BEY’S BLOG

POSTED MARCH 29, 2007
March 29, 2007

FROM CHUCKY TO JASON TO JET : Tracking Ronny Yu.

I had lunch today with Ronny Yu, director of Fearless. If there’s any film I wish we had on Dragon Dynasty that we don’t, it’s this epic bio-pic of kung fu icon Ho Yuan-chia (Fok Yun-kap), played, in a career-best performance, by the great Jet Li. The film’s success was due to a variety of elements: Li’s luminous performance, Chris Chow’s script, Yuen Woo-ping’s commendably ‘wireless’ action, but it took Yu’s steady hand at the helm to bring it all home. Though I’ve had several memorable encounters with Yu’s work over the years, we never really got to talk at length until now.

I first visited Hong Kong when I was 19 years old. As a die-hard Bruce Lee fan, I was on a mission to visit Golden Harvest studios. At that time, unlike Shaw Brothers, the Harvest back lot had no security whatsoever, so I came and went at will. I got to visit the sets of the several movies shooting at the same time. These were the glory days of Hong Kong action cinema, and the films being made included Sammo Hung’s Prodigal Son, Yuen Woo-ping’s Miracles Fighter’s, Jackie Chan’s Dragon Lord… and a film called Postman Strikes Back, helmed by Ronny Yu.

I remember encountering Ronny, briefly, on the Harvest back lot. The latest B movie martial arts fad was ninjitsu, and he enthused about the fresh spin he planned to bring to the ninja in his film. He invited me to visit the film’s location shoot, a major pyrotechnics scene (for its time) to be staged in a rock quarry. The movie’s finale saw the fiery destruction of a bandit camp built near Lam Tin. (Years later, after I’d relocated to Hong Kong, I lived in a housing block situated just above the quarry, and used to jog out to the site of my first explosive encounter with Hong Kong cinema, all those years before.)

Postman Strikes Back has yet to get the recognition it deserves. At the very least, it sees an early teaming of key industry players. It saw Chow Yun-fat choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping, years before Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the first collaboration between the Fearless team of Yu and Yuen. I finally caught up with the finished film, in London Chinatown’s late, lamented Hong Kong Cultural Centre cinema. (Now that was a grindhouse…) I was really impressed at the way its director had blended different genres. The film’s structure was reminiscent of the Burt Lancaster picture The Professionals, but mixed elements of Westerns, kung fu movies and, yes, ninja flicks. The sequence on the ice, with skating shinobi, was ground-breaking for its day. It was evident, to me, anyway, that a major new talent had arrived.

(I had actually seen an earlier film of Ronny’s, a supernatural comedy called The Occupant, without realizing that it was made by the same director as Postman. Ronny had first made his mark at Golden Harvest with a horror-comedy actioner called The Trail, but I didn’t catch up with this ‘til much later.)

I hope one day we can do Postman Strikes Back justice on a future DVD re-issue. It came out on the old Hong Kong Legends label, featuring the worst kung fu flick commentary of all time. (The fellow who did it is a good guy, but for some reason he didn’t bother to do any research!) The Fox US edition, though technically decent, didn’t have much in the way of extras.

The next Ronny Yu film that registered on my consciousness was Legacy Of Rage, the debut feature of Bruce Lee’s son Brandon. I remember going to see that at the Monday night Chinese movie show at a Birmingham cinema. At the time, many fans were disappointed by the fact that the film didn’t see Lee Jnr kung fu fighting like his father. In retrospect, Ronny did Brandon a huge favour by letting him develop his own persona. The film is more of a heroic bloodshed gangster actioner than a martial arts flick. It features stylized gunplay and brutal fight scenes, and Richard Yuen’s haunting synthesizer score (this was the 80s, remember.) Yu’s skill with actors is evident from the fine performances he elicited from second string kung fu star Mung Hoi and journeyman thespian Michael Wong.

D and B Films announced a sequel, Legacy Of Rage 2, to be filmed in Seattle. They approached Donnie Yen to co-star with Brandon, and Donnie remembers that, in the script he saw, his part was actually better than Lee’s. Ronny remembers talk about a sequel, but apparently it fell apart due to Brandon’s unwillingness to shoot another Hong Kong production.

Though he didn’t get to shoot in Seattle, Ronny did make his international debut, three years later, when he shot the drug themed thriller China White in Holland. (The film’s DP, Andrew Lau, would later shoot the Korean action romance Daisy in the same country.) China White was memorable in that two specific versions of the film were shot, an international English version (which performed well on VHS worldwide) and a Chinese version, entitled Deadly Sin. The latter featured an opening sequence with Andy Lau and Alex Man, then huge stars in Asia, to add marquee appeal. It was also meant to have seen the on-screen pairing of brothers Russell and Michael Wong, but the latter had to pull out due to a scheduling conflict.

Saskia Van Rijswijk, at the time a Dutch kickboxing champion of some renown, turns up in the film as a sexy assassin, and I remember how disappointed I was that, in terms of martial arts, she never got to do anything. She fought out of the gym of legendary Dutch coach Thom Harinck. I remember meeting them when I used to do English TV commentary for Thai boxing matches held in Amsterdam. One of the fights I covered saw Lucia Rijker, the bad girl from Million Dollar Baby, demolish a German opponent.

Perhaps the most overlooked film in Yu’s cannon is Shogun and Little Kitchen, a kung fu and food comedy in the Stephen Chiau God Of Cookery vein, starring Yuen Biao. Its light and fun, and worth a look if you can find it.

The next time the name Ronny Yu came into my focus was when I was at the late, lamented Milan Film Market (Mifed), watching shell-shocked buyers emerge from a screening of Ronny’s epic fantasy Bride With White Hair. I know its brilliant, said one, but how do you sell it? The film’s producer, Raymond Wong, had secured the services of Roy Horan to help market the movie. Roy is better known to kung fu fans as the evil Russian in Jackie Chan’s Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow or as Lewis in the Brucesploitation flick Tower of Death. Being the precocious fellow I was at the time, I greeted Roy with a line he says to his henchman in the latter: ‘Take them to the graveyard, maybe then they’ll change their minds...’ Quite justifiably, he looked at me as though I was totally insane.

Bride, a triumphant confection of outrageous characters, mind-blowing action and extravagant production design, swiftly earned a cult following, and will be the subject of a future Dragon Dynasty release. Schedule allowing, Ronny and I will be doing a commentary, and we can give this classic fantasy the treatment it deserves.

In the wake of the success of the live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, various other creatures were drafted into filmic flights of fury. Among the most unusual of these were the kung fu kangaroos seen in Yu’s Warriors Of Virtue. This was a film financed by a bunch of doctors in order to instill traditional values in the young (at least, that’s what the press release said). One of my most unusual jobs during my earlier years in Hong Kong saw me dressed in a kangaroo outfit for a live event to promote the film. Has it come to this? I thought to myself, as I checked out the suit in the mirror. It wouldn’t have been so bad if those damn kids didn’t keep standing on my tail.

Though other Hong Kong directors may have been more high profile, Ronny has a very solid Hollywood track record. Bride Of Chucky and Freddy VS Jason both made solid money for their respective studios. 51st State was less well received, though any film featuring Sam Jackson in a kilt can’t be all bad. It also gave a speaking role to another old friend from the martial arts world, Terry O’Neill. Terry is a legend in the Shotokan community, and it’s a shame no-one’s ever yet caught the full range of his karate moves on film.

Ronny dodged a bullet when he elected to not to direct Snakes On A Plane, which didn’t deliver on its hype, and chose to direct Fearless, which did. It was a great pleasure to catch up with him (at last!) and exchange notes on the state of the industry. Ronny’s proven himself one of the few Asian helmers equally adept at delivering hit movies in east or west. It’ll be fun to see what direction his next comes from.


Comments


I've been trying to track down DEADLY SIN ever since I saw it on Korean VHS back in the 80s. That Lau/Man/Lau/Shing flashback interlude felt like a mini-movie in its own right. Do you know if Ronny is currently filming the live-action BLOOD: THE LAST VAMPIRE? I've read in some places that Chris Nahon (Kiss of the Dragon) took over the directing duties. Really looking forward to the DD release of BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR. Very exciting news.
- Kazuki, Los Angeles | 2007-04-02 10:24:42
I had no idea Ronny Yu was possibly going to direct Snakes. *whew* :P Oh and I totally agree with the Postman HKL commentary comment! hehe! I actually started feeling guilty for the poor guy. . .
- Jeff, Hkcuk.co.uk | 2007-04-03 13:51:44
The original two-channel stereo mix is a must on any eventual BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR DVD. Just saying.
- Erroneous Monk, USA | 2007-04-02 15:03:08
I just want to let you know that your work is not going unappreciated. DD films are the only films where I watch everything, even listen to the commentary! Thanks for all of you hard work!
- Driftkid, Kansas | 2007-04-03 00:36:03
What's up, Bey? Good to see that you're still at it. Hope all is well.
- Michael stradford, Los Angeles | 2007-04-03 01:40:59
Looking forward to Bride With White Hair! Tai Seng's version is nice, but the picture quality isn't up to modern standards. Hope you guys can manage to get an interview with the lovely Brigette Lin.
- Bruce Jensen, USA | 2007-04-04 01:07:53

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