Dissecting a Well Filmed Fight Scene

It will be an understatement to say that fight scenes can make or break an action movie. A well framed fight sequence can have a great emotional impact without being confusing, or disjointed. While Captain America: Civil War is overall an enjoyable movie, there are some action scenes that are marred by the infamous shaky-cam effect. This technique has been used effectively in the Bourne movies, but that’s as far as it goes. Most of the time, we get a mangled, hardly discernible fight scene. Examples of the blatant misuse of this effect can be found here.

One of the reasons this shaky-cam effect is used is to hide the actor’s lack of martial arts background. It’s hard to tell if the actor is moving effectively when the audience could hardly see the action. In a sense, it is an understandable sleight-of-hand, but when it is used on actors who can pull of those moves, it usually turn out to be a massive disappointment, like this Jason Statham fight scene.

I might be biased, seeing that I am Chinese and I grew up watching old kung fu movies, but the Chinese movie industry has nailed how to properly film a fight scene for decades. This is mostly due to the fact that back in those days, there are no shortage of actors and choreographers with martial arts training. Some of the trademark signs of Chinese fight scenes are:

  1. A focus on the movements of the actors. Most of the time, they know what they are doing and they can move beautifully.
  2. The choreography. Sometimes it’s a hand-to-hand fight, sometimes props are involved. If it’s the latter, it’s usually for comedic or aesthetic effect, and the fight itself tells a story.
  3. A steady camera view to support points 1 and 2. The actors can perform the stunts, the choreography is usually good, so there is nothing to hide and no reason to move the camera at all. They want the audience to get a good view.

To illustrate the points above, I present this fight scene from the movie ‘Eight Diagram Pole Fighter’. A bit of a background is required here; ‘eight diagram’ here is referring to the bagua, a traditional Chinese religious symbol. Also, the protagonist is the student, i.e. the clean-shaven guy played by Gordon Liu. The bearded, older man (Philip Ko Fei) with a red sash across his chest is the master.

For point 1, both actors are an accomplished martial artists, evident in their fluid movements and steady feet. At the 0:45 mark, we get a wide view shot showing both the fighters and the hall they are in, and this sets the background for the action.

Throughout most of the fight, we get a view of both the fighters, at least their upper bodies. Note the distinct lack of shakiness or blurriness. A few shots of their feet were slotted in here and there to highlight their nimbleness and footwork, but nothing too disruptive because after all, they are pole users and the focus is still on what they do with their poles. At 1:43, we get a few angles of the same posture because this was to be one of the highlights of the fight. When necessary, the obligatory slow motion was used, such as the sequence between 2:07 and 2:20 marks.

Now, the choreography. Here, Gordon Liu’s character is fighting his master over a clash in ideology. It was not supposed to be a fight to the death. My guess is that’s the reason for these clamping moves at 1:56 and 2:04; they are a symbol of the master’s hold over the student, an attempt to restrain the latter’s will. At 3:08, we have role reversal, in which Gordon Liu clamped the Ko Fei’s pole. That was a sign that the student is beginning to overwhelm the master. Sure enough, the master loses his shoes soon after, a symbolic humiliation.

Finally, at 3:37, where the fight has effectively ended, we see the whole point of all the props – cushions, candle holders – they used: a diagram of the bagua is formed.

So much satisfaction.




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