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Interview with Gordon Liu

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  • "In my eyes, I do think Quentin can be quite childish!"
  • "If you're a Chinese, you should know your own country's heroes"
  • "I was naughty and quite a rebel when I was young"
  • "The effects should enhance the actor and the film, not the other way round"
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HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- AR: Gordon, welcome to Talk Asia. Now you've been famous in this part of the world for many, many years now, but you only recently came to international attention in "Kill Bill." Tell us how that came about.


Kung fu master and actor Gordon Liu

GL: I've actually been in the film industry for 30 years. Till this day, I'm very grateful that I was a part of "36th Chamber of Shaolin" by Shaw Studios Productions and just as grateful that I was in Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill." Actually, I've always felt quite nostalgic about the '70s kung fu movies, but the problem is that the times have changed. Most of the youth nowadays don't have much interest in kung fu movies, so in recent years, I've primarily been involved in more modern films.

AR: Still though, doing your first big Hollywood movie must have been a million miles away from what you're used to. How hard did Quentin Tarantino have to persuade you to take on the two roles that you did in both the Kill Bills?

GL: I had never heard of Quentin Tarantino in the beginning. I had no idea what kind of director he was. But a producer from Hong Kong approached me and said he was hoping that I would be interested in playing a role in "Kill Bill." At first I thought, "I'm an Asian star from the '70s, why would anyone want me to be in a 21st century movie?" I pondered on this for a long time. Ultimately I thought that if an Asian has what it takes to emerge from the Asian film industry and be in a Hollywood film, it is a miracle and it provides the opportunity to learn a lot.

At first, Quentin Tarantino wanted me to play the role of the Crazy 88th Leader and I agreed to do so. And then I thought about what he liked about me. As it turned out, he liked my action moves. So I hoped to show all the acting experience I had gathered from the past few decades on television to the Western world as well as introduce who I am to the West; I am the '70s star from "36th Chamber," Gordon Liu. On the first day of production, I had a chat with Quentin and he said he hoped that I would re-enact all the moves with the same energy I had in "36th Chamber." I told him that's fine with me, I can do it, but would it not be outdated since we're in the 21st century? Quentin replied, "Not a problem! Everyone around the world admires you for your roles back in the '70s. This should be a good chance for you to revive that character, a chance for you to relive that role."

After filming was done, Quentin unexpectedly wanted me to play the role of Pai Mai in "Kill Bill 2." Originally Quentin Tarantino wanted to play Pai Mai himself. But Pai Mai is an Asian character. I explained to him that Asian viewers will find it hilarious and mock the fact that a white guy is playing the role of an Asian character. The other thing was Quentin had only just been learning kung fu moves and it's not something that can be mastered in three or four months; it takes a much longer period. So in the end, Quentin had me play the role and I gratefully took it on, as Western viewers finally got a chance to see my face without a mask covering it, and I got to work with Uma Thurman.

AR: Now you played in the second "Kill Bill" as Pai Mai as you say, and you were Uma Thurman's mentor and trainer. What was it like to beat her up?

GL: I filmed a lot of one-on-one scenes with Uma Thurman in "Kill Bill 2." There were many direct interactions this time, in dialogue, action moves and filming. In "Kill Bill 1," it was all about the quick-fighting action scenes. I think Uma Thurman really gives it her heart and is really professional with her art. Uma had given birth shortly before we started filming, and she didn't even have a chance to properly recover. But for "Kill Bill 1," she had about six months of training and for a Westerner who hasn't played a kung fu role before, it's a very difficult job. Quentin Tarantino, for some reason, was very strict with Uma and made her do every single move regardless of how difficult it was.

AR: What was Quentin Tarantino like personally to work with?

GL: This was the first time I worked with a Western director. One of the first things I noticed about Quentin was that he wasn't a hardcore strict director, but was quite friendly and really enjoys his job. Every time we filmed, he would wear the same costume as me. He really supports his actors. In Hong Kong, most directors are hot-tempered and are bound to shout at you. When I was filming for Quentin, he'd be joking around, all relaxed, trying to make the work environment as pleasant as possible. This gave me a very good impression of Western filming crews and it took a lot of pressure off me when working with them. Although in my eyes, I do think Quentin can be quite childish!

AR: You didn't go west until 2003 with "Kill Bill." But many other kung fu actors who start out in Hong Kong to make their names, like Jackie Chan and Jet Li, they go to the U.S. pretty much straight away, earlyish on into their careers to make their fortunes. What do you think of actors like that who take that sort of path?

GL: The way I feel about this is that the Asian film industry is very different from the Western film industry. But as an actor, we should take on as many Western projects as we can. The way I see it, Hollywood seeking me for "Kill Bill" was just because they liked the kung fu moves I am able to produce and therefore thought I was the right person for the job. I can't compare with Jackie Chan, Jet Li or Donnie Yen Ji-dan. Each actor has their own character, and you can't really compare on such a level.


(At Shaw Studios)

AR: So Gordon, interesting to note the new sort-of sparkling building behind us, and we're standing in the Shaw Studios, which in its time was the largest privately owned studio in the world. I guess it must've been a really, sort of, bustling hype of activity and glamour. Is it kind of sad to see it like this? So quiet?

GL: In the golden period of the Shaw Brothers, there are about 12 studios and 15 locations in Shaw Brothers. You see, that one, is studio one and studio two. It's the biggest one. Every day we shooting about ten o'clock in the studio. So all the artists will start makeup before nine o'clock, and then we waiting director to come and then we will practice kung fu and do many exercise. So we work very hard. So every time we shooting, we have to go to the Buddha. Every studio have this to make the film success or make all the people safe.

AR: Gordon, it's so peaceful up here, isn't it? Look, even the birds down there look tame, it's incredible. Tell me about what you used to do in this particular part.

GL: You see, when every time I saw the view I feel very comfortable. So every day when I shooting, I waiting the director to come to shooting, I will see the view. Make calm down my pressure. So I will do some exercise for here.

AR: You do your kung fu moves here?

GL: Yeah, yeah, here. So when director shouting I run, shoot again.

(Sit down)

AR: Gordon, we're sitting in the screening room where the Hong Kong cinema pioneer Sir Run Run Shaw used to view his views, many of which starred you. What were your experiences of working the famed Shaw brothers?

GL: During my time here with Shaw Studios, I didn't really consider it as a company. I saw it as a big family. Everyone from different sections of the company worked together happily. When we saw our boss, it was more seeing a father. He gave all of us plenty of opportunities to learn and create lasting memories.

AR: So your big break came in 1979, with "36th Chamber of Shaolin," which some still say is the finest kung fu movie ever made. What was it like for somebody like you, who started out their professional life as a filing clerk, to be suddenly thrown into super-stardom as you were?

GL: I think all the fame that came from "36th Chamber" wasn't because of me. It resulted from the collective work of the plot, the company and my director's efforts. I only hoped I did my very best with heart and energy to play the role as expected. I didn't have any anticipation of getting fame or success from the movie. I remember it was actually a very difficult point in my acting career, because I'm only human, and some of those moves were quite challenging, and I hadn't mastered them yet.

Take, for example, a scene from the movie where I had to jump into the water. There's no lesson you can learn beforehand on how to jump in. You just have to have the courage to just do it and jump. I was injured many times throughout the shoot, but never did I tell anyone about it. I only continued with the shoot to the best of my ability as I had a responsibility to finish it so my producer and director had a movie at the end. I didn't even think about what the audience would see and how they would react. All I cared about was I did my part and I had a finished project to give to my boss. As it turned out, "36th Chamber" was a huge success. I was really happy about that, but I didn't think I received fame from it. I believe the fame belongs to the film and to the director and how they gave me a chance to be part of it.

AR: Why do you think that movie has such enduring appeal for so many people?

GL: The actual story behind "36th Chamber" is a simple plot of how a teenager protests against the Manchurian government and the Ching dynasty, and so he learns Shaolin kung fu. I think people nowadays still appreciate the film because of how genuine it is, from the kung fu performed without any camera tricks, to how there's logic and philosophy behind learning kung fu and striving to stick up to what you believe in. You can almost argue that the focus of the film isn't on kung fu, but more on how it's a medium to teach people lessons that they'll never forget like in school. I think people nowadays still like to watch that movie, as it's entertainment but also has an educational element to it.

AR: The younger generation knows all about things like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Kung Fu Hustle," obviously "Kill Bill" and even various moves used in some James Bond movies. But they don't know very much, if anything at all, about the original Shaw Brothers' kung fu films. Do you think young people today, those born perhaps in the 1970s and after, have anything to gain from watching the original movies?

GL: Kung fu movies is part of our culture. In the 1970s, many kung fu heroes were acknowledged and they taught the public not to commit crimes, protect the people, etc. The films weren't really for entertainment but were more like social lessons. Nowadays, we don't need the films to do that, and as a result, the youth in Hong Kong don't really understand kung fu or what its purpose is. It's a similar case with literature; teens these days read comics, not novels. They think heroes mean Spiderman, Superman... No Wong Fei Hung kind of hero. I think that's a good and a bad thing. If you're a Hong Kong citizen, if you're a Chinese, you should know your own country's heroes. But teens today, like my teenage son, don't know anything about Chinese heroes or the culture behind it. They just know Spiderman, Harry Potter, something like that. So I really hope everyone understands their own country's culture, or we'll lose it one day.



AR: So then, Gordon, you practice kung fu two hours every day. I'm assuming you must be pretty good.

GL: Thank you. I show you, I show you. This is a very traditional kung fu, martial arts school. You know, every traditional martial arts school have this "Gwan Gon," we call Kwan Gon. It's a hero. And then all the weapons are very traditional weapons. So I want to demonstrate tiger and crane style. That represents strong and soft. So I show.

GL: You see?

AR: I was going to ask you to teach me that, but I don't think we've got the time!

GL: Ok one, first tiger, we're strong. And turn softer, turn half circle, and turn your body. Right.

AR: I don't think I'll scare anyone with that.

GL: This called... In Chinese called "yut ar charn" Yut -- the moon, just like the moon. This, you know the farmer do like this -- charn. So to mix together, this can protect. The enemy have life, so knife turn this. And this can go through. This not very... It's a very special weapon.

AR: So did the Shaolin monks used to use this sort of thing?

GL: Before, long, long time ago. Now not so many people can use like this.

AR: Yeah, I know. But you can.

GL: Only for the movie. (...) This in Chinese called "Gwan Dou." Gwan Dou, what means gwan dou. Gwan is Gwan Gon used this knife. You see.

AR: Oh yeah, it's the same.

GL: Gwan Gon is a hero. He helped so many people and his heart is very warm and kung fu has real spirit. So Gwan Dou also like that. You see. Same this style. Turn. Turn. Go. Like this. Sometimes we demonstrate gwan dou, something like horsing. Turn like this. You want to try?

GL: Your arm is straight. Then. I teach you. One, two.

(Sitting down)

AR: Going way back to your childhood days, is it true you used to skip school so you could go to kung fu classes?

GL: I was naughty and quite a rebel when I was young. My father hoped I would be studious and become a businessman or a clerk. He was also a traditional man, so he sent me to a boarding school when I was eight. When I was finally done with primary school, I returned home to live where I could watch plenty of movies. In those days, Cantonese films were in black and white, but I loved watching them, especially movies by an old famous actor, Kwan Tak Hing, who played Wong Fei Hung. And I thought that Wong Fei Hung was a hero and manly, and I wanted to learn what he knew. I learned that he was a kung fu master and I wanted to learn his type of kung fu, which is called "hung ga koon."

So when I started high school, I would secretly take lessons. I didn't skip any school. I never skipped, but I would secretly take lessons without my parents knowing. Every night after dinner at 7 p.m., I would tell my father that I had tutorial classes. I would hold my books as I left home and I would walk to Lau Ka Leung's martial arts school. I learnt for about three to four years before my parents caught me. They were really angry at first, but when they realized my academics hadn't slipped and I wasn't getting into fights after knowing kung fu, they allowed me to continue taking lessons.

AR: So kung fu's obviously still enduring in today's popular culture, like did you know the rap group Wu Tang Clang has based three albums on your movies?

GL: I know that my movies have influenced one particular band which has made them famous and popular. I've heard of their songs but I've never met them before. I think it's really great and pure chance that my traditional kung fu is able to inspire a band to create something fresh and modern. I'm very pleased that I'm able to give teenagers today a taste of the past.

AR: There's a lot of camera trickery involved these days in kung fu movies, particularly in the West I'm speaking about. Do you think that kung fu movies are a dying art, if not already a lost art?

GL: Kung fu movies from the '70s relied solely on the actors themselves and their kung fu performances. But in the 21st century that's not what movies are after. All they care about is the end product, the perfect picture. Personally, I think a combination of genuine kung fu and some special effects will give the perfect result. You look at Bruce Lee's films. When he filmed those movies back in those days, he didn't have any special effects. Every move he made came from his heart and soul.


As a result, the audience feels he's worth remembering. If you ask me to watch a movie that was swamped with special effects, I'd watch it and forget it. There's no memory-factor. So I think actors nowadays should have at least some kung fu moves that they can do themselves. The effects should enhance the actor and the film, not the other way round.

AR: Gordon, thank you so much for sparing the time to speak to us today. It's been a real pleasure. And that brings us to the end of this edition of Talk Asia. Thank you for joining me, Anjali Rao and my guest today, the legendary kung fu movie star, Gordon Liu. This has been Talk Asia. I'll see you again soon. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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