Putting the punch in "The Matrix"

Hollywood stars Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne learned those flashy kung fu moves in "The Matrix" from the master, legendary Hong Kong fight choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping, who also helped shape the careers of Jackie Chan and Jet "Lethal Weapon" Li. Keanu isn't the only fan of Hong Kong's legendary director.

By Ron Gluckman /Hong Kong and Hollywood

WHAT IS THE MATRIX? ACTOR KEANU REEVES ponders the question at the start of his hip new hit film of the same name. After more than two hours of chic cyber-sonic cinema, the riddle is rapidly unraveled. Yet mysteries remain. For Hong Kong's Yuen Wo-ping, though, the answer is obvious. "The Matrix" is his big breakthrough.

Not that the legendary director, 54 in August, has had any shortage of success in a remarkable career that has spanned nearly the entire history of Hong Kong cinema. Mr. Yuen has been involved in scores of films, mainly as a director. But he's best known as choreographer of elegant kung fu fight scenes, which is the role he played with "The Matrix." Compared often to the highest form of ballet, Mr. Yuen's prosaic action sequences, often with eye-opening aerial acrobatics, has made him a favorite of Chinese stars like Jet Li and Jackie Chan. Now, Mr. Yuen seems set to follow them to Hollywood and worldwide acclaim.

matrix01.jpg (8863 bytes)"He's the greatest," says superstar Reeves, the newest member of the Yuen fan club. "When you watch Wo-ping's fight scenes, you can see such joy in his work. He's amazing. The whole experience was special, one of the best of my life."

Yet those involved with the mega-hit "The Matrix" say the seamless marriage of Hollywood filmmaking and Asian action flicks nearly didn't come off. Given the all-star cast - stars like Reeves ("Speed") and Laurence Fishburne (What's Love Got To Do With It"), plus producer Joel Silver - there were bound to be conflicts, especially over a challenging timetable that included months of kung fu training before the cameras even rolled. Surprisingly, the stars all agreed to the bruising schedule. The real snag was obtaining the services of in-demand Mr. Yuen.

"Yes, it almost didn't happen," chuckles Mr Yuen, drawing on a cigarette, clearly unperturbed to think opportunity knocked, and he nearly didn't answer. "I was in Beijing filming at the time," he explains. "The producer called many times, but it was so hard to get a connection. And I was moving around a lot."

Mr. Yuen might seem a strange cast for a trendy Hollywood picture that pulled in US$120 million in its first month. He's understated, favoring faded blue denim and T-shirts. He wears no rings or gold chains, only a Swiss Army watch with plain metal band. "I was interested, of course," he says, "but not really until I saw the script. I really thought this film could be a new trend in filmmaking." Plus, he liked the way the fight scenes were integrated into the plot, which recalls futuristic thrillers like "Blade Runner" and "Total Recall." He says: "The producer and director were familiar with my work. I could tell the action of my fight scenes and my approach were suitable for this film."

Although he'd never worked outside Asia, the soft-spoken director has long been a legend on the kung fu circuit. Stars like Jet Li, who wowed international audiences in "Lethal Weapon IV," and Jackie Chan, whose breakthrough came in Mr. Yuen's directorial debut, "Snake in the Eagle's Shadow," speak of him in reverent tones. Mr. Yuen may be best known for his soaring fight scenes in the "Once Upon a Time in China" series in the 1990s. Over a hundred films have told the story of Wong Fei Hung, a fictitious Cantonese hero at the turn of the century, but these are the ones people remember. Credit the breathtaking fight scenes and stunts, lavishly choreographed, using the high-flying wire-action techniques that have become Mr. Yuen's signature.

Ironically, Mr. Yuen first made his mark with 1960s' versions of the same timeless story. By then, he had already been working in Hong Kong cinema for years. He was practically born into the industry. Mr. Yuen is the oldest of 10 children sired by Yuen Siu Tin, a godfather of the industry. "It's not a dynasty, more like a family," he jokes. "One of the top families of action films."

After choreographing his first film, "Mad Killer" in 1971, Mr. Yuen worked on a succession of chop-and-sock flicks like "Bloody Fists," "Tiger Cage," "Magnificent Butcher" and "Drunken Master." Hong Kong filmmaking can be deep on action and short on sophistication. Mr. Yuen began developing a style that ran somewhat against the grain. "I was astounded the first time I saw his action sequences," says Keanu Reeves. "His style isn't cliched or simple in any way. He tries different styles to tell different stories. He's a true master."

These same qualities caught the attention of Andy and Larry Wachowski, fledgling filmmakers whose only credit was the quirky "Bound." The Wachowski brothers both worked for Marvel Comics, which may explain the frantic pace and cartoonish, yet compelling plot of "The Matrix." Set in a future in which humans are the batteries of an elaborate artificial intelligence scheme, Reeves plays Neo Anderson, chosen as cyber-savior by Morpheus (Fishburne), god-like leader of a group of wired-in rebels. It's a camp virtual-reality thriller, complete with dead-pan detective parodies, and anything-goes action sequences. One premise of the film, that the rebels can instantly upload knowledge, such as martial arts expertise, facilities a limitless scope for the script. Real life, however, has real limits.

matrix02.jpg (14367 bytes)Learning to work the wires of Mr. Yuen's puppet-like acrobatic action scenes required months of practice. Likewise the sophisticated kung fu moves. "My one condition before the film started," Mr. Yuen says, "was that the stars commit to the training. I knew if they really wanted to make this a success, I'd need time to train them properly." He suggested an exhaustive four-month training program.

There were plenty of bumps and bruises. "But, to be honest, they worked hard. Four months isn't much compared to a lifetime of training, but, for a big star, this was really suffering."

"It was challenging, not just in the physical sense, but also mentally challenging," says Reeves, who admits taking several falls. "This was one of the hardest things I've ever done. But it was worth it.

"The entire experience was wonderful. It was like a chance to play cowboy and Indians for me, you know, to really have a good time in a shoot 'em-up style. And we were the first western actors to ever try this, the wires and the stunts," he says. "It felt really satisfying to be pushing the envelope.

"Whether this was the hardest film I've ever done is difficult to say. It was the most involving and a real labor of love," he says. "Through it all, Wo-Ping was great. He not only developed our fighting technique, but a style for each character. Every time we achieved some new level, Wo-ping would immediately say, "Fine, now what about this?" It was always challenging, but incredibly satisfying."

In fact, Reeves would gladly do again. And it looks like he'll get his chance. "The Matrix" was originally scripted as a trilogy. Reeves says he'd love to return for the sequels. "There's no question that I'd come back for two more," says the superstar who now gets US$15 million per picture.

But, Reeve's schedule - he stars in three new pictures (as a sniper in "Shooter," a serial killer in "Driven" and a walk-on football quarterback during the strike-shortened season in "Replacements")  due next year alone - may not be the main hurdle. Reeves readily admits: "The real problem is Yuen Wo-ping. Who knows if he'll be too busy by then."

Now that Hollywood has come calling to Hong Kong, he just might.

Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who is based in Hong Kong, but who roams around Asia for a number of publications, including Time, MSNBC, People, Asiaweek and the Asian Wall Street Journal, which ran much of the above story in July 1999. The pictures are borrowed from the internet, and additional quotes from Keanu have been added to the printed piece for this special cyberspace offering.

To return to the opening page and index

home.jpg (5606 bytes)

push here