BIG STARS, BIGGER BUDGETS, CLONES OF BRUCE & CHAN VS. HWANG
Around the same time, actors like Chen Kuan Tai had become a star in the classic BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972), a hugely influential action film. The film dealt with a poor man coming to a new town and discovering gangster activities. After displaying his superior skills to survive, Ma Yung Chen (a real life individual) eventually becomes a gangster himself, albeit an honorable one, obtaining the comforts he desired upon first arriving in Shanghai. However, no incursion comes without its consequences and in one of the most violent and gory finales in cinema history, Ma must fight an increasing army of knife wielding gangsters whilst his own men attempt to fight their way inside.
The film was very successful and instigated a genre of Republican Era Triad movies. Chang Cheh would take this story of a man that climbs the ladder of success only to eventually fall a long way down, and film it another two times with slight variation. MAN OF IRON (1972) was the sequel, which also doubled as a pseudo remake. BLOOD BROTHERS (1973) went on to become one of director Chang Cheh's greatest works. The Iron Triangle was "broken" with the addition of Chen Kuan Tai to the cast.
Alexander Fu Sheng was another ambitious and bright star from Shaw Brothers. His first break was in Cheh's POLICE FORCE (1973), a film which earned him an award for Most Promising Newcomer. HEROES TWO (1973) was the film that put him on the map. Chen Kuan Tai starred alongside him in this influential breakthrough.
The film introduced traditional kung fu styles on the silver screen for the first time. HEROES TWO (1973) begat a slew of similar films that featured Chinese patriots battling against Manchu (Qing) invaders. Many other films also followed HEROES TWO's formula by using historical figures in there plotlines. By 1976, two films would alter the Ming versus Qing recipe further-- Chang Cheh's massive, episodic epic, SHAOLIN TEMPLE and Liu Chia Liang's groundbreaking EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN.
Both films were instrumental in two ways. Chang's movie ushered in hundreds of like-minded movies that featured stories about the famed temple and the monks that trained therein. Liu's movie created a sensation of white haired villains with Lo Lieh's relentless portrayal of Priest White Brows, Pai Mei.
With Golden Harvest having bested the mighty Shaw's at the box office with the Bruce Lee movies, independent studios would now have a better chance at making some dollars now than ever before. A number of these smaller films would be filmed at, or distributed by Shaw's, as many of these smaller companies didn't have the funds to make it on there own with many only lasting for a few films or less. Many times stars from Shaw's stable would appear in indy productions to make some extra money. These productions were subsequently distributed by Shaw Brothers who allowed their actors to freelance if they could make a profit from the picture.
The Shaw's grip on their talent was both good and bad. By paying everyone the same and prohibiting any egotistical behavior, a family atmosphere was created whereas everyone worked together for the betterment of the production. However, constricting progress and creativity creates a stagnant environment. This can cause product to grow stale and cease to grow and, in turn, halt innovation. Of the countless independent films made after the mid 1970's, one of the most successful indy companies was Seasonal Films. Two movies (both starring Jackie Chan) from this ambitious, yet minor player in the Hong Kong film industry would change the landscape of Asian cinema forever.
By 1975, the Bruceploitation flicks were erupting with rapidity in cineplexes and would strangely, enjoy a brief popularity. Actors popped up sporting names like Bruce Le, Bruce Li, Bruce Thai, Dragon Lee, Conan Lee, Bronson Lee, etc. Such a concept would be met with scorn and deemed insulting in the American market, but the genre chugged along undaunted regardless of how tasteless the idea was. Most of these were forgettable programmers that contributed to the genres demise (along with an influx of Taiwanese and Korean made kung fu cheapies) from US theater chains. Some of them simply had the 'Bruce Lee' name affixed to the title in some fashion with no semblance to Bruce Lee, the man.
A number of these imitator movies are downright tasteless and defamatory to the man's name and persona. These exploitation kung fu flicks, surprisingly, have a minor following among fans of the genre. Even the 'big two' of Asia, Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest got in on the act of producing Bruceploitation movies. Shaw Brothers even went so far as to mount a production starring the last woman to see Lee alive, Betty Ting Pei. The film was BRUCE LEE & I (1975). It told Lee's story from the perspective of Betty Ting Pei.
The Shaw's were aware that a big budget didn't always equate to big box office, or even a good movie. They were known to flaunt a good deal of money (as much as HK$2-5 million) on many of their lavish productions. One of the biggest was the HK2 million budgeted THE 14 AMAZONS (1972) directed by the meticulous Cheng Kang.
Director Chang Cheh had his lions share of big budgeted movies with THE WATER MARGIN (1972), BOXER REBELLION (1975) and 7 MAN ARMY (1976; the first film to feature co-operation by the Chinese military and mixes guns, tanks, planes, cannons and kung fu). Several of Chang's extravagant productions were met with serious (and sometimes political) problems resulting in lackluster returns.
Towards the end of the of the 1970's, Shaw's ceased the big budget epic films upon realizing the money spent didn't always correlate to big box office numbers. Not only that, but they were steadily losing their grip on the HK film industry due in large part to a young man who, by 1982, was soon to be the biggest box office draw in Asia.
Back to 1976, director Lo Wei, who had laid the dubious claim of discovering Bruce Lee, had recently been trying to turn a man named Jackie Chan into a star but was failing miserably. After a promising supporting role in the John Woo Golden Harvest film, HAND OF DEATH (1976), Lo proved incapable of utilizing Chan's talents. Lo tried to make him the new Bruce Lee with NEW FIST OF FURY in 1976.
He then tried turning Chan into a Shaw Brothers imitation with SHAOLIN WOODEN MEN (1976) and SNAKE & CRANE ARTS OF SHAOLIN (1977). In KILLER METEORS (1977), Chan tried out as a villain opposite protagonist, Jimmy Wang Yu. This didn't work either. TO KILL WITH INTRIGUE (1977) was another Lo Wei directed misfire starring Jackie Chan.
An independent producer named Ng See Yuen, the founder of Seasonal Films, saw something in the young Chan and wanted him for his new film but was begged by others that he was box office poison as his movies had made little money. Originally having his eye on the young actor, Cliff Lok, Ng was persuaded by Yuen Woo Ping to give Chan the opportunity. Ng took a chance on him and Lo Wei, frustrated, lent him out for the film SNAKE IN THE EAGLE'S SHADOW (1978).
Appearing to have been made with very little money, the film was a big hit and made both Jackie Chan and Yuen Siu Tin huge stars. Yuen had been in films for a number of years already having appeared in a handful of key Shaw Brothers films. His role as the master beggar resonated with audiences and old Yuen's career had a short burst of popularity before his death in 1980.
SNAKE IN THE EAGLE'S SHADOW (1978) is credited as the first kung fu comedy. However, Shaw's did it first with SPIRITUAL BOXER in 1975 but the Chan film is the one that endured. One aspect of SNAKE that aided in its popularity was that the teacher/student dynamic was visualized more as a father/son relationship, something that hadn't been seen before. After years of serious tales of heroism from Shaw's, this simple film with its groundbreaking, but crude formula was a breath of fresh air to the HK audience. Even so, if it had not been for Chang Cheh's SHAOLIN MARTIAL ARTS (1974), which planted the seed for the teacher/student relationship, there may never have been a SNAKE IN THE EAGLE'S SHADOW.
For the role of antagonist, Ng wanted Korean super kicker Hwang Jang Lee (an actor that does kicks others would need wires to pull off) who had built up some steam after appearing in Ng's kickfest, THE SECRET RIVALS (1976), a Taiwanese quickie that also featured the talents of stars Wong Tao and newcomer, John Liu.
Reportedly, Chan didn't get on well with Hwang and the two bickered throughout the shoot. During the final fight, Hwang got a little too excited and kicked Chan's front teeth out. A similar situation would occur while shooting DRUNKEN MASTER (1979) when Hwang would allegedly kick Chan a bit too hard in the head sending him to the hospital. Over the years rumors persisted that Chan was going to make sure Hwang's career would be finished.
That would come true somewhat as Hwang would toil in low budget kung fu pictures in Taiwan and Korea before Sammo Hung brought him out of the pit of obscurity with the release of WHERE'S OFFICER TUBA? (1986). Hwang Jang Lee made a career out of playing a formidable bad guy and excelled at it. A problem with so many of his movies is that Hwang is so intimidating and powerful, the protagonists have to resort to cheap methods to defeat him.
Hwang did play a good guy on a few occasions. He also tried his hand at directing with the 1980 movie, HITMAN IN THE HAND OF BUDDHA. Never released in Hong Kong, Hwang not only acted (playing the hero) but also produced in addition to directing. Hwang was a Tae Kwon Do expert who also trained in boxing to enhance his martial arts training. He was rewarded with teaching martial arts to the Korean troops in Vietnam where he, according to several sources, had killed a man with one kick after he was challenged by another with a knife.
CONTINUED IN PART 4...