By John Richards

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.

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 Wayne Archer and Toby Russell (who goes by the name of Shapes on the Kung Fu Fandom forum). 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. On the FLK Forum where he is known as Crowman, you can find out what Toby has said about Robert. Back to John Richards, he also interviewed Darren Shahlavi and Jude Poyer. For the sake of maintaining chronological order, I will begin with the Poyer interview since he was interviewed on March 31 in 2002 whereas Shahlavi was interviewed in October of that year.

Which martial arts actors/directors inspired you?

I don’t know if I would use the word “inspired” but I certainly have admired many filmmakers. Of course, I am still impressed by Bruce Lee’s charisma and technique. I love the great kickers like Tan Tao-Liang, Wang Jang-Lee and Yuen Biao. As far as which action directors who I most enjoy, I’d have to mention Lau Kar-Leung, Ching Siu-Tung, Sammo Hung and Yuen Tak.

How did you get your first break in the Hong Kong film industry?

I don’t know if “breaks” happen that often, or if they do – I’m not sure I’ve had mine. My first film in H.K. was Downtown Torpedoes – a very small stunt role. Parts bigger and smaller have generally kept coming my way. I quite like the way it’s progressed. The more you do, the better you get. The more people know you, and the more they know what you can (and can’t) do.

How have you found working conditions in the H.K. film industry and is it true that Westerners get treated badly?

H.K. film-making is rarely glamorous, but that counts for everyone, not just gwailos. Perhaps if you expect great luxury or deferential treatment, and find it rarely exists on a movie shoot, you might construe it as mistreatment. Generally, stars and crew eat the same lunch boxes. I’d be reluctant to say that I’d ever encountered discrimination based on my race – at least in a deliberate, vicious way. Most times, I find if I speak the language, try to do things according to the H.K. style, keep an open mind and remain humble, people treat me pretty well. There are one or two directors and action people who clearly use me because they like working with me – regardless of race. The kind of roles on offer for foreigners and their profile in the industry leaves a lot to be desired, but unfortunately that’s true of film industries the world over.

Do you remember your first stunt?

What’s a stunt? Getting kicked is a stunt. Takashi Kaneshiro had to kick me in the chest in Downtown Torpedoes. I was meant to hit the floor. After we did it the first time, I hit the floor, and he thought he’d really hurt me, so he ran over to see if I was OK! When we did get it right, he came over,gave me a hug and apologised for repeatedly booting me – not that he needed to say sorry.

Has there been a stunt that made you think twice, or one more than others?

I always think very carefully before doing an action. If you don’t, you could get hurt. If I didn’t feel confident that I could do it safely, I probably wouldn’t do it. Sometimes, the action director needs you to share your concerns, so they can modify the action to suit you. I’ve never turned down a stunt, but I’ve suggested slightly different ways to do things. I’m willing to give things a go too. Robin Shou wanted me to do a 720 degree twist on a wire through some real (charged) glass. I told him I doubted I’d get it right. He asked me if I’d give it a go, and I said sure. We rehearsed with mats (and no glass), and I was confident I could do it without serious injury, but afraid it wouldn’t look so good (only one set of glass panels = no take two). In the end, a better stuntman (with more acrobatic skill than I) did that stunt and I did a different one – getting kicked and flying back on a wire into a concrete wall. I’d never claim to be a great stunt performer, but I always feel I’ll try my hardest.

Which actor, director or choreographer have you most enjoyed working with and why?

I’ve enjoyed working with a lot of people, including ones I’d long admired. To name one actor, I’d have to say Yuen Biao is incredibly talented – a nice, humble, friendly person, who spending time with. He’s very un-starlike in his attitude and I admire him as much for that as for his abilities on the film set. To name a director, I’d like to say Aman Cheung is very easy to work with. His films may not always be great, but he makes them under terrible budgetary and scheduling conditions. Aman’s always very patient, organised and pleasant on the set – the stress never shows. He’s open to ideas, and he’s given me roles not necessarily written for a white guy. I’ve done three films with him, and hope to do more.

Which scene did you most enjoy shooting?

I’ve been in over 20 films, so picking out one scene is kinda hard. I did have a lot of laughs shooting the “male rape/fight” scene in The Blacksheep Affair, though. The other Western guys are a good bunch of people, and we had a fun. I also had fun doing the hopping vampire scenes in Vampire Controller. It’s not a good film, but I’m proud of it!

What projects have you worked on most recently?

I recently got back from working in Thailand for a month on Highbinders, playing one of the bad guys. Not a huge part, but some dialogue and action. At the end of last year, I shot a scene for that in H.K. as well. Since getting back, I’ve also done some acting work for TVB.

Who would you most like to work with that you haven’t already?

I’ve been very, very lucky. I’ve worked with many folks whose work I’ve admired. Forgive the name dropping, but Ching Siu-Tung, Sammo Hung, Chiu Man-Cheuk, Jet Li, Van Damme, Ridley Tsui, Jackie Chan, Corey Yuen Kwai, and Christopher Doyle are just SOME of them. I’m not sure who else I’d like to work with. You can work with someone who you admired for a long time, and find the experience leaving you a little cold. Other times, you can be surprised to find out you’re working with Zhang Ziyi or Tarsem Singh, and find it very pleasant.

How do you feel the current H.K. action movies compare to the films of a decade (and earlier) ago?

The current H.K. action films are very poor compared to those of ten, twenty years ago. Particularly in terms of the choreography, shooting, editing, and fighting ability of the actors.

I’ve heard it said (on a forum) that the days of spending a month on a fight scene are over. Do you think that the same amount of effort/importance is given to the fight scenes these days and do you expect (or have you already noticed) that the success of films like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon will effect a change back towards the older styles of filmmaking?

Yes, time devoted to the action scenes and films in general is diminishing. You could blame producers for this, but I can understand why they take the easy way out and cast pop stars in some commercial fare. It’s not easy getting bums on cinema seats in H.K. If you spend a fortune on an excellent action film starring guys who can really act and do action, there’s nothing to say you won’t lose a lot of money. Entertainment is a business. In a perfect world, audiences would be entertained and the producers would have profitable business. Sadly, it’s rarely like that. A lot of the best H.K. action films, examples being Burning Paradise, Eastern Condors, Tiger Cage 2, performed disappointingly or bombed at the box office. It’s very tricky for producers to make those kind of films these days, where audiences are going to show up and be satisfied. Perhaps the answer is to go back to the studio system adopted by Shaw Brothers, where everyone from directors, actors and crew are on a salary……I don’t know, but the state of H.K. films does make me sad.

Linked to that last question, another comment I’ve heard is that the ‘old hands’ are still there but they’re not being listened to by the new directors (when it comes to directing fight scenes). Is this something you’d agree with or have things started to change, or is it simply not the case?

Some directors still give action crews full control, others don’t. As an action fan, it’s too easy to say that it’s great for the action crew to be left to their own devices. The action may end up looking good, but may not rest with the general tone of the film. Action directors might be losing control because, these days, H.K. doesn’t really make what I consider to be action films very often. The action is there, but sadly isn’t there to “sell” the film on it’s own. Crouching Tiger had action, but if the script, acting, costumes, sets and direction sucked then it wouldn’t have been a success. It was a great film which happened to have great action. Not many such films get made, especially these days. It had the benefit of a major U.S. financier. It also had a director who wanted to pay homage to a genre which he loves, not reinvent it. He had the good sense to give his action director both control and influence, but also kept the action complimentary – thus never superfluous to the film in general. We’re seeing more U.S./H.K. films like So Close (from Columbia) and even Highbinders. Let’s hope that they can be successful from the POVs of both the audience and producers.

What other projects/work do you have lined up?

So Close (formerly Crystal Warriors/Virtual Twilight) directed by Yuen Kwai, in which I have a small action role in a flashback scene. Wesley’s Mysterious File – an Andy Lau film directed by Andrew Lau (the helmer of A Man Called Hero), on which I did quite a bit of stuntwork back in 1999 is finally getting its release at the end of March in 2002.

Do you have any ambitions to work in Hollywood or would you be happy to stay in H.K.?

With the industry in the state that it’s in, and the films not really being the kind of H.K. action films that I love, I do fear that if I stayed here forever – I might get stuck doing the same thing and not improve. That would limit the kind of roles and challenges which I might be offered elsewhere. I’ve no great desire to be a movie star or even Hollywood star, but I’d love to do a low-budget American action film like Drive. I’d also love to work as a stuntman on English productions. There is so much I could learn there, and maybe (if I’m lucky) I can bring my H.K. experience to what I do wherever I work. I don’t think I’m an outstanding action performer, but I do know that H.K. action people have the respect of action people all over the world. I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t proud to be a part (no matter how small) of the HK action scene.

What martial arts training did you have before you went to Hong Kong?

I started martial arts when I was very young, the first time I went to a class was when I was 7 to study Judo which I did for a number of years until I found a Karate school. I just got bored with Judo as I wanted to kick, I had too much energy! I trained in kickboxing under Master Ronnie Green. I also trained for a while at Masters Toddy’s Muay Thai in Manchester. These great instructors gave me a solid foundation on which to build and the rest of my training comprised of studying studying and studying films of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. I spent all my “study time” at college (i.e. graphic design) in the library by viewing tapes of the greatest fight scenes, picking out techniques and angles which I felt worked and making notes. Ironically, my first experience if martial arts practice took place in a drama theater!

After being a fan of H.K. films, what did it feel like to actually be on a set with the likes of Yuen Woo-Ping and Billy Chow?

I’d been on set with people who I’d admired from afar before and, to be honest, I just felt very priveleged to be working with people who are at the top of their game. I truly love film. I’m a sponge on set – I learn from everyone. I spent a lot of time with our DP, David Pak, learning about angles, lenses, film speed and flagging the wires (using shadows to diminish the visibility of wires) So It was a great chance to learn first hand.

How do you feel that Tai Chi Boxer compares to the films being made in H.K. now? I feel it was one of the last really good Kung Fu movies.

I’ve lost touch with the H.K. market recently since everyone came over to the U.S. but I’m very proud to be in a Kung Fu film. Had I not done this film, I may never have had the chance. There are certainly many better period films, but Tai Chi Boxer has a real fun and innocence to it unlike other films. It’s not trying to prove a point but entertain which I think it does very well.

The behind-the-scenes footage on the Hong Kong Legends disc gives the impression that Yuen Woo-Ping isn’t as an aggressive director like others have reported to be (e.g. Tsui Hark and Sammo Hung). Is this a correct reflection and what was it like to work with him?

Yuen is a real gentleman. After a few minutes with him, you realise this is a man who is content with himself and caring of others. I love him. He is so kind-hearted to people and I never saw any sign of temper or frustration with anyone. Working with him was great. The reason why now he has success in the West is because he has the attitude and patience to teach whilst he works. This is a sign of greatness. He knows what he is capable of and what you are capable of through him.

Tai Chi Boxer seemed to mark the end of an era in H.K. cinema (the last of the wirework films). Did you have any feeling of that at the time of making or was the hope to generate new interest in the genre?

I think the hope was to launch Jacky Wu Jing’s career and this was the ideal movie for that, though the minds of the H.K. audience change so fast. It’s often hard to judge a film’s success in Asia without a name, but Woo-Ping has a great sense of what is the next big thing. Long before The Matrix, he wanted to do Special effects and Kung Fu. With this film, he knew it was time to launch a new career as he has done for many others.

What are your thoughts on the current state of the H.K. film industry?

It’s been a very interesting few years and new fresh faces are emerging. For example, I met Daniel Wu just before he started his career. He is a great guy who is from the States and therefore brings with him a more Westernised approach. This is good for the industry, and the crossover potential is great using these people like Bey Logan to write and guide the film that’s been needed in H.K. for a long time.

From your interview on the DVD, it sounded as if you received a lot better treatment than other westerners have reported. Did this surprise you?

Not really, when I was a kid and I went to play in another friend’s backyard – I didn’t treat it as though it was my backyard! and my house. The same attitude has been carried with me throughout my career. I’ve been working in films all over the world and I learn from people. I often find myself on set as a mediator between two arguing people. When I work, I care about the quality of the film – not my ego and pride. I heard stories from other Westerners in H.K. who have to remember that’s not their backyard. If you want respect, you have to earn it sometimes. Saying that, there have been people unfortunate enough to have bad experiences. Not everyone is so nice to Westerners, but in H.K. – if you say you can, you better be able to do. That’s why you’re hired.

Do you have a favourite scene from the film?

The fight with myself and Billy Chow. It doesn’t last long, but it’s very powerful and was great to shoot. Very hard work but the most rewarding – doing two hundred rounds of kickboxing for two days with one of the best kickboxers in the world.

The final fight scene looked particularly gruelling to film. What did you find most challenging?

The fight with Jacky was hard to shoot, but as soon as we had the timing down – it was great! They set up so fast. The hardest part was the heat and finding time for a moment’s rest.

What did you go on to do after Tai Chi Boxer?

I did a film for Seasonal called Bloodmoon. It was great to shoot a picture with sound. It was a blast with such great guys as Gary Daniels, Chuck Jeffreys, Keith Strandberg, our director Tony Leung Siu-Hung and of course Ng See Yuen – who made Drunken Master with Yuen Woo-Ping. I did a film for Phillip Ko Fai called Techno Warriors, which was made for the Asian market. I’m the lead in the film and it could have been okay, but there was no script. We shot for two months in the Philippines and, every morning, I’d sit with the 1st AD trying to figure out the dialogue for each scene. We had a good little film but the company thought it would be a good idea to cut our film in two, add footage shot later with Yukari Oshima, bring me back and hire Thorsten Nickel (my friend from Thunderbolt) to shoot some more scenes, so now it’s two films – Techno Warriors and Lethal Combat. I tried to get them to cut the footage into one film. I would have cut it myself, but I haven’t even seen any result yet.

Do you have a current project?

Recently, I’ve decided to concentrate on building a solid body of quality work. I don’t want a ten year career like others who make low budget action films, so I’m working with interesting directors and actors. I could have made a lot of money over the past few years, but I would have to make a big compromise for that. Acting is something that I’ve really never learned from anyone, so it’s important that I work with great actors and directors. As with Hostile Environment, I choreographed my own fights on a horror film, Legion of the Dead, for a cult German film-maker – Olaf Ittenbachmy. I met some great people like Russell Friedenberg, who is a fine actor from New York and now my writing partner on a film. Olaf and I have become best friends. The film will be out in the U.K. very soon from Anchour Bay and it will be released in the U.S. by Artisan next month.

Do you ever think that you might work in H.K. again?

I would love to, but I’m not a name there. I can’t afford to go and shoot a film for such low money. I was hired to work on The Accidental Spy and fight with Jackie. I’d agreed to do it for very low amount of money. Two weeks before I was to fly out, I got a call saying they had no money and had to hire locally in Turkey. Bey Logan generously called and asked if I’d like to work on Highbinders, but later they say they have no money to fly talent in!!!! These were the two biggest budget films ever made in Asia?! It’s a joke. People are crying out to see Jackie doing great action again, yet they hire anybody for nothing and Jackie’s guys double them, whilst guys like me along with others with the abilities are told – “We have no money?” I have to make a living. I make more on one day of a low budget feature than I would have made on 18 days on a Jackie Chan film. I think it’s wrong, but if I could afford to do it…maybe I would. It’s precisely the same reason why I can’t afford to do theater, which I would love to do more of…but…it’s a rich man’s game now.

Favourite martial arts films – no particular order:

Enter the Dragon, Drunken MasterWheels on Meals, Drive, The Last Dragon and No Retreat, No Surrender.

Favourite martial arts actor:

Donnie Yen.

Favourite martial arts director:

Lau Kar-Leung.

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