Cheung-yan Yuen, the action choreographer for Charlie's Angels, made kung-fu fighters out of Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu. Corey Yuen (no relation) put Jet Li through a black-and-blue workout in the box-office hit Romeo Must Die. And who supervised the buoyant action scenes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?the pursuit by Michelle Yeoh of Zhang Ziyi across a courtyard and over rooftops; the same antagonists' fierce swordfight; the balletic battle of Zhang and Chow Yun-fat on bamboo treetops?that lifted Ang Lee's Mandarin drama out of the art houses to become the top-grossing foreign-language film in U.S. history? Why, that ballistic Balanchine, that kung-fu Fosse, that martial master?Yuen Wo-ping.
Back in Hong Kong, where nearly every movie kicks nonstop butt, there has been a slew of Yuens for a quarter century, thanks to two separate clans. One group comprises graduates of Yu Jim-yuen's China Drama Academy; some (Jackie Chan, Samo Hung) used their own names, while others (Corey Yuen, Yuen Biao, Yuen Wah) took as an honorific the name of their daunting, inspiring teacher.
The second group is the spawn of actor and martial arts instructor Yuen Siu-tin, also known as Simon Yuen. Five sons of Siu-tin have carved notable, knockabout careers in movie action: Wo-ping, Cheung-yan, Chun-yeung (a.k.a. Brandy), Sun-yi (Sunny) and Yat-choh. Among them, these two extended families have won 13 of the 18 Hong Kong Film Awards for best action choreography. Wo-ping got one for the epochal grudge matches between Donnie Yen and Jet Li in Tsui Hark's Once Upon a Time in China II.
Yuen Wo-ping is known to international audiences as the man behind The Matrix, for which he devised the vertiginous virtual hand combat and flying feats that made the movie a gut as well as a head experience. He has won further acclaim for Crouching Tiger, and he was the one person who could say no to the world-class director making his first action film, which happened on more than one occasion. No wonder: the script would read, "They fight," leaving the overall conception to Lee and the hard work of realizing it to Yuen. "When I'm working with good directors," Yuen says, "they'll often come up with ideas that profoundly inspire me. And then if I can make them workable, we'll shoot them."
By now, Yuen knows what works; he has been supervising action scenes since 1971, and directing since 1978. He has helmed two dozen films, including some of the most exciting in Hong Kong history. "Wo-ping has directed more movies than I have," says Lee. "And better ones." In some of these films you will find sensational exploits that are echoed in Crouching Tiger. The vision of a lady thief flying over rooftops is a highlight of Yuen's 1994 Fire Dragon. And the up-a-tree skirmish? Catch the three warriors perched on flaming poles in the 1993 Iron Monkey. This time it's two good guys (Yen and Yu Rong-guang) against one preternatural baddie (Yam Sai-goon). The heroes try to keep their equilibrium while dodging flame darts from Yam; they use burning sticks as swords; they balance one pole on another, like a teeter-totter, and swivel on either end; Yu climbs up to stand on Yen's shoulders; finally they pole-vault to safety as Yam falls below to be impaled and roasted. (Rule No. 1: at the end of a Yuen movie, nearly anyone is likely to catch on fire.) Piling impossible climax on incredible crescendo, the 5-min. scene plays like a war of the titans in a child's playground of Hell.
It's quite a workout for the stars. But Yuen is revered as the deviser of artful torture for Asia's top actor-athletes: Jackie Chan (the 1978 Drunken Master), Samo Hung (The Magnificent Butcher, 1979), Jet Li (The Tai Chi Master, 1993) and Yeoh (Wing Chun, 1994). Yeoh's glorious balancing act with a plate of tofu is rightly famed: she never lets it touch the ground while successfully fending off an arrogant bruiser. But just as impressive is a scene with Wo-ping himself, in the 1983 Shaolin Drunkard, where he and brother Yat-choh quaff a hundred cups of wine while woozily balancing the wine table on their knees, backs and arms. These feats are descendants of the training scenes in Wo-ping's earlier star-making vehicles with Chan and Hung, but elevated from physical display to artful kung-foolery.
Like Jackie, Yuen never saw a prop he couldn't use to enhance a fight. His heroes and villains have used chopsticks, pigtails, calligraphy brushes, umbrellas, trash can lids and robe sleeves as impromptu weapons. Another Yuen rule: if it slithers, hops or scoots, hire it! Snakes in 1980's The Buddhist Fist; a man-size toad in the phantasmagorical Miracle Fighters of 1982; rats in Shaolin Drunkard. In the 1977 Broken Oath (the last movie Yuen action-choreographed before he turned director with the Jackie Chan Snake in Eagle's Claw), lovely, severe Angela Mao plays with scorpions; she always has a few handy to place on a villain's neck?where does she hide them?
In Hong Kong movies, melodrama is never mellow, and Yuen is ever eager to place women in apalling jeopardy. DoDo Cheng gets kicked into barbed wire in the 1988 Tiger Cage. An even snazzier thriller, the 1989 In the Line of Duty 4, has plucky Cynthia Kahn battle a predator on the top of, on the side of and nearly under a speeding ambulance; later she takes on two thugs as the hero's mom hangs trussed from a 12-m rope next to an electrified fence.
But that's just a mild reprimand compared with the enthrallingly deranged The Red-Wolf of 1995. Gorgeous Elaine Lui, part of a terrorist gang that has seized a cruise ship, shoots a woman in front of her young daughter. Later, after Elaine is set on fire (the wages of sin and all), her partner-in-evil bundles the little girl in dynamite and leaves her hanging from the ballroom chandelier. What the hero doesn't know is that the button to detonate the tnt is on the sole of the kid's right shoe?so that even if they get her down, the ship and passengers will blow up anyway.
By now you may be asking: Who thinks this stuff up? Answer: showmen who will do anything for a scream or a giggle. (Yuen also loves the comic possibilities of physical blemishes, like warts and buck teeth.) But Yuen is only observing the cardinal rule in Hong Kong: these are moving pictures. And an action choreographer is bound to keep the action coming, at whatever cost to logic or taste.
Since this action choreographer is not only a director but an actor, Yuen has shown he can take punishment as well as dish it out. It's a family affair: as a boy he appeared with his father in the old Wong Fei-hung dramas. The brothers have often collaborated as actors and stunt coordinators, billed as the Yuen Clan. In The Miracle Fighters, a delirious carnival of a film that plays like a ber-Cirque du Soleil, Yat-choh is the young hero, Cheung-yan a cranky lady wizard, Sunny the nasty Sorcerer Bat and Brandy a clown-face warrior condemned to live in a jar. In Mismatched Couples (1985), Wo-ping plays what has to be called the Jerry Lewis role. No abasement is too extreme: he barks on all fours, swallows nails, gets his head stuck in a fish bowl and squashed in cake. His fingers are cut, his noggin dented. The character ends up in the hospital. What's amazing is that Yuen survived the movie.
Perhaps that prepared him for the tug of wills on the Crouching Tiger set. Lee is as stubborn as he is gentle, adamant about putting on film the beautiful stunts he had dreamed of since childhood. Yuen had to play the stern adult. "Ang would say he didn't want to shoot things Wo-ping's way because it was an Ang Lee movie," Chow recalls. "But his ideas couldn't be worked out. Finally, he'd go to Wo-ping and say, 'Master, I'm wrong. Let's do it your way.'" At least Lee convinced Yuen of the need for the big bamboo scene. "He liked the way the swaying limbs of the bamboo mimicked the postures of the actors as they fought," Yuen says. "He was very insistent."
The result is a superb romantic clash?a battle between a wise god and a defiant young goddess. Just like the fruitful friction between Yuen and his demanding director. Out of it came artistry, and another triumph for Yuen Wo-ping, the martial master.
CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON|
Cover: Instant Classic
Taiwan filmmaker Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is not only a star- studded epic, but also a rule- bending masterpiece that weds martial arts with sense and sensibility
? All Aboard for the Zhang High Express: Actress Zhang Ziyi sizzles
? 'I Felt Like a Mouse and Ang Lee was a Lion': Zhang Ziyi on acting, stardom and Richard Gere in this web-only exclusive interview
? 'It's Emotional and Dramatic': Michelle Yeoh is no stranger to action-packed films, but the going was tough in Ang Lee's surefire hit
? 'I Thought I Was Going to Have a Stroke': Exclusive Web-only interview with Crouching Tiger director Ang Lee
? 'Speaking Mandarin Was Like Speaking Shakespeare': Chow Yun-fat on martial arts, Hollywood and mastering another language
She Makes Magic
With her mesmerizing performances, Zhang Ziyi is casting a spell on audiences beyond her native China
? 'I Want to Prove to Everyone That I Have Talent': Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi on growing up, acting, and her critics
? 'She Has a Quality That Sets Her Apart From Others': Chinese director Zhang Yimou waxes lyrical on star actress Zhang Ziyi
Asia's Fine Performance
The region's filmmakers score big at this year's Cannes festival, winning four of the top prizes (6/5/2000)
Back to China
In the martial-arts drama Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee and a cast of big stars struggle with moviemaking on the mainland (11/29/99)
On Set With Ang Lee
Elaborate sets, derring-do and big stars are all found in the martial-arts drama "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"