I have to be honest and state that my favourite Martial Arts film of all time is Jackie Chan’s 1978 masterpiece “The Drunken Master”. It’s a simple story, of a young martial artist who has brought shame to his family, so his father arranges for beggar Su, the ‘Drunken Master’ to train him, in the hopes of teaching him discipline. It’s a terrific movie, that thanks to its showcase of Jackie Chan’s raw skill, and awesome choreography from director Yuen Woo-ping, it’s truly stood the test of time, more than 30 years later.
Yuen Woo-ping has remained active in the Martial Arts movie business since then, working on some iconic films through his career, with headline movies such as the Matrix trilogy, the Kill Bill films and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon amongst many more. However, Yuen Woo-ping took an extended hiatus from directing movies, returning in 2010 with True Legend.
Still active to this day, his continued work still dazzles the viewer. With attention to detail, and shifting seemlessly through different eras and filming styles, Master Yuen is a true icon of Hong Kong Cinema.
We were extremely fortunate enough to be able to have a chat with Master Yuen, and discover some of the thoughts behind his craft.
GU-True Legend tells the story of Beggar Su’s origins, and manages to mix the tragedy with moments of beauty, comedy and great martial arts skill. Was it difficult finding the balance? What were some of the challenges in translating Su Can’s story to film?
I wouldn’t say this film was any tougher or easier than other films I’ve done. Each film presents its own set of challenges and it’s always about properly managing those challenges.
True Legend takes place in some really beautiful locations, and is a pretty varied movie. Is there one particular experience from making True Legend that stands out in your memory?
It is always tough doing any kind of movie, because time and resources are always tight. One of the most difficult sequences in the film is Su Can falling into the waterfall. We actually built a platform and sent a stunt on a safety line to partially fall towards the water. I was very concerned with that in particular because that sequence was especially dangerous.
Do you think that there’s a possibility that to carry on Su Can’s story in some form or another?
The possibilities are really endless because Su Can is almost a mythical figure without a defined source material. Therefore, the potential of his story is only limited by the storyteller’s imagination.
Our favourite Martial Arts film of all time is Drunken Master, not only is it an entertaining movie, but the way the movie is shot showcases the raw skill and talent it takes to be a Martial Artist, and just seems more real and organic than many films today. Do you think there is still a place for these raw, visceral type of films in today’s cinema? Or do you think they belong in the past?
What’s popular in film tends to go in cycles. There often are periods where one type of film is very popular, then audiences get their fill and move on to something else. I think that style will definitely make a come back.
If you had the time, resources and actors of your choice at your disposal, what would be your dream story to tell? What would the movie be like? Who would star?
I can’t really answer that kind of question because filmmaking is always about working with and working around limitations. And often it is because of limitations that filmmakers are come up creative ideas and solutions.
There’s a distinct style to your films. From the stylistic showcasing of a form of Kung Fu (Wing Chun), to the more fantastical elements in the flying and graceful moves in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. When you choreograph these scenes, is it foremost in your mindset to showcase the true forms of Kung Fu?
Film kung fu is exactly that — it is kung fu that has been dramatized for a film audience. When I do a film based on a real kung fu form, I will spend a lot of time researching, but in the filmmaking process I use the research to creatively serve the story. We did so much research on The Grandmaster because of all the forms the story involved.
With western action scenes, there’s a lot of quick cuts, with close shots of the action/ fighting, sometimes taking away from the effectiveness of the scene. What’s your opinion on this? Do you think that a fight scene should showcase the skills and fluidity of the battle? Or best left as a direct and simple affair?
Cutting quick in itself isn’t bad but cutting quick is often used to glaze over action that isn’t designed very well. The key to an action sequence is conveying the information so the audience can understand.
Kill Bill and The Matrix had some stunning choreography, with a variety of styles encapsulating various forms of Kung Fu and even some wild Japanese sword fights. What was it like working with the assistance of special effects and the open minds of Quentin Tarantino and the Wachowski Brothers? How would you say they differ?
What I liked about The Matrix was how the Wachowskis used technology to put a new spin on action. On the Matrix, many sequences worked well not because of how complex the action choreography was, but because of how the action worked in tandem with the technology. On Kill Bill, Quentin was going for a very stylized type of action. There’s really no way to compare the two styles; both served to tell the story in the respective films.
Is there one Martial Artist you enjoy working with the most? Or is there anyone that you would have loved to work with you have not been able to yet?
It really depends on what the story calls for. If the story calls for a young character like Zhang Ziyi in CTHD, then of course I’d like to work with a newcomer that fits the role. The fun in filmmaking is working together to tell the story.
Having worked with the 3 Dragons separately, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao and Jackie Chan, and knowing their ability to capture an audience together, is there a chance we could see them reunited one last time?
It’s definitely possible, but everyone seems to so busy that it might be difficult to schedule.
Of all the projects films you’ve worked on/ directed, which do you really feel reflects your true vision and ideas?
I always say that filmmaking is an art form that is fraught with regret; you may have a great idea in your mind, but in realizing it there are always adjustments and compromises, sometimes for the better, sometimes not.
I wanted to get your opinion on Mixed Martial Arts as a sport. With competitions such as UFC, One FC and RIZIN continually gaining momentum, do you think that it’s a good thing for Martial Arts?
MMA gives an equal platform to many different forms of martial arts. But what I do is film martial arts, which is very different from pugilistic martial arts in UFC. I think as long as people do a sport to better themselves in the spirit of competition it is a good thing.
Master Yuen Woo Ping, we thank you for your time.
We’d like to send a huge thank you to the team at Via Vision Entertainment for giving us the opportunity to do the interview.