SHAWS INVADE AMERICA & CHANG CHEH'S BLOODY CHIVALRY
In the early 70's the head of Warner Bros. (at the time) went to Shaw Studios curious over the impact their films were having in HK and wanted to bring some of them back to test in the American market. Of the movies shown, he picked KING BOXER (1972) to be the first release. KING BOXER (1972), or under its more famous nom de plume, FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH, became a massive hit and officially jump started the kung fu genre paving the way for Bruce Lee.
However, KING BOXER (1972) failed to give Lo Lieh (who spoke good English) serious mainstream recognition. Lo Lieh did star with Lee Van Cleef in the Carlo Ponti/Shaw co-production, THE STRANGER & THE GUNFIGHTER (1974). He also featured in a number of other international co-productions but never got a break in an American picture unlike Bruce Lee possibly due to his contract with Shaws. Lo had much charisma onscreen both as a hero and even more so as a villain besides not being a real martial artist. He enjoyed one of the longest acting careers of any HK actor beginning in the mid 60's and winding down in the late 90's.
KING BOXER (1972) was the perfect film to showcase in the US as the film was shot in a style not unlike an old Hollywood film. The cinematography and set design was unique for kung fu pictures of the time especially considering the plethora of swordplay actioners that were still flooding the cinemas in Hong Kong. Lo's career found new life in 1976 when he played the role of Priest White Brows in EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN; a role that propagated dozens of white haired villains in countless kung fu flicks for years after.
Lo also directed the sequel, CLAN OF THE WHITE LOTUS (1979). This film featured some of the best fighting sequences ever to grace the screen. Lo Lieh wasn't just confined to action films. He did many popular horror pictures including the classic HUMAN LANTERNS (1982) where he played a lantern maker who used curious materials for his trade. Lo gives one of his best performances here playing a once chivalrous man driven to insanity by his love for a woman. Some great action scenes are also on display in addition to some very EC Comics-like set design and lighting. Lo Lieh starred in some 200 movies and was one of the most prolific actors working in Hong Kong. He passed away in 2002 of a heart attack at 63 years of age.
When KING BOXER (1972), the first film of its kind to be seen in the West, was ready for release, Warners decided the name wasn't attention grabbing enough and re-christened it as the exploitatively titled 5 FINGERS OF DEATH. The film wowed audiences upon its initial release with scenes of violence and brutality the likes of which hadn't been seen before. Disembowelment, decapitation, eyes gouged out and the famous scene where Lo has his hands repeatedly smashed to keep him from competing in a martial arts tournament between two rival schools are some of the gruesome highlights. The film was a big hit in the smaller chains so Warners released it in the bigger theaters as well.
5 FINGERS OF DEATH became one of the most successful international films ever. Incidentally, KING BOXER (1972) was not a hit in Hong Kong grossing a little under 800,000HK$. The popularity of kung fu movies in America spread to the radio in 1974 with the #1 hit by Carl Douglas, "Kung Fu Fighting". Their popularity dwindled in the early 80's as extravagant US productions replete with overly generous special effects budgets nudged out low budget and independent movies. The kung fu film was relegated to the drive-ins and ultimately Saturday afternoon and week night television programming.
Going back to retitling the kung fu pictures for US consumption, this became one of the most eyecatching aspects about the films. Below are just a small example of Shaw Brothers films whose original title was changed to sound more sensational. The original title is first, followed by the US release title.
KING BOXER 1972- 5 FINGERS OF DEATH(US)
NEW ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN 1971- TRIPLE IRONS(US)
MARCO POLO 1975- THE 4 ASSASSINS(US)
BOXER REBELLION 1975- THE BLOODY AVENGERS(US)
THE WATER MARGIN 1972- 7 BLOWS OF THE DRAGON(US)
ALL MEN ARE BROTHERS 1973- 7 SOLDIERS OF KUNG FU(US)
BOXER FROM SHANTUNG 1972- KILLER FROM SHANTUNG(US)
MAN OF IRON 1972- WARRIOR OF STEEL(US)
MEN FROM THE MONASTERY 1974- DISCIPLES OF DEATH(US)
SHAOLIN AVENGERS 1976- INVINCIBLE KUNG FU BROTHERS(US)
SHAOLIN RESCUERS 1979- AVENGING WARRIORS OF SHAOLIN(US)
CRIPPLED AVENGERS 1978- MORTAL COMBAT(US)
BLACK MAGIC 2 1976- REVENGE OF THE ZOMBIES(US)
THE MARTIAL CLUB 1980- INSTRUCTORS OF DEATH(US)
SHAOLIN MANTIS 1978- THE DEADLY MANTIS(US)
THE 36th CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN 1978- MASTER KILLER(US)
REBEL INTRUDERS 1979- KILLER ARMY(US)
INVINCIBLE SHAOLIN 1978- UNBEATABLE DRAGON(US)
HEROES TWO 1973- KUNG FU INVADERS(US)
THE 8 DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER 1984- THE INVINCIBLE POLE FIGHTERS(US)
FLAG OF IRON 1980- SPEARMEN OF DEATH(US)
5 VENOMS 1978- 5 DEADLY VENOMS(US)
2 CHAMPIONS OF SHAOLIN 1980- 2 CHAMPIONS OF DEATH(US)
MONKEY KUNG FU 1980- STROKE OF DEATH(US)
SHAOLIN TEMPLE 1976- DEATH CHAMBER(US)
5 SHAOLIN MASTERS 1975- 5 MASTERS OF DEATH(US)
SHAOLIN PRINCE 1982- IRON FINGERS OF DEATH(US)
5 ELEMENT NINJAS 1982- SUPER NINJAS(US)
HEROES OF THE EAST 1978- CHALLENGE OF THE NINJA(US)
CLAN OF THE WHITE LOTUS 1979- FISTS OF THE WHITE LOTUS(US)
THE DUEL 1971- DUEL OF THE IRON FISTS(US)
VENGEANCE! 1970- KUNG FU VENGEANCE(US)
You'll notice that the US distributors commonly used the words 'death' or 'deadly', 'fist(s)' and 'kung fu'. Sometimes the original title would be vague or have symbolic meaning that would probably have confused the foreign audience. Who would pay to see a movie called THE WATER MARGIN (1972)? This particular film was altered from 127 minutes in its original HK version to 79 minutes(!) for its American debut and the title changed to the more anglo accessible 7 BLOWS OF THE DRAGON.
The WATER MARGIN (1972) was a classic Chinese historical drama about the heroic 108 Outlaws of the Marsh; 108 Robin Hoods that fought against tyranny and protected the oppressed. There are over 100 volumes on the exploits of the 108 which are still read in China today. The central theme of the story, 'Jiang Hu' literally translated means 'Rivers and Lakes'. This could be read as the margin between the tyrannical rule of the government against the common people and renegades of society who choose to speak out, or act according to their own code of honor.
This is what Jiang Hu is, in essence, an outlaw code of brotherhood among men. In the film, the 108 are betrayed by their allies when their leader is killed in an ambush. They are framed and branded enemies of the state. They retreat into the mountains and seek out the help of two martial arts masters, Jade Dragon and his disciple Young Dragon. Unbeknownst to Jade Dragon, his wife is secretly having an affair with one of his aides, as he would rather hone his skills than satisfy his wife.
Several of the 108 disguise themselves as merchants to meet with Jade Dragon. He reluctantly agrees. However, his wife and her lover now frame him as a traitor after learning of his plan to facilitate the honorable 108. He is soon arrested and tortured and ordered to be put to death. It is up to the seven best warriors to rescue him as well as get revenge for the unjust murder of their ambushed leader.
The themes of brotherhood and honor among men runs through virtually all of Chang Cheh's movies from the late 60's to the late 70's. Movies like GOLDEN SWALLOW (1968), HEROIC ONES (1970), THE DEADLY DUO (1971), ALL MEN ARE BROTHERS (1973), IRON BODYGUARD (1973) and the classic Chinese historical drama, BLOOD BROTHERS (1973) are only a few of Chang's output to feature this theme.
Chang directed over 90 films in his heyday and once said he'd stop at 100. He almost made it (the total ended up being around 96 features) as he continued directing until the mid nineties. In keeping with the Shaw's standing to satisfy the insatiable appetite of the HK audience, Chang (whose massive body of work satisfied that need) had varied quality from film to film.
Some would showcase brilliance while others would seem sloppy at times. With such a work horse ethic, that was to be expected. Nearly all his films were made between 1967 thru 1983. He was finally awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the HK Film Awards ceremony (the equivalent of the Oscars) in 2002. He passed away in June of that year from cancer. Many of his films have won various awards over the years. Chang Cheh was noted for having launched more actors and filmmakers careers than anyone else in Hong Kong.
Actors such as David Chiang, Ti Lung, Chen Kuan Tai, Alexander Fu Sheng, Lee Yi Min, Chi Kuan Chun, Lo Lieh, Jimmy Wang Yu, Wang Lung Wei, Liang Chia Jen, the 5 Venom crew and famous HK singer and actor Andy Lau are some of the celebrities Chang made popular, or gave them their first big break.
Fight choreographers (some of which went on to illustrious careers as directors) include Liu Chia Liang, Tang Chia, Huang Pei Chi and Robert Tai Chi Hsien. Others who were assistant directors, actors or directors who got there tutelage under Chang were Lo Wei, Wu Ma, Pao Hsueh Li, Kuei Chi Hung, and most famously, John Woo. In addition to making male roles popular at the Hong Kong box office as well as creating male dominated movies, Chang also introduced the 'shaky cam', a technique used prominently today that lends a documentary feel to the proceedings.
Chang also experimented with color filters from time to time to represent flashbacks or to symbolize emotion. He would also punctuate an emotional scene with zooms. His later films would sometimes go overboard with this technique. Today, its use seems a bit silly and old hat and is seldom done today.
Another Chang staple that would become a mainstay for many of Shaw's other directors as well as of the genre itself was the amount of violence and blood present in his films. With each successive film, there would be more creative and elaborate methods of dispatching the main characters; the heroes generally taking some serious punishment and often dying along with the antagonists at the end.
With this graphic representation of violence becoming popular with moviegoers, almost every other action film tried to top or match the gruesome showcase of sadism present in the films of Chang Cheh.
In the 1973 production, AMBUSH, a man has his leg forced into the cogwheels of a windmill severing the limb at the knee. In OATH OF DEATH (1971), the hero loses his leg only to stab his fingers deep into the top of the villains head. THUNDERBOLT FIST (1972) features a man leaping into the air and kicking his leg straight through a victims chest cavity exiting out the back resulting in a massive arterial spray.
Chang Cheh would top these with his heroic displays of gore and patriotism. His epic production of ALL MEN ARE BROTHERS (1973) was a cavalcade of gritty and gory last stands between the outnumbered good guys and the plentiful bad guys.
In 1973 however, HEROES TWO would present characters that used actual kung fu styles and would display them on screen for the audience to marvel at. This new style of action choreography would quickly replace the Karate-like movements seen in 'fist-and-kick' flicks from the previous couple years. Even so, the Bruce Lee style of fight flick would continue in films such as DRAGONS NEVER DIE (1974), GODFATHER OF HONG KONG (1973) and HERO OF SHANGHAI (1977), an indy movie starring Chen Kuan Tai and born out of the popularity of Chen's star turn in the hugely successful THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972).
In HEROES TWO (1973) and MEN FROM THE MONASTERY (1974), the first of Chang Cheh's Shaolin cycle of films to be released, the plot centered around several of China's real life historical figures that fought against the tyranny of the Manchu regime. HEROES TWO begins with the destruction of the temple and the remaining survivors struggle to escape the burning temple.
Hung Hsi Kwan, (played by Chen Kuan Tai) one of the most famous of the Shaolin heroes, escapes to recruit rebels to fight the Qings (Manchus). Fong Hsi Yu, another real life figure, who according to legend, practiced the 'Iron Skin' technique. A style that enabled the practitioners skin to be impervious to bladed weapons save for one weak spot (usually the eyes and groin).
This plot point would find its way into hundreds upon hundreds of other movies and would morph further with the release of Liu Chia Liang's EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN (1976), a film that would start an avalanche of productions featuring a white haired villain impervious to weapons. Indy productions scrambling to get a chunk of good box office jumped on the 'White Brow' wagon. There was such a proliferation of movies featuring an invincible villain, that many of them began switching the antagonists weak spot from one part of the body to the other.
CONTINUED IN PART 5...