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HONG KONG – When Ronny Yu Yan-tai reaped commercial and critical acclaim with his Jet Li-starring martial arts drama Fearless in 2005, it seems he’s finally broke out of the slasher-filmmaker label foisted on him after his Hollywood forays in Bride of Chucky and Freddy vs Jason.
Not quite, he now recalls, as horror-film scripts kept arriving. And he has refrained from saying yes to any of them, leading him to a self-imposed hiatus which was only broken in 2011 when he started production on the Chinese martial-arts historical drama Saving General Yang.
“It’s hard to find subject matter for a vehicle, especially when I am pigeonholed as a horror movie director in the U.S.,” Yu told The Hollywood Reporter after the press launch of Saving General Yang on Friday, Jan. 11. “Everything I was offered was horror, horror, horror. I did an episode in a television series [Fear Itself, aired on NBC in 2008] and that’s it. I don’t want to do this kind of thing anymore.”
The U.S.-educated Hong Kong director said he now wanted to make films which would allow him to “learn more about his Chinese roots”. While Fearless, a fictionalized account of real-life early 20thcentury martial arts expert Huo Yuanjia, has allowed him a first glimpse of that, the 62-year-old has finally found his métier with Saving General Yang, an adaptation of the story about a real-life clan of patriotic warriors in 10thcentury China.
Jointly produced by Pegasus Motion Pictures, Henan Film and TV Production Group and Huayi Brothers, Saving General Yang revolves around the tribulations of the titular character – the Song Dynasty military hero Yang Ye, played by Adam Cheng – and the efforts of his seven sons to rescue from a siege placed by the northern Khitan kingdom of Liao. Yu spent most of 2011 in China for the project – five months of preparations followed by a three-month shoot – before conducting post-production in Sydney, where he now lives.
Boasting a cast of young heartthrobs from mainland China (Yu Bo), Taiwan (Vic Zhou and Wu Chun) and Hong Kong (Ekin Cheng and Raymond Lam), and the action choreography of Stephen Tung (Seven Swords, Bodyguards and Assassins),the film will make its market premiere at Berlin next month before opening in China and Hong Kong on April 4. Pegasus, which also handles the film’s international sales, is looking to ink French and Korean distribution deals at the European Film Market, and also seek U.S. distributors there.
Yu said Saving General Yang, which according to Pegasus was made on a budget of HK $250 million (U.S. $32.2 million), is “not about making the biggest blockbuster or having the most impressive locations, but what is to be a human being,” pointing to the filial piety which drives the seven young fighters to brave death to bring their father home.
“I’m already in my 60s – it’s not like I need to prove something,” he said. “It’s time for me to give and not to take. And I hope to give more, to make films which will make people think and feel about things. This is especially the case as I’m Chinese and I feel there’s a lot of our values which are valuable, and I hope my film could inspire them to reflect on life as well as be entertaining.”
Part of a group of foreign-educated filmmakers who returned to Hong Kong in the late 1970s with a grittier aesthetic to filmmaking – an approach which led to these directors dubbed as the “Hong Kong New Wave” – Yu directed and produced a string of commercial hits in the 1980s and 1990s (such as The Occupant and The Bride with White Hair) before decamping to Los Angeles and finding international prominence with Bride of Chucky and Freddy vs Jason.
Having since returned to China to make Fearless and then Saving General Yang, Yu said he’s fascinated about the mighty strides being made in the country – a surge which, he said, might be too rapid.
“I feel sad because on the one hand the industry is booming, while on the other there’s no infrastructure to speak of,” he said. “In Hollywood, everything is very departmentalized, but in China everybody is just looking at the money – and everyone wants things to move quickly. You have a continuity guy starting out who would be promoted to assistant director in his next assignment. It’s hard for us filmmakers without that infrastructure.”
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