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April 13, 2003
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SJP


Martial parts
By JIM SLOTEK


In a dusty abandoned warehouse on Toronto's railway lands, Chow Yun-Fat is looking suitably cool and menacing, bamboo fighting stick in hand. I'm not sure what take it is, but it's got to be double digits by now.

The movie is Bulletproof Monk. And, in the scene, the Monk With No Name (Chow) is schooling a street kid named Kar (Seann William Scott) in the art of self-defence. Movie magic being what it is, Scott is not actually required to be present.

At "Action!," Chow stands in position with a look of intense concentration and begins rotating his weapon. It makes a few good helicopter spirals and then flies out of his hand, clacking to the floor like a baton dropped by a rookie cheerleader.

Raucous laughter erupts among the fight choreography team, led by Wei Tung (who has schooled Chow Yun-Fat in fight fakery all the way back to the 1992 Hong Kong classic Hard Boiled). Some jokes just don't get old.

"I'm just lucky Seann is not here," Chow says later during a break in filming. "This is my first time working with sticks. We've been working for two months on this, and I'm still dropping them."

Of course, after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, many Western moviegoers see Chow Yun-Fat as a martial-arts action figure in the vein of Jackie Chan or Jet Li. "You tell them, I am not a martial artist. I am not a master," Chow says with a warm smile. "I'm a student, and not a good one.

"I'm not crazy about all the martial arts, kung-fu things," Chow says in his work-in-progress English. "But people put me in those movies after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I am fascinated by the guns, and John Woo put me in a lot of those kind of movies where you kill a lot of people. In this movie, it's a little bit guns, a little bit martial arts, so it's a good mix."

Indeed, people who'd never been pointed to the Hong Kong film shelf by a helpful video store clerk, or who'd managed to avoid Chow's guns-a-blazing Hollywood turns in The Corruptor (also filmed in Toronto) or The Replacement Killers, might have found themselves saying "Who's that guy?" while watching Crouching Tiger. The Ang Lee movie -- in which Chow played kung-fu master Li Mu Bai with all the weary ennui of a grizzled gunfighter in a Western -- earned Chow an invite to the 2001 Oscars, where the movie had multiple nominations.

A year later on Oscar night, Chow was hard at work on Bulletproof Monk, shooting somewhere underground on the Bloor subway line. Between scenes, the crew were huddled around the set, but a source onset told us, "He (Chow) didn't seem interested."

"Oh, I was very, very interested about the winners," he says. "But we had a very heavy scene in the subway, running back and forth." He makes actually attending the event sound less than thrilling. "The time is much longer than the Hong Kong awards. The process is long, you wait for a car to pick you up, and red carpet. And then you have to go to the party. I can say sometimes it was harder than making the movie," he says.

But we digress. Chow wants you to know that his image runs deep in Hong Kong -- kind of a Clint Eastwood with a sense of humour. And it falls to his mentor and friend John Woo -- producer of Bulletproof Monk -- to see what he can do about bringing that vibe to North America.

The movie -- loosely based on a three-issue comic book of the same name -- sees the charismatic Chow as an ageless monk, who for 60 years has been the keeper of an ancient scroll that "holds the key to unlimited power." For that entire time he has stayed one step ahead of a megalomaniac named Strucker (Karel Roden) and now must find a successor as keeper of the scroll.

Got all that? Now meet the cast of misfits fronted by Kar (Scott, the dude of American Pie and Dude, Where's My Car? fame, all slimmed down and pumped up), Bad Girl (ex-model Jaime King) and a tribe of literally underground gang-bangers. And cue the wire-work and Matrix-like special effects, including a scene or two filmed in "bullet time," shot under the directorial reins of music-video maven Paul Hunter (Mariah Carey, J.Lo).

For his part, Chow was sold on the Scott factor, and the idea that Bulletproof Monk would have a comic edge.

"Nobody in Hollywood wants to see my funny face, but I did comedies in the '80s," says Chow, whose favourite "funny face" role was 1989's Du Shen (God Of Gamblers), about a supernaturally aided gambler who loses his memory.

"This movie is more crazy than my other (Hollywood) movies. This guy, the monk, comes from Tibet and gives a lot of what the young guy calls 'fortune cookie philosophy.' The relationship is very interesting, like the young kid is his buddy. It's a very funny situation with Kar and the monk, and also with Seann and me, we are funny together. Traditionally, martial arts, kung-fu master must be very serious, no jokes at all. This master is more fun."

There's an infectious amiability to Chow Yun-Fat that his co-star sensed immediately. While Chow trained for the movie in Hong Kong, Scott came to Toronto two months early to begin his own regimen.

"My brother's a film theory major and he introduced me to Chow Yun-Fat's movies before I ever moved to L.A.," he says. "We rented Hard Boiled and The Killer and it really opened my eyes. He's got this presence that's so hard to describe. Anyway, I was in Australia promoting American Pie 2, and my brother and his wife made the trip with me, and we were together when I found out I got this movie. My brother just started laughing."

Then came boot camp. "We started off with the guy who trained everybody for The Matrix," Scott recalls. "Conditioning, flexibility, trained for a month-and-a-half. Then I trained with a Hong Kong group more intensely, with wires and stuff. There's like five fights that I'm in.

"So Chow Yun-Fat was back in Hong Kong, and the whole time I'm thinking I don't want to disappoint him. When he got here, he had this amazing smile, and he gave me a hug and said, 'How's training?'

"I mean, he's done this stuff for so long. Crouching Tiger, the fight in the trees took him, like, 17 days of wirework. He was great with that, I learned so much.

"The hardest parts for me were the training scenes where I actually had to throw punches at his head. I really do look up to him. I figure, if I can be half the guy he is, I can be happy."

Next up for Chow is another John Woo-directed movie, Land Of Destiny -- an epic about the building of the American railroad, co-starring Nicolas Cage. Late last year, that project was put on hold because Disney wasn't satisfied that it could be shot for less than $100 million -- despite plans to film it partly in Alberta. "I am dying for this one to happen," he says. "I absolutely love working with John Woo, this time without guns, without explosion, only drama.

"Okay," he adds with a grin, "there is disaster ... iceberg, snow, and they blow up a tunnel, but that's it."

As much as he strategizes his progress at the North American box office, Chow Yun-Fat considers Hollywood a hobby and still lives full time in his birthplace, Hong Kong (where he was educated in both People's Republic schools and anti-Communist Kuomintang schools). Of Hakka descent (a dialect spoken widely in China and from Taiwan to Singapore), he's still spent enough time in Toronto to feel like he's met every Chinese-Canadian here. "Oh yeah, Markham, Richmond Hill ... I know all about those places," he says cheerfully. "They make me feel very welcome."

But there's no place like home, and even last year, he was talking about taking time off to spend with his wife Jasmine. This year, he followed through, cancelling a series of interviews for the movie in favour of downtime.

There's more to life than movies, he says. "I also need time to rest and enjoy my food and try to correct my English pronunciation."


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