Donnie Yen's action choreographers on his and Jackie Chan's lasting influence on movie making

Donnie Yen Ji Dan, Kenji Tanigaki
PHOTO: Twitter/KenjiTanigaki

The only Japanese member of the Hong Kong Stuntman Association, Kenji Tanigaki speaks Cantonese with a Japanese accent when he choreographs action scenes in Donnie Yen Ji Dan’s movies.

Tanigaki first worked for Yen as a stuntman in the TV series Fist of Fury (1995) starring Yen and co-directed by the late director Benny Chan Muk-sing . Adapted from the eponymous Bruce Lee classic, the show portrays Chen Zhen, the fictional protégé of Qing dynasty martial arts maestro Huo Yuanjia.

The success of Fist of Fury turned Yen , who played Chen in the series, into a superstar, and the two would collaborate on another project featuring the character, in the 2010 film Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen .

In an interview with the Post , Tanigaki recalls how he left an impression on Yen with his stunt work in Fist of Fury . “He had to fight many Japanese [in the series]. He asked me to help him out in 1996 when he started his own company [Bullet Films] to be a director.

“When directing Legend of the Wolf (1996), he started to put together his own stunt team. He didn’t have enough money [to pay the crew] then. The experience was very harsh. But I enjoyed it a lot.”

A student of Yasuaki Kurata, a Japanese action star well versed in martial arts and best known for fighting Jet Li in Fist of Legend (1994), Tanigaki came to Hong Kong from Japan in 1993.

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“Jackie Chan made me want to become a stuntman,” he says. “I imitated his drunken kung fu in Drunken Master [1978] when I was a child. I learned Hong Kong-style kung fu at Kurata’s school in Japan for four years. But Japanese action movies then were lame. The stunts were fake.

“When I arrived in Hong Kong, there were over 200 filmmaking companies listed in the [telephone directory] Yellow Pages. I turned up at the companies but they ignored me as I didn’t speak Cantonese.”

Tanigaki read the entertainment section of Chinese-language newspaper Oriental Daily and learned the local language from passers-by at McDonald’s every day. One day his luck changed when a talent scout approached him at McDonald’s and found him some work at the Tsim Sha Tsui police station.

“I had to dye my hair blond. In the police station, I sat on a bench with four people. We were asked to stand up and sit down many times. I was paid HK$300 for the work. It turned out it was for witness identification.

“The talent scout called me later for a bit part in a TV series. I got to know the action choreographers on set and joined the Hong Kong Stuntman Association in 1994.”

Unlike during the 1980s and ’90s when stunts were developed on set, Tanigaki says that from the noughties on, due to tight production schedules, action choreographers have got their own staff to enact the action scenes on set and made edited videos before shooting starts.

“Yen will watch the videos and ask for adjustments. He loves making changes. Although Yen is not the director, he calls the shots on set, requiring the cinematographer to use a certain lens for a scene, for example.”

As well as making Yen’s films such as Wu Xia (2011) and Big Brother (2018), Tanigaki is making Japanese, mainland Chinese and Hollywood movies as well. He was action choreographer for the very popular Japanese live-action movie franchise Rurouni Kenshin , based on the eponymous manga series by Nobuhiro Watsuki. He served as fight coordinator on Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins , starring Henry Golding , which comes out next week.

Tanigaki won a joint Golden Horse Award for best action choreography in 2018, for the Chinese film Hidden Man . He’s a film director in his own right, having directed Yasuaki Kurata in Legend of Seven Monks (2006), and Yen in Enter the Fat Dragon (2020). Tanigaki credits Yen with teaching him all aspects of filmmaking.

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John Salvitti is another long-term action choreographer for Yen. The martial arts expert from Revere, Massachusetts, says Yen is a visionary who passes on his filmmaking knowledge to all his team members.

“Donnie makes the style and technical calls. We pitch ideas. If he thinks they will work, we go along with them,” he tells the Post .

“Once shooting starts, he has pretty much mapped out what he wants to do. The team have to stay alert and ready.”

Salvitti was a student at Yen’s mother Bow-sim Mark’s martial arts school in Massachusetts in the 1980s. “Donnie graced the cover of [monthly magazine] Inside Kung Fu in 1982. I read this and was so intrigued that soon I [joined] his mother’s school. I eventually became Donnie’s student. I would watch his every move and study his way of training and explosiveness.”

At Yen’s suggestion, Salvitti came to Hong Kong in 1989. “I was welcomed to Hong Kong by Donnie and Yuen Woo-ping . It was so surreal as these were the men I saw on the big screen at Boston’s Chinatown theatre.”

Of all the Yen films he has worked in, Tanigaki says the shooting of Flash Point (2007) was the most memorable. “Shooting its ending takes three months, with many reshoots. We tried to create a new style of action choreography with MMA elements. So there was much trial and error. I brought 10 stuntmen from Japan to work on that film.”

From left: Salvitti, Yuen Woo-ping and Michael Woods on the set of In the Line of Duty 4: Witness, the 1989 film directed by Yuen and starring Donnie Yen.
PHOTO: Facebook

Although the Hong Kong movie industry is in decline, with a drastic drop in output and wholesale migration of filmmaking talent to China, Tanigaki says local action movies have left a lasting legacy that will keep inspiring future generations of moviemakers around the world.

“Seventy per cent of foreign action choreographers grew up watching Hong Kong movies. The prolific Hollywood action choreographer Bradley Allan from Australia is a member of Jackie Chan stunt team.

“Many action stars, including Tony Jaa from Thailand are also fans of Jackie Chan . Director of the Rurouni Kenshin series Keishi Ohtomo loves Jackie Chan and Donnie Yen.”

Fight choreographer John Salvitti.
PHOTO: Facebook

After learning the ropes from Yen, notably working as the action choreographer for 2014’s Kung Fu Jungle , Salvitti went on to work with other big names such as Jay Chou (for the 2003 short film Double Blade ) and Jean-Claude Van Damme (for 2015’s Pound of Flesh ). “I applied the knowledge from working with Donnie [in Hollywood],” he says.

Tanigaki went with Yen to Berlin to make the German TV series Der Puma – Kämpfer mit Herz , which was co-directed by Yen from 1999 to 2000. Their stay encouraged locals to become action choreographers, he says.

“The same happened [in 1993] when Jackie Chan stayed in Vancouver for six months to make Rumble in the Bronx (1995). I hope the Hong Kong movie industry will regain its former glory in future.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.