The Stuff of 'Legend'

Words from wushu master Yuen Woo-ping

Yuen Woo-ping at Fantastic Fest 2010
Yuen Woo-ping at Fantastic Fest 2010 (Photo by John Anderson)

Say all you like about China's endlessly resurrected heroes like Wong Fei-Hung, Chen Zhen, Fong Sai-yuk, and Yip Man. None of them can hold a mad-monkey firecracker to the ongoing exploits of true cinematic legend Yuen Woo-ping, who, as either director or fight choreographer, has arguably kicked more collective ass – literally and figuratively – than China Drama Academy alums Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao combined. He's certainly put all three through the wushu wringer time and again, making his own feature debut helming Chan's 1978 breakthrough role in Snake in the Eagle's Shadow and both "Little Tiger" Yuen and Hung in 1980's madcap masterpiece Magnificent Butcher. You can credit (or blame) the Shaw Brothers for the deluge of chop-socky beatdowns that swept through the grimy theatres of Seventies-era 42nd Street, but it's Yuen Woo-ping who must be credited with imbuing low-to-no-budget martial arts films with priceless artistry.

Yuen's endlessly imaginative, outrageously entertaining flair for gravity-challenged historical mayhem has obviously not gone unnoticed, eventually allowing for his entrée into the moneyed cult-mainstream via his fight choreography for the Wachowski brothers' Matrix films, Stephen Chow's Hollywood homage Kung Fu Hustle, and QT's Kill Bill. (More recently he went total-global, overseeing the stunt choreography on the Bollywood mind-warper Endhiran.)

"Every generation has their own features and unique ideas [about wushu style]," says Yuen, via email from Hong Kong. "However, for example, much classic Chinese literature which advocates the virtues of [discipline, sacrifice, honor] have been popular for ages and have been adapted into movies, TVs and plays. These core ideas of wushu are very similar things. They teach people to be kind. I hope they will still be popular because to me they reflect something positive of human nature."

His newest, True Legend, which premiered at Fantastic Fest 2010 (where he was also presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award/sword by the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA), is, no surprise here, another stunner. It combines digitally enhanced, high-flying wire work (à la his work in Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), old-school drunken grandmastery (recalling his own, Jackie Chan-starring classic Drunken Master), and some of the most evocatively wild sequences in the history of martial arts movies.

"I feel I am old-fashioned," Yuen adds, "so whenever I can, I prefer to shoot kung-fu scenes for real and use traditional wire work to enhance the actions in the movie. Yet at the same time, special effects and visual effects can definitely enrich and help the portrayal of kung-fu and the power it involves."

Speaking of kung fu, grasshopper Kwai Chang Caine himself, the late, great David Carradine, has a cameo role in True Legend, bringing the Americanized chop-socky experience to something like a full circle (or possibly that's Kung Fu Panda 2? Nah).

"Every one of my films has some personal moments. I love them all but every time I review one I find there is something that can be improved. Filmmaking is an art with regrets."

Regrets? Too few to mention for fans of Yuen Woo-ping's visually exhilarating and physically exacting brand of bone-crunching, airborne balletics. Yuen Woo-ping does it his way.

True Legend opens in Austin this Friday. Read the Chronicle's review.

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