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"Creating the Martial
Arts Film and the Hong
Kong Cinema Style,"
an Article by Zhang Che

. .
The Making of Martial Arts Films -- 
As Told by Filmmakers and Stars
181k | 282k
. .

taken from pages 16-24 of
The Making of Martial
Arts Films -- As Told by
Filmmakers and Stars

Special thanks to Sarah Wheatley for supplying this text and scanning it in.

From The Making of Martial Arts Films -- As Told by Filmmakers and Stars, 1999, pp. 16-24:

Creating the Martial Arts Film and the Hong Kong Cinema Style

[an article by] Zhang Che

As a society prospers, its industry develops, and the dynamic energy of the people is at full throttle, culture and the arts will also thrive. This is true of China in the Tang Dynasty, of Europe in the Renaissance, and of America in its opening of the western frontier. Though a small territory, Hong Kong in the 60s and 70s was an explicit micro-model of such trends.

Crossroads of East and West

Western culture is the dominating culture in the modern world. However, Chinese culture has a long history and still carries its own weight. Hong Kong is a Chinese society and it functions as China's window to the West. Hence, it is the crossroads where Chinese and Western cultures meet. But Hong Kong only has a history of over 100 years. Originally on the periphery of the mainland, its absorption of Western culture is not deep enough. Thus, both Chinese and Western cultures have a poor foundation in Hong Kong. From the start, the development of art and culture in Hong Kong had a populist base. The supplementary columns of Hong Kong's newspapers are unique in this respect -- one of the most representative personages was Ko Hung (Sam So) who was active in the 60s and 70s and possessed the distinct local colours of Hong Kong. The martial arts novels became popular during this period, and the melodrama novels were no better than the sentimental romances. There were very few works of literary quality. Most films of better artistic values were those that geared towards the masses and the populist denominator.

However, populism is a virtue, not a flaw. Culture is based on "people," and the type of "people" determines the type of culture. A minority culture can only be enjoyed by a small group of people and cannot enter the mainstream. This is most apparent in cinema. If it is detached from the masses, it is detached from the market and cannot survive nor develop. There are many levels to populism, aud the more levels there are, the wider the human foundations. There are the common people, the middle-class, and the intellectuals. Take the martial arts novels. It includes writers such as Woshi Shanren and Jin Yong -- the former belongs to the Cantonese culture of the neighbouring masses while both the common people and the intellectuals enjoy the latter. The samurai pictures of Japan and the martial arts pictures of Hong Kong are quite similar. The samurai picture genre has produced an outstanding master in Akira Kurosawa.

Jin Yong is the premier talent in martial arts literature and he was a product arising from the East-meets-West culture of Hong Kong. A learned man of Chinese culture, he is also well versed in Western culture, blending the literary culture and popular culture together successfully. His works came out simple but carried depth. The martial arts pictures of the 60s and 70s, no matter the works of an auteur or the works as a whole, are no match for the works of Jin Yong. The reason why he took a leading role in the take-off of the martial arts picture in Hong Kong cinema is due to this distinct appeal.

Martial arts films had its share back in the old days. In Shanghai, the genre got bogged down in the serials of the likes of The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple and The Swordswoman of the Wilderness, so were the martial arts films of Hong Kong cinema that remained on the level of Woshi Shanren for years and could not catch up with the times.

Populism does not mean vulgarity. The populist classics of China include quite some gems of literature that have an appeal to both literary and layman tastes. This is also true of Chinese opera. Being at the crossroads of East and West, the Hong Kong audience will naturally not be satisfied with "old-fashioned" martial arts pictures. Thus it is only to be expected that a new-style martial arts picture will emerge in accordance with the economic and social development of Hong Kong and its tendency towards Westernisation. With greater investments, production standards improve, leading to the participation of new intellectuals conversant in both Eastern and Western cultures. The first generation of auteurs recruited by the new style martial arts picture include King Hu and myself. Using Chinese cinema as a base, we endeavoured to include Western style of thinking and technology. King Hu studied the aesthetics of editing in Western cinema and created his own style of editing. As for myself, I studied the cinematographic techniques of those Western technicians or in Shaw Brothers under co-production deals, and "stole" a lot of their techniques.

Japan is the most westernised country in the East. Apart from influences from the west (particularly Hollywood films), we have also been influenced by Japanese cinema, in particular, the samurai pictures. I went to Japan to do location shooting for The Golden Swallow (1968). The location shooting itself was not at all significant compared to what I could learn from the production techniques of Japanese cinema. Some martial arts directors openly confess to being influenced by Japanese cinema and I think there's no shame in that. Reception isn't the same as copying. I was attracted to the martial arts genre because I had seen the films of Akira Kurosawa and realised that it was possible to make quality pictures in the genre.

When I was making The One-armed Swordsman (1967), I took the camera off its tripod and utilised the hand-held camera technique for the first time. Thus, a sense of mobility was added to Chinese films. I first used the slow-motion technique in The Magnficent Trio (1966) but it was after I had seen how the technique was used in Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969) that I improved my methods in Vengeance! (1970).

The new style martial arts films of the 60s and 70s are a unique product of Hong Kong at the crossroads of east and west.

A Fusion of Lowbrow and Highbrow Cultures

Like the martial arts novels of Jin Yong, the genre incorporated elements of East and West, and the first generation auteurs also incorporated highbrow and lowbrow tastes. To appeal to the high and the low is the greatest objective. In Chinese martial arts literature, The Water Margin achieved this objective. The martial arts novels of the Tang Dynasty were inclined towards the highbrow tastes. Some of the profundity and richness of this literature is glimpsed in modern novels such as Huanzhu Louzhu's Zu -- Warriors of the Magic Mountain and The Legends of Yunhai, but apart from these, examples such as Seven Knights, Five Principles, The Legend of the Swordsman and The Swordswoman of the Wilderness were very lowbrow affairs indeed. The pictures adapted from these novels could go nowhere as a result.

The martial arts pictures current in Hong Kong cinema at the time were the likes of the Woshi Shahten stories -- stories full of local flavour and populated by folk heroes. The artistic quality of these pictures was low. The characters, from Fong Sai-yuk to Wu Wai-kin to Wong Fei-hung, lacked individuality and were more like stereotypes without emotions or psychology. The stories were simple and conducted along the lines of the good guys versus the bad guys. Hence, such films could not satisfy a society that was progressing and an audience that had greater demands of cinema. This was the background for the rise of the new style martial arts picture.

Many of the screenplays behind the new style martial arts pictures were original creations. They were not adapted from any novel. This is true at least of the films of King Hu and of those of mine. Naturally, we were all influenced by the Water Margin, the novels of the Tang Dynasty, and Jin Yong. We were young then and eager to express ourselves and there were a lot of things we wanted to say. King Hu later took inspiration from Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, and I myself adapted some of Jin Yong's novels but they were not some of my best works. Jin's novels are lengthy works and are more suited to TV. I adapted The Brave Archer from him and made the picture in three parts and I still only touched the edges of the story and barely reached its core. Later, some pictures borrowed characters from his novels, such as Ashes of Time (1994), but they only made use of the subject to put across their own ideas. Their products were far from the originals.

In any case, the martial arts pictures began to have variations in their plots, sharp characters, and elaboration of romance and friendship. They brought in new artistic conceptions. The genre began to capture the mass audience and elevated its market position and its influence throughout Southeast Asia.

As its name implies, the martial arts (wu xia) pictures use the notion of martial arts (wu) to express the content of chivalry (xia). Martial arts denote action. Hong Kong cinema at the time used the southern school of kung fu and though the pictures freely mentioned the names of Shaolin and Wudang, the actors did not express the movements of these two schools. The majority of actors at the time were trained in opera, such as Kwan Tak-hing and Lam Kar-sing, etc. But the main pillar of martial arts in Cantonese opera was the Longhu (Dragon and Tiger) masters of martial arts which was derived from Peking opera. However, this was not a genuine strand of martial arts acting from Peking opera since it came from the serialised libretto play of the "Shanghai stream" of Peking opera.

However, the first generation of directors of the new style martial arts picture such as King Hu and myself, derived martial arts action from Peking opera but transcending the limitations of the Longhu masters. King Hu's action aesthetics is of a high standard and he never faltered from his methods of the swordplay film. I gradually became interested in the Hung Fist and the Wing Chun style which belong to the southern school, and I made Vengeance! (1970) and The Boxer from Shandong (1972), both set in the early years of the republic. Coincidentally, Bruce Lee also became popular at this time and he took the kung fu genre into new heights of popularity. At that time, I made Heroes Two (1974) and a series of Shaolin-based kung fu films. Though Kwan Tak-hing, Sek Yin-tsi, Lam Kar-sing propounded the Shaolin name, their kung fu had nothing to do with that school. The development of kung fu had to await stars like Bruce Lee, Chan Kwun-tai, Alexander Fu, etc. But that's another story.

The martial arts pictures inherited the stylised combat of Peking opera. Traditional Chinese opera and other regional operas are song-based operas, but forms such as Kunqu and Sichuan opera are based on song and dance. The dance segments developed into scenes of martial arts action and this development was completed with the appearance of Peking opera, which established a tradition of martial arts in opera. However, Kunqu, as evidenced in the operas The Night Flight of Lin Chong, Overturning the Sliding Cart, The Pass at the Boundary Marker, influenced the martial dramas of Peking opera. These were operas sung in the qu pai style of Kunqu and not in the traditional pihuang style of Peking opera. Cantonese opera, on the other hand, is well established as a regional opera and it emphasises song and dramatic plot, as do other regional forms such as Yue opera, Huangmei ("Yellow Plum") opera, and Taiwanese opera. The components of dance or martial arts in Cantonese opera were not profound but they later imbibed influences from Peking opera making them akin to the serialised libretto play of the Shanghai school. Most Longhu masters learned from Shanghai artists, such as Yuen Siu-tin (father of Yuen Woo-ping) and Yu Zhanyuan (teacher of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung, and father of Yu So-chau), and Lam Kar-sing was a student of the martial arts opera diva Fen Juhua, who originally hailed from Shanghai.

Kunqu originated from Yuan opera. Its literary qualities were of a high standard, as evidenced in operas such as The Peony Pavilion and The Plum Blossom Fan. However, the martial arts component of Kunqu and Peking opera were later equally appreciated by lowbrow and highbrow tastes. Their works were popular but of a high standard. Martial arts stemmed from wushu, a form that had nothing to do with the practical art of fighting but was more like dance. Run Run Shaw discovered this early on, and so did film critic Sek Kei. Thus, the martial arts of Kunqu and Peking opera were really choreographic pieces, which were suited for adaptation to cinema. Action is a world language, thus Hong Kong's action films were accepted by Cantonese speakers and Mandarin speakers, by Southeast Asian countries which didn't understand Chinese, and gradually, by Europe and America.

The new style martial arts picture elevated production standards and the tastes of the audience; it strengthened the sensation of cinema and action. This development took place in a Hong Kong at the cross-roads of East and West, mixing highbrow with lowbrow, and the progress was rapid. As Sek Kei said, "It has elevated the action film from the world's worst to the world's best."

The Influence and Development of the Martial Arts Picture

The martial arts picture has the same basic requirements like all other pictures. Whether it is a tragedy or a comedy, the characters and the plots must move people and be entertaining. However, in entertainment, there must also be content, something aspiring to the higher levels. The modes of expression must be dramatic, cinematic, visual, atmospheric and rhythmic. A movie fulfiling all these demands is a good movie and vice versa. In terms of action, it is not enough to have action in a scene -- the action must be powerful and contain aesthetic beauty, the shots must carry the motion.

Chinese cinema has produced some masterpieces and though martial arts pictures number among these masterpieces, the majority are low quality works. Actually, Hong Kong cinema had remained insignificant for a long time. The China market was closed to it and it did not capture other overseas markets. Hong Kong cinema only relied on the small domestic mark in Hong Kong, and meagre capital from Singapore and Malaysia. At the time, Hong Kong had a few decrepit theatres that showed only Chinese movies. The better theatres showed only Western films. A film earned only about tens of thousands dollars. In such a market, the Cantonese film was a downmarket affair and it was only on occasion that a small little gem would appear, or else a picture would take the form of a "carnival" style bringing together all the artists in a big production. But this didn't do the trick in building up standards.

The Mandarin cinema was pioneered by Li Zuyong who came from Shanghai, bringing with him talent and money. He established Yung Hwa. However, the Shanghai talents that he brought along continued the old style of Shanghai cinema, which did not suit changing circumstances. Neither did it occupy a market niche. Yung Hwa ended up in financial straits. The company was saved by money from Singapore and Malaysia and its name was changed to MP and GI (later, this was changed to Cathay). However, the company became conservative, maintaining its output to please middle-class audiences, thus confining itself to melodramas and comedies. A breakthrough was needed. Run Run Shaw came over to Hong Kong from Southeast Asia with new investments to start the Shaw Brothers Studio. He turned the situation around, bringing Hong Kong cinema to the era of colour and widescreen. To secure the Taiwan market, Shaw Brothers produced Huangmei (Yellow Plum) opera films, as Mainland opera films were prohibited from the Taiwan market. This widened the studio's revenue base, raised production standards, and built up the grounds for the rise of the new style martial arts picture.

The Hong Kong cinema was a conservative force at the time. The overseas Chinese market in Singapore and Malaysia was a conservative-thinking audience. For example, European and American movies were centred on male actors. Even actresses like Vivien Leigh and Ingrid Bergman took second billing to Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart. Peking opera is also male-centred. Even the "four greatest female stars" were males, such as Mei Lanfang, etc. However, Hong Kong cinema was different. Its popularity was built on female stars, and stars like Ling Bo and Yam Kim-fai played male parts. Insiders in the Hong Kong film industry were quite obstinate about this tendency, so I took up the slogan of yanggang (masculinity) in my film column "My Views on Cinema." Now, this slogan is taken as a mantra not only in the film industry but also in the music industry. But in the film industry at the time, the realisation of yanggang would have to wait until the resurgence of a new martial arts movie style -- a resurgence guided by the moguls Run Run Shaw and Raymond Chow. At that time, I had been recommended by Raymond Chow to enter Shaw Brothers. The rise of yanggang was a requirement of the market and not discrimination against actresses. Female audiences also wanted to see male stars. After all, the fans of male singers were mostly females.

The 60s and 70s were the most energetic periods of Hong Kong -- the period when young people exerted themselves. The age of love tales was the past. The masses were striving ahead in a rebellious mood and the colonial administration was receiving a shock to the system. Yangggang and the martial arts pictures represented this spirit of the times. After I made The One-armed Swordsman (1967), riots broke out in Kowloon. Then, during the riots, I made The Assassin (1967). In an Ming Pao Monthly article published on May 1998, titled "Hong Kong's Anti-Establishment Movies and the Mass Movement," Law Kar wrote: "Zhang Che's movie characters are young swordsmen, assassins, martyrs and death-defying fanatics. His heroes are tragic men who defy authority and the establishment." At the time, people called my movies "violent" and "bloody." I always thought this was a very shallow way of looking at my movies.

Chua Lam also said that I broke "many myths in Hong Kong cinema." One myth was that the audience only liked to see female stars. Another was that the male hero could not die. There really were a lot of conservative ideas around at the time. For example, it was thought that Southeast Asian Chinese did not like to see characters in pigtails. So films set in the Qing Dynasty, period did not show characters with pigtails -- rather they wore hats and kerchiefs round their heads to hide the pigtails. I broke this taboo with my film Blood Brothers (1973).

That was also the time of the transition from black and white to colour film. The use of colour was very conservative. White was avoided because it was thought to reflect light, and white was not viewed as a colour. In Peking opera, the costumes are very colourful but the heroes in an action scene invariably wore white to signify the image of a hero. If the characters were of low status, poor, or were criminals, or were wounded after a fight, they invariably wore black. Thus, I created the image of Wang Yu as "the knight in white. "Later, when I made Vengeance!, which was set in the early Republican period, my star David Chiang wore white student uniform (or the Zhongshan suit), which influenced Bruce Lee -- he wore a similar style in Fist of Fury.

The new ideas of the martial arts picture made Hong Kong cinema very popular at the box-office. Directors became "million-dollar directors" and this kicked off a trend. It seemed like all directors were making martial arts pictures, with varying achievements. The martial arts picture stimulated improvements in other genres. The pace picked up in comedies and melodramas. The shots were livelier, the subject matter much broader, the plots richer, the characters and emotions anew. Thus, Hong Kong cinema took off and became its unique self. Hong Kong became the filmmaking centre of Southeast Asia.

The martial arts picture was also undergoing transformation. When I made Vengeance! in 1970 as a picture set in the early Republican period, I won the Best Director Award in the Asia-Pacific Film Festival (David Chiang won the Best Actor Award). I changed the fighting style from swordplay to the "fist and leg" and this prepared the way for the appearance of Bruce Lee and the kung fu genre. Back in the days when I wrote my column "My Views on Cinema," I saw some of Lee's early Cantonese films and saw his potential even then. I recommended him to MP and GI. The production chief Song Qi told me that Bruce Lee was in America and contact had not been made. Later, when I became a director at Shaw Brothers, Bruce Lee took the initiative to contact me and I recommended him to Shaw Brothers. When his agents negotiated with Shaw Brothers, I wasn't involved. Finally, the talks broke down and Lee signed on with Golden Harvest.

Bruce Lee absorbed the best qualities of Taekwondo, Thai boxing, and Karate, to give a realistic and real-fighting look to the kung fu film. This had never been attempted before. Thus, Chinese kung fu pictures broke out of the Hong Kong market and made their presence known throughout the world. Since this part of history is well known, I wish not to say more, but my own films in this period included the likes of Duel of Fists (1971, starring Di Long) which created a trend of Thai boxing movies; The Boxer from Shandong (1972, starring Chan Kwun-tai) which was the forerunner of the Shanghai Bundi trend; and The Disciples of Shaolin (1975, starring Alexander Fu) which began the trend of young "boxing punks" movies -- the term xiaozi (boxing punks) was actually a Northern slang which later gained currency in Cantonese.

Though Bruce Lee was trained in Wing Chun, a southern school of kung fu, he made Mandarin films. The resurgence of Cantonese films had to wait until the appearance of Michael Hui's comedies. I later made a series of Cantonese kung fu movies, featuring folk heroes like Fong Sai-yuk, Hung Hei-kwun, Wu Wai-kin. These pictures influenced later movies like Jet Li's The Shaolin Temple, but they were all made possible because my picture Blood Brothers had broken the taboo against Qing-costume movies. There was a spate of movies that copied the story of Blood Brothers: Shaw Brothers made The Oath of Death and Luo Wei made Thunderbolt!. These were made as period movies but they all failed. I believe the story of Blood Brothers is a very good one but it is necessary to make it as a Qing-costume movie. But Shaw Brothers had doubts because the audience in Southeast Asia didn't like Qing-costume movies, or so they thought. Finally, I arrived at a compromise and that was not to have my characters shave their heads and keep the pigtails.

In the past, the Hong Kong martial arts movie (both the swordplay and kung fu strands) avoided the use of guns. In my film Vengeance!, I first used guns and Chen Xing played a gunman. His image was based on Italian Westerns. I also highlighted blood spurting out from bodies, shot in slow-motion. The effects were splendid. But, because of the popularity of Bruce Lee's kung fu movies, there was no chance to go down this road. It wasn't until John Woo, who worked with me before, that gunplay developed into its own unique strand.

Woo's characters, his theme of male bonding, and his depictions of emotions in his gunplay films were influenced by martial arts pictures. The shots of blood spurting out in slow motion are really quite expressive, and these types of movements -- reactions from being shot and the like -- are based on the techniques of martial arts pictures. Thus, they appear quite unique when placed among the action films of Hollywood and of course, Woo was a big influence. Jackie Chan's achievements are also immense and I don't need to elaborate. What should be mentioned is that Jackie has training in Peking opera, and the same is true of Sammo Hung.


The martial arts picture was the vanguard of all that was creative and unique in Hong Kong cinema. At its peak of popularity, it influenced all of Southeast Asia and it even broke out of this region to influence Europe and America. Hollywood has been greatly influenced by the genre. Regretfully, just as Hollywood has absorbed Hong Kong cinema influences and its talents, the local film industry is in decline. The reason for the decline lies in the failure for Hong Kong cinema to retain its balance and integrity in the mixing of Eastern and Western cultures and lowbrow and highbrow tastes. Instead, there is a polarisation. In some cases, only local layman's tastes are satisfied; in other cases, Western culture is imitated at the cost of the Hong Kong flavour. There are pictures that cater only for the "minority audience" -- pictures that are enjoyed by the few. Then there are pictures that are glossy but shallow. To learn from the past in order to know the future, there is only recourse to achieve the integration of eastern and western cultures, the lowbrow and the highbrow. Only this way can we renew our energy and rebuild the film industry so that it may enter a new age of prosperity.

(Translated by Stephen Teo)

In addition to the article above, this book has some comments by Chang Cheh in the rest of its pages.
Three choice passages are given below.

On pages 43-54, there is a section of capsule comments from various directors called
"New Century of Martial Arts."
On page 46, Chang Cheh says:

Why advocated male-centred films

I felt that in movies around the world, male actors were at the top. All the important parts were played by men. Why is it that Chinese movies didn't have male actors? If male actors could stand up, the audience would double. . . . That's why I advocated male-centred movies with yanggang as the core element. At the same time, I thought there was no reason why I shouldn't make action pictures. Orientals are nimble, perhaps even more so than Westerners, and that's why we advocated the "martial arts century."

On pages 88-91, there is a section called
"Directors' Reminiscences."
On page 89, Chang Cheh says:

On actors

About stars, there is only one thing to say. Chinese cinema started to realise that we didn't need handsome actors. You need different types of actors -- and it's not just relying on character or temperament. A character stems from combining different things. Sometimes it's not ugliness but the quality of average beauty and when you have male and female stars with such a quality, it's no use. Jackie Chan isn't handsome and neither is Bruce Lee; Andy Lau has his flaws. David Chiang, Di Long, and Alexander Fu are near the so-called "pretty face." Definitely not Chan Kwun-tai. One day I was visiting a friend -- his son asked me why my leading men were all so ugly. Adults never say that because it's rude, but children say anything! (laughs)

On pages 92-93, there is a section called
"Evaluation of the Genre and the Future of Hong Kong Cinema."
On page 92, Chang Cheh says:

The future of Hong Kong cinema is unavoidably tied in with the China market. . . . In the end, has to rely on China.

There are many difficulties right now and both sides don't understand each other. Hong Kong people don't know how the Mainlanders think and vice versa. I'm still working hard in communication but see little results . . . the Mainland isn't commercial enough. The directors I have been in touch with, on the whole, don't seem to know much about new technology and don't seem to master the important skills of cinematography, editing, directing . . . they need Hong Kong technology. Hong Kong is too small and needs the China market. When these two converge, Chinese cinema will have a future.

Bibliographic entry

Zhang Che (Chang Cheh).  "Creating the Martial Arts Film and Hong Kong
     Cinema Style."  In The Making of Martial Arts Films -- As Told by 
     Filmmakers and Stars, pp. 16-24.  Translated by Stephen Teo.  Hong 
     Kong: Provisional Urban Council, 1999.  [Made not for the HKIFF 
     (Hong Kong International Film Festival), but for the Hong Kong Film 

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