Pioneer in the shadows of others

Wasted Life was one of the best sites for Kung Fu movies, which makes sense given how there has always been a close relationship between the Chinese and Brits with Hong Kong being a British colony. It’s a shame that John Richards never uprooted all of his content by upgrading to a blog. Here is his intro for an interview that he organized for a man who died an August ago: Robert Tai is, without question, one of the most influential kung fu movie directors working in the industry, having directed the action on such classics as 5 Deadly Venoms, Thundering Mantis and Incredible Kung Fu Mission before going on to direct his own spectacular movies. This April 2004 interview was conducted via e-mail with my housemate Terry (very kindly) translating the questions into Chinese and one of Robert Tai’s friends translating the answers back into English. As a result, something may be lost in the translation but I’ve posted the answers as they came back. A big thanks to Terry for the translation and also to Toby Russell for providing the contact and facilitating the whole thing.

JR: How long did you spend at the Fu Shing opera school and what was it like growing up there?

RT: I’ve been at Fu Shing Opera for 8 years. If I have not passed such tough childhood in the Fu Shing opera school, there were not the stamina in my adolescence, which make my successful career afterward.

JR: How did you get your first parts in movies?

RT: In 1965, director Huang-fu came to Taiwan for his Kung Fu film in which his action choreographer was Mr Han Yin-Jay – who was my teacher’s classmate. Mr. Han needed many stuntmen for this movie, so that we participated in this production. Hence, my first part in the movie was a stuntman.

JR: Who were your favourite movie stars back then?

RT: Mr. Chang Yi is my favourite movie star because he is my elder brother in the school.

JR: Who would you say has been the biggest influence on your career?

RT: It is incontestable that Chang Cheh has been the biggest influence on my career.

JR: How did you make the move from stuntman to action choreographer at Shaw Brothers?

RT: Before I went to Shaw Brothers, I worked as a stuntman as well as an assistant of the action choreographer. The action choreographer, who was a Taiwaner, left Shaw Brothers after the production of Shaolin Temple, so that I could take charge of the position as an action choreographer in the next production.

JR: How much control did you have over the fight arrangements in the films you made with Chang Cheh and starring Kuo Chui, Lo Mang, Lu Feng, Chang Sheng, Sun Chien?

RT: I took charge of all scenes of the fighting arrangements in those films.

JR: One of my favourite fight scenes is the end fight of Thundering Mantis (a.k.a. Crazy Mantis). Was that scripted to be so brutal or was that devised on the set?

RT: The mantis is an extremely brutal insect, the ideas that I designed in all the action sets (especially your favourite scene) is from the natural world of the mantis. There is no immediate concept of the action sets from the description in the script.

JR: What drove you to start experimenting with wires in your films?

RT: Since Hell Gate, I used the wire in order to stick the props in the frame. In Hell Gate, I used the wire technique for controlling the darts. Afterwards, in the Venoms, I started to use the wire technique on the actors.

JR: You seem to make a lot of films about Ninjas, what is it that attracted you to the genre?

RT: In 1975, I bought the Chinese translation of the Japanese samurai. Since then, I was highly attracted by the Ninja’s culture. I went to rent the Japanese samurai video of which I felt extremely disappointed. Therefore, I decided to make my own Ninja-style films.

JR: Where did the idea for the water spider assault team in Ninja: The Final Duel come from?

RT: The idea is from a saying of the Japanese language.

JR: Alexander Lo Rei appeared frequently in your films, what qualities made him good in the starring roles?

RT: He is my disciple, it’s out of question that he is the first choice for the leading actor in my film.

JR: You recently made Trinity Goes East, which is hopefully going to be released this year, what can fans expect from this film?

RT: As usual, they will get surprise in Trinity Goes East.

JR: What was it like to work with John Liu again and can he still kick like he used to?

RT: Brilliant. At his age, what he has done is excellent.

JR: Do you still practice martial arts?

RT: I didn’t practice martial arts since several years, but I take care of my health condition very much.

JR: Do you have any projects in the pipeline?

RT: Yes, I am preparing a musical Kung Fu movie.

JR: What do you think of Hollywood’s attempt to copy the Chinese style of filmmaking in recent years?

RT: Very good. Finally, Chinese Kung Fu films are highly esteemed by the occidental world. This type of film could project only in the C class cinema in the old days, now the Kung Fu films can go to the A class cinema. However, the occidental actors are still the mainstream, I hope one day, the Oriental actors will also be the popular ones.

JR: Out of all your films, of which one are you most proud?

RT: I think you should answer this question. In my opinion as a director, the next one will always be the best.

JR: Did you ever think that your films would still be finding new audiences 20 years (and more) after they were made?

RT: Of course my films still have attraction to the young generation, because I believe that I am the godfather of Kung Fu movie directors. No one can imitate my idea, I assure that even 100 years after the production, the audiences will be attracted by my unique and initial ideas.

Editor’s note: Robert Tai would have been more famous had he been able to film a Taimak star vehicle in the early nineties. The movie was to be called The Black Ninja. According to Bey Logan, two men involved with the project were Toby Russell and Wayne Archer. All three British men travelled to Taiwan, but were disappointed that the production ended after so much waiting. Bey, in particular, was disappointed since one idea for a scene involved him using a sai knife against Taimak.

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