Iron family values at the heart of Ronny Yu's latest film
The best-played Ronny Yu breaks hiatus with action film about family values
A filmography where hit martial arts dramas like Fearless can sit alongside Hollywood horror flicks like Bride of Chucky is testament to his protean tendencies - but these days Ronny Yu Yan-tai professes to have become more selective.
Not even a recent offer to helm a sequel to Ang Lee's Oscar-winning film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon enticed the 63-year-old filmmaker.
"I turned down [producer] Harvey Weinstein for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2 because for me … Lee is the best director of my generation," says Yu, 63. "He's fearless. He can tackle any subject matter with heart.
"So I said to Weinstein, 'Harvey, Crouching Tiger 1 is a classic. Classics should [be] put aside and admired. You don't mess around with a classic'."
He has also avoided the type of horror movies that made him famous in Hollywood (his last was Freddy vs. Jason in 2003), "not because I don't appreciate horror movies … I [just] need not repeat myself".
Nothing seemed quite worth it since Fearless in 2006, he says. That is until producer Raymond Wong Pak-min came knocking three years ago with a proposal that reignited Yu's imagination. It was a film about the Song dynasty Yang military clan, which became legendary for producing men and women generals who served the emperor with distinction.
The project neither required him to repeat himself artistically, nor take the same beaten path as his contemporaries.
So he immediately threw himself into making Saving General Yang, which had its world premiere at the Hong Kong International Film Festival on March 28.
"I went back and read the story books, the history. I read everything - almost everything - and after, I thought, 'Wow, it touches me'," Yu says.
Apart from being co-producer and director, Yu also co-wrote the script with Edmond Wong Chi-woon and Scarlett Liu, known in Cantonese as Lau Sze-ka, to ensure that the story would focus on family values.
"You don't have to understand the historical [details and theories]," Yu says. "You only need to understand that this is the story of seven sons who, against all odds, try to bring their father back home" after he finds himself trapped behind enemy lines - like in Saving Private Ryan.
The emphasis on loyalty and love for the clan, which the Yangs also showed in their fealty to the emperor, resonates with Yu, who is proud of having a close-knit family.
He happily talks about his elderly mother, who is enjoying life in Australia, and makes sure to introduce his wife when she briefly interrupts the interview to bring Yu some lunch.
Unlike other interpretations of Yang lore, Wong chose not to focus solely on the female side of the military clan, as was the case in the Shaw Brothers production The 14 Amazons (1972) and Frankie Chan Fan-kei's The Legendary Amazons (2011).
"This is basically a story about a family - the Yang family," Yu says.
Revered over the centuries for his kin's bravery, the Yang patriarch (portrayed in Saving General Yang by veteran actor Adam Cheng Siu-chow) was a real-life historical figure whose military exploits included skirmishes in the northern border areas against the nomadic Khitans.
His sons, played by Canto-pop singer/actor Ekin Cheng Yi-kin, mainland actor Yu Bo and Brunei-born Taiwanese star Wu Chun among others, go off to try and rescue their father at the behest of their mother.
When asked about his casting choices, Yu quips: "I just want to get the pretty boys. I don't care whether he's from China, Taiwan, Singapore or Hong Kong. Because for me, I just thought, 'These are young heroes. I want them to look good, especially for myself - I want to please my own eye'."
All his decisions, he explains with more seriousness, "are not from Ronny Yu the director or Ronny Yu the filmmaker, but Ronny Yu the paying audience. That is my philosophy."
And his identification with audiences runs much deeper, sharing with them the drive for catharsis through escapism.
Growing up, Yu, who contracted polio when he was nine months old, felt a physical inadequacy that was compensated for by a mind rich in imagination. He dreamed of making films.
"I love watching movies. I want to be entertained … because I want to get away from my own personal suffering," he says. "I had polio. I have no idea how to walk [normally]. I'm deprived of that experience.
"For me, going into a cinema, into that dark house, I can escape … from people staring at me, I can escape from people [saying], 'Look at the handicapped guy, look at the way he walks'."
He realised his childhood dream when he made his directorial debut with Philip Chan Yan-kin in 1979 with The Servants, which the pair co-wrote. The drama was based on Chan's experiences as a superintendent in the anti-triad squad of the Royal Hong Kong Police Force.
Starring Paul Chu Kong, it went on to become the No1 hit that summer, and helped cement Yu's foothold in the local dream factory.
Then the hits kept coming, including the 1993 romantic action-fantasy The Bride with White Hair.
"The entertainment factor, for me, is vital," Yu says. "On the other hand, I don't believe it should be stupid entertainment. It still can have a message, it still can [be] an inspiration. It might not change people's lives, but at least it inspires them to think about their lives."
He hopes to have achieved just that with Saving General Yang, which he envisioned as "a cool, action-packed movie" with an unforgettable theme.
"I hope that young audiences will be moved by this story, the way that I was when I first read it."
And if viewers leave the cinema taking with them a lesson about the importance of loving their families, then Ronny Yu will have felt like he did some saving of his own.
Saving General Yang opens Thursday