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Interview Gordon Chan, from The Big Heat to A-1
Fist of Legend, Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Chen Zhen 1/1 - Page 9
Author(s) : Thomas Podvin
David Vivier
Date : 13/1/2005
Type(s) : Interview
 Intext Links  
People :
Tom Cruise
Yasuaki Kurata
Bruce Lee
Jet Li
Yuen Cheung Yan
Yuen Clan
Yuen Shun Yee
Yuen Woo Ping
Movies :
Fist Of Fury
Fist Of Legend
The Matrix
Once Upon A Time In China
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Page 10 : Beast Cops, Anthony Wong, Michael Wong

Fist of Legend, Bruce Lee and Fist of Fury
HKCinemagic: Let’s talk about Jet Li and Fist of Legend. How did you approach this remake of a Bruce Lee’s classic?
Gordon Chan: I think the remake of a Bruce Lee’s film was another big gamble. Bruce Lee was such a great fighter and Fist of Fury was so much like a bible.
When we came up with the idea [of the film] Jet Li was scared, he said: “Are you sure? Me?” For him, to confront with the legend was hard, he thought people would hate him for that. I replied that he was Jet Lee and Bruce Lee was Bruce Lee, they are so different. But then I was going to bring Bruce Lee and his ideas along. So I posed myself as a Bruce Lee fan [to make the film], yet I didn’t like the drama of Fist of Fury because I thought that not all Japanese were evil...


Bruce Lee

HKCinemagic: It was a bit too black and white.
Gordon Chan: Yes, I mean it was so Hollywood. We needed to do something about it. That’s how I started writing the whole thing and re-creating the whole environment and that is why I put in the fact that Chen Zhen was studying engineering in Japan instead of being the illiterate guys [like in the original film]. And he has a Japanese girl friend. That was a starting point. I was trying to say that Japanese and Chinese all suffered from that war.
HKCinemagic: You create a bridge between these two cultures in your film.
Gordon Chan: Yes, and I am saying that Japanese are good martial artists too. We are all at the same level. It was the bad guys who created the conditions for the characters to fight. Even a bad guy can be a Chinese.
[SPOILER] In Fist of Legend, it was a Chinese, the most trusted guy, who betrayed everybody. [/SPOILER]
That was how I started the whole thing. I hate all these racial discriminations. I hate all these confrontations between cultures. I love to see people coming together in my films. That why I did it. I was lucky to have Yuen Woo Ping on the set, he was such a relief for me. I respect him so much and asked him to do it for me. He agreed. And we started shooting that film. It was a nice experience.
Jet Li and Yuen Woo Ping
HKCinemagic: On the set of Fist of Legend, how did you communicate with Jet Li?
Gordon Chan: He is such a nice actor. He is the kind of actors who really puts himself at the director’s service. He just places himself in your hand and say “do whatever you want to do”. He was the boss of the film; he produced the film and he came up with the money. But he never used that power. It’s not like when “Cruise control” is on the set [Ed.: actor Tom Cruise has an on-set control freak reputation]. Not Jet Li. Never. He never ever used that power.

On Fist of Legend, Jet was [just] an actor and a very obedient one at that. He never second-guessed me. Even he came up with a second opinion, we would start discussing and he would leave the final decision to me. He is such a professional; I loved to shoot with Jet.

Jet Li

HKCinemagic: Does it mean there could be a chance for another film with him?
Gordon Chan: Yes, I’d love to shoot with him again.
HKCinemagic: How did you work out the action scenes with Yuen Woo Ping?
Gordon Chan: We didn’t want it to be like the Bruce Lee’s movie. We wanted to come up with a new Jet Li’s film. First, we gave up the high-pitched cat screamings. All the Bruce Lee style went away. So what do we do with Jet? How do we portray his power?
HKCinemagic: Jet Li in the film is very quiet and very fast when he strikes.
Gordon Chan: Yes, he’s precise.
HKCinemagic: While Bruce Lee is very violent and loud.
Gordon Chan: Bruce Lee was like a lion among sheep. Jet is always playing defence actually.
HKCinemagic: At the beginning of Fist of Legend, Jet is attacked in a classroom but he doesn’t kill anyone, he just breaks limbs.
Gordon Chan: Right, and the Japanese master comes to fix everybody. In fact I think the film embodies the philosophy of martial arts. It’s only for self-defence, you only use it when you have to, you don’t go to the weak, you only go to the strong guys. Yuen and I talked about this. And it proves that he is an excellent martial arts director, he doesn’t only do the action, he also discusses the whole concept of the movie with you. Different people have different concept for martial arts. That’s why when I planned the scenes between Jet and the old master [Ed.: played by Yasuaki Kurata], he was happy, he knew he’d have fun with this. And he was really having fun with that. The whole dialogue between Jet and the old Japanese represents ideas about martial arts and they were Bruce Lee’s ideas. It was Bruce Lee’s own understanding of martial arts. It was my turn to have fun: sure, I can’t fight but I really appreciate all this philosophy, and I put it all back into a martial arts film. Fist of Legend was really about martial arts.

Fight against Yasuaki Kurata

So Yuen Woo Ping was really having fun, but he had a really hard time, WE had a real hard time trying to find the right balance between the  very extreme of Bruce Lee’s type of action and the pretty action of Wong Fei-hung [Ed.: This is the Chinese name for Once Upon A Time In China(OUATIC) (1991), which was also choreographed by the Yuen clan, Yuen Cheung Yan, Yuen Shun Yee and also starred Jet Li]. Most of the film [OUATIC] was actually like dancing. It was good looking but yet it wasn’t about real power at all. So we had a lot of discussion about how to do the action in Fist of Legend and to show real power. I still remember one thing we came up with and I was happy about. When Jet stopped a guy kicking him with one punch to the foot, and the guy was pushed back, it kind of tells you how powerful his fist is. What’s more, he wasn’t using his legs yet in the fight.

So the action was well designed and well discussed. We discussed it for a long time: what can be done and how.

HKCinemagic: On the set, were there any injuries or accidents?
Gordon Chan: A lot. I am telling you, there were so many injuries on the set, I was so scared. I was sitting by Yuen Woo Ping and he is always like that: “Cut! The dead guy, his leg is really hurting. Next one.” Next guy. At one point I patted on Yuen’s shoulder - I call him ‘Ba Ye’ - “Ba Ye, I think it is good enough.” He replied: “It’s not good enough.” “They already had enough,” I said. He said: “This is part of our job. Don’t worry, they are used to it. Let’s do it.” I learnt so much with him, and I respect him a lot and I also learnt to respect martial arts during that period. It wasn’t like he didn’t care at all, he cares so much about his guys. But [this time] the injuries were simply a lot more than what we had expected. There were all those stuntmen with patches everywhere. Yuen Woo Ping said: “No, they are trained to suffer. They should show their best.”

One of the major difficulties then is that we still didn’t have control monitors at that time (1994). So when we saw all these action scenes, we had to dependent on our own eyes, on whether that fist worked, whether it touched the face or not, whether it was powerful or not. It’s a lot easier now because we can play back the video, and watch the monitor and say if it’s a good or a bad take. But Yuen Woo Ping was tough [on the set].

HKCinemagic: Jet Li took something from the Bruce Lee’s style. When he fights the whole school, someone comes behind him…
Gordon Chan: Yes, he just grabs [his privates] and throws him away.

Bruce Lee's special stance

HKCinemagic: Was it Jet Li who brought this idea?
Gordon Chan: No. It was basically a tribute to Bruce, because [this move] was so famous. (Laughing) The male viewer would kind of feel it a bit.
Chen Zhen
HKCinemagic: Talk about the ambiguous end of the film. Is Chen Zhen a spy?
Gordon Chan: No, I just didn’t want him to die. I wanted him to keep on living in everybody’s eyes.

Chen Zhen 
HKCinemagic: But with this open ending, did you and Jet Li have an idea for another episode?
Gordon Chan: Basically, no. When I watched the first Fist of Fury, it was sad. When I exited the theatre, it felt like a weight on the stomach. No way I was going to let my Chen Zhen dies. It was like my fantasy. Chen Zhen never dies. In fact he didn’t! Not in History.
HKCinemagic: Your film was full of hope compared to the original.
Gordon Chan: Exactly. It was about hope, it was about if only we can work together, if only we can contribute no matter who we are, we can still preserve the peace, stop the war. Basically the whole story was about stopping the war, [from the] Japanese and Chinese [side].
HKCinemagic: In the original film, Chen Zhen arrives in Shanghai and finds out that his master was killed. From there he goes ballistic.
Gordon Chan: Yes, it was about killing everyone. Whenever he sees a Japanese or anybody who speaks Japanese, he kills him. So what kind of hope does it give?

A very unhappy Chen Zhen

HKCinemagic: At least, when the film was released in the 1970s it was acceptable. But if you have done this kind of film in 1994, I wonder if it would have been unacceptable.
Gordon Chan: No. In fact I was asked why I did change it: “It was fun anyway [to kill some] Japanese!” so I was told. In fact the environment in China nowadays is still the same as back then. They still hate Japanese a lot. There is a strong anti-Japanese sentiment. I have no problem criticizing the Japanese imperialism and military, but not Japanese [people]. It just doesn’t make sense. This is dangerous. This racial confrontation is dangerous. I hate all this.

Dojo fight

HKCinemagic: Were you happy with the end product?
Gordon Chan: When the film came out it wasn’t a very good box office success. It was so so. [Ed.: Fist of Legend made HKD 14.8 millions at the box office in 15 days, between 22/12/94 and 05/01/95 and was 17th out of 164. In comparison, in 1994 the box office winner was God of Gamblers Return, which grossed HKD 52 millions.]
The critics didn’t even bother to criticize. They didn’t even mention the film. A couple of good friends of mine who were critics said that it was so lame and asked what I was trying to do. I was so disappointed because nobody ever mentioned my re-writing of the historical aspects of it or of the human aspects of it. It was two years later when a professor wrote in his article about those aspects. I became a very good friend of that professor later on. I told him that the article he wrote showed that my film wasn’t a waste. Otherwise, my film was a waste, nobody ever noticed. With that box office, the film didn’t lose money but it didn’t make much either. [After all,] Jet Li was supposed to be a superstar, supposed to be a box-office record breaker. But the box office was just average, I went to Jet Li and apologised to him. I was so grateful that Jet told me it was OK and it was one of the best films he ever shot.
HKCinemagic: Indeed, you can be proud, you made one of Jet Li’s best movies.
Gordon Chan: Yes, and eventually almost ten years later, and it was almost a couple of years ago Quentin [Tarantino] came to HK and went to Jet [Ed.: Probably in 2003]. Jet told me that they spent the whole night talking about Fist of Legend, and Quentin remembers every lines of it! Jet said : “You know what, maybe that film did something for me after all.”
HKCinemagic: The Wachowski brothers were also influenced by it for The Matrix and hired Yuen Woo Ping. I guess this was a good sign for you too.
Gordon Chan: Yes, so this is why I always say don’t take something as a waste when you finish something. Maybe it’s bad then, but eventually it will come out positive. When some French told me it was going to be released in France, I was so surprised [Ed.: The film was distributed by Metropolitan Filmexport in France on 13/06/2001].

Two years ago, I was in Cannes, I went to one of the parties and I saw I think almost ten French youngsters who came up to me and suddenly kneel down and bowed to me. [Ed.: It wasn’t this editor]. I said : “What are you guys doing, you must be mistaken with somebody else.” They said “Fist of Legend!” I was so happy. Fist of Legend was such a fruitful experience and you never know how things can turn up.
HKCinemagic: The Matrix was a huge success because of you…
Gordon Chan: Was it? No, it was thanks to Yuen Woo Ping.
HKCinemagic: Anyway, the success of Fist of Legend was due to an excellent team work.
Gordon Chan: I guess the director’s main job is to create some reasons, some means to work for everybody. There are supposed to be motives behind all actions and shots. What are the motives? Even action directors need motives. So I guess a director’s job is to create the right motives for them so they really grasp why they are doing it for.

For Fist of Legend, I am proud of it. [I was involved in many aspects of the film] Because I designed the poster -- Jet Li standing there. I also design the costume too, insisted that Jet Li wore it, because before he was Wong Fei-hung.


Fist of Legend, Chinese poster

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