The Hong Kong John Ford

If Wong Jing’s father, Wong Tin-Lam, is the Chinese equivalent to Howard Hawks (in terms of quantity and diversity) then the Hong Kong equivalent to John Ford is Chang Cheh. This claim is supported by the fact that John was primarily known for Westerns despite churning out a prolific amount of movies including adaptations of novels.



One rarity that stands out among all the out-of-print books in the publishing industry is Chang’s memoir. 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 normally post whole sections from a book but seeing as how this particular book is sadly 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 official directorial début (i.e. Breakout from Oppression was made before he joined S.B.) 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 S.B. 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 ShengWaise Lee’s role could’ve been played by Lu Feng and Kenneth Tsang’s role could’ve been played by Sun Chien.

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