The year of the oxymoron

This was initially going to be in my English translation of Wong Jing’s memoir but, this time, the word-count stipulation was only one of two reasons why I decided to put the excised pages here. After reassessing my manuscript, I realised that the book would have a stronger opener by beginning with 1975 i.e. when Jing joined TVB. As such, the 1974 chapter is what I am dispensing here…

In 1973, the star of Enter the Dragon had died. From a Chinese perspective, his final movie was known as Struggling Dragon, Fighting Tiger. 1974 would have been the perfect year to make a movie titled Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger. Hell, I’m surprised that Jimmy Wang Yu didn’t do it considering that 1973 marked the release of A Man Called Tiger. Unfortunately, the gimmicky exit/enter title would only be used for a Bruceploitation movie that was released in 1976 – the year of the dragon. So much for abiding by Chinese superstition. 1974 marked the release of the last martial arts movie that was directed by Wong Jing’s father i.e. Wong Tin-Lam. Perhaps fortune would have smiled had it been released during the year of the tiger, which began on January 23. Because the movie had Charles Heung’s eighth acting credit, it was assumed that this would be the Chinese equivalent to third time being the charm. This was his fifth film as a top biller.

The initial English title was The Big Showdown, whereas the U.S. title was Kung Fu Massacre so as to subliminally appeal to those who enjoyed watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Much like how Bruce Lee’s The Big Boss was initially going to be retitled in the U.S. as The Chinese Connection so as to capitalize on The French Connection, or like how Angela Mao’s Lady Whirlwind was retitled Deep Thrust so as to subconsciously tickle the wrong kind of fancy for those who enjoyed watching Deep Throat. If you’re nascent to the world of Chinese movies, you would be forgiven for thinking that The Big Showdown was the literal translation of the Chinese title. It’s an irony that the original Chinese title, Fierce Tiger Fights Mad Dragon, evokes the image of the Bruce Lee movies which the U.S. distributor wanted to cash in on.

Jing explains how 1974 was different from the early seventies: “Everyone knows that Chinese Kung Fu movies are ace cards. In 1974, more Americans went to Hong Kong because of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon. Middle-class Americans, especially. I single out them because I remember coming across more of them. John Saxon’s character, Roper, had something to do with that.”

Charles was born in the year of the rat. His mother gave birth on December 16 in 1948. Skipping over the years to when he first met Jing, The Big Showdown was completed months before Heung’s 25th birthday. Jing himself said: “The brain only begins to be fully developed at the age of 25. I turned 25 before I made my first film as director. I will just say that Charles Heung’s brain needed more maturing, not that he was without his charms. Betty Ting Pei fell head over heels for him near the end of the summer. My father always likes to take credit for being their matchmaker, but he barely instigated the events leading up to their union. It was the composer, Frankie Chan Fan-Kei, who was responsible since he knew her from when they worked on a 1972 Shaw Brothers movie titled Stranger in Hong Kong. They became friends and, by the time he was composing The Big Showdown, he set her up with Charles. They clicked then all three went on to work on Evidence. Going to the Philippines allowed Betty to escape the escalating hostility surrounding her involvement in the death of Bruce Lee.”

In 1976, Charles married Betty. Jing thought that it was amusing that their relationship had deteriorated after Mysterious Footworks of Kung Fu*. This was the only movie that she had ever produced. It only grossed H.K.$ 1,201,305 when it was screened from the 24th to the 30th of August in 1978. One of the stuntmen in The Big Showdown, Wong Chi-Ming, also worked on Evidence. With Frankie having a post-production role, he could only join them after the fact (matching their shots with music). Despite what you might assume, both movies did not involve the same production company. Evidence was produced by the Fang Bros. Company whereas The Big Showdown was produced by Empire Cinema Center. In the spring of 1974, E.C.C. filmed a comedy titled April Fool. This had Betty as a supporting player, and it involved the talents of several people who were involved in the production of The Big Showdown. These people were Leung Wing-Yim as the production manager, Felix Chan Sai-Wing as the planner and Ma Goon-Wa, who went from serving as the lighting technician on The Big Showdown to being promoted to cinematographer of April Fool.

The crucial difference was who produced it. Wu Ma produced April Fool whereas the producer of The Big Showdown was Hong Li, who produced two Empire films involving the talents of Yuen Woo-Ping as the choreographer – Tough Guy (1972) and Wits to Wits (1974). Yuen was also the choreographer of The Big Showdown. He brought two of his brothers, i.e. Yuen Shun-Yee and Yuen Chun-Wei (a.k.a. Brandy Yuen Jan-Yeung), to perform the action with him. Other participants were Corey Yuen Kwai, Yuen Biao and Yuen Bun. Regarding the latter, Jing said: “He is the one who I bonded with the most during the times when I visited the set. He has worked for me more times than any other action director.”

The most significant relationship that Jing forged was with the esteemed editor, Marco Mak Chi-Sin, who gradually became one of Jing’s regular collaborators. Among other offerings, he edited A True Mob Story, Love Generation Hong Kong, The Conmen in Vegas and The Spy Dad. He even co-directed Colour of the Truth alongside Jing, and he completely directed Naked Soldier. Most notably, Marco would direct movies where Jing worked as a writer under this alias: Not a Woman. These movies were Cop on a Mission, The Peeping and Haunted Office. Speaking of aliases, Wong Tin-Lam and Jing both hid their writing contributions for The Big Showdown by using one name – this would be “Kwok Jor” on the English print. This is reminiscent of the Roman God named Janus, one face looks at the past while the other looks towards the future. Wong Tin-Lam saw the movie as a workshop to teach Jing how to write a screenplay, even if it meant coming up with ideas on the spot in true H.K. fashion.

The movie was made in June – a month after Jing’s 18th birthday. According to him, he worked on it as a logbook keeper after just finishing his final exam at high school. Father and son spent two weeks in Macau to make the movie. It was a perfect way to keep tabs on their gambling relative. Jing shared this memory: “I went to see my father in his hotel room at night. I gently opened the door and walked in. He seemed so bitter, sad and lonely. His presence made me slightly tremble. He was unhappy to the extent that he suppressed his insanity through a veneer that resembled someone who is getting warmed up to avoid being cold. He told me the truth about the financial situation. This was my first time listening to him talk about feelings. Because I was 18, I was old enough to understand and handle what he was about to say. He basically told me that my mother had gambling debts.”

The movie was made in the year of the ox. After it was released on the third of January, it sank without a trace by only grossing H.K.$ 125,512 by the time that it finished its run on the ninth. Jing touched on this while alluding to a film that was known in the West as Fatal Strike: “The movie opened on the same day as another martial arts movie called The Brother Two. This had Yasuaki Kurata in it, but it only lasted for three days and grossed H.K.$ 16,605.”

That’s where the faint praise ends and harsh reality begins, as Jing said: “My father still lost to a Shaw Brothers movie which premiered on the same day, lasted for five days and grossed H.K.$ 164,348. This movie was Lee Tso-Nam’s Crazy Nuts of Kung Fu. It had a supporting turn from Jack Long, who not only went on to be in plenty more Kung Fu movies than Charles Heung, but way more movies in general.”

The Big Showdown was such a box office flop that the film company had to scale down production significantly. Only three movies got made after this – April Fool, Wits to Wits (which had Shih Kien in it) and The Playboy (a 1975 drama starring Betty). The investor behind The Big Showdown was a bank who seized the movie until profit was made overseas, where it was wrongly advertised as featuring Bolo Yeung from Enter the Dragon. It would take four years for Charles to get top billing again. His comeback movie was Goose Boxer. Jing admires and admonishes him for who he was during the making of The Big Showdown: “His back was like an inverted triangle because of partaking daily in a tremendous amount of bodybuilding. He was the Kung Fu equivalent to Sylvester Stallone except Charles was ruder. We slowly trusted each other. I still respect him because he was one of the finest martial artists. The difference between himself and Bruce Lee was that his street fights didn’t force him to emigrate.”

The alternate Chinese title is Taekwondo Tiger Fight. It was an attempt to cash in on the Korean martial arts craze, which began with Hapkido. This collaboration between Angela Mao and Sammo Hung lasted 14 days at the local box office (a good run) from October 12 to October 25 of 1972. It grossed H.K.$ 873,804. In what would later be a typical move for Jing, he convinced his father to make a TKD movie because Jing anticipated the success of another Mao/Hung movie – When Taekwondo Strikes (this was also filmed in June 1973). He wasn’t short-sighted. While the movie spent less days at the domestic box office (a mere ten days), it made more money by grossing H.K.$ 1,099,592 after it came out in September of 1973.

Like how Bruce went out of his way to cast Jhoon Rhee, Jing got his father to cast one of the pioneers of TKD – Kim Bok Man. The way that Kim is introduced in the opening credit sequence of The Big Showdown was inspired by the tutorial promo reel that was used to advertise the release of Hapkido. The indoor basketball court that we see in Tin-Lam’s sequence is the same one that Jing played in during his high school years. After the movie was completed, Kim went on to appear in Only the Brave Stands. This starred Michael Chan Wai-Man (who was one of the three choreographers) and Kitty Meng Chui.

The Big Showdown proved that cashing in on a trend doesn’t always guarantee success. Unfortunately, Jing wouldn’t always pay heed to this credence. In fairness to him, Charles starred in a big hit that was released in the previous January. From the 26th of January to the 8th of February, End of the Wicked Tigers (a remake of a Gary Cooper Western titled High Noon) had grossed H.K.$ 1,014,388. Then again, Han Ying-Chieh and Sammo had more to offer as choreographers during this point in time. While Sammo, in particular, was rivalling Bruce for martial supremacy, Yuen Woo-Ping was lagging far behind. It would take a few more years to prove that he was no slouch in the choreography department.

The aforementioned planner, Felix Chan, was involved in the planning of a 1972 movie called The Bloody Fists (a Goldig production). Despite Yuen Woo-Ping choreographing with Ng See-Yuen directing the likes of Chan Kuan-Tai and Chen Sing, it barely cuts the mustard. In the Jet Li chapter, Jing talked about Ng’s involvement with Jimmy Wang Yu’s The Chinese Boxer (1970): “He was the assistant director. I believe that 80% of the film was shot by him, but the film is still impressive. Ng’s later movie, The Bloody Fists, was very close to the style of this film.”

The aforementioned cinematographer, Ma Goon-Wa, would prove to be a most valuable ally for the golden years of Woo-Ping’s career. Ma went on to operate the camera for the following movies: Revenge of the Shaolin Master, The Magnificent Butcher, The Buddhist Fist, Dreadnaught, Legend of a Fighter, The Miracle Fighters, Shaolin Drunkard, The Champions**, In the Line of Duty 4, Wong Jing’s Last Hero in China and Heroes Among Heroes.

The aforementioned production manager, Leung Wing-Yim, would prove to be a valued asset in Woo-Ping’s life seeing as how he managed the productions of Shaolin Drunkard (1983), The Miracle Fighters (1982), Dreadnaught (1981) and The Buddhist Fist (1980). The latter two movies are notable for how Jing had a hand in writing the stories. Jing also co-wrote the story (and the English dialogue) for Legend of a Fighter (1982), but Leung Wing-Yim wasn’t involved since it was made by a production company called Seasonal. With the exception of Golden Harvest’s Dreadnaught and Shaolin Drunkard (a First Films production***), these other eighties productions were by Yuen’s company – Peace Film Production.

No matter which way that you slice it, The Big Showdown was instrumental in establishing several collaborative relationships which helped define key facets of H.K. cinema. Even the least praised of collaborations, i.e. the Jing collaborations, helped serve H.K. cinema in the long run by financially benefiting the industry. Charles Heung’s production company, Win’s, hired Jing many times for many hits including box office record-breakers. You can’t deny how this partnership helped to ensure that the industry wouldn’t be completely pushed to the ground by Hollywood features.

* It’s unfortunate that there is no bootwork courtesy of the foot doctor known as Wilson Tong, since he was not cast in it.

** The movie that Shaolin Soccer could only dream about artistically besting.

*** Yuen first worked for them as choreographer of Tiger Force in 1975. This starred Chen Sing and Chan Wai-Man. First Films were in a precarious position since the second half of 1979 saw them making a rival production to The Magnificent Butcher. This rival production was titled Butcher Wing, but was released in September instead of December. Making things more awkward is that both movies had Lee Hoi-Sang play the main antagonist. Butcher Wing is particularly notable because it stars Ng Ming-Choi, who played one of Han’s guards who gets executed by Bolo in Enter the Dragon.


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