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Hong Kong Legend Yuen Woo Ping’s ‘Fantastic’ Past, Future
Posted on Sun, Sep 26, 2010 at 9:31 am
by IDMA Editor

After four decades choreographing and directing some of the best-known martial arts films in contemporary Hong Kong cinema, Yuen Woo Ping is making the first American film festival appearance of his career.

The legendary Hong Kong filmmaker, director of such genre classics as “Drunken Master” (1978) and “Iron Monkey” (1993) and action choreographer on international hits “The Matrix” (1999), “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000), “Kill Bill: Vol. 1 & 2″ (2003), and “Kung Fu Hustle” (2004), arrived this week in Austin, Texas to accept the Lifetime Achievement Award at the sixth annual Fantastic Fest.

Photo of Yuen Woo-Ping from Speakeasy - Getty

In honor of Yuen’s award this year, two films screen Saturday during the genre-centric film festival, book-ending the influential director’s career: Yuen’s 1978 directorial debut “Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow,” starring a young Jackie Chan and Yuen’s own father Yuen Siu-tien, and his latest film, “True Legend,” featuring Vincent Zhao as the famed Drunken Fist master Beggar So/Su Can.

“True Legend,” recently acquired by newbie distributor Indomina Releasing, features previous Yuen collaborators Michelle Yeoh, Gordon Liu, and the late David Carradine and mixes Yuen’s signature action flair with CG environments and elements of street dance. Speakeasy spoke with Yuen about his film, inspirations, and what he learned from working closely with Quentin Tarantino and the Wachowski brothers.

What did you see in the epic story of Beggar So/Su Can that inspired you to make this film?

Bill Kong, the producer, approached me with the script and I thought the story structure was pretty good. I thought I could put some fight choreography in this movie to make it flow more. That’s why I chose this movie; it just depends on the script.

Your father, Yuen Siu-tien, was well known for portraying the character Beggar So in your 1978 film “Drunken Master;” Vincent Zhao plays a version of the same character in “True Legend.” To what extent did you mean to make “True Legend” in homage to your father’s legacy?

There is a connection; my father played Beggar So before and was actually very successful playing it. There was some idea that I wanted to continue his character myself, to keep him going.

In “True Legend” you make use of computer generated environments and effects. How much has your filmmaking style changed over the years, especially as technology advanced to allow use of digital elements?

I put a lot of new ideas into “True Legend.” But in this movie, computer graphics are still only support for the actual martial arts fight sequences, because you can never replace the true movement of actual actors fighting. Here specifically I put street dance elements into the choreography to make it more visually appealing; I always try to put new things into my movies, to give new things to the audience to enjoy.

Considering the many films you’ve either directed or choreographed, each with its own blend of different styles of martial arts, do you find yourself seeking new forms for each film?

All of my films have to be different and have different fighting styles and choreography. Otherwise the audiences wouldn’t watch them — they’d rather watch one movie if they all had the same style. So in “True Legend,” the reason I put the street dance, for example, into the choreography was that I thought there were some similarities between the street dance and Drunken Fist, that there was a possibility that I could combine the two together. Every film has to have some different style, some new element.

Your cast includes popular veteran actors who you’ve worked with before and are well known not only in martial arts cinema but internationally in film. How did Michelle Yeoh, Gordon Liu, and David Carradine come to join your cast?

I chose Michelle Yeoh and Gordon Liu because they already have an audience; they have reputations in martial arts film. The characters they play actually are pretty well suited to them; Michelle is a medicine expert and pretty good in martial arts, and Michelle is really good in martial arts so I asked her to play the role because it fit her. I knew David from “Kill Bill,” and in this movie we needed a Russian manager of the fighting club, so I thought David could manage this role. I was good friends with David and that’s why I asked him to play this character.

Having worked with him years ago, what is your best memory of working with David Carradine?

One interesting thing happened when I worked with David in a training session for “Kill Bill.” David thought he knew about martial arts, so he paid a little less attention to what I said. He’d say, “I know it, I know it!” while everyone else was putting a lot of effort into rehearsal. [Laughs] He thought he knew it so he’d just play around with the weapons. But he was a very decent person and we established a very good friendship during training and filming. I maintained relationships with all of those actors. So once I figured out that this role might be good for David, I just asked him to come over and play it.

Your films and your legacy have inspired a number of Western fans and filmmakers, some of whom you’ve collaborated with. What was your reaction to discovering that you’d influenced a new generation of filmmakers halfway around the world — some of whom, like Quentin Tarantino and the Wachowskis, you eventually collaborated with?

It’s a great thing, and it’s actually a mutual influence because I brought my movies to America and I’m also inspired by Western movies. It goes both ways. What I was most influenced by in working with the Wachowskis was their use of computer graphic technology. What they did in “The Matrix” matched my choreography perfectly to make the film work. From Tarantino, one thing I learned was how to make violence vicious. [Laughs] But I rarely use that.

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