SCMP Thursday, February 15, 2001
Kung fu magic
Top Hong Kong stunt director Yuen Woo-ping is flying high in Hollywood thanks to the phenomenal success of the martial arts movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
There is even talk of him winning an Oscar. Studio movie moguls are saying that the film, which won two Golden Globe awards (for best director and best foreign film) in January, owes much of its popularity to choreographer Yuen. Although Woo-ping translates as "Peace", Yuen has built his career on cinematic combat, orchestrating fight sequences and wire stunts that mix brawling with ballet.
"People forget that martial arts is an art," says Yuen, who is widely credited with importing "Wuxia" - the Hong Kong movie genre that melds martial arts with magic - to Hollywood. The 55-year-old, who is considered by many to be the world's premier fight and stunt choreographer, is one of the genre's most accomplished directors, with more than 30 films under his belt. He has also produced, written and acted in dozens of films.
Yuen was born in 1945, the eldest son of 12 children sired by actor and fight choreographer Yuen Siu Tien (who died of a heart attack in 1979 while filming The Magnificent Butcher which Woo-ping was directing).
Yuen Woo-ping got his break in show business as a stuntman and fighter in the early 1960s, after being trained by his father in martial arts.
"The fighting style I use, there is no way to learn that from anyone," says Yuen. "I spent lots of time watching my father work. I also paid attention to the other fight choreographers. I then tried new styles by myself to make the fighting better."
Today, eight of Yuen Siu Tien's children make their living through movies and martial arts. His brother, Yuen Cheung-yan, choreographed the high-kicking girl agents in Charlie's Angels.
Yuen Woo-ping first worked as a fight choreographer in 1971 on Ng See-yuen's Mad Killer. In 1978, Ng formed his own production company and offered Yuen a chance to direct. This was the post-Bruce Lee era, when the world was desperately searching for someone to replace the genre's fallen hero. Yuen persuaded Ng to take a chance and cast a young, relatively unknown actor named Jackie Chan in the lead for his directorial debut Snake In Eagle's Shadow. The film struck a chord with audiences and Yuen and Chan joined forces again the following year for the movie Drunken Master. It was an even bigger success.
For the next 20 years, Yuen prospered in the Hong Kong film community. Worldwide, however, his work went largely unnoticed. All that changed when he received a telephone call asking him to work on 1999's blockbuster The Matrix.
"I don't know if the Wachowski brothers [Larry and Andy, the film's directors] were fans of mine or not," says Yuen. "But they wanted me to add some adjustments on a few fight sequences which they had storyboarded."
Yuen did a lot more than adjust. He worked with the film's star, Keanu Reeves, eight hours a day, five days a week for four months to prepare him for his role as Neo.
"Sometimes Keanu would request the training on the weekend as well," says Yuen. "He is a man who trains very hard and is a quality martial artist.
"American actors usually have no training in fighting and they don't know the foundations of proper movements. So before shooting, there is a lot of training to get them up to an acceptable standard," he adds.
"In Hong Kong," says Yuen, "most of the actors are familiar with Wuxia and kung fu and only require short-term training."
Although often credited with inventing wire stunts that make actors appear to float and fly, Yuen is quick to dispel that myth.
"I am not the only one doing wire stunts. I am just one among a large pool," he says.
According to Yuen, each individual team has a distinct style and uses the wire differently.
"I prefer stunts that are performed closer to the ground because they look more realistic. It looks as if we can break through the physical limitations of the human body," Yuen says.
However, with Crouching Tiger, Yuen designed one of the film's most memorable scenes with the actors walking on the flimsy tips of bamboo trees. The scene was shot with wires, without the use of greenscreen.
"I tailor the movements to the actors' abilities, depending on the fight levels of the individual," he says.
If American critics are surprised by Crouching Tiger's crossover success, Yuen is not.
"Chinese kung fu films are now somewhat rare in the American market," he says. "So this film is just a new experience to audiences here. People aren't used to the beauty of the fighting and the storytelling. That's why they are welcoming it."
It still remains to be seen if Crouching Tiger will have a sequel, even though the movie's director Ang Lee has said he would like to make two more films based on the same theme. Nonetheless Yuen remains busy and is reportedly working on two Matrix sequels.
Although he declines to comment on any of his future projects, it's well-known the Wachowski brothers wanted an Asian martial arts star to co-star in the two next Matrix films. At one time Michelle Yeoh was attached to the role but both she and Jet Li turned the brothers down. Instead American singer Aaliyah has been signed up for the role. The stunning 22-year-old starred with Jet Li in Romeo Must Die. The Wachowskis, are still hunting for an Asian martial arts star to round off the cast.
Whether or not Yuen will work with Crouching Tiger star Yeoh again remains to be seen. Nevertheless, he remains highly complementary about one of Hong Kong's favourite actresses. "Michelle was much easier to train than American actors. She has a very strong foundation in martial arts and she has technique and experience. She almost didn't need any training."
On the subject of collecting Oscars for Crouching Tiger, Yuen remains coy. "I hope that the film wins more awards," he says modestly, "but I don't know anything about the Oscars."