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Hey Kids, here is part two of our Tribeca Film Festival coverage of the historical martial arts epic The Three Kingdoms. Director Daniel Lee {Black Mask, Dragon Squad} was kind enough to sit and chat with us about his radical changes to the beloved original Chinese novel, his admiration of the Divine Miss Maggie Q, turning Andy Lau into a dad and directing the force of nature known as Sammo.

Dig it!


 Three Kingdoms

Daniel Lee


The Lady Miz Diva: Director Lee, I’m so impressed by the sheer spectacle of The Three Kingdoms. You’ve never headed a production of this size before, what were some of the challenges you faced?

Daniel Lee: To me there’s not much difference, actually. From my point of view, you just break down the big project into small projects and handle {them} one by one. The only thing you adjust to yourself is you’ve got to have some more patience. You’re not moving 10 people or 50 people, you’re moving 500 people. You just need more time. Then when you could break down the things into small parts I think it’s about the same. And honestly, to me, it’s the movie that I always wanted to do.


LMD: The movie has such a distinctive and beautiful look. You were a production designer before becoming a director, how hands-on were you with the look of the film and the costuming?

DL:  It’s very tricky. It’s a good question. The thing is that if you combine the art, combine two major aspects you have {to}, one is that the period – it has to be very Chinese-oriented – we are talking 800 years ago. At the same time, the costumes are not like fashion, but more like armour. The main props would be weapons; the main costumes would be the armour. If you grab a good designer for costumes it doesn’t mean that he knows how to do armour. If you grab a guy who is a good propsman, it doesn’t mean that can do weapons. If he is not the kind of person who really goes for weapons, then he just doesn’t know what to do.

So I know the kind of people I can get from Hong Kong and then in China. And I always thought I’ll be the one to understand most of the things. So I set it up that now this time, I’m the production designer. It’s been quite a while, but I had to do it this time because I knew how to do it, and I’m very into Chinese art. So I grab good hands for costume and then I started on how the production design had to be for this movie. It has to be a reaction, a recreation of art and we just imitate the stuff from the museum, otherwise it would be very boring. And the note I gave to my designer was that the costumes and the design of the weapons should match, and the locals should match. And you take anything off it, even the props you can tell is right. I’ll give an example of something like Armani or Prada, you can tell. When you look at a purse, you can tell. It’s very clear that we are using the angle for modern people to recreate old time art into the movie. So I hope that people will find it beautiful because now we are using modern angles for the reaction {of the period}.


LMD: I want to ask about the appeal of the original novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. It’s so beloved by the Chinese people, yet there has been some controversy in the changes you made in the film, namely have a woman playing the part of the main villain, Cao Ying. What is it about the story has such a following in Asia and what attracted you to the novel?

DL:  I think the poetry, the drama and the philosophy, talking about how humans see their lives, how warriors see their life. What’s their position in what they’re doing? Zhou Zilong, he fought since he was young, he joined the army and he got the name “Undefeatable General.” He’s the only one in the film, Three Kingdoms, from the book. So, if I shoot the movie that he’s so powerful that he never loses a war, that’s not drama. But even though I made a lot of adjustments, I admit that, but because of that judgment, I can use Zhou Zilong’s character to tell the real poetry of Three Kingdoms. You can’t shoot the book, it’s so huge, it has so many good characters. So, now I’m focusing on only one general and then through his life, when you go along with his life, you understand, there are so many layers. Even a simple general like Zhou Zilong, who’s got a big name - “Undefeatable” – now he gets a final definition of what it means to be undefeatable. When he understands that, ‘Now I win for 50 years, because I’m assigned. Somebody has to win the war because I’m assigned it, so it’s not real victory. But now I’m worried I’m losing my war today, but I should worry about it because I’m assigned to lose. It’s not a true loss. If there’s no true victory, that means there’s not a true loss. There’s nothing between victory and loss. So I get over it. I put down the armour, that’s it. I put down the armour, I’ve done my mission.’

So even though it seems like it’s depressing, when you go around and go back to the same place. It’s a beautiful circle. What life is it?


LMD: You’re known for your action film, but the performances in Three Kingdoms are beautiful. Which direction for you is more difficult, action or drama?

DL: My definition of action cinema is there’s no such thing as only action on its own. I believe that action is only a language – a visual language to tell the drama. So if I think of my five best action {films}, it always goes with drama. If it’s action by itself, you’d forget about it after you left the cinema. I enjoy action, like some directors they may shoot a dancing movie to tell a drama, they use a comedy but at the same time they tell drama. I use action to tell drama. What kind of action do I like most, it would be war movies.


LMD: I wondered how long the film had been in preparation? MonkeyPeaches.com had been reporting on the film since 2005.

DL: Yeah, we started then! But before that, even before I shot my first movie, I had this idea already, the concept, not the script. I had the concept that if I shoot Three kingdoms, I will borrow Zhou Zilong’s role. I will start from the end scene, what he’s facing, knowing he will die today and use the flashbacks to tell the whole story. I had this concept almost 16 years ago. And I had the concept of the Three Kingdoms since I was ten; my father told me all the stories. {Laughs} I was so fascinated, but it’s normal for Chinese people. Most people know the real Zhou Zilong, even if they didn’t read The Three Kingdoms. When you talk about Zhou Zilong in the Chinese world, the Japanese world or the Korean world, they all know him. He’s a very popular figure.


LMD: Maggie Q told me that to get her into the film; you made her an offer she couldn’t refuse.

DL: {Laughs} Yes.


LMD: How did you come to the decision to change the sex of the original character, Cao Ying? And what was it about Maggie that made you want her in the role so badly?

DL:  Actually, there’s such a role in Three Kingdoms, but it’s a male. It’s the grandson-in-law of Cao Cao, so I just changed it to the granddaughter of Cao Cao. When we started working on this movie I hoped that it would appeal to the most mass audience as much as I could. The first thing is that I shouldn’t limit the movie to only Three Kingdoms fans. I hope that if you don’t have the background you can still appreciate it and find it interesting. And at the same time, I shouldn’t limit the movie only for guys. Because in Three Kingdoms the girls have only this much role {holds thumb and forefinger a half-inch apart}. You can cut them and nobody would say anything.

So, I really started thinking about ‘What if I had a female in there?’ So normally a female role, they’d say maybe it was the lover of Zhou Zilong or something, but you didn’t want that because it’s not the poetry of Three Kingdoms. So I just came up with ideas, ‘What if I changed the gender of the competitors?’ ‘Who trapped Zhou Zilong in Phoenix Heights?’ So, we started thinking about it and Maggie was the one who first came into my mind. Last time, I think three years ago, I worked with her in Dragon Squad and I had a very good experience working with her. We trust each other and her performance, both drama and action really surprised me. That was the first time I ever worked with her. Because of her temperament and the character, I thought if I put her there, she would be good enough to convince people that she could really trap Zhou Zilong in the mountain. That’s one major point. And the other point is, of course some people came with other choices of Chinese girls, but I’ll say for that barbaric world, if I could change Maggie – we had dressed Maggie to look in costumes and playing the pipa and the weapons that we used – she would look 100% like a Chinese girl. But to me, if people clap their hands, if they find something good, it always involves some surprises. If you have no surprise, then you won’t clap your hands. So I’d say if I can use a Chinese girl, of course it’s more reasonable, but if I put Maggie there, so if people find that it‘s not easy for a Western girl to a Chinese girl, I will make it work, so people will clap their hands. So that’s how I started my thinking.

So I told Maggie about the things I had in my mind. She liked the drama, the drama is very interesting. Of course, everybody worries about their image and things, but I said ,”I’ve no difficulties on that” not ever before I started doing the image design, because in my mind I know if I put this and that she will be okay.


LMD: She told me she only had two weeks to prepare.

DL:  Yeah, but she learned Mandarin way before she joined us in China. I think the hardest thing for her was to memorise her lines, because you have to pronounce the exact word. I think the hardest thing was the dialogue.


LMD: She told me she was scared. She said the stuntwork was the hardest she’d ever done.

DL: Yes it looks very scary and it’s sort of dangerous. For me if people are fighting on the ground it’s easier, but if people are fighting on horses its unpredictable, something dangerous could happen. We consider ourselves very lucky, only in the last scene when Deng Zhi, the long-haired general and the old general they cut each other – Deng Zhi was cut here {points to side of face}, 8 stitches. And the older general cut here {points to side of the head} 5 stitches. That’s it.


LMD: I wondered where the locations were for the film?

DL : Dunhuang. Dunhuang is at the neck of the Silk Road. It’s beautiful. They have a lot of Buddhist history there. It is a very secretive, invisible place. They have all kinds of murals and Buddhist things. The caves built inside the castle in the desert, they have a lot of old Buddhist scripts stored inside there in the walls and nobody knew. Until the beginning of the 19th century, the Russians who stayed there at the time were robbers and they fought there and lived there, one day the wall broke down and they found a lot of stuff.  So German people, Russian people they took away of lot of the stuff. Now the Germans are recognised as one of the best students of old Indian {Sanskrit}, because of all the stuff they brought back to Germany.


LMD: Again you’re working with Sammo Hung as your action director. Do you ever tell him what to do?

DL: We discussed. Sammo is Sammo, but really I couldn’t finish my movie with just Sammo, this time. For my other action movies, I always had idea how to shoot the action or how the action should look. But this time, we needed someone like Sammo. He helped me so much for handling the difficult stunts. To work with him is very easy; you just talk to him, as long as the thing is reasonable or acceptable. It's not because I am the director, I want to do this, but it has to be reasonable. I talked to him and fortunately, I had quite a long time for the discussion, almost a year.

So we talk and talk until the final days of pre-production we went to Peking. And then I decide to film the rescue of the son, I’ll say to him, “We should have four props, A,B,C,D. Then finally I should have Zhou Zilong come up and try to kill Cao Cao, Because of that then he has a chance to jump to the other side of the mountain, then he’s safe. Something like this” You have to talk very clearly to Sammo. If he buys that, then it’s easy.

So this time, most of the time, actually Sammo shot on his own. Most of the time, I had three units; I directed one drama unit, then Sammo directed his action unit, then I have another deferred action unit. Smaller stuff, smaller stunts I directed.


LMD: I thought the fight scene early on when Zilong battles Generals Guan and Zhang in the Temple looked like Beijing opera. And I wondered if that was intentional to make that fight so beautiful?

DL: When you listened to the song {playing during the fight} it’s from Peking opera! So you’re right. Like when Guan Yu, the one with the braid joined in I changed the music to Peking opera music.

The style of the action should be classic. The most classic would be something good for Peking opera. I know that it’s all fake, but it makes me believe that it’s true. Sometimes in Peking they use a stick and now it’s a horse or something, but the acting and the music and the movement - that makes me believe that it’s true, so it’s art. So when you believe it, you will clap your hands because it’s so hard to make people believe that. It’s the same strategy that I used on Maggie, that’s the reason I wanted Maggie to be the Chinese girl.

But for Sammo, if you come up with action that’s two people cutting each other in the temple, it’s too easy for him. I’ll say to him, “What’s the target? What’s the best part” “Imagine how are we going to deliver this drama, the action to the audience?” I said, “It’ll be elegant – classic.” So there’s a lot of swinging around, moving the clothes, swinging the weapons, something like Peking opera.


LMD: I must ask about “Indestructible” Andy Lau. This role is a departure for him because he has to give such a heartfelt performance while doing so much of the action. He’s playing a man who goes from youth to old age and the role is like a bridge between his being the matinee idol and being someone who is getting older. You’ve worked with him before when he was younger. Did you notice changes in him or the way he approached this role?

DL: First thing, because Andy is in more than 100 movies - the one we worked on is his hundredth, the past one {A Fu/A Fighter’s Blues}. But I think he treasures our relationship, because both times I put him in a very different role. The first time even though he was younger, he was a father. He’d never been a father in a movie before. They mind it, the stars; they don’t want to be a father in a movie. The first time he played a father was in my boxing movie and this time he played such a general.  Some people like his acting, some people don’t because they say when he acts like a gangster, he’s the same gangster. But I think if you put him in a different role, let’s say a boxer or a father, now this time an elegant general like Zhou Zilong; he can’t use the kind of acting that he’s used to. He can’t move as if he’s just a sword and fighting movie. And I think we are good partners, because I always to tell some inner feelings scenes. This time I have a lot of mission that I want Zhou Zilong’s role to deliver to the audience, which could be very philosophical and boring, but if I talk to Andy Lau, and he understands it he could always come up with the easy way or the interesting way to deliver it. That’s the most valuable things about Andy. When he says the lines it works, but it’s very interesting.


LMD: You’ve worked with all the major actors in this film before. Was that comfortable for you did you enjoy that?

DL: Yeah, I enjoyed that.


LMD: Did you not want to bring in someone new?

DL:  Of course I would, but working with somebody that you worked with before, you save some time to build the trust. Like Maggie, the second time is very easy, because we built the trust and we trusted each other. When they accept you and they trust you, like Andy Lau, so he knew what kind of director I am, we knew each other for quite a long time. Like Sammo… You know Sammo, you can’t change him if he don’t wanna do it, so there’s no way you can change him, But if you are sincere enough, if you talk to him and you’re really reasonable why I have to do it, then he’ll be your best weapon to make your things happen. And the two young guys, Vanness {Wu} and Andy On, I love them. I think they have the most potential to be stars, both the way they look, the body and both action and drama they are very good.


LMD: Was there more of those two in the film? You only see them for a very short time.

DL: For Andy On, that was about it. For Vanness, actually I had something else but I had to cut that part out at the end.


LMD: When we meet Zhou Zilong and he says he believes a man can prevail over destiny. Then when he’s older and back in the Temple he realises that he can’t prevail over destiny. Was this the theme of the film for you?

DL:  One of the main themes and what we learn from Three Kingdoms is that human beings like a good general they always think ‘I can win this war,’ particularly when someone says nobody can with this war. A good general always comes up to his lieutenants and says, “I can win this war because I am Zhou Zilong.” They always want to prove that. If there is no war, there is no general. They always look for reasons to be on the field, to fight, to win the war until they die. They always look for challenges. But I think at the very end you think about why you fight the war? Is it the same reason that you fight when you joined the army? It’s always different. Even though you do the same thing, but will you have the same belief, or do you still agree that your commitment - why you joined the army when you were very young? Do you always doubt when you fight so many times? The last time you fought because of Liu Bei {the king}, but he died so many years ago. Now the king is gone, but you still fight because of him, when he died so many years ago? So the most scary thing is when you fight for fifty years, then finally you know that you fought for nothing. That’s the most scary thing. So I want him to bring up that point, that’s the first point. “I thought I was so strong that I could bypass fate. I could do whatever I want, but this time I realise that I can’t.”

This is the first part of the philosophy. The second part is not a depressing thing. I hope you didn’t find the ending depressing because the second thing is that even though everything seems like it’s written in a book, how you treat a thing is really up to you. If you still wanted to think that “Oh I lose finally,” then you will be depressed. If you only understand it’s only about life, nothing is that much involved in. So, even though you win all the time, you will still come to the end. Some people lose, win and lose but does it really matter? You still finish your mission. So everything had a mission.


LMD: What was it about Zhou Zilong or any of the other characters from Three Kingdoms that you identify with the most?

DL: Of course Zhou Zilong, because if I couldn’t have him in the film I couldn’t shoot the movie. If I can’t identify with the character then I can’t even write the script. I even can identify with his yell and laugh when escaped from Cao Cao and he just yelled out. If you asked me what did I feel after I finished the movie, that’s my expression. I did it!


LMD: The crazy laugh.

DL: I did it! I did it because I understood there was a big chance I couldn’t do it. And there’s a big chance the project would be aborted even before I started the movie. So there were a lot of different obstacles I had this time.


LMD: It seems like Asian films are being released here much quicker than previously. We just had Forbidden Kingdom and some of the Donnie Yen action films. Are you surprised with the demand for Asian films here in the States. 

DL: No, I think that happened a long time ago. It’s just that now people know it. Even my first movie I was so surprised. At that time, in box offices it didn’t work at all in Hong Kong, but when I went to Europe, let’s say France and I talked to the film industry there and the press, they said “I like your first movie most.” I was so surprised. They have all kinds of channels to look at your movies and all kinds of channels for distribution, and that I didn’t know at all. So I’m not surprised.


LMD: Would you like to make a film in the U.S.?

DL: I don’t think I can plan, but of course I would like to if I have the chance to work in America. I had one experience shooting for an American company I shot the action part of a movie shot in Nice, in France. It’s good to work once so you understand how they work and how the system works, but for myself I always ask this question, ‘Why go to America?’ If the system or the budget can’t help you to do the things that you do in Hong Kong, it’s just as hard. But if you just ask for more budget, but at the same time you have a new way or a new system that maybe the way that your work in Hong Kong doesn’t work here – we all know that it’s difficult through a different system. So I see this side of it, I see that side of it. So I didn’t plan. If I planned it I would be in LA joining a managing company, but I never. Of course if somebody asked to talk to me and maybe there’s some particular movies that if you directed if would be great, maybe I would have interest.


LMD: Do you have any other projects you are working on?

DL:  I have two of them. One I actually have the script for; I came from location scouting before Three Kingdom. I had the chance to shoot Three Kingdom, so I just stopped and did that one first, and then I’ll go back. It’s a period, swordfighting movie. When we’re talking about swordfight I can come up with a lot of more interesting, different kind of style of action and you can tell a different style of drama at the same time.


LMD: Do you have anyone attached to any of these films?

DL: Maggie, actually, Maggie. I didn’t cast yet, the male is very difficult to find.


LMD: Is it an older or younger man?

: It should be a mature man. But the matter of fact is that nowadays you can hardly find a good swordfighting actor who can convince you he’s a swordfighting master and at the same time he can deliver good drama and at the same time he’s a star who can support your movie, it’s very hard. Same as the samurai in Japan, nowadays you can’t name the samurai. When we were young we liked to see them, but now even though they’re carrying the same blade and wearing the same costume, but they just don’t convince us.


LMD: There really are very few name stars left in Hong Kong in the age bracket of Andy, or Tony Leung Chiu-Wai. It must be a small pool of talent. Would you consider casting an international star in the role?

DL: Yeah, it’s hard. Well finally I think Hong Kong is not that bad, I’m talking about internationally people know them and they are cast enough to work for profession like this, We have a lot, we have Andy Lau, we have Tony Leung, we have Chow Yun-Fat, Jackie Chan, Jet Li. When you count Japan {- ese stars} – not much of them. It’s a difference between a country and a city. When you count all the famous girls, like {Memoirs of a} Geisha, even though I don’t agree with it, they borrowed all the cast from China to put in there. Sometimes it’s very hard the road to find a suitable cast for my swordfighting movie. I’ve been thinking about that a long time ago when I go for the location shooting, who will be the one.


LMD: What would you like audiences to take away from Three Kingdoms?

: The least thing is I hope that they enjoy the movie. Even if they don’t understand the movie totally, when they find it interesting, then I’ve done the first part. Then I hope they can understand the philosophy and agree with it. I’m not a Buddhist; I spent 10-11 years in Catholic school. I’m not a Taoist, but I love the Taoist philosophy, but I think all are the same. Now at the age of 48, I think all religions are saying the same thing. This kind of philosophy is very important. And Three Kingdoms, actually, the reason why the book is so powerful and people fall in love with it and most people don’t know why, is because of the philosophy there. So I hoped that I could have the chance to shoot this movie, at the same time I really can share this philosophy, enhance it a little bit so that you enjoy the interesting movie at the same time you get in touch with the philosophy at least. Then maybe you can bring it up and then you accept the philosophy.


~ The Lady Miz Diva/ Mighty Ganesha

April 30th, 2008


Click here to read our Exclusive Interview with Three Kingdoms star Maggie Q.




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