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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Shaw Brothers Cinema: The Life & Death of the Great Alexander Fu Sheng Part 2

This is part two of the three part tribute to the late, great Alexander Fu Sheng. This second entry features over 50 selected color and B/W images from various Shaw Southern Screen, Hong Kong Movie News and the non Shaw publication, Cinemart magazine.


Fu Sheng and Jenny Tseng could be described as the 'Sonny & Cher' of Hong Kong. Their lovingly sappy, fairy tale lifestyle translated well on screen in several movies they shared together. They also were in the public eye on Jenny's own variety show that was popular in Asia at the time. They seemed the perfect couple and even played well opposite each other in the five productions they were featured in together.

The jubilant duo met on the set of Chang Cheh's massive historical epic, BOXER REBELLION (1975; see FU Sheng Part 1). Chang Cheh was on assignment there producing two dozen productions under the "independent" banner of Chang's Company using capital that was stuck in Taiwan.


Prior to this enormous production, Cheh had directed another big movie dealing with the Mongol invasion and subsequent conquering of Asia by Genghis Khan. Titled MARCO POLO (1975), the film dealt with Kubla Khan, the grandson of Genghis and his conquering of the Asian continent with the help of a gaggle of martial arts experts.

Fu Sheng, Richard Harrison and Carter Wong from MARCO POLO (1975)

The film featured Richard Harrison as Marco Polo in a picture that focused far more attention on the four main Chinese actors who made up the gist of the plot. Marco Polo mainly stands on the sidelines and merely observes what's going on around him. In his memoirs, Chang Cheh mistakenly remembers Harrison as a British actor. Harrison figured more prominently in BOXER REBELLION (1975).

Shi Szu, director Chang Cheh and Fu Sheng; presumably during the shooting of MARCO POLO

MARCO POLO was also the last film that Liu Chia Liang worked on as choreographer (BOXER REBELLION being the last film he completed). He departed a disgruntled man wishing to direct on his own, tired of toiling away on other directors movies. The movie was not finished so other action directors were brought on board to finish the fighting sequences.

Left to right: Ting Hua Chung, Fu Sheng, Li Yi Min, Chen Kuan Tai; from 7 MAN ARMY

Fu Sheng started out under the martial tutelage of Liu Chia Liang in POLICE FORCE (1973). In almost all his movies up to this point (mostly the period films), Fu Sheng showcased the Tiger and Crane styles of martial arts. He changed this style for NEW SHAOLIN BOXERS (1976; refer to previous entry) prominently displaying the Choy Li Fut style with the aid of three choreographers--Hsieh Hsing, Chen Hsin I and Chen Ji Liang.

Fu Sheng pals around with choreographer, Tang Chia behind the scenes on THE PROUD TWINS (1979)

Over the course of his career, Fu Sheng would work with various other choreographers. During the last phase of his tenure with Chang Cheh, it was Robert Tai Chi Hsien, Leung Ting and some of the crew that became known as the Venoms. Fu also had a rapport with prolific martial arts choreographer (and later director) Tang Chia, a former asst. choreographer to Liu Chia Liang. During the last couple years of his life, Fu Sheng would become an actual student of old Liu and feature in a few of his biggest films.


Fu was still incredibly loyal to Chang Cheh at this time and refused numerous offers outside Shaw Brothers insisting he remain at the side of his "filmmaker father". In 1977, Chang Cheh switched back to the Wuxia genre which he hadn't dabbled in since earlier in the decade. BRAVE ARCHER was based on a massive book titled 'Eagle Shooting Heroes' by Jin Yong. This story has an enormous cast in this multi-part series that's spread out over four entries between 1977 and 1982. Strangely enough, Fu Sheng plays a different character in the fourth film.

Promotional cast photo from LIFE GAMBLE (1979)

For LIFE GAMBLE (1979), the film was based on a novel from a lesser known author, Zhu Yu. The film was mostly an exercise in subterfuge peppered with knife throwing "gunfights" and a colorful kung fu circus show that appears during the finale. It's not a bad movie, just not the usual forte of Chang Cheh.

Left to right: Ti Lung, Fu Sheng, Chang Cheh, Chen Kuan Tai, David Chiang

He was apparently trying his hand at what his colleague, Chu Yuan had become famous for--re-establishing the Wuxia genre as a viable commodity again by creating a visual image of various novels in a way that hadn't been seen before and would be imitated for years to come.

Fu's participation is minimal and requires him to do little but stand around and look serious and toss a flying dagger, or two when the opportunity arises. It seems he is mainly on hand to give some additional leverage to Cheh's new cast of up and coming stars who had already been formerly introduced in FIVE VENOMS (1978) while this film was still in production. The typical mugging and comedic shenanigans that were commonplace in most of Fu's performances was nowhere to be found here.

Cut scene of Fu Sheng fighting Sun Shu Pei from TEN TIGERS FROM KWANG TUNG (1980)

Fu Sheng also figured in another Chang Cheh movie entitled TEN TIGERS OF KWANG TUNG, one of two fractured films from the director that ran into troubled waters and was shelved for a time before they could be finished. The film began production in the early part of 1978 and was re-started again in 1980 utilizing a new crew of actors since one of the original performers, Wei Pai had left the studio for the competition among other things.

A break during shooting of TEN TIGERS

A handful of sequences were unfortunately scrapped including some of Fu's fight scenes and more action sequences involving the Venom actors such as Lo Mang taking on Tam Jun Tao and an army of shield wielding warriors and Sun Chien battling a regiment of Qing soldiers. A new group of very young acrobats and martial arts performers were brought over from Taiwan and began filming almost immediately when the production started again in 1980.

Injuries suffered by Fu Sheng on the set of another movie also impeded the progress of Cheh's potential kung fu extravaganza dealing with ten real life Chinese patriots. It should be noted, there are discrepancies as far as the actual date of the actors first injury. One fact all can agree on is that they both took place in September. On September 17th, 1978 (another report has him being admitted on September 3rd through the 9th) the actor complained of being dizzy while shooting commenced on the set of Sun Chung's DEADLY BREAKING SWORD (1979). He fell backwards, his head crashing through an urn, an accident that could have proven fatal nearly giving Fu Sheng a 'Deadly Breaking Neck'.


The following year on September 19th, Fu Sheng again was injured whilst shooting Chu Yuan's HEROES SHED NO TEARS (1980) when the harness holding him up broke sending him crashing to the hard floor below shattering his right leg. While he was recuperating from the first operation, he had to undergo another procedure as the bone didn't set properly and a special contraption was put in place to keep him still. He was out of work for the better part of six months.

Several other productions were also halted due to Fu's injuries. At least one production was never completed. Partially shot under the titles MARK OF THE EAGLE and SIGN OF THE EAGLE, this was to have been another pairing between Fu and Ti Lung. Chu Yuan was the director for this picture. The script appears to have ultimately morphed into Chu Yuan's CONVICT KILLER (1980) which starred Ti Lung, but paired him with Tony Liu Yung.

Another scene from the unfinished MARK OF THE EAGLE

Note Fu Sheng's crutches behind him to the left of the picture

With two serious accidents in the month of September, Fu Sheng made a proclamation to never shoot during the ninth month of every year and contemplated having a geomancer "re-decorate" his home. He was also reminded that since he came from a wealthy family, his life need not be so difficult. Fu responded to this with declaring his independence from his family. After these two accidents, Fu Sheng wasn't quite the same on screen. He still looked good in his fight scenes, but he was noticeably more stiff than before.

A break between takes of DEADLY BREAKING SWORD (1979)

Going back to his time with his mentor, Fu Sheng and his song bird wife, Jenny, also appeared fleetingly in Chang Cheh's much troubled HEAVEN & HELL (1977). Beginning in 1975 as simply THE HELL, it was an ambitious experimental film told in an abstract style. It melded German Expressionism with WEST SIDE STORY to create one of the most psychedelically trippy cinematic experiences of all time. It's not a very good movie, either.

The happy couples participation is limited to a few scenes including an out of left field musical number and disco kung fu fight scene. A lot of footage went unused and seemingly whole characters were eventually scrapped over the course of the films five year gestation not seeing proper, but brief release until 1980 when Cheh's latter career crew had become moderately popular.

1977 also brought forth one of Fu Sheng's most popular movies in fan circles. THE CHINATOWN KID was the third time Chang Cheh had done the bumpkin 'rags to riches' plot--the first time with Chen Kuan Tai in the influential classic, THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972). The second time was with Fu Sheng in DISCIPLES OF SHAOLIN (1975), another influential epic and the film that proved to be Cheh's biggest HK hit.

CHINATOWN KID (1977) promo

CHINATOWN KID benefitted from some location shooting in San Francisco, but these scenes amount to very little screen time. The bulk of the movie takes place on Shaw sound stages. These work well within the parameters of the period martial arts films, but seem oddly out of place in a modern style actioner. The story and performances are good and it's surely one of the first Hong Kong movies to address drug use in a serious manner.


Censorship problems resulted in an alternate cut that features massive editing and also alternate scenes and a different ending. A third ending is alluded to in Cheh's memoirs so it's no telling how many cuts of this film existed at one time. Jenny also features here in one of her more natural roles helping Fu's character out, an illegal immigrant; a stranger in a strange land. Through her, he tries his first Coke and hot dog; the former of which was a favorite beverage of the popular actor.

Jenny and Fu Sheng are seen here as invited guests to the Miss Phillippine-Chinatown contest on April 15, 1978 in Manila.

In 1978, he was teamed with the man that stated he introduced him to Chang Cheh--Ti Lung. The two had appeared on camera before, but this time, they were being paired together for two films by the equally revered Sun Chung. Those movies are the classic tragedy of AVENGING EAGLE (1978) and the majestic mystery of THE DEADLY BREAKING SWORD (1979).

Both films are defining moments in the careers of both men. For AVENGING EAGLE, Ti Lung won a 'Best Actor' award, while the film itself nabbed a nod for 'Best Editing'. Fu Sheng's performance was blatantly different from his other roles. No longer the naive, or quick tempered, or judiciously impish character, Fu turned on a level of seriousness he hadn't yet entertained up to this point.

A break during the filming of AVENGING EAGLE (1978); Ti Lung, Sun Chung and Fu Sheng

The story dealt with a former member of a cruel gang of killers being pursued by his former brothers. Meeting a mysterious stranger on the road, the two become uneasy friends, but are joined by an unlikely bond which is revealed late in the film. Fu Sheng does imbue some mildly humorous tendencies, but these are downplayed for a far more somber character with an impetuous hidden agenda. His wife also figures in this movie in a small capacity as a stoic, yet doomed martyr.

Behind the scenes cast photo from AVENGING EAGLE: Ti Lung, Fu Sheng, Sun Chung, Jenny Tseng, Ku Feng

Behind the scenes on THE DEADLY BREAKING SWORD (1979)

THE DEADLY BREAKING SWORD found Fu in more familiar territory as an impulsive, but highly skilled kid who meets up with a flamboyantly arrogant swordsman. The two form an unlikely duo who uncover a secret plot involving a local doctor and the company he keeps including a powerful villain from the swordsman's past.

Fu Sheng's 'Little Dagger' character from DEADLY BREAKING SWORD.

Ti Lung and Fu Sheng

This simply amazing movie is one of the best examples of the Wuxia Romantic Swordsman style. It encompasses everything passionate about these types of productions and even contains a stirring main title theme. Fu Sheng had successful collaborations with stars like Chen Kuan Tai and Chi Kuan Chun, but his relationship with Ti Lung was far more genuine and more than simply a job where you work together and then go your separate ways.

Wong Yu (left) while filming DIRTY HO (1979) and Fu Sheng (right) during the shooting of MY REBELLIOUS SON (1982)

The two were like real brothers and their friendship was far more real than that of Ti Lung and David Chiang and Fu Sheng and Chi Kuan Chun. According to those who worked with him, he got along well with everyone. Wong Yu, a veteran Shaw Brothers actor, was also a good friend of Fu. The two worked on at least two of the same films for the esteemed Liu Chia Liang.

Fu Sheng and Gordon Liu


Fu Sheng continued his work in the Wuxia field appearing in a string of hits for Chu Yuan. These were THE PROUD TWINS (1979), a film tailored made for his rambunctious style, the aforementioned HEROES SHED NO TEARS (1980) and Chu Yuan's 100th production, the hugely successful RETURN OF THE SENTIMENTAL SWORDSMAN (1980). The latter two pictures featured Fu Sheng in serious mode again, leaving the comedic theatrics behind, but only temporarily.

Fu Sheng....director?

With his injuries now behind him, but tabloid gossip trailing ever so close, the 80's were looking bright for Alexander Fu Sheng. Having worked with nearly all of Shaw's biggest directors, the enterprising and fiercely independent young star was about to work with the Grand old man of kung fu excellence, Liu Chia Liang. Also in Fu's future was a dream to see what movies were like behind the camera. A short lived stint as a director was on the horizon.



Fang Shih-yu said...

I hopped to part two after seeing your latest KFC posting, venoms5! Well done!

Once and for all, the "Black September" injuries have been clarified; kudos to your translator of the old articles!

In these two parts, it's interesting to observe that, through your writing, you've given some "voice" to Fu Sheng (his vow to avoid September filmings and his declaration of independence from his family, for example); these installments are not just a stating of the facts! In conjunction with how your many photos are organized (no random sprinklings, here), your effort makes the Celestial "bio" of the man so much rubbish!

About Heaven and Hell, it should be noted the footage with Fu Sheng and Jenny in the "Earth" portion spans two eras, which reflects on how the production was on and off! Fu Sheng's hair and face in the "dream" part noticeably contrasts with how he looks during the fight that precedes the "Hell" segment.

Again, excellent work! You know I'm ready for part 3! :o)

venoms5 said...

I used to work for them years ago. More accurately, I helped out for a time. I did work full time at a few other Chinese restaurants. I could get them to translate some things, but every time I come around, all they want to talk about is when I am coming back to work for them. Plus, it's not the easiest thing to get them to translate because the material is so old. They really don't care for anything of this vintage for the most part.

I started to post images from the film (HEAVEN & HELL) over the years what with the footage that wasn't used. The makeup on the hell guardians looked different in the '75 version. But I figured that would take away from the topic. I may or may not get part 3 up today since this one took so long. Your words are appreciated, Fang.

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