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An Ideal Partnership - The films of Director Yuen Woo Ping and Actor Donnie Yen Part 2

Darren Murray
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An Ideal Partnership - The films of Director Yuen Woo Ping and Actor Donnie Yen Part 2

1993 was quite the year for Yuen Woo Ping, with him directing 3 films within the year as well as working as action choreographer on another. After working together on Iron Monkey (1993), both Woo Ping and Donnie Yen moved on to their next martial arts outing, Heroes Among Heroes (1993).

In between, Yen managed to fit in Butterfly and Sword (1993), a forgettable Wuxia from director Chu Yen Ping, that is partially saved by some crazy action choreographed by Ching Siu-Tung.

Heroes Among Heroes is an average martial arts film that could never match up to the superior work the two had done only months prior in Iron Monkey. For Yen, it at least managed to be more enjoyable than Butterfly and Sword, with him at the very least in a leading role.

Like Iron Monkey, Heroes Among Heroes is another tale based on the legendary Wong Fei-Hung. This time the famous character is back to being a leading character, but is played by the mediocre Wong Yuk. Clearly hired for his fighting skills than his acting, Wong is one of the poorer aspects of the film, with a clear lack of charisma that his serious martial arts skills fail to make up for.

Luckily Donnie Yen is here to save the day, starring as another member of the Ten Tigers of Canton, Beggar So. As well as being typically impressive in his fight scenes, Beggar So gives Yen a small chance to stretch himself as an actor, as So gets addicted to opium during the film, with Yen having to act out the stages of addiction.

After working against each other for a good length of the film, both Wong Fei Hung and Beggar So must team together to take down the dangerous Xiong Xin Xin, who is secretly smuggling opium.

Like Wong Fei-Hung, Beggar So is a character Yuen Woo Ping has come back to multiple times throughout his career. Most famously he was played by his father Yuen Siu-tien in Drunken Master (1978) and Dance of the Drunk Mantis (1979), which sadly marked Siu-tien;s final film role.

Woo Ping would include a similar character called the Beggar King in The Magnificent Butcher (1979), which was clearly meant to be Beggar So but was probably changed due to the untimely death of Woo Ping’s father.

The year prior to the release of Heroes Among Heroes, Chow Sing Chi played Beggar So in the smash hit King of Beggars (1992), an extremely silly take on the character. The only similarity between the two films is that both sport an enjoyably zany performance from Ng Man-Tat.

Yuen Woo Ping would return to the character years later with True legend (2012), which took a much more serious look at the character, this time being portrayed by the underrated Zhou Wen Zhou 

Xiong Xin Xin doesn’t disappoint as the villain, putting our heroes through their paces with his none too shabby fighting skills. To lighten matters up is Ng Man-Tat as Beggar So’s father, and Fennie Yuen who Beggar So ends up being engaged to.

Unlike Iron Money, Heroes Among Heroes was clearly made on a smaller budget, with it missing the slickness of that production. Heroes Among Heroes is rough around the edges and seems to be a quickly made production.

The film still manages to be enjoyable, with Yuen Woo Ping manage to fill the film with exciting action scenes, that whilst not his best, still stand above most other fight choreography of the era. It is unclear how much of the film was down to Woo Ping as he shares a directing credit with producer Chan Chin-Chung, although his stamp is all over the action.

In addition to co-directing the film, Chan Chin-Chung worked on the script along with co-writers Lau  Tai-Muk, Anthony Wong Wing-Fai and Jobic Chui Daat-Choh.

Both Lau Tai-Muk and Anthony Wong Wing-Fai worked on multiple Woo Ping films, with Jobic Chui Daat-Choh being the odd one out, writing less high-brow material such as Category 3 sleaze fests The Underground Banker (1994) and A Chinese Torture Chamber Story (1994). Heroes Among Heroes would certainly register as one of the higher points of his career.

Like most Woo Ping outings, he has members of the Yuen Clan working on the fight choreography. As previously mentioned the action included isn’t their best, with nothing to match their work in the likes of Tiger Cage 2 or Iron Monkey, but it is still of a high enough quality to make an impression.

There wouldn’t be a long wait before Yuen Woo Ping and Donnie Yen were together again, this time on the superior Wing Chun (1994). Yen would be relegated to co-starring status this time, with Michelle Yeoh taking centre stage.

The plot is based around the independent Wing Chun who runs a local tofu stand. Most of the drama comes from the return of her childhood sweetheart (Donnie Yen), who mistakes someone else for Wing Chun. Before this identity crisis can be sorted, Wing Chun has to deal with the advances of scholar Waise Lee as well as fight off a gang of bandits who are terrorising her village. It turns out that their leader Norman Chu is also a fan of the lovely Wing Chun.

Wing Chun has a much lighter touch than other films Yuen Woo Ping was making at the time. With its mixture of martial arts and comedy it is closer to his earlier films as director such as Drunken Master and The Magnificent Butcher than the blood thirsty Tiger Cage series.

In fact, unlike other Woo Ping films, there are no real casualties in Wing Chun, with even the villains getting to survive. This doesn’t mean that there is less action, as Woo Ping is always creative when it comes to the fight scenes.

Yeoh had worked with Woo Ping the year previously on Tai Chi Master (1993), where she starred alongside Jet Li. Wing Chun may not be of the same overall quality as Tai Chi Master, but it does give Michelle Yeoh a better chance to not only show of her physical skills but her drama and comedy talents too.

Donnie Yen is especially good here, showing a surprising flair for comedy. His previous films like Drunken Tai Chi and Tiger Cage 2 had some comedic elements but nothing on the scale of what he plays here.  A lot of the comedy is derived from him mistaken the attractive Catherine Hung for Wing Chun.

This isn’t to say that all of Yen’s scenes are played for laughs, with him appearing in a good number of fight scenes throughout, even if the best action scenes are reserved for Yeoh. Even with the actor appearing in less fight scenes than normal, Wing Chun gave him a chance to further his experience behind the camera, with him working as one of the films fight choreographers.

In regards to the supporting cast, Waise Lee is a standout as the lecherous scholar, giving a silly performance which has the actor overacting to a fault. Norman Chu is always good value as a villain, with his role as Flying Chimpanzee giving him a chance to fight against both Donnie Yen and Michelle Yeoh.

There is also a cameo appearance from Shaw Brothers starlet Cheng Pei-Pei who plays Wing Chun’s master.

The script was by regular Woo Ping collaborators Anthony Wong Wing-Fai and Elsa Tang Bik-Yin, with their work here being the most light-hearted film they wrote for the director.

The fight choreography was again a team effort with Yuen Woo Ping and his brother Yuen Shun-Yi working together with Donnie Yen. A lot of the fight action is played for laughs, but is still elaborate and entertaining.  

After the release of Wing Chun, Yuen Woo Ping would go on to make Die Hard (1988) knockoff The Red Wolf (1995), one of the directors poorer efforts. Slightly better was his action choreography on Black Mask (1996), an enjoyable sci-fi actioner that had him working with Jet Li once again.

Donnie Yen’s career at this point was beginning to show a downturn in quality, with him going on to star in the poor High Voltage (1995). It would have been totally forgettable if not for some quality action scenes choreographed by Yen.

He did have some success with the television series Fist of Fury (1995), playing the role of Chen Zhen, the role made famous by Bruce Lee.

Like most Hong Kong television series, the production values are lacking being yet again shot on video, but the show did give him a chance to further his choreography skills, although these aren’t the best example of his skills, with the lack of a proper stunt team being all too apparent.

Years later Yen would get a chance to reprise the part of Chen Zhen with somewhat more success, in director Andrew Lau’s Legend of the Fist: Return of Chen Zen (2010).

The Fist of Fury series may not have been great, but is a masterpiece when compared to Yen’s next film. Iron Monkey 2 (1996), should have been a classic martial arts film, with the requisite number of elements to make it so.

Yen was back as the star with Yuen Woo Ping on action choreography, but sadly these are the only elements from the first film to make the transition. It is unclear how Iron Monkey turned out to be such as mess.

Poor plotting, badly written characters and the lowest of the low production values all contribute to make Iron Monkey 2 one of the poorest films Yen or Woo Ping was ever involved with. Iron Monkey 2 looks as if it was made to capitalise on the original film, as other than the lead actor there are no ties to the first film.

With the overall cheap production, which was apparently shot in less than two weeks, you would be forgiven in thinking that Iron Monkey 2 was an unofficial sequel, with a name change to cash in on the first films success. Sadly this isn’t the case.

It is unclear who directed the film, as some sources have listed Yuen Woo Ping as being the film’s director where others state that it is the work of Jua Lu-Jiang, who is credited on screen. Lu-Jiang only has two other films to his credit as director. I can’t imagine they could be any worse than his work here. 

In fairness, the director has a lot of obstacles in his way, with the cheapness of the production being the main detractor. Considering the film was made in 1996, the look of the film betrays this giving it the look of a film made years before. There is also the issue that Donnie Yen isn’t really the main character, with him appearing intermittingly throughout.

This forces the film to focus on a number of characters that fail to hold the audience’s attention. The film only briefly comes alive when Yen appears and gets involved in some admittedly good fight scenes.

The credits don’t even bother spelling the leading man’s name correctly, with Donnie Yen being credited as Donnie Yeh. Yen plays the title character of Iron Monkey. This isn’t the same person from the first film, as this sequel is set around 50 years after that films events. As mentioned, he only shows up, sometimes in a silly costume, to take part in a fight scene.

Yen has stated that he was originally cast in a cameo role, but to his despair his part kept getting larger. Yen is good in the films fight scenes, but doesn’t do much beyond that as the material just isn’t there for the actor to stretch himself.

The only actor worth mentioning is the great Billy Chow, who gets to go toe to toe with Yen in the films finale, one of the films brief highlights.

Yuen Woo Ping does his best with the action choreography, but this is by far his finest hour. Like Yen he is credited by the wrong name in the opening titles, with his name being listed as Yuen Ho Ping. He was assisted in the action by fellow action choreographer Lee Hoi-Hing.

It would be almost twenty years before Yuen Woo Ping and Donnie Yen would work together. In the time between, Woo Ping directed Tai Chi 2 (1996), which introduced future martial artist star Wu Jing to audiences.

He then went on to find success in the west by choreographing the action in The Matrix and its sequels as well as work on Quentin Tarantino’s cult hit Kill Bill.

Woo Ping would continue to work within the Chinese film industry, mainly as an action choreographer. Some of his most celebrated work was in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), where he worked as action choreographer.

There would still be the odd international movie between his Hong Kong work, with him working with Jet Li once again on the overlooked Danny the Dog (2005) and then with Jet Li and Jackie Chan on The Forbidden Kingdom (2008). Woo Ping and Chan hadn’t worked together since Twin Dragons (1992), where Woo Ping was one of that films many action choreographers.

He would finally make a return to directing with True Legend, an enjoyable throwback to the types of films Woo Ping had made in the past.

With regards to Yen, it took him a little longer, but he eventually found the success that had seemingly eluded him for years. Like Woo Ping he too had try to make it in America, but with varying results.

After directing his own Hong Kong features, Legend of the Wolf (1997), Ballistic Kiss (1998) and Shanghai Affairs (1998), Yen tried his luck in America. His first film was Highlander: Endgame (2000), the fourth part in the cult fantasy series. His role was relatively small but gave Yen a chance to work behind the scenes as the films main action director.

Not his best work, but there are some well constructed fight scenes, the best of these featuring Yen and leading man Adrian Paul.

Similarly he would have a small role in Blade 2 (2002), where like Highlander: Endgame, Yen worked as the action director. His work behind the camera is more impressive than Highlander: Endgame but fans may be disappointed by his lack of screen time.

He would fare better with Shanghai Knights (2003), where yet again he was playing a supporting role, but at least had more screen time. For some reason he is relegated to playing a secondary villain with lead actor Jackie Chan facing off with Aiden Gillen in the finale instead of the more impressive Yen. Yen’s fight with Chan is a highlight, but this is the only main action scene that Yen was involved in.

After a few missteps, Yen would finally find major success with director Wilson Yip’s S.P.L. (2005). From there he would go on to act in a string of hits with the likes of Dragon Tiger Gate (2006), Flash Point (2007) and Ip Man (2008) amongst them.

It would be through the Ip Man series that Yen would find himself working alongside Yuen Woo Ping once again. The first two films in the series were major successes for Yen and director Wilson Yip had featured action choreography by Sammo Hung.

For Ip Man 3 (2015) it was decided to hire Yuen Woo Ping to carry out the action choreography, and as expected, the results are electrifying. Woo Ping’s choreography is hard hitting and extremely fast. The finale where Yen fights the equally impressive Zhang Jin is especially dangerous looking.

Woo Ping had previously worked on another Ip Man biopic, Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster (2013). That film had its fair share of excellent fight sequences, but pale in comparison to his excellent work here.

Ip Man has become one of Donnie Yen’s most popular roles, but the version shown in these films is mostly embellished from the real life person. Yen gives him a quiet dignity, a person who only uses his Wing Chun skills when left with no other choice.

As expected, Yen is terrific in the films fight scenes, with the action here probably the finest of the series to date. The only issue is down to how young Yen looks. Part 3 is set 22 years after the first film and he doesn’t appear to have aged a day. As the film takes place in 1959, the real life Ip Man would have been around 66 years old.

This doesn’t really detract from the film as Wilson Yip is clearly more interested in the legend of Ip Man than making a true life biopic.

Other than Yen, the main stand out is the impressive Zhang Jin. Zhang had already co-starred in Wong Kar Wai’s Ip Man biopic The Grandmaster, but is given more of a chance to make an impression this time round.

His character of Cheung Tin-Chi is one of the most interesting of the series. His character does have dubious morals, but has his own code that he won’t go against.

Zhang’s fight scenes are impressive, with the actor giving his all and proving to be a true foil for Ip Man. His character is a major improvement on the second films antagonist played by the late Darren Shalhavi.

Zhang’s character has proven to be so popular that he has been awarded with his own spin off. Currently filming under the title of Ip Man Side Project: Cheung Tin-Chi, there is no doubt there will be a title change. The film is directed by Yuen Woo Ping and will co-star Tony Jaa, Dave Bautista and Michelle Yeoh.

One of the main selling points of Ip Man 3 at the time was a rare acting role for former boxer Mike Tyson. After all the publicity surrounding Tyson’s role, it only amounts to an extended cameo, with him going up against Yen for a surprisingly brief fight scene.

It is no surprise that Ip Man 3 was a financial success. It had originally been though that Ip Man 3 would be the final part of the trilogy but there has since been an announcement that Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen are reteaming to bring fans a fourth entry in the series, this time set in America’s Chinatown.

Apparently the film will focus on the relationship between Ip Man and his famous student Bruce Lee, who only appeared briefly in part 3, played by Danny Chan.

Coming 16 years after the release of the first film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016) is the last film to date to combine the talents of Yuen Woo Ping and Donnie Yen.

It could be considered brave of Yuen Woo Ping to even attempt to make a sequel to the beloved original, so he should be at least given points for trying. It would be foolish to claim that the sequel is on par with the first film, as the sequel favours martial arts battles over the first’s focus on character and drama.

Taken on its own terms, the film still manages to entertain, resembling the Yuen Woo Ping films of the 1980’s and 90’s, more than the Ang Lee original.

Yuen Woo Ping has never been an actor’s director, so he seems a strange choice to helm this sequel. Perhaps it would have been better to have him just work on the action scenes like he did in the first film and let someone else worry about the drama.

Another strange aspect of the production was the decision to shoot the film in English after the first film being shot in Mandarin. This is probably more to do with the film being made for streaming service Netflix instead of a larger production company like Columbia, who were behind the original.

For his part, Woo Ping does manage to get by, filling the film with typically excellent action scenes. The action for the most part is fun and exciting, although nothing compares to the work he carried out in the original.

The production values do let things down slightly, with it looking more like a DTV movie. The decision to shoot the film in Australia may at first seem odd, but does add something to the film, with the colourful greenery making up for some cheap looking sets.

Michelle Yeoh is the only returning actor from the first film and is as always reliable. Sadly she feels more like a supporting player in her own film with too much screen time taken up by newcomers Harry Shum Jr and Natasha Liu Bordizzo, who fail to make much of an impression.

Thankfully, Donnie Yen is on hand to brighten things up. Not one of his best leading roles of late, Yen still makes an impression, mainly with his handful of fight scenes, the best of which has him fighting an opponent on a frozen lake.

It is also good to see Jason Scott Lee of Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993) fame, who plays the main villain of the film. Looking larger these days, he makes for quite an intimidating character.

Since its release Donnie Yen has become even more famous with him starring in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) as well as XXX: The Return of Xander Cage (2017), where he starred in a role originally envisaged for fellow Hong Kong superstar Jet Li.

Woo Ping of course has the Ip Man spin off to come out as well as working on The Thousand Faces of Dunjia (2017), a remake of his directorial outing Miracle Fighters (1982), with Tsui Hark on writing and producing duties.

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ActionBeggar SoDonnie YenHong KongIp ManMartial ArtsYuen Woo Ping