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"Foreign Movie
Critics Comment
on Chang Cheh"
by [Various],
Four Articles 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

(#) 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. 38-46:

by Verina Glaessner, translated by Mo Kai Gwor [Influence Magazine #13, pp. 38-39]

"Men from the Monastery," by prolific director Chang Cheh, is a film that is worthy of awe and praise,. It's also the best of Chinese martial arts films. In terms of screen visuals, it is the deepest and most creative among other similar films, but in terms of main theme, it is still exploring the common subject of Chang Cheh's earlier works. This film is structured around four "stories about Shaolin", and used a never-before-seen style to treat martial arts. Chang Cheh carefully returned Shaolin Martial arts to its history and legends. Martial arts is a way to exercise the body and spirit on one side, and can also be used as a weapon to fight against a corrupt society on the other side. The conflicts of these two sides build up a series of plot twists and climaxes.

The first section introduced Fong Sai Yuk. Acted by Fu Shing, he exposed the corruption that has already reached the core of the Shaolin monastery itself. Fong is one of the younger elite. He wants to leave the monastery before the usual three years it takes to fully learn the basics, so he must first pass through a "dead alley" where he will be attacked from both sides -- a secret alleyway that symbolizes the vagina [I think that's pure semiotics bullshit.], a group of elders sit waiting for him along the way to test his martial arts prowess. Even though he successfully passed all the tests, he was framed for intentional murder. Fong Sai Yuk escaped in a hurry, and the man who framed him was the old monk who was the chief teacher -- we can only see an Ivan the terrible (The first Csar in Russia, Ivan the IV)-like head with long beard projected as a shadow on the wall -- he used a cruel and monotonous tone to reveal the secrets of Fong Sai Yuk's kung fu and his weakness (Like the greek hero, Achilles, in Homer's poem, who is invulnerable besides his heels). After Fong Sai Yuk left Shaolin Temple, he discovered that he kept being ambushed on the road. Ray Fu and his gang wait for him, to start a graceful and <39> elegant duel to the death -- fighting on wooden stumps (the fighter has to balance himself on the series of wooden stumps that protrude from the ground; if balance is lost, he will be killed by the sharp wooden spikes that are buried in the ground). Fu Shing played the character Fong Sai Yuk, who is well-mannered and well-groomed, but has the weakness of making outrageous claims and contradicting himself. He wears a white outfit, and holds a large white folded fan in his hand. His death spot is his testicles, which are left unguarded and unprotected -- all that is needed to kill him is to strike upwards from under his genitals. What deserves special attention are the scenes when Fong Sai Yuk is in the process of learning his martial arts (which gave him his near-invincibility, and also determined his path of eventual destruction), and he is shown to be alone. He is submerged in a barrel of hard liquor up to his shoulders, with eyes closed and brows knitted. At this time, the camera faces him head on and the close up shot is gentle and elegant.

In the second section, we see a murder that is staged as an accident, which deepens the feeling of reeking corruption. When the victim's son insanely starts his over-energetic but un-directed act of revenge, his clumsy attacks are funny yet moving, and are easily dismissed and countered by his opponents. At this time, Fong Sai Yuk watches on the side and decides to lend a hand in secret, helping change the son's unsuppressible anger and fury to well-aimed attacks.

The third section is even more serious. The first few scenes are all low key and mysterious. The camera wanders around the back yard and enters a dimly-lit room, where we see a young woman fixing her hair in front of a mirror. Hung Hei Kwun (played by Chan Kwun Tai) leans against the bed curtains melancholically. Just like the fight scenes, the effect here is leaning towards physical feelings. Through the character of Hung Hei Kwun -- a patriot who is wanted by the Ching Dynasty's Manchurian government -- the heroes are drawn into direct conflict with the forces of the Ching government. Through Chang Cheh's direction, the rebellion, due to nationalism and patriotism, takes precedence over the principals' bellicose natures, clearly filling them with the power of legend.

The last section reaches its climax at a fight to the death. Chang Cheh uses the unorthodox technique of deep brown images here to compose his hero's symphonies, and emphasized the flashes of red in the scenes and still shots. This is to reinforce the impression of each hero's death for the viewer. This fight is filled with true torture of the heart and body, and reaffirms the main theme of fighting bravely in a way like what Hung Hei Kwun said, does not allow for empty words and faking. When he found out that the broken temple they used as a hideout after the Shaolin monastery is burned down and surrounded several times over, he proclaims: "We are going to be patriots. Some of us will live on. . . . Even if we all die, our spirit will live on for a long time." The tempo of the movie pauses there for a brief moment, right before the final confrontation. This is a sincere and witty way to pay homage to Bruce Lee (before the camera sweeps across the faces of the heroes' grave faces, one of them covers a dead comrade's face with his coat, which is the same thing Bruce Lee does in "The Big Boss"). [I think this is wishful thinking on the author's part.] The symbols and signs shown in the beginning scenes of the movie are brought back in the picture one by one when Fong Sai Yuk's death comes (already "foreshadowed" in the first section). While the inevitabiliy of his final fate still shocks and surprises people, the bell chimes we heard in the first few minutes of the movie are now ringing again for the death itself.

History often comes alive in many Chinese movies, and a lot of care is taken with doing this -- a few special factors are the strict censorship that removed all the material that is related to the current politics of the time (even if it is unclear). Chang Cheh has always placed all his emphasis on the changing relationships of the main characters -- in his movies about even earlier dynasties, the character relations between David Chiang and Ti Lung are systemically explored. Here, the actors for the three main characters are chosen wisely. They use their bodies to very naturally bring to life three vastly different legendary figures in history. "Men from the Monastery" is richer and bolder than the movies Chang Cheh made in his Shaw Brothers' days. I am fortunate to have seen the uncensored subtitled version. Hopefully, it will escape the cruel scissors of the censors and distributors here.

(Focus on Film, Spring 1975)
[from "Shaolin Disciples," by Verina Glaessner, from Focus on Film, Spring 1975]

by Tony Rayns, translated by Ng Gwor Hung [Influence Magazine #13, pp. 40-41]

Modern day hong Kong. Farn Huck (David Chiang) is summoned to the side of his dying father, Farn Kun Heem (Chang [?]) [Ching Miao, in Mandarin], who is the head of a Chinese martial arts academy. Twenty years ago in Thailand, he had a short romance with a girl and got her pregnant, so he asks Farn Huck to go and find his lost son. Farn Huck only knows that his lost brother is a Thai boxer and that he has a tattoo on his shoulder. Farn Huck and his father's friend (Tong Dee) went to Bangkok together and run into the bully in boxing known as "Strong Man" [played by Chen Sing] there, along with his manager (Wu Wai). Under their control is this unbeatable boxer, "Heavy Cannon" (Kok Fung) [Ku Feng]. Farn Huck and Mun Leet (Ti Lung) became good friends. Mun Leet is a boxer who has a bright future, who got into boxing because he needed to pay his mother's medical bills. He ignors the fears of his girlfriend Yuk Lan (Chang Li), and decides to accept "Heavy Cannon"'s challenge. Mun Leet wins the fight. During the course of the boxing match, Farn Huck sees the tattoo on his shoulder and recognizes that he is his lost brother. Mun Leet refuses to join Strong Man's gang after his victory; so when "Heavy Cannon" is killed by Mud Choy (Wong Jung) who is avenging his brother, Strong Man blames Mun Leet for his death, and orders his minions to kill him. But Farn Huck and Mun Leet join forces and defeat the minions of Strong Man, and wipe out his gang, sending him to the cops for punishment. Farn Huck and Mun Leet then fly back to Hong Kong. Yuk Lan and Farn Huck's girlfriend follow them and are reunited in Hong Kong.

On the surface, "Duel of Fists" mercilessly exposes the seamy side of Thai boxing, but actually the film uses that to say something else, using the modern world as a background for a repeat performance of David Chiang and Ti Lung's excellent partnership in "The New One-Armed Swordsman". "Duel of Fists" restricts the fighting style to boxing, and avoids the almost magical moves of martial arts films set in ancient China (but when David Chiang's one single strike of Chinese martial arts sends a whole group of Thai boxers reeling, the stale old nationalism of Chang Cheh again rears its head.) The luxurious boxing garb of the few main characters and the few extremely insincere and half-hearted chase scenes barely decorate the cliched and old-fashioned plot. But, within the confines of its simplicity, <41> the film is still well worth watching. Chang Cheh is no longer using the zooming camera like he was in "The New One-Armed Swordsman"; and a few of the location shots are lively and energetic (like the scene in the construction site at the beginning of the movie); and the cowardly and weak villain played by Wu Wai is reminiscent of Peter Lorre*, so this is a surprisingly good movie. Unfortunately, in the copy we saw, the music track and the color film developement were both done very poorly.

Tony Rayns (Sight and Sound) translated by Ng Gwor Hung

*Translator's Note: Peter Lorre, an actor born in Rosenberg, Hungary, trained in Vienna, appeared on stage in Germany during the 1920's. He played a child murderer in the 1931 Fritz Lang Film "M," where he had a scene asking for understanding and forgiveness in court, and became famous because of that. Ethnically Jewish, he left Nazi Germany and worked in England and France, appearing in Hitchcock's "The Man who knew too much" in 1934, and "The Secret Agent" in 1936; finally settling down in United States, he appeared in John Huston's "The Maltese Falcon", Michael Curtiz's "Casablanca" in 1942, etc. Very famous. He specializes in villainous roles who wear a fake smile all the time, while being sly and cowardly. After the war he directed a film in Germany: "The Lost One" (Die Verlorene, 1951).

[from "Boxing," by Tony Rayns, from Sight and Sound, unknown issue]

by Michael Goodwin & Richard Hyatt, translated by Ng Gwor Hung [Influence Magazine #13, pp. 42-43]

We just saw the best Kung Fu movie ever. If you are fans of Bruce Lee, you will be even more of a fan for these two guys; if you thought "Enter the Dragon" was great, this movie is ever greater; if you thought "Kung Fu" the TV series is exciting, "Heroes Two" will drive you nuts.

Kung Fu movies are so interesting. Basically, their story and plot could be non-existant -- but when you watch a Kung Fu movie, it's not for the story, it's the fighting that you are after. In this respect, Kung Fu movies are like Fred Astaire's musicals. Nobody cares why Fred Astaire went to the ballroom of the Plaza Hotel, the important part is the dance, his graceful and swift dancesteps. But, just like there are good and bad musicals, there are good and bad Kung Fu movies, too.

How do you tell the good from the bad? All you have to do is look at the fight scenes. If the Kung Fu is fast, crisp and beautiful; if it uses a continuous camera and not special effects or quick cuts; if the movie focuses on one-on-one fighting and not 725 swordsman fighting in a mob; if the fights come one after another in succession, spaced so tightly together that there isn't even time for the actor to go to the bathroom to wipe off his sweat -- then you are watching a good Kung Fu movie.

Obviously, a superior martial arts film does not need any plot, and the fact is, up till now, most good films are like that in this genre. The special thing about "Heroes Two" is that not only does it have the good points listed above, it also has a set of storylines -- honestly, it has a "plot". It accurately portrays how, in the mid 16th century, the cruel and barbaric Manchurian invaders who mercilessly oppressed the kind and optimistic Chinese, destroyed the Shaolin Monastery in Guang Dong province.

The Manchurians plotted for a long time to destroy the Shaolin Monastery, because these monasteries (actually they are more like the castles in medieval times) not only were the heart of Chinese Nationalism, they also served the purpose of teaching and spreading the practise of Chinese Martial Arts. If the Manchurians really eliminated all the Shaolin students, they could have conquered China easily. But Shaolin students weren't weaklings, and a group of them managed to beat the odds and escaped. Shaolin martial arts got to spread through China because of this. So, the Chinese people still call their martial arts "country's art".

"Heroes Two" is the story of two of these Shaolin students, tracing their story from the destruction of the Shaolin Temple till their victory over a Manchurian champion. At the end of the movie, the two main characters vow never to stop fighting against the invasion of Manchurians.

Like ("Red River" by Howard Hawks), "Seven Samurai" and "Only Angels have Wings" by Howard Hawks, "Heroes Two" is an "original film" -- a type of original legend or mythology appearing perfectly in front of you, so filled with rich dramatic potential that you can develop a while series of movies from it. In other words, it is the original source of genre movies. Once such movies are made in such a perfect way, they can and will be imitated -- and often imitated successfully. But the power of this first movie can never be surpassed. In many different ways, "Heroes Two" is the first Kung Fu movie -- it will not be the last.

Regardless of the origins of other types of genre film, the success of a Kung Fu movie depends on whether the fights are exciting or not. "Heroes Two" features a few scenes containing the best kung fu we've ever seen. Even though Bruce Lee's Kung Fu was said to be legendary, it wasn't very pure -- take some karate, add some judo, add some boxing, and add some kung fu on top. The fighting in "Heroes Two" was 100% pure kung fu. When filming "Seven Samurai", Akira Kurosawa wisely invited the local master in kendo to teach the actors sword fighting and oversee the fight scenes; Chang Cheh used the same method to make "Heroes Two", and the result was similarly beautiful to behold.
Actually Chang Cheh not only used traditional martial arts to make exciting fight scenes, but placed great emphasis on the techniques of the traditional martial arts. In this film, he specifically added a section where there is a wonderful, 15-minute-long opening segment, in which he let the main actor demonstrate the Hung boxing martial arts that will appear in the movie -- which is a style of Shaolin boxing invented by the main character, Hung Hei Kwun, in this movie. There is even a running commentary pointing out the characteristic stances and strikes of this style of martial arts. As a result, the fights in the movies was not only entertaining, you can also understand what is going on.

We saw "Heroes Two" in "Big Star Theatre". The posters outside of the theatre are all in Chinese, so we have no idea of the name of the actor who played Fong Sai Yuk (translation notes: Fu Shing). This is really unfortunate, because he is really graceful and good -- almost like [the Russian dancer Rudolf] Nureyev. Charismatic and fast like Bruce Lee, maybe he will take over Bruce Lee's mantle and become the second world class Asian superstar -- Unless Chan Kwun Tai geats him to it. Chan Kwun Tai plays Hung Hei Kwun, and even though he wasn't as charming as his co-star (at least in this movie), his Kung Fu is the best. After "The Boxer from ShanTung" (whose main actor was also Chan Kwun Tai, you can say it is the second-best Kung Fu movie in history), we had been straining our necks waiting for his new film, and we were not disappointed.

"Heroes Two" ended in a magical fight: Hung Hei Kwun and Fong Sai Yuk fought the arch-villain of Manchuria, a scary-looking Lama from Tibet's red branch of Tibetan Buddhism. When these two heroes find themselves completely defeated, they understand that besides going head-to-head in the fight, they have to use tricky tactics to overcome the superhuman strength of the Lama. Using "Tiger's Claw" and "Bird's beak" (which were among the styles of fighting demonstrated in the beginning of the movie) and working in concert makes them victorious. The fight is so exciting, the plot is so dramatic, that when the heroes finally win, you want to jump up and cheer. An exciting movie, with an even more exciting ending!

"Big Star Theatre" was sold out for consecutive nights when we went, so it looks quite likely that when the movie distributor realizes what they have on their hands, they will dub it in English and distribute it widely. Don't wait, go before such a tragedy happens, and watch it right now -- the Chinese copy. When you read this review, it might still be at "Big Star Theatre", but even if it isn't playing anywhere, please wait for it to play second-run. Kung Fu movies have the uncanny ability to resurface when you least expect it.

[from "Fong Sai Yuk and Hung Hei Kwan," by Michael Goodwin & Richard Hyatt, from unknown source]

by Lee Dao Ming [Influence Magazine #13, pp. 43-46]


Since I joined the army, I've seen a lot of martial arts films, so my interest in studying this grew stronger and stronger, and I started caring more about the future and the direction of martial arts movies than ever before.

The main impetus for this was Tsai Yeung Ming's "China Security delivery agency". Even though the structure for this movie is very loose, the treatment was already markedly different from King Hu and Chang Cheh's style, with strange characters and a plot resembling a Spaghetti Western. Let's not say whether it's good or bad, based on historical significance alone. We can say martial arts movies had entered yet another new world. I haven't seen Lau Kar Leung's "Spiritual Boxer" yet, but I've heard that it's also different from Chang Cheh and King Hu's martial arts films. It's the new comedic style. From this, I realized, since Chang Cheh made "Tiger Boy", and planned (Legendary Hero), (Male and female Swordsman), etc., and Kung Hu made "Come Drink with Me," to bring martial arts film to the so-called "new martial arts film" era, Hong Kong and Taiwan martial arts films -- no matter whether it is in plot structure, editing method, character design etc. -- are all under the influence of King Hu and Chang Cheh, and rarely do we see other outstanding works, and it has been like that till now. When we discuss Hu and Chang's works, do they really represent the highest form a martial arts film can aspire to? The answer is definitely no. Hu's efforts to illustrate the conflicts of Confuscianism, Taoism, and Buddhism are not the only way for the martial arts film to go. King Hu's martial world is too reliant on form and on his characters' humanity, even though they had flat personalities. What he wanted to express is pure impressionistic ideas. Even though his technique was flawless, in the end he was a slave to his technique, and became a pure technician. Chang Cheh's characters are more hotblooded and emotional. His earlier films are especially good when dealing with feelings. His technique is okay, but his middle period "Group of heroes films" showed his technical weakness: the way his characters think, feel, and act, followed a set formula completely, and at a later stage, Chang Cheh put all the focus of his enthusiasm in the various different schools of martial arts, <44> and the intention was no longer to make a good movie. But, besides Chang Cheh and King Hu, is there really no one single martial arts movie director that is worth mentioning? This is the first problem I faced when I imagine the future direction of the martial arts movie.

My opinion of this right now is, to discuss the possible future direction of the martial arts movie, we need to study the previous martial arts films thoroughly first -- especially those movies that are classified as "the new martial arts films" which came out after "Tiger Boy", "Come Drink with Me", etc. They must be organized systematically, and all different sorts and classes of these martial films should be mapped into relational groups (like the study of "noir films" by British and American movie critics lately). From this, we can judge the strengths and weaknesses of different types of martial arts films, what was being expressed on-screen, and how it was done, Then we can understand what Chinese martial arts movies are about as a whole, and what is still missing. There are a lot of questions that need to be answered first: for instance, which movie really is the origin of "new martial arts film"? Is it "tiger Boy" or is it "Come Drink with Me"? Besides editing style, in what other ways did "Come Drink with Me" influence other martial arts movies? Before the popularization of the fist fighting martial arts films, what other sword fighting martial arts films are great besides those by Chang Cheh and King Hu? And do these people have their own unique styles uninfluenced by Hu and Chang? What is the relationship between the popularization of fist fighting films and the sword fighting martial arts movies? How did it happen? What was the influence of this to the development of martial arts films? In what ways are the filming methods of Chang Cheh's fist fighting martial arts films similar to the early sword fighting martial arts films, and what are their special characteristics? And after the renaissance of sword fighting martial arts films, how was it affected by the fist fighting martial arts films? After adding in the new ideas, what are the special features of the new product? What are the possible trends of future developemnt?

After the new martial arts films are systematically studied and organized, what comes after that is the even harder task of studying Chinese martial arts movies as a whole. Besides the classification of Taiwan martial arts film and Cantonese martial arts film, the Mandarin martial arts films that came before "Tiger Boy" could be traced up to the martial arts serials from the days in Shanghai, which deserve and need to be studied (basically we can be sure that the Mandarin martial arts film before "Tiger Boy," and Taiwanese and Cantonese martial arts films are descendents of the magic and sorcery martial arts films from Shanghai, which don't have any major effects on the "new martial arts films"). But there are great difficulties, mainly because it's very hard to see these movies, and it will be impossible to watch all of them. Even if this problem can be solved, there are still a lot of background knowledge that needs to be gathered first, before you can have a deep understanding of martial arts movies as a whole. The study of "new martial arts movie", excluding the knowledge of previous generations of martial arts films is easier. The movies are more easily accessible, and the change in the background of the society wasn't too drastic, so the sources of influence are also easy to discover. Because of this, all that is needed is to understand the directions of development it took -- come up with a systematic roadmap, grasp the art, viewpoint, plot structure, editing style, stylishtic characteristics -- and its development and changes. Then we can come up with a basic caricature [stereotype?] of the "new martial arts movie". But the organization of the entirety of Chinese martial arts movie history is a monumental task, and needs a lot more manpower and effort. And at the same time, we need a vigorous way of study.

As for studying the method of martial arts films, I think we can use the methodology used in the study of "Genre Film" and add structuralism and auteur theory to make up for the deficiencies. Besides this, we need to take into account of the theory of Chinese traditional art criticism. But, mainly we need to use "Genre Film" theory as the backbone. "Genre Film" theory has been debately fiercely in the last one or two years among the British and American film critics, but it hasn't coalesced into a complete theory of film criticism yet. In the British film magazine, "Movie issue #20", V.F. Perkins reiterated an opinion from his book "Film as Film": to study genre films we need to first study the "narrative movie genre". Perkins opined that genre film theory should look at "narrative movies" as a big class, and that those genre films that belong under "narrative movies" -- such as Westerns and Cops-and-Robbers movies -- belong to a "Sub-genre". First, we must understand the art system and viewpoints, plot structure, editing method, and what things under what situation can become the focus of the audience's focus . . . etc. of this "narrative movie genre." Only after that can there be an in-depth analysis for other "sub-genres". If we agree with his opinion, then before analyzing martial arts films, we first need to study Chinese films, understand their history, art, traditional views and Chinese movies' changes, audience's interests, etc. And this involves a need to have sufficient knowledge of Martial Arts novels, folklore, mythology, social structure of the early days after dynastic rule, origins of culture, "ping" drama, Chinese literary opera, and Chinese martial arts, etc. After that, regarding Hollywood movies (especially Westerns), Japanese sword fighting film, etc. and their influence on Chinese films need to be noticed also. Finally, this "comparative movie" study is very important. It can aid us in our figuring the whole developmental structure of Chinese martial arts films.

The study of "genre films" commonly has a view, which is considering the ideas of the director (author) to not be as important as the film itself. But because we think new martial arts film developed under the auspices of a few -- like King Hu, Chang Cheh, etc. -- if we start from them, and use "auteur theory"'s method to do a complete study, adding Kwok Nam Wung, Tsui Chung Wung, Tsai Yeung Ming, Pao Hok Lai, To Chung Fun, etc. -- who are directly and indirectly affected by them on the side -- is still an acceptable method.

The biggest problem faced by "genre film" theory is: how to find an isolated criteria to define the "genre", and after defining it, how to apply the genre concept on individual films. According to what Andrew Tudor said in his "Theories of Film", there are two ways to define genres. One is to pick a random criteria. The other is to use "cultural consensus" as criteria. When studying martial arts films, we will face this problem too: how do you set the criteria to define "martial arts film"? According to Mr. Sum Gong Pak, Chinese martial arts novels can be traced back up to the notebook novels from the Tang Dynasty, which has <45> political color and historical background. The Historical novels from the Sung, Yuan, Ming and Ching Dynasties, like The Water Margin, Seven Heroes and Five Heroic deeds etc., have both elements of political and martial arts meanings. The martial arts novels of people like Ping Gong and Chew Sung in the beginning of the Republic gave up on historical background and political subjects, and found their sources and inspiration from social habits and ridiculous fairy tales. Right before and after World War II, martial arts movies divided into two different camps. One was the magic and fantasy camp, which specialized in stories about the fantastic -- including ghosts, monsters, magic, or the lives of gang members. The other was the pure martial arts technique camp, which described the process of training and learning martial arts from the various schools and styles, and the rivalry and revenge between the characters. After the war, Hong Kong's Jin Yong returned to using historical backgrounds as the plot of his stories, while Taiwan's martial arts novels continued in the magic and fantasy vein, with a dose of sex added in. From the traditional views shown in this short history of martial arts novels, we can understand the criteria. Martial arts stories only take place within the confines of magic and ghost fantasy, adventures and lives of gang members, martial arts of different schools, revenge and vengeace, or stories that have historical background or political color, and they are all about martial arts, heroic deeds, love, and revenge. In this case, the classification of martial arts movies should not be under time periods, but by their nature. But my opinion is, besides their nature, the time period should also be taken into account. For example, Chu Yu's adventure novels set in World War II could be called martial arts film also, but can we call Chang Cheh's "The 7 Dare Devils" [Seven Man Army] -- which was also set in World War II -- a martial arts movie? On a certain level, it is acceptable, but we often feel that it is inappropriate. In general, I think if a movie's background is set before World War II (which is before the modernization of China, and the exotic air was still prevalent all around), if the main subject is within the afore-mentioned criteria, then we can treat it as a martial arts film. Some movies have uncertain backgrounds, with outrageous plots where the whole story is about robbing and kidnappinng people and then fighting among themselves. It's very hard to classify those as martial arts films. In general, King Hu's period martial arts films are free from such problems, but Chang Cheh, Pao Hok Lai, Tsai Yeung Ming, To Chung Fun, etc., all made movies that cannot be classified -- without some doubt -- as martial arts films. This illustrates the need to find a tighter definition that most people can accept.

[missing a line here] To horizontally replant the essence of Westerns by John Ford, Howards Hawks, or [George] Roy Hill, and add the oft-neglected element of complex human characterization (after "Dragon Inn", the human ingredient in Chinese martial arts film has been decreasing steadily, the percentage of using people as tools has been increasing, simplification has gone to the extreme, and even Chang Cheh's movies became inhuman because of his over-exaggeration of the capabilities of the human body and simplistic motives) to new martial arts films, we have an even stranger idea: seeing the western deserts of China as the old west of United States -- the invading foreigners are like Indians; the emigrant Chinese are the hardworking and hopeful trailblazers; the border army is like cavaliers; and sabres, swords, spears and arrows are all used in fighting -- or maybe even look at the Chinese west as the endless struggle for life. This way, we could have a Chinese Western. We realize that what was just mentioned only has a superficial resemblance, but the essence is different (because the Chinese trailblazer spirit is totally different from that of Americans, and the move to the West also has a different historical and social meaning, since that was not a significant part of Chinese history). We can only use the former's conventions or the essence of the latter to represent an individual's life experience. But my thinking has changed again recently. From the discussions of many people who care about the future of Chinese art and music, the consensus is that we can not completely Westernize and completely remove all the qualities of our own Chinese culture, while at the same time guard our cultural traditions so closely that it is far away from modernism. But in the area of movies which belongs to popular culture, we have to take the audience into account, too. Chan Yiu Sik [I'm not sure if this is how you pronounce his name]'s "Marathon Love" was a revelation to us. The movie must be acceptable to the audience for it to not be a failure, but what the audience likes is often something very Westernized. So how we can make it acceptible to audiences and yet not low-brow -- not detached from Chinese cultural roots, yet not straying from modernism, and still make the whole thing work. This really is the biggest problem faced by the current generation of movie makers. But concerning this point, the Chinese martial arts film has it's advantages. Since the Tang and Sung dynasties, Chinese people have fallen in love with martial arts (and romance) stories (in Chinese literary history, martial arts and romance has always been the most . . . [a line is missing here, but the same long paragraph continues] . . . from there, martial arts film played a very prominent role in Chinese movies. It has been popular among viewers right from the start, and it has been the case up till now. Even though the martial arts film has only temporarily lost its audience for a while due to over-production, the poor production quality of many of these films is to blame. The fact is, quality martial arts movies have never had low box office returns. From this, we can conclude that there is a core audience for martial arts movies. Because of that, getting to the point where it is acceptible by the viewers without being low-brow is an even harder task. For the future of martial arts movies, I feel there are still many viable ways to go, just like there are many viable ways for martial arts novels to go. If we can study Chinese martial arts movies meticulously, we can have a more in-depth answer to this question.

But like I've mentioned before, the systemization and categorization of martial arts movies as a whole is a monumental project, and the areas involved are very broad, so it can't be accomplished by one or two person(s) alone. What makes it even worse is that we lack information in a lot of the areas, and the younger generation lacks a sufficient understanding of our existing culture. This increased the difficulty of the study. The only way to fix this is to gather a group of fellow filmlovers, and have each person research one specific subject, then exchange the findings with one another. Only then is it possible to finish this gargantuan task. Actually, this is not limited to the study of martial arts films. What Chinese movies need most nowadays is a group of people making films like in the French New Wave, Italy's New Realism, England's Angry youth from yesteryear, and the new American directors, or Germany's newcomers of today. Having a huge group of young people who have sufficient knowledge and passion for movies, and share their knowledge with each other is the most effective way to stimulate personal thinking and creativity and to accomplish a revolution. Compared with them, we lack (or don't have a chance to know, or don't have a chance to come in contact with) an excellent movie tradition as a springboard. We have to think of everything ourselves, come up with and do everything ourselves. The ability of a single person is so limited. Besides searching for a root from our traditions, we also need to face reality and seek a renewal of ideas, without becoming too intangible [ethereal? idealized?]. This type of mental strain is hard to bear unless one really loves Chinese movies. And the younger generation, <46> due to a lack of fundamental knowledge of Chinese traditions, must force themselves continuously to study and to think. Only then can they claim that they have roots in their creative process and come up with their own style. This process takes at least ten years. It takes ia long time. Besides the patience and hardwork of the individual, the existence of a group that supports each other is also very important. Even though it's tough, what should be done is to have someone to do it, right?

Let's take about some of my recent opinions gathered from watching Chang Cheh and King Hu's films, while we are at it.

"Come drink with me," as a movie itself, can only be considered an average work. In this martial arts movie, King Hu continued his portrayal of lower class people on one side. On the otherside, he also started to form his own style as seen in such later movies as "The Dragon Inn", "A Touch of Zen", "Road with Three Forks", and "The Fate of Lee Khan". Thus, the historical significance of this movie far surpassed its artistic value. But we can not overestimate the importance of this movie to King Hu, either, because this movie features a lot more touches and characteristics that never appeared in later movies like "The Dragon Inn", than the ones that formed the later "King Hu style". For example, the group of kids in the beggar gang led by Gnok Wah who played and sang, are not only entertaining and fresh but also serve to relax the tension, and although Cheng Pei Pei played the heroine posing as a male, she still retained her femininity (like when Cheng Pei Pei kicks Gnok Wah out of her way for the first time, she leans against the door exhausted and lets out a sigh), and her delicate movements sitting at the makeup table, and her return to wearing female outfit, dressing up as a village girl to gather information from the temple in the wild. Removing the effects with fast-paced editing, these things are what made "Come Drink with Me"'s style so special, and so different from Hu's other films. King Hu chose his latter style of cold detachment and imagery as the most important element. It can be said that he is extremely self-conscious. My guess is, King Hu's way of making martial arts movies is based more on "ping" drama than martial arts novels. That explains his tendency to simplify, put into action, and emphasize images.

The opposite of "Come Drink with Me", "Golden Swallow" was very important to Chang Cheh. This is one of his few good films that are satisfactory. Although "Golden Swallow" is based on the traditional martial arts formula of "hero being caught in love", Chang Cheh tried hard to break from the single-minded purpose of telling a story, and tried to portray a type of feeling. In the scene where he repeats the motif of impressionistic feeling, Wong Yu [Jimmy Wang Yu] writes calligraphy on the wall. The close-up of Chinese characters turns into a lyrical poem that fills the whole screen -- "Siu" goes the sword road that leads to the edge of land and sky . . . ask whose house did the swallow from Wong Jeah's house of the old days [this is where the poem in the title page of Lau Sing Hon's "The Breakout development of Kung Fu movies" article comes from] -- and Wong Yu is seen holding a sword over his shoulder in the background, far away, while the foreground has two or three withered trees with the rest of the screen stark white. This type of impressionistic imagery is very rarely seen in Chinese movies and was very effective. Juxtaposing written words with the main character, and the whole approach to editing were fresh ideas deserving of applause. The covering curtains at the beginning of the movie was also a nice touch. But looking back, although there are attempts to try for something new for a change, in the whole structure of the movie, the psychology and viewpoints of the characters still didn't escape the confines of traditional Martial Arts heroes. We can say that when Chang Cheh was making this movie he was still working within the traditional martial arts movie genre, and didn't get the chance to thoroughly express his creativity. Conversely, "The Hung Boxing Kid" is a movie that came after Chang Cheh had established his personal style, using his own source of material and subject to express his own modernism. We can say he used the guise of "martial arts movie" to convey a very outstanding main theme. "Golden Swallow" forms a perfect universe within itself. The structure of the movie is beautiful (there're only a few minor imperfections), and it did a great job in the portrayal of human characters. At the same time, Chang Cheh's treatment of love and romance is very mature, and that is enough evidence to prove that Chang Cheh is not really what he termed an "exponent of Male Machismo". Based on style, direction, editing, plot, scene planning, and artistic design, "Golden Swallow" is also much better than "Come Drink with Me" in all regards. [Bwa ha ha. Sorry.] Don't even mention "Golden Swallow" as a ripoff of "Come Drink with me"; people who say this are supremely ignorant. But because "Golden Swallow" differed from Chang Cheh's later works so much, I think -- besides passage of time being the deciding factor for the formation and changing of his style -- there might be other factors that could be involved, such as the script of "Golden Swallow" being co-written by Chang Cheh and Tao Wun. The middle and later period of his work is mostly a collaboration between Chang Cheh and Ngai Hong. Chang Cheh was still not established and was unproven while working for the Shaw Brother's at that time (so the standards and rules of the Shaw studios could have some effect on this) . . . etc. But, from the latter experimental films by Chang Cheh ("Na Cha the Great", "The Red Child", "Hell") we can see that Chang Cheh really does possess the quality of breaking from tradition as exhibited in "Golden Swallow". And Chang Cheh used to be a film critic and script writer in Hong Kong, producing 10,000 words a day. These are all factors that should be considered. In summary, because Chang Cheh's middle period, early works are more satisfactory for the audience, the latter works aren't as good as the two earlier periods (with the exception of "the Hung Boxing Kid"). But since the recent "Marco Polo" and "The 7 Dare Devils" were so bad that people could hardly bear to watch, it made a lot of people suspicious. Maybe like a friend of mine said, by carefully studying the way in which Chang Cheh's directing methods for his martial arts films made after 1970 had changed and evolved, we can perhaps get a clear idea of whether he is an unconscious stylist, or an average director who simply, stubbornly, repetitively does the same thing over and over again. But, from the result of such films as "Golden Swallow", "The Hung Boxing Kid", etc., I think Chang Cheh should belong to the former.

This page first created by Steven Feldman <scfeldman@juno.com> 1/22/08. Last update: 1/29/08.
Copyright Steven Feldman, 2008.