You might not know his name, but if you’ve thrilled to the astonishing mid-air fight sequences in The Matrix or marvelled at the beauty of the floating action ballets of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon you’re already familiar with the astonishing work of Chinese fight-choreographer Yuen Woo-ping.
“Yuen Woo-ping is one of the last of the wave of major action choreographers who really reinvented martial arts movies,” says Grady Hendrix, co-author of These Fists Break Bricks: How Kung Fu Movies Swept America And Changed The World.
“They all started hitting in the late '70s and there hasn't really been a big generation after them. But the thing that makes him really unique is that, aside from Jackie Chan, he's the Hong Kong action choreographer who's really worked the most in the West.”
Born in Guangzhou, China, one of 10 siblings, six of whom would end up in the movie business, Yuen was part of a film-making dynasty from the very start.
“My father originally was a Peking Opera performer. At that time the Cantonese Opera traditionally didn't have fight scenes,” Yuen told Kung Fu Magazine.
“And the Southern styles had staged fight scenes that were horrible. So they figure they want somebody good to come and teach and show them. Then movies began having fight scenes. At first, it was all individual, one actor doing his fight scene, another doing theirs. So they said to my father, ‘Why don't you be the one to organise the choreography?’ So in that sense my father was the founding father of Hong Kong movie fight scenes."
Following in Pa’s footsteps Yuen worked in the Hong Kong movie industry as a fight choreographer. But his big breakthrough came with his directorial debut, Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow and then Drunken Master, both in 1978, starring Jackie Chan.
“Kung Fu movies were very bloody and very brutal. They were about revenge, they were about honour,” says Hendrix. “Everybody was trying to imitate Bruce Lee and that feral kind of energy he had, where one punch would put someone down. Jackie Chan had made a ton of movies as a Bruce Lee impersonator, and he was terrible. His movies all flopped. So a producer introduced Jackie Chan to Yuen Woo-ping.”
Chan and Yuen cooked up a comedic style of fighting that was a massive hit with Hong Kong audiences and finally put both of them on the map in their native country.
But it was 1994’s Fist Of Legend starring Jet-Li that first caught the eye of the Wachowskis, who were looking for someone to recreate Hong Kong action styles and to bring with him the expertise in wire-work (suspending actors from thin cables) that had made the unearthly, slightly magical, quality of the film’s visuals possible.
“One of the things that was hard for Hollywood, and they tried for a long time, was bringing over these choreographers and wire-work experts from Hong Kong and capturing what was magic about what they did. But it took a lot of false starts,” says Hendrix.
So when the Wachowskis called, Yuen wasn’t keen on answering. He had no particular interest in working in Hollywood, didn't think that Western actors had the athletic ability or dedication he required, or that the studios would warm to his methods, which were improvisational and time-consuming.
“I’d already been asked to work in Hollywood a couple of times, and I’d said no. I didn’t feel that my English was good enough to work there,” he diplomatically said
So he quoted an astronomical fee, and asked for an unprecedented level of control, confident that he’d get knocked back. Instead, The Wachowskis wrote him a cheque and promised he could work in the way he was accustomed to in Hong Kong.
In return, Yuen changed Hollywood fights forever.
“What they had finally realised was that you couldn't just have the guy choreograph the action and you shoot it,” says Hendrix. “You have to let him let you tell you the camera angle, you have to let him be part of the editing process. It's all of a piece, that's how they're used to doing it in Hong Kong.
"So when they did The Matrix they trained those actors, for six months before they started rolling the camera because it took that long just to get them up to a basic level of Hong Kong competency. Then they let Yuen show them the right camera angles and sit in the editing room.”
Yuen returned to China to shoot wuxia Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000, but was soon working with an American boss again in Quentin Tarantino for Kill Bill who, like the Wachowskis, gave Yunen the freedom he needed to achieve the film’s stunning action scenes.
“Hollywood these days shoots out of continuity, and they use multiple cameras and they put it together in the edit,” says Grady Hendrix. “What Yuen insisted on was the Hong Kong way of doing things. With action, you shoot in continuity and you use one camera. You ask, ‘How does it look best? Well, it looks best from here’. So there are not two angles. Then you set up for the next blow.
"That's one of the reasons he talks about enjoying working on Kill Bill because the action scenes were shot in continuity and it was shot with one camera so he was really able to control the scene.”
Today Yuen’s work influences Hollywood action movies from Marvel to John Wick. “What you see in modern action films that really was introduced by Yuen is that idea that you can defy gravity, you can take that extra step,” says Hendrix.
“And the idea of movement and then stopping, giving the action a rhythm that builds, that goes back to him and Hong Kong action. If you look at a Rambo film from the 1980s it's bang-bang-bang-bang everybody's down.
"You look at a Hong Kong movie and there are pauses. And it goes faster then slower. Sometimes it stops. John Woo did it with freeze frame and slow motion. Yuen Woo-ping did it with wire work, holding someone still in mid-air.
"Sorry about the cliche, but that poetry in motion comes from Hong Kong and is introduced to Hollywood by Yuen.”
Kill Bill is streaming on the MGM channel via Prime Video.