Monday, January 16, 2006

Return of the kungfu master

Tsui Hark discusses his envelope-pushing epic 'Seven Swords'

2005-07-29 / Taiwan News, Contributing Writer / By Andrew C.C. Huang

Director Tsui Hark checks the camera during the filming of "Seven Swords."/ tsui hark workshop
After the awe-inspiring "Once Upon a Time in China" series and the acclaimed of "Legend of the Swordsmen" trilogy, Hong Kong master Tsui Hark returns to glorious form with the highly anticipated kungfu epic "Seven Swords," which opens this week simultaneously in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. A staggering kungfu romance, "Seven Swords" has been selected as the opening film at the prestigious Venice International Film Festival next month.

"During these past few years, we are seeing kungfu movie becoming a global phenomena. Kungfu movie is one of the most precious cultural treasure from Chinese culture. I feel really proud we have this chance to introduce Chinese culture to audiences worldwide," Tsui says in an exclusive interview at Taipei's Sherwood Hotel.

As the master who launched the kungfu new wave in the 80s and 90s with the celebrated "Once Upon a Time in China" series with Jet Li and "Legend of the Swordsmen" trilogy with superstar Brigitte Lin, no one is more versed with the theory and vocabulary of kungfu movies than Tsui.

"With this movie, my challenge is to take the kungfu movie genre to a new direction," says Tsui. "I want to bring kungfu movie to a new level of realism."

Tsui explains his passion for the genre. "Kungfu is the essence of Chinese culture. It is deeply interwoven into the fabric of our daily life. We all grew up watching kungfu movies and reading kungfu novels. When I was a kid, I used to play games with my friends in which we would portray famous characters from kungfu movies and pretend to kill each other."

The goal of creating a new realism is first realized in the premise of the movie's story. During an exclusive interview with Taiwan News earlier this year, Tsui told me that "with 'Seven Swords,' I am interested in exploring the theme of financial pressures and other challenges for survival faced by the swordsmen."

"This is a theme that has not been explored by any kungfu movies before. We don't see the ordinary side of them where they have to eat, have to go to the toilet, and have to survive with little money. Tsui said in that interview. "'Seven Swords' is an attempt to connect the kungfu world with the real world. In the end, the biggest damage is not done by a supreme martial arts skill, but by the economic pressure to survive. I want to bring the audience a brand new feeling for the kungfu movie."

This ambitious goal is splendidly realized with the premise of the story. In the beginning of "Seven Swords," it's shown to the audiences that the newly established Ching dynasty court has decreed a new rule that outlawed all martial art practices in order to squash resurgent forces.

A reward system is further established in order to completely uproot martial art. The court rewards any decapitated head of a martial art practitioners by the head count and by the ability of the killed swordsman. As a result, massacres break out among various gangster swordsmen camps in order to seek reward money. The riveting opening action scene shows various swordsmen, innocent children and elderly massacred by a swordsmen gang lead by the movie's principal villain Fire-Wind.

To further achieve the aim of realism, two pivotal elements are carefully orchestrated in order to create a kungfu movie with a new degree of realism -- action scenes and costumes.

"We are so used to seeing kungfu movie as a genre with mythic characters, legendary characters and melodramatic storyline. It has become a genre of fantasy where swordsmen fly around, and we take it for granted," says Tsui. "I want to bring kungfu movie to a new direction by adding realism into it, to bring it back to the basics."

The action scenes in "Seven Swords" are executed with a refreshing realness that sees the swordsmen fighting with hard-hitting clankiness. All the weapons featured in the movie, while stylishly designed and elaborately decorated, all have a heavy feel to them and reflect the sense of danger of real-life weapons.

In an early scene where the village girl Wu, portrayed by Hong Kong actress Charlie Yeung, faces the danger of being assassinated by a gangster swordsman for reward money, audiences see the effort Yeung exerts in order lift her heavy sword to defend herself.

Tsui also demands his actors to perform all of their own action scenes.

"I pretty much hurt with every part of my body with every scene except for the one where I fell from a horse. Very often you don't notice the pain when you are shooting the scene. But when I get back to my lodge at the end of the day, I discover that some part of my body has been hurt," says actress Yeung. "Before this film, I never knew I could go through this much pain for a movie shoot."

Actor Duncan Lai concurs, "I am a very athletic person. But shooting this movie was extremely difficult. If you ask me which scenes were difficult, I would say pretty much every scene is very difficult. However, after the movie is finished and when I see the final film, I feel that all the pains were worth it."

The only exception might be actor Donnie Yen, who is in life a master of martial arts. Because of his real-life virtuosic kungfu skills, Yen was paired with superstar Jet Li for spectacular face-off action scenes twice in Tsui's "Once Upon a Time in China" and in Zhang Yimou's "Hero."

Because of Yen's success as an action star in "Iron Monkey" and "Hero" both released in the U.S. by Miramax, Yen often works as an action director in Hollywood.

"I do not use a stunt double. Because of my level of kungfu skill, it's pretty much impossible for any stunt double to perform the action I am supposed to do. I do all the action by myself," says Yen.

In addition, the stylishly designed costumes seen in "Seven Swords" are mostly earth-toned garments and all have a worn look to them.

/ tsui hark workshop

"In many kungfu movies, we see a lot of stylish costumes that don't look like that could be worn in real life," says Tsui. "When we are recreating the clothes worn by people in an ancient period, I want to take into account the lifestyle and needs of the people at the time.

"I choose mostly dark colored costume for this movie because that's what the story demands. The story takes place in the desert and countryside. When living there, these swordsmen's clothes will become dirty, darker and have stains on them," explains Tsui.

"With the scenes in the ice mountains, you see the swordsmen wearing fur coats and hats that cover their ears because the temperature is icy there," Tsui adds. "I also give my actors the options of choosing their own accessories. Some of them wear backpacks to store their swords and weapon. The pack should be worn in a place that's convenient for the character to draw out his sword anytime. Some characters wear scarves over their necks. I let the actors choose whether they want to tuck the scarf inside or wrap it around the neck."

During the shooting of the movie, Tsui also demands his actors to take care and arrange their own costumes in this movie so that the actors would really require the sense that these are their daily life clothing rather than simply costumes for a movie.

To push the realism to a new height, most of the actors in "Seven Swords" do not wear makeup except when it's required for the character such as the Korean concubine Luzhu portrayed by Korean superstar Kim So-yeon of the blockbuster TV series "My Anchorwoman" fame.

"Not only do I not wear makeup in this movie, I also have to get my face dirty and tumble into the mud and water in this movie," laughs actress Yeung. "The mud in the Hsinjiang area, where we shot the movie, became my facial (mask)."

"I waited for 12 years in order to work with Tsui Hark again," says actor Yen. "I was very pleasantly surprised when I read the script Tsui sent me. I thought, with a good script like this in the hand of master Tsui Hark, this movie has the potential to surpass many of the previous kungfu movies."

Yen, who has mostly been an action star so far in his career, also gets to develop himself further as an actor and emerges as the principal male lead as the oldest Seven Swords Chu in this movie. In "Seven Swords," Chu rescues the Korean concubine girl Luzhu owned by the gangster lord Fire-Wind (portrayed by Chinese thespian Sun Honglei) and then falls in love with her. Because of this conflict, the love triangle later on leads to the confrontation in which Fire-Wind forces Luzhu to leave Chu or see Chu die.

"There are two different kinds of actors. There are actors who are very in tune with their emotions and have known how to perform since the beginning. Then there are actors who learn slowly and develop through the years," says Yen. "I would say I belong to the second category."

"The most important thing for an actor is to get into the character and show his inner life. Once you understand the psyche of your character, everything else will follow naturally. The facial expression, the hand movements, the body language, and the action," adds Yen.

"I am very proud of my work in this movie. Chu is a very complicated character with a lot of inner conflicts," says Yen. "I am glad to say that I did not disappoint Tsui. I pulled it off."

"At the end of the day, action is only a package. A good movie needs a good story. It needs many good elements in order to make it work," Yen adds. "That's what 'Seven Swords' is for me. I don't see it as just a kungfu movie or an action movie. I would call this movie a 'kungfu drama.'"

Korean superstar Kim emerges as the principal female lead in this movie as the slave girl Luzhu who is caught between the love of Chu the oldest Seven Swords and the menacing domination of the gangster lord Fire-Wind.

"I grew up watching Tsui's movies and am a big fan of him," says Kim. "It's an honor to have the chance to work with master Tsui."

In a difficult scene in the movie where the gangster lord Fire-Wind is raping his newly acquired concubine Luzhu, actor Sun climbs onto the back of Kim and bite her skin in a brutal and sadomasochist fashion.

Tsui Hark, center, directs Leon Lai, left, and Charlie Yeung on the set of "Seven Swords."/tsui hark workshop / tsui hark workshop

"Sun is a seasoned, great actor. He is the one who suggested the biting for that rape scene," says Kim. "He told Tsui to communicate with me. I struggled for days but agreed to do it because it's for the sake of the story."

"I grow up in Korea, which is a pretty conservative country. In my daily life, I am pretty conservative and do not wear clothes that are too revealing," Kim explains. "Doing that rape scene was very difficult for me. I was exhausted for days. But after seeing the finished movie and seeing how fantatstic it works for the story, I feel some remorse now and think I should have gone further with that scene."

"Seven Swords" is adapted from the kungfu novel series by the writer Liang Yu Shiung. According to Tsui, "Seven Swords" is the first and the prelude movie and he plans to develop the movie into a series in the future with seven more sequels in which every one of the Seven Swords character will be featured as the lead.

Tsui's passion for cinema is telling in his willingness to become involved in every aspect of the filmmaking - even being an extra. As the actor Dai says, Tsui volunteered to do several scenes as an extra, where his face won't be shown on film.

One example is when Dai needs to shoot a scene where he uses a sword to chop off the head of a small-time villain. Dai is called upon by Tsui to the location, where Tsui is waiting leisurely, eating a cup of instant noodles. "Are you ready?" Tsui asked. Dai answered yes. Thus Dai shot the scene where he waves his swords against the minor criminal. Then Tsui told the cinematographer to film him from the back side where he slided his head to the side in a gesture of being killed.


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