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.
I bought PAINTED FACES (1988) on VHS at a Chinatown video store in 1999 and only just got to see it a week ago. It’s a drama about a Peking Opera troupe in Hong Kong in the 1960s and the efforts of its stern instructor, Master Yu, to train a group of boys, all sent there by their hard-pressed parents, in the dying arts of Peking Opera performance. Three of the boys just happen to be Jackie Chan (called “Big Nose” by the other characters), Sammo Hung (called “Sammo” by the others although he didn’t get that name in real life until he was an adult), and Yuen Biao, three performers who would revolutionize Hong Kong cinema in the 1970s and ’80s with their stunt-filled action and martial arts comedies. The three starred together in a number of 1980s films themselves, including PROJECT A, PROJECT A II, DRAGONS FOREVER, WINNERS AND SINNERS and WHEELS ON MEALS. Chan and Hung became important directors of their films as well.