Whether it’s the hand-to-hand styling of the seventies, brutality of the eighties or frantic wire-work of the nineties, Yuen Woo Ping has been a beacon of consistency and originality for over three decades. And shockingly, he’s still going strong.
It all started in 1978 when Woo Ping, having choreographed kung fu classics including “Invincible Armour” and “The Secret Rivals II,” was given the reigns to his first directorial effort; a little film known as “Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow.”
His aim was to take the somewhat clunky movements of the early “basher” films and reinvent them with added style, flow and finesse. He cast Korean kicker extraordinaire Hwang Jang Lee, his father (Yuen Siu Tien) in what would become his signature role and kick-started the career of a rebellious young upstart known worldwide today as Jackie Chan.
“Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow” was a success and Seasonal Films immediately hired Woo Ping for a semi-sequel. “Drunken Master” would not only solidify himself as a fantastic upcoming director, but it would earn him a place in kung cinema fans’ hearts for years to come.
Little is known about Yuen Woo Ping’s background. After being taught in Peking Opera from an early age he followed his father into the film industry, becoming a second tier stuntman on a number of Shaw Brothers productions. But it was his 1978 transition from action choreographer to director that skyrocketed his status in the genre.
In 1979, having worked with Jackie Chan on his first two films, Woo Ping opted to work with Chan’s opera buddies, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, on “The Magnificent Butcher” (a favour Sammo would later return , casting Woo Ping in “Eastern Condors”).
While the film is semi-dedicated to the powerful style of Hung Gar, it is not without frenetic speed, accuracy and, at times, absurdity (Chung Faat plays an assassin specializing in a cat style incorporating aggressive meowing!).
While choreographers like Lau Kar Leung and the Venoms crew utilized traditional martial arts in their choreography, Woo Ping was the genre’s foremost action director to think outside the box.
In 1979 he directed his “official” sequel to “Drunken Master,” “Dance of the Drunken Mantis.” Sadly, Jackie had gone on to star in, direct and choreograph his own films and while Yuen Siu Tien and Hwang Jang Lee returned, Woo Ping’s brother, Yuen Shun Yee, was given the lead.
Style wise, I believe “Dance of the Drunken Mantis” to be Woo Ping’s most Woo Pingy film. Not content with drunken boxing, he decided to have the film’s villain, Rubber Legs, be a master in drunken mantis boxing. Our hero must then learn the wacky Sick Fist in order to get the upper hand; a style that incorporates pulse checking, temperature gauging and kicks caused by reflexive knee tapping.
It is as absurd as it is fantastic; a true classic of the genre and a worthy sequel to the original in every way.
“Dance of the Drunken Master” truly marked Woo Ping’s departure from tradition and ushered in a bizarre era of his filmography.
Incorporating high amounts of slapstick, magic and all out weirdness, he gathered his brothers (known as the Yuen Clan) and directed “Dreadnought,” “The Miracle Fighters” and “Shaolin Drunkard.” The series would culminate in “Drunken Tai Chi” a film boasting the debut of Donnie Yen.
Woo Ping would work with Donnie again in his more modern actioners of the 90’s. Here his choreography would switch from the rapid fire hand-to-hand exchanges he was known for, focusing instead on brutal boxing jabs and kicks.
Both “In the Line of Duty 4” and “Tiger Cage 2” are considered the cream of the crop of the police centric films of the modern martial arts cinema.
Woo Ping’s final landmark era and perhaps the one he had been waiting for all along was the “wire-fu” films of the mid-90’s. Working again with Donnie Yen on “Iron Monkey” and lending choreography to Tsui Hark’s “Once Upon a Time in China” series, he crafted some of the finest fight scenes the genre has ever seen.
In time Hollywood would come calling and Yuen Woo Ping’s name would become synonymous with some of the more mainstream martial arts productions of the west: “The Matrix,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “The Forbidden Kingdom.”
He returned to the director’s chair in 2010, helming cinema’s first 3D kung fu film, “True Legend,” and we will see him take on a much more ambitious film in 2014 when he directors the sequel to Ang Lee’s masterpiece, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”