From Angels to Devils
Choreographer Yuen Cheung Yen
by Dr. Craig Reid
DAREDEVIL is the latest comic book hero to make the jump to the big screen. Ben Affleck stars as the blind champion for justice DAREDEVIL, opposite Jennifer Garner as the ultimate female ninja, Elektra. Garner is best known for her portrayal as the high-kicking counterspy Sydney Bristow in the TV series ALIAS. Today, Garner is the leading lady of television fight scenes, and there is no doubt that her role as Electra will elevate her screen combat scenes another notch. For DAREDEVIL, she was trained by the same choreographer who handled that famous threesome of fighting femme fatales, CHARLIE'S ANGELS. The world hardly expected a film version of CHARLIE'S ANGELS (2000) to be worth the celluloid it was filmed on, but with a gross of over $122 million in the U.S. and over another $100 million worldwide, the film certainly did something right. What was the mysterious element that elevated a campy television show to a genuine blockbuster feature film? The secret of CHARLIE'S ANGELS success can be found in a Shanghai-nese restaurant located underground on the outskirts of LA's Chinatown. Well, sort of. In actuality, I'm having supper with Hong Kong action director Yuen Cheung Yen (aka Yuen Xiang Ren), younger brother of Yuen Woo Ping (THE MATRIX and CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON), at one of his favorite LA hangouts. Yuen is the man not only responsible for training the ANGELS, but for creating the action sequences that essentially makes the film what it is...fun. The film is essentially YUEN XIANG REN DE TIAN SHI, which is romanized mandarin Chinese for YUEN'S ANGELS.
Born in Guang Zhou, Canton, Yuen moved to Hong Kong two months later. At age 8 he started training with his famous actor/fight choreographer father, Yuen Siu Tin, the guy most Westerners will recognize as the old, gray haired teacher in Jackie Chan's SNAKE IN THE EAGLE'S SHADOW (1978) and DRUNKEN MASTER (1978).
"I'm what is known as a "Hong Ku Zi" (translated as "Red Trouser"), the jolly Yuen relates, "a term that comes from Beijing Opera School. When we trained and performed, we'd usually wear a pair of red trouser. The term is now used to describe the bottom rung of a ladder kind of thing, like in the action film profession, stuntmen. I remember that when we practiced, we weren't interested in the singing but practiced more in terms of fighting. I used to be able to do lots of tumbling when I was young, like more than 80 continuous back hand springs on the same spot (laughs), but not any more."
I always remember when I first met Jackie Chan over 20 years ago. It was right after the pseudo-success of his first American debut film BATTLECREEK BRAWL (1980). I asked if he believed in things like qigong. He emphatically told me that he didn't buy into it. When I asked him again 10 years ago, he still had not changed his mind on the subject. So I asked Yuen if he bought into it. He shares, "You have got to remember that we are practicing for entertainment purposes; but I do, however, believe in qigong and that it does exist. I don't practice it though, because you should do it everyday, and often and in the mornings. And that is hard for us in film to practice it successfully because of night shoots, overnight shooting. Because if you don't continue at a fixed time every day, it's not effective. The best times to practice are mornings or before you go to bed. But again, our working schedule can't achieve these requirements."
Interestingly, with all the interviews I've done over the years with the top Hong Kong action stars and filmmakers who got their start in Beijing Opera school, the only guy who seriously practices qigong is Ching Siu Ming, the guy known for his role as the renegade monk in Yuen Woo Ping's BUDDHIST FIST (1980) and who did the action directing in films like BURY ME HIGH (1991), THE MIRAGE (1993) and Ronny Yu's American film debut WARRIORS OF VIRTUE.
Yuen continues, "I started working on films since I was a kid because my father was also involved in film. He'd take me to his sets and I ended up being a stunt double for all these child actors. As I got older, I'd still be a stunt double but moved up the ladder, eventually becoming a fight choreographer, action director and then a director. I was about 9 when I did my first film, one of those black and white Chiao Zhou (Chiao Zhou language films). I also did lots of black and white Cantonese Opera films. They of course both had fights in them. Years later, I'd accompany my father to those Wong Fei Hung films and work on them.
"My father was a big influence on all of us. Since we were kids, he taught us all kung-fu and so we of course deeply respect and admire him very much. The first time I was a fight choreographer was in an old Shaw Brothers film. I don't remember the title -- I did so many films in those days -- but I do recall that it starred Di Lung. If I saw the title, I'd know it."
Yuen was often cast as an off-the-wall Taoist priest or kung-fu master in crazy movies like DRUNKEN TAI CHI (1984), TAOISM DRUNKARD (1983), as well as an eccentric woman in MIRACLE FIGHTERS (1982). Your average Hong Kong film fan of course will recognize him for "reliving" his DRUNKEN TAI CHI character as Jet Li's teacher in TAI CHI MASTER: ZHANG SAN FUNG (1993). Yet he's more notably known for his outrageously creative action directing in Fant-Asia films such as FIERY DRAGON (1994), DRAGON INN (1992), the mind-numbing ladder fight finale in ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA (1991) and the bizarrely over-the-top IRON MONKEY (1993), of which in CHARLIE'S ANGELS, shot for shot and gag for gag, it mirrors the scene at the end of the film when Drew Barrymore fights 4 stuntguys.
Acknowledging my observation, Yuen honestly quips, "It's my job and I do the best I can. This film offered me no challenge, but consider that since I was a kid I've worked on over 1100 films, over 20 films a year. But it has been an interesting experience coming over to Hollywood where maybe people can learn things from me, and for sure I've learned things here."
Sadly, this is similar for all the Hong Kong action directors asked to work their magic in Hollywood. It's not complacency; they're just asked to do what they've done umpteen times before, and they have to work with people who know nothing about them or the action they do. And now everyone and their pet cat is trying to rip them off. Just look at TOMB RAIDERS' trailer. They're trying to emulate Hong Kong action and doing a bad job of it too. It's all done under the guise of creating action you've never seen before, but you've seen it.
Yuen was familiar with the original TV series and was able to recall the cast, specifically the "long blond one" (Farrah Fawcett). Working on the film for a total of 8 months, he started out apprehensive about training the actresses. Barrymore was distracted by personal matters, Lucy Liu wasn't there for the first month and Cameron Diaz had recently quit smoking. Every day in LA's Park Plaza hotel, from 8am to 5pm for several months, Yuen patiently put the ANGELS through their training to successfully transform them into a bunch of pseudo-action stars.
When asked to describe his methods of fight choreography, he nonchalantly giggles, "My method is very simple. First I observe the foundation, ability and quality of the actor and see what they have to offer. That can range from people who know a lot or nothing at all. What can be tough is convincing the actors the importance of having to train and getting them inspired and wanting to train. Some are no problem, but others you have to constantly say things like, "Don't worry, don't feel bad, take your time." So the basic fundamental things is keep the interest of the actor involved. If he or she is not interested, no matter how hard they train, it's not going to work and it's completely useless. With this film, what's good is that they all practiced together, and that can really help not only the interest, but the competitive spirit keeps them trying harder. Then you lead them into the real training mode. I mean, if you start and they have no interest, how can you continue teaching them?"
So how did Yuen get involved in the film and what really went into training the ANGELS? "A reporter friend I know in America did some calling around and which eventually led to the director calling me at my company in Hong Kong," Yuen reminisces. "The talks went smooth, so we came to LA to further discuss the script, which lead to the eventual training of the actresses and the actor (Crispin Glover). It was very tough and difficult for them because they've never done this sort of training or action before. I had my reservations and doubts about their abilities and thought they'd never achieve what I asked of them and what they needed to do. In fact, before I signed onto the film, I had a list of conditions that would have to be met, and one of those was that the Angels had to train six to eight hours a day. But you know, one of the big differences between filming in Hong Kong and America -- besides the budget -- is that in Hong Kong there is no training period before a film; the actors just show up and fight."
The irony is that over 90% of the actors you see in those films have never practiced martial arts before, and that percentage is even higher for actresses. It's no wonder that Angel Cameron Diaz was skeptical about the whole thing. "You can't go halfway," Diaz recalls Yuen saying at their first introduction, "If you want us to train you, we have to know that you committed. But Drew and I could see he was dedicated to the film, so we were basically hooked. We just looked at each other and we were like, "I'm down for that. We'll do it.
"The first day was a nightmare," she painfully recollects, "I'd just quit smoking. Drew and I show up at the production office. I'm wearing a very short skirt, which might have worried the Master (the pet name the girls adopted to describe Yuen) a bit, and he makes us run up and down a basketball court a couple of hundred times and makes us kick. It was insane. I mean I couldn't even touch my toes. Our trainer was pushing down on our backs saying, 'Pain is your best friend. Get to know him. Just say the words: 'I love pain.' I was literally crying tears. But by the end of the first day my forehead was on my knees. None of us got injured, but going to bed every night we were sore from head to toe.
"Then it became a common thing for all of us to be suspended from wires half the day, which is great because -- like in films -- the great thing about them is you get the opportunity to do things that you never would have been able to do in any other circumstance. And you get to learn these things from the best people."
Yuen laughingly notes, "They'd get angry, swear and start kicking stuff around. I empathize with what is called 'eating bitterness.' That means going through the pain just to be tough and to be strong. They were all willing to eat bitterness. They trained their flexibility and mastered some basic moves. After about a month of training I felt they were doing okay, and eventually they were able to achieve about 80 percent of what we were hoping they could accomplish. They were pretty good.
"To determine what each lady had to learn and what I wanted them to do, is that I first look at their character's personality in the film and took it from there. Drew's character was more jumpy and airy so she practiced more "dan tiao" techniques (springy movements), so her fights looked a bit more vicious. Cameron's stuff is more realistic, down to earth and solid looking, so she had to be more flexible. I thought that Cameron was going to be the most difficult of the trio; she was the slowest learner and I think maybe they were also a little bit scared of me. And for Lucy, her movement had to be beautiful looking. Now although she has never practiced martial arts, her background in dancing helped in getting that better look. After all their martial art training, we trained them in getting used to doing wire work. The director told me what kind of fights he wanted and what was supposed to happen, we'd design the fight, practice it, show him, and he'd say no problem and we'd film it. He trusted my judgment and gave me control of what I wanted to create for the action."
Although the director and actresses have strongly acknowledged Yuen's contribution as vital to the look of the action and success of the film, Yuen's Hong Kong crew and some of the Hong Kong stuntmen used in the film didn't receive screen credit; and even Yuen's name was easily missed in the final credits. But it's worse in the Hong Kong film industry. These guys will film 18 hours a day, do dangerous stunts for chicken feed money and get no stunt adjustments even if they have to repeatedly perform the same dangerous stunt. This is done without getting credit or complaining. It's a different mentality and it's just the way it is. I once visited Jackie Chan's RUSH HOUR set and saw this guy who really looked familiar, but I couldn't place the face. One of Chan's stuntguys introduced me to the young man. He was Michelle Yeoh's stunt double. Who could know?
Speaking with Yuen, one gets a sense of incredible calm in the way he approaches his discussion on film. As he alluded to before, to him, it's really just a job and it's hard to fathom if he's having fun. I mean, here is a man that has done over 1100 films throughout his life and probably had no choice but to get involved in opera training and his subsequent immersion into film. When I asked him about who influenced him as a director and what are some of his most memorable moments in film, he simply shares, "This is the first time I have made a film in America, but it's common that I travel a lot to make films in other locations. I've worked on so many films and don't really know what director has influenced me. If a director has a good advantage, then one must learn it from any director and not learn their bad points. Learn to pick up the good things.
"In Hong Kong there are many opportunities to be a director, and you have to just try to do your best and sometimes it works out. So I don't really have any deep memories of any of the films I've done. It's different being a director in Hong Kong and a director in Hollywood. Maybe in Hollywood there are more memorable moments. I guess if I can't be a good director, I can be a stunt double or choreographer. Sure I was a bit nervous when I directed my first film, but that was only me worrying about whether I do a good job or not. But I guess in the end what makes memories of a film good is the box-office and sales and if the critics like the film, then it leaves a deeper impression."
Yet he's as gracious as he is accommodating. Supper over, he insists on picking up the tab. When I close by asking if he has any personal philosophy, he contemplatingly posits, "I ask this question myself. Everyday I just eat and sleep. To me, I think it's just about being natural in life. I mean, if you have an idea or goal in life, it's not realistic. I'm not the kind that believes that you can do or achieve anything you want to if you set your mind to it. Just be natural, develop naturally and achieve naturally."
About Dr. Craig Reid:
Craig D. Reid is a writer, martial artist and filmmaker based in Los Angeles, CA