Harry Shum Jr. on ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny’ and ‘Shadowhunters’
Directed by Master Yuen Woo-Ping and written by John Fusco, the Netflix feature film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny tells an epic story of lost love, young love, a legendary sword and one last opportunity at redemption. Continuing the themes and traditions that were established in the original film, it’s an epic martial arts battle between good and evil, full of breathtaking action, that will decide the fate of the Martial World. The film stars Michelle Yeoh, Donnie Yen, Harry Shum Jr, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Jason Scott Lee, Roger Yuan and Eugenia Yuan.
At the film’s press day, actor Harry Shum Jr spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about how he got involved with Crouching Tiger, the appeal of this project, why he loved the original film, how proud his parents are, making the wire work look so graceful, what he most enjoyed about his character, and working with the legendary Michelle Yeoh and Donnie Yen. He also talked about what a great experience it’s been to bring Magnus Bane to life on the FreeForm series Shadowhunters, the character’s physicality, and how collaborative the role has been.
HARRY SHUM JR: I had a sign that said, “I need a job,” on the corner of the street. No, I auditioned for this. It was so cool to hear that they were making a sequel. I didn’t even know that it was from a book series by Wang Dulu, and this was the fifth book. The sequel had been written since the 1930s. But, being a part of this was just a dream come true. I used to be, and still am, a huge fan of martial arts movies. I would make the sounds in my living room, pretending to fight whatever evil person was in my head. Just to be a part of this was truly incredible. To play a character like this, who’s a young warrior that finds new love and also realizes he has a connection to the legendary sword was really incredible.
Did you know, when you auditioned, just how important this character would be to the story, or did you learn about that later on?
SHUM: It was later on. To me, the big draw was getting to work with Donnie Yen, Michelle Yeoh, Master Yuen Woo-Ping, and with the slew of producers. This was a dream team. And then, we got to really flesh out the character and work it to where it was a character that I felt was truly important to what the story had to tell.
What do you remember from seeing the original Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon movie?
SHUM: I remember seeing it in the theater with my friend. It was a new experience, seeing it in Mandarin. I grew up watching films like that, but my friends didn’t. I was really proud that this was something I used to love watching and that my parents introduced me to, and that my friends took that same interest. That was an incredible experience. And then, the fact that it became such a popular film really helped. Now, I’m in it and I’m on these wires and I’m getting to fight these legendary actors. It’s really surreal.
Having been a fan of the first film, and then being a part of this one, what would you say this offers people who are fans of the original while also setting itself apart?
SHUM: I think what fans of the first film will enjoy are the gracefulness and the storytelling through movement and action. There are action sequences where, if you’ve watched a lot of martial arts films, you’ll enjoy the explosiveness and the grace and beauty of that. There’s also a restraint because these fighters don’t want to fight. That was the beauty of the first one, too. They had restraint. They didn’t fight just to kill people. They fought because they needed to. And outside of the old love story, there’s a new love story that builds. It’s a continuation, but also a new look. What’s interesting about this film is that the Eastern side and the Western side collide. There’s a fusion in it.
Because of the deep sense of tradition in these films, does that give an extra weight to what you’re doing?
SHUM: Yeah, but I always look at it as, if you make the same thing, people are going to complain that you made that same thing. But if you make it different, people are like, “Why wasn’t it like the first one?” You can’t please everyone. At the same time, so many years have passed and the first one will always be there. This is a fresh, new take while still maintaining a lot of the stuff that people love about the first one. Also, a new generation can enjoy this.
Is there a trick to making all of the wire work look so graceful?
SHUM: There’s one point, towards the end of the film, where I’m four stories high, off of one wire. For me, it was almost like a bungee chord, and I was just staying there. I had to fly down to the ground and land gracefully. I dislocated a finger because sometimes the communication goes wrong and you land a little too hard. That’s when injuries happen. It’s about trust. It’s not a mechanical thing that’s pulling you. It’s actual people that have to really understand weight and the pulley system. It’s very technical, and you also have to feel it. If a person is about to fall too hard, you have to restrain it, and it’s off their strength. I had a great time, but it was also one of the scariest things I’ve ever done, more so than a parachute not opening because you have to do it over and over again. You only sky dive once. You don’t get back on the place and do it five or ten more times. So, it was an incredible time, but it was also scary.
What did you most enjoy about getting to play this character?
SHUM: I love that fight sequence with Snow Vase because it’s very poetic and there’s sexual tension, all in a martial arts fight sequence. What I love about this character is that he’s not just a warrior. He’s also a young kid that’s flirtatious and has a temper and who still feels like he knows everything, but realizes that, as his past unfolds, it turns him to a new direction that he needs to head towards.
Why do you think he has such an instant connection and curiosity with Snow Vase?
SHUM: Snow Vase sees the birthmark on him, and that’s something that she’s been looking for. Her mother told her that she needed to follow this path, if she sees that birthmark. What’s great about this new film is that we get to explore things that allow us to explore that new love.
Was it fun to be the guy stuck in a cage for some of the scenes?
SHUM: There was this joke where they were like, “Oh, if we knew you could pull off the martial arts, we wouldn’t have stuck you in this cage for so long.” It makes getting out of the cage very satisfying. When we were shooting, just to even go to the restroom was tough. They would really lock me in, so I couldn’t get out on my own. There was one time when they went to lunch and forgot about me, and I was banging and screaming for someone to open the cage up. No one wants to be cooped up in a cage, but it made coming out a lot more satisfying.
What’s it like to be on set with legends like Michelle Yeoh and Donnie Yen, and get to watch them work?
SHUM: It didn’t feel real. It was surreal because I grew up watching them on my screen. I’m very proud of being a part of this film because that’s something my parents grew up with. I didn’t grow up in this industry. I came into it as a dancer, and then an actor. Now, being in a movie that’s something that I grew up watching was a dream come true. My parents are incredibly happy. When Glee came out, they were really happy that I was successful. But with this, I’ve made it, in their eyes. They’re proud of this because they know these actors. They grew up with these actors. For me, that makes me so happy that they’re happy. At the end of the day, outside of me doing it on my own and building my career, it makes me incredibly happy. Without sounding too cliche, I feel like I’ve fulfilled my destiny, just making them happy.
Your fight scene on ice with Donnie Yen is amazing to watch. What was that like to shoot?
SHUM: It was fun, it was scary and it was injury filled. It was a lot of work, but it was so fun. I almost cracked my head open, hitting the ice. It was really slippery and hard to have good footing. They wanted to make it feel like it was real ice. To try to fight on ice with no ice skates was crazy. And then, we got on wires and had to glide the radius of the ice, and that made me feel like I was a kid again. It was like, “What dream am I in, to be able to do something like this?” Donnie Yen would improvise sometimes, with the fight sequences, and it would throw us off. With a lot of it, I was really trying to dodge his punches, because he was punching and kicking so fast. That was a highlight because I felt like I got to try to keep up with him.
If there are more films, would you want to continue to explore this character?
SHUM: Yeah! It’s a very exciting, incredible world that has a lot more to explore. This character has more to offer. You get to see a lot of him in this film, but his backstory is truly incredible and there’s a lot more to explore, in that sense.
Fans of Shadowhunters really love your character, Magnus. Were you expecting how much of a fan favorite he’s become?
SHUM: No, I really wasn’t. I know he was a fan favorite in the books, so you would think that the fans would love it, but there’s a lot of pressure to get it right. It’s been really cool to see. I just met a fan today, when I was at lunch. I’m not wearing the make-up, the hair or the outfits, so she had to do a double take, but she asked, “Are you Harry?” She almost started crying because Magnus Bane is one of her favorite characters and she loved how we were treating the character. It was really cool. The whole cast, but specifically Matt Daddario and I, have just made sure to really take care of our characters. They’re really important to a lot of people, and we wanted to make sure that it was in good hands.
Magnus Bane has a very specific look and physicality. How did you decide the way you wanted to play him?
SHUM: It was definitely collaborative, all the way from costuming to make-up to the writers to McG to Ed Decter, our showrunner. That’s what I’m really proud of. It wasn’t me bringing everything to the table. It was everyone figuring out the best way to tell this story. For Magnus, what I wanted to bring was the physicality. There’s a lot of story that you can tell without dialogue. You can tell someone’s past by how they pick up a drink, how they walk, or how they might use their fingers. To me, that was really important to showcase. People only want to hear so much of the backstory through dialogue. You want to be able to show little hints. What’s great about these fans is that they really analyze every scene, over and over again, so I wanted to give them something they can have fun with.
Is that when you’re happy to have a dance background?
SHUM: Yeah. When I started dancing, I always wanted to utilize dance in a way that’s not just the traditional way of doing choreography and dancing. I love to do that, but putting it in different mediums has been a challenge and it’s been satisfying. I get to use it in subtle ways, where I’m not full-on doing an eight-count of danging. That’s been so much fun. The combination of the two has been great.
How do you decide which projects you want to get involved with?
SHUM: My whole career, I’ve been very open to different projects and have tried to get into something that helps me expand and learn. With Shadowhunters, I’ve gained a new respect for this supernatural world. I had never really watched many shows with vampires and warlocks. And with Crouching Tiger, working with a Hong Kong stunt team and Chinese actors was a whole new world. Anything to expand my mind is something that I gravitate towards. I never want to do the same thing, over and over again. I like variety, just like how I like my food. One day, I feel like Brazilian, and the next day, I feel like sushi. That’s how I pick and choose my projects.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny is now available on Netflix and in select IMAX theaters.