Friday 3 May 2013

Exclusive Interview With Peter Chan, Director Of Dragon

Peter Chan at the Cannes Film Festival 2011

Dragon (Wu Xia), after its Cannes presentation a couple of years ago, is finally out in the UK today, you can read our 5 stars review here. I was lucky enough to be able to speak to its director, Peter Chan, who was so fantastic to interview, giving some very insightful answers and paying attention to each questions. You can read it in full below

Q. With your film Dragon it has the acting credentials to rival the likes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon but that the action, the Kung Fu is more grounded. Is this a fair point to make?

Chan: Well that's probably because I'm not a real Kung Fu fan, that I do not believe in things that are not rooted in reality and I've always been a director who is better with character driven movies. I believe that to be character driven, even your Action needs to be believable because otherwise your character won't be believable. So it's just my way of personalising a Kung Fu movie, when I finally have made a Kung Fu movie.

Q. You're work with Donnie Yen, his style of Kung Fu choreography for this film, really seemed to serve the narrative of the film rather than creating an excuse for another action sequence. Was this the case for you?

Chan: I find working with Donnie Yen fascinating because he is really one of the few left that is interested in realistic combat and things that are humanly achievable. Everything is exaggerated in action films, Kung Fu films even more so. The Chinese style of martial arts films has always been about acrobatics that are completely humanly impossible. I think Ang Lee did a very good masterpiece, a benchmark for films that are not completely grounded in reality yet still have some sort of physics to it. As opposed to some Hong Kong martial arts films that are completely fantasy films. When I work with Donnie, it's good that Donnie is one of the few left, almost like Bruce Lee, very hard core action that is realistic. When I have to fit the Kung Fu into character driven films that I'm good at, I think that I'm the kind of person that would actually fast forward on a DVD or when I'm on a plane watching an action movie I would always fast forward back in the day when you could see the subtitles, whenever I didn't see subtitles I would fast forward. Then I would go back to normal speed when I saw subtitles because I need to be taken on a ride by the drama of the story. So I find a lot of Hong Kong films that are action for action's sake that don't get you involved with the character are completely boring. It doesn't matter how good the actions looks, if it doesn't hook me because it doesn't endanger the character and there isn't a reason for the fight scene, I find it very very boring. So I try my best to set up every set piece of the film - that's probably why I didn't have more action sequence than what was shot because to really qualify as a Kung Fu movie [Dragon] really should have more action but I really couldn't come up with any more excuses for action in my film. So every single action scene is pivotal to the story and the character.

Q. The setting of the film in 1917 with Old World almost Medieval China with tinges of Westernisation around the edges of the setting was it to bring in the forensic investigation that Takeshi Kaneshiro's character dectective Xu Bai uses in the film?

Chan: The very first draft, the Kaneshiro character was not written up as important as it is in the finish product. The writers never really set the time for the film. So this film could really happen in Ancient China Sung Dynasty when most martial arts films are set. First of all I didn't think the wardrobe of most martial arts films was very nice because it has been done too often. Secondly, because we added the forensic part of the film and the scientific and the medical aspect of Kung Fu action and I found that if you are going to incorporate shots like that into the internal organs even though it's not x-ray but that it would be very incoherent if you are setting those shots in the period of an Ancient Chinese setting. So I decided to make the film a little bit more contemporary so that you could have a little bit more of a Western medical influence in China and Kaneshiro's character was written up. Since we decided to change the setting to the turn of the [20th] century actually after the fall of the Ching Dynasty which is the time when Western civilisation and medicine is coming into China, it makes that place even more special because we really wanted this village to be at the edge of Chinese civilisation in a very pretty setting that is far away from the capital or any major city. In that respect I left the villagers to be as if they didn't know that the Ching Dynasty has fallen. Kanishiro's character who has come from the bigger cities has actually has already lost his [traditional long hair of Chinese look up] and has  cut his hair in the fashion of the Republic. So that sort of collage between two very distinct cultures and generations makes the setting even much more interesting. [The written narration at the start of the film] was added for the international version, it didn't need any explanation for the Chinese audience. When we worked with the Weinstein Company it was decided that for cultural differences we needed to service the Western audiences with more description about what the time is and where it's set and stuff like that.

Q. Wang Yu who plays The Master in Dragon has a long history in martial arts film. How did you decide to bring him into the film.

Chan: It's really interesting both Donnie and I we were born in the '60s and we grew up - as much as I told you that I was not a Kung Fu film fan but that was in my teens when I started to choose things, when I started to be more mature. Everybody was a Kung Fu film fan before their teens when I was a little boy. And I remember one of the first films I saw in the theatre was One Armed Swordsman and that was also one of Donnie Yen's favourite films because we were both born a couple of years apart so we are really of the same generation. The first instinct to make this film, first of all being a Hong Kong director having never made a bonified Hong Kong action film, it seemed illegitimate to be a Hong Kong film maker. This time I was really determined to make a action film and a Kung Fu film. And to choose Donnie of all the Kung Fu film stars and more importantly a Kung Fu choreographer, a Kung Fu action director, he is the one who is most grounded and I knew that I would not be able to work with others that are less grounded, who are more about fantasy action. So when we decided to work together we were looking for something that both of us would be completely taken with and we both pointed towards The One Armed Swordsman which is a classic set up of Kung Fu 1960s films. It's actually like a gangster movie, you know it's about people who are either a big martial arts hero or the number one martial artist in the world in the John Woo so called world of martial arts or convicts or villains that are in a small town trying to live a new life as a normal human being. Then how his past comes back to haunt him. That's a very classic Kung Fu story and we all started off trying to make a very traditional story, basic and simple. 

Then as we began to develop the screenplay with the writer and then with Donnie and eventually we came up with one more [thing] that would make the film a little bit more special is when we get into the Takeshi Kaneshiro's character and Western medicine and ultimately and how crime and punishment and stuff like that get to be more character driven. The set up was to make like a One Armed Swordsman traditional kind of 1960s Kung Fu action film. Our hero  of The One Armed Swordsman back in the '60s was Jimmy Wang Yu and you would think that isn't that a very natural decision that you would bring him into it. But we actually never thought of that until we had finished the screenplay and were actually on location with just days to go before filming because we weren't going to shoot the father part until near the end of the shoot so we would have a couple of months. We couldn't cast someone who had the presence and the aura and at the same time be a villain that he would scare you but at the same time he needed to be compassionate because he had to play Donnie Yen's father. And Donnie Yen has to feel sad when he has to kill him but he has mixed emotions, with that sort of casting you really can't get away with hiring a villain. So we came up with, at the last minute with the idea that was the most obvious and we should have been thinking about it a long time ago and that's Jimmy Wang Yu. I found a mutual friend that knows Jimmy Wang Yu and he called him and he came the next week for fittings and he agreed to do it on the spot. It was like the last piece of the puzzle of the film that we really needed to nail the film.

Q. Jimmy Wang Yu is really frightening....

Chan: He is really frightening. To give you a little bit more of a gossipy background, he was a very violent person when he was young. He was one of the very few - you have got to understand that it was back in the '60s and '70s, it's not like today when everything has to be politically correct and the on-screen action heroes have to be a good father and a good husband and everything. In the '60s tough guys and actors were the same. You know, he's one of the most violent actors Ever. He would get into street brawls and street fights all the time. People respect him for that because he doesn't pay other people to fight for him. He fights himself and he was on newspapers many many times for brawling with 10-20 people on his own. This guy is serious. When he came and was telling us stories about his past and violent past it is serious. And people are actually scared of him because when he's trying to fight back he would go back with an iron bar and walk into 20/30 people and he would scare everybody. That kind of rumour about Jimmy is all over the Chinese press over the last 30 years so his presence is even more frightening for Chinese audiences than it would be for you because we know who he really is.

Q. This is meant as a compliment, but there one could compare Dragon with David Cronenberg's A History of Violence in terms of story though your film is an Eastern Kung Fu take on it. Is that a fair comparison to make?

Chan: I have to admit it that I've seen A History of Violence and my first reaction [to it] was 'This is a typical action Chinese film.' But how smart was it that he [Croenberg] decided to end the film, it's almost like the first act of a Chinese film. It was simply the first act and that's the whole movie. I mean that would be the first act of a traditional Chinese martial arts movie. And I think that that was a very gutsy move. It's not even the story, it's the way that it is shot. The story is really typical and traditional but really it's the way it's shot and the choices that David Cronenberg made and I have to admit it. It was really a source of inspiration in a way and I really liked the power in that film. What I was trying to recreate, in a way that wasn't as successful was not the story, because the story is a typical story because anybody could have made that story. It was really the power or the punch in every single shot of that film that you really feel the violence and the power. I think in that respect I think that I didn't achieve even half of what David Cronenberg did.

Q. The women in your film are not just secondary characters, they are given real opportunities for strong characters.

Chan: You know I think that's like most of the women in my films. I believe that women are the strong sex. I always believe that women are tougher than men and that's probably because I'm Chinese. As submissive as Asian women are especially more so Korean, somehow they are actually tougher. They are actually submissive on the outside but their actually calling the shots on the inside. They are actually tougher than men. That's how I portray the Ayu character and I think that Tang Wei did a brilliant job in a role that is not a fat role, it's not a very comprehensive portrayal of that character. But by giving her that little story of the first husband who ran away and by wrapping the film up in the end when she finally dares to ask Donnie is he coming back from dinner, I think she did very well. Also by her very nervous almost psychotic reactions to a lot of things in the film, it almost feels like she's an accomplice who knew all along what Donnie Yen [character] did and I think that that's not the intention in the story but in some ways acted, it makes the film somehow more unnerving in a way. It makes us feel hey wait a second, as violent a past as Donnie might have this woman would go the distance and even go further to protect her family because her family is the most important [thing]. The life and death of the villagers meant nothing to her because she only wanted to protect her family. That's a pretty scary thought and that's a pretty tough woman's character. She [Tang Wei] did a brilliant job portraying that.

Q. The soundtrack to the film is very modern and even punchy. Why did you decide to go for that sort of soundtrack and not a traditional period film sweeping type of soundtrack?

Chan: It's a combination of a lot of things. First of all my standard answer is being the fact that I know there are a lot of graphics and medical aspect, the blood vessels and that wouldn't work with traditional Chinese music. And somehow the thing that popped up in my  mind when shooting the movie was a Rock sound score, I don't know why I thought Rock and Roll would work better. But more importantly this is the third, as a director second, as a producer third period Chinese film, I've never made period Chinese before. I started my character making contemporary relationship films set in todays world. When I made period films I thought it was very unnecessary to use a classic period score. I also do not relate, in my aesthetic, to Classic Chinese music. That doesn't click with my emotions. Sometimes it's not about right or wrong somehow if it doesn't click with the director, it is very hard for me to convince the audience to try to make it click. Some how it's a personal preference that I decided against a traditional Chinese score.

Q. In the film acupuncture is used almost like a weapon. Who came up for this idea in the script?

Chan: It was actually very early on that we wanted to get into the impact of every punch. But it also has some sort of personal experience too because I just turned 50 last year and a couple of years ago I started having the typical middle aged cholesterol and blood vessel problems and my blood pressure had gone up so I had to go through an MRI and stuff like that. I had to go through a lot of tests on my blood vessels and my brain vessels and also my cardio. As I was going through all of these diagrams and all of these tests, when I looked at developing this screenplay, I thought what would happen to me? I could not be as emotional as I used to be because I could have a stroke. Then, what if I were an actor and I have to be screaming and crying and get really emotional, I would have a stroke. I felt very vulnerable as a person. Then as I was developing the script I thought, oh my God, what if I was Donnie Yen and I had to fight on screen? You can't pretend that you are fighting, you really have to fight to make it look real. That would totally give me a stroke. I thought that when you do that stuff, what if a punch is the case of a cardio arrest? What if this means it could lead to a stroke? I think all of that came about as I was going through a lot of tests in the hospital. I came out and I said to the writer, lets incorporate this into the film. As we started to incorporate it into the film, as we started to develop Takeshi Kaneshiro's character, more Chinese medical science, acupuncture, acupressure and more things like that, those all came after the blood vessel stuff. All the acupressure things [in the film] are for real. We checked with Chinese doctors and even doctors in the West. We had a medical advisor on the film, not that everything would happen but theoretically, everything is theoretically correct. Not that you would really do that with that. We did check. We had an acupuncturist on set every day and I was on a hot line with a Western medical doctor about every single aspect of the film.

Q. Is it right to comment that there is very little wire work used in Dragon?

Chan: I have to admit there are some wires but I keep saying 'No wires' but I'm not really against wires. You need wires to get to a certain impact. But you really need to use wires wisely. You can't make the action look fake so that's what we try to do as much as we can. When we were doing the actions scenes, and Donnie was calling the shots [as action director] I would sit next to him and I would never understand the difference between the 5th and the 18th or the 28th take. He takes forever and to me the 3rd kick and the 28th kick looks the same. He would say no and he kept going and going and going. He was as demanding on the action scenes as I was on the drama scenes.

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