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September 2006
JET LI'S FEARLESS: An Interview with Director Ronny Yu

JET LI'S FEARLESS: An Interview with Director Ronny Yu
By Wilson Morales

September 18, 2006

After producing and directing many films Chinese and English, Ronny Yu is finally making a film with action star Jet Li. Unfortunately for fans all over the world, it happens to Jet Li’s final fight film, sort of speak. Teaming up with his producer Bill Kong, “Jet Li’s Fearless” is about martial arts legend Huo Yuanija (Jet Li), who became the most famous fighter in all of China at the turn of the 20th century, forever defining the true spirit of martial arts. In speaking with blackfilm.com, Yu talks about working with Jet Li, what wushu is all about, and why he didn’t direct “Snakes on a Plane”.

There are a lot of dangerous fight sequences in the film. Can you talk about the approach to the fight scenes in regards to the dangerous elements?

Ronny Yu: There’s no danger. That’s just your usual breaking and bruising. The reason I loved making this movie is because I have Jet Li. Jet Li, for me, is the only one in the world that can both cat and perform traditional Chinese wushu. Not even Jackie Chan can do this. Jackie Chan can do acrobat and all that. Jet has such a good technique, but he also understands the philosophy. He totally understands that Chinese wushu is not really about the form, the technique, the movement. It has to embrace body, soul, and mind. That is the most important thing. When I first met with Jet and also the choreographer Yuen Wo Ping, I said, “Now that we have Jet, we should forget about doing those quick cuts, and half second cuts, and all those flying everywhere. If we are going to go back to do a real Chinese wushu movie, we should go back to basics.” When I was growing up in Hong Kong, I watched those in the 50s and 60s. Let the audience appreciate the performance. That’s the problem. Nobody would dare fight with Jet. Jet is so fast and he is so good. We sent people all over the world to find someone who’s also be a very good martial artist to fight with Jet. I really wanted to go back to the roots where you can see clearly one punch, one kick rather than do those movies that Hollywood directors do.

Did filming any of the weaponry scenes change any of that stuff?

RY: That’s a good question. The weapons were dangerous. Even though we didn’t use some of the real ones, we still had to have the feeling of the weight, so it was still metal, but lightweight metal; and that really required a lot of practice and rehearsal. In the restaurant scene, the guy that fights with Jet is a fantastic martial artist, but he got cut. I thought it was a bump, but then I saw the blood pouring out, and I said, “What have you done Jet?” He said he didn’t do anything. As you know, any action sequence, even though it’s all coordinated, the adrenaline of the actor can’t be controlled.

Was he okay?

RY: Yeah, he had to get 12 stitches.

How hard was it to find someone that is close to the capacity that Jet Li has?

RY: Very hard. Jet is known not to pull any punches, especially with this one. I really wanted long takes. I wanted like 10 blows. The other person has to understand and practice the same style; otherwise they would never be good in the match. We were looking everywhere. It’s easy to find someone who’s good, but they look ugly. When you’re making a movie, you need some charisma, rather than some fantastic guy. We found some Japanese karate champion and some other champion and I couldn’t use them. That’s why I decided on this Japanese actor. He doesn’t know anything about martial arts, but he grew up on a stage, so he understands about movements. We trained him for two months with Yuen Wo Ping’s people. He had just basic knowledge about movement and understands the camera and all that, so that helps. Everybody who has watched the movie thought that he was a fantastic martial artist. No he’s not. He’s a good actor.

Can you talk about the evolution of the style of martial arts? How has your approach been in bringing it to this film?

RY: After I walked away from “Snakes on a Plane” and then I had some downtime and I went to Hong Kong and met with Jet and then we sat down and decided to make this movie; and then we decided to go back to the roots of old wushu movies. We weren’t trying to set the record straight, but give the audience an alternative to your usual kung fu, chop-socky movies. We believe, me and Jet, strongly believe that it’s a misinterpretation. Those kung fu films were actually invented by Bruce Lee. If you look at all the kung fu movies, their production value are not as great, and so the director doesn’t care about the character development or care about the story. I remember when I was in Hollywood making “Bride of Chucky” and “Freddy vs. Jason”, I had a lot of young crew members on my team and they’re Americans and I asked them if liked Chinese films, and they were like, “Yeah. We love all your kung fu movies” and I asked them, “How do you watch these movies”, and one guy said, “I watch them with my remote, just fast forward. Forget about the drama, forget about the characters, just fast forward all the way to the fight.” I said “why”, and he said, “I don’t get the story, second of all, I don’t understand the characters. I just love the action.” For me, it’s very depressing because Chinese wushu is our culture. It’s like handwriting and painting and all that. It also becomes a means for balance. If you look at all the old kung fu, chop-socky movies, it’s all about revenge. You start the movie with the leading actor’s family member getting killed or raped, and then he went off to the mountains, and then get a master, “Please, please, teach me”, and then what happens, at the end of the movie, a vicious killing, and then he walks in the sunset as a hero. That is exactly the opposite of what Chinese wushu is. If you look at the Chinese writing of wushu, it’s two characters. All Chinese words are made of different words put together to form a meaning. Actually the Chinese word of “wu” is not “fight”; it’s actually made up of “stop” fighting; and “shu” means “technique”. Basically Chinese wushu is about averting conflict, about stopping. The better you are in Chinese wushu means the better peacemaker you are. That’s the philosophy behind it. This time around I got a chance to work with Jet and we just wanted to present an alternative view to the audience; that there is character development in the story. There is a moral tale in the story and Jet Li is not just a fighter. He’s also a dramatic performer and actor. This is the challenge and exercise that we try to present.

Can you talk about this being Jet Li’s last epic martial arts movie? Is Jet ever going to do any martial arts again?

RY: I think it all goes back to what I just mentioned. This is a Chinese wushu movie. A Chinese wushu movie is different from what is known as martial arts. Martial arts is a generalization; like karate is martial arts. The Brazilian self-defense is also martial arts. Martial arts embodies so many different things. In order to qualify to be a Chinese wushu movie, first of all, the actor himself has to be a practitioner and he himself has to do all the moves, not imitate, but he still has to do it. All wushu movies have a sort of obvious theme, a moral theme, good against evil; just like western. Slowly as time goes by, those quality has been overthrown by kung fu, revenge, and killing. Everybody is all excited about kung fu movies. What Jet is saying is basically because all he learned from Chinese wushu in the last 30 years, all he learned about the philosophy and true spirit, he poured everything out in this one. Also, he told me he’s 43 years old and almost every bone in his body, his neck and his spine, his knee and everything is really broken up. He doesn’t know how long he can really perform to the audience and let the audience appreciate the movement, the graciousness, the poetic of Chinese wushu. There’s energy inside all of us and when you make a move, it requires a lot of energy. As age catches up, that takes a lot of toll. It’s not like he won’t do another gun or play film. That he can do. After we finished making the movie, Jet said, “Ronnie, you have a mission. Now you have to explain to everybody.” When I went to the Sydney for the Australian Film Festival, that’s what I told them. I blame the Hong Kong filmmakers because they were lazy. If Clint Eastwood has ‘Unforgiven”, we should have something. Let the audience have an alternate view of what that genre is all about.

How is this film different from the one that was released overseas?

RY: This is the most difficult movie for me to make because off the top, I wanted to make a movie that me and Jet envisioned. We didn’t just want to make a movie for the Asian audience because of the message. People all over the world can understand the message. After I did my cut according the original script, I looked at it and said, “No”. It’s too literal and a little bit preachy. I had to go back and I rearranged the whole structure. We brought the ending back to the front. With some marketing calculation, we didn’t the audience to wait ten minutes before we see Jet Li. That was in the original cut. Every single factor in the movie I had to think and rethink and I had to step back and try to be subjective as I am. “How can I make this story understood?” Not just for Chinese, but for everybody. It was about finding this balance. It was ongoing struggle all the time and I’m lucky my experiment worked for me because this is the first time that a Chinese film is edit by two American editors, who don’t understand any Chinese. All they had was a translated script. I hired a woman, Virginia Katz. She edit all the drama and then I hired Richard Learoyd, who edited “I, Robot” to cut all the action. The reason why, and I had people tell me I was crazy, is that my theory is those two people, after they cut the movie and understood what it means, I crossed the barrier. The first battle is won. I hope next Friday (Sept.22) I was right.

Was it hard to find locations to shoot?

RY: The whole thing was built, the town, the restaurant, everything. Even the village, we had to do everything.

How long has the film been out?

RY: It was released on Chinese New Year in January ’06.

Are you a practitioner of wushu as well?

RY: Well, I love Chinese wushu and I when I went to boarding school in England, I was always getting bullied and during that time is when Bruce Lee was coming out, and everybody was trying to be like him. We used to hang out in a restaurant in London, and one of the chefs said, “Ronnie, you can’t do all that kicking and all that, but I can teach you one style” and I said, “What?” It’s called “wenchen”, which is for women, because in China women wear long skirts and indecent for them to kick so high. So they practice on the hand, only movements. “Maybe I can you that so that when you have a problem in the elevator, you can use that skill.”

What are you doing next?

RY: I’m going back to the horror genre. I’m doing “Blood: The Last Vampire”, which is an adaptation of a Japanese animation.

Will you work with Jet on a non-action film?

RY: That is taboo.

Why did you walk away from “Snakes on a Plane”?

RY: What happened is that I was turned on by the title, “Snakes on a Plane” and so I thought it was going to be another “Jaws” because the star is the shock. Then New Line said I was such a mate with Samuel Jackson. He loves you and you love him, we need a star. I said it was a going a good idea, but now we have a problem, who’s the star. The audience, if you want to see Samuel Jackson, the audience would sit there and think that the hero will save everyone, so there’s nothing intriguing. Then I said, “Why don’t we kill him in the middle, viciously, brutally, like the python slowly swallowing him; but he died for the plane. Now the audience is intrigued. Now everyone on the plane will group together and kill the snakes. That’s the way I thought it would be interesting. Of course, they said “Take a walk!”

JET LI’S FEARLESS opens on September 22, 2006



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