An Empress and The Warriors Sina Chat
Sina, Feb 20, 2008
New Dragon Inn
Host: The Empress and the Warriors will be released in March. In our memories, this isn’t Ching Siu Tung and Donnie Yen’s first collaboration. They first collaborated on New Dragon Inn in 1992.
Donnie Yen: Yes.
Host: My most memorable scene is the finale in the desert with Donnie Yen fighting against Maggie Cheung et al. Do the two of you still remember it?
Donnie Yen: Yes, back in those days, the working conditions in Mainland weren’t as conducive as today. That was the first time I was shooting in Mainland, in Dunhuang, in the sweltering desert, and wearing thick clothing.
Ching Siu Tung: 40, 50ºC.
Donnie Yen: At that time, director Ching favoured having wind blowing, sand swirling in the backdrop. But we did not have the equipments like today. To create the sandstorm, director Ching employed a gigantic jet propeller, when the propeller was turned on, you know how strong it was, not only were the sand being stirred up, but the pebbles too.
Even we were almost blown away. We had to act like knights-errant, while at the same time, the pebbles were hitting our faces. Left me a very deep impression. (No pun intended.)
Ching Siu Tung Awaits a Good Script
Host: Many people only remember Ching Siu Tung as a martial arts choreographer, but true genre fans know that you have been a director for many years. As I recall, when I was very young, in 88, 89, there was a film that was quite a sensation back then – Terra Cotta Warriors. Both Gong Li and Zhang Yimou acted in it. Zhang Yimou was an actor while you were the director.
Ching Siu Tung: I directed both the drama and action.
Host: So, in fact, you have been a director since the 80s, yet, you don’t seem to have directed much works.
Ching Siu Tung: Indeed. (Why?) Basically, I have been very busy. In the past few years, I have been working as a martial arts choreographer for many big-time directors. Meanwhile, I have been waiting for a good script. Actually, I have directed quite a number of films, A Chinese Ghost Story, Swordsman III. I don’t wish to ruin a film. So, when I received the script of An Empress and The Warriors, I found that it was to my liking, I thought it was great, so, I decided to direct.
Host: How did you come upon this script?
Ching Siu Tung: I was approached by the studio. After reading the script, I made some revisions. Mainly because of Donnie Yen. He has no problems with action scenes, but we hope to give Donnie Yen more chance in acting. Working with Donnie Yen has always brought me good luck. I won a Golden Horse award for New Dragon Inn. His career was thriving too. After he returned from US to shoot Hero, his has been doing very well. And I received Best Action award. This is our third collaboration, we hope to scale new heights. Be it action or drama, we hope there’d be a breakthrough.
Donnie Yen Won’t be Directing for Now
Host: Donnie, what are your expectations for An Empress and the Warriors?
Donnie Yen: I’m treating it with equanimity. As director Ching just said, we had received recognitions on our previous two collaborations. I believe the outcome for this won’t be that bad. But I won’t give myself too much stress by having expectations. But I believe the results would be quite good.
Host: The audience – the ordinary audience – would be more familiar with you than director Ching, since you’ve been fighting quite often on the silver screen in the recent years, from SPL, through Dragon Tiger Gate, to Flash Point, and your choreography has been labelled as Yen-fu [In Chinese, Yen sounds very similar to real.] But this is a period film, it seems quite different from your recent works.
Donnie Yen: Since Flash Point, I have told myself, I would only be working as an actor. Firstly, I need time to recharge myself, so that when I direct again, I would have some new concepts, something new for the audience.
Secondly, I’m very excited to be approached by director Ching, for we haven’t been in touch with each other since Hero. Director Ching is a master of wuxia films, and also a first-rate director, I believe that I’ll be able to learn something new from him, be it technical aspects or wuxia concepts. It would be a big surprise to me. So, everyone should watch An Empress and The Warriors.
Ching Siu Tung Tells A Romantic Fairy Tale
Host: Director Ching, tell us about the historical setting of this film.
Ching Siu Tung: We don’t wish to have any historical timeline. It would be a big burden. I merely wish to tell a love story, a very romantic story, one that is turned into a fairy tale, without being set against any historical backdrop.
Host: In the trailer, what strikes me most are the makeup and costume designs. Donnie Yen fighting single-handedly, his sacrificial spirit, and the armour, the impact is very strong. Next is Leon Lai, he’s dressed like a Japanese wanderer. Actually, we know that Japanese costumes came from Tang dynasty. And the chariots scene makes me think that it’s further back than Tang dynasty. Did Yee Chung Man take into account a specific historical period when he designed the costumes?
Ching Siu Tung: Basically, he would consider all these factors. While we did not specify any era in the film, we still needed a yardstick to do it.
Host: Donnie, was the armour very heavy?
Donnie Yen: It’s humanly impossible to wear. One would need immense strength to be able to wear it. We have two sets of armours, one is for filming, another is for doing photo shoot. That one is really very heavy, 40 kg. When we just began filming, we merely did some light action scenes. After we completed those scenes, I forcibly put it on, I couldn’t even walk.
Ching Siu Tung: It was very hot then. It was summer. Over 30ºC. We were filming in Beijing Huairou.
Donnie Yen: After each take, I would have to remove my helmet and place a cold towel over it. It’s very easy to get heatstroke. We went from hot to cold weathers, the conditions were quite difficult.
Host: It’s the first time you’re wearing such heavy costume?
Donnie Yen: Yeah, moving like a robot.
Host: We can see how strict director Ching was.
Kelly Chen Changes Her Image to a Female Fighter
Host: I was under the impression that Kelly Chen was hired for the romance scenes. But, I have heard that Kelly Chen fights quite well.
Ching Siu Tung: When I approached Kelly Chen, I hope to repackage her as something never seen before, something groundbreaking. When Ching Siu Tung directs Kelly Chen, there must be action scenes. So, I designed for her action, wushu, and equestrian, all very difficult. Before filming, we let her train for three months, under various masters.
Host: Very tough.
Ching Siu Tung: Yes, she also wishes to achieve breakthrough. Not only her, Donnie Yen too. He said he was very happy with this film.
Host: So, Donnie Yen teaches Kelly Chen martial arts in the film?
Donnie Yen: Yes, onscreen.
Netizen: Director Ching, action films nowadays depends very much on special visual effects in order to create better visuals. Are there many special effects in An Empress and The Warriors, and in which scenes?
Ching Siu Tung: Actually, we don’t use much special effects for the action scenes, all are realistic combats. But for props like arrows, we use CGIs. I believe that we shouldn’t use too much special effects as far as action sequences are concerned, for everyone in the world loves Chinese wushu, loves the more realistic fights.
Host: Both director Ching and Donnie Yen represent completely different schools of martial arts choreography. Ching Siu Tung is more surreal and ethereal, while Donnei Yen is more realistic, aggressive. So, Donnie, you aren’t used to relying on special effects either, do you?
Donnie Yen: Actually, I believe that the highest achievement, whether it’s the director or martial arts director, we should pay attention to both the mellow and vigorous qualities, director Ching brings out might within gentleness, while I bring out the gentleness within forcefulness. It’s not complete aggressiveness or tenderness. Whether we are the action director choreographing the action, or the actor executing the action, it’s the characterisation, the look and feel of the project that matter most.
Netizen: Donnie Yen, when working with director Ching, do you follow all his instructions?
Donnie Yen: I merely carry out all his requests. Firstly, as said before, I wish to focus on being an actor. Secondly, I have utmost respect for director Ching, especially in period films. Right from the outset, I told director Ching, do not seek my opinions, I trust you completely, if you say it’s ok, then, it’s fine.
Ching Siu Tung Prefers Being a Director
Host: Director Ching has been a director and also a martial arts choreographer. What are differences between the two?
Ching Siu Tung: There’s slightly more satisfaction to being a director, for it’s like something you give birth to.
Host: Like your own baby?
Ching Siu Tung: Yes, like having my own baby. When working for others, it’s like being a nanny, helping them take care of their kids. But when working with different big-time directors, I can learn from their strengths. So, it’s worthwhile, yet different.
Donnie Yen Once Directed Three Films
Host: Donnie, you have been an action director for many films, but as far as directing…
Donnie Yen: I have directed three movies. Movies that do not stand comparisons. My first directorial was in 1996. All films without massive budget.
Host: The characters’ names in the movie, Donnie Yen’s Murong Xuehu, Kelly Chen’s princess Yan Fei-er, Leon Lai’s Duan Lan Quan, impart a very wuxia-esque flavour, especially Gu Long novels. Director Ching, which particular author do you like?
Ching Siu Tung: Actually, each author has their own merits. As said earlier about working with other directors, we should learn from their strengths. I do not have a preference for one author over another.
Host: Royal Tramp, Swordsman III are all Jin Yong adaptations. Have you thought of adapting Gu Long or other author’s works?
Chign Siu Tung: I was the martial arts choreographer for Butterfly and Sword, a Gu Long adaptation.
Host: Did you approach them with different choreographies?
Ching Siu Tung: When we are filming, whether it’s drama or action, we have to do things according to the script. Whatever the script says, we would choreograph the action scenes accordingly.
Donnie Yen’s Character Carries a Torch for Kelly Chen
Host: Let’s talk about the relationships in An Empress and the Warriors. You’re playing a general?
Donnie Yen: I’m one who stands behind her silently, loving her unconditionally.
Host: Keeping your feelings to yourself?
Donnie Yen: A very highly skilled general.
Ching Siu Tung: They grow up together. Leon Lai only appears later, they meet by chance, and fall in love.
Host: He’s considered a recluse.
Ching Siu Tung: Yes, and feelings develop between them. But the princess bears heavy responsibilities. While Donnie Yen loves her deep in heart, he never reveals his true feelings for her. His sacrifice is very big.
Donnie Yen: I have more drama than action scenes.
Host: I heard that Donnie Yen’s drama scenes are very outstanding too.
Ching Siu Tung: Very difficult to act. Not able to express one’s love. How to shoot close-ups, all these feelings that are kept secretly in the heart.
Host: Was it a tricky shoot?
Donnie Yen: Actually, it’s a matter of communicating with the director. Especially after having worked with director Ching for the third time. I discovered that he had many ideas that were not realised before. I believe that apart from action scenes, which isn’t an issue here, the way he handles the drama, his passion, there are many things that the audience has never seen him doing before. As an actor, I would try my best to convey the director’s thoughts.
Host: Being an an original work, what makes the action scenes in An Empress and the Warriors unique?
Ching Siu Tung: Having Donnie on the film gives me a certain amount of pressure, especially the finale, I don’t think that in the past 20 years, anyone has handled an action scene in such a way like Donnie Yen. When I grab hold of Donnie Yen today, he could do it, so I could meet my own demands. I wanted that move to be clearly presented amidst chaos, and there must be drama, must be special, must show certain feelings, such that the audience would shed tears anytime. This is my most satisfied scene.
Ching Siu Tung: Two. One is a long one.
Donnie Yen: Sometimes, I even forgot my moves, did not know which moves to deliver against whom, there were simply too many people, charging at me. I was just standing there fighting, dishing out all the skills I have learned in my entire life, fighting with all my might and energy. It was arduous, and with the dust and sand, I couldn’t even see my opponents.
Host: The conditions on the set should be better now compared to New Dragon Inn.
Ching Siu Tung: Much better.
Donnie Yen: And also much more demanding. The audience’s demands for martial arts films, and opinions have also changed.
Host: This reminds me of… Warlords. For my favourite is the scene at Sucheng, the few of them being surrounded. Very powerful impact. Some of the ideas must be from Peter Chan. What are the differences?
Ching Siu Tung: That was a three-man show, about three brothers. But here, Donnie Yen is solo. You must have a continuous amalgam of drama and action, it pushes feelings to the peaks. You have to design one wave after the next, you mush evoke the mood. Even Donnie Yen himself was brimming with tears.
Host: Really? (Donnie Yen smiles.) Donnie is finding it awkward to say.
Ching Siu Tung: A tough guy, fighting and shedding tears simultaneously.
Donnie Yen: When we film martial arts scenes, not only must we fight well, but there must be emotions next to it. Without drama, the audience won’t be able to commiserate with us, won’t be into your choreography.
Host: I’m getting more stoked. So, are the scenes of a hero weeping being captured?
Ching Siu Tung: You will see everything. When the audience sees Donnie Yen, they would cry their hearts out for him.
Donnie Yen: There should be some interesting shots showing me with tears coursing down my cheeks.
Host: There’s a hot-air balloon in the film. This is rather unique in Chinese films. Which scene was it from?
Ching Siu Tung: A romantic scene. Of their relationships being elevated. We wish to introduce some fresh ideas. As we have a great cinematographer Zhao Xiao Ding, a great costume designer Yee Chung Man.
Host: Did you create your own hot-air balloon or was it on loan?
Ching Siu Tung: It was not loaned. Where could you find something like that? To shoot this hot-air balloon, which we call Divine Lantern, we exceeded our budget, we needed many materials to create it, to let it really rise up in the air, there were many problems. It cost us over a million yuan.
Host: Where’s the hot-air balloon now?
Ching Siu Tung: We’ve dismantled it. We fear others would use it.
Host: It shouldn’t have been dismantled. It’s so romantic. You could rent it out in the future.
Ching Siu Tung: We’ve also made many armours for the film. The armours are very beautiful, Yee Chung Man spent a great deal of time on it. Each actor wears a different armour. We’ll be exhibiting the armours during the film’s premiere. Very artistic.
Host: Many netizens are very interested to know about your career developments overseas. Can the two of you tell us if you have any projects worth looking forward to?
Ching Siu Tung: I have a US film, a Japan film, and a Hong Kong film, all as an action director. Of course, I’m also preparing for my next work as a director.
Donnie Yen: I have many script offers, as I have an agent in US too. They keep sending me scripts, as a Chinese-American actor, I need not be involved in Hollywood productions in order to choose whether I would accept a project or not. The world is getting smaller, Hollywood studios are coming over to China to make films.
Nowadays, I’m more selective. If the role doesn’t excite me much, allow me to develop artistically, I’d rather turn down the offer, and spend the time doing what I like. Right now, there’s a script, if I accept it, it would resemble some contemporary works.
Host: Thank you for your time.
Donnie Yen: Thank you.
Ching Siu Tung: Thank you.
An Empress and The Warriors’ release in China has been brought forward to March 7, 2008, while Hong Kong release remains on March 20, 2008.