Andrew Heskins of easternKicks.com looks behind the scenes of the kung fu classic in the making, Kung Fu Killer, with director Teddy Chen and actress Michelle Bai…
In Kung Fu Killer, Ip Man star Donnie Yen plays martial arts instructor Hahou, working with the police to bring down a vicious killer targeting various kung fu masters to prove himself the greatest. Amidst a variety of situations and settings – a film studio, a dinosaur skeleton, a tattoo parlour – each fight scene is more crowd-pleasing than the last. If it all sounds like a deliriously old-school martial arts movie given a deliriously 21st century twist, there’s a good reason for that – that’s exactly what it is! Even the title hints at classic 70s films like Five Deadly Venoms or the (completely inappropriate) US dubbing of The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin as Master Killer. (Now back to its original title for UK release, the film title was changed to Kung Fu Jungle for its international title due to censorship in Mainland China.)
A heart felt celebration of Hong Kong kung fu action movies, director Teddy Chen was happy to explain his inspiration for the film when we met at The May Fair Hotel London, following the world premiere the previous evening at the 58th BFI London Film Festival 2014. Labelling himself a ‘kung fu fan’, having trained in various styles when he was younger, he wanted to follow up his 2009 smash hit Bodyguards and Assassins with a story about a kung fu master in the 50s. He planned to use the same set ‘because it was almost the same in the 50s as it was in 1905’. But he admits he took too long over it. ‘I spent a lot of time on the research and script. After two years, there were a lot of kung fu master films!’
All those Ip Man movies, I ask. ‘Yeah, Ip Man movies!’ he smiles. It was one of his creative team who reminded him of an old script about a serial killer, discarded because it could never be made in Mainland China due to censorship, and suggested they combine the two elements. ‘I thought, why not a serial kung fu killer? That’s something!’
Of course, most audiences know Ip Man as played by Donnie Yen, with two smash hit movies that even made an impact in the UK and US, and a third on the way later this year. Having worked with Donnie on Bodyguards and Assassins, Chen has nothing but praise for his lead star, describing him as ‘one of the most talented action directors in Hong Kong. Because he’s travelled; he worked in Hollywood and he brought back some techniques – like using the camera, the new wires – and then he puts it together with the action. The kung fu that he creates looks more modern to the audience.’
If Yen is obvious casting for a kung fu action flick, Wang Baoqiang – better known for dramatic and comedic roles in films like Blind Shaft, Lost In Thailand and A Touch Of Sin – is far from it. It turns out his casting as the villainous serial killer Fung was more a case of Wang’s tenacity. Having first met at a premiere for a comedy by Feng Xiaogang 10 years ago, he approached the director excitedly to be in one of his action films, telling Chen that he had been in Shaolin Wushu for a few years. Despite having, from Chen’s account, an impressive stance, Chen rather fobbed him off to approach Jackie Chan instead. ‘He makes comedies with action kung fu!’
Only Chen found himself desperate to cast someone opposite Yen in Kung Fu Killer. ‘In my mind everybody who can act and fight have already been shot in Yen’s last films.’ It was a chance meeting with Wang that made him think, ‘Why not this guy? When he smiles, he smiles weird,’ Chen laughs. ‘I gave him the script and said, “think about it, and tell me at the end of the week.” He called me back the next day and said, “Let’s do it! I love the character!”’
Similarly lead actress Michelle Bai, cast as Hahou’s love interest Sinn Ying who shows she can more than hold her own against Fung, had no previous experience as a martial arts lead. ‘On one hand it was tough; on the other I enjoyed it. Even though it was very difficult, the sword was so long and very difficult to manoeuvre, I enjoyed it because it’s a new challenge.’ Even after two months of training, when it came to the actual shoot she found things rather different. ‘On the set when I was actually fighting with Wang Baoqiang, the protagonist, I realised that it was actually very high-impact fighting, it was a matter of life and death, it was fighting for lives. So that was really tough,’ she states timidly, seemingly a world away from her tough onscreen persona in Kung Fu Killer.
Did she get hurt at any point during the filming? ‘Minor injuries yes, because it’s normal to be injured in an action film, but nowadays I think actors are very fortunate to have a lot of protection and the director looked after us really well.’ However, one scene didn’t go so well. ‘There was a scene when I was with Wang where I was meant to be next to a wall of shelves, and the whole shelf collapses on me so I had to back off, but I didn’t quite do that in time. So I didn’t get the timing perfect, and I was stuck between the wall and the shelf, which was very dangerous and my head was about to be hit, and then it collapsed on me and I thought it was OK I didn’t feel hurt at all. But later on I realized that a whole patch of skin came off on my hand and it leaves a scar on my hand and the scar would be there permanently.’ Ouch!
‘But compared with other action actors, this little patch of skin is really nothing. Because when I worked with Donnie I got to see all his old injuries, he has old injuries all over his body. They do all the tough work, it’s very tough on real action actors and all the stunt men.’ Unsurprisingly she’s a little coy about whether she’ll be doing any more action films, ‘Regarding the question of whether or not I would play in martial art films again, it is tough but I enjoy it.’
Turning his attention to American action films, Chen admits they’ve come a long way, but still feels they rely too heavily on CG and special effects. ‘I’m empty when I watch those films. I want to do something really grounded, real kung fu fighting, that I don’t think they can. So you have to know what is the strongest part of we have; I’m not saying we have to fight against them, but I have to protect our kung fu film, especially as now they are coming over to China, the biggest market in the world.’
Displays of kung fu on screen go back almost as far as there has been cinema in China. Romance of the Western Chamber, a rare surviving example of a Chinese silent – produced by the Minxin Film Company established in Hong Kong in 1922 by the so-called ‘Father of Hong Kong Cinema’ Lai Man-wai – features a shaolin monk waves a staff around with the same skill that Gordon Liu would show in The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin some 50 years later. The popularity of wuxia (martial hero) fiction quickly made its way onto the big screen, with displays of kung fu going hand in hand. Until China’s Nationalist government banned them in 1931, and Japanese occupation pushed filmmakers towards Hong Kong. Beginning with The Whip That Smacks The Candle in 1949, it would be Cantonese films of folk hero Wong Fei-hong, played for over 20 years by Kwan Tak-hing, that would create an audience for martial arts in films. When the famous Shaw Brothers studio finally turned their hand with what Run Run Shaw described as the first kung fu movie, One-Armed Swordsman, there was no going back.
Chen is rightfully proud of the five generations of Hong Kong kung fu and action stars, directors and producers he’s assembled for the film, with an awe-inspiring list of cameos. They include: Raymond Chow, the Shaw Brothers producer who ran off to found Golden Harvest – Shaw’s only real contender in the 70s, they came into their own in the 80s following the success of lead contracted star Jackie Chan; Shaw Brothers heartthrob, and New One-Armed Swordsman David Chiang; Ng See-Yuen, producer of Jackie’s first box office smashes Drunken Master and Snake In The Eagles Shadow; directors like Infernal Affairs Andrew Lau, the groundbreaking Hong Kong New Wave director of Cop and Robbers Alex Cheung, and Kirk Wong, who’s back catalogue includes Jackie Chan’s Crime Story; and right up to date with Derek Kwok, who co-directed Stephen ‘Kung Fu Hustle’ Chow’s latest film Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons and the fun Gallants where martial arts heroes of yesterday struggle to keep up with the times in a teahouse. And the list goes on.
‘I want to let teenagers know that these are the people who made Hong Kong action films go worldwide,’ Chan tells me. But Kung Fu Killer is more than just an education; it’s damn fine entertainment! Leaving behind much of the jingoism that overwhelms many Chinese and Hong Kong films, Kung Fu Killer gladly doesn’t take itself too seriously. It falls somewhere between a game and the ‘gamified’ Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Backstage at a set, atop a dinosaur skeleton, on a highway with trucks speeding by; each situation is exploited to the extreme, creatively taking advantage of the setting.
To Chen, this comes down to his five keywords he always keeps in mind when making a film: why, where, when, what and how. ‘Why: why they have to fight. Where: on a 25th floor; on a backstage; or backstairs, and the stairs are ruined and almost going to fall? When: dawn and raining, or midnight and cloudy; the moon goes into the cloud, and they can’t see each other.’ Even just casually explaining his methods, you can see his brain working overtime, instantly conjuring up images and ideas. ‘How: how to get out of this situation; how to get rid of the opponent. If I put this together, maybe it’s not that good, but at least I give my action director very early ideas, then he will put in some lovely, fantastic, kung fu design.
‘You see, when I say he’s the “king of kick boxers” then you have to keep things off the ground; make it higher for them to fight. But if it’s only a staircase, that’s not interesting. So I have a skeleton!’ Teddy smiles and I laugh.
KUNG FU KILLER is now showing at cinemas and arrives on Blu-ray, DVD and digital platforms from 23rd February, courtesy of Signature Entertainment
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