Whether as producer or director, Tsui Hark has delivered many of our cinema’s greatest hits over the past 30 years. But as he (finally) reunites with Jet Li and tries his hand at 3D movies, could the Hong Kong film legend’s career be poised for yet another bloom? Interview by Edmund Lee. Portraits by Calvin Sit.
Jet Li has starred in some of the most famous films that you’ve either directed or produced, such as the first three Once Upon a Time in China movies in the 1990s. So what’s taken you so long to work together again on your new 3D wuxia epic Flying Swords of Dragon Gate?
You know, actors sign contracts. Jet Li signed with another company, and if the company didn’t make a Once Upon a Time in China movie, there wouldn’t be any, right? Another reason is that the company [Li signed with] had no relation to you, so they wouldn’t invite you to do their film anyway. Yet another reason is that he’s gone on to star in international productions; unless you find the necessary investment, you won’t be able to work with him again. These are all part of the reasons.
How is the current Jet Li different from the one you worked with on the Once Upon a Time in China movies?
He’s matured a lot. He used to be a new face; now he’s a very familiar face to the audience. Having turned from a teenager to a mature man, his character type and his screen charisma have both changed a lot. When you shoot him now, you have to understand that he’s not the Jet Li you knew 20 years ago. This is a new Jet Li who has participated in a lot of international movies, and the new film will also be seen by an international audience. It wasn’t like this back in [the 1990s] – we were only making movies for Chinese viewers.
So what’s your working relationship with him like?
Jet Li is a very special person. He began as the face of a new generation of Chinese wushu when he toured the world with the national team. From his ambassador’s image to his movie role in The Shaolin Temple (1982), it all feels only logical – because of the air of Chineseness about him. He’s now an internationally renowned actor, but I’ve been wondering what kind of a relationship he now has with Chinese cinema. I’ve been wanting to pull him back to generate a new kind of cultural and cinematic relationship. Flying Swords of Dragon Gate is the one time he can afford to give us some time to shoot a movie, so I treasure this opportunity a lot. I hope there’ll be more to come.
After announcing his wushu movie retirement and confusing the world ever since, Li has kept on making wuxia movies but…
[Interrupts] I think it’s his intention to stop making wuxia movies. During the shoot, he has demonstrated quite a different perspective when we’re working on weapons and horses. He’s afraid of injuring people. I guess he wasn’t thinking that thoroughly early in his career. Even when he’s riding a horse now, he’ll think about whether we’ve abused the horse.
When you were working with him for Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, did you try to adjust his character in any particular way? I’m asking this because most of us feel that Jet Li must always play the good guy.
Actually, he can’t play… when he played bad guys in Hollywood, I didn’t think he looked the part. [Laughs] We want to turn him back into a hero. When he stars in my movies, he must be a heroic figure – as for how heroic he gets, it’s down to our design. I’ve looked back on some of the things that he’s done in the past. I want him to portray the character in a more realistic way this time.
When I look at the movie’s teaser posters, Li’s image definitely reminds me of Tony Leung Ka-fai’s character in director Raymond Lee’s New Dragon Gate Inn (1992), which was produced and co-scripted by you. Similarly, it may be said that Zhou Xun’s image is also reminiscent of Brigitte Lin’s, and Chen Kun’s of Donnie Yen’s. Are these characters meant to be connected?
Actually, we’re trying not to connect them; but at the end, this is exactly the visual style of the Dragon Gate Inn [stories]. It’s like the characters in Westerns: they must dress in a certain way to look right. Then again, we’ve also changed around a lot of other aspects.
It’s interesting you mentioned Westerns, because wuxia films, Westerns and even samurai films are all built on romanticised visions of a bygone era, although wuxia films seem to be the only one of the three that are still continually thriving. In your opinion, what has set our genre apart from its peers?
I think [wuxia films] are undergoing the same process of development as the sci-fi and fantasy genres in the West. When a film genre’s [popularity] goes from its peak to its trough to its peak again, it always has to do with new angles, new approaches and new feelings. That’s why our movies are always going through cycles. When members of the genre audience start to feel familiar with the subject matters, they lose interest and turn to other genres. But when there are new elements in the genre later on (and if the viewers like the genre enough), they’ll come back to revisit their memories. When the number of movies in a genre drops to a certain level, people will begin to find those movies refreshing. These are all parts of a cycle. However, when we look at the films in such a cycle, the new films are not really repeating what have come before. Many say that we’re re-enacting the earlier style – but that’s not true. We’re unable to re-enact the earlier style. Times have changed and the actors, scriptwriters and cinematographers are all different. There’s no point redoing the past movies – because you can’t – so it may be more meaningful to analyse your strong feelings to the old works from a new perspective, and to integrate them with our present lives.
The story of Dragon Gate Inn has already been told various times in the past: there was King Hu’s landmark 1967 film, Dragon Gate Inn, and then there was New Dragon Gate Inn, which we just mentioned. When did you come up with the idea of making yet another version?
The idea came about a long, long time ago – almost as soon as we finished New Dragon Gate Inn. It never materialised simply because of the actors’ [conflicting] schedules and [my] other projects back then; subsequently, it just grinded to a halt. It wasn’t until two years ago that we finally brought this up in conversations and decided to shoot this story again.
Do you consider this a remake of the two previous films?
It’s not a remake. It’s a new story. It’s a kind of a sequel to the first film [King Hu’s 1967 film].
There seems to be a trend in recent years for Hong Kong directors to revisit the wuxia film classics of the early days. For example, Chang Cheh’s Blood Brothers (1973) was remade into Peter Chan’s The Warlords (2007), while Chang’s One-Armed Swordsman (1967) was transformed into your own The Blade (1995) and Chan’s Wu Xia (2011). Can you comment on the remake potentials involved in all these?
I feel that much of it has to do with my childhood memories, my childhood impressions and my childhood preferences. When I look back at those movies, because of their dated approaches… it’s impossible to share these special feelings with the audience today. That’s why we’re shooting those [old] stories with a contemporary approach. I actually haven’t paid much attention to the market [demand] of these remakes. Take the Wong Fei Hung series (aka Once Upon a Time in China) as an example. When I was small, I was obsessed with the stories of the Wong Fei-hung character [the real-life folk hero who was featured in a long series of movies since the late-1940s, with Kwan Tak-hing playing the title role]. The subject matter had become very much outdated [in the early 1990s], but in my world, it’d never be outdated. That’s why I shot the Once Upon a Time in China [movies].
What is it about Wong Fei-hung that has fascinated you so much?
The Wong Fei-hung [character] that I created is very different from the Wong Fei-hung [movies] that I watched as a kid. There were two reasons to make the films: the first one is to put my favourite subjects on the screen: the hero’s personality, his place in the community and his relationships with his protégés. When I watched it during my childhood, I could feel the warmth, and I really revelled in the family-like master-protégé relationships in Po-chi-lam [Wong’s medical clinic]. [Giggles] Up to these days, I still feel like it’s a great life experience having a master or parents like that at home. That’s why I incorporated that in the films. The second reason is that I gradually realised [the 1940s films] didn’t touch on the historical context and the cultural changes in China. These are all topics that I could further develop, which was what I did. There wasn’t any market consideration – from what I recall.
I know it’s probably sacrilegious to say this, but many of these remakes, such as The Blade and Wu Xia, are arguably much better films than the originals in terms of their storytelling. Peter Chan made a very interesting point when I talked to him about Wu Xia, saying the excellent impression which the older audience has about those early classics actually has a lot to do with their unavailability on video for decades – these viewers are merely holding on to the nice impressions they gathered as children. Do you agree with this assessment?
I agree. I think it’s a shame [that films easily become dated]. If you look at the Tang poems, their impression and impact on us remains after more than a thousand years. The same can’t be said of movies. A film consists of both an idea and an [expiry] date; we want to let the idea live on. And this isn’t just about old movies, but also old stories: how do we keep Liaozhai [Zhiyi, aka Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio] relevant today? [Tsui has produced Ching Siu-tung’s now-classic adaptation, A Chinese Ghost Story series, as well as an animated film adaptation directed by Andrew Chen.] People around the world are all looking for high concepts for their movies; we have many, many of these concepts – since China has such deep cultural resources – it’s just that we haven’t utilised them yet. We can either turn them into contemporary stories, or keep the period setting while making it in a way that modern viewers can identify with. Both should work. When we adapt from old stories, we always acknowledge the source of our materials: we are fair to the authors. If we ignore them, we’d have overlooked the rationale behind our projects.
Flying Swords is shot in IMAX 3D. Should we consider this the first 3D wuxia film?
It shouldn’t count as the first one. I’ve seen a 3D wuxia film in the past, although the technology wasn’t as advanced then. It’s called Dynasty [a 1977 Taiwanese film directed by Chang Mei-chun]. It’s been a very, very long time…
When I interviewed the Pang Brothers last year on their 3D ghost movie The Child’s Eye, they pointed out how the new format had forced them to slow down their editing rhythm, because of the need to build up the viewers’ spatial orientation. Since the fight scenes in wuxia films have never been known for their realistic sense of space, has your new film presented you with any extra difficulties?
This has to do with the film language. For instance, when we want to convey the minute details of a plot, we use close-ups; when we feel that certain shots have already conveyed all their meanings, we can cut them really short. But the real reason behind this is that the more we use this language, the more familiar the viewers will get to it – they know [your character] wants to jump up a wall the moment [his feet leave the ground], and we sometimes rely on editing to create a style. But when you’re using a different tool, your thinking process becomes different.
How different is it?
When a character is jumping up a wall [in a 3D film], you realise the significance of the overall sense of realism, and you’re not going to cut the shot into pieces. (If you do, [the image] is gone before you manage to comprehend it.) Why were we used to cutting away when the viewers still hadn’t seen the shot properly? That’s because our familiarity with the film language has made those shots redundant. Many people like to keep the entire shot when they’re shooting in 2D too – not to say anything about its effectiveness, but that’s at least a possibility. The issue is the same for 2D and 3D; we’re creating an altogether different experience now, but it’s not an obstacle to me. We can still edit in a fast pace; it’s just that the outcome will be different now. [Chuckles]
Has the 3D format given you an incentive to do longer takes than you’ve ever done before? After all, your frenetic editing style has always been part of your signature.
Um… [pauses, smiling] there’s indeed a common… when we were shooting a building in 2D, we’d be like: the viewers understood that we’ve arrived at the bank, so we could [cut at that point]. But when we’re shooting in 3D, the illusion of reality is really… you feel like you can walk into the bank yourself. It takes time for you to develop a sense of space and get into the movie. You want to see the bank, then the road, then the car driving in. The feeling is great.
Flying Swords of Dragon Gate 龍門飛甲 opens on Dec 22.