Early this year, Hong Kong film director Ronny Yu Yan-tai was working on a project in British Columbia, Canada. He and his crew were shooting on location in an abandoned mine when he was approached by a couple of curious tourists. 'One was from Finland and another from Britain,' Yu says. 'They asked what we were doing and I told them we were making a film.' When they inquired what movie was being shot, Yu, in all seriousness, said 'Freddy vs Jason'. 'They burst into laughter right in front of me and the crew,' Yu continues. 'But I didn't feel bad, I told everyone this was all the more reason for us to take our jobs seriously.' It's hard not to treat the subject matter lightly. After all, it's a gruesome horror movie featuring the main characters of the genre's longest-running franchises: Nightmare On Elm Street and Friday The 13th. Movies that, at best, are popular Friday-night video rentals. But Yu is getting the last laugh: Freddy vs Jason was the number-one film for two weeks when it opened in the United States in August. A series of successful screenings was held this month in Australia and by Halloween, Hong Kong will be treated to all the gore, corny humour and screaming teenagers worthy of a classic slasher flick. The project puts Yu firmly in the genre's 'hall of fame', alongside the directors of other successful 'B' series films such as Scream and Halloween, but it also begs the question: how did one of Hong Kong's most acclaimed directors, the man behind The Bride With White Hair, end up making this movie? At a time when Asian talents such as Chow Yun-fat, John Woo, Michelle Yeoh and Yuen Wo-ping are cruising along the road to Hollywood stardom, Yu seems to have taken a wrong turn. Not only does he live in Sydney, away from the buzz of Los Angeles and Hong Kong, he works on films his contemporaries wouldn't touch with a barge pole. 'I never bought into having to prove myself as a Chinese,' Yu says. 'I never needed to make movies that make people say, 'Hey, it's made by a Chinese director.' I'd rather people say, 'Hey, this guy understands American humour.' Some directors make movies to fulfil a certain ambition: my ambition is to entertain people and to ensure the studio makes money.' It's hard to discuss Freddy vs Jason with any degree of seriousness. For the uninitiated, Freddy Krueger is an evil, disfigured character who likes to kill people in their nightmares and who hit a dry spell after his seventh sequel. Jason Voorhees is a heavy-breathing, unstoppable masked thug whose last outing (his 10th) had him wreaking havoc in outer space. Yu's movie pits Freddy's custom-made claws against Jason's machete: the result is a bloody splatter-fest. So what was the appeal for Yu? Initially he comes across as an unambitious director-for-hire: a stocky fellow with a limp who keenly watches the opening-weekend box-office receipts because they will determine his next pay cheque. But soon the no-nonsense realist peeks out, a rarity in an industry that can be more talk than substance. 'It's okay to call them B movies,' he says at one point, 'because that's what they are.' Tackling Freddy vs Jason, you begin to realise, was more than a nice little earner for Yu: it was also about the challenge of treating a subject matter deeply embedded in American popcorn culture. 'I don't seek out horror movies but I do believe that even with something that sounds as outrageous as Freddy vs Jason, you can still treat the project with respect and try to take it to the next level,' he says. 'I've done a variety of films and learned horror is hard. It's all about atmosphere and timing. Everyone thinks it's just having a maniac kill people, but knowing how to scare an audience at the right time makes a big difference. 'I want to make a film that is fun to watch. I don't see why people can't be allowed to sit back and have a good time. Isn't life tough enough?' Yu, 50, learned how tough it can be early in life. The son of a wealthy businessman Yu had grown up in comfortable surroundings but this had not spared him from catching polio as a child. 'Getting out of bed and going to the bathroom was a huge physical challenge for me; an effortless walk for everyone else felt like a track meeting,' he recalls. Unable to play outside, his main entertainment was to go to the movies with his father. 'Movies were not only an escape for me, they were my make-believe world,' he says. 'I would look at people running around and even flying through the air and think I was them.' His taste in movies was varied, from Chinese films to western epics, such as the Godfather series, and comedies, but action films were his favourite because he felt he could live vicariously through the characters. As for horror movies, Yu aspires to the Japanese 1964 cult classic, Kwaidan - a classic Japanese ghost story that weaves fantasy with folklore. 'A good horror movie director doesn't just try to scare his audience with ghoulish faces and clever editing,' Yu asys. 'He builds a realm within his film and he draws his audiences into that realm and keeps them there. Once you've got your audience trapped you can do whatever you want with them. That's why atmosphere is so important with horror films.' Yu hankered to prove that his illness was not a handicap. As a teenager, he asked to be sent to boarding school. 'I didn't want to be protected by my family any more,' he says. He went to a school in Somerset, England, where he negotiated such rites of passage as defending himself against bullies. 'At first I got picked on a lot, but I was always very good at telling stories, and I made people laugh,' he recalls. 'Soon, people were thinking this kid with a limp was all right.' That ability to tell stories, coupled with his love of film, spawned Yu's ambition to become a director. He wanted to study film-making but his family was against it. 'They kept saying there were no real careers in movies,' he says. Instead he studied marketing at the University of Ohio. 'It was the closest thing I could get to moving images. I figured marketing included advertising and there were lots of images in advertising.' But why Ohio instead of somewhere more cosmopolitan like New York, where he could get closer to film-makers and industry personalities? 'My father said if I wanted to study in the United States I should get to know American culture, and nothing reflects true American culture like the mid-western states.' It was in the small town of Athens that Yu became attuned to American tastes and sense of humour. After graduating in 1975, Yu decided to return to Hong Kong and find a job in the movie industry. 'I told my dad I wanted to be on my own,' he says. 'My family had emigrated to Australia by then so I returned to Hong Kong by myself with US$500 in my pocket, thinking I'd find a job immediately. 'Turned out I couldn't find a job in films,' Yu says, laughing. Instead, he landed stints working in advertising and production at TVB. It was there that he met such film personalities as Michael Hui Koon-man and, in 1979, an aspiring actor/writer named Philip Chan Yan-kin. A former police officer, Chan had been working on a script for a crime story and was looking for backing. 'I remember discussing the idea with Philip at the old Hilton hotel, and we managed to convince a rich clothing manufacturer to give us HK$200,000,' Yu says. 'Philip wanted to star in it but we couldn't find a director, so the investor said perhaps I should do it.' The result was 1979's The Servant. Looking back at his directorial debut, Yu says although it was a fiasco at times ('I really had no idea about camera angles or film grammar, I was getting help from the cameramen and the actors themselves'), it gave him a mind-set that has stayed with him. 'I came to the industry with no burden, perhaps unlike a well-trained film school student who might have lofty ambitions,' Yu says. 'I had nothing to prove, I just wanted to learn.' To his surprise, The Servant led to offers to do other projects, dramas such as 1982's The Saviour and The Postman Strikes Back and the 1984 comedy The Occupant, starring Chow Yun-fat. 'I've been lucky in that I've had the privilege of working with fantastic actors,' Yu says. 'They've taught me so much.' But he believes in doing his homework. 'If I am working on a drama I will watch countless dramatic films. If I am working on a horror movie I watch horror films from every genre - from Hitchcock to Japanese-style movies.' The hard work paid off in the form of the 1993 film The Bride With White Hair, a surreal work where horror and martial arts action are woven together by a tragic love story between Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing and Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia. The film sees Cheung, a warrior, falling in love with a witch who has been banished from her home and lives in a cave. The movie was released in two parts and did well with critics and at the box office. 'Everyone thinks of it as a tragic love tale and I wanted to have a sense of surrealism and romanticism woven in with what was essentially a ghost story,' Yu said. Cheung and Lin were superb leads and Yu had another talent on his side, cinematographer Peter Pau, who went on to win an oscar for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Pau gave the movie its dynamic visual style. 'The camera loved Cheung, I had the greatest time doing close-ups because his face would show every emotional subtlety,' Yu says. Cheung and Yu collaborated one more time, in shooting Phantom Lover, a film inspired by the classic tale The Phantom of the Opera, except the setting is China, with Cheung playing the part of a disfigured musical genius lurking behind a run-down theatre. He talks about his shock at learning the star had leapt to his death earlier this year. 'I couldn't believe it was him, when we worked together he was always so cheery, we joked all the time and when I was a nervous wreck because of shooting problems he'd be the one consoling me. Leslie would say, 'Hey, it's just a movie, don't take everything so seriously.' Perhaps he was just very good at concealing his feelings.' In 1998, the powers that be in Hollywood, who had been impressed by The Bride With White Hair, came knocking on Yu's door, offering him a project called Bride Of Chucky. It was in a different league from what Yu had imagined would be his first foray into the US market. 'I was surprised they wanted me to do a horror film based on my work with Bride, because I didn't even think it was my specialty,' Yu says. 'In fact, in Hong Kong, everyone saw Bride as a romantic film, not a scary movie.' The fact that it was a sequel starring a wise-cracking, evil doll also posed challenges. 'I thought gosh, I am going to work with a doll instead of an actor. I thought they had to be kidding; I'd never even seen the original movie,' Yu recalls. 'But then I was excited; here was a chance to make a Hollywood movie, and when you make a movie in America the rest of the world will get to see it. 'I've always had a sense of naivety - so what if Chucky may not be the ideal movie for many directors? I thought it would teach me new things, such as working with mechanics to develop a talking doll.' He laughs as he recounts testing camera angles on a doll. 'You get so used to looking at actors through the monitors and here I was discussing how to capture the best angle of a dummy!' The years in Ohio paid off. 'It helped me understand my [US] audience, and if people go to see your movie, then you've succeeded.' But when his agent came to him about Freddy vs Jason, Yu admits thinking 'not another horror 'B' movie. Then my agent told me to check out the movies' websites; I was surprised to learn they have such an enormous fan base, after almost 20 years.' He met Newline Cinema's studio boss, Robert Shaye, and confessed he had only seen two of the franchises' 17 films. 'I told Robert I wanted it to be a ride, and I'd like a little humour in it.' Yu soon educated himself in the genre, watching every Nightmare On Elm Street and Friday The 13th film. He pulled in his long-time collaborator, Hong Kong cameraman Poon Hang-seng, as his second-unit director to help alleviate some of the enormous pressure he was under. Newline Cinema had been toying with the idea of combining the two horror heavyweights for almost 10 years, but was waiting for the right director to come along. Yu also had to overcome the knowledge that he was entering a project destined to be panned by the critics. 'There was some pressure at first, I had to accept that and to understand that I am responsible only to my audiences,' Yu says. 'You know, critics are a different breed, they almost think to say something nice about a slasher flick is degrading. From the start I said screw the critics, I was more concerned about the die-hard fans of Freddy and Jason. I was worried about making a film that would not live up to the fans' expectations.' After extensive casting, Yu assembled a group of teenagers he describes as 'very good at screaming', including Kelly Rowland of Destiny's Child fame. Robert Englund returns as the main attraction - the wise-cracking, claw-sharpening Freddy - and stuntman Ken Kirzinger was cast to play the silent Jason, who is permanently hidden behind an ice-hockey mask. Yu pored through the franchise archives to fine-tune a plausible plot. 'People say no one cares about the plot in horror movies but we were still dealing with a character from the dream world - Freddy - and Jason, who operates in the real world,' he says. 'Finally, after watching all the instalments we found a window in one of the previous Nightmare films where Freddy was lured out of the dream world, so we could pit Jason against Freddy.' Nevertheless, the plot remains a stretch: Freddy, stuck in Hell, is slowly being forgotten and, in a bid to revive his legacy, tricks the simple-minded Jason into going to Springwood to begin a new reign of terror. But when Jason starts running his own show, Freddy turns on him, with the horrified townspeople trapped in the middle. From the start Yu wanted to push the envelope in the gore department. 'It's like King Kong versus Godzilla, there's got to be a huge fight,' he says. For his star, Englund, Yu has nothing but respect. 'I half expected him to come in and do it in his sleep, because he's done so many sequels there must be nothing new for him. But Robert was so energetic, always exploring new ideas, and such a great sport. He wanted to test his own stunts and endured hours of make-up because we were doing underwater scenes. He's a guy who embraces life and goes surfing everyday.' With Freddy vs Jason on a roll, Yu's reputation is growing in Hollywood. But he still chooses to live in Sydney rather than LA because his family is there. 'Some people say one needs to be close to all the action but I've got a great lawyer and agent working for me in Hollywood, and besides, if you've proven yourself at the box office, they usually come looking,' he says. When working in the US Yu rents serviced apartments, preferring to opt out of the Hollywood jet-set lifestyle. He met his wife, Annette, more than 10 years ago while working in Hong Kong. 'She was involved in publicity and worked to promote some of our films,' Yu says. A daughter, from Annette's previous marriage, lives in New York but when Yu travels Annette is his only entourage. 'I am not some big shot director so I don't really have a lot of associates hanging around me, I am lucky to have Annette because she knows the film industry and helps me. He adds that Annette is always teasing him about the fact that his movies are somehow a reflection of his own inadequacies. 'She said that all my movie characters - Phantom Lover, Chucky, even Freddy, were ostracised and are outcasts - and eventually turn to evil to seek revenge,' he laughs. 'I don't know, perhaps somehow I am empowering these evil characters because I somehow felt disadvantaged as a child because I couldn't walk!' Making movies is Yu's passion and he is already looking for a new project. 'I have to keep working, one day my bad leg might just give up and I won't be able to walk anymore. I am only 50 and I have to think about how I will support my family for the rest of my life.' Is he happy to continue on the path to B-flick heaven? 'I have no qualms about that. What pleases me most is not to have people judge me as a great Chinese director making his mark for the Chinese people, it's to have people see a Hollywood film and not even be able to tell it's been made by a Chinese.' Freddy vs Jason opens on Thursday.