Hong Kong director Wilson Yip on SPL instalment Paradox, Wu Jing’s rise and Bruce Lee’s key part in the upcoming Ip Man 4
Filmmaker explains his casting of Louis Koo in a martial arts action film, says he’s not surprised SPL stars Donnie Yen and Wu Jing have become superstars, and talks about Ip Man 4’s focus on the relationship between Ip Man and Lee
Fans of Chinese kung fu cinema will recall the deadly fight scene between Donnie Yen Ji-dan and Wu Jing in the 2005 action film SPL – Hong Kong director Wilson Yip Wai-shun’s ambitious attempt to blend the gritty narrative of crime thrillers with bone-crunching violence delivered by top martial arts actors.
“In my opinion, that scene in particular looked like it’s coming from a wuxia film – even though the characters are in contemporary clothing,” says Yip. “Some of Johnnie To’s films, like Running Out of Time, also play like wuxia movies. SPL is a bit similar to that in style.”
While SPL was – even by Yip’s own account – “quite a weird movie”, it struck a chord with many movie fans, who have since seen both its main actors rise to superstardom – Yen via the Ip Man films, also directed by Yip, including Ip Man 3 , and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Wu with the record-breaking Wolf Warrior 2 .
Yip, 53, handed the directing duties to close friend and long-time work partner Soi Cheang Pou-soi (The Monkey King 2) when a sequel to SPL was made in 2015. By reshuffling its plot elements for a new story, SPL2: A Time for Consequences – on which Yip served as both producer and script consultant – provided an efficient template for future instalments to follow.
In new film Paradox – which Yip curiously refuses to call “SPL3” but is really just that in all but name – the franchise’s fixation on karma and destiny finds a new expression with the recasting of the previous chapter’s villain as the film’s hero: just as Wu Jing went from playing the protagonist’s nemesis in SPL to the hero in SPL2, Louis Koo Tin-lok has followed the same path between SPL2 and Paradox.
“It’s a coincidence,” says Yip, who reveals that his original intention was to tell the origin story of Koo’s character in SPL2 – the evil leader of an organ-trafficking syndicate – until he realised that this amoral tale was never going to get past the censors. Instead, the director turned to an idea that had been gestating since he watched the Liam Neeson vehicle Taken in 2008.
“It’s true that Taken has a considerable influence on me,” he admits. “I remember very well that I showed it to Sammo Hung Kam-bo when we were shooting the first Ip Man film; it’s a really great movie. I’ve kept the story inside me as a potential idea. … Here, I’ve used a father’s search for his daughter as the story’s starting point, but after that, our films [diverge].”
In Paradox, Koo plays a Hong Kong policeman who arrives in Thailand to look for his teenage daughter after she is abducted there. As a widower who can’t afford to see his only child in peril, Koo turns into a vengeful killing machine on his way to tracking down the organ traders responsible for his daughter’s disappearance.
The casting of Koo in the intense action film – featuring splendid action choreography by Hung – represents a statement of sorts by Yip, who explains that he wanted to show he “could still make an SPL film even without a brilliant martial arts actor in the lead”.
“I would just as comfortably label a film SPL even if it’s all gunfights. I think of this simply as an action series with strong dramatic elements,” the director says.
While it remains to be seen whether Koo will replicate the meteoric rise of Yen and Wu after their respective star turns in SPL and SPL2, Yip isn’t surprised by the subsequent success of his regular leading men.
“Actually, you could see the signs,” he says. “After Yen made SPL, people in the industry were all waiting for him [to make it big]; we all considered him a really capable veteran.
“Wu, at that time, was also doing great. He didn’t have many scenes in [Tsui Hark’s] The Legend of Zu (2001), but [as a] teenager [he] was already very eye-catching. [These actors] need time [to develop] – and 20 years after [he started his acting career], Wu Jing is taking flight. As a martial arts actor, you usually need some time [to make the next step].”
Yip will reunite with Yen on Ip Man 4, his next directorial project. The filmmaker is currently developing the script, and hopes to start shooting in 2018 and release the film by the end of that year.
“In Ip Man 4, I’m inclined to show how Ip Man views his relationship with Bruce Lee,” Yip says of the real-life teacher-student pair around which the film will be based. Danny Chan Kwok-kwan is – if his schedule allows – Ip’s preferred actor to reprise his role in Ip Man 3 as Lee, who, Yip says, will have “a very important presence” in the new film.
“[The story] won’t be just about Ip Man,” says Yip. “How in reality did Chinese martial arts practitioners live after they went overseas in the 1960s and ’70s? [The film will explore this] through Lee and his martial arts school the Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute, and his relationship with Ip.”
In the meantime, the SPL series is also set to roll on for a fourth instalment, which is still in the scriptwriting stage and won’t be ready for shooting until next year at the earliest. To many people, the fact SPL2’s Soi Cheang will return to direct the fourth instalment may be less of a surprise than Yip’s decision to label that film SPL3.
“I don’t treat Paradox as SPL3,” he reiterates. “I don’t know why, but I didn’t include the name ‘SPL’ [in the Chinese film title] at first. It’s only when I wanted to tell the audience about the tone of my film that I added SPL to it.”
I tell Yip that his resolve to name the fourth instalment SPL3 is going to cause a great deal of confusion for everyone involved. “Never mind, we’ll deal with it when it’s here. That’s fate,” he says with a chuckle, before adding: “Or maybe we should call that SPL4 instead? It’s just a name.”
Paradox opens on August 25
Want more articles like this? Follow SCMP Film on Facebook