Unlike American martial arts films, the action choreography for THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM was done using the Hong Kong style of action filmmaking. Instead of long rehearsal periods with fixed choreography, the stunt team choreographs the fight about five minutes before it is filmed. “Woo Ping, his brothers and a couple of his key team would get together, form a basic idea, and literally work out a few moves at a time. One will suggest an idea and then someone else will refine it and then another person will take it and suggest something else,” explains Minkoff. “They literally shoot everything one moment at a time. You collect piece by piece what you need and then put it together literally like a jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes they move the camera in three hundred and sixty degrees which requires all of the crew to move all of the lighting equipment so they shoot on one side and then they pick up everything and they move it to the other side, and they move so fast and adjust all the heavy equipment with such coordination, it’s just an incredible thing to watch.”
At first, Angarano, whose only martial arts training occurred in pre-production, was intimidated by the speed and extemporaneity of the action scenes. “It never seemed that we’d get a chance to rehearse the moves adequately,” he says. “But as filming went on, I found myself getting more and more used to it. I could adapt to the moves and the pace better. It’s all about your mindset. You can’t think about what you are going to do. They show you what you have to do, you learn it and you just do it, and you have to do it fast.”
While most screenwriters never write out the details of fight sequences in martial arts films, Fusco scripted the exact kung fu moves he envisioned. Ping graciously respected Fusco’s suggestions and used them as jumping-off points for his choreography. Some styles that Fusco had designated for the characters were essential to the story, like Monkey Kung Fu for the Monkey King and Drunken Fist for Lu Yan.
This approach resulted in the incorporation of several different styles of martial arts in one film, something that had not been done before. Explains Minkoff, “We have street fighting style, and then we have wire-flying, and then we have Qi Magic. There are different types and levels of fighting, choreography and sensibility.”
While it was a challenge for the producers to assemble such a world-class martial arts team, the more daunting task was planning and executing an entire film shoot in China. Pre-production planning in China started before Chinese New Year in January 2007, lasting just four months before the 17-week long principal photography commenced on May 2, 2007. Executive producer Raffaella De Laurentiis recalls, “The most difficult part was the short amount of preparation time we had. We had to do twice as much work in half as much time as you would normally have on such a film. It meant that we had to start filming while we were still figuring out how to film.”
Another pre-production preparation was action training for the actors who were not martial arts trained which commenced a month prior to the start of shooting. Ping and his team devised a training program that concentrated on multiple disciplines: fitness training, weapons training, martial arts fight training, horse-back riding and wire-hanging training. As Chinese actress Li Bingbing remembers, “It was extremely organized and systematic and we worked on a very water-tight schedule. We had to wake up, eat breakfast and travel to the training room according to the timetable.”