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"Kung Fu Mafia:
Robert Tai
an Exclusive

. .
the cover of Eastern Heroes Special Edition #6
193k | 381k
. .

by Toby Russell,
in Eastern Heroes
Special Edition #6

From Eastern Heroes Special Edition #6, pp. 44-49:

Kung fu Mafia: Robert Tai Unleashed
an exclusive interview
by Toby Russell

Without doubt one of the most madcap, visually brilliant and truly original directors in the world is Robert Tai, or Gangly as he is better known. His list of films to his credit is second to none and his influence over the kung fu genre has been gargantuan to say the least.

Born in Taiwan in 1953, his father, a military chief, and his mother, the true matriarch of the Venoms, sent their young tearaway son to the Fu Shing Opera School in Taipei. The school in those days was quite different from the plush setting it is nowadays; old wooden sheds for dormitories and concrete areas were about the size of it. "We used to get up at 4.30 to practice singing exercises, the master would rope us all together and lead us up to the hills where we would sing our hearts out into the darkness of the night. Often we would frighten Angela Mao and Judy Lee, telling them ghost stories."

click for 261k image of Robert Tai and Chiang Sheng
on the set of Shaolin Chastity Kung Fu

Among his classmates were Lee Yi Min, Chang Yi, James Tien, Charlie Chin, Chiang Sheng, Angela Mao, Judy Lee, Chin Lung and Pang Gang, to name a few.

"Training was hard -- we used to practice acrobatics and tumbling on concrete and we would receive severe beatings for bad work. If you've seen Farewell My Concubine then you can get an impression of what it was like.

"I wasn't a particularly great student but I did have a good brain, especially when it called for choreographing small acrobatic displays which we had to put on during special occasions. We toured the whole world and were invited to the White House.

"As we got older the other boys and I used to skip class and work on films to get some extra money. We were thrashed when we returned to school."

Gangly worked on hundreds of pictures during his youth, including two with Jackie Chan. "I remember when we were making New Fist of Fury. Jackie loved playing with the three section staff. He seemed to be caught up in a world of his own creating new moves for the device -- he loved weapons. As for me, at that stage in my life I really had no desire to be a director, I was just purely in it for the money."

It wasn't until Gangly started working for Chang Cheh that he started to focus on filmmaking. "I remember the first time I caught Chang Cheh's attention. We were filming Seven Man Army and he wanted a man to fall off a really high wall. No-one would do it. I said that I'll do it, no problem and I leaped off the wall. I was really brave then -- I would do anything. Chang Cheh was really impressed with my confidence and asked me to come back to Hong Kong with him and make pictures at the Shaw Brothers.

"At first he took about thirty people back to Hong Kong from Taiwan for the film Shaolin Temple, but after completion only about ten of us remained.

click for 243k image of Chang Cheh and Robert Tai
on the set of Brave Archer

"The first picture he let me choreograph on my own was Brave Archer. I was the assistant choreographer on Chinatown Kid. I learned very quickly how to do fight scenes and I stayed by the director's side every day, watching him place the camera and how he split up the shot."

I would like to point out here that Gangly is possibly the only man on the planet who can write out an entire edited fight scene on paper without the aid of drawings way before it is shot. This paper is then handed out to his crew so the maestro can do more important things like fishing -- his favourite pastime.

"I also followed him to the editing and dubbing. The whole process fascinated me and I got on with all the technicians and actors since we all lived under the same roof at Shaws. The biggest turning point for me was The Five Venoms. We managed to convince Chang Cheh that he could make a film without big name stars like Fu Sheng and Ti Lung. Since all the cast were my childhood friends except Lo Meng, who was a friend of Chang Cheh's chauffeur, I was able to control the look of the whole production. Often Chang Cheh would sleep and leave the shooting to us. For him, the important thing was the script and the acting.

"The film was a hit so Mona Fong wanted more of the same, so we gave her Kid With the Golden Arm, Crippled Avengers, Invincible Shaolin and so on. Our films were doing really well and this upset director Liu Chia Liang who was getting some flack from Run Run and Mona Fong, saying look these Taiwanese are churning out three good pictures to your one. I remember one night I got back to the dormitory -- I had just got out the taxi when I heard a voice . . . 'Hey Shao Tai' [Gangly's Chinese nickname].

click for 191k image of Lee Yi Min and Robert Tai

"It was Wilson Tong with Wong Yue and Liu Chia Liang. They had come to tell me to get out of town and they were brandishing knives. I told them that they could beat the crap out of me but there's no way I'm leaving on your say so. We talked and argued for a while -- finally nothing happened; I think they were a little worse from drinking. I was gutted since Liu Chia Liang is one of the best directors of the genre and I really respected him. Another time we had some grief at the studio was when some gangsters came looking for Lee Yi Min. We were shooting Heaven and Hell when someone came running in -- 'It's bad, there's a load of thugs outside the main gate looking for Lee Yi Min.' Well if you know Lee Yi Min, you know he isn't the bravest guy, but a playboy he is, and he loves screwing other people's wives. Well, he had screwed the big gang boss' wife and they were out for revenge.

"I told him that I would take care of it. I marched off to the front gate alone. I told the men there that I brought Lee Yi Min to Hong Kong and he is my responsibility, there is no way you can harm him -- I will take his just punishment. The mob boss was angry but respected my balls and pardoned me, but I had to treat him and his men when they visited Taiwan, which they did.

"I worked at Shaws for two years non-stop. I loved the studio -- it was so easy to shoot there. You want something, zap they build it free for you. There were really no budget constraints to speak of. The actors got paid next to nothing. Lu Feng and Chiang Sheng got 300 each for any film they made, plus a basic allowance. I was on a different deal. I signed up with Chang Cheh and I got my salary from him, as Mona Fong found out when I told her I was going back to Taiwan. She said you can't, you're under contract. I told her I wasn't. She couldn't believe that I'd been there for two years without a contract. She asked me to stay, as did Chang Cheh, but Mr Lam Tien Hung had offered me good money to go back to Taiwan and shoot Incredible Kung Fu Mission.

"When I got back to Taiwan, I realised I had much better production skills than my local counterparts, and I soon became hot property. Lo Wei paid me the highest price ever for a choreographer at that time for his production Wily Match.

click for 237k image of Robert Tai directing Shaolin v Ninja

"Being back in Taiwan gave me the chance to weed out the good technicians and cast I needed for an ideal crew. We experimented with the crew on Devil Killer, which was a scheme devised by Lam Tien Hung. He had an old picture and he wanted me to film new footage. It took me ten days to come up with the new footage and he made a lot of money with that picture. Next, we shot Shaolin v Ninja for Lam Tien Hung. The people I assembled for Shaolin v Ninja were Alexander Lo, Number 18 Lee Hai Shing (best acrobat in the world), Wu Hou (Number 5) and William Yen on camera. We had Tang Yu Tai the human steadycam. I used him on nearly all my pictures. Chin Kwo Hsio as production manager.

"We knocked out many pictures together -- Shaolin v Ninja, Mafia v Ninja, Shaolin Against Lama. I didn't direct that but I oversaw the film, Shaolin Chastity Kung Eu, which I have to say was really bad -- no excuses for that one -- and my favourite, Ninja the Final Duel.

"We shot eleven hours in nine months for $200,000. I liked the end product, but there was still masses more I wanted to shoot."

Robert Tai hasn't shot a feature in a long while. I was lucky that I managed to persuade him to direct Iron Bodyguards.

click for 241k image of Robert Tai supervising the 
choreography of an unknown film

"There's really no incentive to shoot kung fu films nowadays. The market has been destroyed by Hollywood blockbusters. Not that I don't like American films. I think Steven Spielberg is the best director in the world. I'd love to meet him and work with him on a project -- I think he would love my ideas. That's the most important thing for a director -- a great imagination and new ideas. I never repeat my stuff or copy other people's. People say, 'Do a film like so and so', but I say no -- if you want that, then employ them. You want me, you get what I give you, like it or lump it."

Gangly currently spends his time between Taiwan and China where he and his wife, Wu Tse Chiao (assistant director to him and Lee Tso Nam before), run an import business. He also produces Taiwan television, where he churns out three hundred hours a year of costume drama.

"Television's really an easy job -- I just make a few calls and shout a bit and collect my money. I can't be bothered to direct that shit."

Luckily Gangly's brain seems to be maturing with age, and some of the ideas he talks about are frightfully good. Hopefully, in time, we will see them put into practice once more.

EDITOR'S NOTE: You can see an Interview with Robert Tai in Eastern Heroes Video Magazine #2.

Robert Tai Selected Filmography
an "*" indicates that a film is a Venoms film
1976  TAMO MONK (actor)
1977  CHINATOWN KID* (chor)
  BRAVE ARCHER* (chor)
  BRAVE ARCHER 2* (chor)
  LIFE COMBAT* (chor)
1978  THE FIVE VENOMS* (chor)
  DAREDEVILS* (chor)
  WILY MATCH (chor)
  THE HEROES (chor)
  EVIL HITS EVIL (actor)
  SHAOLIN V NINJA (chor/dir/actor)
  DEVIL KILLER (chor/dir/actor)
1981  SHAOLIN CHASTITY KUNG FU (chor/dir/actor/producer)
  NINJA VERSUS SHAOLIN GUARDS (chor/co-dir/actor)
  MAFIA V NINJA (chor/dir/actor)
1983  MAFIA V NINJA (TV series) (chor/dir)
1985  NINJA THE FINAL DUEL (chor/dir/actor/prod)
1988  DEATH CAGE (chor/dir)
1996  IRON BODYGUARDS (dir/actor)

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