Last year Fantastic Fest further canonized its commitment to the legacy of cinema by instituting the Lifetime Achievement Award. True to form, the filmmakers recognized not only contributed to the scope of film as a whole, but whose careers are fraught with the kind of total genre experiences that reinforce the core values of this festival. The first recipient was the master of undeniably artistic sleaze: Jess Franco ('Venus in Furs'). This year saw awards bestowed to true living legends: Roger & Julie Corman and Yuen Woo-ping.
For those of you unfamiliar with this demigod of the martial arts world, Yuen Woo-ping's most universally recognized work would be the fight choreography on 'The Matrix'. But though arguably his most career-defining film, Woo-ping has been turning heads, and shattering bones, for nearly 40 years. In honor of his award, and in acknowledgment of the breadth of his film catalog, Fantastic Fest programmed both a brand new Woo-ping film ('True Legend') as well as his directorial debut ('Snake in the Eagle's Shadow') as a repertory screening.
Snake in the Eagle's Shadow
Jackie Chan has made a name for himself as sort of the clown prince of martial arts. But while this distinction is not unearned, it can sometimes overshadow his technical merits in the artform. Of all Jackie Chan's early work, the two films to strike that perfect balance between his signature silliness and his spectacular physical prowess were both directed by Yuen Woo-ping: 'Drunken Master' and 'Snake in the Eagle's Shadow'. It is such a rarity that any director is able to create a classic of his particular genre on the very first try, but I'll be a drunken monkey's uncle if 'Snake in the Eagle's Shadow' isn't basic curriculum for an education in martial arts cinema.
In terms of distinctive style or individual voice, there are two things to take away from 'Snake in the Eagle's Shadow'. The first is that Yuen Woo-ping's fight choreography is as balletic as it is frantic. It involves scores of absolutely beautiful movements that are impeccably-timed and executed with such vigorous pace that the finite intricacies are easily overlooked. If you are fortunate enough to find yourself revisiting 'Snake in the Eagle's Shadow', take special notice of his utilization of extreme angles. His warriors are apt to drop as close to the ground as possible and contort their bodies in bizarre, but utterly effective poses. The gross effect is a battle between fighters who seem to gracefully swim through the air.
The other element of 'Snake in the Eagle's Shadow' that would come to identify Yuen Woo-ping is the relationship between eccentric, but highly skilled, master and reluctant, arrogant student. Now granted, I am in no way suggesting that Woo-ping invented this martial arts convention as it is actually tied in more with Chinese history and culture than any one filmmaker. But I truly believe that he is the one that perfected the long-form disciple story and the extended training sequences. As amazing as the fights in 'Snake in the Eagle's Shadow' or 'Drunken Master' are, what really drives these films is the experience of watching Jackie Chan burgeon from bumbling novice to competent master whose potential is fully realized; all the while comically suffering well-intentioned abuse from his teacher.
'True Legend' is a film of much greater scope and ambition than 'Snake in the Eagle's Shadow', and that's to be expected given the evolution of Yuen Woo-ping's career and his meteoric rise even in the mainstream community after the release of 'The Matrix.' But the foundation established in that first film carried over beautifully into his subsequent work. The extreme angles? Ask yourself how Neo avoids those bullets on that rooftop in 'The Matrix'; a back-breakingly perfect 90° angle if I'm not mistaken. 'True Legend' carries on this angular fascination in a few choice moments, but peppers in some variations that are incredibly interesting. While we still see moments wherein fighters drop into their low stances and seemingly dance their way through a battle, we also see Yuen Woo-ping dabbling in serious swordplay and even some Muay Thai.
As far as the master/pupil relationship, Yuen Woo-ping has not lost a step. Outside of 'The Empire Strikes Back', it's hard to contemplate a more fantasy-laden, elegantly-told grand old master story than those created by Yuen Woo-ping. The training sequences in 'True Legend', much as you would expect from an artist like him at this stage in his career, are far more grandiose and fantastic, but the core mastery of the more intimate storytelling is alive and well.
As film fans, it is important that we stay connected with the history of our favorite genres and how the icons of those genres have shaped and honed them. Yuen Woo-ping is long overdue for accolades and it is so fitting that he receive this award at this festival. The two Woo-ping films selected for Fantastic Fest 2010 transcend obligatory primacy and recency and serve as poignant bookends that illustrate the legacy of a true master.