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Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, Pt. 2: From the Old Classics Comes a New Wave

Ching Siu-tung grew up in a film family. His father, Ching Gong, was a director at Shaw Brothers, making movies that ranged from kung fu and wu xia films (Sword of Swords, Fourteen Amazons) to James Bond style spy adventures (Kiss and Kill) to crime and exploitation films (Kidnap, The Call-Girls). Ching Gong even worked as action director for one of the all-time great “what the hell did I just witness” movies, Golden Queen’s Commando, starring Sally Yeh and Brigitte Lin — two women who would become key to the success of many Hong Kong new nave movies. Yeh would star in some key Hong Kong New Wave classics — John Woo’s The Killer and Tsui Hark’s Peking Opera Blues (which also starred Brigitte Lin) — and sing major theme songs for both The Killer and A Chinese Ghost Story. Brigitte Lin would star in Tsui Hark’s bonkers Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain and two of Ching Siu-tung’s dazzling Swordsman movies. Apparently not busy enough behind the camera, Ching Gong also worked as an occasional actor, appearing in The House of 72 Tenants, The Tea House, and several of his own films. Ever the journeyman, he also wrote a huge pile of scripts for both his own films as well as those of other Shaw Brothers directors.

Ching Siu-tung

His son, Ching Siu-tung, grew up not just around the Shaw Brothers backlot, but also trained at a Peking Opera school, where he picked up skills as a performer and choreographer. His first job as a filmmaker was working as action director on his father’s 1972 film, Fourteen Amazons, a martial arts epic starring many of the studio’s most famous leading ladies. Ching Siu-tung continued throughout the 1970s to work as an action director, first at Shaw Brothers and, as the wheels began to come off that cart, at Raymond Chow’s upstart Golden Harvest. It was at Golden Harvest that the Hong Kong new wave was born, with everyone from Tsui Hark to Jackie Chan to John Woo all thrown together into one insane cauldron. Freed from what many thought was the oppressive nature of the Shaw Brothers studio system, these filmmakers flocked to Golden Harvest, where they were promised the money and freedom to do whatever insane stuff they could dream up. And boy did they dream up some insane stuff.

Ching worked as action director on the film that served as sort of the calling card for the new generation, Tsui Hark’s Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind, also known as Don’t Play with Fire. It was a vicious, angry, cynical film that rejected or challenged everything, from cinematic convention to Hong Kong politics. While not a hit upon its release, it has since become regarded as one of the most important films of the Hong Kong New Wave. In 1983, Ching Siu-tung got his first job as director. Duel to Death was an eye-popping swordsman fantasy which, along with Tsui Hark’s Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, changed the way special effects and choreography were executed. In 1986, Ching directed his second feature, a mind-bending supernatural adventure called Witch from Nepal , starring a former nobody named Chow Yun-fat, who had turned megastar thanks to his role in the wildly popular A Better Tomorrow, directed by John Woo.

Shortly after that, there was an uprising at Golden Harvest. Many of the filmmakers who sought refuge there now felt the studio was taking advantage of them or putting too many restrictions on their projects. Tsui Hark, a famously confrontational personality who was already at odds with the studio over censorship issues related to Dangerous Encounters, went to work for Cinema City, sort-of a Hong Kong version of United Artists that had been founded by actors Raymond Wong, Karl Maka, and Dean Shek. Shortly thereafter, Hark founded his own production company, Film Workshop.

Tsui Hark

Hark’s one modest ambition in life was to change the way movies were made in Hong Kong. The amazing thing is that he managed to pull it off. His work in the early 1980s served as one of the foundations of the Hong Kong New Wave. It’s no accident Hark found himself in the middle of this cinematic revolution. The old guard was puttering along, making movies that were out of touch with what young filmgoers wanted. The new generation was waiting to bust out from under the thumb of their mentors and flood the market with bold new approaches and ideas. And finally it got to the point that the next generation could not be contained. They took control, and nothing was the same again.

It happened in Japan when creative refugees from the country’s stodgier studios sought new opportunities at Nikkatsu, resulting first in the controversial, wildly popular “Sun Tribe” films and then in the slick “borderless action” neo noirs and yakuza movies. In the United States, it had been a group of young filmmakers who all knew each other: Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, John Milius, and Martin Scorsese. Along with a host of other directors who came up in the 1970s, they were at the forefront of pushing for both a new way of making movies and a new way of selling them. Spielberg, in particular, was instrumental in the evolution of blockbuster marketing. The release of Jaws sparked a new way of seeing and selling movies. Certainly there had been megahits before; but Jaws was one of the first to really make that sort of film marketing the norm. Shortly thereafter, George Lucas blew the top off the industry when his sure-to-flop sci-fi opera Star Wars became one of the biggest movies of all time.

Around the same time, young film student Tsui Hark was toiling away at the University of Texas. When he saw what the Young Turks of America were doing, he found his mission in life: to bring this sort of filmmaking, these sorts of production values, these sorts of special effects back with him to Hong Kong and apply them to uniquely Chinese stories. Hark’s multi-cultural background made him a perfect candidate for melding these various influences. His parents were Chinese, but he grew up in Saigon. When he was thirteen, his family moved to Hong Kong, and later he ended up in Austin, Texas. After completing his education, Hark moved to New York, where he worked on documentary films, edited a Chinatown newspaper, founded a community theater group, and worked at one of the early Chinese language cable stations in the city. He was adrift in a sea of cultures, and pulling them all together would be the core of his filmmaking style.

In 1977, he was ready to return to Hong Kong. It was a year in which a lot was starting to change. The film industry at that time was just beginning a period of intense transformation. The Shaw Brothers studio, which had so effectively ruled the Hong Kong film market for so long, was going strong but cracks were beginning to show. Audiences were beginning to think that maybe they’d seen enough Chang Cheh movies where Ti Lung dies heroically after getting stabbed in the belly. Where they had once been at the forefront of cutting edge filmmaking, Shaw Brothers productions were starting to look old-fashioned. They had blown off Bruce Lee, after all, and though it didn’t look like a mistake in 1977, they had also dropped the ball when it came to a young performer named Jackie Chan. Smaller, more nimble studios were picking up bit players and could-have-beens from the big studios and giving them a chance to step into the spotlight, granting them considerably more creative freedom.

Jackie Chan and Simon Yuen in Drunken Master (1978)

In 1978, things began to happen very rapidly. Director Lo Wei, his production company short on cash, loaned out one of his bigger failures to the Taiwan-based studio Seasonal Films. The failure was Jackie Chan, and Lo Wei had been frustrated by the goofy-looking young actor’s inability to become as big as Bruce Lee. Conversely, Chan felt stifled by Lo Wei’s old-fashioned taste, and the two-common demand to be “the next Bruce Lee.” Why be the next Bruce Lee, Chan has often said in interviews, when he could be the first Jackie Chan? At Seasonal, he was paired with a young director-choreographer named Yuen Wo-ping. They made two movies together — Drunken Master and Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow — pairing young Chan with the more senior Yuen Siu-tien, a guy who had been plugging away for years and found sudden stardom in his old age thanks to his work in these two movies.

Yuen Wo-ping’s vision of what a kung fu film could be meshed perfectly with Chan’s ability to deliver. The resulting films made all other kung fu films instantly look quaint and plodding by comparison. Chan and Yuen brought a frenetic, breakneck speed and complexity to their fight scenes the likes of which had never been seen before. While that was happening, two actors who had studied at the same Peking Opera school as Jackie Chan and been stymied by the same stalled careers were finding an outlet for their own creativity.

Kwan Tak-hing as Wong Fei-hung

Sammo Hung had been on the scene for a long time, both as a choreographer and extra, but with 1979’s Magnificent Butcher, he became a star and showed the world just what sort of acrobatic wonders a heftier man was capable of. Yuen Biao arrived on the scene via Knockabout. Both of these groundbreaking films were, ironically, part of the oldest series in Hong Kong film history: the Wong Fei-hong films starring venerable movie legend Kwan Tak-hing. At least it seems ironic at first. But it was Kwan and his movies that revolutionized Hong Kong action films in the early days of the industry, introducing the concept of fight choreography and dynamic camera work to what had been very staid, static “filmed Peking Opera performances.” Working with his frequent collaborator Shih Kien (later Mr. Han in Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon), Kwan introduced intricate fight and stunt scenes to the industry and became so famous in the role of folk hero Wong Fei-hong that, until Jet Li stepped into the role in 1991, most of Hong Kong thought of Kwan Tak-hing simply as Wong Fei-hong. It’s only proper that the series, near the end of its life by the time Hung and Yuen arrived, would birth yet another game-changing stylistic shift.

Although they did not work together at first (except as extras and stunt doubles), Chan, Hung, and Yuen Biao all came from the same background and shared a common vision of how to elevate the martial arts action film. After their combination of precision choreography, stunning acrobatics, unbelievable stunts, and Three Stooges-esque comedy hit screens in the form of Project A, there was no going back to the staid and steady style that had served the genre so well for so long. The Shaw Brothers weren’t entirely left in the wake of these young innovators. A director by the name of Chor Yuen (aka Chu Yuan) had begun, in the mid-1970s, to break away from the Chang Cheh mold of stoic, serious kung fu epics. Yuen’s films were fanciful, playful, almost delicate. They were also heavy on elements of the fantastic and the supernatural. Looking to the wuxia (or swordsman) movies of the 1960s, Chor Yuen filled his movie with smirking warriors flying across stylized and artfully decorated sets, calling on esoteric magical kungfu styles and strange powers to aid in their adventures. After years of Chang Cheh’s bare-chested, no-nonsense machismo, Chor Yuen’s more stylish, more mannered (but no less bloody) movies were quite a change of pace. Ti Lung, the manliest of Chang Cheh’s manly heroes and who did not own a shirt from 1971 through 1977, was remolded as a sly, playful swordsman who survived as much by his wits and charms as he did his martial arts.

When he returned to Hong Kong, Tsui Hark found an industry ripe for revolution and a home at Seasonal Films, where he directed two interesting box office failures: 1979’s The Butterfly Murders and 1980’s We Are Going to Eat You. Each of the films showcase Hark’s ambition to introduce a new type of film to the Hong Kong market, something different from kung fu films, slapstick comedies, or yet another movie where a noble washerwoman is mercilessly pursued by a corrupt bald warlord with a handlebar mustache. The Butterfly Murders is an amazing, bizarre mixture of martial arts fantasy and murder mystery, not entirely unlike the films Chu Yuan was making. We Are Going to Eat You was an equally bizarre mix of kung fu, comedy, and cannibal gore film. Both wear their Western influences on their sleeve, but just as Hark wanted, both are Chinese stories.

Thai poster for The Butterfly Murders (1979)

Unfortunately, they had been too big a leap forward at that particular moment, too suddenly unfamiliar to audiences. Too weird. Too bleak. And in the case of We Are Going to Eat You, just not very good. Jackie Chan and Yuen Wo-ping had revolutionized Hong Kong filmmaking by revolutionizing a component in an otherwise familiar framework: the kung fu film. They changed the way fights and heroes were handled, but they left most of the essentials in place. Audiences were not confronted with something they’d never seen so much as they were confronted with something they’d never seen done in quite so unbelievable a fashion. The Butterfly Murders, on the other hand, wasn’t like much of anything that had come before, even if it still contained elements from old wuxia fantasy films.

Hark’s next film was a comedy (All the Wrong Clues), and that was followed by Dangerous Encounter, the super-charged political content of which, revolving around student radicals and terrorism, got Hark in hot water with the government. Like his other films, Dangerous Encounter was a flop that later garnered a substantial number of admirers. Although it’s still little seen, those who have seen it consider it one of the most important films of the New Wave. It was certainly the most overtly confrontational and it gave audiences a glimpse at another side of Tsui Hark’s personality — the manic depressive misanthrope — that was hard for some to deal with. That cynicism and tendency toward scathing critiques of the human condition infuses much of Hark’s work, even his more fanciful and seemingly flippant films, such as his next one.

Frustrated by his failure to fully realize the vision of sweeping special effects fantasies that he’d brought back with him from America, Hark convinced his new bosses at Golden Harvest to shell out money to bring over four American special effects experts: Robert Blalack (Star Wars), Peter Kuran (Star Trek: The Motion Picture), Arnie Wong, and John Scheele (both animators from Disney’s TRON). Hark put them to work on his next film, a massive martial arts fantasy film called Zu that would throw everything Hark had learned and wanted to do on screen in one mind-bending free-for-all. It was a big gamble for a director who, up until that point, had nothing to his name but a string of failures, but Golden Harvest must have recognized the potential in Hark. They let him go wild.

Brigitte Lin in Zu (1983)

The result was a hit, and one of the great films of the era. Zu garnered multiple awards, both for effects and performances. It was a psychedelic spectacle, and if all the effects weren’t perfectly realized, the movie made up for it with the sheer number of them. Zu salvaged Hark’s career and ushered in the era of big-budget Chinese fantasy films. Hark, however, was dissatisfied with the results. He thought some of the effects were poorly executed. There had been tension between Hark and his imported special effects gurus. According to Hark, they were not able or willing to adapt to the more seat-of-the-pants way films were produced in Hong Kong. According to the effects people, it was a case of crummy working conditions, limited funds, and a director whose personality was somewhat mercurial.

But the success of Zu allowed Hark to produce and direct a string of hits that included the third in the highly popular Aces Go Places action-comedy series (the first of which had as much to do with launching the new-style stunt and action films as did the films of Jackie Chan) as well as produce another of the most influential films in Hong Kong film history, John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow. Like many films of the New Wave, A Better Tomorrow was a film composed of past failures. By then, Ti Lung was a has-been. John Woo was a disappointing director of disappointing comedies and kung fu films. Leslie Cheung was a pretty face with no acting ability. And who the hell was Chow Yun-fat? Some guy from a middling soap opera?

But Woo’s directorial over-indulgences guided by Hark’s instincts resulted in a ground-breaking film. Unfortunately, despite the success the two men enjoyed working together, Woo and Hark didn’t enjoy working together. They soon parted company. At the same time as Hark and Woo were inventing the “heroic bloodshed” movie out of the pieces left over from old gangster and Chang Cheh kung fu films, Hark was also partnering with Ching Siu-tung, who had agreed to come to Film Workshop. Ching’s first film at his new home was A Chinese Ghost Story.

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About Keith Allison

Keith Allison is a writer and pop culture historian living in New York. His interest in film and adventure started at an early age, when he was left to his own devices in the wee small hours and discovered the Universal monsters, Godzilla, and "Matinee at the Bijou." He has written for Alcohol Professor, The Cultural Gutter, Teleport City and the book Sex and Zen and a Bullet in the Head. He is also the author of Cocktails & Capers: Cult Film, Cocktails, Crime, and Cool.

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