Action Choreographer Woo-Ping Yuen on 'Crouching Tiger' and Molding Donnie Yen

Yuen Woo-Ping - Publicity - H 2019
Rob Domingo
The Hong Kong filmmaker, also known for 'The Matrix' and 'Ip Man', looks back at the sacrifices required to make his films.

Nobody can keep up with Woo-Ping Yuen, the Hong Kong action choreographer who’s probably most famous for his work on The Matrix and both Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and its sequel, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, the latter of which Yuen also directed. The 74-year-old martial arts guru received the Star Asia Lifetime Achievement Award this week at the New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) before a screening of Master Z: Ip Man Legacy, Yuen's latest directorial effort and an impressive spinoff from the popular Donnie Yen action movie franchise.

Yuen's career longevity is at least partly thanks to his knack for cultivating new talent like Yen — who got his first big break from Yuen in 1984, when they collaborated on Drunken Tai-Chi, a delightfully manic action-comedy — as well as Jackie Chan (Snake in the Eagle's ShadowDrunken Master) and Sammo Hung (The Magnificent Butcher).

Today, Yuen often directs his own movies, but his un-sentimental take on cinematic trends — from post-Bruce Lee martial-arts comedies of the 1980s to a more recent wave of "romanticism" and traditional narratives in mainland Chinese productions — is the real secret to his decades-long reputation as an innovative action filmmaker. The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Yuen at NYAFF (with the help of translator Joanna Lee) about making movies with his father Simon Yuen and his brothers in “the Yuen Clan,” his preferred method of shooting action scenes, and some of his favorite titles from his still-growing filmography.

You are, from what I’ve read, one of 12 children, four of which became filmmakers in some capacity. I’m especially partial to the action-comedies that you made with your brothers in the Yuen Clan during the 1980s, like Miracle Fighters, Shaolin Drunkard, Taoism Drunkard, and Drunken Tai-Chi. Can you talk a little about who did what on those earlier movies?

Not 12 children — just 10.

Only 10! (both laugh.)

And not four brothers who went into film — six in film. Take Miracle Fighters, for example: I had a concept, and they all helped me to realize it. Sometimes, that initial concept may not be exactly what you see onscreen, in which case my brothers helped to revise my ideas. We worked as a team. Remember: that was way before CGI, so there were several complex scenes — especially with explosions and other technical effects — that required a whole team to get a certain shot. That movie took about 170 days to complete.

That autobiographical element in your work is really compelling, as in recent films like Master Z and True Legend. What was your learning curve like when you worked with your father? I’ve read you say that you, as a stuntman and an actor, would often die in your dad’s movies.

Growing up, my father taught me kung fu. At age 20, my brothers and I were brought into the film industry. My father, at that point, was usually an action choreographer, or sometimes he’d be an actor. My brothers and I were often brought onto different productions because of our martial arts training. There’s a famous Cantonese phrase that applies to martial arts actors: you walk in first and you die first.

Training with my dad had a lot to do with observation: I took note of what he taught the other actors. There was no way that my father would take special care of me because it was a whole group of people working together. At home, he would sometimes teach us one on one, or tell us about things that he had observed. But sometimes, my father would just be an actor and would work with other action directors. So I would keep an eye out for camera angles and how to direct specific scenes. Sometimes, when I worked with different actors, I would maybe overstep my bounds and say something that they didn’t like. And then they would go after me.

You mentioned some of the pyrotechnics that you used in earlier movies like Drunken Tai-Chi or Dreadnaught. In interviews, you often talk about how you have to make do with the limits of your production, whether it’s technology or the actors’ physical abilities. What were some of the biggest technical challenges that you faced early on as a choreographer? I'm especially curious how you handled the use of fireworks and explosions since those seem to be the most dangerous.

That’s real kung fu! Drunken Tai-Chi has the first starring role for Donnie Yen. Donnie was basically, as you know, pretty blank. He was nothing, zero. But Donnie was very smart: he learned quickly. There was also Lydia Shum … She’s the actress who plays the fat lady. Her training also required a lot of patience and practice. Some scenes even required body doubles.

As for Dreadnaught: I like that story! It’s the story of a young guy, a little bit cowardly, who eventually grows up ... I had the main concepts for that movie, and my brothers helped, as a team, to get the film to work. I’m quite satisfied with it still.

I've read you describe using something called a "Hong Kong zoom," where you have the camera zoom in and out in a single take that you edit in camera. Can you think of any other innovative HK-specific techniques like that?

True to Hong Kong style: one zoom can travel the world in the sense that if you use a camera for a zoom, that becomes the main camera that you use. After that, you use hand-held cameras to follow the action. Because you can’t follow the movement with bigger cameras, even if you have a big cameras on rails. Hand-held gives you that freedom, that option. Cameramen have to also remember all the moves that are happening onscreen. The cameraman has to know where to go, moment by moment.

You generally prefer to use one camera when you shoot rather than multiple cameras for the sake of coverage. That’s pretty intense, having to know exactly what you’re doing rather than figuring it out as you film. When did you start doing that, or was that always your preference?

Three, four cameras are no use. Once I’ve decided that this is the angle that captures the motion of the scene, I just put the camera there! I don’t need anything else. I don’t like multiple cameras. Even when I worked on The Matrix and all those other films in the West? Still one camera.

Didn’t that make people nervous, on Western productions like both Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon movies?

Yes, those both had one camera! Nobody worried, they trust me. If they don’t have confidence in me, they should never engage me!

I've read that you had a crew of about 40 on the first Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as opposed to your normal group of 15 people. You said that you would have done things differently if you had a smaller crew. Can you give me an example? How does having a bigger crew require adjustment for you?

My core team is usually under 10 people, but I often engage up to 15 because there are so many aspects of choreography to look after. For the first Crouching Tiger: the crew wasn’t 40, it was 60 people, because the wire scenes in that movie needed to be operated by hand. You just need a lot of man-power for the wiring.

You don't seem to have much sentimentality about the past: the styles and technology of today are just as valid as the ones in the past. With that said, do you miss working with certain performers or choreographers? Who, apart from your family members, are some of the people behind the camera who really inspire you?

In the last few years, there have been many new additions to my usual crews. An assistant director can often provide a lot of good ideas for me. Screenplay writers and all the other people who are on set when we film: a lot of people contribute to what you’re seeing. But basically: they have to be with me. They can’t just walk away, they have to be with me as the action is happening. They have to be there doing the work. For example, if there’s a line I don’t like in a script, great, there’s a screenwriter right here to change it. And that change is immediately taken into action.

What are you working on right now?

I’m doing the planning for two upcoming movies. We’ll start filming them either at the end of this year, or the beginning of next year.