It's not a desperate attempt to tie in the title of his latest film, nor undeservedly effusive praise, to call fight choreographer and filmmaker Yuen Woo-Ping a true legend. He was an actor in 40 movies between 1965 and 1993, choreographed at least 39 others, and directed 29, including 'True Legend,' a retelling of the saga of mythic Chinese hero Su Qi-Er -- whom he basically introduced to audiences via his classic 1978 film 'Drunken Master.' It is nevertheless appropriate that Yuen would be honored at this year's Fantastic Fest, where in addition to receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award, he screened 'True Legend' for attendees as part of a double feature that also included his first film, 'Snake in the Eagle's Shadow.'
Cinematical sat down with Yuen at the festival for a chat both about 'True Legend' and about his rich and accomplished history as a fight choreographer and filmmaker. Communicating via translator, Yuen discussed his return to the Drunken Fist fighting style he pioneered cinematically more than three decades ago, examined the connection between compelling action sequences and solid storytelling, and reflected on the considerable opportunities he's enjoyed during his more than 45-year career.
This movie features Drunken Fist, which you were instrumental in bringing to the screen when you directed 'Drunken Master.' Given how many movies you've made featuring so many different styles, how tough is it to not cannibalize yourself when you take on something new?
For past films where I've used Drunken Fist in a fight sequence, they were used comically. When you saw Drunken Fist in 'Drunken Master' starring Jackie Chan, that was a comic film. This one is not a comic film. Also, one of the things that I put into the choreography in 'True Legend' is street dancing, to make it different from films in the past.
When you are conceiving action sequences, how much are you thinking about making them an integral part of the story, as opposed to simply creating something that looks great or is purely exciting?
In past films, the action was actually for [audiences] to see how they managed to perform martial arts, and to see the martial arts performed. But in this specific movie, 'True Legend,' the action actually gets into the storyline -- it actually tells the story, because I actually designed the five action sequences according to each character's personality, and according to different levels where the story goes. It had to match with the storyline.
How much of the fighting styles in your films do you create yourself, and how much is simply borrowed from existing ones? For example, this film features Five Venom Fist; is that an existing form of martial arts?
Definitely there has to be new elements every time I create a sequence, such as the Five Venom Fist I use in this movie. This is actually a new fight sequence that I invented for this movie, and it had to have the traditional martial arts, the basics, that are common in every fight sequence, but every time, I have to put new elements into it, like the Five Venom fighting style. But like in the past for [something like] Drunken Fist, for all of the people involved like the martial artists and stunt people, they only knew it by name; there were no actions or movements that anybody knew. So I spent a month making up the Drunken Fist and putting it into action so that you could see it in the movie.
In older martial arts movies, the fights were more about choreography, and the actual punches were sort of payoff. Do you have to pack movies now with more violence than you used to?
With the way movie fight sequences are right now, I don't have to be more violent or aggressive to get more attention from the audience. Different scripts have different demands, and you have to match the choreography with the storyline. Like in 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,' it has to be sort of a romantic style, and so you can't do violent [choreography] or aggressive fight sequences in it, because that wouldn't convey the story line well. But in the 'Matrix' movies, it has to use more visual effects, so it has to have a more artistic style.
How has technology changed the way you choreograph and shoot fights? Do actors have to be less capable than they used to be?
Actors are still required to know martial arts -- to have the knowledge of martial arts -- because they can't just do the sequences without any knowledge of it. That would be too fake. Computer-generated effects are only a support system for the choreography; it's not a substitute for choreography. It just gives more energy to the action -- it can't replace the action itself. So if any actor doesn't have knowledge of martial arts, I will give them training sessions, because they have to know martial arts in order to start filming the fight sequences.
The main character in 'True Legend' wants to give up fighting in order to perfect his spiritual connection to wu shu. What do you think of the idea of martial arts being a spiritual rather than physical exercise?
In the story, the reason that he gives up being a soldier is that he has a great interest in martial arts. He really enjoys teaching martial arts and helping others build strong bodies through practicing martial arts. But after a series of family tragedies, he has to use martial arts as a tool to help regain his dignity at the end of the movie.
Is there a difference to you between the work you do in English-language films and ones in your native Chinese, in terms of either content or the form of your collaborations?
Working with actors for Chinese movies, a lot of them, like Jet Li or Jackie Chan, already have the knowledge of martial arts and are in really good shape to perform martial arts. So it's easier to work with them and tell them how I want the action to be -- it's easier to convey my ideas to them. Working on Western movies, I have to do long training sessions with the actors because they don't have the same knowledge of martial arts. I actually have to go step by step to show them how to perform each movement and how to do each fight sequence.
Do you have a favorite weapon or instrument to choreograph fights with or around?
I prefer to choreograph using sticks -- long sticks. That's my personal preference.
As a filmmaker or choreographer, is there any kind of challenge or sequence that you haven't been able to tackle in your career?
There are still challenges all of the time. Like if I want to collaborate with actors but our schedules don't match, or if some actors are just scared of martial arts movies. Because there are a lot of good actors out there I want to work with, but sometimes the schedule doesn't fit, or they're afraid of martial arts movies, so I don't get a chance to work with them. In terms of shooting fight sequences, I don't see any impossible fights to do in movies, because I always choreographed fight sequences after receiving the script. I design everything according to the script, so there's nothing that I wanted to do that I haven't done on screen yet.