- A traumatic event (and/or environment) causes you to shut down to feeling which results in "living" life mechanically; automatically responding to learned cues and triggers.
- You are introduced to "feeling". You recognize an aspect of life where you are mechanical/non-feeling.
- You make a conscious choice to relax and let go of that to which you are imprisoned.
- You explore your new-found openness and freedom with curiosity and uncertainty.
- You go back to your old ways but when you do, the old ways are seen with a new eyes.
- You try to blend both worlds; remain in the old with a commitment to not being shut-down.
- Ultimately, it comes down to a struggle; a fight to live life with feeling.
- If you are successful, a new life opens for you.
- Danny (Jet Li) represents me, you, literally everyone who is on the journey.
- Bart (Bob Hoskins) represents that to which we are beholden.
- Sam (Morgan Freeman) represents the sage-guide who invites the student to simply join him on his journey.
- Victoria (Kerry Condon) represents the younger teacher who is still learning and is more method oriented. She employs a variety of methods to help the student develop connection.
- The cage represents an area of life where we are shut-down to feeling; where we are "stuck" or colloquially, "imprisoned".
- The collar represents the cue which switches a particular response or behavior on or off.
- The piano represents our emotive-muscular structure. In tune; we live authentically. Out of tune; we live mechanically.
- Music, song, represents the ethereal stuff of feeling and connection.
Danny's mother was a student of piano in an academy. As a child, he would play at her feet while she practiced piano. One day, Bart (a loan shark) and another man pay her a visit and the man winds up murdering her. Because little Danny is the sole witness, Bart abducts Danny and imprisons him in a cage. Danny shuts down and in those routinized moments, upon cue, he unleashes his trauma energy against others.
What we learn about Bart is that he uses anger to manipulate and dominate others and he is sexually frustrated. His sex dream ends in violence and his rough, drunken, sexual encounters are always interrupted. From what we are shown, he seems incapable of developing lasting, authentic, intimate, human connection. The phrase, "Like father, like son." seems to apply here. Referencing Bart's own (suggestively troubled) upbringing:
Bart: Like my saint of a mum used to say, "Get 'em young and the possibilities are endless."One day, the now older Danny is led into a room of pianos (to do a job for Bart) and is distracted from his task by the pianos. In this environment he encounters Sam, a blind piano tuner.
Mr. Yussef: I thought it was the Jesuits who said that.
Bart: Probably got it from my mum.
Sam: You know a lot of people think because a piano's so big, it is very strong and you can just pound it any way you want to and nothing will happen, but that's not so at all. Pianos are a lot like people. I mean, you pound on a person, they get out of tune.In this same scene, Sam relays the key psycho-somatic, body-mind, emotional-muscular internal gong-fu training directive:
Sam: Loosen up. Music's got to flow from within, you know. Can't flow if you're all stiff... Just relax.... Go ahead relax. Let the energy flow. Let the magic happen.Later, Danny escapes from Bart and returns to the piano warehouse and to Sam who creates a space for Danny to relax, let go and open on his own terms. Sam invites Danny to share in the ordinary activities of his life; eating meals, walking his step-daughter to school, shopping, cooking, helping with tuning pianos.
Victoria, on the other hand, employs a variety of methods to try to get Danny connect with life-feeling; giving him a small portable piano, showing him how to eat ice cream, taking him to watch a movie, taking him on a boat ride, playing piano with him.
Sam and Victoria, as internal gong-fu teachers, have different strategies to elicit feeling-connection in his body.
Sam: Sometimes, I worry about that boy. It's as if something or someone has made him shut down his feelings so hard, he can no longer get in touch with them.
Victoria: That's what I've been trying to get him to do.
Sam: With vanilla ice cream? Maybe we should come up with some different strategies.During another evening at Sam's apartment, Victoria removes Danny's collar.
Victoria: Everything is new about you now. Your clothes, your hair, your whole life. This is the last thing left..<She reaches for the collar. He grabs her wrist to stop her.> I think it's time to put the last thing away. Don't you? <He is apprehensive. She removes the collar. He sits, numb. How to respond? What to do now? Removing the collar was always the cue to behave a certain way but he has gained enough presence to know that that behavior is not appropriate in this environment. Everything has changed.>
Everything is new about you now.While exploring his new found freedom, Danny encounters one of Bart's men and Danny returns to his old life. Why would Danny go back to his old way of life? Externally, he did it to protect his new family from being discovered and hurt. But maybe...
Sam: Sometimes being happy just isn't enough. Sometimes people have to go back and fix the things that made them unhappy before they were happy.... Sometimes people have to do things themselves.Danny is returned to Bart but now wants to learn what Bart knows about his mother. (Danny did indeed go back for a purpose.) Bart denies knowing his mom.
Bart brings Danny to a fighting arena where he is expected to brutally attack as before. But Danny has changed. He has swung to the opposite extreme. In his naivete in his new emotional territory he simply repeats:
I don't want to hurt people anymore.But Bart pushes him into the fight pit. Danny's decision to not hurt people makes him an easy target for others' hostility. His inability to calibrate the appropriate behavior results in his using a lot of energy trying to avoid being hurt. This approach proves to be a misstep and he takes a beating.
Bart: Danny! You're gonna get killed! Fight back!Danny realizes the functional purpose of fighting. He learns the value of confrontation. He finds an emotional balance between the two extremes. He stands up for himself. He fights for self-preservation. After the fight later that night, Danny climbs out of his cell which was never locked in the first place (hugely symbolic!), and rummages through Bart's desk and finds another photo; a photo of a room with two pianos with a Chinese woman at one of the pianos. He confronts Bart with the truth:
Danny:You lied to me! This is my mother. You knew my mother!
Bart lies his way out of the confrontation and takes Danny out to fight in another fight. On the way, Danny forces the car to crash and he escapes again. He returns to Sam's apartment and shares the picture he found. Sam suspects his mother attended a local music academy and he brings Danny there. At the academy he is given another picture of his mother playing piano. That evening, Victoria plays the music that his mother was playing as seen in the photo. This triggers a flashback and Danny connects with the repressed memory of his mother's murder. He now believes that Bart murdered his mother. He knows they are in danger. As they pack to flee for their safety, Bart and his thugs arrive. Final fight scene.
In the final encounter with Bart in Sam's apartment, Danny, now knowing with certainty the life he wants, rejects Bart's appeals to return to his old way of life.
Bart: This is your place of... awakening? Art, books, music? For what? Did it make you a better person? ... you're not meant for this kind of life, Danny. You're a dog... Come home, Danny. <pulls Danny's collar out of his pocket>The movie ends with Danny dressed formally in a black suit and bow tie attending Victoria's piano recital. The final irony is that Danny has traded one collar for another.
Danny: I am home.
Sam: <gesturing to Danny's bow tie.> You're alright with that thing around your neck? Is it OK? <Danny smiles and nods.> I'd say it was a decided improvement.Victoria begins playing the song Danny remembers his mother playing. Danny connects the memory of his childhood and the present with feeling... a tear rolls down his cheek.
In addition to dramatizing the internal gong-fu development process, Jet Li's superb acting provides a flavor of the changes in emotional-muscular structure as one lets go of old patterns. (I don't see authentic change in his structure but his acting provides a window into what this change looks like.) We see Danny's emotional state transition from sullenness and anger to animation and joy, from isolation to connection, from holding to relaxing. How is this change portrayed in this film?
Danny's evolving emotional state is most obviously displayed in the physicality of his fighting. In the opening fight scenes, he either sullenly approaches or angrily chases down his target and attacks with a rabid brutality. His body looks fairly rigid. Toward the middle of the show, in the fight-pit scene, he begins by acting inappropriately given the situation he was thrown into. With coaching, he "wakes up" and uses all the skills he has but with a different intent. (Compare facial expression to earlier fight scenes.) In the final fight scene, he runs away from his attackers and stands his ground only when he has no where to run. He looks more grounded and fluid compared to earlier fight scenes.
If you previously watched this movie as a crime-action-drama movie (with your attendant expectations and criteria of this genre), you may have missed how this movie can be viewed as one example of the internal gong-fu development process.
If what I've written here seems strange to you (as in "What is he talking about?") and if you are curious, then watch this movie again and again and again. Watch for the nuances I've described here. What do you notice?
There are a couple other Zen-like scenes where the student becomes teacher; the grocery store fight and the follow-up in the apartment. Notice those too.
As you may have guessed, I love this movie! Combining outstanding martial-arts action with plenty of depth is a winning combination in my book! I notice a little more every time I watch it.