Over the past few years, some of Hong Kong's best action directors have given Hollywood fight scenes a face-lift.
Yuen Woo Ping, Corey Yuen and Yuen Cheung Yan are legends in the Hong Kong movie industry, and although their names are hardly known among the American movie-viewing public, they have used their high-flying fight marvelry to change the look of movies such as "The Matrix" and "Charlie's Angels".
The three are hot commodities in Hollywood, which is a bonus for them because audiences back home in Hong Kong have somewhat lost their appetites for kung-fu films.
"America is always interested in something new," Corey Yuen told Reuters, "and Chinese 'wu xia' and 'wu da' films (old-style sword films with flying and action martial arts films with dangerous stunts) are new to them, and I'm curious to see how long this kind of trend will last."
Hollywood's recent fascination with Hong Kong's frenetic action-style stems from the exhilarating fights choreographed by Woo Ping in "The Matrix" (1999). He solidified his reputation in Hollywood as a top action director with his work in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000).
In his fight screens, characters defy gravity in flurries of high-flying kicks and steel-smashing swordplay as they rebound off objects in aerial displays of human pinball action.
It is definitely not like the punch, bottle broken over the head and chair crashed over the back bar-room brawl scene that have been staples in thousands of Hollywood pictures.
Born in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou in 1945 and the eldest of 12 children, Woo Ping learned Beijing opera and kung-fu from his father Yuen Siu Tin and was a bit player as a martial artist in some of the classic Wong Fei-Hong films of the 1960s.
In 1978, Woo Ping changed the direction of kung-fu films in Hong Kong when he directed "Snake in the Eagle's Shadow" and "Drunken Master", films which not only featured his father as the old, gray-haired teacher, but were also the movies which helped make Jackie Chan famous.
However, it was some of his later efforts like "Iron Monkey" (1993), "Tai Chi Master" (1993) and "Wing Chun" (1994) that captured the imagination of the Wachowski Brothers who directed "The Matrix" and wanted Woo Ping to choreograph the fight sequences that gave the movie a distinctive look.
"Ironically, when 'Iron Monkey' came out in Hong Kong, that film style was going down," the film's star Donnie Yen told Reuters. "But Woo Ping's fight standards are so high."
One of Woo Ping's stalwart assistants over the years has been his younger brother Yuen Cheung Yen, the action director responsible for giving wings to the actresses in "Charlie's Angels" (2000).
Working on over 1,100 films, some of Cheung Yen's most acclaimed choreography can be seen in "Once Upon a Time in China" (1991) and "Iron Monkey". One scene in "Iron Monkey" was recreated in Charlie's Angels + the one where star Drew Barrymore fights four henchmen at the end of the film.
American director Quentin Tarantino has sung the praises of Hong Kong action films for years. He was largely responsible for bringing "Iron Monkey" to the United States, where Miramax picked up the film and released it earlier this month on about 1,000 screens.
"It seems by the time I found out about the Hong Kong films from the '80s, they were already six or so years old. And now Hollywood is interested in them. It really just shows how far behind we are and not how old the movies are," Tarantino said.
EARLY HOLLYWOOD ARRIVAL
Before the arrivals of Hong Kong filmmakers such as Yuen Woo Ping and director John Woo and actor Jackie Chan doing action direction in Hollywood, there was Corey Yuen, who started it all off in 1985 when he directed and did action direction for the movie "No Retreat, No Surrender" that starred Jean Claude Van Damme.
Corey Yuen, no relation to the Woo Ping Yuen, left home at nine when his parents enrolled him into Beijing Opera School for 10 years and trained with Jackie Chan.
He began working as a stuntman for Bruce Lee, then a stunt double for Woo Ping, and has directed over 30 films. His first major success was winning a top honor in Hong Kong, the Golden Horse Award, for his action direction in a movie starring Jet Li called "Fong Sai Yuk" (1993).
Corey returned to the United States to do the martial arts choreography for "Lethal Weapon IV" (1998) and since then he has been the action director for "X-Men" (2000), for Luc Besson's "Kiss of the Dragon" (2001). He also served as the second unit director for Glen Morgan and James Wang's soon-to-be-released sci-fi action film "The One".
The rush to embrace Hong Kong action could cause the style to lose some of its luster in Hollywood, Corey Yuen said.
"The Hong Kong action fad will quickly fade if there is bad work out there," he said. "So for us Hong Kong directors the challenge is how to make American actors who don't know how to fight, look good and make the fights blend in with the feeling of a Western film and this may take time to find the right blend."
(China Daily October 25, 2001)