Xiong Xin Xin on the Vicissitudes of Stunt Profession
China Movies Weekly, 13 April 2005
Xiong Xin Xin (aka Hung Yan Yan), most commonly known for his role as Clubfoot Seven in Once Upon A Time in China series, was born in 1962 in Liuzhou, Guangxi, China. He began martial arts training at the age of 12, and 2 years later, became a member of Guangxi Wushu Team and won numerous trophies at Guangxi and National Wushu Competitions. In 1984, under a fortuitous occasion, he stepped into the movie industry. “At that time, I was no longer competing and had taken up the post of a wushu coach. My two seniors who were in Shaolin Temple looked me up to shoot Martial Arts of Shaolin. Because of my impressions on Shaolin Temple, I agreed.”
While he was only a stuntman then, his athleticism and solid wushu skills caught the eyes of director Liu Chia Liang (aka Lau Kar Leung), who invited him to further his career in Hong Kong. So, Xiong Xin Xin went to Hong Kong with Liu Chia Liang and worked as stuntman in Tiger on the Beat 1 and 2, as well as Aces Go Places V. Subsequently, Lau Kar Wing brought Xiong Xin Xin along to the set of Once Upon A Time in China as his assistant. When Jet Li was injured in the legs, his final match against Iron Robe Yim on the ladder was basically completed by Xiong Xin Xin.
It took three months to shoot this fight scene, and Xiong Xin Xin did everything uncomplainingly, so it was impossible for him not to be noticed by Tsui Hark. “I dare say that, at that time, there was no other stuntman in Hong Kong who was like me.” And so, beginning from Once Upon A Time in China 2 and New Dragon Inn, Xiong Xin Xin gradually walked to the front of the silver screen. After finishing New Dragon Inn in Mainland, Tsui Hark called up Xiong Xin Xin to discuss about Once Upon A Time in China 3, which saw the introduction of Clubfoot Seven.
“I liked the scene in which Clubfoot Seven challenged Wong Kei Ying at Poh Chi Lam,” recalls Xiong Xin Xin, “Actually, that scene wasn’t all that difficult, it was pretty plain sailing. And Tsui Hark gave me quite a bit free reign here. If you were to ask to which clan did Clubfoot Seven’s kicks belong, I’d say Xiong Xin Xin clan.” He said he was the one who choreographed that set of moves, and he employed nearly all the kicking techniques of practical combat.
“Tsui Hark is a genius filmmaker, he would often introduce many elements from today’s society to his wuxia films. His thinking and technical achievements are a major influence in Hong Kong film industry.” Xiong Xin Xin appraises Tsui Hark.
Following, Creating New Trends
After Once Upon A Time China, Tsui Hark followed up with a few more sequels, and at that time, many other filmmakers started to jump on the wuxia bandwagon. So after making The Chinese Feast and Tri-Star, Tsui Hark started to forge The Blade.
“I believe The Blade was the best action movie within the past 10 years. It’s setting, it’s characterisation, its fight choreography are all very unique. You could feel a very intense pressure with each stroke of the action, it is something others could never imitate.”
Yet amidst the box-office success and influence of Once Upon A Time in China, the cutting-edge film The Blade failed to be accepted by the mainstream audience, despite the controversies surrounding it..
“While we must cater to the audiences’ tastes, we still have to insist on conveying our own uniqueness.” Even today, Xiong Xin Xin is still relentlessly insistent on his beliefs. And neither did Tsui Hark gave up back then. After bidding farewell to his two years of unhappy experiences in the politics-filled and rigid Hollywood, Tsui Hark returned to Hong Kong to make Time and Tide, and for the first time, Xiong Xin Xin was officially honoured as the action director.
“At that time, I imagined how people from South African forest would survive in a cosmopolitan city. I believed they would be very good at using empty space, much like a hunter. So, when I devised the action scenes, I took into account their backgrounds.” With Tsui Hark and Xiong Xin Xin joining forces, we saw a rare breed of action – guerilla warfare in the city.
However, Xiong Xin Xin lost to Yuen Wo Ping for his choreography for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on that year’s Hong Kong Film Awards.
“Without a doubt, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s a big production, its visuals were stunningly beautiful, it was very successful commercially. However, its action was nothing new. We’ve already seen those stuff in Once Upon a Time in China, in Swordsman 2, in The Matrix. It may be beautifully packaged, but it brought nothing new to the industry.”
“It was the same thing when I was doing Three Musketeers. The foreign director saw a tape I brought and insisted on doing the ladder fight a la Once Upon a Time in China. They would only want you to recreate something with proven track records rather than giving you creative latitude.”
“When I saw Ong Bak in Thailand, I thought it was like giving the Chinese films a big, tight slap on the face,” says Xiong Xin Xin philosophically.
Hong Kong Action Films Going Downhill
The late 1990s saw the decline of Hong Kong film industry, and lack of job opportunities led to many people being compelled to leave the industry. The situation was even worse for action movies, the market was no longer accommodating and nobody dared to do them.
“When Once Upon A Time in China was successful, people would look up to you; yet when action films are in the rut, you would feel that this industry has never valued you, you are but a tool, which would be discarded once you’ve outlived your usefulness.” A complex feelings looms over Xiong Xin Xin as he speaks.
“Martial arts movies used to be so successful in Hong Kong, yet, they are such big failures now. It may not matter much to the audience, but what about people in the stunt profession? I am luckier, for I can work overseas as stunt coordinator. However, most of those in this profession who remain in Hong Kong have either lost their jobs, switched careers, or become disillusioned. Even the best martial arts stars do not have much chance.”
“Even though I have done Chinese Feast and Tri-Star, showing that I am equally capable of acting, it’s futile, no one would accept you,” says Xiong Xin Xin emotionally.
“In the action films we see nowadays, many of the actors can’t fight. Who are the ones that make them the great heroes on the screen? Without the stunt profession, wuxia films wouldn’t have existed. Even with CGIs, there would be no one to stage the fights and stand in for them. On whom can they depend?”
“All those in the stunt profession only hope to gain acceptance by the industry and by the audience. They are not fussy and demanding. They are truly the unsung heroes behind the scenes.”
Perhaps, having witnessed the ebb and flow of martial arts films in the past years, on hearing Tsui Hark’s intention to shoot The Seven Swords, all of us stirred with eager anticipation.
“Honestly speaking, it’s quite difficult to for Seven Swords the equal the success of Once Upon A Time in China,” says Xiong Xin Xin, one of the martial arts directors for the film, “There is nothing that the audience has not seen. To reinvent the genre is quite an uphill task. So, we hope to establish a sense of realism in the action, both Liu Chia Liang and I agreed on this. In terms of drama, The Seven Swords is filled with a strong sense of wuxia spirit.”
During Seven Swords’ three-and-half months shoot in Xinjiang, apart from working as an action director, Xiong Xin Xin also personally did stunt-doubling, “Perhaps, it’s out of habit of my profession, but whenever I see someone who couldn’t do a move well, I would rush over to do it for them.” Xiong Xin Xin says, in all earnestness.
Xiong Xin Xin had a close brush with death when filming a scene in which he rolled down the slope in the snow. “My assistant and I spent 3 hours climbing up the 200-m peak. It was 3600m above sea level. At that time, I told my assistant, be prepared to break our limbs. After tumbling down, we were already suffering from the severe lack of oxygen, we simply lied motionless on the stretchers. We looked at each other, but no words came out. Fortunately, it did not have any major effect on our physical wellbeing.”
Why would Xiong Xin Xin go to such an extent as to do something so death-defying and put his life at stake?
“Perhaps, this is the appeal of this profession. Not everyone gets to have such an exhilarating experience. To me, it could be once in a lifetime opprtunity. Perhaps, there wouldn’t be a second time.”
“A very sophisticated action not only meets the audience’s expectations, but is also a challenge to oneself. There is a sense of achievement that bystanders wouldn’t be able to feel.”
Top Three Actioners in Xiong Xin Xin’s Eyes
1. Police Story. When I first saw it, my mouth was gaping really wide. I felt that Hong Kong movies can be so great. Jackie Chan’s daredevil spirit, even today, we may not be able to do something with such earthshaking effect. This makes me feel the magic of this profession.
2. Heart of Dragon. A good blend of action and histrionics. And it bears the shadow of stunt profession, the bond and closeness of the brothers are very touching
3. The Blade. It’s one of its kind, to the extent of being inimitable.