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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

That Rambunctious Robert Tai & His Magnanimously Moribund Movies, Or, How I Wrecked My Career At the Fraction of the Cost of One Truly Good Movie

Robert Tai in the opening sequence to the opulent TRINITY GOES EAST (1998/2002)
"I'll give you what you need, I always give the audience something new, but in a very low budget way."

Robert Tai is an enigma. He's a curious, vocally flamboyant personality who had a prolific career in the wild and woolly world of HK cinema from the early 1970's up to the late 1980's as a performer, choreographer and director. Terribly outspoken, he has spun incredible behind the scenes tales that mirror the action in any number of kooky kung fu classic. To hear him tell it, he's responsible for the use of wire work in HK movies, the Shaw Brothers production of FIVE VENOMS (1978), kept Li Yi Min from being killed by a Triad boss and avoided certain death from respected filmmaker Liu Chia Liang, Wilson Tong and Wong Yu threatening him with knives!  

"....Jet Li would like it if I choreograph him..."


Hearing his stories are vastly more entertaining than his own movies, which are, by all intents and purposes, some of the most laughably bad scraps of celluloid ever filmed. Granted, his choreography is nice to look at, but the movies themselves leave a lot to be desired. With exaggerated claims of starting trends that existed well before he entered the industry, he's most (in)famous for his stupendously stupid ninja movies that took their cue from the much more coherent Chang Cheh picture FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (1982). Having either directed, choreographed, or acted in at least five under-budgeted ninja non-epics, Robert Tai is the Andy Sidaris of the woefully abused ninja sub genre.

"Since all the cast were my childhood friends...I was able to control the look of the whole production."--Tai referring to "his work" on FIVE VENOMS (1978).
Robert Tai (far right)

Tai was born in 1953 in Taiwan and was one of many students of the renowned Fu Hsing Opera School, the members of which later went on to careers in movies of varying prosperity. To his credit, Tai has worked with some of the biggest names in the business both before and during their popularity such as Jackie Chan and the venerable director Chang Cheh. Tai was one of a handful of talented acrobatic performers that accompanied Chang Cheh back to Shaw Brothers in 1977 after his stint in Taiwan had ended. Tai was a choreographer on a handful of Chang's movies including a few of the entries featuring the popular 'Five Venom' actors. 

" the end of the day, I didn't put my name on the film. Though it was my idea and my work, I did not put my name in the credits."--Robert tai referring to "his work" on LIFE GAMBLE although his description sounds more like HEAVEN & HELL
Wong Gan Man proudly displays his wrestling belt and his gold painted aluminum foil get up in SHAOLIN CHASTITY KUNG FU

1977 was the worst year of the directors career becoming the turning point in his already exhaustive resume; switching from predominantly sprawling tales of heroism to much smaller films that accentuated intricately designed, comic book fight scenes that pushed Cheh's brotherhood jingoism to the backseat. Robert Tai was one of a few choreographers on at least a dozen Shaw Brothers films between 1977 and 1979, his two year stint with the company, the bulk of these being the venom pictures.  

"It was Wilson Tong with Wong Yu and Liu Chia Liang. They had come to tell me to get out of town and they were brandishing knives."
Alexander Lou fights a group of wimpy ninjas armed with a bamboo tree which is apparently ninja Kryptonite.

It's during this period that one of the most outrageous Tai tales comes from. According to him, Liu Chia Liang was receiving flack from the Shaw's and was disgruntled that Tai and company were churning out three films to his one. Well, it's known that Shaw liked quantity to satiate the rabid HK audiences thirst for movies. But in some cases at this time, it was taking nearly two Chang Cheh movies to equal the box office of just one of Liu's movies. If you tally up both Cheh's 1978 output with Liu's from that year, Cheh had four movies versus Liu's three pictures. Liu Chia Liang's total comes to a combined 7,053,391HK$. Chang Cheh's combined total box office is 6,127,554HK$. The following year was much the same thing. Chang Cheh had four films released that year with a combined take of 4,999,082HK$, the biggest hit of those being SHAOLIN RESCUERS. Liu Chia Liang also had four films released with a combined total of 6,433,533HK$. One of these wasn't even a Shaw Brothers production (FISTS & GUTS), but even if you remove that films gross, Liu still comes out ahead so Tai's story is perplexing. In the early part of 1977, Liu had one film released, EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN which grossed nearly 3 million HK dollars. Chang Cheh had four again--two were bombs and two made over 3 million combined. It's curious just why Liu would become incensed at such a thing and even more bizarre that Liu, with help no less, would threaten Robert Tai with knives.  

"The wire work in the movies from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea originated from me....I've created so many different wire techniques."
Alice Tseng fights totally nude in NINJA THE FINAL DUEL, the sole saving grace of this movie
SHAOLIN TEMPLE AGAINST LAMA;Insert: Alexander Lou gets a little carried away in the meticulously crafted MAFIA VS. NINJA 

Personally, I think the choreography in the venom movies, for the most part, got better once Tai parted company with them. In bare handed exchanges, the choreography was lacking, but with weapons combat, the venom crew were amazing. Robert Tai takes a lot of liberties with his work on Chang Cheh's pictures inferring that he had a larger hand in the films than merely one of several choreographers despite differences in the recollections of Leung Ting (the founder of the International Wing Chun Association and choreographer on some of the films Tai worked on) and Kuo Chui. Still, that Robert Tai "had control" over Cheh's movies is a riot in itself and a bold statement amongst a slew of other bold statements.

"....He'll sit next to me and won't know what the fuck's going on."--Tai referencing noted director Lee Tso Nam
Robert Tai as the bad guy in THE INCREDIBLE KUNG FU MISSION (1982)

Like so many other directors in Hong Kong, you had to work your way up the ladder before getting the greenlight to stardom so many dreamt of. Wu Ma, Pao Hsueh Li and John Woo are three examples that worked as as assistant director before embarking on their own directorial careers. Chang Cheh was the rare exception. Robert Tai as well wanted more. Possessing the desire to direct, He eventually left for greener pastures in Taiwan attracted by proposed better offers outside Shaw Brothers, one of which was as the lead villain in INCREDIBLE KUNG FU MISSION (1979). It's here where Robert Tai's career began to "take off", and later, his amazing use of verbage.  

"You see I understand kung fu, you people don't. You want to shoot what you saw yesterday at the cinema."
The Nine Devils Gang ponder a gig as a traveling carnival

Tai's first directing credit was the atrocious 'cut-and-paste' job, DEVIL KILLER (1980) which also began a collaboration with up and coming actor/soon to be choreographer Alexander Lou. SHAOLIN CHASTITY KUNG FU (1980) alluded to the ludicrousness to come. A totally plotless affair, it's basically about a gang of outrageous looking villains terrorizing a village and a group of Shaolin monks who train them all to fight back; sort of an inverse version of THE SEVEN SAMURAI (1954) directed with zero flair with only the wacky characters and near non-stop fighting to sustain interest. One of the villains is Wong Gan Man, who was also a wrestler and he proudly wears his belt in the movie in a glaring bit of anachronistic license. Another villain appears to be wearing what amounts to thermal underwear.  

"The problem with him is that all his films are alike and he's run out of ideas."--Tai referring to Yuen Woo Ping.
Liu Hau Yi (right) battles a guy decked out in thermal underwear in Tai's SHAOLIN CHASTITY KUNG FU (1980)
Just one example of the exemplar choreography of Robert Tai during this complex maneuver which emulates two little boys kicking at each other on a playground.

Chang Cheh's aforementioned FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (1982) wasn't a huge success, but must have been popular in other Asian markets as a large number of similar movies began cropping up almost immediately. Even venom Kuo Chui tried his hand at directing his one and only time in a Taiwanese version of both 5EN and FIVE VENOMS (1978) called NINJA IN THE DEADLY TRAP (1984). Robert Tai would take ninjas to embarrassing new heights with SHAOLIN VS. NINJA (1983), another movie with absolutely zero plot aside from Chinese versus Japanese. The films title is what it's about and it's an execrable mess.  

Check out the shadow of the camera crew during this poignant scene as Lou mourns the loss of his ninja lover. Simply a brilliant performance by Alexander Lou 

NINJA VS. SHAOLIN GUARDS (1984) fares better in the plot department, but is also pretty much an unwatchable mess. Tai didn't direct this one, but you'd swear he did. The whole film reeks of his insane style. Speaking of "style", Robert Tai is seldom kind in his thoughts of his colleagues who have went on to well deserved and financially profitable careers. His obvious bitterness and propensity to take credit for other people's successes shows Tai to be a man angered that his career floundered (later than it should have), while others passed him by.  

"Who is gonna give me five billion to make a film? Two, three billion would not even be enough."
Lee Yi Min fights Silvio Azolini, a Hara Krishna who somehow ended up in China;Insert: The dreaded Ninja Water Spiders from NINJA THE FINAL DUEL!!!!

Just watching the movies he was involved in whether directing or choreographing, it isn't hard to see why he didn't go further. His movies are excruciating to the extreme. They're a joke on the kung fu genre. Why anyone would put up money for such nonsense is mind boggling. But then, with so little being spent on these pitiful excuses for action movies, a small enough profit isn't beyond reasoning. His "Magnum Opus", NINJA THE FINAL DUEL (1986) was an 11 hour(!!!) mega misfire that was shot for a well beyond meager $200,000. Prior to this, there was an incredibly similar, yet far worse shit-tastic series that emerged as VENOM OF THE NINJA aka NINJA KIDS (1982). Credited to Joseph Kuo (THE 18 BRONZEMEN, BORN INVINCIBLE), this exuberant piece of excrement looks to be more the work of the nefarious Robert Tai than Kuo's handling, especially in the choreography although it's credited to Lee Hai Shing, a colleague of Tai's.  

"That's why Ching Siu Tung fizzled out because he's always copying others."
William Yen (bald guy to the left) attempts to squash some water spiders from NINJA THE FINAL INSULT (1986).
Alan Hsu (left) gets the short end of the stick from Alexander Lou (right) in SHAOLIN TEMPLE AGAINST LAMA

Still, Tai has choreographed some movies that were exciting, if brain-dead fun. Some were actually pretty dramatic movies, but again, Tai was only directing the action, or taking a role in some examples. These are INCREDIBLE KUNG FU MISSION (1979), THUNDERING MANTIS (1979), THE HEROES (1980), NORTHERN KICKS, SOUTHERN FISTS (1981) and SHAOLIN TEMPLE AGAINST LAMA (1981). One of Tai's most frequent associates is the muscular Alexander Lou aka Lou Rei. With a career that was more prosperous than Tai's, in all of Lou's movies, the camera always manages to linger over his near constant poses and vein popping muscle flexing. 

"I like to stretch my mind. I want to shoot things that no one has filmed before."
Alexander Lou as 'Right Said Fred' in MAFIA VS. NINJA

Lou starred in at least eight inefficient, but unintentionally hilarious Chinese ninja adventures. Virtually none of them are worth mentioning although rabid fight fans seem to eat these movies up. One of the more (barely) tolerable is the Tai directed MAFIA VS. NINJA (1985). It's an amalgamation of elements from far better movies, but the action is good when it doesn't strain the outer reaches of credibility. It's a given to have fantastic displays of over the top abilities in these movies, but this one becomes more ridiculous as the picture wears on. Lou is especially amusing frequently snapping his suspender straps and doing what barely passes as a Bruce Lee impersonation. The ending features ninjas hiding under small patches of straw as they scurry across a yard and Lou uprooting a bamboo tree that's apparently made of steel as the ninjas swords fail to cut it in half. 

Alexander Lou shows amazing skill with his lazy and deadly 'No Shit Sherlock' Kick demonstrated on a hapless ninja wearing boxers and a bath robe

Next came the cinematic cerebral edema that is Tai's poverty row GONE WITH THE WIND of ninja epics, the exasperating eleven hour drivel that is NINJA THE FINAL DUEL (1986). Only those with an inordinate amount of patience need attempt to wade through the nerve shattering 90 minute cut that is available on DVD. At least three to five volumes of this mess have been made available on VHS in other countries. It's hard enough to sit through just an hour and a half of this much less eleven painful hours of it.  

John Liu, now looking like a piece of Aged Wisconsin, shows he might still have it
Yes, that's a ninja battling a pig in a Mitsubishi 10XP T-1000 Baby Cart armed to the teeth from TRINITY GOES EAST (1998/2002);Insert: John Liu poses for a 'Before' photo for the 'International Hair Club For Men'.

Robert Tai's output from here on out was minimal and the martial world was mercifully spared any more inane ninja madness. I take that back. Tai delivered two more atrociously bad movies upon the world that had ninjas in them. SHAOLIN DOLEMITE (1999) and TRINITY GOES EAST (1998;the credits list a 2002 date). The former is a refurbished version of yet another cut of NINJA THE FINAL DUEL with a handful of new scenes featuring the now late comedian, Rudy Ray Moore, who also starred in the awful blaxploitation cult film, DOLEMITE (1974). The latter is a seriously unfunny take off on the classic spaghetti western THEY CALL ME TRINITY (1970) with Tai style fights. The fights are good, but are quickly done in by the most ridiculous bits of "showboating" from the performers. If anything, Tai's last movie to date managed to cram an aged John Liu, a Bruce Lee impersonator, a Bud Spencer imitator, ninjas and a pig traversing around in a weapons laden baby cart in an absolutely painful experience. Hopefully Spielberg (whom Tai says he'd LOVE to work with) will contact Tai so he will have someone else to blame for ruining his movies. I can see it now--INDIANA JONES & THE LEGEND OF THE GOLDEN NINJA WARRIORS.  

"There's been no advancement in wire work these past years, why? Because it's been a long time since I last made a movie."
Robert Tai (right) battles a Bruce Lee impersonator (left) during the opening moments of the sprawling and epic scope that is TRINITY GOES EAST (1998/2002); Insert: Tai in NINJA VS. SHAOLIN GUARD
Reportedly, Tai ended up running some kind of import business with his wife. Whatever he does today, he has remained in the public eye of kung fu fan circles with his outlandishly bitter recollections of his days appearing in and making Hong Kong kung fu movies all the while putting down others more successful than himself who actually managed to make movies WORTH watching. Robert Tai should channel all that frustration in a much more "positive" way by either writing his autobiography, or starting his own tabloid journal. If you think Tai ever actually contributed anything he claims made the genre so great, I've got a wall in China I'd like to sell you. 


R.A.M.'67 said...

Robert Tai in The Incredible kung Fu Mission looks like Edgar Winter!

So, this is what happened to him? It appears Ed Wood knew more about making movies than Robert; the camera crew shadow you show in the one picture is beyond "amateur hour"!

Not every fight choreographer is automatically qualified to direct full-blown features. If he had been under the wing of Chang Cheh for a long time like John Woo or Lau Kar Leung, this article wouldn't exist!

A fun post, venoms5!

venoms5 said...

To be fair, there's a jarring shot of a cameraman shadow in THE DELINQUENT during a slow motion shot. It's perplexing how such things get past.

I think Tai is just a bitter man who had great ambitions, but never quite realized them in the way he might have liked. Everyone he slanders have went on to great careers. I'm sure if his name were brought up to Jet Li, the conversation would go something like this... "Tai who....? Oh, Tai Chi! Yes, David Carradine in KUNG FU...Tai Chi...I know this."

He should seriously write a book, though. Just about every kung fu fan would buy a copy just for all the wild stories.

achillesgirl said...

omg, LOL! You crack me up. And you've completely convinced me. While I can't change what I've written, I can state here that YOU'RE RIGHT. We can't believe anything Tai says. What a jerk. Shudder.

R.A.M.'67 said...

Good point about the shot in The Delinquent, venoms5! Flubs can happen in any bad and good movie.

In The Red Shoes, I noticed boom mike shadows and the reflection of one on a shiny car! Of course, everyone knows of the continuity error with Bogart's trenchcoat in that one scene in Casablanca!

If movies were (somehow) perfectly made, they'd be boring!

venoms5 said...

@ Achillesgirl: Nah, it's nothing about being right or wrong, I had wanted to do a fun piece on Robert Tai for a while now with compiling a number of his stories being the centerpiece. I'm serious when I say the man should write a book. Ric Meyers works for (or used to) Weekly World News, maybe he can be his ghost(faced)writer.

@ Fang: There's a series of books out there called FILM FLUBS, I think is the name of it and it specializes in finding mistakes in mostly big movies.

jonbecker03 said...

one of the posters implied that jet li wouldn't know who robert tai is. i don't believe that. the hong kong martial arts industry is relatively close knit. anybody who is anybody in the industry would know anybody else who is anybody. or at least know OF that person. and robert tai was SOMEBODY in the hong kong film industry. he was a minor somebody, even an infamous somebody, but a somebody nonetheless. hell, I know who robert tai is, and i've never even been PART of the hong kong martial arts film industry. OF COURSE jet li would recognize the name of robert tai. as to whether jet would want to work with him, THAT is another story........

venoms5 said...

The poster was myself, and the response was intended to be in jest.

shaolin_drunkard said...

Hi Brian, great blog, especially kung fu articles and old magazines picks, where from, I have to admit, I use some of fan facts for mu blog in Serbian.
Now, about Robert Tai. I agree that he was not, to say at least, good director, but in that kind of a movies budget was very important - just look at post SB Chang Cheh movies (9 Demons, Joyful Goddess) they were terrible, but in the choreography , field of his expertise, imho, he was very good. Of course, we will never knew how much did he really influenced on Ching Siu Tung and others, but, after The 5 Deadly Venoms action was much faster, and I think, on that part, that intensity of action was his biggest overall influence.
Cheers, and sorry for bad English.

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