox. Sportin’ some cool facial hair. Played by Wang Deming.
- May, Tsai’s daughter in her twenties or perhaps late teens. Seems unprofessional to bring her along on both the search for and the fight against Jade Fox, especially since she proves to be worse than useless. Played by Li Li. No, seriously.
- Armed with: a ridiculously small knife, some kind of rope/hook she never uses, and a dart that is presumably drugged, though when it finally hits someone (her) it doesn’t seem to cause any lasting damage.
- Bo, Sir Te’s lantern-jawed security guard. An earnest and decent sort, but quite outclassed at this level. Played by Gao Xi’an. Fun fact: at one of the screenings I went to some of my friends confessed afterwards that for a good portion of the running time they thought that Bo WAS Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat’s character), even though the two dressed & acted differently, the only visual similarity being their hairstyles. What, like you don’t have racist friends?
- Armed with: a spear with a fat sword blade at the end. Also has some kind of a cord with a claw at the end, but he doesn’t use it in the fight.
- Li Mu Bai, the master warrior who recently owned the even-more-recently stolen Green Destiny. Played by living legend Chow Yun Fat.
- Armed with: a taijijian, or simple, straight, two-edged sword.
- Jade Fox, a deadly outlaw. Long ago she murdered Li Mu Bai’s master, Southern Crane, and more recently has killed Tsai’s wife/May’s mother, who was a police officer on her trail. Ruthless & clever. Played by veteran martial art star Cheng Pei-pei.
- Armed with: a quarterstaff that’s full of all sorts of hidden goodies, including a sword blade, a knife that launches from the other end and some sort of projectile rope/whip. She also has a tiny knife hidden in her shoe like Rosa Klebb. The lady comes prepared.
- Jen Yu, from earlier. Still in her thief/ninja outfit. It’s here we learn that she is secretly Jade Fox’s apprentice, though as Li Mu Bai quickly deduces, she has long since surpassed her master. (The Fox’s combat prowess comes from a stolen Wudan manual, but being a barely literate peasant she could only study the diagrams, whereas Jen could fully read the complicated instructions.) Played by Zhang Ziyi.
- Armed with: the Green Destiny sword, and though we’ve heard its capabilities explained before this is the first time we get to see it in action. In shape it’s basically another taijijian with a prettier design, but it’s lighter, unbreakable, rust-proof and so powerfully sharp it’s practically a lightsaber. She breaks one opponent’s weapon with it in this scene, and it will not be the last.
Pictured: one of the very few people in this movie, if not all of China, who does NOT appear in this scene
The Setup: Bo had tracked down Tsai & May earlier and, figuring out that they’re the good guys, joined up with them to hunt for the Fox. Turns out she’s been in hiding for years and posing as a humble governess for the Yu family, which is how she managed to train & corrupt Jen from a young age. Some wanted posters have flushed her out and she’s made arrangements to face off against her longtime pursuer Tsai at midnight in this quiet courtyard.
Note that Li Mu Bai shows up about halfway through, with Jen showing up slightly later. Though it’s plausible that Jen clandestinely followed her “governess” here and intervened when she thought it necessary, it’s never explained how Mu Bai knew to show up. Mystical powers help him sense battle? Out for a midnight stroll? All the yelling & clanking woke him up? Ah, well.
The Fight: When Jade Fox shows up (she’s late. Passive-aggressive much?), there’s some taunts exchanged between her and the would-be heroes, then the fight begins. Really, it begins between Tsai and Fox; May is batted away easily and mostly stays on the sidelines from there on; Bo’s entrance is delayed because he clumsily left himself attached to the tree (for… some reason) by way of the claw-rope thing.
Fortunately, the Fox & Tsai show is plenty interesting. The choreography is excellent and much more ground-based than the previous battle we saw. It’s similarly distinct in that this isn’t a low-stakes pursuit/escape scenario; these two clearly despise and want to kill each other. The contrast between the villain’s single long-range weapon and the policeman’s twin short-range weapons makes for lots of interesting possibilities, and the staging explores them with relish.
Tan Dun’s musical score kicks in here again with gusto, and while it’s not as singular as the accompaniment to the previous action sequence, it’s plenty memorable and fits the mood of the scene perfectly: whereas the last scene’s pounding drums were all about raw adrenaline, this selection connotes genuine danger and powerful emotion. The music also rises & falls appropriately with the pace of the action, dropping to a subdued growl whenever the fight’s interrupted for dialogue beats or new challengers appearing.
Bo eventually untangles himself but mostly makes things worse. He’s far too slow to be a real threat to Jade Fox, and after parrying his swings easily she ends up using him against Tsai, first as cover and later by hooking his spear and sending him after her opponent. Bo’s main purpose in this fight is as comic relief; he cuts a very clumsy figure in this sequence and his facial expressions look downright goofy when Fox paralyzes him with a series of pressure point blows.
May’s contribution is arguably worse, as when she finally is able to shoot a dart at Fox, her enemy simply plucks it out of the air and returns it to sender. This infuriates Tsai, and Fox is able to get the best of him, but Li Mu Bai makes his entrance just in time to save the policeman (and Bo, who he un-paralyzes with another set of pressure points).
After introducing himself, Mu Bai utterly pwns Jade Fox, outclassing her at every step. This is where most of the criminal’s aforementioned tricks (which she didn’t need against Tsai) come into play: the shoe knife, the hidden cane sword, and one particularly deft move where a spin of her cloak disguises an unexpected blade thrust. But cunning or not, she’s no match for Li Mu Bai, who defuses all her tricks and even seems to revel a little bit in his long-delayed revenge. When he goes in for the kill he himself is interrupted by the arrival of Jen, who shears the tip of his sword off with Green Destiny in her opening block.
Rather than become a chaotic free-for-all, here the fight splits in two: LMB vs Jen on one side, Tsai & Bo against Jade Fox on another. The latter is just as frenzied as before, but the former takes on a different tempo, as Li is intrigued by this young girl who has learned so much. He’s mostly toying with and questioning her, as he’s (correctly) confident that she is no real match for him. There’s even one very well done beat where Fox, in a pause in her own battle, spots Jen’s movements in the fight against Mu Bai, and the shock & betrayal are quite evident on her face: her student (and closest thing she has to family) has deceived Fox about her true progress.
Too bad that Li’s curiosity doesn’t take a backseat to his need to take care of Jade Fox, because while he’s futzing around off to the side the villain kills Tsai but good: having caught one of his thrown deer horn knives (in a way that tricked him into thinking he’d killed her) she throws it back at him and it lands right in the middle of his bald forehead. Very wicked-looking, but it’s the fight’s one notable misstep, because the thrown blade is shown to travel more than slowly enough for him to get out of the way. This is even more aggravating considering that in a previous scene, we saw Tsai use chopsticks to pluck a smaller, faster-moving dart out of the air that had been shot at him while his back was turned. I appreciate that finding a good ending to a fight scene can be almost as hard as finding one for an SNL sketch, but it’s still unsatisfying when the conclusion is forced via a single act of credibility-straining stupidity (see also Revenge Of The Sith and its “I have the the high ground!” nonsense).
LMB goes after the pair but it’s pretty much over; Fox briefly delays him with couple more surprises from that seemingly bottomless staff, then she & Jen escape together. Bad guys get away, good guys are down one. Darn.
Mostly this all comes together excellently. Some slight dings for the aforementioned chumping out of Tsai, and the almost back-t0-back life-saving arrivals of new challengers (two dramatic entrances in quick succession tends to diminish the, you know, drama). Also, while the physical comedy with Bo is fairly amusing, it kind of jars tonally with the rest of the scene, especially the grisly ending.
But I can’t fault it too much. The escalating action, the varied combat, the juggling of multiple players, the dramatic beats and the excellent music– it’s just too much fun and crazy ambitious besides. It’s also the one time we get to see Chow Yun Fat’s character, who is by far the most powerful out of everyone, really cut loose. It’s to be treasured. But the best is yet to come.
(In an interesting post-script, a few scenes later it’s heavily suggested that Bo gets intimate with a grieving May, though in a way that’s a more sweet and less creepy than I just made it sound. Good for them, I suppose; it’s a happier ending than anyone else gets in this bummer of a movie.)
Coming Attractions: Master Li gets out his whippin’ stick.