Yuen Wah

Biographical Essay by Yves Gendron

Hong Kong cinema has produced many magnificent villains over the years; players who through their screen presence, acting chops, physical abilities and picturesque mugs made such an impression that they have indelibly marked their era. Thus Shek Kin will always be considered as the fifties and sixties Cantonese cinema ruling bad guy while Lo Lieh will forever be remembered as the Shaw Brother Studio’s most wicked villain.

Then there was Yuen Wah, the top movie fiend of H-K cinema’s great golden period of the early Eighties to early Nineties. A superb acrobatic screen-fighter, Wah’s abilities along with a lean wiry body, a distinguishing moustache and a brilliant talent for quirky characterisation all contributed to making him the standout movie villain of his age. A Peking Opera Academy brother of H-K action stars Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao, Yuen Wah’s breakthrough came at a much later date then his brethren and with a totally different screen-persona as them but he became nearly as famous and iconic.
Able to play all sorts of rascals from snivelling weasels to cigar-puffing crime bosses to maniac killers (often styling his moustache differently from one movie to another), Wah could also do each in a variety of fashions; sneaky, edgy, chilling, camp and all at once if needed.  But while he’s chiefly known for his wily, acrobatic villains there is more to him.  At least half of his movie career was spent as a dependable stuntman, stunt-double and action choreographer and as such he was a major contributor behind the action spectacles done on dozens of Shaw Brother and Sammo Hung movies. Further, while his villainous roles usually called for a lot of overacting he could also do, when the occasion required it, more sympathetic, goofy or genuinely touching sort of roles as well

Kung Fu Wonder Child

Yuen Wah was born Yung Kai-chi in Hong-Kong on September 2. Here is how he got into Master Yu Jim-yuen’s China Drama Academy as he told it in an interview, ” (…) when I was young I liked action movie (…). After watching action movies I would imitate the kung-fu movies at home. My brothers and sisters (..) were my punch-bags. At school I would fight with my class-mates. The school told my mum that I was too naughty. That I was always watching and practising kung-fu. So my mum said okay okay since you like kung-fu, I send you to a place to learn it ”(1).  He was enrolled at about 7 or 8 years of age for a standard ten year contract. At the time of his arrival both Sammo Hung and Corey Yuen were already there but not Jackie Chan nor Yuen Biao. As with all pupils of the Academy, young Kai-chi was given a new name, Yuen Wah,  Yuen to honour his new master and Wah which means China or brilliant(-looking). (2)

Wah went through the gruelling training regiment meant to make top Opera performers. Even as a kid he already exhibited some astonishing aptitude that held his fellow opera students in awe including Jackie himself.  “When we did freeze practice, he’d still be as motionless as a statue long after the rest of us collapsed. He could stand on his hand indefinitively. In fact once, when master told us to take a break he kept on going head to the ground until someone realized that he’d actually fallen asleep upside down”(3). He also had a mastery of martial stances and forms that allowed him to pick up any fancy moves with a disarming ease and smoothness. A wonderful acrobat and contortionist, Wah was reportedly Master Yu’s best flipping tumbler. Needless to say he had no problem being chosen by him when Yu selected his top students to form the Seven Little Fortunes kiddie troupe. Performing for the stage and occasionally for the screen in martial-art movies, Wah thus fulfilled his kung-fu fantasy though after having gone through a far more arduous time that he could have possibly ever imagined.

Like the other Fortunes, Wah’s budding Peking Opera prospects did not survive the popular decline of the art.
From their mid-teens on most of them had to become movie stuntmen, where thanks to the then surging martial-art movie trend there was plenty of work to be found for qualified daredevil acrobats.  Eventually, Wah along with many of his Peking Opera Academy brethren joined Golden Harvest’s stunt-crew which was led by the Little Fortunes most senior member; big brother Sammo Hung.

In the Shadow of the Dragon

It was soon after Wah joined that Golden Harvest began preparation on the second movie by their newly established kung-fu superstar, Bruce Lee. On FIST OF FURY (72) a good dozen stuntmen were used as punching foils for the Little Dragon’s fiery rage, most notably for the film’s famed dojo scene. Yuen Wah himself appeared later on in the equally classic “No dogs and Chinese allowed” park scene as a smirking Japanese who is at the receiving end of Bruce’s fist after unwisely spouting a denigrating insult. Having the same body type as Bruce, wiry but muscular, Wah was also selected to be his designated acrobatic stunt-double. As fight scenes were staged on the spot, it was a wise move to have a double picked from the start. Yet as Bruce Lee’s screen fighting magic laid in pure kung-fu displays and not in fancy acrobatics, Wah ending-up doubling Lee only once for a somersault performed in the movie's last fight scene.

The following year Wah was picked up again as a double for Lee’s fourth and final completed k-f movie ENTER
THE DRAGON(73). He doubled him at least three times in this one. First for a snappy back-flip performed during the Bruce vs. Sammo fight that opens the film. Then there was the big somersault over the monks that cap the same scene. Finally, during the Lee vs. reviled Caucasian henchmen O’Hara duel, he’s the one who does a back-flip kick. In ENTER Wah also served as a fight extra being trounced by Lee on more than one occasion. He was also one of the guests grabbing a thrown apple in the movie’s banquet scene. Bruce had a big project for the future including starting filming movies in the United States. He had even selected ten capable stuntmen to help him do the action scenes and both Lam Ching-ying and Yuen Wah were among those chosen. Naturally, Bruce Lee’s sudden passing meant that both Lam and Wah stayed on as part of Golden Harvest’s stunt-crew.
Besides serving as a daredevil stuntman, Wah’s remarkable set of physical abilities together with his tall wiry frame made him a valued stunt-double and fighting foil. He also had another asset going for him; his angular, weasily face which he could easily shape into an intimidating mug or arrogant sneer. That’s likely what got him his smirking Japanese bit in FIST OF FURY as well as dozens of other tiny gigs over the years as thugs, henchmen and rowdy types that got into the heroes way and was trounced as a result. Between 1972 and 1977 Wah appeared, usually fleetingly, in nearly a dozen Golden Harvest martial art/action productions including BACK ALLEY PRINCESS and NONE BUT THE BRAVE (both 73) starring fighting female stars Polly Shang Kwan Ling-feng and Cheng Pei Pei respectively, the Angela Mao action vehicles STONER, TOURNEMENT (both 74), THE HIMALAYAN (76) and BROKEN OATH (77), King Hu’s VALIANT ONES (75) as well as John Woo’s early kung-fu movies; DRAGON TAMERS (75) and HAND OF DEATH (76). Except for the first two, all the action choreography in these films was done by big brother Sammo.
Like most of Sammo’s stuntmen Wah regularly strayed away from the Harvest studio lot and at least on a couple of occasions ended-up working for a gifted freelance action director named Yuen Woo-ping. AWAKEN PUNCH and FIST TO FIST (both 73 and the latter being reportedly John Woo’s actual directorial debut) are the two reported Yuen choreographed movies Wah is seen in. In all the HKMDB credits Yuen Wah with two dozen movie appearances between 1972 and 1977 but this is likely just the tip of the iceberg of his actual cinematic contributions.
Most stuntmen spend a considerable amount of time in developing new tricks to make themselves even more versatile and useful for the action directors who employed them. Wah’s aforementioned mastery at martial art forms meant that he was especially proficient at learning various types of kung-fu and adapt them into savvy screen-fighting moves that were both graceful and spectacular, which he could then use himself in movies or show to other stuntmen. His repertoire included among others Eagle Claws, Taekwendo, Bak Mei and various sorts of Southern Fists techniques. In time, Wah came to adopt for himself a mixed Taekwendo kicks/Eagle Claws as his signature screen fighting style; an ingenious combo that wonderfully played not only with his aptitude in kung-fu forms and  acrobatics but with his wiry framed and long spidery limbs and fingers as well. He also extensively practised with various sorts of weapon manoeuvres. Wah’s phenomenal talents allowed him to quickly, even instantaneously learn tricky acrobatic moves developed by other stuntmen as Wah himself revealed in an interview. “One of my friends trained secretly for about a week, to show me his one-handed back-flip. Normally such moves required two hands. He flipped using one hand, followed by a somersault in the air. I said “Is that all?  I'll try and see if I can do it.” I push off and I did five flips at one go. “You are not human (The friend said) I’m not playing with you anymore ”.(4)

It was around the mid-seventies that one of Wah’s big stunt-mishaps occurred “I was doing an old swordplay movie and had to jump from the fifth or sixth floor of a pagoda. Rehearsals were fine, then we break for lunch. Then we filmed the stunt. So I ran and jump from the pagoda and just as I jump, I realized that people had moved the crash mats to sit on them during lunch and had not put them back. I try to turn around in mid air but BOOOOM, I hit the ground and made a hole and hurt myself quite badly ”. (5)

Another memorable mishap that befell Wah also involved a fall from a great height. “The most memorable scene was to jump into the sea from a helicopter. I was holding two bags of heroin and being chased by somebody. So I had to jump into the sea. When I was in the water and because of the water I felt like somebody was hitting my chest with a hammer. It felt terrible. Later I came out of the water, I could not speak for two hours. Somebody got me some Brandy; I drank which helped better blood circulation. In the end my neck was swollen. My face was terribly blown-up. That  was something unforgettable ”. (6)

Wah in Shaw Movie Land

1976 saw a new stage in Wah’s career and the beginning of the second most important working relationship of his career (after Sammo). That year saw Yuen Wah, along with Fortune brothers Biao and Kwai going constantly back and forth between Sammo’s team and the Shaw Brother’s “Movie Land”, the nickname for the studio’s large cinematic facilities. He worked primarily on the crew of one of Shaw’s top house action choreographers, Tong Gaai  (also known as Tang Chia). Finally after about a year and a half, Wah left Sammo’s team and settled permanently with Tong having become one of his key assistants and his own special secret weapon.

There were at least three stunt-units at Shaw. One for the movies of Chang Cheh, the second headed by action choreographer turned director Lau Kar-leung for his own films and a third led by Lau’s former action director partner Tong Gaai who worked for whatever director the Shaw Studio bosses assigned him to. While movies by
Chang Cheh and Lau showcased lead players that were mostly seasoned martial artists or acrobats (the Venoms, Gordon Lau, Hsiao Hou) the movies Tong worked on starred actors who for the most part had limited
(if existent at all) martial expertise and physical capabilities - hence a high reliance on stunt-doubles. It’s this crucial but tricky field that Wah truly excelled in and he proved himself an invaluable human tool in Tong’s arsenal. Ti Lung, Lo Lieh and Liu Yung (aka Tony Lau) were some of the Shaw stars that Wah is known to have doubled and there were many others. Wah's seamless stunt doubling could be anything from a mere split-second flip to a prolonged sword duel. At times Wah probably did action scenes where he doubled both the two actors engaged in a fight together by replacing them alternatively one shot after the other.

Wah’s stay at Shaw lasted for more than eight years. He was involved in thirty three reported movies (though his actual number is likely higher) with the bulk of them but not all choreographed by Tong Gaai. The list includes most of the martial art films done between 1976 and 1984 by such Shaw directing luminaries as Chor Yuen (KILLER CLANS, MAGIC BLADE etc), Suen Chung (AVENGING EAGLE, DEADLY BREAKING SWORD etc) and Ho Mung-wa (SWIFTEST SWORD).  In all Wah must have performed on screen in as many action feats and screen fights as his three famed Fortune brothers Jackie, Sammo and Biao, in their own films, but doubling for someone else and therefore only seen from afar, from behind or in disguise.

Although he was no doubt one of Shaw’s most proficient stunt-doubles, (if not the best outright) Wah wasn’t the only one so it’s nearly impossible to readily identify most of the doubling jobs Wah has done over the years. There is one noteworthy exception though. In Shaw’s swordplay horror HUMAN LANTERN (82) lead villain Lo Lieh donned a fearsome looking outfit that disguises him into a half ape half lion prowling wild beast. For the most part it seemed it was Wah under that get up - both fighting and moving in an animal-like manner using his uncanny knack at acrobatics, physical contortion and pantomime.

HUMAN LANTERN also saw what Wah would later recall as one of his most memorable stunts gone wrong “I was a double for Liu Ying (one of the film’s lead actors) and was supposed to jump out from an underground hole. (…) Lo Lieh was holding a long bamboo stick with its end sharpened. The moment I jump out he throws the stick at me. That bamboo stick was shot out from an elastic wire. I was suppose to jump away (…) I saw the stick coming right into my eyes. I immediately turned away from it and it got into my back. (…) It looked like I had been impaled.(…)  They (the people on the set) thought I was dead because they thought the stick got into my heart. (…).  My whole body was paralysed. Later someone cut the stick into a short one. I went to the hospital with the stick in”. It turned out the stick only penetrated one inch into Wah’s body and he only needed a few stitches. According to Wah though, had he not suddenly turned away the stick might have well come through the head and got out from the back. “That was unforgettable. Really scared me  ”. (7)

The steady work at Shaw probably brought a stability in Wah’s life that few stuntmen enjoy, but it was not without a price. Having married and started a family, his heavy workload meant he did not have much time for them.  “The studio was just like my home I spend more time at work than at home. (…) When I got home my kids were all in bed. And when I got up they were all off to school. They didn’t see me. I didn’t get to see them either. And that was my life .”(8)

Wah’s start at Shaw coincided with the emergence of both kung-fu comedy and of a new generation of leading martial-art players. Thus Yuen Woo-ping, Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan all went from stuntmen and action choreographers to directors and/or kung-fu stars within a year and a half. Dozens of stuntmen and fight extras also became picturesque kung-fu movie players; villains, lead henchmen, comic sidekicks or wizened kung-fu masters. Fung Hark-on, Chin Yuet San and nearly all of the Yuen Clan, to name just a few, were part of this colourful kung-fu gallery. Back at Shaw both Chang Cheh and Lau did push a handful of screen-savvy stuntmen into either lead or major supporting roles (the Venom team for Chang, Hsiao Hou for Lau). However, as stated before, movies choreographed by Tong Gaai featured mostly actors and therefore stayed outside the “stuntmen as kung-fu movie hero/star” upheaval that was unfolding in martial art cinema.

It’s most tantalising to consider what could have happened to Wah’s career had he not gone to Shaw and stuck with Sammo as the latter became one of  kung-fu comedy’s leading stars and directors. He might have given him a juicy major villainous part in one of his movies and Wah could have been discovered far earlier than 1987 to become one of these delightful k-f bad guys. This is wishful speculation of course. After all, not all of the stuntmen became major players, only a handful did.
This said, although Wah did miss the stuntman as star bandwagon that carried many of his brethren to greater fame that doesn’t mean his work at Shaw denied him opportunities to be in the spotlights. Far from it.  Although a good portion of his frequent screen appearances in Shaw movies did consist of quick and almost unrecognizable parts, over the years he also made at least a dozen tiny but eye-catching appearances as thugs, swordsman, guard or assassins that nicely displayed him in dapper-looking period costumes and deft combat scenes. The movies where he was featured in such a way include CLAN OF INTRIGUES, (as a Japanese Ninja), SENTIMENTAL SWORDSMAN (swordsman Yu Lung-cheng ), LEGEND OF THE BAT (a mute bodyguard), SWORDSMAN AND THE ENCHANTESS, SOUL OF THE SWORD (white bearded body-guard) KILLER CONSTABLE (swordsman in red), HEROES SHED NO TEARS (Mu Chi killer) and THE EMPEROR AND HIS BROTHER (No 6). With the beginning of the Eighties Shaw made two k-f comedy tryouts where Wah was reportedly given more extended roles. One was COWARD BASTARD starring one of Wah’s fellow Fortune brothers, Meng Yuen-man, while the other KID WITH A TATOO cast Wah as a spear-wielding assassin. This latter film saw him fight another Fortune brother Yuen Bun as well as clash with Shaw’s great kung-fu screen villain Wang Lung Wei. All these bit roles did not change Wah’s overall status at Shaw though and he remained a stuntman who only participated in tiny parts.
It was in action staging that Yuen Wah was able to climb ladders as he became one of Tong Gaai’s chief action assistants. He was officially first credited as assistant action director for THE EMPEROR AND HIS BROTHER (81) although he had probably started handling major action staging chores at a much earlier date. Tong Gaai’s own directorial debut SHAOLIN PRINCE (83) saw Wah graduate to fully fledged action director. Finally in 1984 Wah made it as chief action director on two movies; SUPREME SWORDSMAN and LUST FROM LOVE OF A CHINESE COURTESAN in partnership with Yuen Bun.

Unfortunately, Wah’s steady set of promotions coincided with Shaw’s rapid decline as a filmmaking power. Indeed by the early Eighties, things had really soured for Shaw. Once Hong Kong’s ruling studio, it began in the late seventies to lose its footing. What had begun as a slide turned by the early Eighties into free fall. With its heavy handed and antiquated studio system Shaw could not cope with the new stars, trends, emerging rival film companies and filming methods that were developing in Hong Kong cinema at the time and pushing it to a new level of scale and sophistication. Unable to reverse their plummeting fortunes, the Shaw bosses finally shut down its movie making operation in 1985, the year that is widely considered as the unofficial closure of the Old-school martial-art era.

Hung Kar Pan Wah Pow

By that time however, Yuen Wah had already gone back to big brother Sammo to become part of his “Hung Kar Pan” (Hung Stunt Group). Since the emergence of kung-fu comedy Sammo had proven himself as both a popular star as well as one of the most talented directors and action-choreographers the k-f movie genre ever had. Once k-f- comedy ran its course, Sammo switched to the new top trend of the early Eighties; stunt-oriented urban action capers. CARRY ON PICKPOCKET (82) came first followed by WINNERS AND SINNERS (83) which were both tremendous box-office hits and firmly established Sammo as one of H-K’s leading cinema forces. By 1984 Sammo was making movies for both Golden Harvest as well as D&B, a newly establish film production company, and was on the verge of establishing his own; Bo Ho Films Corporation. He was not only starring, directing and choreographing but producing movies as well which starred close associates of his such as Yuen Biao, Richard Ng and Lam Ching-ying. With such a frenzied output of activity, Sammo needed help to carry on such a multitude of projects and Yuen Wah with his great expertise in both action choreography and stunt-doubling must have been welcomed with open arms by his big brother.

Yuen Wah thus joined Lam Ching-ying, Yuen Biao, Billy Chan Wu-ngai, Meng Hoi and Corey Yuen in Sammo’s team of action directing acolytes whose task was either to assist Sammo with the action in his own directed efforts such as OWL VS DUMBO (84), MY LUCKY STARS, HEART OF DRAGON (85) or were the action directors in the movies he produced such as THOSE MERRY SOULS and MR VAMPIRE (also 85). Wah still acted as stunt-double extraordinaire and it was while doubling Sammo's regular player Lau Kar-Wing for a spectacular pratfall in MY LUCKY STAR that he badly hit his head against a glass table he was crashing into and got knocked out.

Wah also regularly appeared in Sammo's productions though usually in background bits such as MY LUCKY STARS (fleetingly glimpsed as a gangster henchman), MILLIONNAIRE EXPRESS (as one of Eric Tsang’s prison stripes cronies) and WHERE’S OFFICER TUBA (part of an extortion gang). His biggest early role in a Sammo film was as one of Jackie Chan’s Swat-team buddies in HEART OF DRAGON where he got a couple of lines to say, showed a couple of moves and did a dangerous looking freefall.
Wah was called to play another fearsome creature (after his turn in HUMAN LANTERN years earlier) for the now classic MR VAMPIRE; as a rotting faced, hopping stiff ghoul or Gyoshi as the Chinese themselves called those walking death creatures. The movie is famous for having given Lam Ching-ying his beloved signature role of the wise and noble Taoist exorcist , but Yuen Wah also had an important role in the movie both on screen and off. Besides playing the Gyoshi he was also the film’s co-action director along with Lam Ching-ying. For the role Wah had to wear gruesome looking (and quite likely highly uncomfortable) make-up, being hit by furniture and to take all sort of falls including being pulled hard from behind by wires while remaining always in unfazed stiff corpse character and howling at his intended prey.  It paid off as Wah’s Gyoshi come across as one of the more frightening ghouls to ever grace Hong-Kong horror cinema. From Chinese zombies Wah went on to a Terminator-like robot killer in FINAL TEST (87). A rare H-K movie foray into SF fiction, the film made good use of Wah’s talent at quirky characterisation and pantomime and foreshadowed his later turn at unassuming looking/lethally skilled opponents.
By 1987 Yuen Wah had been doing movies for nearly twenty years and appeared in more than sixty productions.
Yet movies where he had more than one line to say amounted to less than a handful. So although very active and respected by his fellow stuntman/action choreographer peers as well as many martial art directors, he had remained otherwise a fairly obscure figure to the viewing public at large. Had he left the movies at that date no viewers would have ever notice he had gone.

It’s Wwwaaaahhhh Time

It’s at this point though that big Brother Sammo thought that Wah was ripe for a major screen role. Reaching his mid-thirties, age had sharpened Wah's features and now with the addition of a moustache, his face took on a character and intensity that had been lacking in his younger days. For his Vietnam war actioner EASTERN CONDORS (July 87) Sammo carefully designed Wah’s role of a Mao-suit dressed Vietcong commander to fully display his  many talents, take advantage of his peculiar look and pull-off one of the film’s biggest surprise twists. Sammo explained once in an interview; “I thought of this character who wasn’t so much powerful as tricky and skilled in kung-fu. I showed him (Wah) how to act, how to giggle, move his head and body.”(9) Wah also prepared himself by watching a lot of Western movies featuring very evil SS and Gestapo types “I took some of the mannerisms and characteristics and combined them with my own ideas for this role."(10)

Yuen Wah only appeared late in the movie, had less than 10 minutes of screen time and only had three brief lines, but the way he looked, acted and moved was imminently eye catching. A gangly spectacled man, surrounded by tough army goons, perpetually fanning himself and displaying both a silly grin and wicked giggles, Wah’s Vietcong commander was all at once unnervingly creepy yet oddly comical, a quirky double act meant to keep the viewing audience off-balance and guessing. While reminiscent of those smirking wimpy little villains frequently found in old kung-fu movies, there was however something unsettlingly ominous about Wah’s character.
Even so, it still comes as a complete surprise when during the film’s final showdown, faced by Yuen Biao, instead of turning craven yellow the commander responds by a masterful kick that brutally floors Biao to the ground.  “Waaahh” utters a totally shocked and stunned Biao following this “Wah moment”, the first of many in the years to come.  Of course the non-threatening prey that turns out to actually be a deadly k-f fighter is an old favourite trick by Sammo which he had used many times before (most notably with Lam Ching-ying in PRODIGAL SON and Michiko Nishiwaki in MY LUCKY STARS) but never quite sold as masterfully as here.
Setting aside his prop fan and handkerchief Wah’s commander is no longer the feeble looking wimp but a lethal fighting fiend who mercilessly trounces Biao by using Eagle Claws. Then a lean and mean looking Sammo enters and what follows is an all too brief but thrilling clash between Sammo’s kung-fu powerhouse and Wah the springy k-f trickster for the film’s final action show-stopper. By the end of it the commander is all bruised and battered (though he still had a dirty trick up his Eagle Claw hand) but Wah the until now obscure stuntman and seamless screen-double had at long last had his career changing breakthrough and nothing would be the same for him again (11).

After such a memorable appearance, a canny Sammo, naturally cast Wah as the lead baddie in his next big film; DRAGONS FOREVER (Feb 88) customarily known as the last Three Brothers movie but which could also be easily described as the first and only Fourth Brothers movie as well. This time out Sammo and Wah concocted a villain that while still twitchy and tricky bore a radically different look. Thus Wah went from being a Mao-suited Vietcong commie fiend to the ultimate capitalist villain, a dapper drab, slick haired, cigar chewing drug kingpin heavily inspired by James Cagney and other American gangster roles.
While in EASTERN CONDOR Wah appeared only in the last third of the movie, DRAGONS FOREVER actually begins with Wah’s gangster villain wasting James Tien who had been playing the recurrent crime kingpin figure in nearly a dozen earlier Sammo’s productions; a very sly and tongue in cheek way to introduce the character and show who the big boss was from now on. For the bulk of the movie Wah makes only recurrent appearances but with his gift for quirky comic characterisations he neatly steals all his scenes.
For the film’s showdown a tantalizing little game is played by Wah’s villain. As the fighting begins, Wah starts of course by sending his cronies after the heroes while carefully remaining on the side and only conducting brief sneaky attacks when Jackie is distracted or off-balance in keeping with his character’s weasily ways. On a couple of occasions Jackie throws Wah a menacing scowl and there’s some brief fist and feet exchanges but never a sustained fight. Clearly Wah’s character is a proficient fighter bursting with nervous energy and quite capable but he is constantly put on hold frustrating the audience eager to see Wah unleash. Instead Wah goes after the film’s leading lady sending her through a glass plate head first then crushing her fingers with his foot. Finally Sammo enters the picture and Wah begins by pounding him and then takes an Eagle Claws stance. Having been sneakily injected with drugs however, Wah starts having goofy convulsion, grinning facial contortions and takes a slapstick pratfall. And so Yuen Wah’s part in DRAGON FOREVER actually ends on this hilarious deflating comedic inversion of his EASTERN CONDORS Vietcong commander turn.
While he may have been discovered in EASTERN CONDORS, it could arguably be said that it was Wah’s quirky crime-boss turn in DRAGON FOREVER that really fully exposed his true potential as a versatile character actor who didn’t need a sustained fight scene to work his special screen magic. Yet despite Wah’s obvious affinity at playing lead villainous roles it took him more than a year and a half before getting another such part. In the mean-time Wah got back to being a busy action director on a handful of Sammo produced movies; PAPER MARRIAGE, IN THE BLOOD, THREE AGAINST THE WORLD, SPOOKY SPOOKY and MR VAMPIRE IV (all 1988). He also took on a string of secondary roles in which he always gave a quite memorable turn; such as a flesh-eating long whiskered spirit in PICTURE OF A NYMPH (88), a possessed cop in SPOOKY SPOOKY and a gloriously fey attendant turned Gyoshi in MR VAMPIRE IV.
Wah’s most “straight” role of the period, or even of his whole career, was in the Yuen Biao vehicle ON THE RUN, where he’s part of a quartet of ruthless crooked cops alongside Charlie Chin, Phillip Ko Fei and Lo Lieh (who he had frequently doubled in his Shaw Brother days). Relinquishing for the most part stunt oriented action in favour of film noir atmosphere, drama and shootouts Wah doesn’t engage in any acrobatic fights in this one. His character doesn’t actually talk or do that much and he is seen usually standing behind his follow cronies but he cuts a distinctive chilling figure. “Shoot him” he whispers at one point in fellow crony Ko Fei’s ear as the latter aims a gun at a helpless Biao.

Wah’s big acting moment comes in the film’s showdown where the tables are turned and it’s now Wah and his crooked pals that are held at gun point by Yuen Biao and the film’s leading lady, Pat Ha. Here his character reveals his true colors as a snivelling coward begging and even crying for his life. Back in the 1993 Eastern Heroes interview Wah singled out ON THE RUN as his third favourite film (after EASTERN CONDORS and DRAGONS FOREVER because "I like the style of the film, and I think that my acting is quite good in it because I get to give my character some emotion instead of being told just to fight like a human prop ."(12)

Magnificent King Villain

At long last Wah came back to a lead villainous role with a vengeance in Yuen Biao’s action vehicle ICEMAN COMETH (Aug 89) as a wily fiendish Ming Dynasty swordsman, time-displaced to twentieth century Hong-
Kong. With swords, fire-arms, wire-fu, stunts and gruelling acrobatic k-f bouts, Wah delivered plentifully and with panache in this hyper-kinetic action extraganza which he also choreographed alongside Yuen Biao and another old Little Fortune brother Yuen Tak. Wah was also on a rampage acting wise as well as hamming it up to the max with maniacal glee, wicked laughs and snickering grins.

Though his character clearly owed much to Clancy Brown’s Barbaric Goth warrior seen in HIGHLANDER, one of ICEMAN COMETH’s many movie models, Wah’s wily interpretation of it was all his own and his most over the top  performance ever. Yet even if his acting veered dangerously into cartoony camp, Wah’s character never lost its edgy sense of menace.
Although they had faced each other many times before, it was ICEMAN COMETH that truly established Wah as
Biao’s stand-out screen nemesis. Sharing a similar wiry body type and outstanding acrobatic screen-fighting skills, they fit perfectly as antagonists. They would meet twice more in the next several years. COMETH also actually played eerily with Biao and Wah's real life Peking Opera Academy backgrounds as their characters in the movie are two martial brothers sharing a family name Feng and are trained by the same master as was actually the case in real life for both men (13). Early in the film Wah shouts to Biao “We started practising since five. We had to practise at dawn and could only sleep at midnight. It was not human life. Twenty five years, we lead such a life. We finally practised superb martial art". (14)
For the Sammo produced SHE SHOOTS STRAIGHT (Apr 90), Wah played a vicious Vietnamese criminal. This was Wah’s last film for Sammo. By the turn of the nineties H-K Cinema had gone through some changes since Wah had rejoined his big brother six years earlier. The popular appeal for bombastic, stunt-oriented capers was now fading and the era of the “stuntmen as star” which had begun with k-f comedy and brought stardom for Sammo, Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao, had come to pass. While Jackie remained on top, both Sammo and Biao’s careers had now entered into steady decline. No longer the leading force he once was, Sammo’s acting and producing activities became erratic and he finally went into semi retirement himself in 1991. By then most of his oldest acolytes and collaborators that he had used through his golden days had gone their own ways.

Somewhat ironically however, the period that saw Sammo lose his leading force/leading star standing were also those in which Yuen Wah hit his stride as a magnificent king villain. With the aforementioned ICEMAN COMETH and SHE SHOOTS STRAIGHT that were followed by his role as a fierce “palm power” minion in SWORDSMAN (May 90) and a power mad military dictator in BURY ME HIGH (Jan 91). While that last film and ICEMAN saw Wah truly unleash his physical skills both SHE SHOOTS STRAIGHT and SWORDSMAN, on the other hand, had Wah in only limited action or enhanced by wire-works but this did not affect Wah’s edgy villain potency in the least. Evidently Wah as a big movie villain was having a far easier time than his action stars Fortune brothers.
Wah’s greatest movie villain role he never played was DRAGON FROM RUSSIA’s wily Master of Death. Indeed ICEMAN COMETH director Clarence Fok had originally cast Wah to play the lead villain in his latest frenzied actioner but he ended up working on the film only five days, his face covered by a scarf in the brief couple of scenes he managed to do. After Wah left (probably because of conflicting working obligations) his role was taken over by the film’s action director Yuen Tak. A wacky acrobatic assassin but also wicked taskmaster ruthlessly training pupils into becoming killing machines, the Master of Death role had been tailor made to fit Wah’s expertise in acrobatics and quirky characterisations. Such a character would have given him the chance to play a role totally in the vein of those wizened masters so prevalent in kung-fu comedies, only far more sinister and deadly.  While Yuen Tak’s own frantic acrobatic abilities more than made-up for Wah’s departure action-wise, nothing could compensate for Wah's flair in playing oddball villains. (15)

Instead of playing one of the most maniacal martial art masters ever, Wah played one of the straightest instead when Tsui Hark cast him in Jet Li’s action vehicle THE MASTER as Jet’s own San Francisco settled beleaguered k-f teacher. A bone settler and herbalist who headed a Po Chi Lam dispensary, besides being a kung-fu expert, Wah’s master effectively played a sort of modern-day Wong-Fei-hung, the polar opposite of his then customary villains and consequently this is probably one of his most off-beat roles up to that point in his career. He also staged the film's action alongside Yuen Clan brother Brandy Yuen and although Jet Li is the star, Wah was given a couple of action scenes to do including a one against many fight for the film’s finale.

Unfortunately, none of the action either by Jet or him really stands out (not in the way it did in ICEMAN COMETH or EASTERN CONDORS anyway). Wah’s character is in a foul mood through most of the movie which is pretty clunky overall. In fact, the film was considered so poor by its makers that it was kept on the shelves for a couple of years before being released in May 1992 after the huge success of ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA.
Like ICEMAN COMETH, MASTER had some eerie parallels with Wah’s own real-life background. Wah’s own master immigrated to America once he was done training the Little Fortunes. Back in 1988 a movie was made about Master Yu and the Little Fortunes titled PAINTED FACES where it was big brother Sammo who played the master. Shortly after the movie was released, Master Yu briefly came back to Hong-Kong for a special celebration party with his former students before going back to what was now his home in the US. It might very well be that it was Master Yu’s story which inspired Tsui Hark to come up with this kung-fu master in America premise. So did Wah draw inspiration from his own Master to play his role in Tsui Hark's film? As the latter is depicted as a tough, moody yet deep down caring man it seems at least a distinct possibility. The other strong parallel between movie and real life was that Wah in 1991 resettled his family to Canada due to concerns about the 1997 Handover. Although he remained behind in Hong Kong to make movies he still spent at least some amount of time abroad.

Kung-Fu Jester

Although Wah had given quirky comedic overtones to most of his villains, even the more despicable, it was not until the dawn of the nineties that he truly embraced self-parody and comedic roles. This allowed him not only to send-up his usual fierce bad guy roles but to lighten up his token screen image as well. Thus in KUNG-FU VS ACROBATIC (July 90) he plays another time displaced ancient warrior with powerful palm power who is confused by the modern world especially when watching TV. Wah’s doltish expression and goofy moustache are priceless while his slapstick hiijnks are the highlight of this other-wise largely dull offering.

For the Stephen Chow movie MAGNIFICENT SCOUNDRELS (Oct 91) Wah is a dopey triad enforcer who ends up unwittingly beating up his own boss. Wah is all fierce and snarling in THE BIG DEAL (Nov 92) viciously beating and fighting everyone who gets in his way but it’s all for a laugh in this totally zany fighting girls send up which also sees him wearing the most garishly flamboyant suits ever and at one point he is even seen in a delicate situation on a toilet bowl.  As a tempestuous master thief seeking to settle the score with his despised martial brother (Yuen Clan’s Yuen Cheung-yan), Wah ends up fighting the man’s loony pupils Moon Lee and Yukari Oshima as well as the interloping wacky policewoman Sibelle Hu for the finale set in an amusement park. At one point they all gang up on him but Wah in a dazzling whirlwind display of action repels them all, forcing his adversaries to come up with a new, if somewhat cartoony tactic to defeat him.
Wah’s stand out comedy role (and even perhaps his stand out role of the early nineties period) was in LEGEND OF THE DRAGON (Mar 91) as Stephan Chow’s stern, righteous but hot tempered father named Chow Fei-hung (as in Wong Fei-hung of course). A guileless country bumpkin patriarch who makes wine out of fermented dead mice and is not too current about the modern world, Wah truly excels in a dead pan manner playing this father figure who hides his deep love for his son behind a severe outlook and angry outbursts. LEGEND was another of those movies to make an odd nod to Wah’s past history by having his character be Bruce Lee’s long time martial brother and acrobatic double - a connection Master Chow is always quite fond to relate and remind other people.
Wah trounces a couple of people in the movie but engages in only a brief fight testing his son; loving dad that he is by a sneaky attack with a rod, a chain and a knife. Wah choreographed the film with Corey Yuen and this was to be his last recorded work in the field of action staging. From then on, Wah would be completely finished with his old vocations of action-director and stunt-double. Beyond the film’s comedy content and (brief) action, Master Chow also had a couple of scenes showing a tender, touching and vulnerable side to him that reveals a fresh and surprising facet of Wah’s acting that was as far removed from his usual maniac villains role as it could possibly be.

The Black Panther

Despite his many ventures in comedies or as comic villains, Yuen Wah still remained a dependable edgy screen villain. Thus he was recalled by little brother Yuen Biao to serve as his screen nemesis once again for his directorial debut KID FROM TIBET (Jan 82), as the black clothed, lightning bolt throwing “Dark Lama”. Wah actually sported a newly grown goatee and mane of hair for that movie which made him appear fiercer than ever, almost like a human lion, a peculiar look he was to carry for a couple of movies.

While much smaller scale than the ICEMAN COMETH, KID FROM TIBET was still more than adequately sparkling and intense showing the two former Fortune brothers in splendid fighting shape. One year later Wah was cast one last time as Biao’s nemesis for the ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA-like yarn titled KICKBOXER (Feb 93). By then the goatee was gone and Wah had shaved his hair to get the appropriate Qing dynasty look for his role as a devious businessman who is actually a drug trafficker. Totally wire-work oriented, this film’s fight finale only allowed a fleeting glimpse of Biao’s and Wah’s formidable physicality and this third big showdown between the two turned out to be their most lacklustre and disappointing encounter. Alas it was also to be their last.
Between the two Biao films, Wah was also cast as a lead villain in Jackie Chan’s POLICE STORY III (July 92).
This was Wah’s first screen encounter with his more famous Fortune brother since DRAGONS FOREVER and the one role he did in one of Jackie’s films (DRAGON being a Three Brothers movie directed by Sammo doesn’t count). In the film Wah plays Panther a ruthless criminal who undercover policeman Jackie helps escape from prison and pretends to befriend so that he can lead him to his boss.  Shown as a cold ruthless killer, Wah’s character added an element of edgy danger because of the deception pulled on him by Jackie.  Otherwise though, his use is rather limited. Whenever the action kicks in Panther is usually briefly shown being “busy” but the focus remains steadily on either Jackie or his female co-star Michelle Yeoh.
In the course of the film’s finale Jackie, Yeoh and Wah do end up facing off against each other but a spectacular fight never materialises. Jackie’s brand of action was the one against many whirlwind fights and the hair raising dangerous stunt but not the one to one fight which was of course what Yuen Wah was great at. So Panther is actually quite casually disposed of after having made barely a move, and Jackie goes on to do the film’s big stunt set-piece of dangling from a helicopter’s ladder in mid-air. Watching the movie a new viewer of H-K cinema would have never guessed that Yuen Wah was actually one of H-K’s top screen fighters and one quirky character actor, which is exactly what happens when POLICE was dubbed, re-cut and re-titled SUPERCOP for a theatrical release in the West. As he played an important supporting role it can’t be said that Yuen Wah was wasted. Still the way he was used can be deemed as quite uninspired considering the man’s considerable talent. Sadly, POLICE STORY III was also Yuen Wah’s last major action movie.

Declining Fortune

After 1992, Wah considerably reduced his workload. Until then his average output was five movies a year, but in 1993 he appeared in only two and none in 1994. The reason for Wah’s extended hiatus is not known but had probably to do with a desire to have more time with his family. After being a performer for more than thirty years he more than deserved the respite. A lack of good roles may also have had something to do with his extended leave. By the mid nineties most of the Eighties action players’ careers had faltered and Yuen Biao even joined Sammo in semi-retirement. Hong-Kong cinema itself had begun a period of general uncertainty and decline and most of the kung-fu and stunt-oriented action films the local film industry now delivered took the shape of low budgeted, slapdash actioners. Wah appeared in two of those in 1995. Reprising his dapper suited gangster look he had used for DRAGONS FOREVER, Wah was the lead (but reportedly underused) villain in DRUG FIGHTERS (May 95) and got to do an extended battle with the film female action lead Yukari Oshima in what an admirer of the fierce Japanese nutcracker deemed to be one of her absolute best fights (16). Wah also had a guest role in TOUGH BEAUTY AND THE SLOPPY SLOP (Dec 95) as another weasily k-f fighting drug trafficker where he got to briefly engage Cynthia Khan in her introductory action scene.

In between those two films Wah made a welcome return to a comic character in the romantic comedy ONLY FOOLS FALL IN LOVE (Sept 95) where he played the leading lady’s (Wu Chien-lien) bumbling father and got to show once more just what a delightful comedian he could be. A brief throwaway scene where he does head flips also show how uncannily springy he still was even in his forties.
He reprised a fairly similar bumbling sidekick role two years later in HERO (July 97) except that here he played an older brother instead of a father. Directed by Corey Yuen, the film was a sort of Little Fortunes reunion as it cast four of them in supporting roles; Yuen Biao, Yuen Wah, Yuen Tak (also the film’s action director) and Corey Yuen himself. They are never seen all together though, but at least there is some nice comic banter between Corey Yuen and Wah.

Wah TV

The second half of the nineties saw the Hong Kong cinema situation degrade further for a variety of reasons. Wah made only sporadic returns to films after 1995. Quite clearly the movies now offered him nothing new or even perhaps nothing good for him to do. Many martial art/action players have found new opportunities on television once their movie careers faltered which is what happened with Wah. In 1996 he was given a part for the Hong Kong TV station TVB serial Night Journey as a Taoist wizard turned cop in early Republic China. Warmly received by the audience the serial's success gave a new lease of life to Wah’s career.  TVB being the TV branch of the greater Shaw Brother Empire, Wah’s new TV career marked his return within the Shaw fold, nearly three decades after he first entered as a young stuntman and twelve years after he had left it back in 1984 to join Sammo’s Hung Kar Pan. So in a way Wah had come full circle.

Despite his new career on TV Wah did not completely let go of movies. In 1998 he played another spectacle, cigar chewing crime boss for the low-budget pot-boiler LEOPARD HUNTER and the finale sees him take on action females Jade Leung, Yukari Oshima and four other female cops in what is described as a “terrific match-up” . In 2000 Wah appeared in the ghost movie DEVIL SHADOW and the following year he played an evil wizard in the VAMPIRE CONTROLLER where he sported a new shaved moustache look. Wah followed this with ULTIMATUM (01). All of these last movies quickly came and disappeared without making much of an impression.
One year after Night Journey Wah was cast in another period serial titled Drunken Angels.  Other TV productions starring Wah since then include Plain Love II and III, Country Spirit, God of Honour and a Place of One’s Own. Some of them have a contemporary setting. Wah also at one point did a TV commercial about condoms. Nowadays in Hong Kong Wah is far better recognized as a TV actor then a movie villain, although in the West it’s still this image that predominates.
Wah had not done a movie in three years until he was recently cast in Stephan Chow’s KUNG FU HUSTLE. Now entering his fifth decade (or about to) Wah may have passed his prime physically but he still remains a gifted character actor and there’s every chance that he might still give the audience other delightful and surprising “Wwwaaahhhh” moments.


1.    “The Prince Of Darkness; an interview with Yuen Wah” found in SWORDSMAN Hong-Kong Legend Edition.
2.    Thanks to both Jun Yan and King Wei for this translation bit.
3.    Jackie Chan/Jeff Yang I AM JACKIE CHAN MY LIFE IN ACTION pp 78-79
4.    Prince of Darkness Interview with Yuen Wah
5.    The Best of Eastern Heroes; YUEN WAH COMETH; Yuen Wah Interview; pp 114
6.    Yuen Wah Interview; MAGIC BLADE Celestial DVD edition.
7.    Yuen Wah Interview; MAGIC BLADE Celestial DVD edition.
8.    Yuen Wah Interview; MAGIC BLADE Celestial DVD edition.
9.    Bey Logan HONG KONG ACTION CINEMA pp: 96.
10.  The Best of Eastern Heroes; YUEN WAH COMETH pp 112
11.  Wah reprised his Vietcong commander act for an EASTERN CONDORS musical number done for theTVB Miss Hong-Kong beauty Pageant. He would also play another ominous commie official later on for the “God of Gambler” type comedy TOP BET (91) starring Anita Mui and Carol Cheng directed by Fortune Brother Corey Yuen.
12.  The Best of Eastern Heroes; YUEN WAH COMETH; pp:115
13..  Feng is most likely the name of their master which the characters bear as tribute to him the same as Yuen Wah  and Yuen Biao did in real life. This is not actually stated in the movie and the master remains nameless  ( in the subtitles anyway) but given the nature of the relationship of the characters between them this is a most likely supposition.
14.  Iceman Cometh
15.  Fok also considered at one point casting Yuen Biao as the film’s hero (that ended-up being played by Sam Hui) so with Maggie Cheung playing the love interest, DRAGON FROM RUSSIA almost reunited the acting threesome of ICEMAN COMETH.
16.  Yukari Oshima Overview by T. P Hong Kong Cinema Special Features http://brns.com/yukari/Yukari1.html


-The Best of Eastern Heroes; YUEN WAH COMETH; Yuen Wah Interview;
-John Charles, Hong Kong Filmography 1977-97
-Stephan Hammond Hollywood East

-The Prince Of Darkness; an interview with Yuen Wah” found in SWORDSMAN Hong-Kong Legend Edition.
-Yuen Wah Interview; MAGIC BLADE Celestial DVD edition

Web sites.
-Hong Kong Movie Database; http://www.hkmdb.com/db/people/view.mhtml?id=4886&display_set=eng
-The Best Flipping Actor Yuen Wah; http://www.compusmart.ab.ca/suisum/yuenwah.html
-Wah, Pat Cooghan, BC Magazine http://hk.bcmagazine.net/cgi-bin/output.cgi?issue=132&&id=25  Discontinued ?.
-Yuen Wah Spendid Hong Kong Cinema Screen Villains. http://www.yuenwah.com.  Seemingly discountinued
-HKMania: http://www.hkmania.com/yuenwah.html
-Bejing Video http://www.beijingvideo.com/bjv/v127.html
-Hong Kong Cinema View From the Brooklyn Bridges http://brns.com/
-Kung-Fu Cinema http://www.kungfucinema.com/index.html