Back in 2006-11 Phil’s Quick Review editor in chief Phil Hobden was the Film & TV editor and chief writer for the legendary martial arts focused Combat Magazine. The Combat Magazine Series takes look back at some of the best interviews, conversations and articles that Phil wrote or edited during that time.
Next up: Master Yip Man Interview by Phil Hobden
“It is difficult for a student to pick a good teacher, but it is more difficult for a teacher to pick a good student”
Master Leo Au Yeung is the UK’s leading Wing Chun practitioner and teacher. Last year he was invited by the producers to choreograph the fight scenes for the movie of legendary Wing Chun pioneer Yip Man called Ip Man, alongside genre legends Sammo Hung and Donnie Yen. Of course Yip Man’s most famous pupil was legendary martial artist and actor Bruce Lee who studied under him from 1954 to 1957 and in the years since Bruce Lee’s untimely death Wing Chun has become the preeminent form of Chinese Kung Fu practiced today. Most recently Yeung has been working on Ip Man prequel Ip Man : The Beginning which will be out in 2010.
I sat down with Master Yeung to discuss Chinese Kung Fu, Ip Man and working alongside genre legends.
Combat: Who were your influences growing up?
Leo: When I were young Donnie Yen and Jackie Chan influenced me most. When I get little bit older Bruce Lee become another influence on me quite a lot as he was more a martial artist and movie star rather than just a movie star.
Combat: How did you get into martial arts originally?
Leo: I always liked martial arts since I was 4 years old, however I didn’t know which style to choose or where to start. I was confused and did not know what to do until I met my uncle who has done Wing Chun for years. I showed my interest to learning kung fu and he introduce me to Wing Chun and suggest that I learnt from Grandmaster Ip Chun as he is one of the best known Masters in Hong Kong. This is how I begin my Wing Chun training.
Combat: How did you get involved in the Ip Man project?
Leo: One of the Ip Man movie investors is a Wing Chun enthusiast and he also is a good friend of Master Kwok. His intention in making this movie was to demonstrate the ‘real’ Wing Chun to the rest of the world. For this reason about one year ago he asked around to see if there was anyone people could recommend to him to choreograph in the Ip Man movie. He was looking for someone requirement who had a very good understanding of Wing Chun and able to demonstrate the art in a more traditional manner. Master Kwok straight away thought that I would be the most suitable candidate, firstly he has truly confidence of my ability in Wing Chun. He believes that I am capable to represent him to choreograph the movie. On the other hand beside Wing Chun I also know a wide range of martial arts, so it really helped when making the comparison between Wing Chun and other styles.
Combat: Tell me about your involvement with the project?
Leo: I stayed in China for nearly two months, I responsible to coach the actors and stunt men in Wing Chun. They had to fight like a Wing Chun expert in the movie. I only had three weeks to train them up, it seems impossible in the beginning but fortunately most of them have been doing martial arts for more than 10 years so most of them picked things up really quick. At the end of this intensive course they all able to achieve a decent standard of the art. After that I spent the rest of my time coordinating with Sammo Hung on choreography for the many fighting scenes in the movie. Our biggest challenge was how to made Wing Chun look good on the screen, as you know most of the Wing Chun moments are very small and complex. Sometime we have to exaggerate the movement a bit to made them look better on screen. Of course we still have to keep the accent of Wing Chun. In the end we spent over 7 days to choreograph just 3 mins in the movie.
Combat: What was it like working with legends like Sammo Hung and Donnie Yen?
Leo: I only meet Donnie very briefly but the impression he gave me is he is very passion about martial arts and he is a very professional action actor. Sammo is a very easy going and humours person. He just like a ‘big brother’ to us, he always look after his crew. For example he would always buy us breakfast in the morning, in order to keep us warm. Sometime he would ask his wife to cook something on the night before and he would bring it to us in the next day. Moreover he always in the first few to arrive on set so he really set a good example to the rest of the crew. I really respect him and it is a pleasure to work with him.
Combat: : How about his ability in front and behind the camera?
Leo: In terms of the Sammo capability of using camera and choreography, I do not think anyone will have a doubt that he is one of the top action directors out there. However, the most difficult bit is how we can choreograph something very special and unique to the audience, as you know nowadays most people has seen a lot of action already, it is not easy to create something on one had seen it before.
Combat: How influential was Yip Man to Chinese martial arts?
Leo: Firstly Yip Man who is a great Wing Chun master, you can see from his pictures, he is not a very big guy but he still able to defeat a bigger opponent. In this aspect he really able to demonstrate the accent of Chinese Kung Fu. You don’t have to be massive in size to become a good fighter. it is more important you know how to use you body effectively.
Secondly he was the first person who bring Wing Chun to Hong Kong and in the last thirty years Wing Chun has become one of the most popular martial art, a lot of people are doing Ip Man Wing Chun worldwide. He also is the teacher of Bruce Lee , I think everyone know how Bruce influence the Chinese martial arts, a lot of people do Chinese kung fu because of Bruce.
Combat: What’s your favourite martial arts film?
Leo: Quite a lot really but if you really ask me I would say all Lau kar leung’s movie, eg the 36th Chamber of Shaolin , My Young Auntie and Mad Monkey Kung Fu etc . Of course the more recent one is Ip Man.
Combat: Jackie or Jet?
Leo: In my opinion they are both good action actor but I have not seen them fighting in real life so I don’t know how good are they and which one is better.
Combat: What’s the best fight scene you have ever seen?
Leo: In this occasion I have to say one of the fighting scenes in Ip Man, Donnie fight one against ten Japanese.
Combat: If not Martial arts what would you have done?
Leo: I don’t really know because without Martial arts I will be a difference person. May be I will just like most of the people stay at home playing Xbox etc.
Combat: You run a martial arts school in London. Tell me more…
Leo: The objective of our school is to teach first -rate traditional Chinese kung fu . I only teach kung fu to a small group of people, because I believe quality is more important than quantity. Especially in Wing Chun, for me half of an inch difference is dead or alive. I pay attention to every single detail, even one finger is out of place is an mistake for me. I always tell my students how many years you had been training doesn’t mean a thing. What is the most important is how correct do you train. I am not teaching martial art for living, this mean I don’t need to run my school like a business or factory, my first priority is train my student up, not increase the number of school.
In wing Chun it is important to have correct body structure and arm position .It just takes an inch out of position to have a negative impact on a student. In larger classes you don’t have the opportunity to notice or correct this and over a period of time this becomes a habit with the student. This flaw becomes apparent when the student goes onto Chi Sau, giving more opportunities for an opponent to hit. It is sad for me when I chi Sau with some wing Chun practitioners who have trained for years only to find they have not covered the foundations properly.
You can find out more about Master Leo Au Yeung at www.chinesekungku.co.uk
Ip Man, Ip Man 2 and Ip Man: The Beginning are out now.