Influence Magazine #13 (April 1976),
roughly translated by Michael Min-Chi Wong
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From Influence Magazine (Taipei, Taiwan) #13 (April 1976), pp. 32-34:
A WAY OF SAYING
by Chang Ngai
We talk often about Chang Cheh. He has been making and releasing movies
non-stop, so you can't forget him.
But most of us aren't aware that the sheer number of films Chang
Cheh made is almost the most among Chinese directors. You probably don't
remember clearly which of his movies are about what -- with the exception
of just a few of the more memorable ones. However, you will remember
there are several special trademarks of his movies: many men, few women;
a lot of fighting, little dialogue; many die, few live; but, to be
honest, all these together aren't really sufficient to use "Machismo",
"action is superior to logic" etc. as a thesis on which to base an essay.
Chang Cheh doesn't think a lot, and he doesn't think deeply. He just
keeps moving, and moving, making movies Once he latches onto a small
subject, he will blow it all out of proportion. This is his way, but not
strictly his belief, so, in general, he himself is the type of person
whose "action is superior to logic".
So, we are willing to say this: Chang Cheh and his movies are very
different in meaning. When talking about Chang Cheh, if we get into the
nitty gritty, maybe it's not really like him. In this case, let us talk
about Chang Cheh this way.
The difference between individual Chang Cheh movies aren't quite
significant from each other. The themes that he wanted to focus on are
also often different from one to another. Because of this, the whole
series of Chang Cheh movies, from the early stage play-like martial arts
films (Butterfly Cup) to the period sword fight films, to the early fist
fight films, to the kung fu films he makes nowadays, the "fighting"
hasn't changed. There was a certain style that he employed.
This style, when we think about it, is also quite simple. That is,
Chang Cheh films are just like fungus [please don't quote this phrase out
of context, okay?], where the rules of survival are simple, and the
internal structures are also simple. Because of this, a primitive style
was formed unconsciously.
This type of primitive style doesn't really need any outstanding
performances or skills, it is only passing on some ancient evolutionary
strong prey-on-the-weak type of <33> change, using various combinations
of time periods and locations as illustrations. Even under the societal
restrictions, Chang Cheh's movies still follow a strict path -- power.
The powerful victimizes the weak, and when the weak victimized people
learn a powerful form of Kung Fu to make themselves stronger, they in
turn victimize the powerful that originally victimized them. In this
vicious cycle, Chang Cheh never places emphasis on the idea that "man"
could have the possibility of thought or feelings in this process.
Looking at this from another angle, Chang Cheh has been the same for
over ten years, and bases everything on "kung fu fighting." This only
illustrates the fact that Chang Cheh is satisfied and feels that this is
right up his alley, so he is willing to constantly tread over and over on
this subject ("fighting" and "fighters" couldn't possibly be a very
common thing in average life, right?). So, this situation locked Chang
Cheh's movies on the same unchanging level, and has no bearing on
realistic life anymore.
Let us examine several Chang Cheh films: Wong Yu in "The One-Armed
Swordsman", David Chiang in "Vengeance", David Chiang and Ti Lung in "The
Duel", Chan Kwun Tai in "The Boxer from ShanTung", and Fu Shing in "The
Hung Boxing Kid." These characters all look as if they are meaningful
characters in their respective movies at first sight, but the important
part was only in their response to a certain stimulant. They are all
pushed into response by a certain type of stimulant, like: revenge, lust,
ego -- any one of the above. As long as it is used on the character,
they will automatically "enter the mode" without thinking. The result of
"entering the mode", every audience can tell before the movie ends,
because this type of process doesn't require thinking, and doesn't have a
changing variable to add to the suspense, so since the viewer doesn't need
to treat all the various guises employed in individual movies as anything
unique, what is left?
Chang Cheh himself said, "I put great emphasis on feelings." Then,
what kind of feeling is this? Fifteen people surrounding one person and
fighting for 15 minutes, two people fighting from early dawn till noon,
or even more ridiculous: a person is struck by axes over ten times, but
still holds onto his spilling guts, and keeps fighting on . . . and on.
Is this Chang Cheh's idea of feelings? For over 10 years, viewers are
still enjoying these films and not gotten tired of them yet. This also
has become the main theme of Chang Cheh; it takes precedence over all
else, and eventually these movies became something beyond intellection;
they became a type of style, a type of lollipop style. You hold it in
your mouth, suck on it, chew on it, and taste it subconsciously, without
paying real attention to it, but you don't remove it from your mouth.
A lollipop is a lollipop. No matter whether it is coffee-, chocolate-,
or cherry-flavored, it is nothing more than a lollipop!
But, is that really all Chang Cheh amounts to?
The value of Chang Cheh's movies is at the otherside -- that is,
Chang Cheh's success in the movie industry, what we consider "movies",
is multifaceted and can't be covered from any single angle or position.
The difficulty of making Chinese movies is undisputed, but people in the
movie industry who are passionate never shy away from such challenges.
Whoever pushes forward in both filmic quality and marketability is the
only one who can make the next movie, and being someone who can get a
movie made, to be truthful, is the real life goal of people in the movie
Chang Cheh has, for over ten years running, has been without equal
among his colleagues and been the most outstanding. He kept making new
movies continuously in the Mandarin market. This is Chang Cheh's
personal accomplishment in movie history, and can never be taken away.
Although Chang Cheh sometimes complained of many "constraints that make
things difficult" and discussed the various restrictions and difficulties,
he never backed down from the challenge. He still successfully releases
his new films. This, in Chang Cheh's terms, has a profound meaning and
effect, making him -- in the Chinese movie industry -- a strong and fit
specimen in the evolution of filmmakers.
Such being the case, we will discuss the reasons for this:
1) CHANG CHEH'S PRODUCTS HAVE A SUCCESSFUL TARGET MARKET
Movies are just like products and goods: they need a market, they
need a quality roadmap. The manufacture of a product has in mind a target
consumer level. An unwisely chosen target demographic will keep the
product from selling, and leads to the death of the product.
Chang Cheh understands this point. He knows where to find the
consumer for Chinese movies. He didn't get too artsy and he didn't make
the quality too poor, he just clearly aimed for his target and kept
making films at the same level of quality. Because of this, Chang Cheh
continued to do well. First, he set up his leading position in the
market, and when his movies occasionally went in the wrong direction --
like the case with "Blood Brothers" -- Chang Cheh became aware of it
immediately, and corrected his mistakes in the next movie, quickly
becoming successful all over again [by making "The Generation Gap"].
2) CHANG CHEH'S SUPERIOR ABILITY TO ADAPT TO THE MARKET
In regards to this, Chang Cheh's sense of marketability is first
class. He never goes against fashion and is always up-to-date. Chang
Cheh's movies often follow the latest fashion. "The One-Armed Swordsman"
was running in the shadows of "The Admiral with Broken Saber"; "The
Golden Swallow" came out when "The Lone Hero" [actually, I think this is
a typo, as "Come Drink With Me" would be more suitable] was popular;
"Duel of Fists" came out at the time Thai boxing and karate was
fashionable; "The 4 Riders" was reminiscent of the Vietnam war; "The
Delinquent" and "The Generation Gap" played with the generation gap; and
"Heroes Two," "Men from the Monastery," "Shaolin Martial Arts," "Five
Shaolin Masters" and "The Hung Boxing Kid" all took advantage of the kung
All of this decided the direction of Chang Cheh's movies. Chang
Cheh observes and analyzes how to target the needs of the market, the
will of the market, and tailors his productions to suit it. This way,
how can his movies fail to appeal to the taste of the general public?
3) EXCELLENT PROMOTIONAL EFFORTS
Looking at the Chinese movies industry as a whole, today, promoting
a movie is very important. It can make an obvious dud a hit, but it
seems that many movie producers do not understand this. At least, they
don't count it as an important part of movie-making. Not so for Chang
Cheh. He never let his movies just appear in the the market without
proper promotions. He wants to "lead the advertisements", like sending
out news items endlessly; he also wants to "produce the advertisements,"
<34> like printing up preview ads in the newspapers long before a movie
is actually released. Finally, he placed great emphasis on the release
dates. He will never release a movie at a time when the market has been
historically bad unless he is confident it will do well. After all these
years of making films, he never let interesting gossip news go. If it's
not about the travels of the movie's stars, then it's small stories about
the making of the film. The most important thing is -- in Chang Cheh's
movies, the stars are more important than the film. Every star has to
play himself in the movie, and these stars all have strikingly different
characters, and differing styles from one another -- Wong Yu, David
Chiang, Ti Lung, Chan Kwun Tai, Fu Shing, Chik Kwan Kwun. They are all
superbly strong, good at hand-to-hand fighting, and appear on the screen
as if they are fighting for real. Even their first move is impressive.
Besides these fighters, Chang Cheh also has in his possession some of Hong
Kong and Taiwan's best martial arts choreographers to design crisp and nice
looking fight moves, which is also why Chang Cheh's movies are so popular
among the general movie-going public.
4) CHANG CHEH'S SUCCESSFUL BUSINESS MANAGEMENT
In regards to this point, Chang Cheh's qualifications are literally
without peer in today's Chinese films. His production team, when it
comes to executing a project, is incredibly efficient. Once a movie is
done, another movie starts. When making a film, the next film is planned
at the same time. No time is wasted in between, and the production
crew's "team work" with Chang Cheh has been working together for years,
and basically they are the same script writer, camera crew, editing crew,
music, and arts and crafts. They are all familiar with each other, and
the work is divided neatly among them. While they are all used to
working with each other, even when it comes to the actors -- from the
main stars to the secondary actors -- they perform the same, and work
immediately when called upon, making Chang Cheh's movie filming and movie
producing a complete standardized package, superbly efficient -- even
when other people are taking a break from filming -- keeping themselves
busy, and improving non-stop, which is why they are in such a strong
position when compared to others.
Utilizing these advantages, Chang Cheh is not afraid of making
movies in the "B" movie fashion. He kept releasing new pictures non-stop,
and made himself an established power in Chinese films. So, Chang Cheh
wound up with some expectations for his films. Therefore, he started his
"change. For example: "Child in Red" [The Fantastic Magic Baby] and
"Hell" [Heaven and Hell, aka Shaolin Hellgate], but both these projects
were ill-fated. "Child in Red" was a box office failure, and "Hell"'s
release date kept getting postponed.
But, from our view of Chang Cheh, we don't find this as a failure of
Chang Cheh to improve the quality of his films. It's an error Chang Cheh
made on his market analysis. He had forgotten the target market for the
product "Chang Cheh films."
Not unexpectedly, Chang Cheh learned from his mistakes, and
immediately released "Marco Polo" and "The Seven Daredevils", trying to
turn back the tides.
Because of this, Chang Cheh sees movies as a type of commercial
product. His performance, his production, are all in service of making
a product a "good seller." His movies -- no matter if it's from picking
a subject, or structure -- are all for pleasing the taste of the viewers.
Maybe under the theory of the few "film connoiseurs", this is too lowbrow.
But, in our thinking -- nobody has the right to restrict a movie to a set
format, and a set quality level. Chang Cheh's choice of going this route
was his personal decision. His works don't have a profound meaning, they
are loosely structured, the characters are flat, the plot is simple -- or
they may even sometimes be out of control. These are all problems with
the quality of the "Chang Cheh movie" as a product, but if they are still
selling well, and are box office hits, then it's a problem with the
market, and the problem with the viewer, not the problem of Chang Cheh
alone. Chang Cheh as a moviemaker. His first and foremost decision is
he needs to make movies, he needs to keep making movies continuously.
In the face of an industrial society with viewers that are highly
desensitized, he doesn't need to shyly do things halfway, he has the right
to grab all the advantage he can, and make himself standout successfully.
Because of this, we find Chang Cheh to be a very typical
"exploitation filmmaker." His chosen path leads to his success, and his
success is his box office numbers, not profound philosophy, imagery, or
symbolism. He will not reflect anything from current society, and he
won't make an in-depth analysis of the human psyche, but it is a business
investment, and this type of investment should have been an acceptible
way to make movies a long time ago.