Actor-Director Stephen Fung, whose career spans over 30 years in the Hong Kong, brought his expertise to the small screen in Wu Assassins, Netflix's first martial arts-focused original series. The action-fantasy led by The Raid's Iko Uwais and Vikings Katheryn Winnick blends elements of superhero origin, coming-of-age, fantasy and science fiction.
Fung spoke with The Hollywood Reporter to explain how the series came together. He said those already familiar with The Raid franchise should see Uwais make use of silat, an Indonesian and Malay fighting style – which is a departure seen in his previous films as he made his name with the Hong Kong wuxia and tai chi fighting styles.
Fung directed the first two episodes of Wu Assassins and served as executive producer. He previously worked on AMC's Into the Badlands, serving as executive producer, director, and stunt fight director.
Set in present-day San Francisco, the story follows an aspiring chef (Uwais), who discovers he's the sole surviving heir of the Wu Assassins bloodlike. With Uwais and Winnick, Fung explains how their martial arts stand out compared to those more familiar with the Hong Kong style.
"Iko is a famous action star in Southeast Asia and Katheryn is a black belt in Taekwondo, and their action styles are very different from the kind we're used to in Hong Kong action cinema. It gave me a fresh perspective and pushed me to think out of the box,"
A staple of Chinese martial arts cinema is the process of fight choreography, which directors like Fung many times will use trained dancers in their films, like Zhang Ziyi.
"For Chinese martial arts cinema, aesthetics come first. When there is a fight onscreen, we don't pull real punches. It depends more on whether the choreography is visually pleasing, how the body language is expressed, with the help of wires, so it is more like a dance than be actually practical. But with Iko's martial arts discipline of silat, the fighting is more practical and there are a lot of joint locks. So filming Iko I could emphasize less on the aesthetics and use a more down-and-dirty handheld style, get a grainy feel and immerse the audience right in the middle of the action."
The "Wu" in Wu Assassins refers to the theory employed in diverse fields of Chinese thoughts including cosmology, Chinese medicine, military strategy and martial arts:
"I was quite intrigued by the title at the beginning, and wondered whether 'Wu' was a surname, or was derived from Wuxia [martial heroes] or Wu-Tang [a martial arts sect]. But after reading the script I realized 'Wu' referred to 'Wu Xing', the Five Elements theory."
Fung credits AMC and Netflix for giving him the creative autonomy for his shows:
"Both Netflix and AMC gave us a high degree of creative freedom, as they were tapping into an unknown territory, which is the martial arts genre. Since they are unfamiliar with tackling this genre, they trusted our abilities more. If they are making a series in the genre they are experienced in, they didn't have to hire us and could just work with an entirely local creative team. So I think this made our job easier — because they were convinced of our expertise from the get-go. Both have been very hands-off."
Fung attributes the struggles the martial arts genre in recent years to lack of up-and-coming stars:
"I don't think the prospects of Hong Kong martial arts cinema are very promising, and that is mainly due to the lack of up-and-coming action stars. Even when I was prepping Tai Chi 0 and Tai Chi Hero, we tried to find new action actors, but at the end of the day, it depends on whether the audience accept the newcomers. After Donnie Yen, the frontrunner is Max Zhang, but he can't star in each and every action film. Like the rise of Tony Jaa driving the action cinema in Thailand, the emergence of a new action star is key to a revival in Hong Kong action films. And for that, we have to wait."
Though action stars like Jackie Chan and Jet Li aren't regularly seen in theatrical films stateside nowadays, Ip Man star Donnie Yen seen continued crossover success both in Hong Kong and US markets even making the rare mainstream franchise appearance with Star Wars in Rogue One.
Fung's influences expand beyond martial arts with comic books (especially Iron Man), and Star Wars and has hopes working in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Star Wars franchise in the future. He was even in talks to work on the second season of the Netflix TV series Iron Fist, but scheduling made those plans fall flat.
"I would fall over backwards to do it given such a chance. Not only the MCU, I'd love to be able to be involved in the Star Wars films. They were such a big part of my childhood."
What MCU heroes could you see Feng directing?
Do you see him getting involved with a future Star Wars project like a solo film or a show like The Mandalorian?
Wu Assassins streams beginning August 8th on Netflix.