The Kungfu Genius Behind THE MATRIX
Yuen Woo Ping Works His Magic on Lawrence Fishburne and Keanu Reeves
by Martha Burr
It is the 22nd century, an eerie, mechanical world where machines keep their human slaves passive by literally plugging them into a virtual-reality universe that appears as the 20th century world we know. Keanu Reeves plays Neo, a computer hacker recruited by a woman named Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) to join a band of freedom fighters. These rebels, led by Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne), are struggling against the powerful computers which have mankind locked in their grip.
The film's directors Larry and Andy Wachowski explain, "We began with the premise that every single thing we believe in today and every single physical item is actually a total fabrication created by an electronic universe. Once you start dealing with an electronic reality you can really push the boundaries of what might be humanly possible. So if characters in The Matrix can have instantaneous information downloaded into their heads, they should, for example, be able to be as good a kung-fu master as Jackie Chan."
This idea offered the Wachowski brothers another opportunity - to work into the movie fight choreography they had seen in Hong Kong action films. "We've always wanted to bring Hong Kong fight sensibilities into our Western story ideas," they said. "This was the perfect opportunity."
Enter Yuen Woo Ping
Larry and Andy Wachowski (whose last feature was the dark thriller Bound, starring Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly), had no problem making a choice about who they wanted to do the fight choreography. They had seen the work of Yuen Woo Ping, as a director in The Tai Chi Master, Iron Monkey, and Wing Chun, and as the fight choreographer in the Jet Li movies Fist of Legend and Once Upon a Time in China. And after seeing those, who would need convincing?
It was Yuen Woo Ping who had his own condition, and that was that the directors would guarantee that their cast train long hours to learn kungfu and wire work. "That's a big request," remark the brothers, "How do you tell an actor that they're going to have to spend four months training and learning kungfu when they could make another movie in that same time? That's what impressed us about Keanu. He understood why it was necessary and the dedication it required. In fact, the whole cast has amazed us with their dedication to the training regime - it's been incredibly rigorous."
Keanu, Lawrence, Carrie-Anne and Australian star Hugo Weaving all trained for four months before shooting the film in Australia, mostly in an obscure warehouse north of Hollywood, in Burbank. I was lucky to have the opportunity to visit the group on several occasions, watch the training and stunt sequences, and chat with Woo Ping, Keanu, Lawrence and more of the cast and Hong Kong stunt crew.
Watching the process was, well, history, at least a part of film history. The cast was undergoing rigorous training in kungfu and wirework, while at the same time Woo Ping was choreographing fights and action sequences, video camera in hand, experimenting with angles and techniques. At lunch he would watch the footage and make improvements. Sometimes, if the actors had worked extra hard, they got to watch a Hong Kong action film too.
In Hong Kong Yuen Woo Ping is one at the top of his art. Here in America he is relatively unknown, something that might change quickly after The Matrix. His story is a real kungfu story, one intertwined with Chinese opera, Wong Fei Hung, Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Along with Tsui Hark, Yuen Woo Ping has been one of the major forces to practically reinvent the modern kungfu movie, bringing innovation in fight choreography, camera angles, tone and editing. The more you watch his movies the more masterful he becomes.
One might think that the Yuen family had cornered the market on kungfu and movie talent genes. Woo Ping's father was Yuen Siu Tin, perhaps even more famous in his day in Hong Kong cinema than his son is there today.
"My father originally was a Peking Opera performer, in Beijing and Shanghai," recounts Woo Ping. "At that time the Cantonese Opera traditionally didn't have fight scenes. And the Southern styles had these kind of staged fight scenes that were horrible. So they figure they want somebody good who is from the North, Peking Opera style, to come and teach and show them. A very famous and far-seeing Cantonese Opera producer got my father, with some of his people, to Hong Kong to show people what the Northerners were doing. It was very enlightening."
Woo Ping continues. "And at that time movies, too, began having fight scenes so they got my father in there as well. His whole group. At first it was all individual, one actor doing his fight scene, another doing theirs. So they said to my father why don't you be the one to organize the choreography? So in that sense, practically my father was the very first founding father of Hong Kong movie fight scenes."
The background in Peking Opera was passed down not only to Woo Ping, but also to all his brothers, who themselves went on to prominence in the Hong Kong film industry as well. (Including Yuen Chung Yan, Sunny Yuen Hsin Yee, Yuen Yat Chok and Brandy Yuen Chun Wei.) Woo Ping studied Northern style kungfu from his dad, and Peking Opera. In addition he attended Yu Jim Yuen's famous Hong Kong opera school for one year as a day student, where he first met classmate Sammo Hung.
Yuen Siu Tin was not only essentially the first martial arts choreographer, but he was also the one that began to make it an art. One of his forums for this was in the celebrated Wong Fei Hung movie series starring Kwan Tak Hing; it was also where Woo Ping got his first taste of the movie action.
"My father worked on a lot of the Wong Fei Hung movies, which were black and white at the time, in the 50's. He played many bad guys, and he did most of the choreography.
My father often brought me and my brothers to the set, and occasionally some big shot actor would ask, hey, whose kid is this, and they'd have us come over and play a little part. My father was teaching a lot of students as well, including myself and my brothers, and we were always trying to figure our which was the best move, from which school. I believe strongly that in action movies there is real gung fu, that you have to have something real. I learned that since I was very little."
It was this constant exposure, and a level of concentration rare for a youngster, that set a young Woo Ping into the irrevocable motion of a film career, embedding within him a deep love for the kungfu genre. "What was to be learned," remarks Woo Ping, "was the movie language, the camera positions, the character personality, and how the chemistry of two people in terms of the fighting styles would mingle together. That's not teachable, that's something you have to watch."
During some of the later Wong Fei Hung films in the 60's Woo Ping got more work on the production side, and started doing stunts and fighting at the Shaw Brothers studio. He recalls, "My si-hing was working for the Shaw Brothers, my younger brother was actually the choreographer, and I was the second, on a film called Blood Stained Tradewinds." You can also see Woo Ping's action in Wang Yu's The Chinese Boxer.
His first job as choreographer was on Ng Se Yuen's Mad Killer (1971), and Woo Ping spent the next half dozen years working with Ng and choreographing his films, some of which include Bloody Fists and Secret Rivals 2.
Directing Jackie Chan
This work gave Woo Ping a great deal of experience, and it was time to move forward. He recalls: "In 1977 I was arguably the best choreographer in Southeast Asia and I was offered opportunities to be a director, but I always felt a little humble, saying I'm not there, I'm not ready. As I was saying this so many of my colleagues, choreographers, were becoming directors one by one. So I said, well, if I don't do it I will be slowing down and not catching up with my friends. So I did my first movie."
For someone with sensibility, the question was what to choose to debut with. Woo Ping remembers, "All the action movies at the time were really bloody, and brutal, and I said, if I become a director, what can I do to break out of that? What can I make refreshing for the audience? I thought, well, I'll do a comedy. And I picked up Jackie Chan and did Snake in Eagles Shadow(1978). I knew Jackie before, and I believed that Jackie Chan had both the gung fu and the acting ability."
Woo Ping's father also came out of retirement to act in Snake in Eagles Shadow. "My father was slowing down quite a bit, but he came out for the film," recalls Woo Ping. "He decided that as an actor he wanted to come out. I looked around, couldn't find anybody that was good, and then, oh, my dad was right there."
The movie was a good match for Woo Ping and Jackie Chan, and they teamed up again for Drunken Master, which also became a huge hit. Then Woo Ping made the Lam Sai Wing movie Magnificent Butcher in 1979, and that same year formed his own production company. He choreographed and produced its first film Buddhist Fist, directed by Tsui Siu Ming, and went on to start up Donnie Yen's career in Drunken Tai Chi.
Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh
From then on it was a matter of Hong Kong film history. Woo Ping made contemporary action films with Tiger Cage, In the Line of Duty 4, and Tiger Cage 2, and then returned to traditional kungfu movies. His choreography for Tsui Hark's Once Upon a Time in China is unforgettable, and Donnie Yen in Iron Monkey brought alive the legend of Wong Fei Hung's father, Wong Kay Ying.
By Tai Chi Master, Woo Ping had reached near perfection. With a cast that included Jet Li, Yuen Biao and Michelle Yeoh, both the choreography and the camerawork was dazzling, the story and the acting was strong, and not least, the action editing put Woo Ping's kungfu movies on a level close to Peckinpah's gunfire ballet montage.
Woo Ping remembers about Tai Chi Master, "In Hong Kong everybody was very afraid of filming anything tai chi wise. Because it's hard, it's not the traditional thing, not easy to play with. But, I always want to come up with something new. I figured, OK, it may be hard, but I think I can do it. And do it well. It turned out to be a great hit."
The legendary story about Zhang San Feng took 3 months of shooting, all in Beijing. The ending fight scenes alone took a month. What makes the film stand out, even among the best of Hong Kong cinema, is the cinematic use of slow motion, camera angles and stylization.
Woo Ping elaborates: "The slow motion, I figured that should be the style, that should be the tone of the film because tai chi is a very floating, ascending move. I asked Jet Li to do it with real speed and real power, and we filmed it in slow motion to make it look like a flying form that fits with the style of wushu and taiji.
"Before I started shooting the movie I knew I wanted to use slow motion, and use a lot of it. The reason that I improvised everything on the set is because we design on the set. It's just all there when I'm filming, not ahead of time. As I'm filming I'm also editing in my head."
Yuen Woo Ping films are very imaginative, yet at the same time the martial arts looks real. I asked him, how, as a martial artist, and a choreographer, and a director, does he find a balance between the artistry of the stylization, and also keep the martial arts looking real and authentic? He answers, "It's really not very difficult. I always know what the approach is, sometime just by heart. I think of the character, first of all, of the chemistry, the personality. Designing it, I decide if I want to exaggerate or make it realistic, or both. An action movie is cross-cultural, cross borders. So my goal is always to tell a story non-verbally. If I can, I would prefer not to have much dialog to tell the story."
Through the years Woo Ping has also developed profound artistic relationships with many of his actors who are both martial artists and non-martial artists, and the relationship between director or choreographer and actor remains individual.
"Everybody has an input," he says. "Everybody knows what he or she does the best. Sometimes we design the moves and the star comes in and says, well, this is not what I can do the best, can I do that? We'll talk about it and go over it. To work with a great martial artist like Li Lian Jie (Jet Li) gives me a lot of confidence. Whatever you can think of, they say, sure, I can do it. I really like Michelle Yeoh because she's very, very smart. I worked with her on Wing Chun. It was a woman's story. She knew a lot of moves, even though she was not a martial artist, from being a dancer. She can learn quickly, and she works really hard. Michelle never, ever said a word about pain or difficulty or anything. Not even once. And after practically every fight she would have a lot of bruises."
Fist of Legend
Fist of Legend was one of the most influential and powerful films to come out of Hong Kong in the 90's, drawing rave reviews from both critics and audiences. It was one which Woo Ping choreographed so beautifully that many people actually consider it a Yuen Woo Ping film. A re-make of Fist of Fury, I asked him if it was hard to re-make a Bruce Lee film that was iconized by so many people.
"I didn't really feel pressure," Woo Ping answers. "From the start, head on, I just felt that I could do a better job. Because I had seen all the Bruce Lee pictures, and upon starting this movie I knew what people could do nowadays and what people could do back then. It's different eras, different times. Things have developed. Basically you tailor the film to the star, like tailoring a suit to someone. Bruce Lee was something Americanized, and Jet Li was a traditional Chinese kungfu artist. You do things accordingly, to each different artist."
Many Yuen Woo Ping films have not only a visual but a moral resonance. Heroes like Wong Fei Hung and Iron Monkey's Wong Kay Ying, The Ching Woo's Chen of Fist of Legend, or Tai Chi Master's Zhang San Feng are all heroes who battle despotic individuals and the corruptions of society or society's elite, defending innocent men and seeking justice for those who deserve it. I ask Woo Ping why he is drawn to these recurring themes.
"The average Joe," he answers, "the average person, feels oppressed, feels depressed, through whatever, you know? And to see somebody on the screen being able to break out of it by fighting, and fighting very hard, gives people a lot of hope. My movies are not intentionally to be political, but to give people this hope. Average people have their big and small problems, and they look on the screen and they see this model and they feel there is someone still in our world who can do something for us."
Yuen Woo Ping's choice to work on The Matrix is no departure from this hero theme; if anything, in this sci-fi epic the stakes are even higher, the oppression of humanity by machines even more dreadful, and the journey of the heroes to secure freedom for mankind all the more profound.
Of the directors, Woo Ping says, "Larry and Andy are very serious directors and they have high expectations for the movie. I am the same way, and so the three of us work very well together. Laurence and Keanu are also very good to work with. Keanu was very dedicated to doing his kungfu and serious about the job. He's a perfectionist."
The chemistry worked both ways, too, and Keanu remarks, with marked enthusiasm, "I love working with Woo Ping. When we first started to do this the Wachowski brothers gave me some tapes to watch -- Fist of Legend, Tai Chi Master, etc, -- so then when he came aboard, I'd seen what he could do. I've got a great respect not only for his fight choreography but also for his cinema. The way he shoots, and the editing of his fights is great.
"Woo Ping's very cognizant of what looks good and what looks bad and being able to teach that. His fight choreography is so inventive, and it's fun. But it's not silly, it looks like fights. He really wants an authenticity to his choreography."
Taking a break from an especially grueling sequence, Laurence adds, "I think, speaking for myself and possibly Keanu and Carrie-Anne, we're probably in the best physical shape of our lives just as a result of the training we had to do with Woo Ping. And his choreography is second to none. He's a wonderful director, he's made a lot of movies himself and he brings that kind of expertise to it too."
Watching the actors train with Woo Ping and his team makes you understand that they all have committed to a long, arduous project. But despite the physical pain each actor endures every day, the chemistry between the entire crew is full of energy.
As Laurence comments, "The kungfu part is really a lot of fun and I can't wait to see it myself. Very rarely do you get an opportunity to do something like this. I feel incredibly blessed to have worked with Woo Ping and his team. It seems to me that we're some of the first Western actors to work in this particular style, and I'm grateful to have the opportunity to do that. His choreography is really exciting, and it has a great dramatic effect to it. It's going to be dazzling for audiences when they see some of the stuff that he's responsible for putting together in the movie."
Keanu concurs. "We're certainly pushing the envelope of what's been developing in one part of American cinema of, quote unquote, dramatic actors doing action pictures and doing our own stunts, per se. Even though stuntmen do stunts no matter what anyone tells you.
"But it is putting the actors into the action, pushing that envelope, which is great because people want to have a dramatic experience and be able to have the conduit be the actor and not have the cutaway be the stuntman. This is making more of the drama of the spectacle. Hopefully also making it more entertaining, more resonant."
Choreography and Acting
The way Woo Ping works with Keanu or Laurence or Carrie-Anne or Hugo shows how sensitive he is to each person's abilities and needs.
Notes Keanu, "Woo Ping can teach us so many things and show us, but he does also want to see your style. He says -- I want to see Keanu's style - I say, I don't want to see my style, I want your style! I've been trying to incorporate some of the stunt guys' stuff, from Chen Hu and Dion, and incorporate it and create my own style. So that's what's great, Woo Ping doesn't just put it on you, it's very organic and collaborative."
Keanu continues, "He choreographs dramatically. All of the beats in the dojo scene between myself and Laurence Fishburne have been choreographed around dialogue and drama. It's fun; there's space in there for acting."
One of Woo Ping's top stuntmen, and a choreographer in his own right, Dion, is no less impressed by his boss' talents, and he explains further why Woo Ping's choreography has an almost an auteurism of its own, and why the choreography recapitulates character: "The reason that Woo Ping can tell the story and convince -- why this man wins over the other man, why the good guy wins over the bad guy - is that style wise, one overcomes the other. Every specific move Woo Ping designs always has a reason."
Some of the wildest moves in Matrix were created with wire work, a sophisticated skill that probably no one does better than Hong Kong filmmakers. Laurence explains, "Woo Ping's wire team guys have been doing this particular kind of wire work for the past 20 years in Hong Kong, so they're pretty much the best at it. Wire work requires you to be in really good physical condition, and a great deal of athletic skill and ability. Also, one has to be fairly well-coordinated, fairly agile, and you certainly have to be strong to maintain your balance and the difficult positions when you're suspending from one wire. It's very different from the Western technique which involves anywhere from two to six wires. And it looks great, it looks really great."
Perhaps the best testament to Yuen Woo Ping and his team is that both Laurence Fishburne and Keanu Reeves say that even when the film is done, they want to continue their study of martial arts. "I feel the best I've ever felt," says Laurence, "and I hope I can continue the martial arts training. When the film is over, I'd like to find some people to teach me some more. And stay in it, because obviously it promotes the health and longevity. That's no mystery. So the martial aspect, at least the health aspect of it for me, has been just the greatest blessing."
Keanu is equally enthusiastic, especially about the taiji he has studied during his recent training. "I love kungfu," he says. "The push and pull, the resistance. The soft and the hard. What I really dug was the Chen style Tiger (one of the stuntmen) was showing me. I saw an article in your magazine about it, and I'd love to pursue that. If there was any form of taijiquan I'd do, I'd love to do Chen style. I like the speed of it, and the way they hold that power, shaking from the earth all the way out."
Now it will be up to fate, and maybe a few Hollywood executives, to see what future will spin out of The Matrix. Perhaps Keanu can team up with Hollywood's newest darling and Hong Kong genius, the original Taiji Master, Jet Li. Or maybe an action-drama romance with Laurence and Michelle Yeoh. But one thing's for certain. With Yuen Woo Ping now leaving his calling card in Hollywood, the possibilities of things converging are all the greater.
Click here for Feature Articles from this issue and others published in 1999.
Written by Martha Burr for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM