In 2004, PIFF (i.e. Puchon International Film Festival) featured the second Shaw Brothers Retrospective thanks to the success of Tarantino’s Kill Bill duology. David Chiang served as a guest. On the 16th of July in that year, he showed up briefly at a Blood Brothers screening and gave a generous time to fans that evening. Ryoo Seung-wan (director of Arahan) and fans asked half a dozen appropriate questions, so David answered in a masterly manner. They asked in Korean and he replied in Chinese…
Q: First I have to say that you looked neat in white clothes in ’70s movies. And you were definitely outstanding in acting – so vivid in every detailed facial expression and body movement compared with other players of those days. I wonder how you achieved it.
A: I agree that white outfit looks great on screen. So I am wearing white today. This visit to Korea is the first one in 30 years – when I did film shooting 30 years ago – and if I have a chance to visit again after 30 years, I will wear white again. For acting, it may be owing to my youth. In those days, director Chang Cheh did not say much about acting on shooting spot but before the start we did have discussions.
Q: You appeared together with Ti Lung in so many movies. What do you think your peculiar appeal is compared with his?
A: I guess you can say so yourself when viewing these movies.
Q: In your heyday movies your image was rebellious. How about your real character?
A: I was rather shy but also had rebellious energy. I like the rebellious image of those movies.
Q: Which do you prefer – the modern flicks like Duel of Fists or historical flicks like Blood Brothers?
A: I like the whole art of movies but if you ask, I say I prefer the historical one. They give you the world that can not be experienced in other movies and they feel more romantic.
Q: If your children want to work in the entertainment industry, would you allow them?
A: I would not interfere with their decision, and let them do whatever they choose (he has two daughters and one son who is very young, about 9 years old; he lives in Vancouver. He spends a couple of months a year in Hong Kong usually for TV work.
Q: What is your favourite among your works?
A: The New One-Armed Swordsman, The Heroic Ones, The Wandering Swordsman and, also I would like to recommend The Empress Dowager for the other side of my acting.
In the last week of June in 2004, there was a Cheng Chang-Ho retrospective where they were showing five of his films in Paris. After each one, he would enter the auditorium and answer questions (of which were asked via a mike). Some movies were shown in a small room – less than 50 seats. After the screening of King Boxer, he was talking during one hour about his movie career. He went on to direct many low budget flicks in Korea. He worked on Chinese/Korean co-productions, so the Shaw Brothers hired him to make King Boxer (a.k.a. Five Fingers of Death).
He said that there was a lot of people making fun of him because they think only a Chinese director could direct a Chinese martial arts movie. His Korean name is Jeong Chang-Hwa. After directing this movie, he was getting ready for making a new swordplay movie produced by the Shaw studio but the second wife of Run Run Shaw agitated him greatly. She wanted to cut the budget and they gave him bad materials e.g. smaller swords and blades in general. Then he said:
“I don’t want to work with you anymore.”
He joined Raymond Chow to create the Golden Harvest company. He then said the second wife of Run Run didn’t know anything about film-making. She was only interested in budget cuts, so the Shaws went down because of her management. It should also be noted that this is the reason why Raymond left as Shaw Brothers were interesting in spending 50% of finances on TV productions and being more traditional, whereas Raymond was vying for more crossover appeal. Cheng (who was 75 years old and lived in the U.S. at the time) said:
“The heyday of Hong Kong and Japanese cinema is over; only Korea can still produce some great movies in Asia.”
There was a lot of racism among the Shaw studios, for example, he wanted the best fight choreographer and they gave him the best’s brother – a beginner by the name of Liu Chia-Yung (a.k.a. Lau Kar-Wing). He didn’t want Lo Lieh as the star. After the movie was released, Lo Lieh became a huge star. Cheng apparently doesn’t like Chinese movie directors and the Shaw Studio that much.
“Raymond Chow was the business director of the Shaw Brothers but he was fired (though he was going to quit anyway). Mona Fong replaced him, so Chow left the company and he bought the old Cathay studio to create the Golden Harvest.”
Of course, he went on to make what Bey Logan calls a remake of Bruce Lee’s The Big Boss (i.e. The Skyhawk). Cheng said that he, himself, didn’t know anything about Chinese Kung Fu, so he prepared the shooting of the movie by consulting Chinese martial arts books in the studio’s library. In the movie, when you see a guy bouncing on another guy for tearing out his opponent’s eye, that’s the eagle style. He said that when he entered into an agreement with the Shaw studios, Sir Shaw was already an old man – he didn’t know anything about making movies either. His second wife was the one who pulled the strings.
He watched a lot of Westerns when he was young, he found that the old Asian movies don’t have a good pacing; so when he directed a martial arts movie, he tried to have the same pacing of the Western. He studied Chinese, he had two Korean assistants on the set and a translator as well. He had a lot of pressure during the movie shooting and the other Shaw directors weren’t very nice with him – they prevented him from using the fight choreographer or the right actor. He didn’t like Lo Lieh, that’s why he wanted to hire another actor for the leading role but the Shaw impresario refused because of the budget, so Lo Lieh was elected since he didn’t cost that much.
About the differences between H.K. and Korean film-making:
“When I was in Korea, there weren’t any distributors so the cinema owners distributed the movies by themselves. If the audience loved the movie, they kept on showing it. When I directed a Korean swordplay movie, I didn’t have any cable for the fighting scene or the fight choreographer or a stuntman, the actors and I had to do stuff by ourselves.”
“Shaw Brothers is the opposite. When I worked with them, they already had more than 1500 cinemas and they could distribute any movie they want. Shaw Brothers had a lot of specialists like stuntmen and fight choreographers. I just concentrated on director’s work.”
Cheng was asked about the difference between making movies in the ’60s and today. He was additionally asked to philosophize on what he thinks a good director is before being asked what his favourite movie was:
“Nowaday, there’re so many new movie making techniques, the directors can do anything they imagine. When I was a filmmaker, I didn’t have a lot of financial and material means but I think a good director should surpass himself even if he doesn’t get enough money or material means. I love Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon a lot, I already watched this movie many times. In my opinion, Ang Lee is a very good director.”
Q: How long did it take you to make a movie?
A: Around 3 months.
Q: Well, in your movie (King Boxer), the Japanese were portrayed as the evils, they looked very caricatural. There are still a lot of people in Korea and China that don’t like Japanese that much. I would like to know if you thought about Japanese atrocities against the Chinese when you directed your movie?
A: You’re right. Korea was a colony of Japan, so the Japanese history is still hanging over Korea; but I have many good Japanese friends. Racism rears its ugly head here, yet I never have an anti-Japanese feeling. I was in Pusan, and we created a new Asian movie co-production association, I think the future of Asian movie depends on that kind of production. I hope every one of you in this cinema can support those new co-production movies, and thanks in advance.
One week after Cheng Chang Ho attended a retrospective of his films in Paris, Cheng Pei Pei attended a Golden Swallow screening in the same capital. After the film was over, she came into the cinema with her 3 daughters, and people could ask her questions…
Q: What’s your favourite movie?
A: My favourite movie was Come Drink with Me since the movie was a big hit at the box office, and I became a huge star, that’s why I starred as a swordswoman in many swordplay flicks.
Q: In Golden Swallow, Wang Yu got an important part, your character wasn’t that important as Wang Yu was, you’ve just got a second part. Did you make a lot of effort during the movie’s shooting to compete with Wang Yu.
A: Well, Chang Cheh, Wang Yu and Lo Lieh weren’t very nice. For example, when the shooting started at 11:00 am, I was already on the set, Chang Cheh came nearby 12:00 pm then Wang Yu arrived at 13:00 pm. Wang Yu said:
“Sorry, I had a dinner party tonight. So I had to do my scene before you.”
Then we did the scene, after that Lo Lieh arrived, and he wanted to leave the set before me as well. So I was always on time but the others didn’t care about that. After the shooting, I said to the director Chang Cheh:
“I don’t want to work with you anymore! Period!”
Q: Golden Swallow, where was it shot?
A: Well, at the time, Shaw Brothers sent me to Japan for training. When Chang Cheh arrived, he wanted to direct a sequel to Come Drink with Me. At first, I didn’t want to play in his movie since Golden Swallow belongs to King Hu, but we were walking around Tokyo during 8 hours, I finally accepted the project but I didn’t want a Come Drink with Me 2, so the character played by Yuen Hua was withdrawn and we shot in Japan.
When she came into the screening room, she said there was a scene THAT you would never have seen if she didn’t have a slanging match with Chang Cheh. In a scene taking place in a restaurant, Wang Yu fought against some baddies, then Lo Lieh did the same thing, and they escaped from restaurant by jumping outside the windows. After that she arrived in the same restaurant, fought against some baddies as well, Chang Cheh wanted her to walk through the door. She said:
“No, why those two guys could jump through a window, and not me, I can do it myself!”
Chang Cheh answered:
“You can’t do that since you’re a woman. If you don’t want to act like a woman, no one wants to marry you!”
Finally, after a bawling out, she said:
“If I wanted to get married, I won’t marry you.”
She then said to the audience:
“At the time, Wang Yu was the huge male star and I was the well-known female actress, so there’s a lot of competition on the set between us. Wang Yu was my neighbour when we lived in Shanghai and I never liked that guy because he was too violent. He liked to fight a lot, he didn’t like me either but he couldn’t beat me since I’m a woman and I’m very proud because I have 3 daughters. He had 3 daughters as well, but fortunately…”
She points to her daughters:
“…they aren’t his daughters. I also had a boy but Wang Yu has just 3 chicks and, for the Chinese people, it’s very important to have a boy in the family, so I finally beat him!”
Yuen Hua said Cheng Pei Pei was always punctual for work and Run Run Shaw gave her a gold watch as an award for her punctuality. In regards to the reception of Golden Swallow, she started to thank everybody since the cinema was between being full and bursting, she said:
“I’m so happy seeing the French are interested in an old martial arts movie made 30 years ago.”
One of the viewers from the defunct Kung Fu Cinema message board reported:
“My God, I was ashamed! During the screening, there were a bunch of jackasses. They couldn’t stop laughing every time they saw Wang Yu fighting and massacring hundreds of guys!”
Back to Pei-Pei, she went on speaking about Wang Yu:
“My god, this guy played a handsome character, but in fact he was too ugly, he’s got small eyes, so I never saw this movie when it was released. Finally, I saw this movie years ago with Wang Yu in a French retrospective. When I left the set, he was seriously wounded. I thought that he was dead but he wasn’t and he went on fighting; yet many people mock at him during the screening. I laughed at him too, so he got damn upset.”
However, she comes to a nicer conclusion:
“When Wang Yu was in Hong Kong, every week he fought against someone, nobody liked him. Unfortunately, he isn’t here, otherwise he can confirm everything I said here is true. This guy wasn’t handsome but he was a great actor.”
She shares some noteworthy insight:
“Chang Cheh filmed Wang Yu wearing a white suit, his body soaked in blood, and he went on fighting, the audience loved that stuff, they wanted more and more violence. That’s why Chang Cheh’s works became more and more bloody, and violent!”
Q: What’s the difference between Chang Cheh and King Hu?
A: Chang Cheh considered the woman as the vase, something that is just beautiful to watch. He didn’t care much about the actress but, in the ’60s, women got an important role in the Hong Kong movie industry. I was quite happy about that.
Q: You don’t have a martial arts background, was it difficult to act in a swordplay movie?
A: Making martial arts movies were so easy for me since I know how to dance to jazz, director King Hu told me:
“You must fight as you dance, you should use the same rhythm as a dancer.”
When King Hu left Shaw Brothers to direct Dragon Inn, he made some costumes for me but I couldn’t follow him because I was under contract with the Shaws for 7 years. So King Hu took another actress – she was smaller than I am so they had to shorten some costumes. If I followed him for Dragon Inn, I could have become a more huge star. This also applies to A Touch of Zen.
Now, it’s time for something else….
Another example of a rarity is the autobiography of Chang Cheh. In English, it’s known as Chang Cheh: A Memoir (2003) whereas it’s known in Chinese as Chang Cheh: Memoirs and Criticism. I wouldn’t usually post whole sections from a book but seeing as how this particular book is rare then it shouldn’t pose a problem in terms of legislation.
His motto is:
“When a man suffers from setbacks in his career, the most common way out is romance.”
His adage about talent is something which casting directors can relate to:
“I suppose talents are often sought after and found, but though talents are not rare, someone who recognizes them is all too often sought after and not found.”
His Dalai Lama moment:
“Whenever there was a crisis, I would deal with it rationally. Losing one’s temper wouldn’t solve the problem. Intelligence is really the ability to solve problems.”
His Gandhi moment:
“Once, the gaffers at Shaws went on strike and their talks with the studio reached a deadlock. Raymond Chow said to me – Only you can fix this matter; and I did resolve their disputes.”
His forte pertaining to operating the camera:
“With light-sensitive film yet to be invented, shooting colour films posed greater difficulty to lighting, especially when you were working in sound stages. Technically speaking, there are warm shots and cold shots. The eye-level shot levels with human eyesight in normal standing posture. Shots above that level are cold. They are called such to define chilling, shivery shots. Warm shots require the cinematographer to crawl on the ground.”
His influence on the directorial début of Liu Chia-Liang (a.k.a. Lau Kar-Leung):
“I even lined up Lau with Ni Kuang to discuss the screenplay of The Spiritual Boxer. He first conceived it to be an affirmation of the folk practice, but he took my advice during the shooting and refashioned the plot as an anti-superstition comedy.”
His next anecdote is an unintentional reminder of BDSM, especially given how he is often perceived as having made homoerotic movies:
“Alexander Fu Sheng, student of Kar-Leung, called me daddy. Lin Bing once asked Fu a tricky question – If Master is at odds with Daddy, which side will you be on? Lin intended to startle Fu with this nearly impossible question to answer, but Fu answered without a hint of hesitation – I’ll be on Daddy’s side.”
Chang relays R.R. Shaw’s ethos on business (which should be a universal rule of thumb):
“When doing business, one must always consider the benefits for others beside your own. Business is a two-way street.”
R.R. Shaw had as much to say on storytelling as product-selling:
“The story should determine how a film is edited, even if it means shooting extra scenes to replace the bad ones. What is a good shot? If the audience sees what you want them to see, that’s a good shot.”
One of Shaw’s underlings, Raymond Chow (who would later form Golden Harvest), shows why he became Shaw’s successor and superior:
“The boss is extremely clever. Halfway through a conversation, he would already have figured out your intention. Tell me not the course of events but the result.”
Making one of his non-best films took the most patience out of him:
“I spent an entire year completing Five Shaolin Masters, so it was a costly project. Shooting in Taiwan, I had experienced spring, summer, autumn and winter to find the ideal weather in shooting. Fortunately, the film sold well worldwide and the Shaws made good profits from it.”
His recollections on Hong Kong’s status as a British colony affecting Boxer Rebellion (released in January of 1976):
“The last thing that the British administration wanted was the release of a film which depicted resistance against Western Powers. The excuse used to ban the film didn’t hold water any more. Boxer Rebellion was initially banned but passed the censors upon Shaw’s repeated negotiations to slash the scenes and to change the title to the nonsensical Spiritual Fists. Reduced to a shadow of its former self, the film did poorly at the box office. The film has yet to come out of the musty closets of Taiwan and its neighbouring countries. The U.S. version was perhaps a more complete one, though it was released hastily in Chinatown cinemas. The audience reception wasn’t bad.”
He almost does a better job of summarizing an actor than Jing did in his 2011 memoir (titled Juvenile Jing):
“Alexander Fu Sheng was a brilliant actor. He’s handsome, so full of character as well as adept in literary and action parts. He also had a good comic sense. In many ways, he was the vanguards of actors like Jackie Chan, Stephen Chow and Andy Lau. Within the Shaw studio, I had failed to see the spark in another actor since the death of Alexander.”
Chang talks about the rarest of his films (in keeping with the theme of my article) by setting up a preamble:
“My fourth film was Tiger Boy (1966), which Shaws assigned to me as an experimental work. The conditions of filming were appalling. Although colours film had since become everyday, Tiger Boy was still shot in black and white. The crew was banished to the grounds outside the studio lot. Ironically, it was my first film where I displayed my personal style to the full. Because it was meant to be a trial, the shoestring budget seemed to abide by company policy. I broke all the norms of filming and treated it as an out-and-out experimental work. I cast only newcomers and went without martial artists along with martial arts directors. The resulting film was naturally very different from the Cantonese Wuxia films; even the design and characterizations of the characters were different. Shooting on outdoor sets helped to create a greater sense of realism and agility of camera movements.
Now, we get into the nitty-gritty of it (where the formulation of putting mattresses together on top of cardboard boxes to form a safety net emanated from this film):
“It reaped the benefits of black and white cinematography. Natural lighting minimises restrictions, thus providing a wider range of perspective and a greater freedom of framing. If you pan up the camera, the lightings will be exposed instantly. But the problem can be solved easily on an outdoor set. There was a boxing scene that was shot outdoors. The ring was constructed with wooden trunks where shots were taken from between cracks up the sky.”
He details why it was the swordplay equivalent to The Big Boss (which broke the box office record set forth by The Sound of Music in the city):
“Neither of us knew the Southern fist or the Northern-style martial arts. I knew nothing about firework, so the fights I designed were less fantastical than the mainstream, based solely on the physical ability of the human – only a little exaggerated, hence more real.”
He examines why and how it became the highest-grossing H.K. film (if not necessarily more profitable than The Sound of Music had been over there):
“There was a scene which depicted Jimmy Wang Yu, the nemesis, seeking vengeance by breaking in the house of his enemy – a thug. The exterior wall is a wooden fence. Instead of taking a flying leap over the fence with a little help from the wirework, Wang shoots arrows into a wooden column to form a ladder. It’s a highly realistic and stylized scene. Tiger Boy, under extreme adversity and with a minimal budget, delighted audiences with its unique and refreshing action scenes. It premièred in Singapore and Malaysia to critical acclaim followed by a successful release in Hong Kong by outshining many of the colour films released at the same time.”
After inadvertently explaining why Katniss in The Hunger Games had less inspired moments with her bow and arrows, he goes on to talk about the different types of directors:
“To any director, the formulae of success is divided into four types. Some start with a humble beginning – an extra, stuntman or script continuity person coming up through the ranks. The second type is someone who chooses directing right from the beginning but only achieves success after a few trials. The third is a writer who becomes a director. Scorn was poured on directors who claimed a literary background. The last type is a star-turned-director who just needs to hire a competent deputy and success won’t lag far behind. This is seen in the cases of The Chinese Boxer where Jimmy Wang Yu was aided by Ng See-Yuen, and Michael Hui’s Lucky Twin Stars where his aide happened to be John Woo of all people. All good directors are meddlesome.”
For all the flourishes that imbued Tiger Boy, Chang’s career lucratively flourished when he made his most iconic film – One-Armed Swordsman (so emblematic of the Shaw Brothers studio that Golden Harvest poached Jimmy Wang Yu to be in One-Armed Boxer):
“I earned the title of Million Dollar Director due to the success. The record boosted my confidence and fuelled my success. Although One-Armed Swordsman was the cornerstone of my directing career, it was hackneyed except for the breakthrough achieved in pace and motion. It was the first Hong Kong film where someone used a hand-held camera.”
Golden Swallow, however, was less profitable because Cheng Pei-Pei didn’t want it to be a sequel to King Hu’s Come Drink With Me. The Invisible Fist was meant to reverse Chang’s fortunes. It had a remarkable script and a fine technical polish to match, but the box office result didn’t reflect the quality. Wanting to do something different, he cast Jimmy Lin Chong in a film titled The Singing Thief. Jimmy was a Taiwanese singer, and the film was pitched to make him the Chinese equivalent to Elvis Presley. The result was disastrous because his acting ability wasn’t as good as his charisma. Even his singing was taken over by Roman Tam.
Chang talks about a movie whose music cue was featured in Tarantino’s tribute to martial arts movies:
“Versus Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde alongside Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, Vengeance did a loftier job at showing slow motion in all its glory. Later, the use of slow motion was degenerated to becoming a ploy to magnify a certain action. In Vengeance, slow motion shots show a truer sense of rebellion. Long hair worn by men was outlawed in Singapore and Malaysia back in those days. The studio had been persuading hard to have David Chiang’s hair cut. I was steadfast in my refusal for the sake of getting the best result of the slow motion shots.”
They probably relented because of The Beatles. Despite Disciples of Shaolin being released after Five Shaolin Masters, it began filming first but was at one time disrupted because Chang wanted to take advantage of the weather limitations in Taiwan for the other movie. Despite the lapse of filming and potential judgement, it was more successful at the box office because Fu Sheng’s character was a prototype for the ones which Jackie Chan would play.
He gives summaries on Danny Lee, Alexander Fu Sheng, Kuo Chui (a.k.a. Philip Kwok) and Cheng Kang (the father of Ching Siu-Tung):
“When I first met Danny and Alex, they were naughty boys of seventeen. I was more at ease with them and could joke with them. Kuo was one of my actors in Taiwan. He was a vivacious big boy. He is a great action choreographer. He is a good actor but failed to become a star. Among my peers, Cheng Kang is an undoubtedly a great director. If he is less well-known than Li Han-Hsiang and I, it is simply because he was not as prolific. To be honest, Li and I had churned out some run-of-the-mill works, but never Cheng Kang. Whether commercial or artistic, none of his works was a box office flop.”
The cracks in Cheng Kang’s career, however, began to show and had done him in:
“Alan Tang was a motivated actor back then, not unlike Andy Lau of today. He wanted Cheng to direct this film after Shaw graciously let him go. As both wanted things done to perfection, conflicts were inevitable. It ended up with Tang giving Kang a slap in the face. Despite his fiery temper, Cheng was rather weak in physique. As going to court would put both sides under bad light, the matter was dropped. The shooting, of course, could not go on. After this fiasco, Cheng was effectively blacklisted. He later went to Taiwan and became a film consultant. He made no films but he did mentor Chu Yen-Ping, dubbed Wong Jing of Taiwan. Chu did learn a trick or two from Cheng in making commercial films.”
Chang Cheh delivers a discourse that James Cameron could benefit from:
“I never lashed out at actors because I thought that no actors would want to look bad on the screen. If they came up short, it was because it was beyond them. Harsh words would only confuse them more.”
Footnote: John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow could’ve been a Venoms movie because he is a Chang fan. Chow Yun-Fat’s role could’ve been played by Philip Kwok, Ti Lung’s role could’ve been played by Lo Mang, Leslie Cheung’s role could’ve been played by Chiang Sheng, Waise Lee’s role could’ve been played by Lu Feng and Kenneth Tsang’s role could’ve been played by Sun Chien.