'Matrix' Fight Choreographer Talks Working With Keanu Reeves, Jackie Chan

Yuen Woo-Ping Portrait - H 2012

Yuen Woo-Ping Portrait - H 2012

Yuen Woo-Ping is being honored at the Paris Cinema Film Festival and is currently working on Reeves' directorial debut.

HONG KONG – Yuen Woo-ping, the Hong Kong film industry’s premier martial arts film action choreographer and director, is being honored for his contribution to one of the territory’s best-known genres at the Hong Kong in Focus special program at the 10th Paris Cinema Film Festival. The program, organized in collaboration with the Hong Kong International Film Festival, is opening June 29, where over half a century’s worth of Hong Kong cinematic gems are showcased.

Yuen will be attending the festivities in Paris to introduce his kung-fu tour de force spanning three decades, and to give a master class on July 4. Featured in the program are his second directorial effort, the action-comedy Drunken Master (1978), which helped established Jackie Chan as a leading man after years of faceless but hardy stuntman work; Iron Monkey (1993), which reunited the helmer with his former martial arts protégé, Donnie Yen; and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), director Ang Lee’s kung-fu rhapsody starring Chow Yun-Fat that Yuen says established a “romanticized, aesthetically pleasing visual style of kung fu” that set the tone for onscreen martial arts fighting for the next decade in Chinese-language cinema.

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“In the era of Drunken Master, all the fighting you see on screen were genuine fighting; the actors were hitting each other for real, and it really hurt,” Yuen tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And injuries sometimes did occur.  But that was when most the action actors and stuntmen had authentic martial arts backgrounds. At the same time, as the director and action choreographer, that gave me the most freedom to design action sequences. I could just pull the actor aside if I had a new idea, we could work it out together whether he could pull it off physically or not, or give me his ideas."

"The choreography was more flexible and spontaneous,” adds the 67-year-old master who is known as “baat ye”, or “Grandfather Eight”.  Yuen’s father Yuen Siu-tien, the first action choreographer in Chinese-language cinema, played the role of the original drunken master, Beggar So, in the film.  Yuen followed his father’s lead from a young age, dedicating all his time to learning and training for martial arts and Peking opera combat.

Over the course of more than thirty years, Yuen has seen action in Hong Kong films evolves from a realistic form to a style that emphasizes the beauty of movements. “The action nowadays is all about romance,” says the award-winning action choreographer, “and the whole process is so much more careful and meticulous when putting together an action scene.”

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Besides the change in taste in action cinema, Yuen has also seen the ups and downs of Hong Kong action filmmakers, from the stars to the stuntmen. “The reigning action leading men are not getting any younger, so are the stuntmen. It’s very difficult find the next Jackie Chan or Jet Li, and even Donnie Yen isn’t a young man anymore. He’s paid his dues, and finally got his break,” says Yuen. “The Hong Kong stunt crews are getting too old also, for the physical demand in action films. When the younger generations in Hong Kong are mostly so much more pampered than when I was a kid, who’s going to practice like we did? We basically learned our discipline by getting beat up by our sifu on a daily basis. So, the teams I’ve been working with nowadays are mostly from China,” he adds.

Yuen’s innovative choreography of movements and combat eventually earned him a stint in Hollywood, where he famously designed breathtaking action sequences, which combined physical movements and special effects, in the WachowskisThe Matrix trilogy, and later for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Part 1 & 2.

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“We are at a time where we can create the most impossible action sequences with the help of visual effects,” says Yuen, who is open to future opportunities in Hollywood, but is more inclined to work in Chinese-speaking regions because of the challenges presented by the language barrier. Nevertheless, the master, whose credits includes numerous tai chi-themed films including Drunken Tai Chi (1984), and Tai Chi Master (1993), is working as action director in Man of Tai Chi, the directorial debut of Keanu Reeves, who Yuen met on The Matrix and was impressed by his diligence. “We had to start from scratch training him from the basics, but he was very hardworking and put in a great deal of effort,” Yuen commented. For the tai chi-influenced action sequences in the new film, which Reeves also stars, Yuen says the actor-director has a lot of ideas, and final product would show a mix of different martial arts disciplines that has not be previously seen on film.

The 10th edition of Paris Cinema Film Festival will run from June 29 to July 10.