The world’s foremost martial arts choreographer Yuen Wo Ping is often called Eighth Master. However, among his siblings, he’s the eldest brother. How did he come to be known as Eighth Master within the entertainment circle?. Yuen Wo Ping explains, this is because when he joined the film industry in the stunt profession when he was over ten years old, there were 8 sworn brothers then, and he was the youngest.

In the late 1970s, Yuen Wo Ping’s career took off after directing Jackie Chan in Snake in Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master. Prior to that, Jackie Chan’s movies had not been selling very well. Under Yuen Wo Ping’s direction, he found his own niche market – kungfu comedy. When being asked about this, Yuen Wo Ping convulsively let off a sigh: “Don’t really know if the two movies made him or me famous.”

When Jet Li was braving the Hong Kong film industry, it wasn’t until Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China series that his image as a knight-errant became deeply rooted in everyone’s mind. This was due to Tsui Hark’s direction as well as Yuen Wo Ping’s wondrous martial arts choreography. Since, then the two enjoy part mentor-protégé, part friend relationships. Jet Li’s last wushu movie, Fearless, was also choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping. In Yuen Wo Ping’s eyes, Jet Li is the best martial arts star in the Chinese film industry.


In 1999, Yuen Wo Ping made a name in Hollywood with The Matrix. And due to his remarkable choreography in various martial arts films, came to be known as the world’s foremost martial arts director.

Subsequently, as a big fan of Yuen Wo Ping and Chinese martial arts films, Quentin Tarantino, who’s especially fond of Fist of Legend, specifically engaged Yuen Wo Ping to be the martial arts choreographer for Kill Bill, and even pays homage to Chinese martial arts films in the movie.

And now, for Rob Minkoff’s Forbidden Kingdom, Yuen Wo Ping goes to great lengths to craft one set of action for Jet Li and another set for Jackie Chan that reflect their individual personalities as well as the traits of their characters, from the way Jackie Chan holds the calabash, slightly inebriated, delivering Drunken Fist, Tiger Claw to Jet Li presenting Eighteen Arms…

Jet Li Approaches Masterhood

It appears that Jet Li especially loves to have you working as the martial arts director on his films. Why?
Yuen Wo Ping:
 He’s handing out rice bowl to me! (Laughs) We have had many felicitous and happy collaborations. He’s a wushu champion, and his achievements in wushu have reached a definite state, we communicate very well, and the between mutual trust and affections between us are hard to come by.

When you worked with each other on Once Upon a Time in China, Jet Li came from Mainland, were there any language and culture barriers?
Yuen Wo Ping:
 When working on a film, he’s no different from other actors. Once you make the move, we know whether you’ve got what it takes. And to us, in the stunt profession, there’s nothing esoteric, how accomplished you are is shown through your moves. Everyone knows that. And we could tell Jet Li was a very good talent in martial arts films. So, the means of communication was thus very simple.

In the past ten years, you’ve been collaborating with Jet Li, reinventing the genre every time. Do you think it’s getting more difficult to choreograph him?
Yuen Wo Ping:
 To me, there’re no difficulties. We’ve never done the same thing twice. In each film, I would design the action based on the script, the character’s personality, the level of martial arts. I’ve never thought about handling the past, the present, the future of this or that person. I don’t carry such burden. I don’t worry about not doing well. Actually, as long as we work according to the script and the characters, there wouldn’t be any issues.

How has Jet Li progressed over the years?
Yuen Wo Ping:
 He has improved in many areas, especially acting skills, and has even better grasp of action. He is also more mature, he has a very good control of the strength of every fist and kick. In the past, he used too much strength, those that get hit would be in great pain. He’s the archetype of power. Now, we see his moves are still very powerful on the screen, but the actual strength has been contained, blending genuine martial arts and filmmaking more seamlessly.

Even till today, you still think that Jet Li’s the best fighter in the Chinese entertainment industry?
Yuen Wo Ping:
 Yes, he’s still the best. Of course, Jackie Chan and Jet Li fighting skills are the best, but their styles are very different, even then, their martial arts are all very pragmatic. Jet Li has been training in wushu since young and was the national wushu champion, he’s well-versed in all kind of fists, and his moves are very electrifying.

Jackie Chan was trained in Peking Opera, his kungfu is also very good, but he’s more suited to difficult actions, like somersaults, jumping, he’s very agile.

Jet Li’s mentality has undergone great changes in the recent years, doing a lot of charitable works. After finishing his last wushu movie, he does not see filmmaking as his biggest career. What do you think of his changes?
Yuen Wo Ping:
 It’s correct that he doesn’t like violence. My films with him are basically not very gory, violent. We are more particular about the gracefulness of the action, less the colours of violence. Jet Li has entered into another stage, becoming a master. He’s devoted to studying Buddhism, of incorporating Buddhism in martial arts, becoming more and more well-rounded. One should not fight for the sake of fighting. All these are a great boon to his acting. Now, he would do a lot of thinking on his character, on character development, and would not resort to violence indiscriminately. Even I would want to get closer to him… (smiles)

In Forbidden Kingdom, Jet Li and Jackie Chan are martial arts exponents you’re familiar with. How do you reflect their individual characteristics in terms of action?
Yuen Wo Ping:
 Based on their individual quirks. Jackie Chan’s character loves drinking, so, let him be inebriated slightly, the slight state of drunken stupor, this is closer to his nature, he’s a sentimental person. Jet Li’s playing a monk, one who’s capable of all sorts of martial arts, so his forms are more diverse.

Jackie Chan’s Keeps Up His Standard

Jackie Chan was the box office venom back then. Why did you pick him to shoot Drunken Fist, Snake in Eagle’s Shadow?
Yuen Wo Ping:
 I’d always admired him. When making the film, the production chose a few actors, but eventually, I picked him, for his kungfu and acting style were very suitable for shooting comedies. After directing the two films, he became celebrated, and I as well. I wasn’t noted back then. We didn’t know who made whom famous.

Why did you let Jackie Chan embark on the path of kungfu comedy?
Yuen Wo Ping:
 At that time, I wanted to carve out another niche in the kungfu film market. As everyone is aware, at that time, Chang Cheh wuxia movies were in trend back then, all martial arts movies then were very bloody, very violent. Bruce Lee’s forms were very forceful, very strong, every move was very mean, very lethal. The producer asked me, how we could breakthrough, and kungfu comedy was the answer.

Having working with Jackie Chan more than 20 years ago, how has he changed?
Yuen Wo Ping:
 There are bound to be changes. His acting has improved. He manages to maintain his level of competence in action. This is not easy, I thought that he would have deteriorated given his age. Especially as one gets older, if you don’t train often, you’d decline very fast. Like, me, I have deteriorated considerably. But my brains have improved by a big margin. Now, I ponder more, but hardly perform any action personally.

Jackie Chan and Jet Li are growing weary of martial arts films, and want to do arthouse films? What about you?
Yuen Wo Ping:
 I’ve never grown tired of martial arts films. This is my job, unless I don’t do it anymore. I can understand their mentalities, they have already been very successful doing action films, and have a sense of achievement, their acting skills have become more refined.


However, if you remain as an action star, you won’t be crowned as best actor, the audience would not accept you as an actor. So, that’s why they wish to do arthouse films, be acknowledged in acting, to prove themselves in anther way. For example, Jet Li, his martial arts level is already very high, and his performance in Warlords is not bad. You feel that he’s an actor, rather than a martial arts star.


Jackie Chan is still doing some martial arts comedy today, how should he develop his future career path?
Yuen Wo Ping:
 He has done other types of films too. I feel that he should develop himself in the acting department. He’s a very smart person, and should be able to find another career path.

To a martial arts star, does age plays a very important factor? As you get older, you’d be less capable?
Yuen Wo Ping:
 For anyone doing martial arts film, there’s bound to be a day when they couldn’t fight anymore. Currently, I have also begun training successors. For example, Donnie Yen is already not bad. I’m picking another two to three young men. But it still needs a very long time.

Actually, Wu Jing is not bad too. His acting and martial arts skills have reached a definite standard. However, he hasn’t met with one or two great movies that’d catapult his career. He has become much more mature, but an actor also needs luck. He’s very good in martial arts, he’s Jet Li’s junior.

How many disciples do you have right now? How many can take over?
Yuen Wo Ping:
 I’m grooming seven to eight, however, only one or two can become truly big. They still need lots of chances, and also need to grab the chances themselves. It’s really not easy for there to emerge a handful to take over the mantle.



Hollywood Directors Do Not Truly Understand the Meaning of Kungfu

Why did you agree to work on Forbidden Kingdom?
Yuen Wo Ping:
 On account of Jet Li and Jackie Chan. They are already superlative martial artists, and are the top Chinese martial arts exponents in the world. Several years ago, the producer looked me up in US, everyone talked about hiring me as the martial arts director. After pondering over the offer for two, three days, I agreed.

Do you mind working on a film that is a warped amalgam of many Chinese elements?
Yuen Wo Ping:
 It has never occurred to me. Like shooting a Chinese martial arts film, it’s my job. Our Chinese martial arts films are very well respected in overseas countries, we should do it well to show them. This is part of our culture. Of course, the script was written by them, they have their perspectives. Being a Chinese fantasy of an American kid, the story is a bit far-fetched, but still acceptable.

Having worked with several foreign directors, do you think they understand the essence of kungfu?
Yuen Wo Ping:
 No. They might have watched plenty of Hong Kong martial arts films, and understand the enchanting qualities of martial arts. There’s a market for martial arts films overseas, the audiences love to watch, but as to the essence of kungfu, they might not be able to comprehend.


However, this won’t affect the film as a whole, for the audience in western countries have not seen this kind of fighting, with so many moves being exchanged, so they love it. So, it’s not so important at this time to understand the true meaning of martial arts, it’ll do as long as they recognise the market value. But, right now, there are a few foreign directors who are starting to research into the meaning of kungfu.

Nowadays, lots of action films are the results of special effects and kungfu, when choreographing the action, do you have to take special effects into account?
Yuen Wo Ping:
 I feel that as long as the special effects are not over-exaggerated, it’s fine. Don’t overdo it, until it’s not believable. Special effects can make people fly, turn 360 degrees, it could prolong the gracefulness of an action scene, but do not turn it into painful slow-motion.

Nowadays, many foreign films are imitating Chinese martial arts, including Muay Thai. This has become a fad. Would it exert more pressure on Chinese kungfu films?
Yuen Wo Ping:
 I’ve never thought about overseas competition, and neither would I be interested to think about this. I just focus on doing my job well, coming up with something new often, so that new movies would scale another peak.

Do you read Gu Long or Jin Yong novels to gain inspirations for your works?
Yuen Wo Ping:
 Not really. Actually, it’s very difficult to portray the moves in Gu Long novels. They wrote many forms, very beautifully written, but are also very difficult to implement and shoot. But now, with CGIs, some elements might be realised. I have never thought about these before.


For instance, a move that is made up of petals of sword flowers…. How do you shoot that? Literary works can go wild on the imagination, but on the screen, everything has to be shown with pragmatism, very tough to do. So, I’d would only go through them occasionally, but you can’t do a direct import.

Hong Kong martial arts film industry have undergone various changes, what do you think of the direction of its current trend?
Yuen Wo Ping:
 Hong Kong martial arts film trend has always been evolving. From the bloody violence in Chang Cheh wuxia films, to Bruce Lee’s era, through martial arts comedies, to modern actioners, to Lee Ang’s graceful, artistic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Now, realistic, hard-hitting, gritty action films are the mode, like Warlords, Seven Swords.

Currently, Yuen Woo Ping has been in Hong Kong, preparing for his directorial work Iron Mask. Martial arts will be the film’s strengths. Iron Mask is slated to begin production in Mainland in July or thereabout. Besides Iron Mask, Yuen Wo Ping is also in pre-production of The Great Wall of China that he’d also be directing. As the script is far from completion, the movie will be delayed till 2010. Yuen Wo Ping still intends to cast Jet Li in the leading role in The Great Wall of China. Yuen Wo Ping is supposedly still attached to Disney’s live adaptation of Snow White, to be begin production in around October, but only as a martial arts choreographer.


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