Fantastic Fest 2010: A conversation with Yuen Woo-ping

Associate Editor, News; Toronto, Canada (@Mack_SAnarchy)
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Fantastic Fest 2010: A conversation with Yuen Woo-ping
Absolutely thrilled beyond words to have the rare opportunity to sit down with a martial arts legend like Yuen Woo-ping during Fantastic Fest and have a conversation with him about his film True Legend and martial arts film in general. 

My thanks to Katrina Wan from Indomina Releasing for making all the arrangements. And thanks also to the two interpretors and to Yuen's production partner Anthony W.F. Wong for participating in the conversation as well. 

Andrew Mack [AM] - When were you first aware that you had a strong fan base in North America? Was there a point where you went, 'Wow. I have a lot of fans outside of China and Hong Kong.'? 

Yuen Woo-ping [YWP] - When I worked on the Matrix films with the Wachowski [brothers]. When they first approached me I wasn't too interested. But they kept inviting me. I accepted their invitation to come to America to hear them out and talk with them. I thought the combination of computer graphics with martial arts; it would be a good way to get traditional Chinese martial arts into western film industry. That's why I decided to work with them.

AM - They cite Fist of Legend as the reason they came to you to do the choreography for their film. Were you pleased that hearing films like Fist of Legend or Iron Monkey were being played outside of China; that foreign audiences were appreciating your work? Were you at all surprised, when they cited one of your earlier films; were you pleased that it went beyond the borders and reaching other people? That other people were being inspired and wanted to approach you?

YWP - I wasn't too surprised to be approached by foreign filmmakers because I am pretty confident about my films being successful and being appreciated by audiences in other countries. When people come to talk to me about my films I welcome it.

AM - You mentioned the opportunity to mix martial arts with computer graphics in the Matrix films. in True Legend you taking traditional approach to martial arts but you're infusing it with modern flourishes; as far as being able to slow down action to emphasize movement or pull the camera into focus on a particular contact or make the scenes the little grander. Was there any difficulty in that for you, being both the choreographer and the director, having to infuse the traditional movements with a modern paint brush? With the technology now were you looking to add a different emphasis to your choreography than you had been able to previously.

YWP - I prefer to put emphasis on martial arts and having the actors do it themselves so it looks more real to the audience. The computer graphics support the fight sequence to make them visually appealing and emphasize the power of the action.

AM - As you are preparing for filming, as you look at a scene in the screenplay, say, Su Can is up against his brother in law Yuan up on the platform above the waterfall, and you're getting ready to set up that scene, you're going from the script stage to filming, what is that progression like? If our readers can get inside you, into how you go from script to film, taking that waterfall scene, what is the work of the master? 

YWP - The waterfall scene wasn't in the original script. Because this was a severe fight I wanted to choose a place to help me achieve the visual appeal, the right mood, and the right atmosphere. So I was looking for the right place to film this scene for about half a month. I found this waterfall on the Yellow River [?]. I encountered a lot of difficulties though. The area is a tourism area and we had to clear the tourists out to film the scene. The waterfall is also very fast. I tried to put dummies on a wire but the whole wire fell down the falls. Very dangerous. I couldn't ask the actors to do everything by themselves; I had to let the martial artists do some of the scenes. After we filmed all the fight sequences the shots of the actors falling into the water were done by computer graphics. 

AM - It would be like us filming around Niagara Falls in New York and Ontario, putting some set out and saying, okay fight over that. I've stood next to it. I don't want to get any closer. 

As fans of mart art films we're always looking to the future of what is coming up next. We've been long time fans of your work and stars like Jackie Chan and Jet Li. We're looking to the next generation to see who is coming up. Is there anyone under your tutelage or anyone that you know, choreographers, which you would like to see given an opportunity or whose work should also be given some recognition as well? We're looking to the next generation to pick up the mantel. That is a lofty one. How do they live up to YOUR work? Is there anyone within the film community in China or Hong Kong that we should be on the lookout for?

YWP - There is a gap in the martial arts community, after Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Donnie Yen, there is a little gap there. I am trying to look for new people with a better foundation from martial arts schools. For True Legend I used Vincent Zhao, I saw it as a chance for him. I want to give more chances to more people to see if they can come up. 

AM - I certainly don't want you to stop working. For someone like Vincent or Jing Wu, who I think really needs a chance, I think it is a shame that he doesn't have to chance because watching someone like Vincent or Jing Wu on screen I feel good about the future of martial arts. I want it to be in good hands. When the time to pass the torch comes I don't want it to be passed to pop stars; although Nicholas Tse has been okay. 

Anthony W.F. Wong [AW] - We have projects for Nicholas Tse. Maybe next year. He is very fond of his [Yuen's] work. We're willing to do everything to make things happen.

AM - Of the pop stars that have made the jump into film Nicholas certainly seems one of the most capable of doing the action stuff.

AW - You like him? 

AM - I like him a lot. Despite what anybody over here says I really liked Dragon Tiger Gate, I really liked his work in that. Now I am drawing a blank that you have put me on the spot. Invisible Target with Jaycee Chan?

AW - We have two projects we are preparing. One is a traditional martial arts movie. But for this movie he doesn't have any fight scenes. Nic wants to do that. The other is a contemporary action film in Hong Kong. Nic loves the movie. Yuen has gone to Shaolin temples, a few weeks ago, to look for someone to work with us. But it is very difficult to create an actor... it's not just martial arts but also acting.

AM - There is capability but there is also charisma is part of it too. Just because you have the skills doesn't mean you can sell it on screen because your traditional training is different than the actual martial arts you're portraying on the screen. As I have been lead to believe, your approach to what you learn on the gym floor and what you do on the stage floor, your martial arts is different when you're in front of the camera than what you have been trained up to do.

AW - There is a lot from your conversation that I know you are a big fan of our work. You really care about what is going on. 

AM - We care a lot about this because we have grown up on this. I have an old VHS copy of Snake in Eagle's Shadow back at home. I knew it was a faux pas to ask people to sign things so I didn't bring it. I wanted to be professional. 

You are accepting a life time achievement award, congratulations on that. If you're up on stage and you wanted to surprise someone, invite them up on stage, and give them a lifetime achievement award as well, who would you give that to? If there is someone within the industry or within this tradition of martial arts film who you think deserves recognition who may not have. Everybody can talk about Jackie Chan and Jet Li and in the future we can talk about Donnie Yen. Is there somebody, Lau Kar-leung maybe, somebody else who you've work with throughout your career who hasn't gotten the recognition you would like to bring up on stage with you?

YWP - Liu Chia-liang [uses Lau Kar-leung's Mandirin name].

AW - Liu Chia-liang is a very famous action director. 36th Chamber of Shaolin.

AM - He was in Drunken Master 2 with Jackie Chan? 

AW - Yes.

AM - I call him Lau Kar-leung.

AW/YWP - Yes.

AM - We want to honor the same person.

[Everyone shares a good laugh]
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More about True Legend

Sean "The Butcher" SmithsonOctober 6, 2010 8:01 PM

Rocking interview Mack! You must have been beside yourself with excitement!

Agent WaxOctober 7, 2010 4:37 AM

Awesome. I, too, think Lau Kar-Leung deserves more recognition. I don't know if it's becasue of the language barrier, but Master Yuen doesn't seem very forthcoming in revealing his working methodology. Can't blame him, I guess. Tricks of the trade and all that.

Andrew MackOctober 7, 2010 6:58 AM

It could have very well been lost in translation. What you don't get are the bits in between where I'm talking with the translator some times and clarifying. As you can see some of my questions weren't terribly direct and just rambles. I wasn't going to press the issue because of time constraints. Just happy to be there in the same room as him.

Ard VijnOctober 7, 2010 10:34 AM

Aw man, this is so cool!
Would have loved to have been there...

But is it really a faux-pas to bring stuff to sign? I thought it was only "not done" when you're part of a junket, because then you are wasting all the other people's time (looking anxiously over my shoulder at the pile of signed things from past festivals).

I always wait how the interview proceeds to judge the mood of the people I'm talking to , but generally they're very pleased when I show them something to sign at the end.

When "GhibliWorld" Peter and I interviewed Shinji Aramaki for "Appleseed Ex Machina" we knew Warner wanted regular journalists, no crazed Otaku, so we kept the questions as straight as possible and only did some deeper anime-diving and veteran name-calling at the very end when we went into overtime.
Then, when the interview was finished and Aramaki-San was getting ready to return to his hotel (it was the last interview of the day) we brought our collection out of the bag: "Appleseed: regular edition", "Appleseed: special steelbook edition", and the Japanese "Appleseed: collector's edition" (the one with the huge books). It got a big laugh out of him and he asked us questions about each edition, and indeed he signed all of them.

AndrewOctober 7, 2010 12:57 PM

As I haven't done too many of these I understood it to be generally frowned upon.

From the way the interview was going though I got the sense he would have been more than happy to sign something for me. What I didn't include in the conversation about the VHS tape was that his production partner Mr. Wong told me I should go get the tape. Only it was back home in Toronto. Dangnabbit!!!

The picture with him and the memories was more than enough.

James MarshOctober 7, 2010 1:04 PM

Ard, I don't think it's a faux pas per se (ok, I'll pick a language in a minute !) you just have to judge the mood and the moment. It can occasionally look a little unprofessional but hey, if you don't jump on the chance when you get it, you really have only yourself to blame.

Awesome interview, Mack! Very cool that they recognized and acknowledged your encyclopedic knowledge!