[PROFILE] Cory Yuen - You Need For Your "Fight"
- You need him for a fight
Cory Yuen's inventiveness in setting up martial arts action is
By David Chute, Special to The Times
Cory Yuen is one of the few people on Earth who has walked away from
a real-life fistfight with Jackie Chan a fact that may be easier
to credit when you realize that they were both about 10 years old at
the time. In fact, this was a playground tussle that erupted over a
disputed comic book.
Born in Hong Kong in 1951, Yuen was a classmate of Chan's at the now-
infamous China Drama Academy, a draconian Beijing Opera school in
Hong Kong, where a generation of martial arts greats (including Yuen
Biao and "big brother" Sammo Hung) was literally slapped and beaten
into shape. In his autobiography Chan notes that "Yuen Kwai [his
Chinese name] was one of my best friends at the school [and] my
match when it came to making trouble."
As it turned out, Yuen and Chan were part of the Drama Academy's
final graduating class, and by that time, the late 1960s, Beijing
Opera was a dying art form. Academy graduates put their skills to
work in movies as stuntmen, fight choreographers and, if they were
lucky, performers and directors.
"I never wanted to be a movie star," Yuen insists, speaking through
a translator, by phone from New York, an early stop on the press
tour for his snazzy new "girls with guns" action picture "So Close,"
which opens in Los Angeles on Friday. "I started out working as a
stunt man on martial arts films, at [top Hong Kong studios like]
Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest. I figured out right away that
unless you are a really big star, it is always the director who's in
Apart from legends such as Sammo Hung and Yuen Woo-ping, Cory Yuen
has few peers in the highly specialized field of martial arts movie-
making. And Yuen is second to none in the sheer inventiveness of his
action set pieces. A fine example in "So Close" is a knock-down,
drag-out, three-way fight that takes place inside a cramped and
steamy elevator car. Just figuring out where to put all the arms and
legs in a scene like that must have required the martial arts
equivalent of a differential equation.
Like a lot of recent Hong Kong films in these tough economic times,
the production of "So Close" was financed by a foreign-based company
(Columbia Pictures Asia) and carefully assembled to appeal to a pan-
Asian audience: The cast includes a trio of top Chinese actresses,
one each from Taiwan ("Transporter" co-star Shu Qi), Hong Kong
(Karen Mok) and the People's Republic (Zhao Wei), along with a
leading man from South Korea (Song Seung-heon) and a glowering bad
guy from Japan (Yusuaki Kurata). And its premise was devised with at
least a glance in the direction of the U.S.
Cory Yuen had one of his first major hits as a director launching
the career of "Crouching Tiger" star Michelle Yeoh in the pioneering
female-cop action picture "Yes, Madam!" (1986). At the time his hard-
edged approach to staging the fight sequences was innovative even
for Hong Kong; fans still talk about the shot in which Yeoh does a
back flip through a plate glass window.
But now, Yuen suggests, even faint-hearted Americans might be ready
for something a little stronger: "If you look at 'The Matrix'
or 'Charlie's Angels,' it seems that American men are more
comfortable now watching women who can fight. Perhaps before they
felt somewhat threatened?"
With Van Damme, Jet Li
Yuen has been an action movie innovator in several areas. He was one
of the first Hong Kong action directors to take on an English-
language project, the 1985 Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle "No
Retreat, No Surrender" (1987). He has directed several key Jet Li
films, including the fan favorite "Fong Sei-yuk" (1993) and has
since choreographed the martial arts sequences in all of Li's
American movies, from his debut in "Lethal Weapon 4" (1998) to this
year's "Cradle 2 the Grave."
He has also taken his act on the road to Europe, working on two
films for director-turned-producer Luc Besson, arranging fights for
the Paris-based Li vehicle "Kiss of the Dragon" (2001), then staying
on to direct Jason Statham and Shu Qi in "The Transporter" (2002).
To a large extent, of course, this is what the acknowledged masters
of martial arts cinema do now: They circle the globe working
as "wired guns," helping clueless Westerners to fake the look of a
slam-bang Asian martial arts picture. They draw upon the specialized
experience of several decades in order to make people who can't
fight look as if they can. The irony is that this approach is now
increasingly necessary even in Hong Kong, on productions like "So
Like most of the younger breed of Hong Kong film stars, not one of
this film's extremely photogenic actresses had any martial arts
training. Not too many people, it seems, are willing to subject
themselves (or their children) to the quasi-military training
required to mold a child into a Jackie Chan or a Michelle Yeoh.
As Chan observed in a recent interview, "You couldn't open a school
like [The China Drama Academy] now. Someone would sue you." It's no
wonder Jackie Chan announced plans last year to open a "movie
martial arts" school in Hong Kong, offering instruction not only in
classic fighting techniques but in specialized areas such as stunt
choreography and "Crouching Tiger"-style wire work, a notion that
Cory Yuen strongly endorses.
"Training is the key," he says, "but most people don't want to work
that hard anymore."
One of the few places where the necessary work ethic survives,
apparently, is in mainland China, where the government-sponsored,
noncombat form of acrobatic martial arts known as wushu still
attracts many aspirants, youngsters looking to become the next Jet
Li, the wushu system's most famous graduate. Nowadays, Yuen says,
most actual training occurs on the job, when aspirants join
the "stunt team" of an established master, and Yuen now recruits
most of his apprentices from the mainland.
Luckily, at least for Cory Yuen, action isn't the whole story. "I
believe that the action should always be secondary to the story," he
says. "In 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,' the fighting grows out
of what is happening between the characters. And in my film 'My
Father Is a Hero' [a.k.a. 'The Enforcer,' 1995], the main thing is
the relationship between the father, played by Jet Li, and the young
boy. The fighting is a side dish. It is an accent or an enhancement.
The main dish is something else."