Well, I promised I’d be "normal" this month and thankfully I think I’ve kept up my end of the bargain. After a pretty shitty couple of months (or years, depending on whether or not I’m feeling particularly pessimistic), a few things have fallen my way and my immediate future looks like it’ll be a lot of fun (or at least pleasantly bearable). Cool, huh? There’s plenty of reasons for this upswing (I’ll spare you the annoying details) but one of them is the subject of this month’s walk down kung fu lane. Y’see, yet another regular subject of this column has made a splash in American cinema and this instance actually gives me some hope that Americans will finally get the whole kung fu movie thing right. The subject? Yuen Wo-Ping, long time kung fu movie stalwart and fight choreographer for the smash hit The Matrix.
I was in the middle of a… how shall I put this… monetary rut when The Matrix came out and I didn’t get to see it until about three weeks into it’s run. By the time I walked into the theater I had been grilled to death by friends from Boston to LA wondering what I, a kung fu movie fool and William Gibson devotee, thought about this blend of cyberpunk sensibilities and Hong Kong action.
Well… within an hour after the final credits rolled I had hurriedly contacted all of them via email putting a solid stamp of approval on both the action and the film as a whole (as well as throwing out a few poetic comments on Carrie-Anne Moss and her amazing leather outfit. That was worth the price of admission all by its lonesome.) Even Keanu Reeves, a man who has the inherent grace of a rhinoceros on acid and the screen presence of a sack of rice, didn’t spoil the fun for me. Actually, in a perverse way, he heightened it as on several occasions in the film his awkward attempts at more graceful forms made me laugh out loud.
Now that I think about it for a second, the lovely and talented Carrie-Anne Moss is actually a useful segue into this month’s topic because it was during her intro scene (the first fight in the movie) that I realized that they had given Yuen a lot of freedom in terms of the style and pacing of the fight scenes. "That’s a Yuen Wo-Ping fight" I intoned breathlessly when she ran up and around the walls in a steadily framed shot. The trend established in that scene continued throughout the movie and The Matrix now stands as the finest example of American produced choreography to date.
Honestly, if I had paid more attention to the pre-release press about this film I wouldn’t have been surprised at all by the finished quality of the fights (and what’s worse, I’ve been fed bits of info on this movie for close to a year. A good friend of mine worked as a PA at the effects house responsible for all the super-cool CGI used and he dropped little nuggets every chance he got). One line, in fact, would’ve tipped me off to the fact that The Wachowski Brothers know what’s up. To quote Yuen Wo-Ping’s bio from the phenomenally cool Matrix web site, "…and in 1994 he was fight choreographer on the film Fist of Legend. It was his work on this film that caught the attention of the Wachowski brothers." That, for me, says it all. I mean, if those guys were astute enough to notice the amazing work Yuen (along with the rest of the Yuen clan) did on that Jet Li classic then they’re certainly astute enough to sit back and let the guy do his magic.
So who is this Yuen Wo-Ping anyway? Well, quickly (I’m popping a couple capsule reviews at the end of this article so I’ve got to save a little space), he’s one of the most influential director/choreographers in the business. He’s also got a pedigree that compares favorably to the master Lau Kar-Leung (8 Diagram Pole Fighter, 36th Chamber of Shaolin) which puts him in some pretty exclusive company. Like Lau, Yuen’s father worked on Kwan Tak-Hing’s Wong Fei-Hung series (the foundation upon which the whole genre is built) and Wo-Ping was eventually brought on as a stuntman (as was Lau.) Yuen (again, like Lau) then moved on to the Shaw Brothers Studio for a while where he worked, most notably, as a stuntman on the historically important Jimmy Wang Yu flick, The Chinese Boxer. He poked around for a while after that gaining credits as a choreographer until, in 1978, he ended up at Ng See-Yuen’s Seasonal Films. There he and Jackie Chan changed the face of the genre forever with the smash hit that made Jackie a star, Drunken Master, a film that established the kung fu comedy as a box office meal ticket. Since that groundbreaking achievement Yuen has consistently pushed the envelope in terms of choreography and has directed numerous genre classics.
Anyway, as stated above I want to round this thing out with some short words about a few Yuen flicks that I find interesting. Hopefully The Matrix impressed you enough (well, specifically the fights impressed you enough) that you’d like to see what the guy can do with people that actually have some skills when it comes to screen combat.
Snake in the Eagle ‘s Shadow
Featuring virtually the same cast and plot as the trend-setting film that immediately followed (the aforementioned Drunken Master), this comparatively neglected film ranks higher in my book than it’s far more famous successor. Why? Well, aside from the superior fights in Drunken Master, I feel like everything just works better in Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow. The jokes are funnier, the performances are more relaxed and the situation is more palatable. For disclosures sake, I feel I should add that I’m in the minority with this opinion. Your mileage may vary.
I think I talk about this movie every couple of months so I’ll keep it brief. Donnie Yen (who Yuen discovered) + Yu Rong-Guang + insane wire-fu antics = a goddamned classic. If you see only one Yuen Wo-Ping film this has got to be your flick of choice.
Drunken Tai Chi
Trying to capitalize on the same formula that made Jackie Chan a star, Yuen again returned to the drunken boxing flavored comedy with this, Donnie Yen’s debut feature. To be honest the results weren’t nearly as good the second time around. Much of this film is bogged down by patently unfunny gags and a heap of dopey hamming by the then inexperienced Yen. Thing is, the fights alone make the film’s many faults nothing more than an afterthought. Feel free to fast-forward through the stupid stuff and then watch the fights twice. Donnie Yen is that good.
Yuen teams with Sammo Hung Kam-Bo, one of the few guys that’s has a better resume than he does, in this one and the results are fantastic. Sammo stars as Wong Fei Hung’s most influential student, Lam Sai Wing (AKA "Butcher" Wing) and he puts in one of his best martial performances. If your only exposure to Jackie’s "Big Brother" is Martial Law, then this movie is a good place to see what the fuss is really all about.
As an added bonus Wong is again portrayed by the timeless Kwan Tak-Hing, who shines in an extremely creative calligraphy fight in an early scene in the film.
Oh! I saw this on the shelves at my local Blockbuster. Now you’ve got to rent it.
Tai Chi II
This one reminded me a lot of Drunken Tai Chi. It’s got plenty of faults (including some eerily similar ham-it-up antics by the film’s young star, Jacky Wu), but it’s still got enough in the fight department to make for a worthwhile rental. Billy Chow also makes an appearance which is always a mark in the plus column for me. Another area where this film excels is the Christy Chung department. If you like women, you’ll like Christy Chung. She’s instant crush material.
Tai Chi Master
Jet Li is known for doing classy wire-fu. Yuen Wo-Ping is known for doing insanely over-the-top wire-fu. The two team up in this wire-fu extravaganza. Featuring Michelle Yeoh and Chin Siu-Ho, this picture takes great liberties with the legend of the creation of Tai Chi Chuan and the results are best described as insane. It’s not the equal of classier Li pictures like Once Upon a Time in China or Fong Sai Yuk, but it’s still great fun if wire-work floats your boat.
So there you have it, an unofficial Yuen Wo-Ping primer provided free of charge. Please use this information only for the good of humanity. Use of this information for the furtherance of evil is strictly frowned upon.
This article first appeared in Shovel #14, April 1999.