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"Analysis of
Chang Cheh's
Work"
by Chun Ming,
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


From Influence Magazine (Taipei, Taiwan) #13 (April 1976), pp. 28-31:
<28 and 29>
ANALYSIS OF CHANG CHEH'S WORK
by Chun Ming
<30>
Chang Cheh can be considered to be the person who set the new tradition [new standard] for the modern Chinese martial arts film. This so-called "new tradition" employed a new technique and editing method to film martial arts movies. In martial arts films in the 40's and 50's, the emphasis was on the plot. The fight scenes were not considered important, and played only a small part. But Chang Cheh's movies placed the emphasis on the fighting. The plot is only secondary. Chang's fighting could be considered realistic, yet also pure fantasy, at the same time. You can say it is realistic because of the carefully choreographed fighting moves, and the wonderful use of fake blood to realistically show the details of a death; like knives and swords cutting through the body, arms and legs being chopped off, and death caused by bleeding. You can say it is fantasy because when you exaggerate the superhuman fighting prowess of the main characters, they can casually fight against 50 or 60 opponents at the same time, or even bear the pain of being disemboweled, and continue fighting. They can even run up vertical walls, and even fly in the sky. All these wonderfully fantastic things are special effects created by means of montage, not the real kung fu and skills of actual actor. Chang Cheh is one of the best in using this type of montage.

Chang Cheh places the plot of the movie in the secondary position. That's not to say he doesn't pay attention ot the plot. It's just that fight scenes often do not transition with the story too well, or are done in a forced way. For instance, the machine gun massacre by the Korean Army in the gymnasium at the end of "Four Riders" doesn't fit the story development and there was no need for it. (The author thinks this scene was trying emulate the full scale massacre at the end of Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch.") And the historical backdrop behind these stories is also un-necessary. For instance "the Deadly Duo" used the kidnapping of Emperor Hong of the Sung Dynasty as background, as a reason for the series of fights. Even if it's not set in Sung, and set in an unknown time period, the same type of fights could still take place. "The Heroic Ones" was like this. "The Anonymous Heroes" was also like this. On the other hand, those of Chang's films that don't have a definite historical background are much better, like "The Wandering Swordsman", "The New One-Armed Swordsman", "The Golden Swallow", etc. His work that is set in a historical period fictionalizes what really happened, which misinforms the ignorant and makes the learned upset. This adds to the feeling that he was only using historical events as an excuse for his fighting. Things would have been more naturalistic if he had just skipped all the historical jargon.
Chang Cheh's most creative years were the time he spent at the Shaw brothers. Martial arts film comprised more than 80% of his work, and his period films are indeed much better than his films which were set in the modern era. Films like "Dead End" and "The Delinquent" are much inferior to "Blood Brothers" and "The New One-Armed Swordsman." Maybe this has something to do with Chang's hero worship philosophy. In ancient times, Chinese people worshipped heroes and wandering fighters, performing heroic deeds and upholding justice, but nowadays, this type of behaviour is viewed as that of psychotic vigilantes who take justice into their own hands, so after destroying the gangsters in "The Delinquent", Wong Jung had to kill himself by jumping off a building. Now, let's discuss Chang Cheh in his Shaw Brothers period by looking at the themes behind the stories and the techniques he employed.

HEROISM AND INDIVIDUALISM

Two unifying themes of Chang Cheh's works are hero worship and individualism. Summarizing both, it's a type of abnormal and extreme individualistic heroism. The heroes in Chang's early works performed fine -- justice for all, robbing the rich and give to the poor -- but it developed into extreme individualism. In the end, it degenerated into a type of clinical case for lack of self control. Let's first look at Chang's first major hit, "One-Armed Swordsman." Wong Yu was born into poverty. After accidentally losing his arm, he disappears into the countryside, deciding to no longer be involved in the martial arts world, but in the end he has to return and destroy his enemies, mainly to show his gratitude for his stepfather. "The New One-Armed Swordsman" was based on a similar idea and premise, but David Chiang's return to the martial world after losing his arm was because of avenging his lost arm. But he used avenging his friend's death as the excuse. The Hero in the "Wandering Swordsman" became a type of hero who preyed on the public. The wandering swordsman's kills villains, but it's to fulfill a promise he had made, not because of delivering justice. The most unforgettable scene of the movie was when the farmers lost their crops because of the draught and can't pay rent to the landowners. They all kneel down and pray to heaven, begging for divine intervention, and the wandering swordsman suddently flies down from the tree's branches, and gives all the gold he had acquired by robbery to the farmers. Then he jumps back on the tree branch and disappears in an instant. This type of coming from above and flying away made it like an "adult fairytale." It made people feel that the wandering swordsman was an untouchable god and not an approachable human. In "The Deadly Duo," the heroes are even more unrealistic. In one they fly across a broken bridge, even though they know they can't simply jump across the bridge, to show that they are heroes that aren't afraid of death, They actually attempt the jump one by one, and die, crushed under the cliffs. "The Water Margin" made Yin Ching into a completely different person, where he became one of the leading heroes, good at both tactical maneuvering and martial arts. "The Boxer from Shantung" showed Ma Wing Jing as a morally upright youth eager to right wrongs. When he kills the villains in the gambling halls for the first time, he makes the singer, played by Chang Li, admire him almost to the point of worshipping him; but when he takes over the area, and shows his ugly true face, his heroic image is shattered in Chang Li's heart. It is then that Ma Wing Jing begins his fall from grace. His friendship with Tam Say afterwards, his fighting for more territory, and the final bloodbath in the tea store were all caused by personal greed. Chang Cheh's later film, "Man of Iron," was just a remake of "The Boxer from ShanTung". The conflict between the three heroes in "Blood Brothers" was over a woman. Chang Cheh's heroes continued to descend into the pits as he continued making movies, and got more abnormal and more extreme in their individualism. Wong Jung, in "The Delinquent," felt that society was unjust and didn't give him a chance to move upwards in life, so he allows himself to be tempted by material enjoyment, and becomes a pawn by gangs, which leadd to a tragic ending. "The Generation Gap" featured main characters who think society and family don't understand him, so to demonstrate his anger to his family, and as revenge to society, becomes a robber. This is a film which utilizes the subject of a "generation gap" as a starting point, yet ends with a horrifically violent scene.

Because David Chiang was the main actor in over half of Chang Cheh's movies during Chang's tenure in Shaw's, Chiang's character is a mix of unapproachable, melancholic, and romantic. The author objectively felt that certain parts of Chang Cheh's scripts were tailored for David Chiang. That's why Chiang imbued the heroes in Chang Cheh's movies with so much life. The clearest example of this was "The Water Margin," which featured a Yin Ching that bears no resemblance to the one in the original book. The character was completely remolded to fit David Chiang's own personality. To summarize, Chang's <31> heroes begin as individualistic fighters, vent their frustrations, and end up being nearly suicidal, unapproachable maniacs. We then can only classify Chang Cheh's heroes in the category of "fake" romanticized heroes.

PRESENTATION TECHNIQUES

Even though the heroes in Chang Cheh's movies are repulsive, Chang's style and approach to filmmaking is hard not to admire. Chang's indoor fight scenes are more numerous than any other martial arts directors' by multiples of several times (with the exception of King Hu). For example, the brawl in the gambling hall of "The Wandering Swordsman" and the short fight in "The Delightful Forest" deserve to be complimented for having such graceful fight scenes. In "The Deadly Duo," they vanquish evildoers in an antique shop. Even though the fight is fierce, you can still see delicate touches. The "Four Riders" had a big fight in a gymnasium, with surprises happening one after another. But the one film that is showed Chang Cheh's ability at its best was "Boxer from Shantung". Not only were the fights outstanding, but the character treatments, scene arrangements, and set design also reflected Chang at his best. When Tam Say first appears, the camera is focused on his mouth as he smokes from an ivory smoking pipe. A that period in Shanghai, smoking with a smoking pipe is a symbol of status. Then, through the reflection of Tam Say's leather boots, we see Ma Wing Jing from afar. This hinted that what Ma Wing Jing seeks is a type of material enjoyment from social status. When Ma Wing Jing defeats the Russian Boxing champion and gets his prize money, the first thing he does is buy an ivory smoking pipe. The scene ends with him blowing smoking out of the pipe. Later, when Tam Say is assassinated, he holds the smoking pipe in his mouth right before he dies. The audience thinks he will start puffing smoke again, but what comes out this time is blood, and the camera fades out with a closeup of the smoking pipe oozing blood. The smoke and blood coming out of the pipe signifies the rise and fall of a gangster in Shanghai.

The film with the best character treatment is "Blood Brothers". Prior to "Blood Brothers", the conflict between good and evil, and heroes and villains, in Chang's films were often due to revenge, returning favors/gratitude, destroying evil, righting wrongs, etc., but there never was much attention paid to the inner thoughts of the characters. A case in point is the hero in "The New One-Armed Swordsman." After killing all his enemies, he does't know what to do next. "Blood Brothers" has the most depth of character portrayal, and that is the apex of Chang's creative life. That movie starts with the assassination of the general of Guang Dong and Guang Xi Ma Sun Yee, then uses flashbacks to bring out the whole story. The reason David Chiang assasinated Ti Lung was to uphold traditional family values, to punish Ti Lung's murdering his own brother and taking his wife. A secondary reason is to uphold the principle of loyalty and righteousness, to challenge the corrupt rule of the Ching government. From the conflict of principles, it became a matter that has to be settled with knives and spears, which is understandable. Everyone has their own character ticks in the film. Ti Lung was unfathomable and sly, David Chiang was smart and just, Chan Kwun Tai was honest and loyal. Chang Li's greed and vanity leaves her torn between traditional morals and material/physical lust. It brought to life the psychology of an old-style traditional Chinese woman. In the end, when David Chiang is executed, it is viewed from Chang Li's eyes. After David Chiang dies from having his heart cut out, the camera retreats into Chang Li's room, back through the bamboo curtains, and focuses on Chang Li's tearful face. This demonstrates that the deaths of all three heroes were on account of her.

In general, Chang Cheh's powers of organization and directing skills are best shown in small-scale battles. He even copied Sam Peckinpah's example from "The Wild Bunch" by using slow motion to slow down the climaxes of his fight scenes, making the moment of death linger longer in audiences' minds, making people feel even sorrier for the fall of a hero. But in full-scale wars, Chang Cheh's skills are not quite there yet. He's either too relaxed in his treatment of such scenes, or makes the action confusing, like in the battle between the five Tsang brothers and the heroes from Mount Liang in "The Water Margin." They look almost like martial artists performing in the streets, making Chang seem more like a leader of a street performing troupe than a movie director.

Although Chang Cheh once said he will add more character defining scenes and lessen his violent fight scenes, his newer work, such as "The Hung Boxing Kid," has both emotion and depth in its character treatments, but this type of emotion is linked to empty words and violent fights, and can't escape from the trap of mainly fighting in the Shaw's era. Normality and the superhuman, realism and exaggeration, violence and what he promised, are all opposites but can't exist without each other. This makes people unable to predict which direction Chang Cheh plans to go, from here on.




This page first created by Steven Feldman <scfeldman@juno.com> 1/21/08. Last update: 1/29/08.
Copyright Steven Feldman, 2008.