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Interview with IRON MONKEY director, Yuen Wo-ping

On Sunday night, Sep. 7, Films at the Gate will wrap up five nights of outdoor films with IRON MONKEY (1993) directed by Yuen Wo-ping. Yuen Wo-ping is one of Hong Kong’s most prolific and successful filmmakers. His father, Yuen Siu-tin, was a popular actor in the early kung fu movies, and Yuen Wo-ping has been acclaimed worldwide as one of the all-time top action directors. In 2001, while working on the MATRIX sequels, he discussed his work in IRON MONKEY with FATG programmer Jean Lukitsh. 

Q: How old were you when you started martial arts training? 

Yuen: I started learning martial arts at about 10 or 11 years old.

Q: And how old were you when you started to work in the Hong Kong film industry?

Yuen: I started in the film industry when I was about 18 or 19 years old.

Q: So this is pretty much your life’s work, practicing martial arts and making movies about martial arts?

Yuen: Yes.

Q: When you first started making your own movies, choreographing them and then directing them, what other choreographers or martial arts directors influenced and inspired you the most?

Yuen: Chang Cheh (Zhang Che) was the main person that affected me the most. Chang was the main director of the Shaw Brothers studio in Hong Kong. (note: Chang Cheh directed a number of prominent kung fu films in the 60s and 70s, including THE ONE ARMED BOXER, HEROES TWO, and FIVE VENOMS.)  

Q: Are there any directors from the West that you liked or influenced you? Or have you mainly been focused on Asian cinema?

Yuen: I feel my influences have been mainly through Asian cinema, mainly from China, Hong Kong, and other parts of Asia.

Q: You’ve been working in the Hong Kong film industry for more than three decades. How has filmmaking in Hong Kong changed over that time period?

Yuen: The Hong Kong film industry has gone through many changes these last 30 years. I’ve had the experience of working for big companies like Shaw Bros. and small independent businesses.

In the 1960s, if a film was from Shaw Brothers, its quality was a lot better because Shaw was a very big operation in Chinese cinema. So every day, they would do 1 to 2 shots (scenes), without rushing. And with the budget, we could afford the slow and good quality work. Because of the fact that there was more money to experiment – if something didn’t work, we could redo it. Thus we could say it was more professional. On the other hand, when we worked for the small independent businesses, everything was very rushed and tightly budgeted, with no room for mistakes. 

Nowadays in Hong Kong, the movie production is very different from before. There’s a lot of high quality work because of higher budgets.

Q: IRON MONKEY is one of the best martial arts movies ever made. It’s obviously inspired by the ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA series, but stands alone as a skillful and funny re-imagining of the Wong Fei-hung legend. Weren’t Wong Fei-hung and his father, Wong Kei-ying, real people in the 19th century?

Yuen: The two main characters Wong Fei-hung and his father Wong Kei-ying were real people but the movie’s story was created. 

Q: You’ve made movies about Wong Fei-hung before, most notably DRUNKEN MASTER, with Jackie Chan, which also focussed on the father/son relationship between Fei-hung and Kei-ying. But in the earlier movies, young Fei-hung is always shown as a troublemaker, and the relationship between the two is explosive and punitive. In IRON MONKEY, a more tender bond is shown between father and son. Where did that idea come from?

Yuen: The way that I created the father and son’s character, I strongly believed that I should put in love, family and feeling.  It is not only respect that is shown, it also needs to have love. The father brought the son with him to search for herbs. Medicine was one of the main examples in the movie which also showed the father and son’s relationship. I created scenes with Wong Fei-hung and his father expressing different emotions for each other within different situations.  

Q: You did a wonderful job, especially the scenes where the little boy imitates the father. It shows how much affection there is. You really came up with a physical equivalent of that relationship. Like when his father would eat a certain way, young Fei-hung would do the same. It was like the boy was the mirror image of his father, and shows how close they really are to each other.

Yuen: The way I wanted it, as the director of this movie, was to show the son’s form of admiration and respect by doing exactly what his father would do, such as copying and imitating him as an expression of his heart. 

Q: Now I want to ask you about some of the fight sequences in IRON MONKEY. There’s quite a range of weapons and martial arts techniques that are used. How do you start the preliminary work of choreographing a fight scene? What sort of planning do you do? How much is planned, and how much is improvised? 

Yuen: The way that I produced the martial arts sequences in the movie was first I had to think and plan ahead of time. Before we shot the scene, we had to plan and organize. I had to work the choreography out on site with the action team. The major emphasis is the martial arts output – the visual result is based on how I form the kung fu fight and how it all moves together. The most important element is how to relate the good characters and bad characters together in the movie. The weapons are based on using the actors’ ability to work with the weapon. It took me about one month to plan out the final fight sequence.

Q: That final sequence in IRON MONKEY looks as though it must have been extremely dangerous and difficult for both you and the actors. How did you plan that scene? How long did it take to shoot? Were you ever concerned for the safety of the actors or stuntmen?

Yuen: The way I think about and plan the martial arts sequences can take a long or short time, depending on many factors. Like the final sequence of the movie, I spent a month thinking about how I wanted to film it to be really good. It took me 2 weeks to actually shoot the final sequence, after the planning was complete. We were very experienced and were very accurate and careful, so the whole team knew the fight action was very safe.  But we did worry about how we could control the fire to be as least dangerous as possible. It was really not easy to control because it was hard to tell whether the fire would spread.

Q: The fight scenes in IRON MONKEY display an impressive range of weaponry and martial technique. How do you decide what weapons to use?  Do you decide based on what techniques you’d like see on screen, or do you use whatever the actors are familiar with? For instance, in IRON MONKEY, we see Iron Monkey use the chain- whip against bad guys with straight sword and double broadswords, and we see Wong Kei-ying fight four monks who each have double daggers. These are all traditional Chinese weapons, so how do you decide which weapons the characters are going to use?

Yuen: I had to plan ahead of time on which actor is using which weapon. In the movie, you will see the monks using long and short swords. This important decision was based on what the character’s personality was and what would bring out the best performance out of each actor – so the audience can see the most beautiful performance from the movie.

Q: So you use weapons that would help advance the characterization of the movie, with each weapon representing the character’s personality?

Yuen: Weapons in the movie also represent the personality of the character, and the way the character fights with that weapon also indicates his capability and skills.

Q: How important is it for you to show the strategy behind the techniques? For example, the father, Wong Kei-ying, fights using empty-handed technique with the four monks – then they come out with their double daggers. Wong has to adapt and change his technique. How important is it to put this strategic component into the scene?

Yuen: The fight with Wong Fei-hung’s father and the four monks started with both sides without weapons. Then in the middle of the fight, Wong was still empty-handed and the monks pulled their weapons out to show how unfair they were in order to save themselves as they were on the weaker side. They did not care much of the rules or manner, thus showing how uneducated they were. They turned out to be very nasty. My strategy in the movie is to show the relationship between kung fu, manner, behavior and weapon. The bad guy would not win. For example, Wong, under bad conditions, had his skill and technique like his No-Shadow kick. He was still powerful, even without a weapon. It is important to show that bad guys can never win by being unfair. It is very important to include this strategy in the kung fu movies.

Q: One of the most memorable sequences in IRON MONKEY is the scene where Dr.Yang and Orchid “fly” through the air to gather papers scattered by the wind. While not a fight scene, it establishes the kung fu ability of the characters. What was the inspiration for this scene? What were you trying to show about Chinese martial arts?

Yuen: Inspiration is created through the movie’s story. In the movie, the actor and actress are showing that, among the relationships in kung fu and martial arts, between humans, there was also love. The scene of the “paper” was a creative way I could show the fantastic and romantic relationship they had.

Q: From your work with Wu Tang sword technique in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, it seems that you are interested in the “internal” or soft styles of Chinese martial arts. That scene has a very strong internal feel. Is that what you intended?

Yuen: Yes. 

Q: Do you feel that Americans are appreciating martial arts movies more?

Yuen: American audiences will be very happy if our Chinese martial arts is a really great production, as everybody looks for high quality products.

Q: We’re also looking forward to seeing your work in the next two MATRIX movies.

Yuen: I am very happy to know that audiences appreciate my movies.