Hong Kong Jump Cuts & Peking Opera


published in Real Time No.21, Sydney, 1997

One of the mechanical charms of cinema is its simple ability to track from right to left and vice versa. The dialectic between movement within a fixed frame and the motion of a moving frame pinpoints the kineticism at cinema's historical heart - a will to move which has excited everyone from Abel Gance to Busby Berkeley to Michael Snow to Sam Raimi. Surreptitiously evoking a beautifully designed antique instrument, the pan-and-track still seduces cinema patrons as they surrender their ocular mechanics to the shifting frame. Despite the lubrication required for the camera's laid tracks and the projector's threaded film, there is no singular well-oiled machinery that defines cinema. Instead, the cinema (as an animatic apparatus) generates the dynamic resolution of the vertical with the horizontal - of the vertical strip of still images passing down in front of the projector lens, while each image incrementally shifts sideways . This is an oft-ignored feat by which we remain blindly seduced.

This is especially so when one notices that such movement is physiologically impossible. Look out your window or around your room and try to 'pan' your eyesight. The best you can do is a series of montaged focal points or arcs as your eye uncontrollably locks onto anything your brain presumes to be the subject of your vision. The cinematic track-and-pan is thus a wonderfully mechanical and proto-robotic effect to which the human in us all thrills. Apostles of computer animation gorge on the accelerated track-and-pan as they deliriously speed along an X-Y axis. Tourists track-and-pan their future memories on tiny camcorders with onanistic repetition. Wannabe directors fix on 'tracking shots' as signifying embodiments of the artistry they will never produce. All testify to the base power of cinema's kinetic flow.

However, in this tres-modern ultra-schizophrenic world, the flow of time and space has to be fractured and folded into a rhythm of ruptures. Here, then, is one of cinema's many fruity contradictions. It is already granting us a gorgeously inhuman, out-of-body experience simply through its cascading pans and tracks, yet it must then destroy that sensation lest we become addicted to its flow (hence the conservative fear of computer games which do not interrupt flow). The interruption effect has been incessantly and superficially celebrated in the modernism of montage and the postmodernism of MTV, both of which lay claim to inventing the effect when in fact they only disorient because they break up something that already was doing a fine job in re-orienting our ocular experience. Worse still, scant theoretical regard has been given the audio-visual ramifications of this conflation of optical effects which effectively cancel out each other's purported visual narratological meaning.

The simple question to be asked is: what do you hear at the moment of the cut? What does sound do at this point? Does it continue or recommence? Does it run counter to the edit, flow with it, cover it, rejoin it? Simply, sound is operating in ways here that demonstrate exactly what is happening: the sound you hear during the shots either side of the edit is often not only the sound of those images, but also the sound of all that has disappeared between those images.

The technological and structural dilemma briefly outlined above is evident mostly in 30s/40s Hollywood musicals and 70s/80s Hong Kong kung-fu movies. Both involve moving/performing bodies which must move across visual edits. The space between Busby Berkeley's astounding editing in the camera (he usually filmed his amazing set pieces in sequence) and Gene Kelly's canny editing for the camera (he choreographed on set in anticipation for shifts in camera perspective and location) is traversed and transgressed by the accelerated staging of the modern kung-fu fight. Moreover, in kung-fu one is dealing with body movements designed to be too quick for the eye to see, requiring cinema mechanics to then disrupt the posthuman abilities of the martial artist, reconfigure it into a digestible physiological spatio-temporal continuum, and edit it so that it appears to be happening at an inhuman rate. The jump cut in Hong Kong action cinema (and its current repatriation in Hollywood) is predicated on this bizarre two-steps-backward/two-steps-forward conundrum of depiction.

John Woo's FACE/OFF - continuing over 20 years of a Chinese refiguring of so-called American action cinema - stands as a contemporary landmark in grabbing those sonic moments between the cut and exploding them into the cinesonic ether sphere. FACE/OFF boasts two Hollywood stars riotously mimicking the other - as well as some of the worst body doubles committed to the big screen. (Digital effects can do anything these days except make a good wig.) No matter: the pleasure of watching flabby Scientologists and balding bad dudes in action movies is scoffing at the preposterousness of their implied physical prowess. John Woo may be playing with at least three levels of irony by pushing this to the hilt in having Travolta and Cage be totally unconvincing in any physical action they perform short of turning their head to face a low-angled camera track. Shot after shot after shot, Travolta and Cage exit the frame only to re-enter the frame in the next shot in a manner that even Jackie Chan would find difficult to execute. But at these precise moments the soundtrack blasts one with a whole artillery of orchestral, synthetic and incendiary sound effects. They shoot across the surround sound space, creating breathtaking maps of plotted action which confuse one into feeling that the screen bodies have in fact performed the feat your eyes do not believe. It's like accidentally swallowing a gulp of water while swimming: you maintain your rhythm of breathing while conscious of the fact that one breath was replaced by an entirely separate physical action and sensory experience.

Just as 70s kung-fu movies traditionally supplant raw objective acoustics (flesh hitting flesh) with brute subjective sonics (flesh hitting your flesh), post-80s Hong Kong urban action movies made in America exploit the clarity, definition and sheer volume of full-frequency surround sound to create spectacular sonic fireworks that dazzle one in synch with the on-screen 'sleight-of-body'. This is an apt fusion of culture (Peking Opera) with technology (Dolby Stereo). While Hong Kong action aficionados bemoan the Americanization of its great stars (most of whom would love dearly to break into and exploit the American market anyway), the shifting of Hong Kong sound post-production off-shore is enabling its action and fantasy genres to develop advanced audio-visual forms based on a more detailed and multi-dimensional approach to sound design which home-grown Hong Kong cinema has been renowned for ignoring.

In some respects, the sound of FACE/OFF distracts one from the visuals in a rush of milliseconds where theatre-space - the sculpted sound field which you inhabit in the cinema - becomes a sonar hall of mirrors, refracting sound effects, aural devices and musical conventions. Raimi-esque bullet-cam shots are matched by booming tunnels of wind rushes which soar to the rear of the cinema like jets passing overhead at an aviation pageant. Grossly cliched slo-mo hugs of children on sepia-toned carousels are matched by syrupy stings of glockenspiels which reverberate the whole auditorium. Obligatory Tex-Mex church shoot-outs and stand-offs are matched by diffused swirls of pigeon flaps and digital choirs. And - best of all - guns fired in aircraft hangars and metallic prison halls are matched by high-transient full-impact bullet ricochets which punctuate the side and rear walls of the theatre with such velocity that one flinches and ducks.

Yet in other respects, the detachment of these sounds from the image track - the ways in which they tend to create the moment for an on-screen occurrence rather then follow one - posits them as corner stones in a scene's audio-visual narration. Each of these moments is the result of extensive post-production labour and a purposeful use of psycho-acoustics, combined neither to enhance visuals, disrupt space, nor synchronize action. Rather, the sound design in FACE/OFF is appositely engineered to compensate visuals, conjure space and generate action. Following the logic of cinematized kung-fu (rendering the impossibly real as impossible realism), the film's momentum of sound is a hi-tech rush of Chinese circus music: crashing cymbals and swelling gongs, sparkling fire crackers and booming fire-balls, swishing blades and clanging metal sheets. FACE/OFF embodies much that destabilizes cinema while exposing its unending attraction. Never forget who created gun powder. Never presume action cinema to be American. And never believe in the primacy of visuals in an audio-visual medium.

Text © Philip Brophy 1997. Images © Paramount Pictures