Tag Archives: Moon Lee

Fight Scene Friday — Yukari Oshima

by Gabriel Valdez

Arguably the most successful karate-based martial artist on film, Yukari Oshima ought to be thought of in the same breath as Jackie Chan. So let’s watch the time Chan choreographed Oshima in Outlaw Brothers.

If none of the female-led Hong Kong films of the 80s and 90s were funded as well, or marketed as broadly, as those of the men, Oshima at least stood the test of time. Half-Japanese and half-Chinese, she was able to act in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and – once studios largely closed out the “girls with guns” genre – she shifted into a successful career in Filipino action movies and TV as Cynthia Luster.

Oshima’s foundation is a form of karate called Goju-ryu, or “hard-soft style.” Its technique focuses on blocking with a soft body that can accept blows and striking with a hard form that mixes straight-ahead and indirect, rounded attacks in equal measure. This forces an opponent into the defensive as they have to defend more space.

The end fight of Outlaw Brothers (one of her Hong Kong films) stands out particularly well in Oshima’s career. Paired as she often was opposite Frankie Chan, the two face off – and switch face offs a third of the way through – with Jeff Falcon (armed with a fan) and Mark Houghton (armed with a sword). Jackie Chan served as a guest choreographer for the fight between Oshima and Falcon and in martial arts films, the choreographer often choreographs the camera, too. You can tell Jackie Chan’s style instantly – opponents squared to each other, the camera focusing on 90 degree two shots, 60-degree over-the-shoulder shots of the opposite performer, and close-ups to feature the performer’s expression. The beauty of Jackie Chan’s style is that he choreographs and shoots as if filming a conversation, not a fight.

Directors often stressed Oshima’s gymnastic abilities; she was able to mix strikes, cartwheels, and splits together in a way no other performer could. Of course, this also served the sometimes-exploitative elements of the girls with guns genre as well, but take a look at Book of Heroes (a Taiwanese film) for how choreographers who really let Oshima loose were able to mix her gymnastics skills into her choreography:

Oshima worked often with another performer we’ve featured: Moon Lee, whose style mixed kickboxing and taekwondo into the genre’s more classical kung fu choreographies. Lee’s harder, fast-paced style and knack for stuntwork, paired with Oshima’s softer, more indirect style and gymnastic ability, helped create some of the best – and most unfortunately forgotten – choreographies in martial arts movie history. We’ll feature the two as a pair down the road.

Fight Scene Friday — “Iron Angels 2”

by Gabriel Valdez

Female martial artists have rarely had the opportunities of their male counterparts. Even when Hong Kong saw the rise of the profitable “girls with guns” genre, producers treated these like exploitation films. Women performed martial arts, yes, but they were also trotted around in various states of undress and often needed last-minute rescuing from the male lead. There was also a certain brutality toward women in the fights that wasn’t always shown toward the men.

The Iron Angels series, also known as Fighting Madam, Angel, or Midnight Angels, exemplified the best and worst traits of the genre. It established the genre as viable on a bigger scale while introducing defining female martial artists like Moon Lee and Yukari Oshima to many martial arts fans in the West who hadn’t seen their smaller, earlier films. When the first film proved successful, however, its 1988 sequel backseated the women in favor of focusing on the exploits of Nathan Chan.

It is noteworthy that this sequel was co-directed by Raymond Leung and Teresa Woo. Women (as in the U.S.) rarely direct in Hong Kong or Chinese cinema, but Woo was a writer/director who enjoyed brief success.

We’ll focus on that sequel here, but I’ll feature a great fight from the original down the road. I want to focus on Moon Lee today because her choreography reflects the blending of kung fu, taekwondo, and kickboxing that was taking place in Hong Kong cinema at the time. Jackie Chan had originally infused kung fu films with his zeal for risky stunts. For years, he had also been bringing in foreign martial artists in order to vary up his choreography and the skills of the opponents he faced.

What Jackie Chan did, everyone did. This blending of styles was becoming very popular and what we think of as older, more rigid “kung fu” choreographies could become repetitive to audiences on their own. Moon Lee was one of the best – male or female – in terms of shifting into choreographies heavily informed by stunt work and non-traditional, “post-modern” martial arts.

The best fight in the entire Iron Angels franchise takes place between Moon Lee and fight choreographer Yuen Tak. It’s a condensed, no-frills fight where the two go toe-to-toe after she beats the snot out of his Lieutenant. (You’ll also see Elaine Lui there right at the end.)

It’s a shame Moon Lee and her contemporaries are rarely thought of in the same way that Chan, Jet Li, or Donnie Yen are. They were just as skilled, but no one with influence was interested enough in pushing female-led films.

This didn’t really begin to happen until Jackie Chan saw Michelle Yeoh practicing choreography for his 1992 film Supercop, and he delayed production to have the entire film rewritten with her as his co-lead. And, as we know, what Jackie Chan did, everyone did. That’s not to say things are at all equal today, but a lot changed thanks to Yeoh pushing the boundaries with her talents and Chan realizing what he’d overlooked for so many years.

Moon Lee’s film career was finishing up by this point, though she would continue to enjoy success on television. Within the parameters of what the industry allowed at the time, her career was massively successful. It’s just a shame that this still means we rarely think of her today. In the fight scene above, you can see why we should.