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the cover of Terror #2
Flying High Again!
by Malcolm Dome

Chang-Shaw Massacre
by Malcolm Dome
the cover of Eastern Heroes Special Edition #2

Red text indicates material that appeared only in Terror #2 [UK, February 1992]
Blue text indicates material that appeared only in Eastern Heroes Special Edition #2 [UK, 1994]

From Terror #2, pp. 40-45:
From Eastern Heroes Special Edition #2, pp. 17-21:

Flying High Again!
by Malcolm Dome
["with thanks to Toby Russell for his invaluable help"]
Chang-Shaw Massacre
by Malcolm Dome

The Kung Fu cinema is most associated these days with the legendary Bruce Lee. But it goes deeper -- much deeper -- than that. During the next two issues, MALCOLM DOME looks at the careers of arguably the two most significant directors in the genre. He starts with CHANG CHEH.
Malcolm Dome looks at the career of one of the most influential directors of the Kung Fu genre, Chang Cheh.

Some films don't just attract huge crowds, sending the box office spinning in a welter of financial delirium, they positively dismember the parameters and attitudes for the genre within which they operate. Stagecoach in 1939 changed the Western. The Exorcist in 1973 brought about an alteration in the perception of the mainstream Horror film. A few years earlier (1968), George A. Romero rewrote the rules for zombie behavioural patterns via Night of the Living Dead. Sergio Leone created the Spaghetti Western in 1964 with A Fistful of Dollars, thereby bringing a new sense of almost surreal violence to the genre, and in 1969 Leone (it is claimed by many) buried the notion of the traditional Western with the masterly Once Upon a Time in the West.

Yet, strangely, as those values of culture, heroism, bravery and pride which had fuelled the Western for so long were being ritually disembowelled by Leone amidst a veritable blaze of falling bodies, and orchard of bullets and blood, out in Hong Kong a new style of movie was emerging that upheld these very mores, yet also added in the phenomenal martial arts skills prevalent in the Orient (and I'm not talking about Brisbane Road), the swashbuckling naivety of the traditional Hollywood adventure tale and the esotericism of Eastern religious beliefs and philosophy. It was indeed to be a heady mixture that provided arcane thrills, remarkable choreography, a virtually anodyne appreciation of the preternatural and a balletic welter of blood-stained violence. At times nihilistic to the point of anomie and bestiality. At times sublimely cruel. At times mesmerisingly moralistic, these movies conducted a symphony of emotions, the sonorous battle-scarred rhythms delving into the depths of our carnally desecrated darkness, whilst the delicate melodies were a counterpointed riposte to these inner nightmare dimensions.

In such a short article, I have neither ambition nor hope of providing a panoply of verbiage that can match what this unique cinema of the fantastic has given to genre followers. Rather, as an introduction to a style of movie-making often discounted among those with an interest in fantasy, I want to concentrate on the works of a legendary director -- Chang Cheh. He virtually created the style of cinema in 1967. Later, Liu Chia Liang was to take it and add his own brand of of colour, grief and aptitude. Two individuals blessed with flair, imagination, respect for the arts they were portraying, a pioneering spirit and a desire to entertain without recourse to compromise. Between them they have been responsible for arguably the finest martial arts films to emerge from the Hong Kong cinema factory during its heyday.

Chang Cheh had been working in the Hong Kong film industry for some twenty years when he made his true breakthrough in 1967 with The One-Armed Swordsman, a phenomenal movie that truly changed the course of the island's film history and industry. Most experts would agree that the beginnings of the martial arts movie lies within the 1929 effort The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple, but for the next 38 years, there was little to distinguish any release. They lacked individuality and a unique style. But The One-Armed Swordsman was to alter all of this.

Chang had started out as a journalist, and legend has it that he got his start in the film industry by claiming that much of what was being shot was so poor that he could do better himself. Someone took him at his word -- and the rest was to become history.

By 1967, Chang had racked up ten years' exerience with the biggest studio in Hong Kong, run by Run Run and Runme Shaw, and with The One-Armed Swordsman he established new parameters for the martial arts movie, as significant in their own field as were those created by the films I mentioned earlier.

Teamed up with screenwriter I Kuang (now a successful TV chat show host in Hong Kong) and star Wang Yu, Chang made with The One-Armed Swordsman the first million dollar-grossing movie in Hong Kong's history. It is a tale of vengeance, morality, spectacular martial arts feats and intense violence. Wang Yu plays Fong Kong, who is taken in as a child by a master swordsman after his father had died saving the master's life. He learns quickly, growing up into a highly proficient swordsman in his own right, yet he is also a loner embittered by his orphan status. Kong loses his right arm in a needless duel with three other students, one fought through the trio's jealousy over Kong's favoured position with the master. However, he finds love in the arms of the gentle Shiu Min, eventually recovering his health and swearing never to pick up a sword in anger again.

Inevitably, that promise is soon broken, when his former master is threatened. Learning new sword techniques to fit his disability, Kong eventually walks into the headquarters of the vicious Long-Armed Devil -- his master's nemesis and the man responsible for his own father's death -- and, in a formidably gory climax, slaughters everyone in sight.

Wang Yu played his character as an intensely embittered anti-hero, something hitherto virtually unknown in the martial arts cinema. I Kuang's script proffered a morality that allowed for wholesale slaughter without recrimination -- indeed, the audience identified with Kong's plight and eventual triumph, even if he did leave a wake of bodies in his trail. But it was Chang Cheh's direction that brought atmosphere and life to the experience. Perhaps not the greatest director in terms of character development, when it came to bloodthirsty action, Chang was supreme, angrily steeped in the wages of death and travesty. His lightning speed avarice with a camera and attention to choreographic detail was a marvel to behold in The One-Armed Swordsman, and was repeated two years later in Return of the One-Armed Swordsman, wherein Wang Yu reprised his role as Fong, this time forced out his retirement by the impressively-named Eight Demon Swordsmen and their evil deeds.

In between these linked affairs came Golden Swallow which, despite its rather pornographic title, was a magnificent panorama of action, tragedy, fate and mystique, all washed down with the bloody rivulets of many extras. Released in the UK under the rather silly title The Girl With the Thunderbolt Kick, this 1968 movie would always get my vote as the greatest martial arts movie of them all. Again starring Wang Yu, it also featured Cheng Pei Pei in the role of classical female swordswoman Golden Swallow and Lo Lieh (he was to star in Chang's modest 1972 film King Boxer -- the first martial arts movie released in the US) as her companion and cohort. What lifts this film above all others is its inherent sense of foreboding and nihilistic sadness. There is a sanguinary darkness that takes this film way beyond the confines of the genre and into the realms of horror.

Wang Yu is awesome in the role of Silver Roc, and invincible swordsman having much in common with Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name portrayals. He seeks out evil wherever it is hidden, destroying it with a single-minded vehemence that allows no room for sentiment or mercy. His violent swathe through the film leaves sets clustered with cadavers. There is a menace in his approach that is supernatural as he sets out to break the power and influence of the diabolic Dragon Gang. He says little, preferring to communicate through his ever-scything, viscerally imbued sword. Silver Roc's one sign of humanity is his doomed love for Golden Swallow, something that proves unwittingly to be his downfall.

The movie contains some of Chang's most disturbing sets, as well as some of his potent action sequences. Witness one scene wherein Silver Roc enters the Dragon Fort itself, and in a blur of both beauty and catastrophe, wipes out all in his path. It is cathartic choreography, both repellent in its disregard of human values, yet also surreal in its motion. A cinematic triumph. And the climax to the movie, which sees Silver Roc taking on an entire army on his own after being mortally wounded is a flamboyantly breathtaking excursion into the arts of fatalism and fatality. Sadly unavailable in the UK on video, I can only urge Warner Brothers (who own the video rights for the UK) to seriously consider releasing this masterpiece.

Wang Yu and Chang Cheh parted company after these three movies. The former went on to enjoy brief superstar status via such movies as The Chinese Boxer, Zatoichi and the One-Armed Swordsman (a Japanese co-production), The One-Armed Boxer and Beach of the War Gods, as well as the ill-starred The Man From Hong Kong, a British production co-starring George Lazenby (James Bond in the film On Her Majesty's Secret Service) wherein Wang Yu adopted the name Jimmy Wang Yu to provide a more Western stance -- it failed. These days he's associated with heavyweight 'business' interests in Hong Kong and only occasionally makes movies.

But Chang carefully used the platform of these three movies to establish his own niche. In his late 40s when he made The One-Armed Swordsman, Chang looked elsewhere for his stars when Wang Yu left the Shaw Brothers Studio at the beginning of the Seventies. He found David Chiang and Ti Lung -- who made their first film together in 1970, Vengeance -- and was to build an empire around them. Born in 1947, David Chiang came from an actorial background (his father was a Chinese Opera star), yet he himself moved via stuntwork into acting. Ti Lung studied martial arts on a serious level before entering acting, and in contrast to Chiang's slight, almost hunched build, he was a tall, handsome figure cutting a sizeable matinee idol impression. The combination of these two was to prove irresistible through such genre staples as Deadly Duo (set in the Yuan Dynasty of China -- late 13th Century -- this again has an ending of holocaustic equation, as Chiang stands blocking an army of marauding Mongols, allowing Ti Lung to escape) and The New One-Armed Swordsman (1972). Chiang's character, the great swordsman Lei Li, is stifled of his initial hubris by losing an arm in a duel, thereby leading to a life of contemplation and bitterness, only alleviated when he encounters the noble Ti Lung. And the latter's death through betrayal forces Lei Li to pick up the sword again to effect vengeance. The final scene is gloriously perverse as Chiang and his romantic interest embrace lovingly on a bridge strewn with bodies -- pure Polanski, Russell or Edward D. Wood.

However, whilst his movies with Chiang and Ti Lung were impressive, it was when they formed the basis for a five-way team that Chang truly found his sparkle and spark. Chiang and Ti Lung were joined in 1973 by Chen Kuan Tai (a renowned martial artist before he became an actor) for the film Blood Brothers (also known as Dynasty of Blood), set in the mid-19th Century during the Taiping Revolution. This is said to be based on actual events and characters and deals with betrayal, sacrifice and the inevitable ingredient of vengeance. All three are killed in various ways through the film, with Chiang executed right at the end, willingly giving up his life in order to kill Ti Lung, who had previously been responsible for Chen Kuan Tai's death.

A year later, the talented Fu Sheng (in the first class of The Shaw Training Centre for Young Actors and Actresses) and top martial artist Chi Kuan Chun joined the team for a series of three movies, viz Heroes Two (also known as Bloody Fists), Shaolin Martial Arts and Men From the Monastery (also called Disciples of Death). All of these dealt with the destruction of the famed Shaolin Temple during the Ch'ing Dynasty of the 17th Century, and the thirst for revenge by the surviving monks and students.

By this time, Chang's style was established and flowed with an ease and zeal many envied. He controlled almost through the imposition of will and had dragged the martial arts movie further than anyone had ever envisioned. He had even taken the bold step of eschewing rapid-fire editing to beef up fight scenes and relied heavily on the technique and expertise of the protagonists for 1972's The Water Margin. Indeed, by the time he came to make Five Masters of Death in 1975 (the fourth of his Shaolin series, the only difference being Chen Kuan Tai's replacement by Meng Fei) it seemed that Chang was almost coasting, never really seriously challenging himself. But Five Masters of Death (which owes much of its quality to Wang Lung Wei's convincing villain) was a huge success, its esotericism and superhero stance leading to a vertitable onslaught of similar movies in the coming years -- many made by Chang himself!

However, perceiving that audiences were warming to Fu Sheng's charm, wit and sheer impudence, Chang elected to spend much of his time with this actor, using the likes of The Brave Archer (also known as Kung Fu Warlords), Brave Archer 2 (Kung Fu Warlords 2) and Brave Archer 3 (Blast of the Iron Palm) as vehicles for his favorite star. These had all the Chang hallmarks, with excellent choreography allied to brutality and phenomenal speed of action. Yet they also introduced what has become known as Chang's second team.

Having worked almost solely for a number of years with Ti Lung, David Chiang, Fu Sheng (sadly, killed in a car accident on July 7, 1983), Chen Kuan Tai and Chi Kuan Chun, the great director perhaps needed something to boost his own seemingly flagging input. Certainly by the late Seventies, Chang seemed to be in somewhat of a rut. His movies were successful, of that there was no doubt, but he was making them at such a speed that an artistry was virtually lost in a welter of violence and flimsy plotting. Indeed, the factory system that dominated Chang's work gave him little space to breathe, and a whole succession of movies based around the Shaolin Temple served only to blunt his imaginative presence. But thanks to a brainwave, Chang resurrected his fortunes.

Realising that Eastern audiences loved the notion of team spirit as evinced with the likes of The Five Masters of Death, Chang decided to put together a new team, perhaps lacking some of the wilful charisma of the former quintet but still full of fight and personality. Thus enter: Kuo Chui, Chiang Sheng (strangely known to his fans as 'Cutie Pie'), Sun Chien, Lo Meng and Lu Feng. This fivesome made their debut in the 1978 mayhemic The Five Deadly Venoms, set in the 15th Century, as a dying martial master teaches his masked students the deadly kung fu forms of Snake, Centipede, Lizard, Toad and Scorpion. These students, however, team up to use their skills for criminal purpose. The master thus sends out his final student to stop the criminal activity, armed with all the skills necessary. They went on to appear in Crippled Avengers (also called Mortal Combat), The Daredevils, The Kid With the Golden Arm, Ten Tigers of Kwantung (also starring Fu Sheng and Ti Lung), The Spearman, Masked Avengers and House of Traps -- all made between '78 and '81.

By this point, rumour suggests that Chang was taking a back seat on these projects, lending his name to the movies, but allowing others to take charge of events. However, there is little doubt that the increasing sense of perversity, violence and sheer brazen surrealism which had begun to take over Chang's movies was very much down to the master himself.

House of Traps is perhaps worthy of particular mention. Set in the Sung Dynasty (about 1000 years ago) it featured betrayal, rebellion and a deranged villain who entraps his foes in a house riddled with all manner of vicious snares and weaponry, designed to cause the maximum flow of blood in the shortest space of time. Sheer gore fest time!

Certainly by the point at which this second team began to split up (indeed only Sun Chien and Lo Meng remained at Shaw Brothers), it seemed that Chang's career was entering a rather more sedentary period. However, the director had one more masterpiece up his sleeve -- 1982's Five Element Ninja (also known as Super Ninjas). Only Lo Meng of his second team was in the starting line-up for this epic film, regarded by many as Chang's finest hour. Taking all of his strongest elements (fantasy on a grandiose scale, a pathological blood lust, a fiercely burning desire to astound on a choreographical stage and an intensity and fury unmatched by almost any other director in any form of celluloid), Chang enmeshes a tale of the clash between the virtuous kung fu clan and the hideously evil Ninjas with his own peculiar branding. The Ninjas are given supernatural powers which defy belief, and as the story unfolds, the panoramic vision of Chang reaches the proportions of the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa.

There is little question of this film's right to rank alongside Golden Swallow as a fitting emblem to Chang Cheh's enduring stature and standard. Since then, the director has continued to work assiduously (now having over 100 movies to his credit), principally in mainland China. And even his virtual deafness, age (he is apparently into his 70s) and arthritic condition have failed to temper his considerable energies.

The Shaw Brothers studio no longer exists (the lot is now hired out to other companies), the halcyon days are now dust in the wind. But the likes of Chang Cheh will never be blown away by ill-tempted (sic) whispers from the fragmented fates. His legend in the annals of the martial arts cinema is assured. Indeed, it has often been said of Chang: 'No Chang Cheh, no kung fu industry.' How true! Maybe it's about time his influence accorded him the same accolades and stature given to movie pioneers in the West. And fledgling directors in the Thriller/Horror/Fantasy genres are urged to check out his works -- they are still sufficiently innovative to leave much that is contemporary on the shelf.

Warner Home Video have released a number of Chang Cheh films, including The Men from the Monastery and The New One-Armed Swordsman. Check out your local video store.
Next issue: LIU CHIA LIANG, the man who took kung fu movies to a new level
Warner Home Video did throughout the Eighties release a selection of Shaw Brothers features, including King Boxer, The Men From the Monastery, The Chinatown Kid and The Five Superstar Fighters. Made in Hong Kong will continue the good work by releasing more titles during the next twelve months, titles to be found elsewhere in this issue.

This article first appeared in Terror Magazine.

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