He’s A Different Person: Tsui Hark on Jet Li and a Chinese Expendables

His IMAX 3D feature Flying Swords of Dragon Gate is coming this weekend. Plus: who is the new Wong Fei-Hung?

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


Tsui Hark’s latest Hong Kong action movies comes to America for a one week run in Imax 3D. Flying Swords of Dragon Gate reteams Tsui with Jet Li, his star in the Once Upon a Time in China series. The epic historical action tells a new take on the Dragon Inn myth. We got to speak with Tsui by phone one morning, which means he was just wrapping a day on the set in Hong Kong.  


CraveOnline: What film are you currently shooting?

Tsui Hark: I’m shooting Detective Dee, a prequel movie. Actually, it’s funny. It’s a prequel to Detective Dee. It’s a younger version of Detective Dee, a relative with a history of the Phantom Flame. In the other movie he’s played by Andy Lau, but this is another one. This is a different detective. It’s a new guy, a young guy, Mark Chao. Actually I think it’s another story.


Is it still connected to The Phantom Flame?

It’s about the mystery of the Phantom Dragon. It’s supposed to be a mystery of a monster appearing in the capital in the 7th Century in China. It was meant to be a dragon but it’s not. Anyway, it’s a very mysterious case for the detective.


With Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, what was it like directing Jet Li again all these years after the Once Upon a Time in China movies?

Actually, once he made movies in Hollywood, I was really missing him a lot. I thought that maybe in some years, we’d work together again. So when I had this project, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, I was curious if he had time for the movie. I found out actually he was also looking to work with me again. So we said yes, let’s try to work together one more time. Then after the movie finished, we are planning to do it again. Hopefully we can have another project come up soon.


Can he still do all the moves you want him to do?

Yes. I think he’s a different person now. I think he is more mature and he has a lot of ideas of what the movie is about. Of course, for action, I think he would do a different kind of action. Before, he would do a lot of very drastic up and down [moves.] Now he’s more calm and controlled. Also he’s a very religious person. Something that [I] did see him doing, if he tried to ride a horse, he would touch the horse. If he used a sword, he would touch and connect to the sword. I was kind of enjoying the experience of him. I think he’s a quite different person. I enjoyed it very much.


This is the first Chinese Imax movie I’ve ever seen. What is the Imax industry in Asia?

Imax has been doing very well in China. I think people really want to see things differently and Imax is a different experience. It’s having great results in the last couple years. Especially for Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, it had a very good record for the movie. This is one of the things that I think they’re very ambitious to do more Chinese movies in Imax format.


In Hollywood, they like to use 3D to show depth and how far back things go. In Hong Kong are filmmakers like you more interested in things that come out of the screen as well?

I think with 3D, we want to feel like they really exist in a space that is not 2D. 3D gives you the depth of volume, where sometimes you feel like you can touch something. If something’s coming out from the screen, you actually feel like you want to touch it. I know that a lot of people are pretty much against things flying out of the screen, but I was really tempted to do that all the time. I think when I was a kid, I really enjoyed seeing things flying off the screen. I would think that would be something we have to do at least once to make you feel the excitement. I’m not controlling myself in the movie. I tried to generate a more exciting kind of shot with things flying out so people can reach it.


I loved when his bandana was blowing in the wind and it came out at us.

Right, right. Something we tried to create through the 3D, the new tools, is a new experience. I learned so much. I think this is one of the things that I treasure very much, that I can use this technique to make a movie.


You used to do fight scenes with real ladders and now it looks like the ladders are visual effects. Were you paying homage to the Hong Kong style of 20 years ago?

Well, I think we want to proceed from one stage to another. I think we tried to enhance the sensation of watching a movie. Before, there were several methods when you have to design an action scene. In the theory actually to use the space. So you fight inside an area, actually you have to make use of space in the structure so that you feel like the action would bring you into the environment with the characters. So then you sort of live through a realistic experience in the story. This is one of the ideas or concepts or theory that we use. Every time we start to do action, this is one of the choices we can select to use or not to use. For example, we still think that when you start designing an action scene, you design it to a structure of the space that you have in your head or you design in your head. We always use it as the way to create or design action. So it is not something where we said, “Okay, this is like we do it physically real on a set or we do it with visual effects afterwards.” Actually, the important thing is that the purpose to design the action is to design a new sensation for the audience to look at a story. The decision can be either use a prop on the set or you can use visual effects and put the graphics in later. I believe this is something we all try to change from time to time. For example, we perceive something that we experience so much, we don’t want to see it again. This is quite a common practice when we do action. For example, in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, we have a scene at the Dragon Inn where the girl is fighting with a guy. The guy was holding a turning table. We did it because we had an accident where we had a shot of this table that spins towards the camera. It was not originally designed that way. I thought that was an interesting idea, a guy holding a turning table and fighting with a girl, that would be quite a good idea. That’s why we used a table. The table was actually a real thing on the set. It created such trouble for the action team who tried to design something using a table. That’s how an action sequence happens.


One of the popular movies in America is The Expendables which Jet Li is in. Do you think there should be an all Chinese Expendables with Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun-fat and all of your stars?

Well, I always think if it’s necessary, we should do it but the only thing is a movie star can already create such a charisma with their own personality and their charm. Each one of them can already have enough charm on the screen. I don't think it’s really necessary to put all of them together in one show and then later you see them again alone on the screen and you feel like they should be starring in a movie. This might not be a necessary thing.


That’s a really good point.

Yes, actually, you sort of make them all come together and then next time you don’t feel any sensation anymore.


Are you still working on a new Wong Fei-Hung movie?

Yes. I’m trying to write a new story about Wong Fei-Hung and I wish I could come up with a good idea. I’m writing it now.


Who are some of the new martial artists who could be the new Wong Fei-Hung?

This is a new guy and I hope he can do it. Actually, we’re trying to cast him as the new Master Wong Fei-Hung and if we can move things according to his time table, I think we should start the project really soon.


Is this someone we haven’t met yet, who hasn’t been in movies before?

He has been in movies before but he’s not very famous. Action-wise, he’s very good and he’s a very charming personality. I think he’s a good choice for the new Master Wong Fei-Hung.


Can you tell us his name?

I think we have to keep it a secret.


With Detective Dee, why did you decide to do a prequel and not a sequel with Andy Lau?

Well, the intention of why, actually the investors think that they want to try a young version of Detective Dee which I think is also an interesting idea. I think because you would have Andy Lau playing Detective Dee and we were always very attracted to the idea of how Detective Dee became a detective originally. It has to be something very interesting, how he becomes a smart guy who cracks all the cases. So when we created Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, we always talked about how he started his career. That’s why we start with a young version of Detective Dee.


You were one of many directors who came to America working with Jean-Claude Van Damme. Why was Van Damme the vehicle for so many Hong Kong filmmakers to make American films?

I think one of the big reasons is because Van Damme worked with Moshe. Moshe Diamant is the producer who had produced a lot of Van Damme movies and he was very aware of what’s going on in Hong Kong movies. That’s why he got quite a lot of Hong Kong directors to work for his project, and his projects always ended up with Van Damme.