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Monday, September 21, 2009

Cinema of Excess: Chang Cheh & His Films Part Three


The oppressors march on The Forbidden City from Chang Cheh's epic production of THE BOXER REBELLION (1975)


One of the directors more popular kung fu films, FIVE SHAOLIN MASTERS (1974); Left to right-Meng Fei, Fu Sheng, David Chiang and Ti Lung

Another of Chang Cheh's innovations was to have a group of individuals each possessing their own style of fighting and each one being different in character traits and motives as well. Chang was seemingly obsessed with numbers as so many of his movie titles contain a numerical digit of one sort or other. One need only see the names of the following: HEROES TWO (1973), THE FOUR RIDERS (1972), FIVE SHAOLIN MASTERS (1974), FIVE VENOMS (1978), TWO CHAMPIONS OF SHAOLIN (1979) and FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (1982) to get an idea of the numbers game featured in Chang's vast cinematic resume. However, having a multitude of colorful characters wasn't without its disadvantages.

Alexander Fu Sheng, Tang Yen San and Kuo Chui from one of Cheh's smaller scale epics during his Taiwanese tenure. This is MARCO POLO (1975) released here as the more suitably titled THE FOUR ASSASSINS.

The director admitted that by doing films with so many characters, he limits himself as to how much he can build each individual in the storyline. On a scant few occasions did the director ever give an actor a solo turn and these were predominantly during the early part of his career. Jimmy Wang Yu, Lo Lieh, David Chiang, Ti Lung, Chen Kuan Tai and most importantly, Fu Sheng all got solo vehicles built around them without the aid of a co-star.

Chao Kuo demonstrates a lot of power and emotion in his duel with nasty ninjas from the directors hugely popular FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (1982)

With so much star power sharing the screen in many of his movies, it would seem that Cheh was more interested in the emotions of his characters and how they looked on camera. He would command his actors to "turn your performance up to six", or, "bring it down to 4", again with the use of numbers. The director most often worked with the same core group of performers for a number of years before jump starting another group of young film stars on the rise.

A typical, yet iconic Chang Cheh image from THE ANONYMOUS HEROES (1971), one of many 'Chivalrous Hero' pictures from the Godfather of HK Cinema

The first time Cheh experimented with a core group of actors was during the late 60's with what would become known as the 'Iron Triangle'. This consisted of the "invincible" teaming of former stunt man David Chiang, Ti Lung and the director, himself, Chang Cheh. Movies such as HAVE SWORD, WILL TRAVEL (1969), THE HEROIC ONES (1970), THE DEADLY DUO (1971), DUEL OF FISTS (1971), THE ANGRY GUEST (1972) and THE PIRATE (1973) all showcase the talents of John (David) Chiang and Ti Lung.

Chen Kuan Tai contemplates a jailbreak during a scene from the seminal HEROES TWO (1973)

Not long after, Cheh would add the sensational and charismatic Chen Kuan Tai to this mix. Furthermore, Chen's first outing (THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG) would be a star vehicle built around him; something the directors prior performers didn't get their first time out. Proving to be a monetary commodity to the Shaw stable, Chen Kuan Tai would quickly join the ranks alongside David Chiang and Ti Lung in collaborative efforts. Cheh's THE FOUR RIDERS (1972) was a precursor to the ensemble productions that would come over the next couple of years featuring a multitude of established and up and coming young stars.

The HK heartthrob, Alexander Fu Sheng during one of the more lighthearted moments from the troubled production, THE BOXER REBELLION (1975)

In 1973, another actor would attract lots of attention from critical and fan circles; Alexander Fu Sheng. After graduating from the Shaw training facility in 1971, he was seen as a background player in films such as THE 14 AMAZONS (1972) and MAN OF IRON (1972) before gaining notice in Cheh's police drama, POLICE FORCE (1973) starring Wang Chung, an actor who also had a long career, but rarely as a headliner.

Another dynamic duo; Fu Sheng & Chi Kuan Chun

Fu Sheng's massive star power would prove evident in the subsequent Shaolin kung fu movies Chang would direct during his tenure in Taiwan. It was around this time another super group was conceived. This new group consisted of Fu Sheng, his frequent co-star and accomplished martial artist, Chi Kuan Chun and Tang Yen San, an actor who can be seen in a number of prior swordplay movies from the director as a supporting player. One of the more popular examples of Cheh's ensemble hero and villain actioners was FIVE SHAOLIN MASTERS (1974).

The villains converge on their quarry from FIVE SHAOLIN MASTERS (1974); From left to right-Liang Chia Jen, Chiang Tao (3rd from left), Feng Ko An (5th from left), Wang Lung Wei and Tsai Hung

The side of the antagonists was usually filled with the star power of Liang Chia Jen, Wang Lung Wei (both debuted in SHAOLIN MARTIAL ARTS), Feng Ko An, Chiang Tao, Tsai Hung and Wong Ching. Chang Cheh would sometimes alternate his villains from film to film and depending on the size of the production, would find room for them all. All of these actors would go on to varying degrees of success, but all had very long careers after their stints with the esteemed Chang Cheh had ended.

THE MAGNIFICENT RUFFIANS (1979); one of the better venom movies; From left to right-Lo Mang, Wang Li, Kuo Chui, Chiang Sheng and Sun Chien

After 1977, the director would formulate his most famous (outside of Asia anyways) super group of martial arts film stars. These performers, of course, are the clutch known in fan circles as the Venoms whose fame was born from their inaugural production of FIVE VENOMS (1978). During this time in Cheh's career, he abandoned his previous mode of cinematic ideals and aimed for a more comic book, less mature approach to movies.

One of many comical moments from the directors classic, SHAOLIN RESCUERS (1979). Lo Mang and Kuo Chui have a seat at the behest of Sun Chien

No doubt the changing audience taste and shifting trends towards more orchestrated kung fu sequences and emphasis on comedic action took a huge toll on the typically serious and dark nature of the Shaw productions which had been synonymous with Asian cinema for years. Even after the directors contract ended with Shaws in 1982, his independent work which came after utilized the numbers game and Cheh likewise ported over talent from film to film.

Fu Sheng in training against some powerful adversaries in the groundbreaking SHAOLIN MARTIAL ARTS (1974)

Interestingly, in these "team movies", the roles of the actors seldom strayed from film to film. To give some examples, Fu Sheng almost always did Tiger Crane style, Chi Kuan Chun used the Five Animal system and Lo Mang showcased the Northern Mantis Fist (a style he had practiced from childhood) in the movies they featured in. Another example would be Sun Chien who was a Tae Kwan Do practitioner. He put it to good use in the films he played alongside his fellow venom associates.

Chen Kuan Tai decides which of the three Tien Nan Tigers he'll kill first for the death of his wife during the opening moments of the hugely enjoyable and influential venom comic book opus, CRIPPLED AVENGERS (1978)

Another constant was the type of role the characters played in the directors movies. Chang Cheh utilized the actors according to their strengths, as well as emotionally and physically, but occasionally toyed with this concept from time to time. David Chiang and Ti Lung never played villains. Chiang did play a very complicated lead role in Liu Chia Liang's SHAOLIN MANTIS (1978) which could be construed as a villainous character. Ditto for Chen Kuan Tai (at least not in his early 70's productions). Fu Sheng and his frequent co-star, Chi Kuan Chun always played heroes as well.

Lu Feng battles an unarmed Lo Mang during the exciting conclusion of the occasionally riveting TWO CHAMPIONS OF SHAOLIN (1980)

During the venom era, Lu Feng could almost always be counted on to play an insidious character although he did play a good guy on a couple of occasions. Kuo Chui and Chiang Sheng were almost always good guys, but Chiang Sheng took some bad guy roles here and there even though such roles didn't really suit his character. Chang Cheh was very passionate about his ideals and expressing them in movies. Despite so many similarities from one film to the next, the director was very experimental in trying new styles of motion picture to see what worked with Asian audiences and what didn't.

Chiang Sheng in a rare villain appearance near the end of the lackluster ODE TO GALLANTRY (1982). Next to him are Cheng Tien Chi & Chu Ko respectively

Ironically enough, not long after the Shaw style had come to be considered old hat by HK audiences, Jackie Chan imported Chang Cheh's style of the kung fu team concept for a series of films over at Golden Harvest studios. These films featured Chan and his two "brothers", Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao. These Golden Harvest Jackie Chan team movies include WINNERS & SINNERS (1983), WHEELS ON MEELS (1984), MY LUCKY STARS (1985) and the hugely enjoyable DRAGONS FOREVER (1987).

One of countless bloody moments from FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (1982), Chang Cheh's most creatively grand guinol martial arts picture

During his career, Shaw studios million dollar director was never that interested in showcasing reality in his movies. The more spectacularly bloody and outlandish the better. This conceit rang especially true in his post '77 output when Cheh's previous themes of brotherhood among men were overshadowed by a less serious, more over the top comic book approach to the material. In his handful of historical films, there are the occasional inaccuracies down mostly to proper costuming (the costumes for the US military forces in BOXER REBELLION for example) and dress which might be jarring for history sticklers. The basic core of truth is there, but minor details were changed for dramatic or visual purposes.

Chi Kuan Chun takes aim in SEVEN MAN ARMY (1976)

One such historical action picture is the directors HK5 million SEVEN MAN ARMY (1976). A film based on a true event involving an attack on a Chinese military fort by 20,000 Japanese and Mongolian forces during WW2. Manned by seven soldiers, the brave fighters managed to hold off the invading onslaught for five days and nights before succumbing from repeated attacks as well as diminishing food supplies and ammunition. The seven soldiers are shown taking on dozens of attackers with guns and bayonets only losing steam towards the end when the enemy offensive becomes overwhelming.

Lee Yi Min is against all odds during the bombastic climax of Cheh's massive war epic, SEVEN MAN ARMY

Over the course of the film amidst its many large scale battles, the audience learns a lot about these seven men as all of them come from different backgrounds and all have their own reasons for how they came to be in the military. As per the directors flamboyant treatment of his heroes, their actions are embellished a bit to add a more larger-than-life aspect to the film. However, it must be said that dramatic license wasn’t relegated just to Hong Kong as such “enhancements” are utilized quite often in American action films, too.

One of many grand scale battle scenes from Cheh's historical war picture

SEVEN MAN ARMY was one of a handful of big and expensive (for Hong Kong) epics the likes of which you didn't see often, if at all in Hong Kong unless it was from the Shaw's Studio. Chang Cheh created some of the most amazing sequences of action and combat ever seen in a Chinese production. Cheh's military movie is one of his most adrenaline pumped displays of macho bravado on his long and distinguished resume. It stands as a testament to what the director could do with such an unusal subject for a Chinese film. I wonder just what SEVEN MAN ARMY would have looked like had the director been working solely on this movie with nothing else on his production slate.

Cast photo from SEVEN MAN ARMY; Chang Cheh stands top row fourth from left; photo courtesy Terrence Brady

Towards the end of the 70's, these larger than life spectacles almost became extinct as they seldom turned much profit versus how much money was spent on them. Two of Cheh's 'Cast of Thousands' pictures, as I like to call them, were almost detrimental to the man's career; SEVEN MAN ARMY being one of them. Despite assistance by the Taiwanese military and some spectacularly brutal action scenes, the ambitious and bombastic war picture lost its battle at the box office both in Taiwan and in Hong Kong. The film did manage to go on to win an award for Outstanding Feature at the 13th Annual Golden Horse Awards in 1976.

Tang Yen San demonstrates his skill in Chi Kung from Cheh's historical and controversial epic, THE BOXER REBELLION (1975)

Around the same time, Chang Cheh was also working on another ambitious and controversial production entitled THE BOXER REBELLION (1975). This picture caused a lot of distress for the daring director. The film caused a political uproar that stemmed from Chang Cheh's prior participation as a political activist for the Nationalist Party during his younger years prior to entering the film industry.

The '8 Powered Allied Forces' march on the Forbidden City in Peking

Chiang Ching kuo (the son of Chiang Kai Shek) was the head of the Kuomintang (the Nationalist Party), and was a friend of the director during his days in politics. Chang Cheh's arrival in Taiwan was viewed as a governmental ploy by Chiang Ching kuo's electoral opponent, Wang Sheng. As filming commenced on THE BOXER REBELLION, Wang had issues with the way the 'Eight Power Allied Invasion' was presented.

Another typically spectacular and iconic image of the death of a Chang Cheh hero. Tang Yen San goes out in dramatic fashion from THE BOXER REBELLION

He proclaimed that the film should be banned as it purported to have endorsed the invasion of China. In the end, Cheh's elaborate and expensive movie on one of China's darker periods in history ended up being a cinematic martyr and like SEVEN MAN ARMY, performed poorly both in Taiwan and Hong Kong and put an end to the lavish opulence of the expensive Shaw Brothers epic.

Fu Sheng takes aim at some Japanese interlopers

THE BOXER REBELLION (1975) became Cheh’s most passionate and personable film. It came under much scrutiny and controversy for its subject matter causing a firestorm of accusations as noted above. Regardless of there troubles, Chang's titanic Taiwanese twosome are his CLEOPATRA (1963), or HEAVEN'S GATE (1980) in terms of their bloated budgets and eventual epic failure at the box office.

Left to right-Chi Kuan Chun, Richard Harrison, Hu Chin and Fu Sheng

Butchered and only released in a seriously compromised version under its newly christened title of SPIRITUAL FISTS, THE BOXER REBELLION (1975) failed to garner much interest considering the amount of money and effort that went into its making. If the compromised version released to Chinese theaters is anything like the 90 minute stripped down version released here as THE BLOODY AVENGERS, then the film was an incomprehensible mess.

One of many cut scenes from THE BOXER REBELLION. Pictured are Richard Harrison and Hu Chin

Running close to two and a half hours, Chang Cheh's original cut featured a lot of dramatic elements that didn't survive the export version such as a love triangle between the mistress, Cai (Hu Chin), her lover, Shuai Fang yun (Chi Kuan Chun) and her previous lover, the German general Waldersee (Richard Harrison). These segments make up the bulk of the removed material.

Another cut moment from the film which eliminated Fu Sheng's relationship with his off screen wife, Jenny Tseng. She frequently appeared in movies alongside her husband

Also, the romance between Fu Sheng and his off screen wife, Jenny Tseng was removed in the export version. She's seen in the background in a couple scenes, but none of her other sequences with her husband survive the international version. On that note, the female characterizations are eliminated altogether leaving the movie with little else but the big battle scenes and nothing to connect them. Having never seen the actual Chinese release print, I would be curious to see just how that version played out. In its complete form, it's a fairly sprawling epic that was very ambitious for its time.

Lu Feng is surrounded by Japanese naval officers from Cheh's disappointing THE NAVAL COMMANDOS (1977)

With the end of Chang's Company (and his cycle of films dealing with the Shaolin Temple and its martial arts) coming to an end, the director returned to Hong Kong in 1977 to finish up work on the mediocre THE NAVAL COMMANDOS, his last go at mounting a war movie. Filmed with the cooperation of Central Film Company of Taiwan, the picture was far less ambitious than Cheh's previous two large scope epics and suffered a worse box office fate than either SEVEN MAN ARMY or BOXER REBELLION. It's not without some exciting moments, but the film is seriously hindered by what appears to have been a rushed and under budgeted production schedule. Chang Cheh had one more epic, SHAOLIN TEMPLE (1976). It began at Chang's Company in Taiwan, but finished up at Shaw Brothers back in Hong Kong.

The majesty of THE WATER MARGIN (1972), one of numerous lavish and expensive movies overseen by director Chang Cheh while at Shaw Brothers studio

These exorbitant movies had there start with the majesty of the HK2.5 million blockbuster, THE HEROIC ONES (1970) and continued on with the release of the large scale epic, THE WATER MARGIN (1972). It was a dream project of many Asian movie producers to bring this famous Chinese story to cinematic life and Shaw Brothers reportedly spent HK3 million dollars on the production. This huge undertaking was a joint effort of Chang Cheh and two of his most promising acolytes, Wu Ma and Pao Hsueh Li. The direct sequel, ALL MEN ARE BROTHERS (1973), became one of the most dramatically gory, enormous in scope martial arts pictures of all time. The film also suffered terribly at the hands of the censors and didn't see a release until 1975.

Yet one more iconic hero image from the cinematic canon of Chang Cheh. Fu Sheng makes a last stand during the concluding moments of THE BOXER REBELLION (1975)

What makes Chang Cheh and his participation in such ambitious enterprises so awe inspiring is that he was working on several films at once. As THE WATER MARGIN was winding down, Cheh was already shooting the sequel, ALL MEN ARE BROTHERS (which began production as THE STORY OF PUNISHMENT) in addition to THE DELIGHTFUL FOREST (1972) and THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972) among an already crowded production schedule for the venerable director.



Carl (ILHM) said...

I can truly appreciate the amount of time and thought that went into this one V, an excellent writeup even if this isnt my area of expertise! Ive said it before, but your enthusiasm for Cheh's films is contagious, if I ever break away from my strict diet of Horror I will make sure to check into the Venoms series and others on the list!

venoms5 said...

Well I'm glad you are enjoying reading up on the genre, Carl! I got tons of stuff already written about some of the other unsung directors of the Shaw Brothers studio that are equally as interesting. It's just finding enough time to post them.

I'll be anxious to hear your thoughts on some of the entries when you get around to checking them out.

Carl (ILHM) said...

I added Five Deadly Venoms to my wishlists and que, but what other films would you recommend starting with? I have to admit my interest is more than a little peaked (is it piqued?)

venoms5 said...

Any of those on that initial list of 13 I'd recommend, Carl. Only not all of them are available on R1 DVD yet.

ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN is available from Dragon Dynasty/Dimension in a gorgeous special edition. DEADLY DUO is available from Media Blasters. I think that's it right now for R1 Chang Cheh movies that I can think of. More are coming. Wait, FLAG OF IRON should be out now and the awful TEN TIGERS OF KWANG TUNG is out as well. Both those last two are venom movies.

venoms5 said...

The martial arts sequences in FIVE VENOMS aren't the best, but the storyline and atmosphere more than makes up for the lackluster choreography. I think you'll enjoy it, Carl especially for the horror and gore elements.

I'll be getting around to the venom portion of the long Chang Cheh article soon. Next up will cover his 'Delinquent' series of films and his Shaolin cycle of movies he made while he was in Taiwan making movies for Shaw's as they had lots of capital that couldn't be extradited so they sent Chang there to shoot money with the funds. I discussed some of those movies already with part three.

Part five will begin to cover his decline in 1977 and his venom films which are vastly different from his earlier movies.

venoms5 said...

Also, Carl, Well Go USA has some of his movies out or coming out on DVD.


venoms5 said...

Damn! I also forgot one the man's most celebrated films, HEROES TWO is out from Media Blasters, too, Carl! It's not a fave of mine, but it is influential for being the first film of its kind and I believe the first film to showcase genuine kung fu styles on film as opposed to the Karate like martial arts scenes exhibited in a scant few films prior to HEROES TWO like THE CHINESE BOXER and KING BOXER (which is a must see, Carl. It's out over here from Dragon Dynasty as well).

These Karate styled movies are called 'Bashers' among fan circles.

Carl (ILHM) said...

Perfect that will definitely give me a good place to start! It will take me a while to get around to most of them, but I will make an honest effort! Sorry for the delayed response, internet downy made for a crappy couple days lol..

Scherpschutter said...

Excellent writing. Those large-scale war movies Seven Man Army and The Boxer Rebellion seem very interesting. I like those ambitious movies which take their time to develop a story.

venoms5 said...

Hi, Scherp. Thanks for your comments! To my knowledge, the HK IVL DVD's are the only releases for both titles you mentioned. Unless one of the numerous other foreign dvd companies has it as well. I actually found the SEVEN MAN ARMY dubbed VHS I got years ago. Horrible quality. You can barely make out who the characters are. There's also French and Arabic subs at the bottom, at least that's what it looks like.

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