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You need him for a fight

Special to The Times

Cory YUEN is one of the few people on Earth who has walked away from a real-life fistfight with Jackie Chan -- a fact that may be easier to credit when you realize that they were both about 10 years old at the time. In fact, this was a playground tussle that erupted over a disputed comic book.

Born in Hong Kong in 1951, Yuen was a classmate of Chan’s at the now-infamous China Drama Academy, a draconian Beijing Opera school in Hong Kong, where a generation of martial arts greats (including Yuen Biao and “big brother” Sammo Hung) was literally slapped and beaten into shape. In his autobiography Chan notes that “Yuen Kwai [his Chinese name] was one of my best friends at the school [and] my match when it came to making trouble.”

As it turned out, Yuen and Chan were part of the Drama Academy’s final graduating class, and by that time, the late 1960s, Beijing Opera was a dying art form. Academy graduates put their skills to work in movies as stuntmen, fight choreographers and, if they were lucky, performers and directors.

“I never wanted to be a movie star,” Yuen insists, speaking through a translator, by phone from New York, an early stop on the press tour for his snazzy new “girls with guns” action picture “So Close,” which opens in Los Angeles on Friday. “I started out working as a stunt man on martial arts films, at [top Hong Kong studios like] Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest. I figured out right away that unless you are a really big star, it is always the director who’s in charge.”

Apart from legends such as Sammo Hung and Yuen Woo-ping, Cory Yuen has few peers in the highly specialized field of martial arts movie-making. And Yuen is second to none in the sheer inventiveness of his action set pieces. A fine example in “So Close” is a knock-down, drag-out, three-way fight that takes place inside a cramped and steamy elevator car. Just figuring out where to put all the arms and legs in a scene like that must have required the martial arts equivalent of a differential equation.

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Like a lot of recent Hong Kong films in these tough economic times, the production of “So Close” was financed by a foreign-based company (Columbia Pictures Asia) and carefully assembled to appeal to a pan-Asian audience: The cast includes a trio of top Chinese actresses, one each from Taiwan (“Transporter” co-star Shu Qi), Hong Kong (Karen Mok) and the People’s Republic (Zhao Wei), along with a leading man from South Korea (Song Seung-heon) and a glowering bad guy from Japan (Yusuaki Kurata). And its premise was devised with at least a glance in the direction of the U.S.

Cory Yuen had one of his first major hits as a director launching the career of “Crouching Tiger” star Michelle Yeoh in the pioneering female-cop action picture “Yes, Madam!” (1986). At the time his hard-edged approach to staging the fight sequences was innovative even for Hong Kong; fans still talk about the shot in which Yeoh does a back flip through a plate glass window.

But now, Yuen suggests, even faint-hearted Americans might be ready for something a little stronger: “If you look at ‘The Matrix’ or ‘Charlie’s Angels,’ it seems that American men are more comfortable now watching women who can fight. Perhaps before they felt somewhat threatened?”

With Van Damme, Jet Li

Yuen has been an action movie innovator in several areas. He was one of the first Hong Kong action directors to take on an English-language project, the 1985 Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle “No Retreat, No Surrender” (1987). He has directed several key Jet Li films, including the fan favorite “Fong Sei-yuk” (1993) and has since choreographed the martial arts sequences in all of Li’s American movies, from his debut in “Lethal Weapon 4" (1998) to this year’s “Cradle 2 the Grave.”

He has also taken his act on the road to Europe, working on two films for director-turned-producer Luc Besson, arranging fights for the Paris-based Li vehicle “Kiss of the Dragon” (2001), then staying on to direct Jason Statham and Shu Qi in “The Transporter” (2002).

To a large extent, of course, this is what the acknowledged masters of martial arts cinema do now: They circle the globe working as “wired guns,” helping clueless Westerners to fake the look of a slam-bang Asian martial arts picture. They draw upon the specialized experience of several decades in order to make people who can’t fight look as if they can. The irony is that this approach is now increasingly necessary even in Hong Kong, on productions like “So Close.”

Like most of the younger breed of Hong Kong film stars, not one of this film’s extremely photogenic actresses had any martial arts training. Not too many people, it seems, are willing to subject themselves (or their children) to the quasi-military training required to mold a child into a Jackie Chan or a Michelle Yeoh.

As Chan observed in a recent interview, “You couldn’t open a school like [The China Drama Academy] now. Someone would sue you.” It’s no wonder Jackie Chan announced plans last year to open a “movie martial arts” school in Hong Kong, offering instruction not only in classic fighting techniques but in specialized areas such as stunt choreography and “Crouching Tiger"-style wire work, a notion that Cory Yuen strongly endorses.

“Training is the key,” he says, “but most people don’t want to work that hard anymore.”

One of the few places where the necessary work ethic survives, apparently, is in mainland China, where the government-sponsored, noncombat form of acrobatic martial arts known as wushu still attracts many aspirants, youngsters looking to become the next Jet Li, the wushu system’s most famous graduate. Nowadays, Yuen says, most actual training occurs on the job, when aspirants join the “stunt team” of an established master, and Yuen now recruits most of his apprentices from the mainland.

Luckily, at least for Cory Yuen, action isn’t the whole story. “I believe that the action should always be secondary to the story,” he says. “In ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,’ the fighting grows out of what is happening between the characters. And in my film ‘My Father Is a Hero’ [a.k.a. ‘The Enforcer,’ 1995], the main thing is the relationship between the father, played by Jet Li, and the young boy. The fighting is a side dish. It is an accent or an enhancement. The main dish is something else.”


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