Ask fans of Hong Kong martial arts movie action from the 1970’s right through to the current day “Who choreographs the best kung fu fights?”, and the name “Yuen Woo-ping” will invariably crop up!
Woo-ping is the eldest of former Peking Opera actor-turned-film star Yuen Siu-tien’s 8 sons and 3 daughters. He became the most prolific of the “Yuen Clan” of action directors. He performed as an actor, extra and stuntman for the Shaw Brothers studio throughout the 1960’s and early 70’s, before taking his skills behind the camera as an action director.
In 1975, former Shaw Brothers employee Ng See-yuen launched his own production company, Seasonal Films, as a platform to nurture young and emerging talent. Ng hired Woo-ping to work as fight choreographer on “Snuff Bottle Connection” and “Secret Rivals II”, both released in 1977.
Impressed with his work, Woo-ping was given his directorial debut with Jackie Chan‘s kung fu comedy “Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow”. The film was a huge Hong Kong box office smash, and along with the follow up “Drunken Master”, his work not only established Woo-ping as one of Hong Kong‘s best new directors, but also launched Jackie Chan as Hong Kong’s biggest movie star.
Always wanting the lead actors to perform as much of the action as possible Woo-ping also helped launch the film careers of talented martial artists such as Donnie Yen, Wu Jing and Tiger Chen. He has worked a dozen times with action star Jet Li, choreographing arguably the finest fight scenes of both their careers.
Woo-ping’s constant innovation has allowed him to incorporate traditional kung fu, modern martial arts, fantasy wirework, weapons, and the latest in film technology from CGI to 3D cameras, and of course the ground-breaking “bullet time” of The Matrix films.
Yuen Woo-ping eventually received international acclaim for his influential work on the worldwide box office hits “The Matrix” and “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”. It led to him being actively pursued by film maker and Hong Kong movie fan Quentin Tarantino to design and direct the action for his “Kill Bill” movies. Even now, DVD sleeves proudly proclaim “From the Action Director of The Matrix and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”!
Still active in the industry today, Yuen Woo-ping continues to come up with fresh ideas for action scenes in movies such as “Ip Man 3 & 4”, “The Thousand Faces of Dunjia” and “Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy”.
Having delivered some of the finest, thrilling on-screen martial arts ever committed to film, let’s take a closer look…In descending order, here are our Top 10 Yuen Woo-ping Movie Fight Scenes!
- The Matrix (1999) — Morpheus vs Neo -Dojo Fight
- Fearless (2006) — Jet Li -Final Fight
- Magnificent Butcher (1979) — Sammo Hung vs Lee Hoi-san
- Once Upon a Time in China 2 (1992) — Jet Li vs Donnie Yen
- Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1978) — Jackie Chan vs Hwang Jang Lee
- In the Line of Duty 4 (1989) — Donnie Yen vs Michael Woods
- Iron Monkey (1993) — Donnie Yen vs Yen Shi-kwan
- Drunken Master (1978) — Jackie Chan vs Hwang Jang Lee
- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) — Michelle Yeoh vs Zhang Ziyi
- Fist of Legend (1994) — Jet Li vs Billy Chow -End Fight
1999’s “The Matrix” was a worldwide box office smash and hugely influential on all action films that followed it, largely due to the work of Yuen Woo-ping. Prior to this movie, Hong Kong-style fights and wirework were a minority, specialist niche for most Western film fans. More than any other scene, the “I know kung fu” dojo fight introduced this unique style of screen-fighting to a mass Western audience. It opened the doors for Chinese films like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, “Hero”, “House of Flying Daggers” and “Fearless” to have wide releases outside of Asia, as well as influencing how Hollywood blockbusters like the Marvel films, for example, presented their action scenes.
Having worked several times with Jet Li prior to making “Fearless”, Yuen Woo-ping remarkably hit a new peak with what is considered Li’s final “proper” martial arts movie. Each fight is beautifully constructed to highlight the intricate details of the particular technique or weapon that is being used. The final fight gave Jet Li a chance to remind his fans of his incredible versatility with various traditional Chinese weapons and fist techniques and is a fitting bookend to a remarkable career.
For “Magnificent Butcher”, Yuen Woo-ping effectively does with Sammo Hung what he did with Jackie Chan in “Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow”. Packed with fights, we see Sammo performing a mix of traditional-looking kung fu techniques with his incredible acrobatic Chinese opera skills. His burly frame make his movement even more impressive. The final showdown with Lee Hoi-san is the perfect culmination of all the skills in the preceding fight scenes, making it a great showcase for both Sammo’s and Woo-ping’s talents.
When director Tsui Hark made the sequel to the smash hit “Once Upon a Time in China”, he upped the action ante by bringing in a skilled martial arts actor at least equal to star Jet Li. Yuen Woo-ping was already very familiar with Donnie Yen having launched his movie career in “Drunken Tai Chi” and directing him in classics such as “Tiger Cage 1 & 2” and “In the Line of Duty”. For action fans it was a dream teaming with this initial duel displaying the stratospheric level of high quality screen combat that the three of them bring to the movie.
Yuen Woo-ping had already drawn out some of Hwang Jang-lee‘s best high-kicking skills in “Secret Rivals 2” and “Snuff Bottle Connection”. However, with the incredible physical talents of a young rising star called Jackie Chan as a foil, he was able to raise the bar of traditional kung fu choreography for “Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow”. It became a highly influential smash hit and firmly cemented Jackie Chan as Hong Kong’s new box-office king!
Yuen Woo-ping’s longevity as an action director has been aided by his ability to set and adapt to new trends. By the mid-eighties, traditional period kung fu movies were becoming less popular with audiences. Having had some success with Donnie Yen and Michael Woods in the modern day cops-and-gangsters thriller “Tiger Cage”, he repeated and arguably improved on the formula with “In the Line of Duty”. The rooftop battle between Donnie and the muscle-bound, flexing Michael Woods, with Hong Kong airport providing a dramatic backdrop, stands the test of time to this day, delivering a modern, hard-hitting style of martial arts fighting.
In 1993, filmmaker Tsui Hark put Yuen Woo-ping in the director’s chair to bring us an energetic and entertaining tale of a Robin Hood-style hero. Although there is a lot of wire-fu involved, the athletic skills of the leading cast members, especially Donnie Yen, is exhilarating. The precision and speed of his high-kicking technique and graceful martial arts postures are exemplified in this exciting scene when he takes on the evil Iron Palm master!
Having raised the bar so high with “Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow”, it was always going to be a tough ask to beat it. In a stroke of genius, the team of Yuen Woo-ping, Jackie Chan and Hwang Jang-lee, repeated the basic formula, but framed it around a comic version of the popular folk hero Wong Fei-hung, and the unique martial arts style of Drunken Boxing.
It was the perfect style for Jackie Chan’s acrobatic fighting skills. Incredibly, they managed to pull off fight scenes that were even more spectacular than their previous collaboration, resulting in a bigger box office smash that has become a fan favourite to this day!
Whilst “The Matrix” introduced a mass Western audience to the idea of wire-fu, it was Ang Lee’s stunning, Oscar-winning classical tale that put it into a traditional Chinese setting. Nominated for ten Academy Awards it became the highest-grossing foreign-language film produced overseas in American box office history. The fight between actresses Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi is a particulalrly great example of the diversity and beauty of Yuen Woo-ping’s dazzling martial arts choreography.
In 1972, “Fist of Fury” was a monster box-office hit establishing martial arts legend Bruce Lee as Asia’s number one film star. Remaking one of his most popular hits was always going to be a tall order and for fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping there was an additional problem.
Director, Gordon Chan wanted to film using low camera angles that would show the sky and ceilings of the various locations and sets, limiting the use of wirework. Rising to the challenge and building on the real-life martial arts skills of his lead actors, Yuen Woo-ping delivered some of the most exciting and innovative fights of his long career. “Fist of Legend” is considered by many to be Jet Li’s best work, and is the film that inspired Hollywood directors the Wachowskis to change the style of the fighting action for their movie “The Matrix”. They actively sought out Yuen Woo-ping to be their Fight Arranger and the rest as they say…is history!
So there we have it folks, KFK’s Top 10 movie fight scenes by the legendary Yuen Woo-ping Which is your favourite, are there any that you think are missing from this list? Legend of a Fighter, Drunken Tai Chi, Tiger Cage 2, Tai Chi Master, Kung Fu Hustle, The Forbidden Kingdom, True Legend, Man of Tai Chi, Ip Man 3 – there are so many you could choose from! Let us know in the comments below; Like, share and join in the conversation on Facebook and follow us on Twitter & Instagram.
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