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Monday, May 16, 2011

Neglected Directors of Shaw: Sun Chung Part 1



Poster for Sun Chung's drama starring Tsung Hua and Lin Chin Chi. It's unreleased on DVD at this time

Sun Chung was one of the most ambitious and creatively gifted directors to make movies in Asia. A man of considerable talent, he would attain a respectable position as a filmmaker, but never garnering the level of attention heaped onto such revered directors as Chang Cheh and Liu Chia Liang (at least not outside of Asia). Nonetheless, Sun Chung has a few genre offerings that are among the most well known and classic examples of Hong Kong cinema. Movies such as AVENGING EAGLE (1978) and HUMAN LANTERNS (1982) are the signature works recognized by the general consensus of fans that follow oldschool Hong Kong action cinema. Very little has been written, or discussed regarding a number of other directors that enjoyed fruitful careers at Shaw Brothers and beyond. Many of these filmmakers and their resumes remain largely overlooked, or ignored outside of one or two titles. One such director was Sun Chung.

Sun Chung (center) instructs Tsung Hua (left) and Nora Miao (right) through a scene during the making of MONEY IS EVERYTHING (1975)

A Shantung native, Sun Chung grew up in Taiwan studying and eventually graduating from the National Institute of the Arts. As with most all up and coming directors, they had to start at the bottom and work their way up to guiding a production solo. Sun Chung started as an assistant director for an independent company before helming the musical WILD GIRL (1968)* and the comedy TOPS IN EVERY TRADE (1969)* before being hired on at Shaw Brothers Studio. Interestingly enough, Sun Chung would work for other studios such as Summit Film Productions while he was working for Shaw's. For these independent pictures, Sun used a pseudonym--Tung Ming Shan. Many of these features were dramatic, and or comedy films such as HONOR AND LOVE (1973)*, THE FOOL AND HIS MONEY (1974)*, MUTINY ON THE HIGH SEAS (1975)* and MONEY IS EVERYTHING (1975). *

Sun Chung gives direction to Shu Pei pei in THE DEVIL'S MIRROR (1972)

But wedged in between these non Shaw productions was Sun's first film for the then HK studio giant. THE DEVIL'S MIRROR (1972) was a standard Shaw Brothers swordplay picture, one of dozens that were extremely popular at the time in addition to being a lucrative genre style. While Sun's first big studio movie was a formula Wuxia actioner, it did have an unusual air about it that allowed it to stand out from the hundreds of similar endeavors flooding the market at the time. Chiang Yang instills some incredibly bizarre elements in his script and Sun Chung, although a few years off from cementing his signature, defining filmmaking style, shoots the action in some different ways as opposed to the typically static presentation of many others.

Behind the scenes on THE DEVIL'S MIRROR (1972)

This Fantasy-Horror-Swordplay is the standard martial world archetype--two diplomatic clans are in possession of two magical mirrors, Thunder and Wind; both of which are desired by the Jiu Xian witch, the nymphomaniacal leader of the Bloody Ghoul Clan. The two mirrors together make a powerful pair and when brought together can be used to open the long dead Emperor Wu's tomb where lies the fabled Fish Intestine Sword which grants its owner invincibility. One of the mirrors is stolen and the two righteous clans put blame at the other so members of each faction set out to find the missing mirror. As per swordplay movies, there's a multitude of plot devices, but this is one occasion where things never get too terribly convoluted. There's near non stop clashing of swords, an amazing amount of gore splashed around, sex, some mild special effects, garishly hokey Halloween goon squads, a mountain made of gold, wacky plot twists and one of HK cinema's most kooky villains.

Even with all its energy and unusual production design, THE DEVIL'S MIRROR failed to ignite the box office at least in Hong Kong. Unperturbed, Sun Chung moved onto other styles such as dramas and comedies with such titles as the thoroughly bizarre sex comedy THE SUGAR DADDIES (1973) and serious dramatic features like COHABITATION (1975) and independent films such as MONEY IS EVERYTHING (1975) starring Shaw stars Tsung Hua and Nora Miao.

Sun Chung in a production meeting with Shih Szu and Chen Kuan Tai prior to the shooting of THE BLOODY ESCAPE (1975)

At the tail end of 1972, mere months after THE DEVIL'S MIRROR's release, a film entitled THE ESCAPE was announced as one of many films in production to be directed by Chang Cheh. Not long after, Sun Chung was added as a co-director. For reasons likely associated with Chang's impending Taiwan sojourn, THE ESCAPE became a Sun Chung solo effort. As filmmaking progressed, the film's title changed to THE BLOODY ESCAPE. Shooting over the course of the next two years, the picture was released late 1975, and like his maiden Shaw effort, THE BLOODY ESCAPE came and went in Hong Kong.

Making THE BLOODY ESCAPE in 1973

Bear in mind, though, the sheer number of movies that were released at any given time in Hong Kong cinemas back then. The Shaw Brothers production slate accommodated between 40 and 50 movies a year(!), not counting the foreign films and other local productions they picked up for distribution as well as the other studios in Hong Kong. Also around this time, the Shaw's, cognizant of the growing force of the independent studio, were adamant that their stable of directors worked diligently and efficiently in a bid to compete and maintain their place in the market. This eventually led to a handful of times the Shaw Brothers ordered a motley clutch of their best directors to come together and hastily throw together a quick flick to counter a similar production from a rival studio.

Another behind the scenes still on THE BLOODY ESCAPE in 1973

Seeing THE BLOODY ESCAPE (1975) today, the tone and filmmaking style looks remarkably like a Chang Cheh picture for the bulk of the films running time. Once again, there's nothing here that defines Sun Chung as his own director. The Shaw's had a handful of contract directors whose films, while entertaining, were interchangeable from one to the other. At this time, Sun Chung fell into this category and it bothered him intently. Wishing to break out of the formula mode, this enterprising filmmaker would eventually convince his boss to allow him to shoot a movie the way he wanted to, but that was still a few productions away. The next two years would push the director into dark territory--areas he would explore with a slight more restraint after 1977. For the next two years, Sun Chung's filmography was anything but restrained. The director churned out some amazingly tasteless and mindlessly violent action thrillers between 1975 and 1977.


While it was released in Hong Kong under the title THE DRUG CONNECTION, the film originally carried the moniker of THE SEXY KILLER. When the film was released to DVD, this original title was re-instated.

One such grimy picture was the cult item, THE SEXY KILLER (1976). Starring HK's then reigning queen of exploitation cinema, Chen Ping, this Asian clone of Pam Grier's blaxploitation classic, COFFY (1973), upped the sex and violence level considerably. The plot is the same, but the script never gives the performances room to breathe, or develop sufficiently, instead falling into heavy melodramatics at regular intervals. The violence is often so over the top, it becomes comical. It's an incredibly fun, if sleazy little movie. Sun Chung's signature directorial flourishes are foreshadowed here.

Sun Chung gets a check-up in between takes while shooting LADY EXTERMINATOR (1977). To the right is Erh Tung Sheng waiting for his next scene.

A sequel was made not long after (also directed by Sun Chung) and christened LADY EXTERMINATOR (1977). Chen Ping returned as did Yueh Hua. Originally, Yueh Hua was to have played the lead villain--the first time he was to essay an antagonist. The script was changed at some point, and Yueh Hua ended up reprising his cop role instead. LADY EXTERMINATOR has twice the action of the first film and was equally sleazy. Chen Ping's character from the first movie is in prison, but is given a pardon if she'll help the police infiltrate and bring down a powerful drug cartel. Lots of shoot outs and bloody violence ensues including a cat fight between Chen Ping and recent Shaw discovery, Shirley Yu. This was also the screen debut of popular actor and future award winning director, Erh Tung Sheng. Once more, Sun Chung delivers a mindless, if efficacious action film that brings nothing new to the table, but satisfactorily expands on the grim tone of the first picture.

BIG BAD SIS (1976) was another Chen Ping vehicle for Sun Chung, the second installment in what could be indentified as a loose trilogy. This one was slightly less salacious than his Chinese COFFY interpretation and its sequel, but piled on the empowerment of women machinations. BIG BAD SIS was a semi sequel to Kuei Chi Hung's two TEAHOUSE movies starring Chen Kuan Tai. While those two films were dramatic affairs, BIG BAD SIS was a straight ahead action picture. The plot has been done since, but Chen Ping plays a former Triad trying to go straight and earn an honest living. She teaches some oppressed female factory workers how to defend themselves till her former gang find out where she is. This leads to a big stunt filled battle royale at the end and guest appearances by Chen Kuan Tai and Wang Chung who lend their sister in arms some much needed support.

At the start of 1976, a film entitled THE CRIMINALS was a monetary success for the Shaw Brothers. Made in an anthology format and utilizing three directors for each story, a sequel quickly followed less than ten months later. Sun Chung contributed a segment in HOMICIDES: CRIMINALS 2 (1976). What's most startling about this sequel is that Kuei Chi Hung (who does double directing duty here), noted director of some of the most grotesquely brutal HK films ever made, is out-sleazed by Sun's entry, the 'Nude In A Box' segment. About the discovery of a naked and dead body of a 17 year old girl stuffed in a box on the street, this court procedural features a sadistic creep that enjoys slicing women's nipples and blow-torching their crotches(!) of all things. The film was a success in Hong Kong and Sun Chung was destined for big things, but he still had some additional trash that needed to be taken out before showcasing what he was truly capable of.

Sun Chung and the former queen of HK exploitation movies, Chen Ping

What was most interesting about these modern day crime anthologies was that they didn't all start out that way. Some of them were intended as full length features and whether due to time, money, or other detrimental factors, some of these proposed productions were suddenly truncated to fit an omnibus format. ASSAULT: CRIMINALS 4 (1977) was one such occasion, at least Sun Chung's portion of the film, 'Queen of Temple Street', was originally envisioned as a feature. This was Sun's next production following the completion of LADY EXTERMINATOR, which was completed in late 1976. The saddest part regarding the 'Queen of Temple Street' segment is that this is quite possibly the greatest piece of dramatic filmmaking on the directors resume.

A portion of a magazine spread on QUEEN OF TEMPLE STREET (1977) when it was originally slated as a full length feature film

The film concerns a man who redefines avaricious. Overcome with a serious gambling addiction, his hard working and beautiful wife is the bread winner and must contend with her husband regularly losing their earnings. Falling into a massive financial quagmire, this deplorable man sells his wife to the Triad gambling den owner where she will be utilized as a prostitute. To make matters worse, the coward deceives his wife to get her there. From there, the story takes a turn for the worse, but Sun Chung masterfully maintains the callousness of the tale without descending into outright exploitational sadism. The film also benefits from some striking photographic touches and is the longest segment out of the entire series. Saddled with a nauseatingly tasteless opening segment from master sleaze peddler, Kuei Chi Hung, 'Queen of Temple Street' is the antithesis of that sadistic 20 minute opener and just by itself, makes ASSAULT: CRIMINALS 4 (1977) the strongest entry in this popular series.

It must have been frustrating for Sun Chung, a filmmaker wishing to breakout from formula constraints, to continue doing exploitation movies. 1976 and 1977 were filled with them and Sun Chung had one more to complete and it's easily the most bizarre, as well as the single worst movie on his impressive slate of directorial efforts. FANGS OF THE COBRA (1977), aka COBRA GIRL, is similar in some ways to Kuei Chi Hung's despicable KILLER SNAKES from 1973. While that movie was a squalor infested, grueling horror experience, FANGS OF THE COBRA is an almost indescribable amalgamation of various genre styles. Essentially a tale of a girl and her pet cobra, this female country bumpkin sheltered from the evils of the world by her domineering father has no friends save for her Ophidian companion. But when this lady falls in love with a young man, this strains her relationship with Xi Xi, the slithery serpent.

A portion of a magazine spread on the making of COBRA GIRL aka FANGS OF THE COBRA

There's also a sub plot involving Frankie Wei Hung (essaying a serpent of another kind) attempting to take over a family business by any means necessary. There's also an incredibly distasteful scene where a mongoose is turned loose on an infant setting up the inevitable cobra vs. mongoose battle. This lengthy fight is choreographed in such a way it becomes a live action TOM & JERRY cartoon. If the peculiar balance of horror, romance and thriller weren't enough, there's a steady stream of raunchy sex thrown into the mix, too. It's a terrible movie, but ferociously entertaining and would seem to have been directed by somebody else.

Considering how astute Sun Chung was and his commanding attention to details, he doesn't seem to care here at all. While it's an embarrassing movie all around, trash fanatics will lap this one up. From here on out, and with a couple bonafide Hong Kong hits under his belt, Sun Chung would get to do a movie his way and define his style that would be instantly recognizable for the remainder of his career, particularly at Shaw Brothers studio.

* Thanks to Kenny Woo for translating titles from the early portion of Sun Chung's career prior to his work at Shaw Brothers studio.



Anonymous said...

I love that lobby card of THE SUGAR DADDIES with Peng Peng in the tub! Sometimes you just got to let it all hang out. ;p

And thanks for the tip about QUEEN OF TEMPLE STREET. I think I can still get the VCD at my local shop.

achillesgirl said...

Awesome blog. I really like Sexy Killer and I love Big Bad Sis so I guess now I need to hunt down Lady Exterminator!

venoms5 said...

@ Dave: I almost didn't scan that lobby cause it's so damn weird. Then I figured what the hell. All those CRIMINALS movies need to be on DVD although I could do without part 3. It's "criminal" that Queen of Temple Street isn't full length. As it is, it's a great short film. CRIMINALS 4 is the best movie of that series in my opinion. The fifth film is the nastiest I'd say because of the rank air of pedophilia in there.

@ Sylvia: I have a cam job of LADY EXTERMINATOR. Print quality is fair, but the movie is good. I've seen much worse bootlegs. Thanks for stopping by you guys!

A hero never dies said...

Great post venoms5, really looking forward to the second part.

venoms5 said...

Hey, thanks, Hero, glad you liked it!

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