Fantastic Fest: Yuen Woo-Ping Double Bill

The RZA and the Paramount kneel to the Master

The expert, the master and the RZArector: Lars Nilsen (l) and RZA (r) look on as Yuen Woo-Ping receives his lifetime achievement award at Fantastic Fest
The expert, the master and the RZArector: Lars Nilsen (l) and RZA (r) look on as Yuen Woo-Ping receives his lifetime achievement award at Fantastic Fest (Photo by Marc Savlov)

You get the feeling that there aren't many men to whom RZA would take a knee, but Yuen Woo-Ping, master of martial arts choreography, is on that elite list. Literally.

Last night at the Fantastic Fest gala premiere of Yuen's new martial arts epic True Legend, the Wu-Tang Clan leader gave the man behind most of the great evolutions in on-screen ass-kicking a lifetime achievement award. Like Friday's honorees Roger and Julie Corman, it came in the shape of a sword (a Chinese saber to their broadsword.) True to form, the master gave the blade a few appreciative sweeps, drawing the second of many, many ovations (most standing) of the night.

After the screening and Q&A (courtesy of Weird Wednesday curator and martial arts maven Lars Nilsen), many departed the Paramount for the Highball. The audience that stuck around may have missed the now-legendary Karaoke rendition of I Gotta Feeling by RZA feat. Alamo Drafthouse CEO Tim League, directors Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes) and Eugenio Mira (the unmissable Agnosia, screening Tuesday), and competition judge Elijah Wood. However, they did catch a gorgeous print of Master Yuen's 1978 directorial debut, Snake in the Eagle's Shadow. That was the first film where Jackie Chan moved from bit-player to leading man (in fact, it was so early in his career that the print called him Jacky.) Speaking through a translator, Yuen explained that Chan's comedy persona was always there: It was simply that no previous director had seen the potential for it.

Chan also starred in Yuen's follow-up, Drunken Master. That's a more comedic take on the same myth of Beggar Su that he tackles in True Legend. Why return to the same story? Exactly because the earlier version was so comedic, Yuen explained. This time he wanted to bring more heart to it, emphasizing the intense family drama between disgraced general Su (Man Cheuk Chiu) and his usurper step-brother (Andy On).

Since helping mold Chan's early career, Yuen has worked with just about every major martial artist working in cinema today. However, he was worried that there wasn't a modern day Chan or Jet Li or Andy Lau, who could combine the acting and the martial arts side of the genre as well as they did.

However, Yuen has done a spectacular job in recent years of making actors with no formal martial arts training look like they were born on a wire. From Keanu Reeves in The Matrix to Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, it's been Yuen's hand guiding their strikes. It was up to Nilsen to ask the big question: Ever met an actor he couldn't do teach anything?

"There's one," Yuen replied politely.

"I've got the next question," Nilsen quickly interjected. "Who is that?"

Proving he is a master of discretion as well as martial arts, Yuen simply said, "It was a long time ago, and it was a Chinese actor and you won't know him."

If you missed all the excitement, don't be too downcast: US rights for True Legend have been acquired by Indomina Releasing, so expect a full release, hopefully later this year.

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Fantastic Fest, Fantastic Fest 2010, RZA, Yuen Woo Ping, Jackie Chan, True Legend, Snake in Eagle's Shadow, Cat's Claw Style, Eagle Claw Style, Snake Style, Indomina Releasing, Highball, Karaoke, Blackeyed Peas, Elijah Wood

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