Fights, Camera, Action: Woo-Ping Yuen’s Martial Arts Cinema

On Monday, September 28, SFTV Professor Susan Scheibler moderated as legendary Chinese action director and martial arts choreographer Woo-Ping Yuen was welcomed onto Mayer Theater’s stage with a standing ovation for Monday Night Series. Modestly, he beckoned the audience to sit down before sharing his experience working with Ang Lee, Wong-kar Wai, Quentin Tarantino and others on such films as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, The Grandmaster, Kung Foo Hustle, The Matrix and Kill Bill. 

Dr. Scheibler eloquently expressed that Yuen’s films present a “rich tapestry of Chinese history” by incorporating many styles of historical and modern Chinese martial arts together through choreography that is “pure cinema.” Yuen, the son of an action film director, explained his process– first he breaks down the script to design sequences based on critical fight moments, as well as critical narrative moments that develop the characters’ relationships. He also takes into consideration the actor’s level of familiarity with wires and physical ability, saying that it can take up to four months of training before a sequences can be shot with a completely inexperienced actor.

Each of the surreal elements of the fight sequences, such as “flying” or running up walls, must all be rooted in reality, he reiterated. Yuen revealed that half of the magic of martial arts cinema comes from the choreography, the other half from the camera framing–the director must know how to shoot the scene to make it look good. He gave tips to eager students to “fill the frame with action.”

Make sure to check SFTV’s eventbrite for a list of upcoming Monday Nights Series here.