Wu Di's JIANG HU: A Comedic Martial Arts Underworld
by Emilio Alpanseque
Photos courtesy of Wu Di
Former world Wushu Champion Wu Di may not be your typical filmmaker. He never went to film school. However, his first short film, JIANG HU, has been viewed by over 1,500,000 people online. In this interview, he shares with us a few of his thoughts about his career shift as well as what inspired him to do what he is doing.
Emilio Alpanseque: You are a professional Wushu athlete that has decided to transition into filmmaking. Please tell us when you made that decision and why?
Wu Di: Yes. The fact is that I embarked on the martial arts path when I was very young, mainly inspired from watching many Kung Fu films and idolizing several martial arts stars. At that time, I thought that by practicing martial arts I would be able to fly one day. And, although later I found out that wasn't possible (laughs), I don't regret it because by practicing martial arts I have been able to learn a lot of other important things in life like committing to hard work, overcoming difficulties, and how to become a better person. Then, after years of professional training and top-level competitions, a recurring injury in my back ended up spelling the end of my career, forcing me to retire after the 10th World Wushu Championships in 2009. But since making movies has always been my dream, perhaps this destiny twist was in reality a master plan of God to give me the opportunity to engage in my other passion. And hence, I resolutely decided to dedicate to filmmaking ever after.
EA: Have you received any formal training in acting before? Has your previous experience in Wushu helped?
WD: During my life as a professional athlete and also as a university student, there was absolutely no time left for anything else, so I have not had formal training in acting before. But fortunately for me, my specialty in Wushu is Taolu, and performing routines certainly can be considered as a form of acting as well. After so many years of competition and performances of all types, including tours to many countries, theatre plays and more, I am able to perform in a very natural way and without any tension or nerves. Although, in regards of true acting skills for the movies, I still have a long way to go and I am constantly learning from all my senior brothers around me.
EA: No matter what, you were able to land a supporting role in the huge production FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGON GATE with Jet Li. How was that experience?
WD: Yes. FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGON GATE definitely marked a milestone in Chinese cinema, and I feel very lucky to be able to have the opportunity to be part of it. It is hard to describe what it feels like to suddenly not only be able to meet some of your childhood heroes but actually to shoot a film with them! I remember the first time I met with director Tsui Hark, I said to him, "I grew up watching many of the Kung Fu films made by you, and it is mostly because of that that I started practicing martial arts." " Oh really?" he replied. "Well, you are certainly not the first one that tells me that!" So, I guess there has been a lot of fellow Wushu brothers and sisters that share the same experience (laughs). In the beginning, I thought I would look a bit awkward playing traditional characters in old costume and makeup;; however, working under the guidance of such experienced professionals on the set made me much more attuned to my acting abilities, and for that I will be forever grateful.
EA: You've recently completed your first short film, JIANG HU. Tell us what was your main intention for producing this short?
WD: It has always been my dream to make movies. So one day I decided to make a film in order to learn from the process. Now, with no experience and no budget, I could not dare to try things that were outside of my capabilities. Making a short film was the way to go, and that short became JIANG HU. I planned the entire film to become a tribute to several famous directors. In fact, many people have asked me about the influences of Stephen Chow, Tsui Hark, Jiang Wen, and other masters of Chinese cinema, and that was exactly the case. I took as a reference many elements from their films, and if the audience was able to notice that, then my mission was a success.
EA: How long did the project take and how difficult was it for you to complete it?
WD: Including preparation, shooting and post-production, it took us around 45 days to complete it. It was very hard work, but I worked during those days all day and all night. Obviously, due to my lack of experience, we encountered many problems. However, since we were able to solve each one of them, it was ultimately very rewarding. I think filmmaking is a wonderful thing to do in life, and the feeling of accomplishment can be very addicting! But again, the final product is a collaborative effort of all the persons that were involved in the process; therefore, I would like to use this opportunity to thank all my staff and remind the audience of how important everyone was. Thank you! Thank you!
EA: Writing, directing, editing, choreographing, acting; how did you do it so well?
WD: Thanks for the compliments! (Laughs) But I know there are many mistakes and miscalculations in JIANG HU, and also that there are a lot of things to learn and improve. If I was to rate my own short film from 1 to 10, I would probably give it a 6; it would barely make it. Nevertheless, as a first-time effort, I think at least it proves our true intention to complete the work in the best possible way despite the limited conditions and resources. I hope that the audience can see our commitment and sincerity. In that sense, no matter what you do, whether Wushu or filmmaking, as long as you give your best effort, everyone will feel your sincerity!
EA: Can you explain to our readers what does jiang hu really means?
WD: Sure. Jiang hu literally means "rivers and lakes," but it is a special term used in martial arts classic novels to refer to fictional underworlds or communities where characters have special Kung Fu powers. To give you an example, Jiang Hu is the underworld where Wuxia novels take place, but it can have other implications as well. Now, just as Stephen Chow and other directors have done in the past, I purposely stepped away from the classic novel style and created my own Jiang Hu in a very typical and contemporary setting, inside a picturesque old-Beijing neighborhood. I first created the underworld including each one of the characters, followed by the right story within. Then, using simple narrative structure, physical comedy as well as basic action and a little wirework, I strived to make a product that would be at the same time exciting and entertaining.
EA: And why the comedic flare instead of a more straight martial/action approach?
WD: I know, everyone has their own preferences. Personally, I wanted to tilt more towards the comedy genre because I think most of us would agree that we are living in more stressful times now than ever. Day-to-day pressure is certainly on the rise; therefore, I wanted my film to bring joy to the audience, giving them an opportunity to spare the stress and enjoy a pleasant mood instead. This is what I wanted to do.
EA: I noticed that you've posted the film online in Youku and YouTube. Why and how has it helped you?
WD: The exposure that the internet can give filmmakers is very powerful, way farther reaching than a festival circuit, for example. To be honest, I didn't expect JIANG HU to do as well as it has... It's had more than 1.5 million viewings on Youku alone! I did not expect that at all. Because of that, the film has attracted a lot of industry attention and we have been approached by certain networks and suggested to develop JIANG HU as a series of online episodes. Right now I'm exploring all avenues and opportunities. I think I want to pursue that! So I've started to write the script behind the series. As for the content, it is temporarily a secret; let's just say that the short film is just a small glimpse of what's in store for the rest. I am taking my JIANG HU to a whole new level.
EA: Do you have any message you would like to share with our readers?
WD: Like I said before, my career of professional Wushu training is now complete after nearly 15 years. During my days in the Beijing Wushu Team, I always received lots of support and encouragement from many Wushu enthusiasts from around the world. So now that I have started to transition to filmmaking, I hope that all of you can continue to support me! Support Wushu! Thank you!
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About Emilio Alpanseque:
Emilio Alpanseque currently resides in Point Richmond, California and can be contacted through his website MasteringWushu.com. For any additional information, Wu Di can be contacted at AliveNotDead.com/dillonwu