Asian action cinema owes a huge debt to one of its biggest unsung heroes: Yuen Woo-Ping, renowned action choreographer and director whose career in martial arts films spans forty years.
With his latest, Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy, about to hit the screens, the New York Asian Film Festival have decided now is the time to honour his staggering contribution, by screening a selection of his best work and presenting the guest of honour with theLifetime Achievement Award.
You may not have heard his name or be up or world cinema or action flicks, but his body of work is so vast and has ventured into places outside of Asia, you will have likely come across it at some point.
Born in Guangzhou in 1945 and educated at the Peking Opera School, Yuen would eventually follow in the family business – his father, Yuen Siu-tien, was a renowned martial arts actor who appeared in seminal films of the genre, including The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Come Drink With Me and The Mystery of Chessboxing.
However, the younger Yuen felt his place was behind the camera rather than in front, and put his martial arts skills to good use as he set about becoming an action director and choreographer in the booming martial arts film scene of Hong Kong.
What has always made Yuen’s work stand out is his eye for composition and detail, the intricacies of his choreography and the collaboration with performers that makes each fight unique to the fighter. Most of all, though, is his commitment to authenticity – his fights rarely, if ever, use wire work or CGI, which make them so much more exciting and engaging to watch.
After a lot of early collaborations with the Shaw Brothers among other big-name Hong Kong filmmakers, Yuen made his directorial debut in 1978 – and what a debut it was: Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow. The film remains a prime example of the genre and was one of the films that helped to make Jackie Chan into an international action star.
Over the next twenty years, Yuen served prolifically as director or action choreographer and directed some of Hong Kong and China’s biggest action stars in some of their best works.
These included Jackie Chan in Drunken Master, Sammo Hung in Magnificent Butcher, Donnie Yen in Drunken Tai Chi, Michelle Yeoh in Wing Chun as well as The Miracle Fighters for legendary Hong Kong producer Raymond Chow, a film which is being screened at NYAFF this year in his honour.
In addition to directing, he also choreographed the action scenes of Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China 2 (1992), the best instalment of the long-running action series fronted by action superstar Jet Li. It would be the first of many collaborations between Yuen and Li, the next being 1994’s Fist of Legend.
In 1993 he directed a film that ranks among his very best and the best of its time: Iron Monkey. Starring Donnie Yen, Ringo Yu and Jean Wang, it is a Robin Hood-type story that follows the eponymous masked fighter who fights the injustice of the ruthless and corrupt Ching government.
Beautifully shot with precision action and every martial arts archetype on show, Iron Monkey is quintessential viewing for anyone with an interest in the genre and a perfect choice for the festival’s career retrospective of Yuen.
At this point, his work started to gain attention outside of Asia, and the inevitable call of Hollywood came and in a big way – the Wachowskis hired Yuen to stage the fight scenes for The Matrix trilogy. His work here was so well received, Ang Lee called on his services for the Academy Award-winning Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, as did Quentin Tarantino for Kill Bill.
Returning closer to home, he served as action director for two of films of leading Hong Kong filmmaker Stephen Chow – Kung Fu Hustle (2004) and House of Fury (2005) – as well as another collaboration with Jet Li, this time for the lavish historical epic Fearless (2006), directed by Ronny Yu.
In 2013, he was part of the dream team behind The Grandmaster – directed by Wong Kar Wai, produced by Martin Scorsese, starring Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi – who gave the much-filmed martial arts icon Ip Man mainstream treatment. The acclaimed film picked up many accolades and proved that, even in his later years, he was still far from having hit his stride.
He then made his contribution to the popular Donnie Yen-fronted Ip Man series, designing the fight scenes of the third instalment, released in 2015. Around the same time he also returned to the director’s chair, taking the helm of a number of high-profile Hong Kong films including Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny.
His new film, Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy, sees him take the helm of the Ip Man series for the first time, in what looks to be an exciting instalment as one martial arts master gets given the top treatment by another.
Looking back at his career, it is truly staggering how many kung-fu classics he has been responsible for and how prolific he has been throughout. It would be hard to think of Asian action cinema of the last forty years without him, and while he is thoroughly deserving of NYAFF’s honour this year, the bigger question really is: why has he not been honoured sooner?