It’s a thankless role for Harry Shum Jr in the Netflix exclusive Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny. As bad guy minion turned good guy Wei Fang, he spends most of the movie locked in a cage, held captive in the royal compound where heroine Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) has come to protect a sacred artefact.
He spends most of the time trying to bait Shu Lien’s young apprentice, Snow Vase (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), and it’s no real surprise how their relationship will develop, but it seems a shame to waste Shum’s talents.
The 34 year old does get to bust out some moves during the climactic battle, and although it’s Shum Jr’s first martial arts role, he’s been moving his whole career – primarily in the Step Up street dance movies and Glee on TV. He talked to Moviehole.net in Los Angeles about dancing, fighting and more.
You have a lot of dancing and movement in your resume, and the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon name is synonymous with fight scenes that resemble dance in their precision and choreography. Was it a natural fit for you?
I think it helps. I didn’t have any fundamental technical training in dance. I was very street, learning off the cuff with my friends. And then eventually when I started to become more serious I took some classes to help me at least choreography.
So I think it is in some ways the same approach. [Crouching Tiger] was very street in the sense that I learned in a short period of time – we had less than a month to train. We had the best stunt team in the world and Yuen Woo Ping as our director, who’s legendary worldwide, and I think that the stakes of that helped me learn a lot faster.
But I don’t think they wanted specifically a martial arts guy or they would’ve got a stunt guy. I had to portray this character who had a lot of nuances and also this rich and complicated history that unfolds on screen.
One month for training? Did it help to have it that compressed?
You always want more time to prepare but it’s the reality that we only had that long. In previous projects I’ve worked on it’s almost like a boot camp where I would learn something the day of or, you know, right before we shot.
There’s going to be projects that allow you to do that and some that don’t. But I’m so thankful we had people like Donnie Yen and Michelle Yeoh and Yuen Woo Ping to be able to help guide us through that. [co-star Natasha Liu Bordizzo, who plays Snow Vase] and I were kind of new into this world.
Is it good fun to be able to play your entire range on character?
Yeah, so much fun. You always want the opportunity to not just be a one trick pony, you want to be able to tell the story emotionally and also through the physical aspect of it.
Obviously this was a Wuxia martial arts film but what made the first one so popular was because it was also a love story that people had an emotional attachment to along with seeing dazzling fight sequences.
It’s also not your first time fighting on film.
You know, I did the Mortal Combat series online but I didn’t do any fighting! So this is the first one where I got to actually go knee deep and really do wire work and crazy stunts.
And you know I didn’t think about this until towards the end of the movie, but I pretty much fight almost every single character at least once, so that was fun.
It must’ve been crazy to work so fast because there’s so many other logistics like the wires and all that?
Yeah, it’s scary. They made sure to keep us as safe as possible but when you’re dealing with wires anything can happen. You know, you’re dealing with the force of ten guys pulling you and if one lets go or suddenly something happens it really changes the game for the person on the other end.
Even though the fights look so graceful are there lots of misfires and cuts and bruises when you’re in the thick of it?
Oh yeah. I have pictures I’ve posted on Instagram where my whole arm was completely bruised and if I even try to close my fist pain just shoots up your arms.
I’ve had cuts from being punched by accident from other actors and I’m sure I did the same for them. You really take a beating, you don’t want to intentionally hurt someone but at the end of the day if it’s going to play on camera then you’ve got to take one for the team.
Especially when the camera’s so close in.
Exactly. There’s no way to really fake that. You have to be really cognisant about where the angle’s at because that’s going to determine how you’re going to sell the actual point of contact.
And I learned so much from Donnie Yen as far as how to make it believable on screen because that’s what really matters, not if the fighting is perfect technically.
The first movie was very groundbreaking for the time. Any worries or concerns you guys couldn’t possibly stand up to something so great?
No, I don’t think the idea was to recreate the first film or recapture what the first one did. It’s based on Wang Du Lu, a five book series that was already written before the first film came out. So it’s the story that will hopefully resonate.
Were you a fan of the original?
Oh yeah, it blew me away. And it was always cool because my parents are Chinese, they speak Chinese, they’re heavily into the Chinese culture and I was trying to find something we could bond over. They watched their movies and I was in my teens so I was into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
But Crouching Tiger allowed us to do that because my friends thought it was cool, I thought it was cool and my parents love that film. I was in touch with my Chinese culture but also I loved American culture as well, and it really brought the two together. I thought they did that brilliantly and hopefully we did that with this one as well.