SHA PO LANG or SPL, released on DVD as KILL ZONE by Dragon Dynasty here in the US, is one of the most talked-about kung fu movies of recent years. Donnie Yen’s choreography and his fight scenes with Wu Jing and Sammo Hung garnered enthusiastic praise from critics and fans alike. In the last entry of my series “Red Fists,” which traced the influence of left wing filmmakers on the development of kung fu cinema, I pointed out that both Yen and Wu underwent years of training in wushu, the contemporary competition version of kung fu that flowered in China after the founding of the People’s Republic. Although SPL cannot be considered a wushu film, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that the art is the foundation of both men’s careers. For all you SPL fans out there, here’s a re-posting of the interview with Yen that I did on the film’s release.
Left: Donnie Yen. Right: Jacky Wu Jing.
SHA PO LANG is one of the most talked-about films of 2005, and the hard hitting police actioner marks a return to the glory days of Hong Kong film. SPL action director and star Donnie Yen talks with kungfucinema.com from Hong Kong, where he is editing DRAGON TIGER GATE, his latest film.
KFC: Rumor says that the alley fight scene in SPL was improvised on camera. Is that true?
DY: I don’t know why there’s a rumor that the the whole scene was improvised. It’s very simple. Most of my films, all of my action scenes, whether I’m the director or action director, I have full control and I create all the choreography, from shooting to editing. Even in other films, I do my own choreography – that’s a known practice in the industry. I specifically create the look of the action. For the alley scene, I looked at Wu Jing’s earlier films and I saw he was a wushu stylist. SPL is a modern day film, so we had to work with his wushu movement. I have a strong background in wushu too, so I’d ask him to do certain movements so he wouldn’t look too much like wushu. My objective in the alley scene was to bring a long shot, realistic quality to it. Some of the shots were choreographed, but others were improvised on the set. I’d say, “I want you to attack, then I’ll come at you, and I want you to react.” That’s how it came about. I’d be saying, “Come to me.” But you couldn’t see my lips moving. Then in the editing, I made it even more realistic.
KFC: How long did it take to rehearse and shoot the alley fight?
DY: We shot the scene in basically five days. I choreographed it with my assistants, and then I said to Wu Jing, “If you look like too much of a traditional martial artist, it’s not going to work. So we’re taking out your signature type of moves.”
KFC: It looked very dangerous for both of you.
DY: It wasn’t that difficult. Obviously, I have the experience. I was dictating the rhythm – if he comes in too close, I step back. In the beginning he was holding back a little, but I had full confidence that I could dodge his movement. I was actually talking to him as we shot it.
KFC: Your character uses a baton against Wu Jing’s knife. What made you chose that weapon?
DY: Well, for a combination of reasons. Obviously we didn’t want to use a gun but it’s quite difficult to avoid guns in a cop movie. But a baton, that’s something a policeman uses. I knew it would be hard to use. I thought both weapons would be hard to show, to use visually, because they’re small. A lot of action directors will use short shots and close-ups to show small weapons, but I wanted to show the whole body movement instead of little pieces of it.
KFC: You stated previously that you shot a 40 second long take in the fight, but it looks like that got cut in the editing.
DY: Yeah, unfortunately.
KFC: Will we ever get to see the uncut footage, maybe on the US DVD?
DY: I don’t think so.
KFC: You used some terrific grappling techniques in the fight with Sammo Hung.
DY: That’s very difficult to shoot. It can turn into watching a UFC fight. If you shoot it too realistically, it doesn’t look right. You have to be a little cinematic.
KFC: There were a couple of amazing leg grapples, one when he’s spinning you around and you take control and throw him, and another when you jump kick him and turn it into a head lock and throw him.
DY: I just wanted to have a little fun with it.
KFC: Was it tough to film the nightclub scene? How long did it take?
DY: Nine days. We didn’t have the set to ourselves. It was a real nightclub and we only had it from 2 AM until noon. We had to be really careful not to mess it up. And Sammo’s knees were hurting!
KFC: His acting was really terrific in SPL!
DY: Yeah, I tried to keep the camera on his face, to capture his character on camera.
KFC: You’ve worked with SPL director Wilson Yip again on DRAGON TIGER GATE. Are you happy with the work you’ve done on that film?
DY: The action in DRAGON TIGER GATE will be groundbreaking! I haven’t seen any movies that were able to combine martial arts with comics in the right way. Other films didn’t highlight the action. DRAGON TIGER GATE is the closest thing to real comic book action. But it also has to be realistic. If it isn’t realistic, you don’t get drawn into that world.
KFC: Are you going to work on the recently announced SEVEN SWORDS sequel?
DY: Of course they’ve asked me. But right now I’m working on SPL 2. It’s going to be Wilson and me, and all the same production people. It’s going to be about cops in Macao, sort of like TRAINING DAY in Macao, and it will have a bigger budget than SPL. (Note: This project eventually turned into FLASH POINT (2007).) I’m talking to Mandarin Films about some projects now. After SEVEN SWORDS 2 and SPL 2 and maybe DRAGON TIGER GATE 2, we’re talking about adapting a Japanese comic book.
KFC: Will you be making a another traditional kung fu movie any time soon?
DY: I’m a little tired of traditional martial arts. I’m going to stay with contemporary style for a while. If I do a traditional martial arts film, it will emphasize character and drama, like SEVEN SWORDS. But first, I’m going to attempt to break new ground with contemporary action.
What are your thoughts or opinions for any upcoming Donnie Yen movies?