Any book on fight choreography which features a shot from one of the three duels between Lau Kar Fai and Lee Hoi Sang from Lau Kar Leung's seminal 36th Chamber Of Shaolin at the very least has its heart in the right place. And John Kreng's magnum opus, coming in at a hefty 508 pages, has that and a whole lot more besides.
Kreng is an American Chinese with an extremely varied and impressive resumé: martial artist, stuntman, fight coordinator, author, magazine editor, stand-up comedian, video game designer... The list is nigh endless. And he's also the ideal person to straddle the gulf between Western and Asian action cinema, knowing and understanding both cultures equally.
The book is divided into twelve big chapters, which cover a lot of ground:
1) Basic History of Fight Choreograpy and Fighting on Film - a self-explanatory chapter which is unique in that it looks both at Western and Asian action cinema evolution.
2) Differences Between Art, Sport and Self-Defense: this explains the different aspects of martial arts and how they are used.
3) Definitions and Terminology: defining a number of important terms and concepts with regards to martial arts and film fighting.
4) Primer: a chapter on the different types of martial actor/artist, the importance of rhythm in a fight scene, the use of strategy in fight scenes etc.
5) The Whole Structure: putting the physical and technical aspects of a fight scene together.
6) The Source: storytelling, characters, the importance of the script with some fundamental screenwriting theory etc.
7) Extracting the Essence: how a fight co-ordinator should approach the characters and the script, all the elements which need to be considered when preparing for the creation of the fight or action scenes.
8) The Narrative Structure and Elements of a Fight Scene: applies fundamental storytelling and screenwriting notions to the construction of a fight scene, which also has to tell a story.
9) Physical Elements of the Fight Scene: Martial acting, use of the centerline, more on rhythm, choosing techniques, reactions etc.
10) The Technical Elements of a Fight: how to film and edit the fight for maximum effect.
11) Developing a Choreographer's Eye: tips and subjects for self-study for all aspiring fight choreographers.
12) Recommended Reading, Viewing and Other Resources: a huge list of resources of all kinds.
John Kreng's main message is that a good fight sequence is a story, and should be thought of like one. Good storytelling is the central concept in this book. Characters should remain believable, the way the fight fits into the overall film should be considered, and on top of this it should also be structured as a mini-screenplay, with clear acts, raising of stakes, a clear climax etc. The storytelling aspect comes first, and far outweighs other considerations such as spectacle or showing off. Of course, when good storytelling can be combined with spectacle and a display of extreme martial arts skills, that's kung fu heaven.
What's quite interesting to discover is that fight choreographers, much like screenwriters, are completely at the mercy of others when it comes to what their work will finally look like on screen. In Hong Kong, the action director will oversee the editing of the fight scenes, but in the West, the editor and director make all the decisions and generally keep the choreographer outside the loop. The result is that the finished scene often totally ignores the choreographer's intentions, storyline and even sequence of events during the fight. So the next time you're really irritated by how bad a martial arts scene looks in an American movie - don't blame the choreographer, he's probably even more pissed off than you!
Another common practice Kreng advises against (and he's so, so right in doing so) is the use of shaky-cam and filming the action too close so the audience can't really see what's going on. Not only is this totally unrealistic (in real life, you see EVERYTHING when you're watching a fight or are involved in it, and the 'image' stays stable), but it also obscures the talents of the actors and the stunt team. And it also leaves the audience very unsatisfied.
Throughout the book, John Kreng's experience, passion and expertise shine through on every page. His message is inspiring, and I can only hope it gains a real following in Hollywood circles.
Is the book perfect, then? Well, I have one criticism and two regrets.
The criticism is that the same examples are used too often in the book. A number of scenes or moments (e.g. the way in which Bruce Lee kills Oharra in Enter The Dragon) are referenced soo often that it becomes overkill. And moreover, by selecting a few less well-known fight scenes as examples, the reader will only be encouraged to seek them out and widen his knowledge and appreciation of the genre.
The first regret is that there is no chapter on specific moves and their applications - if possible discussed on a style-by-style basis. Now, that probably would have pushed the page count well over a thousand, or maybe all martial artists know this stuff by heart and don't need it included in a book such as this. But nevertheless it's the one topic I'd have liked to see explored more.
The second is that there's no DVD with this book. On his Myspace page, mr. Kreng has a link to a short film he choreographed, and watching it I immediately saw how it exemplified several of the concepts talked about in the book. It would be an awesome learning tool if we could follow along how these fight scenes were constructed, practiced, altered, what the logic behind the moves etc. is... Maybe a project for the future? It certainly would be pure gold for anyone interested in martial arts film choreography.
The long and the short of it is: this is an incredibly rich book which more than achieves what it sets out to do. Kudos to John Kreng for such an inspiring and interesting read, and anyone remotely interested in martial arts choreography and filmmaking should definitely check this one out.