I am currently writing posting blogs about one of my very favourite movies – Once Upon A Time in China 2 (OUTIC 2). This movie stars Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Rosamund Kwan, Xiong Xin Xin, and legendary Shaw Brothers star David Chiang in an important supporting role. It was directed and produced by Tsui Hark, who was also one of the writers on the film. Yuen Wu Ping was the choreographer.
There is so much to love about this film, but I think most martial arts film fans would agree that Donnie Yen, in the role of General Lam, is a definite asset. Yen brings authentic off screen, real life martial arts expertise to bear on his graceful onscreen performances. He has enormous screen presence, and is a superb actor. He is also highly regarded as a martial arts choreographer and director. He has only filmed 3 fight scenes across 2 films (OUTIC 2 and Hero) with Jet Li. I wish they had done more – these 2 men look wonderful together. Their individual movement dynamics are highly compatible and sit nicely together, but there are also enough subtle differences in their personal styles and screen personas to make it interesting.
I have seen Donnie Yen interviewed in various Special Features on martial arts films, and he strikes me as a most insightful, intelligent and articulate commentator on martial arts film making. I have transcribed most of the interview that is included on the Hong Kong Legends DVD release of OUTIC 2 and have included this transcription below in this blog – I thought that any Donnie Yen fans out there might be interested. The questions that Yen were asked were not included in the interview so the only words that could be recorded off the DVD and written below are Yen’s. Yen gave the interview in English (he lived in the US as a youngster so his English is very good). There are a couple of anecdotes that I have left out as I am more interested in the insights he gave on filming the fight scenes in OUTIC 2 and martial arts filmmaking in general. I have tried to transcribe Yen’s words as faithfully as possible but, of course, any choices about punctuation are mine.
Transcription of an interview with Donnie Yen from the Special Features on Hong Kong Legends DVD release of Once Upon A Time in China 2:
Once Upon A Time Part One was so successful that Jet Li became the instant superstar of martial arts films in Hong Kong and I have a track record of pound for pound top martial arts performance on screen. I think that’s why Tsui Hark chose me to play opposed to Jet Li. He wanted the ultimate martial arts opponent for Jet Li. And also because it was action directed by Yuen Wu Ping which means I’ll get a lot of freedom as far as choreography because I’ve been working for Yuen Wu Ping as a choreographer and he have a lot of trust in me. So I took it really personally. When I mean personally I don’t mean personally as in a real duel match and trying to kill each other but more like both artists having that fortunate moment in one film where you can really show your art and communicate through your art. I didn’t know Jet Li. He didn’t know me. We didn’t really talk too much but when that camera rolled we just kind of expressed ourselves with our true art to find a common ground. It’s like 2 jazz musicians when they’re playing music together they find a common ground. They start jamming. They get into another level of interpretations. So I think that’s why the performance became so memorable was that both of us took on the role and treat that film as the last film in our career so I think that’s why it made it to become one of the classics.
Tsui Hark wanted me and Jet to fight in a small environment and to find this environment, ah… because this whole environment is made up by bamboo poles and everything, and in the beginning he and I just kind of demolish the whole place breaking all the poles in half and then we reached to another level of combat and where we both picked up broken poles and became 2 poles – one pole on one hand. I think that kind of concept Tsui Hark got it from a lot of old samurai movies with 2 samurai swordsmen but now we’re dealing with 2 kung fu traditionalists. Again we took it very personal. I know I did. I’m fighting this guy, Wong Fey Hung, and obviously he’s the star of the film. But at the same time I want to make a mark fighting Wong Fey Hung. That’s who I am. I have to. I can’t take this lightly like I take a lot of other films lightly because sometimes I tend to take my physical abilities for granted because I was always looked upon as – he’s the top martial art actor so therefore no one else follows. No one else can compete so when I take on a job I throw a hand here and there and it become 1 or 2 takes and that’d be OK. But here I am on the set facing Jet Li, Wong Fey Hung, the man, got Tsui Hark, master of these martial arts films, Yuen Wu Ping, one of the greatest director of martial arts, and I said to myself “if I don’t make my moment now I wont ever make my moment” so I basically just…I think that energy just came through and I think Jet felt that and I think certainly he did…
(Anecdote about how Li made sure he got the lighter poles to use in the final fight scene.)
Tsui Hark wanted to see that. Tsui Hark certainly wanted to see that. You see, there’s an old Chinese saying – when you put 2 lions in one cage what do you get?
The choreography became no choreography. We just kind of went at it. I think that’s why that scene – I think it became one of the greatest scenes.
I think if you recall, if you look back at Bruce Lee – Return of the Dragon – he fought Chuck Norris. I think the same elements. Bruce Lee – he looked at Chuck Norris and here he’s a great fighter, I can’t take him lightly. In a way you tell yourself “OK this is real. This is real time here.”
When I was first came aboard on Once Upon A Time we had this meeting with Yuen Wu Ping. I was always Yuen Wu Ping’s choreographer, as well, in many of the previous films. So we had this meeting during lunch and we’re just basically asking how we’re going to bring this character out. So it was my idea to try and find an object to interpret this character’s martial arts physical ability is so advanced that he can transcend his power, his energy into any object. So, for example, we could just use a soft cloth and by interpreting his skill into the cloth, the cloth becomes a stick, it becomes so hardened that even a cloth can be devastating.
So that was my idea, so I kind of told Yuen Wu Ping and Yuen Wu Ping told Tsui Hark and I described how I would like to come over and have a bucket of water and how I damped this cloth with some water and the water gets it wet and as the camera pulls back and I start swinging the cloth and the cloth becomes so fast and so strong it becomes like a stick. So Tsui Hark really loved the idea and made it happen and made it a very memorable scene.
Like any other film …kung fu films you’re dealing with…you work with Yuen Wu Ping so automatically you have to set the standard to be number one in the world. Number one. Number two is that there’s still a certain amount of degree of film making. There’s a lot of props involved. I mean realistically no one can swing a soft cloth and make it like an iron rod. It’s impossible. Obviously there’s a lot of props and camera works to be involved, but yes it was difficult trying to swing the cloth and make it convincing as a weapon because I never learned any weapons like that. It was all made up, you know. It was purely on your physical abilities, you know, how do you look at the cloth. When I looked at the cloth during the film I didn’t look at the cloth as a cloth. I look at it as – this is a weapon, I’m going to take this weapon and I’m going to do some damage with that, and that was my attitude.
(anecdote about injuries he sustained during filming)
Hong Kong industry, especially martial arts industry, we grew up, you know when I first worked for Yuen Wu Ping, he’s old school, old school. I’ve done a lot of directing in Germany and many places – I used to tell a lot of these new comers, I said – don’t think you’re the greatest martial artist. There’s a lot of great martial artists out there, no doubt there’s a lot of great martial artists in this country and all over the world. In fact they’re probably better martial artists than these people in Hong Kong. However this is action film making, this is martial arts film making. It’s not about how great you are throwing all those punches and kicks. It’s how great you look in front of the camera. It don’t matter if you can do all that if at the end of the day you look horrible on film, you look like shit on film, no body wants to watch you so throw that martial arts BS, the years of whatever you’re claiming out of the window. You’ve come into the film industry. This is film making. Can you kick across that camera without even touching the lenses, like 20 takes, same precision, can you do that? If you can’t do it you’d better go home and train some more. But when I first arrived on Yuen Wu Ping’s set – same atmosphere. He used to tell me the same thing – this is Shaolin Temple, you know, this is filmmaking of Shaolin Temple. You come here and train. We used to do a whole month of fighting scenes. 6 o’clock in the morning we choreographed it and fight and on and on and on and on, right, 3 o’clock in the morning you might take a break when they set up, another set, take 57 or something, and then he’s on to shoot something else and then you’re in the back, you’re trying to rest up, and then 3 o’clock in the morning, 4 o’clock in the morning – “Hey! Wake up what happened to that jump split kick, you know, we continue on from that jump split kick.” This is 4 o’clock in the morning so you get up, trying to wake yourself up, do splits and stretch. “All right, where were we?” “Oh, our last take you were jumping off the building – jump down!”
Those are the training that gave me the grounds, the solid foundation, so when I started teaching martial arts in all my free time to those people who want to be in the film business, I said to them there’s even a higher degree of physical abilities in font of the camera than just the martial arts because you’re dealing with so many elements – not just throwing a kick out there and looking pretty and everything, but really throwing that kick with intention. Now when I mean intention, doesn’t mean just to damage a person but put every intention, you know, your character, your camera, who you’re working with. It’s getting a PhD degree in martial arts. It’s being able to perform in front of the camera. It’s not easy. People think “Ah, you know, you wire them up.” You know wire them up? Can you move when you’re wired up? Once they hang you up can you move around with that wire? Can you remember everything? Can you do one shot with 50 movements, remember every position, and do it naturally, but at the same time it so natural that it looks real, but yet having the same degree of control not to hurt your opponent or the camera man, when you start punching, punching the lens? I know cameramen got hurt a couple of times because some bad martial arts actor, their control is so bad, they hit the camera and the camera man went to the hospital because of that. So it’s very very very difficult to be a martial actor. Never mind being a great martial arts actor. Being a martial arts actor especially in today’s standard is very difficult.