Yuen Woo-ping is the man behind the fight choreography seen in many classic action movies such as “The Matrix” trilogy, “Kill Bill” and “Ip Man 3.”
Yuen, 74, who was an honored guest at the New York Asian Film Festival and recipient of the Star Asia Lifetime Achievement Award, is a Hong Kong martial arts choreographer born in Guangzhou, Guangdong, China.
Not only is he an iconic action choreographer, Yuen is also a director and actor.
During the film festival, Yuen said if he could save two movies that he directed, he would save “Iron Monkey” and “Tiger Cage.”
“’Iron Monkey’ is a kung fu classic and ancient costumes. ‘Tiger Cage’ is modern style and modern style fighting, so it’s very different styles,” he explained via a translator.
With CGI becoming a major part of movies today, Yuen said he still prefers actors who do their own choreography.
“CGI really affected the audience. I really do not and very rarely use CGI. I actually go search for and work with actors who actually know how to fight. And then I work out the choreography with them,” he said.
“CGI really is only that little bit of enhancement. For example, all my actors can already have that physical skill. Then the other one is that, for example, when there’s fighting or how people react. Again, it is that little extension, that little enhancement at the end that I would add a little bit of CGI.”
Yuen went on to talk about how his father, who starred in “Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow” and “Drunken Master,” both of which were directed by Yuen, influenced him, adding that directing and doing action choreography isn’t exactly related to each other.
“Those two are my directorial debut, but my father taught me kung fu and kung fu choreography,” he said. “But these things, directing and action kung fu choreography, are actually not related.”
When asked who he wished to work with in the future since he has already collaborated with high profile actors and actresses, including Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen and Michelle Yeoh, Yuen jokingly replied, “I’ve worked with all of them.”
“I’ve worked with the top kung fu actors — men, women, all of them,” he added.
Yuen admitted that he likes being an action choreographer more than acting.
“There’s a lot of room as an action choreographer to play with movement,” he said. “I like directing, too, but a director has to commit a lot of time, much longer than an action choreographer, which is involved in a film project for three months. As a director for a film project, from preparation all the way to post-production, we’re talking about a year.”
The legendary action choreographer believes that Hong Kong still has a bright future in creating action films despite the decrease in content being produced.
“Yes, I think there is still room and we can still do something in Hong Kong action films,” Yuen said. “Different from the 1980s and 90s when there’s huge quantity. What we are now looking for is high-quality work. Also a lot of new ideas, new things coming out of it.”
Yuen also shared some of the lessons he learned while coaching actors or working with them to get the performance he wanted, which he carried over to his career as a director.
“When I work with these actors, I require that they already have very high-level skills in martial arts,” he said. “There is great rapport because it’s really at the same level that we are working with.”
“The Matrix” trilogy is one of Yuen’s most iconic work as an action choreographer, but he initially didn’t want to work on the franchise. A production manager approached Yuen, but he turned down the offer.
It wasn’t until the Shaw Brothers production manager reached out and convinced Yuen to discuss the project. The representative of the film also gave Yuen a plane ticket to Hollywood.
“So I went to Hollywood and met with the director. The director said that he basically wanted to have special effects and CGI. But the thing is that is actually a way of enhancing Chinese kung fu,” he said. “And I thought, ‘That’s a good idea. Maybe we should try that.’”
“The results really wowed the audience and changed people’s perspective and view of that.”
Things did not work out in the beginning as the actors in “The Matrix” didn’t have any training. The production took four months of training and another four months of physical training to sharpen their skills.
“After one and a half months off from basic training onward, I felt that they were kind of ready. Then the rest of the time was every single scene, every detailed movement. And then they’re just practicing daily,” Yuen said.
“That actually has so many of the eastern elements and influence in the film. After the film was made, it really did affect and change the trajectory of the films that followed.”
On the fight scenes in today’s movies compared to the past, Yuen said, “20 or 30 years ago, they would they would have lots and lots of different movements and so on but the thing is actually the sense of power now is much much bigger.”
“I mean the sense of the power of actual fight scenes is much much harder compared to before in which actually you feel that there was a little bit less power.”
Yuen has previously worked with Stephen Chow in the hit comedy film “Kung Fu Hustle.”
When asked what it’s like to take forms and styles that he’s familiar with and change them for comedic effect, Yuen replied, “It depends on what film you want to make. Sort of what type of style you want.”
“Remember ‘Kung Fu Hustle’ is kind of super realistic. You have kung fu which is the basic element, but you really create a surreal world and add comedic elements to it.”
Yuen also shed some light on the difference between working in the Western movie industry and in Hong Kong.
“In Hong Kong, we are right there on the scene. We devise it. We practice a little and then we shoot because the actors are trained and capable of doing that. In Hollywood, I mean there’s a lot of that, but it just takes time and it’s a very different system.”
Images Courtesy of New York Asian Film Festival