The Last Hero in China: My Favorite Yuen Woo-ping Films

I look back fondly at my Letterboxd review of the late Chor Yuen’s The Lizard (1972), which kicked off my Yuen Woo-ping action retrospective in January. Specifically, I have to laugh at my own gentle surprise regarding the prominence of the Sino-Japanese conflict in the plot. These countries’ relationship between the late nineteenth century and the Second World War turned out to be a recurring theme in many of the fifty-one movies I saw. (I had a similar eye-opening experience concerning the Algerian War during my French New Wave marathon.) The period pieces among these films often revolve around national pride and threats against cultural traditions. The stories set in contemporary times tend to be more generic, with cops and gangsters as the competing factions. Kung fu is, more often than not, regarded as something that exists in the past tense, a vestige of a more spiritual time, even if the skills involved persist to the present.

Again, I was flagrantly ignorant about all this stuff when I got started. Another thing I quickly learned is that, not only did Yuen Woo-ping have a father who blazed a trail for him in the stunt and acting departments, but he also has several brothers with whom he collaborated throughout the 70s and 80s. He is simply the eldest and most renowned of them all. His great accomplishment in those early years was incorporating slapstick comedy into the action, taking inspiration from the personae of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung — who arrived on the scene, it must be said, not a moment too soon; the films from the early 70s, for all their charms, are sometimes burdened with bland, interchangeable protagonists. Yuen has always displayed a keen interest in exploring the lives of historical figures, often with unexpected twists. The revered Wong Fei-hung is given a comical origin story in Drunken Master (1978), while his teacher, the more mischievous figure Beggar So, is given a serious origin story in True Legend (2010). In films directed by Tsui Hark and Wong Jing respectively, Jet Li played the role of Wong both seriously and humorously. Along with Donnie Yen, Jet Li was the muse that Yuen needed to elevate his craft even further, to the point where it got Hollywood’s attention.

We have to talk about The Matrix (1999), of course, which presents a two-edged sword. On the one hand, I quite possibly would never have thought to watch all these other movies if The Matrix didn’t exist. That was the watershed moment that thrust these formerly niche cultural artifacts, once ridiculed for their bad English-language dubs and feted with a novelty disco song, into the mainstream. In this way, it performed an invaluable service. On the other hand, the fights in The Matrix are somewhat underwhelming when one has previously immersed oneself in those Jet Li movies. This isn’t really a flaw, to be clear. Neo knowing kung fu is only one of many ways these movies demonstrate his mastery of their simulated world. If the computer overlords send a middle-aged guy in a suit to fight him instead of a martial arts master, that’s their mistake. The point, and it’s an obvious one, is this: what looks like a landmark in action filmmaking from one perspective will look instead like an arrow pointing at the real landmarks from another, better one.

The Matrix has had a positive influence on contemporary Hollywood action, and Yuen is largely to thank for that. Following in his footsteps, stunt performers and choreographers like Chad Stahelski and David Leitch have ascended to the director’s chair in recent years, to galvanizing results. The agility and precision of martial arts have had an impact on the worlds of sports (the popularity of MMA) and superhero films (with complex choreography that’s a far cry from the rubber-suited punching of yesteryear). Meanwhile, Yuen’s Hollywood sojourn was accompanied by a decline in Hong Kong action cinema. The drastic political changes of recent years have certainly not helped the industry recover, as it gradually merges with China’s film industry. Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster (2013), a labor of many years, looks like it’s going to endure as the kung fu genre’s epitaph.

Now that I’ve completed my retrospective, I understand all these things fairly well, but there are so many other things about which I’m still only vaguely aware. What’s the difference? is a common question prompting further study. Conflicts in many of the Hong Kong films are between competing schools of kung fu with their own fighting styles. This suggests subtleties of choreography that I’m sure sailed clear over my head. And then there’s my original question about Yuen’s precise involvement in each film, as action director/choreographer/coordinator, and so forth. This would require research into the making of each film that is unavailable to me at present. Again, if you want to know how The Matrix was made, there’s no shortage of info — here’s a “pre-viz” video that Yuen made showing, in detail, how the fights in that film were going to look. Quentin Tarantino has talked about the improvisatory nature of Yuen’s contribution to the Kill Bill films, so there’s undoubtedly a range of strategies. My learning has just begun.

Traditionally, I’ve always shared thoughts on my top ten films from these retrospectives. It didn’t feel quite right this time, though. I rank each movie as a whole, not in terms of the quantity or quality of stunts. Plus, as I figured would happen, my old favorites were not unseated by any film I saw for the first time this year, and I’m not entirely proud of that! Anyway, for the curious, here’s the list of all the movies and how I rank them. One thing I am proud of is the video montage I put together of some of the best fights in Yuen Woo-ping’s brilliant oeuvre. Enjoy!

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