If it weren’t for him, Jackie Chan might not be the big screen superstar that he is today. He took action in sci-fi cinema to another level in The Matrix. And under his guidance, Chinese period martial arts stormed the Oscars with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. With credits that include acting, choreographing action, writing, producing and directing that span over fifty years, it is hard to fully articulate Yuen Woo-ping’s influence on Hong Kong and international cinema.
Thanks to his upbringing in a family that worked in Chinese opera and cinema, he started out as a stuntman and background fighter in martial arts movies in the 1960s and slowly evolved as an engineer of kinetic human movement. He has been active in all the trends of Hong Kong action cinema, starting as a bit player in the Shaw Brothers Studio, and becoming an action director who worked with some of the biggest names of the time. He directed Jackie Chan in The Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, a breakout hit that defined the comedic style that the future star truly excelled at. Yuen soon became the go-to guy for making fight sequences stand out, turning a conflict between two characters into a battle of wits that transcends both gravity and physics.
He has worked with some of Hong Kong cinema’s brightest stars, including Donnie Yen (Iron Monkey, Ip Man 3), Sammo Hung (The Magnificent Butcher), Jet Li (Fist of Legend, Fearless), Stephen Chow (Kung Fu Hustle), Michelle Yeoh (Wing Chun), among many others. Hollywood tried to adapt the Hong Kong style of action by bringing John Woo, Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam over make films, but many of those films missed their mark as Western producers failed to give the directors and their teams the control that they needed. It was not until über-fan directors like the Wachowski sisters and Quentin Tarantino gained complete control of their productions and properly collaborated with the fight directors (in The Matrix and Kill Bill respectively), that Hollywood “got it”. After his success in Hollywood, Yuen continued to work in Hong Kong, constantly reinventing and evolving fight choreography.
Yuen constantly collaborated with his brothers (Cheung, Shun-Yi, Chun-Yeung and Yat-Chor), who are all talented martial artists and stuntmen, sometimes referred to as The Yuen Clan. We could continue to talk about the many films they’ve worked on, but Hong Kong cinema has many rivers and streams that one can float down (I’ve dropped lots of bait for you to explore that on your own) and it would certainly get us sidetracked from talking to the legendary figure about his latest film Master Z: Ip Man Legacy.
In 2008, director Wilson Yip and actor Donnie Yen had made the real life figure Ip Man (best known as Bruce Lee’s teacher of the Wing Chun school of martial arts) into a box office sensation with a series of period action films. Yuen joined them for the third installment.
One of the most interesting supporting characters in Ip Man 3 was Cheung Tin Chi (played by newcomer Max Zhang), a rival in the style of Wing Chun, who suffers defeat at the hands of Ip Man. Thanks to the stoic charisma that Zhang brought to the character as well as his lightning-fast martial arts prowess, a follow up was quickly greenlit to tell Cheung‘s own story. We find the Wing Chun master humbly taking menial jobs to care for his young son, but in a valiant effort to do the right thing, he crosses the paths of drug dealers, a powerful foreigner (Dave Bautista), the matriarch of a criminal gang (Michelle Yeoh) and a mysterious assassin (Tony Jaa). Against a faithfully detailed period backdrop, Master Z is just what fans of Hong Kong action have come to expect: rapid fire fisticuffs that pits the hero against increasingly more complex and deadly foes.
We had the chance to ask the venerable master of action a few questions about how he maintains balance and grace with fists and kicks just before Master Z saw its release in North America thanks to Well Go USA.
Colin Geddes: The period detail in the film is very impressive, as is the balance of the melodrama and action. What are you the most proud of in Master Z?
Yuen Woo-ping: I am most proud of getting to shape Max’s character. We wanted the time period to inform the characters and their values. Things in Hong Kong were very different back in the ‘60s and even though a lot has changed, human flaws always manifest in the same way. But heroic stories are timeless and that’s why I think audiences like the film.
Was there a difficulty with size difference between Max Zhang and Dave Bautista when staging their fights?
I didn’t see the size difference as a difficulty so much as an advantage. A hero is only as formidable as his opponent, and Dave is a very formidable foe. I wanted Dave’s character to be a charming villain and showcase his benevolent side, even though it was just a cover. The final fight I wanted to be a David vs Goliath battle, a fight against a seemingly unmovable foe.
Was there a challenge in getting Dave Bautista to work in the “Hong Kong” style? Do you have to un-train American talent when it comes to how you and your team work?
I think on American films there is more time and money to prep and things are planned out very clearly before the shoot. Improvisation has always been a big part of Hong Kong filmmaking. We might come to set with a plan but we’ll change it once we get into it. I’ve always felt that gave us a chance to improve, but making last minute changes terrifies America studios. I think that scared Dave when he started on this film as well, but he fell into the groove very quickly.
When you plan a fight scene, do you have any limits or boundaries? What influences these limits? Reality? Physics? The faithful depiction of martial arts fighting styles?
There are always limits because people only have two hands and two legs! Martial arts films have their own physics but it’s always rooted in some kind of reality. Even in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, I wanted there to be a cause and effect; people can fly if they push off something, but they can’t fly at will like Superman. In the Wuxia genre, action can be more fantastical, but generally I like to keep the combat rooted in reality.
In Master Z you work with many styles of martial arts, most notably with Tony Jaa, who is adept in Muay Thai, and then Dave Bautista, who practices MMA. Can you talk about how you approach these differences?
Everyone brings something new and uniquely personal to the film. Muay Thai’s focus is kicks, so Tony has great leg work and jumps, which we used generously in his fight with Max. Dave’s style is much more of a raw, street fight style, which I wanted to capture for the final fight against Max. I wanted Dave’s punches to feel like bricks hitting Max. In short, we tried to maximize each performer’s strengths. We want everyone to look good!
Did you have to convince Tony Jaa to play a bad guy?
No! Beneath Tony’s tough exterior is a softie. Tony loves to joke around on set and making films is a joy for him. I think he had a great time making this film.
Are there any other characters in the Ip Man world that you think could have their own story and movie?
I think everyone can be the hero of their own movie. That is the spirit behind kung fu: anyone can be a hero and stand up for what’s right.
In Master Z, you work with your brother and long time collaborator Yuen Shun-Yi, who handles the fight choreography. Can you talk about your process working with your family and your brothers? Do you ever switch roles while making films?
Filmmaking has always been a family affair for us. My father was the first credited martial arts choreographer. He brought my brothers and me to film sets and that’s how we got our first jobs in the industry. I still work with my brothers Yuen Shun-Yi and Yuen Cheung-Yan often and when I don’t have a project, they sometimes direct or choreograph films of their own.
Can you talk about the influence your father, Simon Yuen Siu-Tin, had on your career?
My father gave me a career in more ways than one. He literally created the position of martial arts choreographer. He was the first choreographer ever. He brought my brothers and me to film sets where we started as stuntmen and eventually started choreographing on our own. I owe my entire career to my father.
You have been directly responsible for many trends in martial arts cinema. This genre is still very strong and many countries are making their own martial arts films, like Indonesia and Vietnam. Why do you think martial arts films continue to be popular?
Action is something that transcends language which is a big reason action films tend to play well everywhere. Moreover, I think action films have clear values: the righteous will prevail over the wretched. I think people want to believe the world is a just place where villains are brought to justice.
If you could remake any of your previous films with today’s filmmaking technology, which would it be?
I don’t know if I would want to remake those old films. I think a big part of the charm of those films was the ingenuity it took to convincingly achieve those effects. I think that magic loses it charm when the audience is aware you can do anything with VFX. That’s why VFX films nowadays gets bigger and bigger.
After making your name with period martial arts comedies, in 1988 you began to make series of nail biting modern day police action films starting with Tiger Cage. Do you have any interest in returning to modern day action?
Absolutely! Funny enough I was talking to Max Zhang’s team about possibly doing something in this genre in the future. My period style kung fu work is better known but I would love to do something modern.
What keeps you excited about making films?
I love the excitement of being on set and collaborating. I’m 73 years old now but that never crosses my mind when I’m making a movie. Making movies will keep me feeling young.
Master Z: Ip Man Legacy is in cinemas now