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"The Tragic Romantic
Trilogy of Chang Cheh,"
an article by
Lau Shing-hon

. .
A Study of the Hong Kong Martial Arts Film
219k | 351k
. .

from pages 91-96 of
A Study of the
Hong Kong
Martial Arts Film

. .
. .
. .
. .
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Special thanks to Richard Meyers for supplying a photocopy of this article!

From the 4th Hong Kong International Film Festival:
A Study of the Hong Kong Martial Arts Film, 1980
pages 91-96:

The Tragic Romantic Trilogy of Chang Cheh
by Lau Shing-hon

Chang Cheh has directed a great many films, wide-ranging in subject but very uneven in quality. His fundamental preoccupation is with violence and slaughter and their tragic consequences, but he approaches this theme romantically and lyrically.

Three of Chang's martial arts films are very similar in content and structure: The Boxer from Shantung (1972), Man of Iron (1972) and Disciples of Shaolin (1975). The first two were co-directed with Pao Hsueh-Li, and all three were scripted jointly by Chang and I Kuang. Each deals with a working-class youth whose martial skills enable him to advance himself in society, by whose fate turns out to be tragic self-destruction.

In The Boxer from Shantung, young Ma Yung-Cheng (played by Chen Kuan-Tai) comes from his native province to work as a manual labourer in Shanghai, where he lives in an attic loft and suffers the scorn and abuse of his landlord. After Ma has bested some secret-society thugs, however, there is a scene in which the landlord respectfully watches the young man climb the precarious ladder leading to his coffin-like loft. This scene not only offers a beautiful bi-xing symbol(1), but also encapsulates the structure of the entire film in miniature(2). The smile of victory on Ma's face as he mounts the ladder is, in fact, both ironic and an omen (xing) of what fate has in store for him.

Early in the film, Ma comes to the realisation that he will be doomed to endless scorn and abuse unless he improves his social position. He is inspired in this endeavour by the 'handsome' image of Tan Wei (played by David Chiang), whose ivory cigarette-holder and horse-and-carriage pairs represent all that is desirable and 'proper.' What Ma seeks is not so much material success as the attainment of an 'ideal' style. This is rather unusual in a martial arts film.

The relationship between Ma and Tan, a friendship based on mutual respect between peers, stands in sharp contrast with that between Ma and the songstress Chin Ling-Tzu (played by Jing Li), who is secretly in love with him. Ma pays her very little attention, and ultimately sacrifices his own life to avenge Tan Wei.

The film's crew boasted an unusually impressive line-up of martial arts instructors: Liu Chia-Liang, Tang Chia, Liu Chia-Jung and Chen Quan, the first three of whom are discussed in detail elsewhere in this book. All the fight scenes are masterfully conceived; most notable are Ma's bout with a Russian wrestler, and the ambush on Tan Wei, in which he dies. Each victory enhances Ma's social position, but at the same time makes it progressively more precarious. In the concluding scenes, he sets off alone to the Green Lotus Court, a tea house, where he knows his foes to be lying in wait for him. His desire to avenge his friend drives him on, into what is known as a 'gut-spilling fight'(3): blood gushes in torrents, wounds gape, and corpses litter the ground. The atmosphere resembles that of a horror film, but the effect is achieved exclusively through violence. When Ma follows Samson's example and demolishes the pillars that support the upper level of the tea house, the violence moves beyond mere surrealism to become outright myth. The result compares favourably with what Peckinpah achieved in The Wild Bunch (1968).

In the concluding moments of the film, Chin Ling-Tzu is soon in a crowded railway station, quietly boarding the train that will take her away from Shanghai, the city that has seen so much violence. The melancholy of these images recalls the fact that the action has been on the eve of the Sino-Japanese war. The film's violence seems like an omen (xing) of the wholesale slaughter to come.

The film enjoyed such success on its first release (in February, 1972) that plans were immediately laid for the same team (writer, director and cast) to make Man of Iron. The resemblances between the two films are so close that they could serve as textbook examples of the self-destructiveness of the Hong Kong film industry.

Just as The Boxer from Shantung is set on the eve of the Sino-Japanese war, so Man of Iron is set on the eve of the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists in the late 1940s. This time, the hero Chou Lien-Huan (again played by Chen Kuan-Tai) is more aggressive than his predecessor Ma. He comes into conflict with the gang-leader Yu Chen-Ting (Yang Zhiqing) and his son (Tian Qing), mainly because he wishes to gain the favour of the social grande dame Shen Chu-Fang (Jing Li). The latter aspect is the one major departure from the model of The Boxer from Shantung, where the role of the woman was entirely peripheral; here, the woman is central, the focus of the conflict. This change intensifies the film's sense of romance.

The hero's social progress is more bitter and complicated than in the earlier film. There is much more emphasis this time on the internal power politics of the gang: Yu's aide Tseng Ken-Pao (Zhu Mu) plots to take over the gang's leadership, and frames Chou for the kidnap of Yu's son, hoping thereby to generate a chain of conflicts from which he can emerge as the gang's new head. The scene in which Yu aknowledges defeat and pleads with Tseng for the release of his son is genuinely striking; the rival gang leaders are both richly characterised, and accorded a level of understanding rarely granted to villains in Chinese cinema. Finally, untouched by compassion, Tseng releases neither father nor son, and turns his attention to the destruction of Chou Lien-Huan. Chou spends two rainy nights seeking aid from his friends, but all of them fear Tseng's power and some would prefer to betray Chou for the sake of their own advancement. Incensed and desperate, Chou decides to take on Tseng and his men alone, despite his girlfriend's attempt to dissuade him. He goes to his death in much the same suicidal way as Ma Yung-Cheng did.

The film, of course, ends with another of Chang Cheh's 'gut-spilling fights.' After being stabbed in the belly, Chou zips up his black leather jacket and fights on, killing his enemies and then collapsing himself outside in the street. He dies under lowering skies, old newspapers blowing about him, ending the film on a note of romantic melancholy. The deaths here foreshadow the imminent internecine conflict between the Nationalists and Communists -- and the extinction of the secret societies that had been operating in Shanghai for over 100 years.

The third film in this unofficial trilogy, Disciples of Shaolin, is one of Chang's most ambitious and structurally complex martial arts films. It is set in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Its hero Kuan Feng-Yi (played by Fu Sheng) has been orphaned as a child and trained in martial arts in the Shaolin Monastery; he drifts from the countryside to the city, where his fellow Shaolin disciple Huang Han (played by Qi Guanjun [aka Chi Kuan-chun]) works in the Hsing Fa Lung textile works. Huang, who had been a more senior disciple at Shaolin, helps Kuan to find work in the weaving shop alongside him. Naive and guileless, Kuan blunders through some comically troublesome situations.

Ko Ho-Pu (played by Jiang Dao), the Manchu owner of a rival factory, envies the prosperity of the Hsing Fa Lung works, and sends some underlings to 'persuade' its workers to come over to his own Kuai Lien Tung textile works. Always ready to fight for what he considers a just cause, Kuan actively resists these incursions, thereby attracting the attention of his boss Ho Hsing-Fa (Lu Di), who sees him as a useful tool and arranges for his promotion to foreman. Huang, on the other hand, also an expert martial artist knows all too well how lowly Ho values his men and refuses to allow himself to be exploited in a similar way. His attempts to warn Kuan not to misplace his loyalty prove inadequate to match Kuan's natural arrogance, which is fuelled by Ho's gifts of money, position and women. Kuan continues to allow Ho to use him, and eventually meets a violent end at the hands of Ho's enemies. It remains for Huang to avenge his junior fellow disciple.

Chang Cheh and I Kuang's most important achievement here is their development of familiar themes in distinctly innovative ways. As in The Boxer from Shantung, the young hero starts off with nothing and fights his way up. He achieves a moderate success, but then meets his own destruction. So far, the plot conforms closely with Chang's standard approach to the tragi-heroic theme. In Disciples of Shaolin, however, the protagonist is not merely a fighter-hero. He is an explicitly tragic figure, and the film suggests that all professional fighters are essentially tragic. In this respect, the film marks a significant advance on the familiar 'cult of the hero.' In this instance, the character is not only orphaned, uneducated and naive, but also totally unprepared for the sophistication of city life: he arrives barefoot, never having worn shoes in his life. (Shoes are used as an omen in the film.) It goes without saying that he is rather a simple persom. Once corrupted by the material benefits and sexual pleasures that his boss showers on him, he cannot turn back. Although he brings about his own downfall by refusing to heed Huang's advice, his girfriend Hsu Hsiao-Ying (Chen Mingli) is right when she says that he cannot be held entirely responsible for his own fate.

Kuan, like Ma and Chou before him, exemplifies the rebel-type in Chang's films. He lives only for the moment, unconcerned about the past and the future. He is not thoughtful, avoids abstract ideals and prefers ignorance to involvement in anything complex. He is, in short, a creature of instinct, not of intellect, and his tendency towards self-destruction is an inevitable concomitant of his impetuousness. He starts out with intention of fighting for his boss; he leaps into the fray in the first confrontation because he feels that the foreman Li Chia has treated him well, and thus deserves his support. Even after his intervention has proved decisive in routing the thugs from the rival textile works, when the overseer Tan Ta-Pao asks him what reward he would like for his help, all he asks for is a new pair of shoes.

However, once he has tasted material pleasures, it is impossible for him to revert to his former poverty and simplicity. Upbraiding him, Huang says, "When you were poor and barefoot, you were your own man -- now you are no more than a dog." He knows this to be true, but he lacks the strength to draw back from the precipice (the 'ladder' to his destruction?). This marks the beginning of his downfall. Later, after he has been stabbed in an ambush by Lun Ying-Tu (Feng Kean), the leader of the enemy gang, he races headlong, alone, into the headquarters of the rival boss to resolve the issue once and for all. Like Ma and Chou, then, he achieves self-destruction by allowing emotion to completely overwhelm reason.

Fu Sheng gives a lively, entertaining account of the hero, even if he has a tendency to mug and is not entirely convincing as the country boy of the early scenes. Qi Guanjun make of Huang Han one of Chang's quiet, lonely heroes. Less simple-minded than Kuan, he sees his boss Ho for what he really is, and responds by withdrawing into himself, dissociating himself from the conflicts around him, concentrating on his work in the weaving shop. But in this place of evil and violence, trouble finds even those who do not seek it. When his young friend falls victim to the 'system,' he has no choice but to revenge him. Huang expresses his contempt for Ho by killing his beloved fighting cricket, then sets out alone to despatch the enemy boss. His rise to the occasion naturally delights everyone, but it leaves a number of questions unanswered. For instance, does it mean that he has taken up the active life of a fighter again? Would he have stayed at his job if he had trusted his own boss? Would an equally unscrupulous but more cunning boss have succeeded in duping him? Perhaps, like so many of the characters in Chang's films, he has yet to find his niche in life. There is material here for a rich and subtle character portrayal, although Qi Guanjun unfortunately does not realise its full potential.

At one point in the film, the Hsing Fa Lung forman remarks: "All crows are black -- bosses are all the same." It is true that none of the employers in the film values his fighters more than he would value dogs or swine, but it is nonetheless possible to distinguish three character-types.

The first is exemplified by Huang's former boss, a salt merchant from Yangzhou. This type would be capable of feasting and drinking with a group of colleagues, as though they had just concluded a peace treaty, while his men were wounded and dying for him.

The second is exemplified by Ko Ho-Pu, the boss of the rival textile works. He flaunts his position as a descendant of members of the Imperial Manchu Army, and is a law unto himself. He trusts in money and brute force as the most effective ways of commanding obedience from his employees.

The third and most cunning type is exemplified by Ho Hsing-Fa. When he wants to exploit the young man, he gives him money, 'the best room,' 'the best girl' and promotes him to foreman. He affectionately calls him 'Little Kuan.' He understands that this is the best way of encouraging loyalty and perseverance from his men. He resents spending money on maintaining the widow and children or his foreman Li Chia, saying, "Why waste money on the dead?" He cares more about his pet fighting-cricket than about the lives of his men; when he is told of Kuan's death, he first starts in fright because he thinks it is his cricket (Kuan Kung) that has died. On learning his mistake, he remarks, "Since he couldn't even survive a fight, there was no point in his living anyway." The form of exploitation he practices is particularly vicious, since he keeps his employees in ignorance of his true feelings about them -- and of their true position in the 'system.'

The film brings a cynical eye to the traditional, feudal concepts of loyalty in its depiction of these relationships between bosses and workers. It is all the more effective for avoiding direct statements on the issue: the themes are broached through dramatic conflicts and characters' attitudes, and through bi-xing symbols, sarcasm, humour and lyricism.

Another important contrast at the heart of the film is that between the ragged, barefoot cowherd who wanders into the city at the start and the wealthy, tough, womanising foreman that Kuan becomes. His rise is further contrasted with the fall of the former foreman Tan Ta-Pao, who starts as a sly fellow working on borrowed authority as the boss's henchman and is demoted to become the lowliest member of Ho's entourage, despised and kicked around. It is true that Kuan's worldly fortunes rise while Tan's fall, but both of them suffer a dramatic decline in personal values. Yet Kuan's fundamental innocence wins him sympathy as he falls, while Tan emerges as a thorough-going worm, whose death is totally unmourned.

The film also sets up a contrast between the two women in Kuan's life, Hsu Hsiao-Ying, an honest girl from a good family, and Chu Hung, a courtesan. Both are very well acted: Chen Mingli's portrayal of Hsu, in particular, has an aura of genuine innocence and purity, adding considerably to the film's pathos. Hsu wins Kuan's affection, while the courtesan (played by Wang Jingping) wins his body. Both, however, are touched by his innocence, and both weep over his untimely death.

Unusual sensitivity and skill go into the treatment of the film's romantic episodes. This is nowhere truer than in the scene in which Kuan delightedly shows off his new shoes to Hsu. She, distressed by the fact that her brother has broken his arm in a fight, preoccupies herself with her washing and refuses to respond to Kuan's antics. But his guileless exuberance finally draws a smile from her, and when it does, the effect is like sunshine in spring rain. It is a truly fresh moment in the history of romantic encounters in kung-fu cinema.

If Kuan's love for Hsu could be called an almost platonic friendship, his affair with Chu is by comparison deliriously passionate. After he escapes an ambush, he returns to her as though nothing had happened, allows her to help him clean himself up, and then sets off alone for the enemy's headquarters. On the point of leaving, he turns to smile at her, a smile that aknowledges that he will probably never return. The cynical, worldly woman senses the change that has taken place in the boy; her expression reveals her profound anxiety.

This blend of contrasts and lyricism is complemented by Chang's use of the bi-xing symbols and associations, with a degree of success rarely seen before in Hong Kong or Taiwan cinema. Kuan's bare feet when he first comes to the city signify his status in life. Later, he wears a pair of old shoes so larget that they tend to become an encumbrance and fall off in fights; however, he received them as a gift from Huang, and Hsu taught him how to wear them properly. When he discards them for the new pair he receives as a reward from Ho, he is, in fact, symbolically rejecting the values represented by Huang and Hsu. The new shoes symbolise his new status, and denote his adherence to the code of violence he has chosen to live by. They also symbolise a position that needs to be defended constantly: even when the air is thick with the flailing limbs of opponents, he remains fully aware of them, dusts them in an affectionate way and constantly touches them to reassure himself that they are still with him. The moment before his death, the shoes are burnt before his grave; they vanish, like his wealth and position . . . Their symbolic value parallels Tan Wei's ivory cigarette-holder and coach-and-horses.

A pipe, a gold watch a jade ring are all xing symbols of power and authority, and they all play a part in reflecting the changes in Kuan's fortunes. At one point, the foreman Tan knocks Kuan on the head with his pipe. On the principle of doing unto others what they do unto you, Kuan later pays Tan back in kind, to hilarious effect. The gold watch is also prominent: Kuan compares its ticking with the courtesan's hearbeat. Kuan discovers Ko looking at his watch. Ko lets it drop as soon as he sees Kuan, but the ticking continues on the soundtrack, counterpointing Kuan's rampage through the ranks of Ko's men. After the massacre, Kuan shuts the cover of the watch, and the ensuing silence is funereal. The film's sound effects generally show a higher degree of invention than those of most other kung-fu films.

The ferocity of the fight scenes in all three films almost certainly owes at least as much to the work of Liu Chia-Liang as martial arts instructor as it does to the editing. Evidence can be found in the mischievous grace of Kuan's movements and the frequent insertion of moments of comic-relief in the carnage. In the quarrel between Kuan and Huang, the former smashes the table, breaking its leg with one hand, while the latter grasps the candlestick that is resting on the table, to prevent it from falling. These gestures adroitly save the episode from becoming too self-conscious, and point up the fact that Kuan cannot be completely serious about anything.

The most impressive fight naturally takes place between Kuan and the trainer of the opposing faction, Lun Ying-Tu. It is set in the textile works' dyeing yard, with long strips of red, blue and orange fabric ranged around. The movements are vicious, precise and beautiful. Each thrust and parry is breathtaking. Then, during the inevitable 'gut-spilling fight' that ends with his death, Kuan winds a roll of white silk around his body, emphasising the pathos of his romantically tragic demise.

Examining the three films side by side, it becomes apparent that, as heroes, Ma and Chou show much more self-awareness than Kuan. They consciously strive to 'mount the ladder' of success, and are fully aware of the implications of their actions, even in their final acts of self-destruction. Kuan is cast in a quite different mould. He is a naive young man who sets out on a path to tragedy in total ignorance of the significance of his choice. As a result, the two earlier roles lend themselves to a greater depth of characterisation. On the other hand, the third film is by far the most complex and ambitious.

All three heroes are working-class figures, men with no parents, no past, no master to guide them. They do not fight with a sense of chivalry, nor even really for revenge. They fight only for status, for material success. In the end, all of them are destroyed. The presentation of characters like this is the main point of different between Chang Cheh's 1970s films and earlier films in the genre.


  1. In The Book of Odes (one of the 'Five Classics,' a collection of verses dating in the main from the Zhou Dynasty, B.C. 1122-255), fu, bi and xing are listed as the three modes of poetic expression. In general, the fu-mode is a straigthforward account of events; the bi-mode (which can be either positive or negative) seeks to make contrasts or comparisons between situation and object; and the xing-mode seeks to express reality through symbols, or to present images which lead to an understanding of inner truth. The critical essay, 'The Bi-Xing Chapter,' in Literary Heart of a Sculptured Dragon by Liu Xie (466-532) states that bi is overt and xing is implied. [return to article]
  2. In his article, 'Some Trends in the Development of the Post-War Hong Kong Cinema,' published in the book, Hong Kong Cinema Survey 1946-1968 by the 3rd HKIFF, pp. 17-18, Lin Nien-Tung uses the phrase "One hill is always topped by another" (meaning that there will always be new enemies for someone who rises to the top) to describe the ladder-like narrative structure of King Hu's Come Drink With Me.
    In Film Biweekly No. 13 (July, 1979), p. 14, Tony Rayns describes the structure of the same director's A Touch of Zen in terms of a set of Chinese boxes, each box being enclosed within a larger box until the set is complete. [return to article]
  3. Ever since Hsiao Pao (played by Wang Yu) fought on despite four daggers plunged into his belly in Golden Swallow (1968), Chang Cheh's tragic heroes have frequently received similar wounds and then gone on into a 'gut-spilling fight.' This has become one of the director's 'trademarks.' The idea possibly derived from the Peking opera Frontier Gate (Jiepai Guan), in which the Tang Dynasty general Lo Tung, in the course of a campaign against the barbarians in the North, binds up a serious stomach wound with a piece of cloth and continues fighting. It also recalls the wounds sustained by the Catholic martyr Saint Sebastian, a favourite subject in Western homosexual art. [return to article]


Man of Iron (1972)
Romantic sensuality and a touch of melodrama infuse this narrative of Chou Lien-Huan's (Chen Kuan-Tai, right) love for Shen Chu-Fang (Jing Li). This approach does not, however, prevent the continuing eruption of Chang's thematic obsession with physical endurance; in the concluding scene, Chou is wounded in the mid-torso but continues to fight on after zipping up his leather jacket to stem the consequent disembowelment. Once again, it is the anatomical signification that produces a reading of the expression of love (the issuing forth of the internal being) and cinematic production (the unwinding of the physical).

Disciples of Shaolin (1975)
If Man of Iron finds Chang Cheh in a sensuous mood, then "innocence" characterises his directing approach in this feature. The coyness of the foot-fetish is manifested in the relationship between Fu Sheng (left) here exhibiting the new pair of shoes he has received for his martial arts abilities. The aura of fascination infusing this scene is relentlessly tragic -- as in Man of Iron, disembowelment will accompany Fu's death after which his shoes, the objects of presence and absence, will be burnt at his grave.

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