STREET FIGHTER: Robin Shou at it a-GEN
by Dr. Craig Reid
One of the smartest things the filmmakers of STREET FIGHTER: THE LEGEND OF CHUN-LI did was to decide -- in the eleventh hour -- to cast the rugged, chiseled Robin Shou over Collin Chou and Kane Kosugi to replace Rick Yune as the former vicious killer Gen turned kung fu master of Chun-Li. This decision ultimately sets up the film for a high noon spectacle that is many times superior to the franchise's earlier version, STREET FIGHTER (1994) that starred the late Raul Julia and the late-to-the-creative- choreography ball Jean-Claude Van Damme, who sadly made that film as exciting as an afternoon nap.
Shou (pronounced "shoe") laughingly shares with kungfumagazine.com, "I now say that I work for the enemy, which I love it." Then with the composure of a true martial strategist he coyly adds, "And also, this is the best STREET FIGHTER film ever made."
Shou is of course referring to his first major Hollywood role in MORTAL KOMBAT, made more than a decade ago (1995) when the two most popular video games were Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter. Bitter rivalries, these two franchises were vying for superiority; and when the dust settled, MORTAL KOMBAT had pummeled STREET FIGHTER into the ground, winning at the box office with superior cinematic fighting. As a result, the Mortal Kombat video game enjoyed victorious sales. In fact, MORTAL KOMBAT became one of the highest earning independent films of that time, leading to a sequel, MORTAL KOMBAT: ANNIHILATION (1997). The other video game franchise has decided to step into the cinematic ring once more. This time it's personal, as made clear when they snatched MORTAL KOMBAT's own golden boy to infuse the LEGEND OF CHUN-LI with one of the last remaining legitimate martial arts stars of yore -- as dynamic in person and on screen today as he was back in the 1980s when Shou began his film career as a stuntman/actor in Hong Kong.
For those who may have come late to the franchise, powerful forces are converging on the streets of Bangkok -- warriors with extraordinary abilities -- all determined to prevail. Some fight for us, others for unlimited power, and now they are preparing for the ultimate battle, a war of terror versus beauty, light versus dark, yin versus yang and good versus evil. The terror (the dark yang side) is led by Bison (Neal McDonough), not the fading animal of the American plains but a powerful crime boss whose past holds a shocking secret. Bison's syndicate, Shadaloo, is taking over the slums of the Thai capital, a task overseen by Balrog (Michael Clarke Duncan), a massively built enforcer and killer who no one in their right mind would walk a green mile with. Bison also has his horns and hide hoofed in with the voraciously vicious Vega (Taboo of the Black Eyed Peas), a masked talon-wielding assassin. Part Wolverine and part the inscrutable Han man from ENTER THE DRAGON (1973), Vega employs a weapon tailor-made for slashing and stabbing attacks.
As Bison instigates a wave of violence in the slum districts, grabbing power and land no matter what the cost to its residents, a team of heroes emerges. Chun-Li (Kristin Kreuk) is a half-Caucasian/half-Asian beauty on a path of vengeance because Bison killed her father. She gave up a life of privilege to become a street fighter and now serves as a champion for those who cannot fight for themselves. For her final chapter of revenge, she too has a secret weapon -- her kung fu master, Gen (Shou), a once-feared criminal who now fights for the forces of good, as way of redemption after traumatizing Chun-Li by assassinating someone before her eyes. So rising up out of the ashes of video game time is not a phoenix, but a new-look Robin, a veritable shoe-in for an actor attuned to the real martial world and the unreal martial gaming world.
When you first see Gen, your first impression is that Shou looks like a modern version of an old Chen Kuan-tai sifu character from a late 1970s Shaw Brothers kung fu film. Shou explains, "As most now know I came onto the film at the last second. It was a bit freaky of a look. I mean, it is strange that I have not been in a big film for while and dressing up like this, it is sort of like one of the FIVE VENOMS ? you know, the mustache, the long wig, the low V-cut, sleeveless vest. But I will admit that I felt cool in the get-up; it really does have that old Shaw Brothers kung fu film days look and this is what a master looks like."
Yet the studio's initial idea for Gen's appearance was something else entirely ? more evil, and historically intimidating. When we think of many classic Shaw Brothers kung fu films, who was the major enemy of the various Shaolin heroes that appeared in tons of those Shaolin Temple-based movie productions?
"They originally were trying for the Qing Dynasty look," Shou says. "It was really crazy, shaved head and the queue. The director (Andrzej Bartkowiak: ROMEO MUST DIE and CRADLE 2 THE GRAVE) was thinking the CROUCHING TIGER look but everyone on set thought it was crazy. But as an actor it is important to follow the vision of the director, and I will do whatever he wants me to do. But before we start doing any shaving, let's do a check on it. So I put on the bald cap, stuck on the half wig Ching queue, and you know, it looked pretty cool. I really looked like one of those pirate characters from PROJECT A, and it was really mean-looking. The director said that Gen was a hard criminal before and so it fit. But the producers wanted the traditional kung fu look, which I was happy with it too where in fact it has that hippie feel to it, a drifter-ish sort of man, very 1970s.
"So Gen used to be one of the meanest criminals, and him and Bison used to be friends. But then something changed his mind. He used to kill people in tournament fighting, and then one day he killed someone and it hits him that this is wrong. It is the blood-on-his-hands moment where one has that reflective epiphany like, ?What am I doing? My God, I just killed someone.' So he changes 180 degrees and vows never to use martial arts for violence anymore.
"So for Gen as Chun-Li's kung fu teacher I was leaning toward playing him like Christopher Lambert's characters in MORTAL KOMBAT. He was a master with a sense of humor, because in a movie like this you can't be too stiff, because it is an action film and it is about this girl wanting revenge for her father's death and so it is a downer. So in a sense you need comic relief. But because I came in late, I did not have a chance to talk to the director or rehearse.
"Gen's humor comes from how angry he was before and now he jokes about it. He jokes about death, killing people and how mean he used to be. There was a line, although it was not in the final film, where Gen speaks to Chun-Li and says, ?You know who I am.' She is then suddenly taken aback and a little nervous. But then he goes on, "I am a lot nicer these days." So it is a dry sense of humor, but I didn't get the chance to do it. Then I thought that the best way to play this traditional master was to be like Lau Ga-leung (Mandarin Liu Chia-liang), which is a character that a lot of people are familiar with, and in some ways it is kind of a safe way to play a character like that, because we know exactly what the result of that type of character is."
Lau (Liu) was arguably the best pure martial arts film director in Hong Kong cinema, and is known for his sage-like roles in MAD MONKEY KUNG FU (1979), MY YOUNG AUNTIE (1981) and LEGENDARY WEAPONS OF CHINA (1982). But of course, being a martial artist, Shou is no stranger to being put under the thumb of a kung fu teacher. He started off practicing American Kempo karate in 1977. After seeing the Beijing Wushu troupe in America, Shou went to China to learn wushu, then back Stateside he entered the competition circuit and became known for his drunken forms and drunken sword techniques and got used to falling on solid concrete during demonstrations. While on vacation in Hong Kong in 1987, he was approached by movie people to become a stuntmen. He quickly impressed everyone with his wushu prowess, and with his karate-kicking foundation he gravitated towards doing dangerous stunts with a gymnastic flair. Although Shou has worked with many top martial-arts- trained actors, how tricky was it to work with non-martial artist actors like in LEGEND OF CHUN-LI?
"I was lucky," Shou says, "because Kristen is very athletic. We have this one scene, the sort of show me your stuff scene, where she attacks. I was surprised because she was pretty good, her timing was good, she did not punch hard and it was easy to fight with her. She was in Thailand two months before production, training with Dion (Dion Lam, the film's fight director), and she knew the choreography like the back of her hand.
"So for this film, the fights were easy, but for other films many actors don't know how to pull back punches or pretend that they are hitting someone. Trying to break someone elbow, they would actually try to break someone's arm because they don't know how to pretend and that can be a little scary. I have worked with actors like that. When it is two guys that know what they are doing, sometimes a fight can come across as choreographed too well; that might not be a good thing. Like with Jackie and Jet, it is nice to look at, but there is no drama, it is all about an exhibition. But it was okay."
With time comes season, maturity and the way of the sage, and Shou has, as would be normal, found new discoveries about himself and life. When asked what his causes are in life, he reflects for a moment and then shares his present and future.
"We all try to find a purpose in life, because without one you don't have a direction. In the past, I have always promoted Chinese culture, awareness and martial arts. I used to think I was special and could change some perspectives on things. But my causes now are just to live, change myself, appreciate what is in front of me, be a decent human being to my friends, get married this year and be a loving man to (fianc?e) Annie."
It is curious that Gen, more like Gen Fu, is also a video game character from the Dead or Alive series. As it turns out, Shou had a small role in that game's film adaptation DOA: DEAD OR ALIVE. Although coincidently that film starred Collin Chou and Kane Kosugi -- and bombed at the box office -- many gamers cite Shou's short appearance as the most memorable part of the film.
At the beginning of this article it was mentioned that the filmmakers were smart in casting Shou. This virtually guarantees a successful STREET FIGHTER film. However, they were not smart about utilizing his martial arts talent to the max ? which is peculiar when you consider he was the only real true martial arts actor on set. Rumor has it that a third MORTAL KOMBAT film is in the making. Since LEGEND OF CHUN-LI did not take full advantage of Shou's fighting talents, the new MORTAL KOMBAT should prudently consider casting Shou as the rustic, ancient warrior Liu Kang who, with age, humility and wisdom, can lead his fellow fighters to take on Outworld in a new Inworld.
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Written by Dr. Craig Reid for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM