Early 20th-century swordsmen, rubber-clad superheroes, boxers, generals from The Romance of the Three Kingdoms - Daniel Lee Yan-kong has done them all, and more, since he began directing films. But the self-confessed wuxia geek admits that it's only with 14 Blades that he has made a film with a central character who ticks all the boxes as his ultimate fighter.
The film's English title refers to the number of weapons his protagonist, an imperial guardsman called Qinglong, carries at all times. That arsenal speaks volumes about his moral complexity: five blades are for killing; eight are for torturing his victims and one is for killing himself in case of failure.
Not just your ordinary period-film action hero, Qinglong is a member of the Jinyiwei. Founded in the late 14th century by the Ming dynasty's first emperor, Zhu Yuanchang, as his imperial guard, the corps - nicknamed the 'eagles and dogs' of the royal court - soon grew into the secret police of its day, detaining, interrogating and murdering dissidents with impunity.
'They were so powerful they were above the law,' says Lee. 'They were the most capable assassins in the land, and they allied themselves to a tyrannical regime.'
That complicity ends for Qinglong (played by Donnie Yen Ji-dan) when he discovers the Jinyiwei's commanders - the corrupted eunuch Jia (Law Kar-ying) and the evil Prince Qing (Sammo Hung Kam-bo) - are plotting to overthrow the emperor. Unwilling to bend to the usurpers' wills, Qinglong goes into exile with Qiaohua (Vicky Zhao Wei), the daughter of a safe-house proprietor.
As he plots his course through the political wilderness, trying to restore the emperor to the throne, he is ambushed by a wide array of foes, including Prince Qing's adopted daughter Tuotuo (Kate Tsui Tsz-shan), a murderous monk (former Shaw Brothers action star Chen Kuan-tai) and his previous lieutenant, Xuan Wu (Qi Yuwu).
'Qinglong was raised to be a killer,' says Yen, who trod similar territory in Tsui Hark's 1992 film New Dragon Gate Inn, in which he plays an official of the Dongchang, another dissent-crushing institution of the Ming dynasty. 'He's numbed his feelings and emotions because they only make him vulnerable. But I believe anyone - even someone as detached as Qinglong - has fire in his heart, and once it's ignited his emotions only grow stronger.'
True acts of valour emerge only in perilous times, Lee says. 'Emotions are magnified in times of upheaval. Heroic virtues are more acknowledged and cherished when placed against a historical backdrop dominated by corruption, injustice and assassination.'
At the heart of 14 Blades lies a love story: just as Qinglong begins to question his morals, he falls for Qiaohua, whom he first sees as a useful device for his own escape. This is not the first time that Lee has woven romance into his action-packed works. The 1999 police procedural thriller Moonlight Express hinged on the budding emotional ties between an undercover cop (played by Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing) and a lovelorn Japanese woman (Takako Tokiwa), who mistakes him for her deceased boyfriend. And in 2000's A Fighter's Blues, a down-and-out boxer finds his anguish alleviated by the attentions of a Japanese nun (Tokiwa again).
'For me, action scenes are just part of a cinematic language to help tell the story better and flesh out stronger characters - the storytelling has always been the core of my concerns,' says Lee. 'If I can make audiences' hearts sink when they see swords cutting into wrists, it's a success for me, as it makes people care about the characters.'
Having played gung-ho heroes in more than 80 films, Yen says the romantic interludes are the most intriguing and challenging. 'To me, action scenes are easy,' he says. 'But I've been exploring [other aspects of acting]. I believe it's emotions and feelings that make characters more vivid and loveable.'
Lee's emphasis on good acting is illustrated by the presence of Damian Lau Chung-yan, Wu Ma and Chen Kuan-tai, veterans known for their physical dexterity and acting chops in classic wuxia films from the 1970s.
'It's not easy to find good actors for kung fu films,' the director says. 'You can really tell from one's body language, gesture and costumes whether he has received real training or is merely following the choreographers' moves.'
Lee grew up watching Shaw Brothers' martial arts films. He eventually adapted one of his favourites, Chang Cheh's One-Armed Swordsman, into What Price Survival, his directorial debut in 1994, after spending his first years in the industry writing television serials and then working on production design for films.
Survival brought him to the attention of other filmmakers and he soon teamed up with Tsui Hark on a Wong Fei-hung television series and then Black Mask, which stars Jet Li Lianjie as a paranormal gangbuster dressed in black latex. From there, Lee returned to more earthly matters with a string of action films set in the grittier milieu of modern life, with Moonlight Express and A Fighter's Blues followed by Star Runner (a prequel to Blues) and police thriller Dragon Squad.
The dragon remained in his next film, albeit only in name. Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon in 2007 saw Lee straying into bombastic, historical epic territory, as he adapted Luo Guanzhong's literary classic into a sepia-toned spectacle starring Andy Lau Tak-wah and Maggie Q.
Action-film directors must change with the times, Lee and Yen say. 'Audiences now have higher expectations,' says Yen. 'In the past, action scenes alone did the trick. Now they are looking for films with magnificent action choreography, a dramatic storyline, good-looking stars and a promotional package.'
It's up to Lee to deliver the grail.
14 Blades opens on Thursday