Actors, Directors, Features, Hong Kong, Interviews, Recommended posts, Taiwan

Jimmy Wang Yu interview: “How did I get popular? I was a street fighter!”

We talk to the legendary leading man of 60s and 70s Hong Kong cinema, Jimmy Wang Yu…

On November 11th, Jimmy Wang Yu (also spelt Jimmy Wong Yu) received a Lifetime Achievement award from NYAFF runners, Subway Cinema. The event was held at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walther Reade Theater and was accompanied by a luscious 35mm screening of Master of the Flying Guillotine. Earlier that day, I was lucky enough to be able to sit down with the man himself, and ask him a few questions.

Upon arriving at his hotel, I was simply given a room number and told to ring the doorbell. I couldn’t believe that the level of screening to talk to a man more scandalous than all of Hollywood put together was simply a doorbell! Upon ringing the doorbell I was quickly met by Wang Yu’s entourage, three pretty and affable Taiwanese girls, suddenly my anxiety had dissipated. When I turned the corner I saw the man himself. The first thing I noticed was his black elegant cane, and his dyed jet-black hair, all of which accentuated his dark blue suit and red tie. I was looking for the man I had read about, the rebellious brawler, and the infectious actor. Then I saw that the cane was merely a necessity for a recovering stroke victim, and that within the suit stood a kind faced man pacified by maturity. He greeted me, and thanked me several times for coming. Then without a word took me by the hand warmly, and showed me to the table where our conversation began…

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How do you like New York so far?
Yes, I like it, I like it. Actually I have no jet lag, but I didn’t sleep at all on the flight.

Because there was a baby, very noisy! [We laugh.]

I want to begin by congratulating you on your Lifetime Achievement award, and thank you for giving us the time to talk to you. I just saw Soul at the last NYAFF, and I’ve never seen you in a role like that, it was fantastic. I was wondering how you became involved in the project?
Soul was my last movie after I had a stroke in 2012. How did you like this film?

I loved it, it was unlike anything else I have seen. It would have been popular if it got a wider release here. How did you choose it?
[Chung Mong-Hong] approached me to do the film, and soon after I had the stroke. So once I began to recover, I felt I couldn’t say no.

Is there anything about the specific story that drew you, because it was so different?
It is a new experience; I am very used to doing action, kung fu movies. This is actually an easier project for me because I don’t have to fight. So it was perfect to do while I was still recovering.

Back to your old films, One-armed Swordsman in 1967, and soon after The Chinese Boxer, were massive box office hits. What was it about the state of 1967 Hong Kong, and the content of the films, that triggered this boom?
It was a record at the box-office, the One-Armed Swordsman. For the One-Armed Swordsman, the director is a cultured man and I think that helped. He worked so hard on the story and the directing, I think the director is the one who knows how to do story, plot and everything else. Even though its an action movie, my contribution to the box office is limited

What specifically drew so many people into these movies?
So the ideas and ideology behind the action and the wuxia, its like a detective story,

[He grabs a pen and pulls a napkin over, He slowly spells out a word on the napkin, sounding out each letter as he goes, when he is finished the interpreter reads it and laughs]. Loyalty like in people, the Chinese value that a lot [Wang Yu interrupts interpreter, and shows me, pointing at each character] Wong means me, and Wongba means turtle, [interpreter referring to “Wongba”] it’s actually a really bad thing to say to someone.

Oh to call someone that?
It means to always sacrifice yourself.

Then why is that a bad thing?
No, it’s a character who will always put himself bellow others, which is loyalty in a Chinese sense.

Also to be a kung fu star, you must be incredibly fit as well as an incredible actor, which you see in your work, what sort of other things make a kung fu star? It seems like such difficult role to fill?
[Wang Yu in English holding out his arms in fists] since I was nine years old, I was in Shanghai, in primary school, I learnt kung fu. How did I get popular in Hong Kong? I think one reason, it’s because I’m a street fighter!

A what?
I’m a street fighter [grimaces and holds fists higher]. I fight a lot, usually on the newspaper it’s on the number one page, social and also like paparazzi… I fight a lot, I think maybe a lot of people say aye, I see you fight in the movies, is he really good fighter or not, I was always top page in paparazzi, fighting someone, fighting policeman, 1964-1968, I fight 100 times.

That was another question I was gonna ask you, I mean there are so many rumours in the 60’s and 70’s about your personality off-screen, and I was wondering how much of that is accurate, and how much the person you are today resembles that?
Ok, so the fighting is all true; the love affairs are all fake [we all laugh]

“How did I get popular in Hong Kong? I think one reason, it’s because I’m a street fighter! Ok, so the fighting is all true; the love affairs are all fake…”

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So you are working with a lot of talent in the Hong Kong industry now, like Wu Xia, which was fantastic. What would you say that kung fu needs to do to sustain its popularity internationally?
The kung fu movie in Hong Kong, and even in Taiwan and other places, is really going up, and has created its own ecology in Hong Kong film, and that will sustain popularity at least for now.

Also I heard about your earlier stroke, and I’m glad to see that you’ve recovered and look great. Did you ever identify with your earlier characters that had a lot of hardship?
[Interpreter] Early characters? Which ones?

Ones like the One-Armed Swordsman, or you often played a student facing tragedy?
A lot, a lot… [he pauses looking downward, seemingly reflecting]. After the stroke I thought I cannot be beaten, and I thought I have to fight the stroke because I have a lot of things to do.

And you say that a lot of your inspiration is from Japanese films, I even heard you say in another interview that people today do not watch enough old Japanese movies, what is it about these old Japanese movies that crossed over into your work?
So there were a lot of karate and judo films then, and film theatre really influenced me to see that. Then before the karate and judo popularity there was sword films in japan and they were real, the fighting felt real.

What kind of films?
Sword films… [Wang Yu interrupts] Samurai, samurai movies. [Interpreter continues] and the sword movies in Taiwan at the time, they were like Peking operas, they pretend to fight, and then you turn to run, and then you fight again, Peking opera is about the look, the appearance, but in the Japanese movies the fighting was really real and that impressed me.

And specifically was it Katsu, Toshiro Mifune…?
[Wang Yu in English] Yeah yeah Toshiro Mifune was great, so great.

It’s funny when I first saw you I thought Toshiro Mifune
At that time, I forget the name in Japanese, [says something to his posse in Cantonese], the person with one eye, you remember?

Oh Zatoichi?
Not Zatoichi, Zatoichi is the blind swordsman, before Zatoichi, guy very famous, I forget his name [begins to write characters on the same napkin] oh-kee, and Oki had one eye covered [makes a strap like gesture around his head, making sure to form a square around the eye].

Oh an eyepatch…
[One of his entourage had looked it up on their phone] Minoru Oki, yes that’s him.

What is your experience as an actor, what sets you apart from other Kung Fu stars is that your acting is extremely emotional; I wonder if you have any background in acting?
I do everything the director tells me, It is all in my head. Also again Oki Minoru, I learnt acting from him partially, what you watch is inner head, and the acting will resemble.

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Will you go back to writing and directing any time soon?
When my health gets better I plan on getting back to movies. I have already rejected three projects in the last year because I didn’t feel well enough.

Also with all the talent you see today, who do you see that really resembles you and your contemporaries of old?
Donnie Yen is very good; he has a very good face for Kung Fu.

What is it about characters like, the one-armed swordsman, and Zatoichi, and the man with the eyepatch?
This guy is very good with the samurai sword; he is very skilled.

But what is it about these characters, the theme of disability, and the return from hopelessness that audiences find so watchable?
I don’t think it’s the disability at all that makes this kind of movie popular, it is specifically a hero; he is such a hero in his characteristics.

So it’s specifically the person before the disability?
Yes it’s the human being.

Today in your award ceremony they are screening Master of the Flying Guillotine, how do you feel about this choice, and if you were going to choose one of your films to define your achievements, which would it be?
It’s a good choice because I directed, I wrote the plot, and you know I was the actor, I was the producer even, it is reflecting me both as a filmmaker, and a film worker in general. Though it isn’t the film that I was most emotionally attached to. But it did make a lot of money in Taiwan at the box office at the time, so it’s a good choice.

What film are you most emotionally attached to?
I think I wasn’t as good directing, like Chang Cheh, but I think with action I am pretty good. One-Armed Swordsman also had the most emotion in it, I cannot compare with my teacher in making films.

Teacher?
Chang Cheh.

Do you see yourself, being in a role like in Wu Xia again, taking part in large-scale fight scenes?
Depends on Peter Chan!

 

When Yonah met Wong Yu.

When Yonah met Wong Yu. The managing editor is soooooooo jealous!

Jimmy Wang Yu was presented with the NYAFF Lifetime Achievement award on 11 November 2014.

Thanks to the Subway Cinema team and David Ninh of the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

About the author

Yonah SichrovskyYonah Sichrovsky Yonah Sichrovsky
A student living in NYC, specializing in philosophy. He is an amateur filmmaker, who continues to be an avid cinephile. He has entered the blogging world, with a great passion for Asian film, and the philosophical prose to help express it. More »
Read all posts by Yonah Sichrovsky

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12 thoughts on “Jimmy Wang Yu interview: “How did I get popular? I was a street fighter!”

  1. Check_Koon Foo says:

    I am a great fan of Jimmy Wang Yu since I was young. I watched almost all his movies and also bought his dvds. I am very thankful that you shared the interview you had with my idol. It would be even more great if you could share the live interview on youtube or any social media. I would also like to get more info ab Jimmy Wang Yu…if you do have the source, do share with me.
    thank you
    check koon

  2. Jalal saad says:

    Wung YU is the best and my brother consider him the best martial art actor, my brother Joseph died in 1977 during the civil war in Lebanon. My brother died as here trying to defend his country and he has the spirit of fighting like wing YU cause he consider him his ideal and his master.

  3. Andrew Heskins says:

    Normally I’d dismiss this as spam, but I wonder if this is someone posing as a dental care practitioner whose life they’ve turned upside down (al la To Rise Again at a Decent Hour)…?

  4. Paul Allen says:

    I went to all the Kung Fu films in the local cinemas in the early 1970’s and Jimmy Wang Yu’s movies he is a Legend.
    Does anyone know what is style of Kung Fu is.
    I was sorry to hear about his Stroke and I wish him well.

  5. abouzar says:

    wang yu was legendry like legendry bruce lee. I prise her and film the new one armed swordman I watch frequently it and I know that this film is a history reality.Abouzar bagheri fard from IRAN the rasht city.viva.bye

  6. abouzar says:

    wang yu was excelent and legendry like legendry bruce lee.I praise film the new one armed swordman and I watch it frequently.I KNOW THIS FILM is history reality.tank you from site your good.abouzar bagheri fard from IRAN.

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