By Sean Axmaker
February 28, 2005 - 1:28 AM PST
Stunt man, fight choreographer and director Yuen Kwai, or Corey Yuen, as his English credits read, has been a central figure on the Hong Kong action movie scene for most of his 30-plus-year screen career. Grounded in his training in what must be the most influential Chinese Opera Academy class ever, he and his classmates Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao worked their way up from journeyman stunt players to stars in the industry but, while his classmates found their fame in front of the camera, Yuen found his greatest success behind the scenes, from choreographing Tsui Hark's landmark Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain to directing such Hong Kong classics as Saviour of the Soul 1 and 2 and Fong Sai Yuk 1 and 2 to designing Jet Li's impressive action scenes in such films as High Risk and My Father is a Hero (also known as The Enforcer). He cracked Hollywood as the choreographer of Jet Li's American debut in Lethal Weapon 4 and followed Li to France for Kiss of the Dragon. He's been bouncing between Hong Kong, Hollywood and France (where he took his first directing credit outside of Hong Kong with Luc Besson's French-produced, English language actioner The Transporter) ever since.
Corey Yuen was at the 2003 Seattle International Film Festival to present his then-latest Hong Kong action film So Close. On the day of the Midnight Movie encore screening, he agreed to sit down with me for over an hour to discuss the details of his career and his recent international success. Mr. Yuen, who speaks some English, preferred to give his answers in Cantonese with interpreter James Hsu translating. Also with Mr. Yuen was his son, Seattle resident David Yuen, who helped with some of the finer points of translating movie talk.
Tell me how you got started in the Hong Kong film industry as an actor and stunt choreographer.
Originally I didn't even think of movie-making. Of course, you have heard of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao. We were in the Chinese Opera Academy together. After we graduated, we were unemployed and went to the studio to be warriors or swordsmen. Of course, we were cut down right there. I remember my first film with Jackie Chan. Both of us were collaborators. After we spent some time in the movie industry, the thought of becoming action directors came into our minds and, step by step, we worked our way up. Then a producer made me a director. That's how we got started.
Even after you established yourself as a director, you continued to serve as an action director on other people's films.
When I direct my own movies, I am the choreographer. In other movies, directors ask me to be their choreographer. In Hong Kong, movie-making suffers from tight budgets, so sometimes, when I am the director, if there is a role I could play myself, of course, that is a money-saving move. That's why I act at the same time. Of course, other people ask me to act in their films too.
What kind of collaboration is that, to work on someone else's movie, after having been a director yourself?
When another director asks me to be their choreographer, mentally, they are already prepared: they know I myself am a director. So they would show me the script first and I will review each action scene. Sometimes I would make a suggestion: "In this drama, can you change it to conform to my action?" This happened quite a lot. So even on the dramatic sections I would discuss it to see how it can be expressed more fully. That's a common occurrence.
When you approach the martial arts sequence, do you treat it as part of the drama? Do you try to express the character through the dramatic action?
Yes, of course. This is the way it happens, because the director of the dramatic sections does not necessarily know the martial arts actions. So I will make suggestions. If this person is going to make this action, mentally, he should be doing that. For example, we are sitting in this room here. Of course, in the fighting scene, that part was not thought out by the drama director and I would think, "If I took this pole here [points to a post in the room, about the diameter of a fighting staff] and used it to fight, would it make it better?" So in advance, the drama director should introduce the fact that this character is very good at fighting with this kind of pole. You have to establish these things. Of course, this is just one example.
When you direct your own movies, you work those out together, in concert?
There are a lot of differences. Let's say we are going to use the water glasses to fight [picks up a glass of ice water from the table]. I would think, "Because you are drinking yourself, that would give you a reason to fight with glasses." That is the advantage of being both director and choreographer. So the fight with glasses would not be a surprise.
Corey Yuen choreographs a scene for The One with Jet Li.
David Yuen: Basically, the benefit of being both: Let's say this is a drama scene with the both of us talking. If Corey is also the choreographer, since we are both drinking ice water, maybe there is a great ice scene we could have right here. If you think about the drama, you can also think about small details surround the scene to make the action scene more alive. If you both drink water and start fighting suddenly, there's no point in that happening. But maybe you can start talking into it and then the action scene could work.
I was thinking, for example, in The Transporter, the way Jason Statham moves all the way through the movie dramatically is also the way he moves when he fights. It's very consistent to the character.
Yes, that was my point.
Tell me a little about working with Jet Li. You've made more films with him than, I think, any other action choreographer. Can you talk about how his on-screen style has developed from your choreography style?
Jet Li was a very famous martial master in China because he knew different styles of martial arts. But he is not a director. So being his director as well as his choreographer, in the four or five films we made together, I had to think ahead of time about what he would have in this movie that was different from the last movie. The first movies we made together were Fong Sai-Yuk and Fong Sai-Yuk 2, they were period-style films, and then the next film, My Father Is a Hero, was a modern film, so we would think of different characters for him to fight with so he could bring out every style he has learned.
He has a very different style than, for instance, Jackie Chan or Sammo Hung when he fights onscreen. What was your part helping him develop that? Because he also has a very distinctive way of moving and being on-screen, whether he is Fong Sai-Yuk or in a modern role. He's a very still and controlled figure.
Jet Li is a martial master in China and Jackie Chan's basic training is like mine - he comes from Chinese Opera, and Sammo Hung came from the same class. What we learned in the Chinese Opera school [was to] use different things to fight. Right now, Jackie Chan uses the same techniques in his films, using different objects to fight with. Sammo Hung was on the heavy side. The styles of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung were different because of their size and weight.
"Step by step, we worked our way up.""We took a risk."
"One camera, four kicks."
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A film critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a DVD columnist for the Internet Movie Database, Sean Axmaker is also a frequent contributor to MSN Entertainment, Amazing Stories, Asian Cult Cinema, Greencine and StaticMultimedia.com. His reviews and essays are featured in the recently released Scarecrow Movie Guide.
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