Yuen visualizes future of actioners, angels

Actresses learn to kick it up for pic

HONG KONG — It’s an unfortunate situation, but bad timing can make a director look like a copycat.

Such is the case with “So Close,” the latest movie from Hong Kong director and action choreographer Cory Yuen, who casts a trio of hot young actresses in kung fu fighting roles in a modern, urban setting. Sound familiar?

It’s familiar enough for local newspapers to dub “So Close” Yuen’s personal “Charlie’s Angels.” But Yuen says the idea to use three women came up before an updated, heavy martial arts-laden version of the popular television series “Charlie’s Angels” made it to the bigscreen.

For one, the storylines differ, with “So Close” pitching two characters against the third. Plus, says Yuen, audiences should detect a difference in the overall tone. “‘Charlie’s Angels’ has more of a comicbook feel to it,” says Yuen. “‘So Close’ focuses more on the development of human personalities.”

We’ll see about that. The plot of “So Close” may not revolve around three female private detectives following the dictates of a voice in a box, but action Hong Kong movies have a tendency towards rail-thin plots and even sketchier characters. Audiences tend to feel pretty duped storywise until some beleaguered protagonists kick, fly or shoot their way through a momentous scene, leaving everyone breathless.

For “So Close,” a $4 million pic distributed by Columbia TriStar Intl. that took three months to shoot, Yuen’s casting considerations included a list of rising and established stars, including Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) and Taiwanese songstress Coco Lee. He ended up casting Taiwanese actress Shu Qi (“Beijing Rocks”), Hong Kong singer-actress Karen Mok (“Fallen Angels”) and Chinese actress Zhao Wei (“Shaolin Soccer”). Shu and Zhao play sisters who are also assassins, hired to assist two brothers in corporate, computer-related shenanigans; Mok plays the cop tracking them.

Produced by Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia and Eastern (HK) Film Production Co., the pic opens Sept. 5 in Hong Kong and Malaysia, with Singapore and Korea slated to open in the weeks after and the U.S. early next year.

For the film, Yuen drafted writer Jeff Lau — who does double duty in Hong Kong as a director — to come up with a story and script. It was producer Chiu Po-chu who suggested that since Hong Kong male action stars like Jet Li and Jackie Chan were gravitating toward Hollywood, they should cast women in the leading roles.

Since most actresses have little or no martial arts training, that meant more work for Yuen and the actresses. Basically, the three pretty much began where the latest cast of “Charlie’s Angels” did: from scratch. “If Jet Li gives 100%, then you want 1,000%, because you know he can,” says Yuen. “But these girls didn’t know kung fu, so we had to be happy if they even got close to Jet Li.”

Yuen is hoping that the focus on “So Close” isn’t only on the action — despite it being his forte. “It’s not the action that’s important but the drama,” he says. “Like in ‘Fist of Fury,’ when Bruce Lee punches one guy, he screams, and there’s little action, but people remember the drama and the emotion.”

Yuen, who splits his time between Hong Kong and the U.S., has acted in more than 30 movies and directed more than 20. He’s had a hand in such notable Hong Kong classics as “Once Upon A Time in China” and the “Fok Sai Yuk” films. He helped propel Michelle Yeoh to fame in “Yes, Madam” in 1985 by changing her demure image, chopping her hair and having her spend time in the sun, darkening her complexion. He has collaborated with Jet Li on a number of films, most recently in “The One” and “Kiss of the Dragon.”

A master at action choreography, Yuen’s introduction to Hollywood came by the way of “Lethal Weapon 4” in 1998, and he has since had a hand in American thrillers such as “X-Men” and “Romeo Must Die.” He is mulling his next project, a Luc Besson film or a Jackie Chan movie, where he would be the action choreographer, or a sequel to “So Close” — depending on how it performs at the box office — as a director.

The future in action, says Yuen, is in computer graphics, which is already being used to enhance moves and allow a perception of stances that otherwise might not be possible. But Yuen stresses the importance of using the right moves at the right moment.

“It’s all cyclical,” he says. “Think about the stance everyone thinks about when you say ‘The Matrix’. That move was done 10 years ago. You have to think, “How can I make it look better? Films are like clothes, you have to keep up with the trends.”

No doubt Yuen will be among those defining them.

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