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Going to the Source: Kung Fu Hustle and Its Cinematic Roots at the 29th HKIFF
The Lion Dance 1/1 - Page 2
Author(s) : Gina Marchetti
Date : 5/5/2005
Type(s) : Analysis
Food for thought
 Intext Links  
People :
Kwan Tak Hing
Wu Pang
Movies :
Story Of Huang Feihong (Part 1)
Lexic :
Lion Dance
Wong Fei-hong
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The Wong Fei-hung films take place in the courtyards and alleyways of Foshan and Guangzhou , the two places most closely associated with Wong and his legendary Po Chi Lam dispensary/kung fu academy. The Story Of Wong Fei-hung : Part I (1949), directed by Wu Pang, begins with a lion dance staged in front of a shop house. Legend has it that the Chinese people were terrorized by a lion-like beast (usually around the Lunar New Year ), but they eventually discovered that the beast could be driven away by people impersonating the creature. The lion dance emerged, with loud firecrackers, drums, cymbals and gongs, to frighten these unseen, mythical lions that threaten the New Year as well as new businesses, new marriages, and other endeavors. While the lion dance in Northern China has a more acrobatic/entertainment function, the Southern Chinese lion has ritual significance. With a horn and mirror on its forehead, it threatens the spirit lions who can see themselves in the mirror and run away from their own hideous reflections. The lion dance portrays the creature as heroic and timid, humorous and sacred. Also, particularly in the South, historically a hotbed for rebellion and political unrest, the lion dance emerged as a way of training martial artists in secrecy. The lion's footwork includes the skills needed to build leg strength and speed, the movements of the head and body promote agility and acrobatic skill, holding the lion's head develops arm strength, and the fact the martial artist could appear in public hidden by the lion's costume all contributed to the use of the lion dance as a way of promoting martial artistry, specific systems of kung fu, and of enticing new recruits. Performing the lion dance also brought needed income to martial arts masters, since the lion kept the money it devoured as part of the ritual.

A red envelope with money in it, usually dangling from the upper storey of a shop house, hidden in a bouquet of lettuce leaves, tempts the lion into blessing the building. The lion eats the bundle, keeps the “hong bao” of cash, and vomits the lettuce out as a symbol of its ability to spread good fortune. In the first scene of one of the longest running film series in Hong Kong film history, Kwan Tak Hing as Wong Fei-hong dances on screen under the head of the lion. The camera lingers at length on his footwork as he adroitly steps around the exploding firecrackers—pointing to his martial as well as aesthetic prowess in playing the lion whose natural curiosity conquers his fear. Although the lion's head may be expected to do a shoulder stand to reach the lucky money dangling from an upper storey window, in this case, the packet is lowered to ground level for the lion to devour.

At this point in his career, Kwan Tak-Hing (1905-1996) was no longer a young man. He had already established himself as a Chinese opera and film star around the global Chinese world from Singapore to California, and he had participated in patriotic theatricals during the war against Japan. As Mao Tse-tung battled to establish the People's Republic across the border, Kwan established himself in colonial Hong Kong as Wong Fei-Hung, legendary doctor, martial artist, and military instructor. Trained in martial arts, opera performance, and lion dance, Kwan slid into the role, and even Wong Fei-Hung's widow, Mok Kwei Lan, herself a martial arts master, proclaimed him fit to play her famous husband.

As the lion's head, Kwan, playing Wong as a middle-aged master, presents an image of the grounded lion, no longer needing to prove his abilities with flashy acrobatic displays, but able to add a weight and seriousness to the lively gathering. The lion dance deftly establishes the character and solidifies Wong/Kwan's place in film history. A crowd has gathered to watch and hope for some of the lion's luck to fall on them with the lettuce vomited out of the lion's mouth. The lion dance also provides an auspicious way to start a film series. The film's viewers form part of the crowd, imaginatively receiving the lion's blessings, entertained by traditional Cantonese popular culture, and invited into the modern, urban version of public life played on screen rather than through street spectacle.

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