Dialogue: Tony Ching Siu-Tung


Tony Ching Siu-Tung needs no introduction to Chinese action film buffs. The son of famous action film director Cheng Gang (a.k.a. Ching Gong), who worked for the Shaw Brothers throughout the '60s and '70s, Ching entered the Hong Kong film industry as an actor and action instructor in the '60s. He made his directorial debut with "Duel to the Death" (1982), pioneering a new style of wuxia (martial arts and swordplay) that is fast-paced yet ethereal. In 1987, he directed "A Chinese Ghost Story" (produced by Tsui Hark), which is considered one of the all-time classics of the high-wire fantasy-action genre, as well as an exemplary work of the golden age of Hong Kong cinema. As action choreographer for more than 60 films, he has been instrumental in shaping and innovating the way screen action is filmed. The Hollywood Reporter's Maggie Lee spoke with the filmmaker.

The Hollywood Reporter: Who initiated the project of "An Empress and the Warriors"?
Tony Ching Siu-Tung: When United Filmmakers Organization presented me with the screenplay, I thought it contained all the right elements for a hit, like war, action, romance, so I agreed to direct it.

THR: Did you have reservations about working with a company that hasn't released a film since 2005, whose portfolio concentrated on contemporary romance and urban comedies?
Ching: A decisive factor was my experience of collaborating with UFO producer Claudie Chung, dating back to "A Chinese Ghost Story" 20 years ago. "Empress" is essentially a love story with a period background, so it is still within UFO's area of expertise.

THR: How does your experience of directing this film differ from your previous projects?
Ching: I was granted a lot more freedom on the creative side. In addition, Yee Chung Man, who is creative and art director, gave a lot of input. He helped to align script development, costume design and even the acting with the overall art direction. In fact, it was he who initially suggested that I direct the film. I think he is the best art director around.

THR: In the last two years, the trend in Chinese action blockbusters seem to be for historic epics with graphic violence, like Feng Xiaogang's "Assembly" and "The Warlords," for which you directed the action. Why go against the grain to make an action film with romantic, fairy tale color?
Ching: By making the historical background less precise, I can take more liberties with sets, props and action sequences, like those scenes with the Zhuge Lantern and the movements designed around the tree house. I want to give the audience more room for imagination. As for the subject, I wanted to try a different style from my usual repertoire. I think it's refreshing for the audience to see a story that's touching and not cynical, especially the relationship between the general (Donnie Yen) and the princess (Kelly Chen), which is based on loyalty and self-sacrifice.

THR: The most outstanding feature of the film is the armor that the characters wear. They look really heavy and may hamper physical mobility. Did that affect your action design concepts?
Ching: The armory was designed by Yee Chung Man. At first, we only visualized a setting without any historical background to limit creativity regarding sets and costumes. Then Yee came up with using the intricately wrought armor as the dominant visual aesthetic. The outfits were designed to utilize a variety of fabric and materials to accommodate specific body parts that would engage in a lot of movement.

THR: Do you feel that recently, Chinese big-budget period action films have been heavily influenced by Hollywood films like "Lord of the Rings," "Troy" or "Gladiator," especially in the increased use of CGI? Are you making adjustments to this trend as an action director or filmmaker?
Ching: Honestly speaking, China and Hong Kong are still in the development stage regarding special effects, so we should not become too dependent on computer technology. Instead, we should improve on what we're good at, which is live action and martial arts. That's what the rest of the world wants to see too.

THR: What do you think is the future direction of Chinese action films?
Ching: Many moviegoers have become sick of high-wire stunts where the actors fly around like in "Hero." Of course, it is still necessary to retain some of those shots, but I think we should feature more realistic, direct contact action. Both "The Warlords" and "Empress" have taken that approach.

VITAL STATS: Tony Ching Siu-Tung
Film in HK Filmart: "An Empress and the Warriors"
Date of birth: 1953
Filmography: "Dr. Wai in the Scripture With No Words" (1996), "Royal Tramp"** (1992), "Swordsman II"* (1991), "Swordsman"* (1990), "A Terracotta Warrior" (1990), "A Chinese Ghost Story" (1987), "Duel to the Death" (1982)
As action director/choreographer: "Kung Fu Dunk" (2008), "The Warlords" (2007), "Curse of the Golden Flower" (2006), "House of Flying Daggers" (2004), "Hero" (2002) "Shaolin Soccer" (2001), "The Heroic Trio" (1993)
Notable awards: Golden Horse Awards for "Shaolin Soccer"(2001), "Dragon Inn" (1992); HK Film Awards Best Action Choreography for "Hero" (2002), "Swordsman" (1990), "The Affair from Nepal" (1987); Fantasporto (Rome) won Best Film for "A Chinese Ghost Story I-III" (1987, 1990, 1991)
*Co-directed with Tsui Hark; **Co-directed with Wong Jing