How Hong Kong action films are made: directors including John Woo, Benny Chan and Wong Kar-wai on their craft

“We’ll look at it together again, then I’ll go and hide away somewhere and fix everything, including the dialogue.

For Victim, I went off to Bangkok for five days.”

Ringo Lam Ling-tung in an interview with the Post in 1999. Photo: SCMP
Peter Chan Ho-sun on how a drama director should prepare for shooting an action film like “ The Warlords”:

“Action films require choreographers, stunt doubles, and so on, and that just complicates the whole filmmaking process more. When the number of people on the set is high, the relationships are not as close, and that’s not great for dealing with emotional scenes.

“That’s why I have shied away from them – it’s always been hard for me to imagine making a film with so many people.”

Peter Chan Ho-sun in an interview with the Post in 1995. Photo: SCMP

The late action maestro Benny Chan Muk-sing on having a large team:

“I prefer shooting action scenes [to dramatic scenes] as you have got a lot of people to share your burden.

“It allows you more time to think – I am a very slow thinker!” he told the Post.

If there is too much drama in an action film, it may upset the action fans

Benny Chan

“Ip Man” director Wilson Yip Wai-shun on establishing your own directorial styleor not:

“Style is just a signboard that you hang up. I don’t worry about establishing a style for my movies.

“If you put my movies together, there will definitely be something that proves they all come out of me.

Wilson Yip Wai-shun in an interview with the Post in 2004. Photo: SCMP

“But I don’t think it’s good to focus on the things that are shaping my style. Slow motion is, of course, John Woo’s style, but I feel that in his later works, he uses slow motion for the sake of it. Is that good?”

The legendary King Hu discussing how to plan a martial arts shoot:

“Before we began shooting [ Come Drink with Me], we had a rehearsal organised for the wushu experts we had hired. The goals were sevenfold – first to see if the actors could actually execute the moves, and second to give the props man a good idea of where to use real props and where to use fakes.
King Hu (left) demonstrates a move to actor Roy Chiao in a still from “The King of Wuxia”. Photo: Qixia Films

“But the most important goal was to prepare safety measures for when the actors performed especially dangerous moves. Finally, we determined in advance which moves would require stunt doubles.”

Martial arts fan Wong Kar-wai on using the action to tell a story:

“The traditional martial arts film has the goal of stimulating the viewers’ senses. With Ashes of Time, I wanted the senses to also be means of expressing the characters’ feelings.
Wong Kar-wai, pictured in 1995. Photo: SCMP
“When Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia is playing with the sword, it’s a dance. When I filmed Tony Leung Chiu-wai, the blind warrior, in slow motion, I showed his fatigue as he faces his life, which is symbolised by the weight of his sword.”

Benny Chan on keeping the focus on the action:

“It’s difficult to strike a balance [between action and drama]. If there is too much drama in an action film, it may upset the action fans.”

Benny Chan on the set of “Gen-Y Cops” in 2000. Photo: SCMP

Famed choreographer Yuen Woo-ping on how to train the actors:

“In Hong Kong, if the movie stars are experienced, they all know a little bit of kung fu, so they just rehearse on the set during the shoot. They can shoot right away.

“Here in the US, the Western actors don’t know kung fu so they have to rehearse, maybe three months ahead,” Yuen told martial-arts film director, producer and screenwriter Martha Burr.

“[In the US], I have six assistants from Hong Kong to help. The six assistants do the basic training and then I do the main movements for the film.

Yuen Woo-ping on the set of “Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy” in 2017.

“I will observe the actor to get an idea of how far he or she can go, and then design the action specifically for him or her. We get an idea of each person’s ability, and then we decide.”

“A Man Called Hero” director Andrew Lau Wai-keung on the proper use of special effects:

“We still place priority on the script first and then incorporate the special effects into the story. We have never wavered from that, but we have to consider that sometimes the audience likes to see certain things.

Andrew Lau Wai-keung in an interview with the Post in 1999. Photo: SCMP

“A lot of factors play a part – the lighting and the art direction, for example. We don’t tell ourselves we have to have ‘X’ number of effects; it’s actually a combination of all the factors working together.”

Versatile director Gordon Chan Kar-seung on how to work withor not work withmartial arts choreographers:

“I have to use a martial arts choreographer for the fight scenes, but I always work closely with him.

“In Hong Kong, when the martial arts choreographers take over, the real directors leave. There is a lot of pressure to do that, but I always stay. I don’t do the choreography, but I try and set the tone of the scene.

Gordon Chan Kar-seung in an interview with the Post in 2008. Photo: SCMP
“I had a hard time shooting [ Jet Li Lianjie’s] Fist of Legend, as I asked the martial arts choreographers not to shoot too much combat footage – I didn’t need too much fighting, as I was focused on the human drama.

“But they just kept on shooting fight after fight, saying that we needed more to satisfy the audience. I said that I was there to tell a good story, and that would satisfy the viewers, but the choreographers were not convinced.”

Ang Lee on the rigours of making a martial arts movie:

“We shot Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon around the clock with two teams. I didn’t take one break in eight months, not even for half a day. I was miserable – I just didn’t have the energy to be happy.
Ang Lee on the set of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” in 1999. Photo: SCMP

“Near the end, I could hardly breathe. I thought I was going to have a stroke. It was bad.

“Six months later I am resting now, trying to get fit again. But since I’m middle-aged, I’ll probably never get back to normal.”

In this regular feature series on the best of Hong Kong cinema, we examine the legacy of classic films, re-evaluate the careers of its greatest stars, and revisit some of the lesser-known aspects of the beloved industry.

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