The Lion Dance in Film

4 Feb

The Lunar New Year has begun and it’s the Year of the Rooster, but since I don’t know many films featuring roosters (other than Warner Bros. cartoons starring Foghorn Leghorn), I took my inspiration from a New York Times piece on a Lion Dance troupe preparing for this weekend’s New Year Parade in Chinatown and decided to look at films featuring Lion Dance sequences. There have been quite a few over the decades, but I decided to focus on kung fu films that are easily accessible in my collection. Lion dances are usually performed by two people in a lion costume, one to operate the head and the lion’s forelegs, the other to carry the rear and be the lion’s hind legs. The head has moveable parts, including a mouth and eyes. It’s a form of puppetry with humans inside the puppets. In kung fu films, the Lion Dance sequence is often used to act out an ongoing rivalry between martial arts schools without resorting to bone-crunching blows, although they can be just as challenging as a kung fu battle. Some of these sequences are more elaborate than others; some are shot on location, some on studio soundstages or backlots.

Of the six scenes I’ve chosen, only the first (MARTIAL CLUB) was shot inside a studio. In each of the six, lots of extras are employed. The first four films cited are Shaw Bros. productions, while the last two are from Golden Harvest. All six are Hong Kong productions, but one was shot in and co-produced with Mainland China.

MARTIAL CLUB (1981) opens with an introduction by the film’s director, Lau Kar Leung (aka Liu Chia Liang), who briefly explains the intent and spirit of the Lion Dance and sums up some of its rules:

“….It has a dignified character so martial clubs choose it for its awe-inspiring and brave traits to represent their club’s spirit.

When two clubs’ lions meet on particular events, clubs will exchange lion-dancing skills to develop their friendship.

They can dance as spectacularly as they want, but rules must be followed.”

“Also, when approaching another lion, do not blink the lion’s eyes.

There are many other situations that will provoke a fight between martial clubs.”

This intro sets up the film’s opening sequence which follows one martial arts school’s Lion Dance performance in front of crowds of excited townsfolk on a narrow street built on a studio soundstage. The entire first 13 minutes of the film is devoted to the Lion Dance.

The Lion Dancer operating the head of the lion stands atop a series of platforms carried by other school members, the bottom layer of which is carried and moved to get closer to the object that the team must retrieve. The platforms can be raised by the men carrying them or lowered as need be. Meanwhile, the second team member in the rear of the lion costume is perched on top of an adjacent pole carried by several men on the ground. It’s an effort that requires lots of strong bodies to carry out in close coordination and it all looks pretty grueling. No other film I consulted had this kind of operation.

Director Lau takes the opportunity to be a little creative with these Busby Berkeley-type overhead shots:

After the Lion has grabbed the rose-like bouquet in its mouth, the lion head operator (Robert Mak) tosses it down to several adoring girls, pulls it back, smiles and winks at them, and tosses it down again.

But the last toss is intercepted by a black lion team from a rival school seeking to undermine the good guys’ school. This interception leads to a battle between the two teams, first done in full Lion Dance mode, with the black team breaking a lot of Lau’s established rules, and then an all-out brawl between the two schools.

This leads to a sitdown reconciliation over a full-course meal at the home of Wong Kei Ying (Ku Feng, seated center in picture below, with Wilson Tong, left, and Chu Te-Hu, right), father of the film’s protagonist, Wong Fei Hung.

Wong Fei Hung (1947-1924) is, of course, the legendary herbalist and martial artist who figures in a lot of these films, and is played here as a young man by Gordon Liu, seen on the left in this shot, with Robert Mak on the right:

 RIVALS OF KUNG FU (1974), directed by Wong Feng, picks up the career of Wong Fei Hung (Shih Chung-tien) as a 30-ish adult, as he runs a martial arts school and, amidst wildly tangential subplots, prepares for the big Lion Dance competition at the annual Festival of Goddess Kuan Yin, which takes up the last 20 minutes of the film. Wong’s rival, Master Shen (Shih Kien), is the customary winner of the competition, the object of which is to get the “Happiness and Prosperity” trophy. Master Wong has been recruited by a local merchant to compete this year. Master Shen resents the new competitor and Master Wong is careful to maintain a deferential attitude in order to keep the peace.

Master Wong has seven female students and two male students at his disposal for the competition. His lead student, Ah Chi (Bruce Le), operates the head of the lion, while his top female student, Siao Fong (Yeung Pan Pan), operates the lion’s rear. The contest begins when the trophy is shot by a firework into a receptacle at the top of a pole above a series of platforms and the four teams compete to get to the top to retrieve the trophy. (Master Shen seems to control the other three teams.)

Wong’s team perches itself on a thick bamboo pole which is then lifted up by a strong man from the school.

The opposing teams are led by some rough characters and it gets pretty brutal for Wong’s team, such as when they try to knock down the team member holding up the bamboo pole. But another student, Lily Li (a major kung fu actress in her own right), comes running out to kick them away.

After some rigorous jockeying, Wong’s team eventually gets the trophy, only to lose it on the ground and fight the opposing teams for it while the dragon procession, also operated by the rivals, surrounds Master Wong’s team to confuse them and cover up the opposing teams’ dirty tactics.

It all culminates in a big fight at the end with Wong, Ah Chi, and Siao Fong fighting the leaders of the opposing schools.

The biggest fight is between Wong and Master Shen, a confrontation that resonated with audiences at the time, thanks to the casting of Shih Kien, who had played the longtime antagonist to Wong in a series of films about Wong Fei Hung that began in 1949 and ended in 1970 and all starred Kwan Tak Hing as Wong.

The director of this film, Wong Feng, also directed many of those films. Here’s a shot of Kwan Tak Hing and Shih Kien in one of the early black-and-white Wong Fei Hung films:

LION VS. LION (1981, aka ROAR OF THE LION), co-directed by Hsu Hsia and Chin Yuet-Sang, is set in 1644 at a time of open warfare between the Han Chinese and Manchu invaders. There’s a subplot about a list of Ming patriots that has to be hidden from the Manchus, but it’s often treated as an afterthought as the emphasis shifts to two misfits, Ah Yue (Lo Meng) and Ah Cun (Wong Yu), who can’t hold down jobs and decide to start their own martial arts school, “the Useless School.” They go around beating up the heads of rival schools in a bid to attract students. About 51 minutes into the film, out of nowhere the two decide to enter a Lion Dance competition against the school run by their chief rival, Master Zhu (Wang Lung Wei), despite absolutely no rehearsal.

The obstacle course the teams have to follow may be the most difficult that any team in these films has to overcome and our heroes do it with a little cheating. There’s a ladder bridge the teams have to get across without falling between the rails. It looks hard and the lead actors from both teams are seen on the bridge struggling with it themselves in various shots, although I’m assuming they’re doubled in the shots where their bodies are covered by the lion costume.

They then have to work their way up a series of platforms and a pole to get the prize at the top.

Alas, our heroes’ tricks are even more devious than Master Zhu’s and they wind up winning, much to the joy of the crowd.

MARTIAL ARTS OF SHAOLIN (1986), directed by Lau Kar Leung and shot in Mainland China (which co-produced with Shaw Bros.), features a young star named Jet Li who would, of course, go on to a successful film career in Hong Kong, followed by a few starring vehicles in Hollywood in the 21st century.

It tells a tale of a Shaolin monk seeking to avenge the deaths of his parents at the hands of a tyrannical lord. There’s a Lion Dance sequence 23 minutes into the film at a birthday celebration for the lord and it’s part of a larger display of dance and entertainment for the party.

Jet Li occupies the lion costume with one of his Shaolin compatriots and he brings a dagger with him in the hopes of getting close enough to assassinate the lord. However, a band of rebels with the same idea has appeared on the scene as a dance troupe and they block Jet’s way just as he’s planning his move. Nothing goes right and Lord He Suo (Yu Ching Wai), who’s quite skilled in kung fu himself, wards off a barrage of arrows and, in the ensuing commotion, fends off Jet’s dagger as well, leading to the flight of three of the would-be assassins, one of whom is a beautiful woman, who spend much of the rest of the film together.

What’s significant here is that the Lion Dance, as enacted by Jet, is not part of a competition, but simply a dance performance, part of an ensemble that includes dance troupes, music and acrobatics and additional lion dancers, all staged on a sprawling plaza amidst centuries-old temples and structures. It’s the kind of setting that could only have been found in Mainland China and the director makes the most of it.

Part of the Lion Dance involves a female dancer riding the lion’s back.

DREADNAUGHT (1981), from Golden Harvest Productions and directed by Yuen Wo Ping, features the original Wong Fei Hung actor, Kwan Tak-Hing in a reprise of his famous role, spelled Huang Fei Hung in the subtitles. Here, at the ripe age of 75, he works as a doctor and pharmacist who coaches a lion dance team in his spare team.

At the six-minute mark, we see a lion dance rehearsal, in which the lion’s object is to get a jar of wine and “drink” it and then act drunk. It falls into a “cage” and then breaks out of it. It then uses a stream of flame, shooting out of its mouth, to burn a stationary, unoccupied opposing head. We then see its occupant, perennial kung fu villain Phillip Ko, who takes off the lion head and issues a challenge to the absent Huang.

Later at the 18-minute mark, the actual Lion Dance competition begins, with Master Huang’s team, led by kung fu regular Leung Kar Yan, facing an obstacle course of benches set up to create a difficult path for the team to negotiate. A lot of fancy footwork is required to manipulate the benches to enable the team to cross them.

They make it, but then a rival team headed by Phillip Ko emerges and, sensing the seriousness of the threat, Master Huang takes over the operation of the head and orders Ah Foon (Leung) to join him in the rear. It gets pretty brutal and when Ko tries to shoot flame at Huang, they find a way for it to backfire on him.

THE YOUNG MASTER (1980), also from Golden Harvest Productions, is Jackie Chan’s directorial debut and he plays a student of Master Tien (Tien Feng) who, when the film opens, is directing a rehearsal of the Lion Dance. When his top student is injured, Lung (Jackie Chan) is given the top spot.

The Lion Dance is the very next sequence and is a competition between the Jing Fung and Wai Yee schools. Jackie’s team has the golden lion head and Jackie’s partner is Tong Yen-San. It starts with each team having to pick up heads of lettuce, using the lion’s mouth, from each of a long row of buckets, stepping only on the edges of the buckets and not touching the ground.

Then they have to use a bench to get to an ascending series of buckets and work their way up to a raised plank supported by inverted buckets. It all looks pretty precarious. Then they have to hang off the side of the plank to get the prize hanging underneath and they reach it at the same time. Jackie gets the “token” in the lion’s mouth but it pops out and the opposing teams fight back and forth over it. The opponent (Wei Pai) cheats and knocks Jackie’s costume off and it falls to the ground with the token, so the opponents leap down to get it and they win, leaving Jackie and his school quite despondent.

These films offer a pretty good sampling of Lion Dance sequences. There are plenty of other kung fu films with Lion Dance sequences, including THE MASTER OF KUNG FU (1973), with Ku Feng as an older Wong Fei Hung, THE FOUR SHAOLIN CHALLENGERS (1977), OPIUM AND THE KUNG FU MASTER (1984), and, most notably, Tsui Hark’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA III (1993), starring Jet Li, which I would like to have highlighted, but my copy of it isn’t easily accessible.

ADDENDUM: Here’s a video clip of Lion Dancers at the Lunar New Year Parade in New York’s Chinatown, recorded on Feb. 5, 2017:


Happy New Year!

2 Responses to “The Lion Dance in Film”

  1. February 5, 2017 at 10:07 PM #

    Cool! I did a whole day of Chinese New Year’s dragon stuff with my students last week. We saw some really fun dragon dance competitions in China on Youtube and made our own dragon puppets. I’ll have to check some of those movies out and look for the dance clips. The students would love it, especially if they’re from Kung Fu movies,

  2. Cyrus April 9, 2017 at 9:42 AM #

    It looks so much cooler in films, especially with so many stunt men! I practice lion dance myself in Singapore, and I have never had such a big set up like those in old films. All my performances were just oranges and vegetables, which is kind of boring.

    Check out these infographics on lion dance here!

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