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"The Breakout
Development of
Kung Fu Movies,"
by Lau Sing Hon,
an article from

. .
Black and white photocopy of 
cover to Influence Magazine #13
173k | 360k
. .

Influence Magazine
#13 (April 1976),
roughly translated
by Michael
Min-Chi Wong



KEY:
(#) indicates a link to a footnoted comment made by the translator
<#> indicates a page break in the magazine's original Chinese text
<missing a line here> indicates a line of text that was illegible to the translator
[green text] indicates a comment made by this web page's editor (Steven Feldman)
[brown text] indicates a comment made by the translator (Michael Min-Chi Wong)
blue text indicates a difficult-to-translate, questionable passage
red text indicates a comment found to be of great importance by this web page's editor


[NOTE: More than half of this article is about the then-recently-released film,
"The Hung Boxing Kid" (aka Disciples of Shaolin, aka The Invincible One).]


From Influence Magazine (Taipei, Taiwan) #13 (April 1976), pp. 21-27:
<21>
THE BREAKOUT DEVELOPMENT OF KUNG FU MOVIES
by Lau Sing Hon

                        "Siu" goes the sword
                        Road that leads to the edge of land and sky
                        The hawk flies about the martial world
                        As high as nine levels of clouds
                        Colder than cold
                        Rows and rows of mountains and cliffs
                        Where is the branch that one can stay
                        [this is the poem Wang Yu writes in "The Golden Swallow"]
<22>
Following the China fad and Kung Fu fad, it seems that film critics in Europe and the United States started paying attention to Hong Kong and Taiwanese movies and directors. Among them, Tony Rayns listed Chor Yuen's "Love Slave" as one of the top ten movies in the 1973 Winter issue of "Sight and Sound." And in the 1974 Summer issue of the same magazine, he wrote a long essay called "Threads Through the Labyrinth: Hong Kong Movies" to discuss Hong Kong and Taiwanese Kung Fu movies' main themes and typical character traits. He also had a detailed analysis of Chang Cheh's "The Golden Swallow."

Among those who had an immediate reaction to this essay was Professor Ian Jarvie from the department of philosophy at the Canadian college, York University. In the readers' letters section of the 1974 Winter issue, he argued against many points of Rayns' opinions, accusing him for not thinking and analyzing carefully before he put the words on paper. He also expressed curiosity about the number of Mandarin films Rayns had watched (perhaps not more than twenty). He also considered Chang Cheh only as a "minion" of Shaw brothers who cranked out formula movies out at the fastest speed. His main character in "Golden Swallow" was only a recycling of Cheng Pei Pei's character from King Hu's "Come Drink with Me." And King Hu is really the most meticulous, most creative director working in Hong Kong's movie industry. Besides this, Chor Yuen, Lee Hon Cheung, and Lung Gong all directed many outstanding works that are worth watching and discussing by a Western audience.

In the same issue of "Sight and Sound" quarterly, Rayns also immediately refuted Professor Jarvie. He pointed out that his essays weren't intended as a serious analysis and judgement of Kung Fu movies -- that they only pointed out some general characteristics of such films, hoping that it would create some interest among Western film scholars to study Hong Kong movies. So, his essay used an exploratory tone from start to finish, never making concrete conclusions of any sort. But, he refused to classify Chang Cheh's movies as formula movies. He considered Chang Cheh one of the most adventurous directors of commercial films -- no matter what the geographic region.

Rayns listed these as the common traits found in Kung Fu movies: (1) Individual heroism. (2) Heroines who are skilled in martial arts often appear also, but being female, the things they do are often not as wild and uncontrolled as those of the hero. (3) The hero often wants to be respectful to elders and loyal to masters at the same time -- protecting family and country, being loyal to his school and gang, and taking revenge for his parents or master. (4) The hero is strong and irrepressible -- not afraid of difficulty and pain, not afraid of death; even if he lost a limb or got disemboweled, he would keep on fighting to the bitter end. (5) The character and Kung Fu of the hero was often based on Shaolin or Taoist philosophy. (6) The shallowness of the hero's character and his superior fighting skills is just the difference between Yin and Yang. (7) The style of fighting is absent in the West, because -- unlike Western fighting -- Asian fighting looks like dancing and a ritual. (8) Fighting often takes half the screen time of the whole movie.

Some of these traits he listed make a lot of sense, but some others like his mentioning of Yin and Yang, are such nonsense that it makes us want to laugh. Fortunately, Rayns was only making a hypothesis. In fact, Westerners beginning to pay attention to Chinese movies is a good thing, but at least they have to have a basic understanding of Chinese culture, philosophy, history, art, and basic characteristics. Otherwise, it's all wrong. Looking at the current crop of Chinese and Taiwanese Kung Fu movies from the Western viewpoint -- with incomplete knowledge of Yin and Yang and the Five Elements and of Confucian, Buddhist, and Taoist philosophy -- getting attracted by fake and exaggerated exoticism, perversion and violence, or even trying to find Chinese people's national identity, cultural thinking, and political structure in these movies -- that's akin to using the heroines in the Kung Fu movies as the pioneers of the women's suffrage movement in China -- which would be a major catastrophe for the Chinese people.

GOING WAY OVERBOARD

Besides this, using the theory of signs in semiotics, which is a popular method of analysis amongst current Western film scholars, is also a dangerous thing. If one is not careful, it's easy to go way overboard in doing so. Take Rayns' analysis of "The Golden Swallow," for example. He considered the Golden Swallow (Cheng Pei Pei)'s golden costume <23> to represent purity and a valuable prize, and she often appeared next to a waterfall -- the waterfall representing feminine gentleness in one sense, while also representing her excited heart inside. The two men who love her are polar opposites and nemesis of each other. Wong Yu's Silver eagle's silver means steel, which also represents machismo revenge and flickering flame, Lo Leet [Lo Lieh]'s To Wun's completely black costume meant patience and self discipline, which also represents earth, earth is family and home, reliable, but also dull and unpolished, Fire and Earth are then naturally enemies of each other. (1) [End of fully collaborative editing with translator Michael Min-Chi Wong, in December of 2000] A pair of true lovers has a type of bird for their names, this represents that they will stay with each other and fly away together in the end. This type of symbolic analysis is very convenient for western film critics who do not have a deep understanding of Chinese philosophy and culture, but it is also a way to be lazy, because a lot of colors and images represent symbols that exceeds national boundaries, but if we just pick one single aspect and use it summarize the entire thing, it will be like Lau On's critique of paintings: "The outer appearance of the usual, the painter only got the hair and lost the essence." Only searching for individual details, and totally forgetting the meaning of the whole thing, one will be easily fooled and confused by tricks and false details. That is why Rayns wrote in the beginning of his essay, puzzlingly: "It's quite possible that westerners will never find the key to unlock the confusing maze of Hong Kong movies." That is not an unwarranted worry.

To analyze movies made by Chinese, some basic understanding of traditional Chinese art theory is a must. Tse Hark [Tsui Hark]'s "6 method" is essential. The same theory can be used to critique movies. The Bone method for using the pen is [Camera Style] the use of the movie camera. The use of objects and drawing their likeness can be viewed as the characterization and filmic presentation of people and objects. Adding colors depending on the type, of course, meant the usage of lighting and the adding of tint. Positioning management [mise-en-scène] is a combination of set design and scene coordination. The Shifting and moving of models -- and rewriting -- is a little more troublesome. We can't copy [Sergei] Eisenstein or [D.W.] Griffith scene-by-scene. Let's disregard this "method" and change it to plot structure. Lively essence naturally means the soul and spirit of the movie. Tse Hark's "6 methods" is also a critique of writers. It predates the French by more than 1400 years. But we don't need to follow his classification of writers into 6 different grades. Despite his grading of Ku Hoi Gee as third class, in later years Yiu Jui insisted on describing Ku Hoi Gee as the best in the world. The top directors from Hong Kong are still youthful and strong, anyway. If they continue making films, they can go on for at least ten years each. As long as one doesn't give up hopes, we still can't classify and grade them on a scale yet.

Not only is the movie industry in Hong Kong and Taiwan a big confusing maze for Westerners; even Chinese themselves are often confounded. That's because there are too many cases of insincere pretensions and conning by fancy tricks. In this aspect, the foreigners will find it even harder to recognize the real deal. Of course, every director in Hong Kong and Taiwan wants to make a lot of money and still be considered an artist/auteur. But the fact is, talented people are rare, so, in the end, 90% of them are just businessmen, speculating on the market. Some of them are clearly phonies, but they insist on pretending to be sincere. Yet others appear occasionally as businessmen, and sometines as artists. It all leaves people in a daze. But paper can't wrap fire. A phoney person who sets out to fool people, even if he is talented, will make movies that reflect his penchant for pretense, and he will never be able to make a really good movie. Even if a director lacks talent, if he is sincere, he'll be able to make movies that are often moving, which is something that can't be faked or copied. Traditional Chinese art theory places great importance on the quality of personal character. The Chun Dynasty's Wong Kay once told his niece Wong Hay Gee: ". . . want you to learn literature, is because the accumulation of knowledge can get you far. Learning to paint allows you to know other people and make your own way." The Sung Dynasty's Kwok Yerk Hui's saying, "Looking as one's painting and see the ambitions of the painter" means that if a person has high moral standards and good character, then his aura has to be very noble, as well. The Yuen dynasty's Yeung Wai Jing said in "critiquing paintings": "Whether one paints well or not depends on the person's character." Modern man Chan Hung Lor said in his "The value of the paintings of learned people": "The main ingredients of the paintings of a learned person, first is his character, second is his education, third is his talent, fourth is his thought process. Only a person with all 4 qualities, can draw the perfect painting." These quotes are all well worth studying by those movies makers in Hong Kong and Taiwan who are not satisfied with being a businessman.

CRITIQUE OF CHANG CHEH

As for a critique of Chang Cheh, are his movies formulaic, run-of-the-mill films, or the most adventurous and romantic of works? Which one is right, Professor Jarvie or Rayns? Actually, they are both half correct and half wrong. Just picking out one aspect and using it to summarize the whole thing, is a common mistake made by foreign film critics who critique Hong Kong and Taiwanese films when they don't have enough background materials and understanding. If Professor Jarvie only watched Chang Cheh's "The invincible Fist", "Vengeance", "Duel of Fists" (the Chinese Connection), "Shaolin Martial Arts", and "The Hung Boxing Kid", he would definitely agree with Rayns' point of view. If Rayns had only seen "The Flying Dagger", "The Deadly Duo", "Return of the One-Armed Swordsman", and "The Angry Guest" etc. -- movies that even Chang Cheh himself admitted to be very bad movies -- then he won't have argued with Jarvie. Chang Cheh does have talent and genius. When he was serious and worked hard, the movies he made were great, but when he didn't put his heart into it, he mass-produced movies, resulting in a flood of seemingly romantic formula films. Therefore, Chang Cheh's track record of half good and half bad films can be attributed to how he approached a given project.

"The Hung Boxing Kid" [Disciples of Shaolin (1975), aka The Invincible One] is probably Chang Cheh's best and most mature work, to date. It's also a breakthrough work in martial arts films. Prior to that, there were directors (including Chang Cheh himself) attempting to add a deeper plot and theme to a martial arts film, but they were all failures. But this time Chang Cheh and Ngai Hong succeeded. And it was not preachy at all. The whole movie was lively and full of subtext, and it most definitely ranks among one of the all-time classic martial arts films.

The titular Hung Boxing Kid, Kwan Fung Yee (Fu Shing), has been an orphan since he was a very young kid. He wandered from his small village to the big city's Hing Fat Lung cloth factory to seek shelter from his martial arts school elder, Wong Hon (Chik Kwan Kwun), who was working there as a lowly cloth weaver. The young and naive kid is innocent and honest, and gets himself into a lot of trouble but also a lot of funny situations. At the same time, Kwai Lin Tung's Manchurian boss, Hark Wor Bo (Jiang Do), who runs another cloth factory, gets jealous of Hing Fat Lung's prospering business, so he makes his minions bribe Hing Fat Lung's workers to move over and work for Kwai Lin Tung, instead. Those that refuse are severely beaten up. The kid starts out helping fellow co-workers who had been beaten up, but in the end he is discovered by his boss, Mr. Ho (Lo Dik), to be useful, so he gets promoted from a lowly weaver to the general manager. His elder, <24> Wong Hon, also is well-trained in martial arts, but he'd rather stay out of the limelight. That's because when he worked as a bouncer for his boss, he realized that in the eyes of his boss, a bouncer is just like a dog. From then on, Wong Hon decided to no longer risk his life and be a dog for his boss, and worked quietly to make his living. When he warned the kid, the kid relied on his superior martial arts, and also was unable to resist his boss' material offers -- money, power, status, and women -- so he refused to repent, and stayed being his boss' minion, and ended up getting himself killed. Finally, Wong Hon avenged his death by killing the bad guys.

Regarding "The Hung Boxing Kid"'s script, Chang Cheh and Ngai Hong's greatest accomplishment was breaking from the mold of previous martial arts films both in theme and presentation. Just like Ma Wing Jing, the kid started off as a youth with nothing, he struggled to climb on top, but when he was almost there, he fell back down. This is the usual tragic romantic plot used by Chang Cheh, but the kid is not simply a hero well-trained in martial arts. In the eyes of the script writer, he is just like all the other bouncers, and is a tragic figure. In this aspect, the writer crossed the boundary of basic personal heroism, and because of this, enriched the story's plot and essence. Besides this, the kid had lost his parents when very young and was uneducated. He had never even worn shoes before. So of course, he is a simpleton. Once he had been seduced by his boss' money and women, of course he couldn't resist, so not only did he ignore his elder's warning, but by having brought it all to himself, he is killed in the end. But as Shao Ying (Chan Ming Li) said, he can't be blamed for it. The kid is also the typical Chang Cheh rebellious character. To the kid, yesterday and tomorrow are not important. He is only living in the moment. He doesn't need to think too much, and has no ambition. He doesn't understand things that are too complicated. He is a primal person ruled by emotions, not logical reasoning. Because of this, his self destruction is very natural. In the begining, he didn't intend to be his boss' dog. The reason he helped shift manager Lee Kai to fight was because Lee Kai was "nice" to him, and when the general manager, Tam Dai Bo, asked him waht he wanted for a reward, he only asked for a new pair of shoes. But when he finally tasted money, power, and women, it was impossible for him to go back, despite the fact that his elder had said: "When you were so poor that you didn't even have a pair of shoes, you were still yourself, but now you are just a dog." He also knew where he stood in his boss' eyes, but he couldn't pull himself back. This is when he had really fallen. In the end, when the kid is ambushed by the enemies' martial arts teacher, Lun Ying To (Fung Huk On) [Fong Hak On], he goes alone to the enemy's place to confront Hark Wor Bo. These are his self-destructive tendencies at work, since the kid let his emotions take control over his reason.

ROMANTIC INDIVIDUAL HEROISM

"The Hung Boxing Kid"'s Fu Shing character was made to be very lively and active; Fu Shing's acting also was naturally likeable, even though some of his facial expressions were overdone, and he does not resemble a kid who just came from a small village (Fu Shing's vague caucasian facial features have something to do with this, too). But it didn't affect the whole picture too much. However, the biggest problem was the actors didn't shave the front scalp and weare a long braid behind, making them look anachronistic. This, of course, has to do with the director's and actor's laziness and carelessness, but it really affected the characterizations of the people and the feel of the time period. Let's hope that Chang Cheh will pay more attention to this from now on.
Chik Kwan Kwun's Wong Hon has a bit of the melancholy of Chang Cheh's usual unappreciated genius. If he had in fact met a better boss, would he had not stayed content as a bouncer? From the moment he realized the real way the boss treats his employees, he had taken a pessimistic retreating approach, paying no attention to what's happening around him, and was only concerned with weaving cloth to make a living, steadfastly refusing to get into the tiniest bit of trouble because of his boss. But in a city where "everyone's true intentions are scary", even if you don't go seeking it, trouble will eventually find it's way to you. The evil powers brutally murdered his beloved ward, what is a man to do? Pessimistic retreating will no longer do, since the evil powers will not self-destruct. If you are in the position of the working class of communism, of course you'll have to start a worker's revolt and <25> overthrow the boss, but Chang Cheh has always been a believer in romantic individual heroism, so Wong Hon singlehandedly took on the evil power, crushing Boss Ho's beloved crickets under his own two feet, killing Boss Hark with his own two fists, righting the wrongs. But the fight in the finale made people feel it was rushed and hastily done. A lingering question is whether Wong Hon will become a fighter again or if he will continue to live in obscurity? He is probably just like most other Chang Cheh characters, still unable to find an ideal way to utilize his talents. For such a deep character who is filled with inner conflicts and contradictions, it's too bad that Chik Kwan Kwun wasn't able to fully manage the role.

Hing Fat Lung Lee Kai's shift manager once said: "All the ravens are just as black; big bosses are all the same." Even thought the big bosses all treated their employees and workers as dogs, they can still be divided into three categories. The first type is Wong Hon's former boss in Yangzhou who's in the salt trading business. This type of antagonistic boss can actually feast with one another while their minions are fighting each other to the death. When their employees are disemboweling each other, they can actually joke with each other at dinner, behaving as if they had just finished negotiating a deal. The second type is like the Manchurian boss Hark Wor Bo. Relying on the fact that he was related to the royal family, he acted as if the law didn't apply to him, believing that money and force were the best ways to make the workers submit to him. The third type is like Boss Ho, who is the most evil and sly. When the kid was deemed worthy for exploitation, he gave the kid money, "the best house" and "the best women", and also promoted him to general manager, calling him by the intimate name "Lil Kwan". That's because he clearly understood this is the best way to get his employees to willingly die for him. When shift manager Lee Kai died in battle, leaving behind a widow and kids that need him to support, he said "my money is for the living, why should I spend it on dead people?" His subordinates are not even worth as much as his fighting cricket. When his minion informed him of the death of "Kwan", he was shocked, but that was because he thought it was his favourite cricket, Lord Kwan, that had died. When he finally understood what was going on, he treated it as if nothing important happened and said "if he can get killed by Hark Wor Bo, then he has no use to continue living anyway." The scariest part about Boss Ho is that his underlings weren't even aware of his evil nature when they died for him.

The script writer used the conflicts and cooperations between bosses, fighers, and workers to attack the nature of the Confuscian/feudal virtue of "loyalty".

SYMBOLISM AND HUMOR

As regards the main theme just mentioned, the best thing was the script writer didn't scream it out, but subtly used the conflicts and character's attitude in the plot to bring it out, employing methods that included conflict, symbolism, sarcasm, humor, and even romance.

The movie's most important comflict is, of course, the innocence and optimism of the kid and his elder's deeply hidden angst and sorrow; the kid is still fresh in the world and not afraid of anything, while his elder his already tasted the bitterness of the martial world and tried to hide away from it. Another important conflict is even more fitting. That is the kid transforming -- from a barefoot countryman dressed in rags and not aware of the world -- to a general manager who has money, status and women; while Tam Dai Bo went from a loud and obnoxious general manager with no real skills, all the way to the bottom as a pimp for the kid. Even though, in terms of social status, the kid went up while Tam Dai Bo went down, in terms of characters, they had both fallen. The only difference is that even though the Kid still exhibits his innocence, he elicits sympathy in his fall from grace, while in Tam Dai Bo's case it's like a piece of rotten wood that became infested with bugs, not even worth the attention of the viewers.

The secondary conflicts included Chan Ming Li's Tsui Siu Ying and Wong King Ping's famous prostitute. Chan Ming Li's beauty from a small family and Wong King Ping's prostitute are both great characters, especially Chan Ming Li. Refreshing and beautiful, sympathizable and lovable, she added a lot of color to the whole movie. Siu Ying won the kid's heart, but didn't get his body, while the prostitute got his body, but didn't really win his heart; both women were moved by the kid's honesty and innocence, both cried for his untimely death.

The script writer showed his skills when it comes to the romantic scenes, which are all presented in fresh and unformulaic ways, especially in the scene where the kid was boasting to Siu Ying about his new shoes and Siu Ying was feeling miserable over her brother's hand that had been broken by other people. She was concentrating on washing clothes and ignoring the kid, but eventually she still ended up smiling because of the kid's stupid-looking face. Siu Ying was silent during the entire scene, with the kid running around in front of her yapping endlessly, all the while: one is quiet and the other is active. This made Chan Ming Li's teary-eyed expression even more sympathetic. When she finally smiled, it was like the spring wind blowing away the rain, and the sky cleared up suddenly. It really was one of the few instances in Mandarin movies about male and female romantic scenes that was unforgettable.

While the love between Siu Ying and the kid was subtle and memorable, the love between the kid and the prostitute, on the otherhand, was naturally more spicy and poignant. When the kid first met the prostitute in the brothel while drunk, when male servants tried to carry him into the room for rest, he pushed them away and insisted on being helped by the beautiful lady. From this, we see that the kid is not completely an idiot. When the kid was ambushed and serious injured, he changed into a completely white outfit, pretended he that he was fine, and returned to the brothel. The prostitute helped him make his braids, then he prepared to visit the enemies' lair by himself. When he left, the kid turned back and smiled at the girl, but the smile couldn't hide his fear and worries. Maybe the kid knew full well that he won't be returning from this trip. The experienced prostitute, of course, detected this change from the usually optimistic kid. From her hesitation, we can feel that the kid's worries had already affected her.

Not utilizing dialogue, yet still able to express the delicate feelings between man and woman simply by using facial expression, body language is what really is so clever about the script writer.

Besides conflict and romance, the use of symbolism and humor together was not only successful, it's one of the few cases that these were employed in Hong Kong and Taiwan films. When the kid first arrived from his little village, his barefootedness represented his social status and also humorized the ass [?] of the minion shift manager. Soon afterwards, the kid's barefeet were constrained by a pair of old and oversized cloth shoes. Initially, the kid didn't know how to get used to these traditional constraints. When he fought against enemies, he kicked away half of these restricting things. However, <26> although these shoes didn't fit, they were given to him by his elder, and he was taught how to wear them by Siu Ying. When the kid put on the new shoes given to him by the boss, he gave up his elder and Siu Ying like throwing away a pair of old shoes. The new shoes became a symbol of the kid's newly-promoted status. He needs to show off, needs to protect, or even subconsciously needed to make sure that he still possessed them. So, everytime he defeated the enemies, he would act cool and slap his shoes clean of dirt or touch them just to make sure they are still on his feet. Up till the moment he died, he was still worried about this, and had to touch them with his hands, but in the end, he couldn't feel them anymore. The shoes are burned in front of his tomb, just like the money and status offered him by the boss -- all burnt ashes disappeared in the wind.

The mechanical golden watch, long smoking pipe, and jade ring were all symbols of social status. They also signify the kid's transformation from a nobody to somebody. Scenes with money are, of course, plentiful. The kid thought the sound of the protitute's heart beating and her panting just as pleasant to his ears as the music from the golden watch. When the kid went to Boss Hark for revenge, Hark was looking at his own golden watch. When he saw the kid, he was so shocked that he dropped the watch. The soft music continued to emanate from the watch when the kid was beating up Hark's minions. The violence, mixed together with the delicate music, transformed into a strange type of romance. When the kid closed up the watch, there came a deadly silence, which signifies that the time has come. It's also the prelude to his death.

From the time the kid is hit in the head by general manager Tam with his smoking pipe, until the situation changes completely at the scene where he returns the favour humorously, it's really hard not to laugh. Besides this, the script writer was also more creative than the average Mandarin film maker when it comes to the use of background music. Just like the aforementioned cases of the conflict between sound and images, and also the "conversation" between characters that didn't involve a single line of dialogue, all these scenes are memorable to the audience. Although Chin Wing Lup [not sure of the pronunciation]'s music was appropriate and quite expressive, I couldn't help but think of the cigarette commercials on TV. The Western music and the long-haired actor really took a lot away from the "nationalism" of "The Hung Boxing Kid".

The fast and furious fighting scenes can be attributed to martial arts choreographer Lau Kar Leung (of course the excellent editing has a lot to do with this too). The Kid's fighting style was naughty and handsome. It doesn't go on and on endlessly like the typical martial arts film. On top of the fight scenes and the serious scenes, there are often comic relief. For instance, when the kid got into an argument with his elder, he broke off a table's leg with his hand, but uses his other hand to grab hold of the candelabra from the top of the table, so it won't fall on the floor. These tiny actions not only saved the scene from being excessively serious, but showed the nature of the kid's character, who can never be serious, which is why Chang Cheh is superior to the old-fashioned purely fighting films. The most exciting fight was, of course, the duel between the kid and Lun Wing To, who is Kwai Tung Leen's martial arts instructor. The script set up the fight in a cloth dyeing factory, using the long strips of hanging red, blue, and orange cloth as background. It has the same effect as the scene in Richard Lester's "Three Musketeers" [it might actually be in Lester's "Four Musketeers"] where the fight was set against black and white background. From the point where the kid made fun of Lun Ting To, till he used a bamboo stick to fool around with him, to the end when he crippled Lun's leg with a move, is fierce, accurate, beautiful; from start to finish, it really flowed naturally, a very well choreographed fight. Other fight scenes also were painstakingly designed and choreographed, a pleasure to watch. But Chik Kwan Kwun's fighting and movements, when compared to Fu Shing's, are indeed a bit slower.

TRAGIC HERO

Because the effect of tinting the scenes red for the bloody gory scenes was so bad in "All Men are Brothers", Chang Cheh used black and white this time, and the result is much better. Starting from 1966 in "The Trail of the Broken Blade," Chang Cheh's superhuman heroes seemingly couldn't escape from the fate of fighting to the death while being disembowled. In "The Golden Swallow," Wong Yu even got stabbed through his belly 4 times and still kept on fighting. That is really over-exaggeration, and often has the opposite effect from desired. This time, the kid was only stabbed through the belly once, so at least that was realistic. The kid pulled a white silk cloth towards him before his death. This intensified the romantic feeling of the tragic death of the hero.

Another thing that Chang Cheh is obsessed about is the use of slow motion. He first used slow motion in "The Magnificent Trio", also from 1966. And from then, on he couldn't stop using it, in nearly every single movie he did since then. No matter if it's good or not, suitable or not, he had to add some scenes with slow motion. In "The Hung Boxing Kid," the slow motion was employed right after the kid was ambushed by Lun Ying To. The kid kicked Lun away, and the hidden assailants jumped out from all over the place. Considering the suddenness of the attack and the change of situation, this set of slow motion was used appropriately. But slow motion isn't a perfect cure-all. It is a very un-natural and abrupt technique. Each time it appears in a movie, the audience will forget about the plot and notice that the director is showing off his technique. So, average directors -- unless they absolutely have to -- should avoid using it. Directors who are first rate don't need to use this type of unnatural technique to add dramatic tension, and can always think of a better way. If he continues his obsession, then it's not Chang Cheh using slow motion, but slow motion using Chang Cheh.

The camera work in general used a lot fewer quick zooms and shakes than before, and it gave people a feeling of more stability. Actually, this type of filming should be avoided completely. It's just a way to be lazy and convenient. It can always be replaced by the more natural editing of the close [medium close-up] and far view [long shot] together. Camera work and lighting has always been Chang's weaker aspects. "The Invincible Fist" and "The Golden Swallow" were a couple of exceptions, while most others are bad. I don't know what the problem is with Chang Cheh and his cameraman Kung Mo Yik. "The Hung Boxing Kid"'s outdoor scenes were flat and boring, and the indoor scenes lacked contrast in brightness and darkness and depth. In some scenes, like when the kid was spending the night with the prostitute in the brothel, the camera swept across the lotus pond outside. Originally it should be misty with the moon -- very romantic -- but the lighting couldn't express it. Another scene when the kid went to the enemies' lair for his last fight, the contrast of light and shadow should be very strong, but they didn't do that, either. The "bone method" -- using a pen to give life -- is the foremost important thing, but the camera work and lighting couldn't adequately do this, so it naturally affected the final result of "The Hung Boxing Kid".

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CHANG CHEH'S CHOICE

The main accomplishment of "The Hung Boxing Kid" is that the whole movie, under the guise of a martial arts film, was internally built on the eternal theme where man, when confronted with the challenge and corrupting influence of material, power, and sex, must question whether he can control his desires and save his character, or must sell himself in exchange of physical and material fulfillment. Even though this type of material is not new in movies -- having appeared even in Taiwanese movies superficially -- it has never been covered as completely and as clearly as in "The Hung Boxing Kid". At the same time, the method for expression chosen by the script writer was successful. It didn't become preachy or tearjerking tragedy. It's natural, romantic, sarcastic, and humorous. In this respect, the script writer also exceeded the standards of average Chinese films. The rich sense of humor and the tragic-comedy are also rare among Chinese films. They add to the clean and neat plot structure, so most dialogue scenes and fight scenes are under control. Fresh and good use of symbolism and conflict adds a special depth to the film. The portrayal of characters are all fleshed out, so that they all feel like real people. Based on all the considerations above, I feel that this is a major breakthrough for martial arts film. However, this is not saying that Chang Cheh's future films will all be better, because of "The Hung Boxing Kid." From Chang Cheh's track record, his next film could be another pedestrian outing (like "Marco Polo" which is hard to say anything good about). Maybe it's because of his over-production, but since Chang Cheh has already established his freedom in making movies, and judging by his current status, it's time for him to place more emphasis on the quality of his films than the quantity. If Chang Cheh can keep up on the thematic level of "The Hung Boxing Kid", while raising his filming technique and style, stop making formulaic factory line films, the status of autuer film-maker should be well within reach. Quality and Quantity do not go together, but looking at the route Chang is taking currently, unfortunately it's the latter. Let's see if he will reconsider in the future.

The success of "the Hung Boxing Kid" re-emphasized two points to the film industry again: 1) instead of wasting money and effort on movies with big scenes which are hard to make, it's better to spend more effort with smaller films which often present the characters better and allow the development of internal themes; Chang Cheh's "All Man are Brothers" and "The Hung Boxing Kid" are not on the same level. 2) a good story with a good internal theme makes a good script, it's also why "The Hung Boxing Kid" is so satisfying. I believe if King Hu, Lee Hon Chang, Lee Hung, Sung Tsuen Sou, and Lung Kong etc. can find good people to write scripts for them, they can make even better films. But it's easier to get 1000 pieces of gold than finding one good general, besides the peculiar fact that Hong Kong has never placed great emphasis on script writers, even though you can say there is no talent available, but for only a few thousand dollars a script, where can we find the talent willing to work for such a meager amount?

Hong Kong and Taiwanese Martial arts films have been around for over ten years, but the slow progress makes people impatient. From the days of magic and sorcery, fairy tales, and blood and gore all over the place, to the demanding substance and portrayal of human nature, a handfull of them are getting more and more mature (although we won't be expecting movies made on the level of Akira Kurasawa or Masaki Kobayashi to appear anytime soon). The ones to lead the movement, naturally, are King Hu and Chang Cheh. Hu's "Dragon Inn," from 1966, is the first breakthough of martial arts films, mainly by virtue of its technique and style. "The Heroine" [I don't know the translation for this!!] [It's probably Come Drink with Me.] in 1966 by Hu was the second breakthrough. Originally, high hopes were placed on its being a success in both technique and substance, but the latter goal wasn't quite reached. "The Hung Boxing Kid," from 1975, by Chang Cheh, was the third breakthrough. This time, it's in terms of substance and internal theme, but the technique is still not up to par. We can expect the fourth breakthrough martial arts film will be successful both in terms of technique and substance, and this breakthrough should come in the near future, and it should be either Hu or Chang that does it.



Notes (brown indicates translator, green indicates editor):

  1. The Chinese conception of the 5 elements is so pervasive throughout the culture that it's important to understand! In Chinese medicine the 5 elements also stand for the 5 major organs: lungs, stomach, etc. In Feng Shui it has a lot to do with the placement of specific furniture or planting things. In telling fortune from the palm, a person's name, and face, it's also there! We even name the planets after the 5 elements! The Japanese went even further and named days of the week the 5 elements (plus sun and moon). It doesn't help that the caucasian author (Tony Rayns) of the article quoted by the Chinese author of the Influence article (Lau Sing Hon) got the colors wrong.

    Mr. Rayns really was talking out his ass. The traditional 5 elements of Chinese culture are fire, water, earth, metal, wood. By interaction with each other, they are natural enemies AND allies with each other at the same time. One element naturally DESTROYS another yet CREATES another. Each element also belongs to a direction and has its own color. East is Wood, South is Fire, West is Metal, North is Water, and center is Earth. The color of East/Wood is green, the color of South/Fire is red, the color of West/Metal is white, the color of North/Water is black (don't ask me why . . . I believe it has to do with the four Gods in each direction: East Dragon, South Phoenix, West Tiger, North Turtle, and Snake), and center/Earth is yellow (not sure about this one . . .). If Rayns was going this route, the color silver is closest to white, and steel also is closer to Metal than Earth. His interpretation of the thing is completely wrong. [return to article]




    This page begun by Steven Feldman <scfeldman@juno.com> 11/9/00, and finished 1/21/08. Last update: 1/29/08.
    Copyright © Steven Feldman, 2008.