All of the photos depict Corey Yuen working on a 2005 computer game adaptation titled DOA: Dead or Alive. It was completed in the summer but shelved until the fall of 2006, when it was given theatrical distribution in non-American countries so as to determine the self-worth in the homeland. Despite the middling cinema receipts of the U.K. release, it was given a summer cinema release in the U.S. where it bombed big time. Like Transporter 2 (which Corey also worked on), it should’ve been given a September release.
Ching Siu-Tung (a.k.a. Tony) was the first choice that the Wachowskis had in mind for The Matrix. They wanted him because he is the most magnificent maestro of wirework. Yuen Kwai (a.k.a. Corey) was the second choice because he was well past the culture shock phase of working on an American film. He’s also the second-best wirework maverick. The Wachowskis were rejected because the choreographers refused to partake in the job interview process, which they thought was insulting. The Wachowskis justified their request by claiming that they need to know if they can get along with the choreographer for what might amount to half a decade of trilogy film-making.
It’s indicative of how much they wanted the wire-work that they sought after Dion Lam (Ching’s assistant), which left Yuen Woo-Ping’s physical involvement to be pertaining to the actual martial choreography. Ping didn’t want to work on the film, so he asked for three demands which got surprisingly favourable responses. He wanted to be paid a million dollars, have complete control of the fight scenes and spend a third of a year to train the cast.
Much to the furor of many Hong Kong film fans, Larry Wachowski discredited Ping’s costly involvement in The Matrix by boasting who was actually behind the camera (for a 2003 book titled Kung Fu Cult Masters):
“He was the choreographer, but we were the ones with complete control at all times. He positioned the camera where he thought it should be, H.K. fight choreographers always pick out the camera angles, then Andy and I would look at them. Some of them we liked, some of them we didn’t like. Many times, his shots just didn’t meet our criteria, so we added moving camera shots, dollies, stuff like that around sections that we wanted.”
When quoted for the U.K. book, Ping said:
“In American movies, they’re all storyboarded and they leave little room for inspiration on the set. It’s good that everything’s organised, but if I have any inspiration on the set, it’s only good if the actors can follow. Jet Li and Jackie Chan can follow, but not these actors.”
In a H.K. book titled A Tribute to Action Choreographers (2006), Ping naturally went into more detail about this (versus what he says to Western media):
“They did give me a story-board, but most of the time, I did it my way. The story-board that they gave me was nothing like what I had in mind. I redid the whole thing. They always loved my choreography when I showed it to the director and the producer. We just left the story-board behind and shot with my designs. The director always took charge on the set. Sometimes, he did consult me on the best camera angles to use, but being a newcomer there made me think it was best to leave the decision to him. They edited it mostly to my designs. The film company showed me the edited version. I could have them change it if I was not happy with it, but if often came out alright.”
Just when you thought that you got the whole enchilada, it takes some time to get to the tail-end of the iceberg (the Wachowskis had their tails between the legs):
“It was a world of difference than working in Hong Kong. Here, we design the movements on the spot, and would shoot 20 – 30 shots in 10 hours. That is considered slow. In Hollywood, even with the designs ready before shooting, we’d only do a maximum of 7 to 8 shots in 12 hours. It was less than perfect but better than what we have in general. But when it comes to the use of wires, they lag far behind us. There was a scene where two actors on wires were supported to dash towards each other and embrace in the air. They worked on it for several days, then tried it out on the set for another several days. They just couldn’t get it done, so they rang me – Woo-Ping, could you come and take a look? My assistants and I fixed it in three hours. The shooting took two hours. Everyone applauded. They have very little comprehension in the use of wires. They can handle simple applications and flying alright, but when it comes to more complicated moves (such as two people embracing in the air), they’re all thumbs. We have a much better mind for this. After that scene, the director approached me for most of the scenes involving wires. He even spoke Cantonese, saying – Thank you, thank you – all the time.”
Ping was fully compensated with the commercial success and critical acclaim which were enough for him to reignite his directorial career. As it turns out, Ping’s original fights were filmed in tape form like an audition tape. The Wachowskis shortened each fight because they were conscientious as to how they would add to the running time. The sequels became more problematic. Ping even considered not returning because of an insulting salary.
When talking about The Matrix and its sequels, Carrie-Anne Moss was the one who got a raw deal. She didn’t get the chance to engage in a long fight. Since Neo was a valuable novice, it would’ve made more sense if Trinity had the final fights in the first movie. Moss confirmed who was really responsible for the directing of the fights in the first part of the trilogy:
“He’s a wonderful director; he’s made a lot of movies himself and he brings that kind of expertise to it too.”
Corey is Hong Kong’s best fight choreographer when it comes to working with women. It’s very telling that his best fight scenes are those involving them. I wonder what he would have to say about Trinity being more of a pawn than a queen. He did have something to say about in 2002 about working in Hollywood:
“Hollywood film-making is very organized, almost too organized. If you don’t get all the shots you want for a scene by the end of the day, then that’s it – you don’t get those shots. In Hong Kong, it’s more flexible. If I don’t finish on one day, or if I have an inspiration for more shots while shooting, I can add those shots to the next day’s schedule. I enjoy working in Hollywood because I’m not the director there; I don’t have to carry the burden of the whole film. But I like shooting in Hong Kong the most because I know the culture. I know the way of shooting here. Of course, everyday I have new thoughts of something interesting which I want to try but I also have to restrain myself when I’m in Hong Kong.”
After the not-so-surprising success of The Matrix, H.K. choreographers were only being sought out for their wire-work (as Corey and Tony found out). One of Ping’s brothers (the overlooked Yuen Cheung-Yan) was hired on Daredevil because Corey proved to be invaluable on X-Men, and Tony was hired on Spider-Man. It’s telling that once Bryan Singer observed the craft, Corey wasn’t needed for the sequels.
When he was working for his father, Tony learned the importance of rehearsals so as to save money on takes. In his memoir of sorts, Chang Cheh (a legendary director) had this to say about Cheng Kang:
“He had a very high demand for himself and others. Siu-Tung regularly suffered corporal punishment when small. Even when he was his father’s action director, he was ordered to kneel down in public for making mistakes. Kang’s strictness to his son had reached the unreasonable. It was not unusual for him to order reshoots on films, and the finished film would be re-edited to seemingly no end. He would be looking for a film within the thousands of feet of negatives. It was only by banning him from the editing room that there was a final cut.”
Dion replaced Tony on Spider-Man 2 because of Tony’s commitment to a Steven Seagal movie (Belly of the Beast). As for Spider-Man 3, Tony was busy working on Curse of the Golden Flower. Even the mixture of genres has inspired Hollywood. James Gunn (director of Guardians of the Galaxy) talks about an earlier film of his:
“Here’s where they’re idiots in hiring me, because Super did better in Japan than any country in the world. I’m already Japanese by default. The truth is Super is far more influenced by Asian cinema than anything else, simply because Asians have a way of mixing genres in a way that Westerners do not. Super is taking different genres at the same time and not only cutting from a scene of one kind of thing to another kind of scene, but also having them together sort of mixed-up in one batch. That’s very much something I learned from Asian cinema—not specifically Japanese, I think more specifically and especially, for me, Hong Kong and Korean cinema. That’s where I feel a kinship with filmmakers of those countries, and I think that’s something that’s easier for the Japanese to understand – the sort of crazy tone of Super.”
It’s disappointing that we don’t get to see more instances of H.K. choreographers working in the U.S. It’s almost like Hollywood felt that they learned everything which they could to the extent of being apprentices surpassing the masters. I disagreed. The final fight scene in Doom was arranged by Dion Lam for a good reason. Even in the home disc market, there isn’t a desire to bring a H.K. guy to work behind the scenes.
If you look at Sworn to Justice (1996) some of the fighting in that only registers as being H.K. because of Yuen Tak bringing that extra spark. She actually earmarked him because of having worked with him on Prince of the Sun. Besides mastering camera speed, H.K. fight arrangers have a better sense of what lens to use – which most of the Hollywood directing community don’t think about when they watch a fight scene.
The final quotation should be from an interview with Marc Maron where Crispin Glover talked about wanting his character to be silent in Charlie’s Angels (made in 1999):
“When I first read the script, they were interested in meeting with me. The dialogue was quite expositional. They were interested in hearing what my thoughts were. I said – Whether I play the character or not, the dialogue for the character should be excised, and it should just be a silent, fighting, antagonistic character. They showed me the Chinese team who were going to be doing the choreography – the Yuen family, who have done great work with wirework. They understand psychology of character through movement. I realized that a quiet character with this Chinese team choreographing it could be very interesting.”
To summarize, it’s fascinating to watch River’s Edge (1986) and suddenly realize that the two stars would end up being choreographed by Yuen Cheung-Yan (if not the entire Yuen clan). The co-star (Keanu Reeves) was choreographed before the star (Crispin) was.