The Chinese David Lean

In 1982, Chang Hsin-Yen was bestowed an opportunity to direct the first true Shaolin Temple movie. If there’s one particular thing about the first Jet Li movie (which is the martial arts equivalent to a David Lean epic) that deserves the most attention, it’s that film distributors from Japan, Singapore, Thailand and U.S. had already contacted the producer for regional distribution rights before the film went into production – despite the fact that Jet wasn’t a star. This was a situation that was seldom heard of in Hong Kong’s, let alone the Mainland’s, film industry.



Here is a Q&A between the director and an anonymous interviewer for a book that was shaped like a magazine:


Q: Congratulations, Director Chang. You have successfully made a film which demonstrates the genuine fighting techniques of Chinese Kung Fu. How did you find this group of superstars who were not only Kung Fu masters but were in fact first-rate actors?


A: “Well, as you know, there is an annual National Wushu Championships which is attended by the cream of the martial arts circles. Two years ago I went to Jinan, the provincial capital of Shandong, to attend such a gathering in order to pick and choose the cast for the film. I was lucky because this group of Kung Fu masters each has his own characteristics and outward appearance, and, after only a little instruction, they could master their roles extraordinarily well.”



Q: Is it true that you did not use special effects in shooting your film?


A: “Quite right. We did not use the trampoline, as the masters were capable of jumping to a great height. We did not use fast motions, as their actions were already very fast, and their patterns clear. When shooting their combat fighting, I did my best to record the perfectness and genuineness of the actions so that the viewers would be able to see their fighting arts in continuation. Take, for example, a two-and-a-half turn performed by Li Lin-Jie (a.k.a. Jet) in midair. I should have been able to shoot it in slow motion but, for the reason mentioned above, I used normal speed to shoot this very difficult 900° turning.” 



Q: How about the characteristic styles of the individuals? Did they have the opportunity to display them?


A: “You can say that each master did give a good account of himself. Yu Chengwei – the expert of double-grip drunken swordplay and the shark’s fin broadswordplay – gave an excellent performance with the help of the props specially designed for film. Chief coach Yu Hai demonstrated his superb techniques in Mantis boxing, while masters Pan Fuqing and Ji Chunhua displayed their famous qinnagong (bare-hand grip) and the Hawk’s Paw boxing respectively. These are all traditional Kung Fu and those having this kind of knowledge will be able to tell.”



Q: Mr. Chang, the film proves that your efforts do bring exceedingly good results. We’re glad and in the meantime thankful to you that we’ll be able to see a genuine Chinese Kung Fu film.


A: “Thanks for your encouragement.”



The production time of The Shaolin Temple totaled three years, while the whole production cost was 10 million HK dollars (1 million U.S.) and it was seen as the biggest budgeted period epic made in the Mainland. The greatness of manpower employed and the numerous shooting locations were also rare. Conversely, it was mainly funded by a H.K. production company in spite of enlisting the talents of a Mainland cast and crew. It is technically the first Hong Kong film to be shot substantially in the Mainland.



The film grossed over RMB 10 million (over U.S. $ 1,000,000) at a time when a ticket cost somewhere near the equivalent to U.S. $ 2.09 (over 70 million tickets were sold). An estimated 50 million constituted of the audience who watched it during its theatrical run in the Mainland. The film almost came close to topping the previous year’s biggest hit (a H.K. comedy titled Security Unlimited). When they saw The Shaolin Temple, H.K. audiences saw the full extent of superficiality that permeated a great deal of the Shaw Brothers films. The audiences were given a distinctive treat due to the beautiful scenery of the Yellow River banks, the Dragon Court in the ancient capital of Kaifeng, the Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang city, the wild reed marshes, the waterfall in Tiantai district, Zhejiang province, etc.



The costumes worn by the actors and actresses were particularly designed to allow movement for the fighting actions, yet all of them had been based on historical records. Eighteen kinds of weapons as recorded in ancient martial arts books appeared in the film, all being made in imitation of those handed down from the past centuries now treasured in the Shaolin Temple. At -12°C, Jet, Yu Chengwei, Hu Jianqiang, Ji Chunhua and Din Lan braved the severe cold, fought from land to water and then from water to land by the side of the Yellow River. Although that was nothing in comparison to the unrelated sequel, Kids from Shaolin, where the temperature was so hot during filming that performers would occasionally go into shock while filming the fight scenes. The scene when Sun Jian Kui utilizes the drunken pole method was shot 48 times.



Jet’s salary was the equivalent to 10 $ U.S. for a day’s shoot because he was already being given accommodation and refreshments. With there being so many people in the production, the salaries had to be evenly spread out so no ill feelings were being made among the participants in front and behind the camera. This was to stress the importance of it being an ensemble piece rather than a vanity project. With it being an authentic depiction of the Shaolin culture, an emphasis was particularly placed on humility and encouraging a hard-work ethic.



When studio shooting was underway in the Clear Water Bay studio lot (owned by Shaw Brothers), the main cast members were accommodated in a three-storied guest house inside the studio lot. Despite the setting, the guest house was an ideal home for the northerners. The rooms were equipped with modern facilities such as television sets, refrigerators and air-conditioners. The guesthouse was situated at the hillside and overlooking the sea – it had a peaceful environment rarely found in the commercialized city of H.K. In the morning, the stars could jog along the hillside path or practice their routines to keep fit; at night, if there were no shooting activities, they could gather together to learn Cantonese by watching television programmes.



They had a day of leave every week when they would go sightseeing or go to the cinema to enjoy some Kung Fu features produced in Hong Kong such as those directed by local veteran Lau Kar-Leung – The Seniors (the working title for My Young Auntie), Wong Fei-Hung and Luk Ah-Choi (the Mandarin title of Challenge of the Masters) and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Watching these foreshadowed the director working on Martial Arts of Shaolin (the third and last movie of the series).



During their stay in H.K., the six masters found themselves quite unaccustomed to the humid climate of H.K. Damp air is a great enemy to martial arts practitioners because it will influence the sensitivity of the joints and the skin.  Thanks to the prompt installation of air conditioners, they soon got acclimatized. The second problem was food. Hong Kong might be a gourmet’s paradise but these northern boxers were used to steam buns instead of rice and it took them quite some time to get accustomed to the bread and buns made in H.K.



As for what the people from the Clear Water Bay studio thought of them? People said that the most strange of these strangers was master Pan Qingfu. Those who lived in the studio often found themselves awakened in the early hours of the day by some strange banging sound. Someone who was curious enough to investigate one morning discovered that it was master Pan who created such noise by striking his fists at the steel gate. Master Pan was skilled at bare-hand combat fighting and that it was his habit to strike something real hard the first thing in the morning.



Jet once visited the Shaw Brothers studio so that he could watch Lau Kar-Leung and Sun Chung at work as directors. When asked of his impression, the former Wushu champ said that the actors there were lucky because all the actions were already designed by the fighting designer and all they had to do was to follow suit. Moreover, the Shaw directors divided a scene into many segments which would be put together by the editor after the whole film was shot.



In order to give the cinema-goers a clear view of what Chinese martial arts were like, long shots were frequently used. This required accuracy of actions from start to finish. Apart from this, all the actions were designed by the actors collectively to seek perfection, and this was indeed something for the newcomers. In order to present to the viewers the rituals of Buddhism, the director of the film studied in person the religious ceremonies from some senior monks. During the shooting, the senior monks were invited to be consultants on the spot.



The Shaolin Temple is the only film which features the following points of interest within the same production:


  • The whole cast (even extras) are world-class martial arts practitioners and skilled horse riders.

  • There are no stunt doubles, usage of wires or other tricks such as trampolines or camera trickery to hide an actor’s lack of physical capabilities.

  • Spectacular action scenes which are very well filmed and choreographed.

  • Recommended by genuine Buddhist monks.

  • Top-notch production values.

  • Despite the illusion cast upon the camera about the film being a real representation of traditional Chinese martial arts and supposedly featuring an entire cast of Mainlanders, several seasoned Japanese Shorin Kendo boxers appear in the cast. Mr. So Doshin, founder of the Japan Shorin Kendo Association, had been to Henan when he was young, and stayed for quite some time in close vicinity to the monastery. He became very much interested in the frescoes on the walls of the White Robe Hall which depicted the Shaolin monks undergoing fighting exercises, and he learned martial arts from the monks of the Shaolin Temple.

  • When he went back home, So Doshin created the three ways of Shorin Kendo according to his understanding of the frescoes, which were further divided into 25 routines with more than 600 different tricks. He began to receive his disciples and always reminded them of the fact that the Shaolin Temple in the Songshan Mountains in China is the ancestral birthplace of the Japanese Shorin Kendo.

  • Before he passed away, he had heard about the work of the film, and sent his assistant to talk with Mr. Liu Yetyuen (production supervisor at the Chung Yuen Film Company) about the possibility of letting some Japanese boxers take part in the work in acknowledgment of the Japanese Shorin Kendo as a branch of the Shaolin martial arts. To this proposal Mr. Liu gladly consented.

  • Mr. So Doshin passed away shortly after this, and his assistant, Mr. Takemori Yoshimi, sent skillful Japanese Shorin Kendo boxers: Yamazaki Hiromichi (7th dan martial artist), Sakuyama Kichiei, Atsumi Shinichi and Ihara Toshiyuki to work with the film-makers at the shooting location. It was not the first time the cream of Chinese and Japanese boxers were getting together, as they had long known each other in their mutual visits and exchanges.

  • But this time they came together for one common purpose: the display of the Shaolin arts. They lived and worked together, the Chinese strong hands like Jet Li, Pan Qingfu, Hu Jianqiang and Liu Huailiang taught their Japanese friends the use of weapons along with helping them to master the fundamentals of the usage of the broadsword, longsword (think: Chinese Katana), spear and qinna (the art of capturing the opponent barehandedly) techniques.

  • The Japanese boxers hoped to enrich and enlarge the range of Shorin Kendo in the future, since Japanese boxing had not paid enough attention to armed combat up to the point in time when filming commenced. They felt very happy to have the opportunity to learn from their Chinese friends, and the Chinese, in turn, also thought they had gained a lot by learning the practical fighting techniques in the Japanese Kendo.

  • Besides learning fighting techniques, they also had learned the language and customs from each other. Liu Huailiang and Pan Qingfu had studied Japanese for some time, and afterwards they became Sakuyama Kichiei’s students. At the same time, Sakuyama Kichiei and Atsumi Shinichi tried hard to learn Chinese. After the production had finished, Sakuyama Kichiei wrote a letter in Chinese to ‘The Shaolin Temple’ people and sent some Japanese pastry to his Chinese friends in honour of their diligence.

  • In shooting The Shaolin Temple, because of the difficulties in language, the director had to ask the interpreter to translate the dialogue for Yamazaki Hiromichi. Yamazaki tried his best to say the words in the correct tone so that the dubbing artist would not have too much difficulty in future dubbing work because of the difference in syllables in the two languages. His acting had eventually won great admiration from all the spectators (in between shots there were crowds of spectators on the shooting locations).
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