NEGLECTED DIRECTORS OF SHAW BROTHERS STUDIO: SUN CHUNG
RISING SUN OVER NEW BEGINNINGS
RISING SUN OVER NEW BEGINNINGS
Towards the end of 1977, Sun Chung's JUDGEMENT OF AN ASSASSIN was released to theaters in Asia. While it was a minor success for the aspiring director, this film was special in that Sun Chung's style was cemented here and would only become more conspicuous with each succeeding film. The year prior, the prolific and highly respected director, Chu Yuan had redefined the Wuxia genre with a picture entitled KILLER CLANS (1976). Possessing a more operatic fairy tale quality rife with articulately constructed studio bound sets and intricately convoluted story lines, this new approach to swordplay became the order of the day once again. Sun Chung followed suit, returning to the Wuxia genre, it being the type of film with which he made his debut back in 1972.
Sun Chung's swordplay films were quite different from Chu Yuan's perplexing 'Romantic Swordsman' productions. Chu's films were mostly based on massive and popular novels from famous authors like Jin Yong and Gu Long. While Sun was far less prolific, his Wuxia adventures were mostly original scripts from genre workhorse, I Kuang. Sun Chung's approach to Wuxia was original, too. His version of swordplay was also noticeably more violent than Chu's interpretations. Sun made good use of slow motion techniques utilizing this practice during crucial moments of action both in close up and in master shots. Sometimes a few frames of film would be removed to lend the slow motion sequences a jagged effect. This particular nuance is most notable in AVENGING EAGLE (1978), TO KILL A MASTERMIND (1979) and THE DEADLY BREAKING SWORD (1979). Sun's use of slow motion is also noteworthy during close quarters combat wherein two fighters attempt to stab, or slice one another. The camera cuts in close as each strike narrowly misses its target, the camera slowed down so the viewer can appreciate the tense evocation of these shots.
Sun Chung also employed the vastness of a space, generally shooting from afar capturing a number of participants surrounded by expansive exteriors, or encroached within meticulously crafted interior sets. He also held onto a camera technique seen in many of Chang Cheh's movies. During fight sequences, the camera frequently follows the sword strikes and forceful blows moving with the motion of the main participant enhancing the illusion of power. Sun Chung's fascination with the moving camera was heightened when the Shaw's paid a reported US$60,000 to import a Steadicam in 1977. The studious filmmaker was the first to implement this new piece of equipment in a Hong Kong production. Its usage is briefly seen in THE PROUD YOUTH (1978) and in THE KUNG FU INSTRUCTOR (1979).
SUN'S SWORDPLAY--SHAW STYLE
JUDGEMENT OF AN ASSASSIN was an auspicious "debut" for Sun Chung upon his return to the genre--his last excursion into swordplay territory having been five years prior. The film concerns the search for the killer responsible for 21 deaths of the Golden Axe Clan. Controversy arises between both the Sin Ha and Bai Du clans as to who is responsible for the heinous act. A famous roving swordsman is hired to learn the truth and meets with a captured man linked to the massacre. Refusing to divulge any information till the Grand Hearing, a feared adversary thought dead for two decades makes his presence known.
This film began production under the working title of THE CRIME BUSTER (it was also called THE OUTSTANDING BOXER at one point) with Ti Lung, Tsung Hua and Ching Li among the cast. For reasons unknown, Ti Lung was unable to participate and his long time co-star, David Chiang took the role. Wearing a wig akin to the one he sported in Chang Cheh's horrid THE MAGNIFICENT WANDERERS (1977), Chiang does what he can with the role, but is repeatedly outclassed by a ferocious performance from Chen Hui Min as the Bloody Devil. The fights are bloody and possess a raw power in Tang Chia and Huang Pei Chi's choreography. Sun Chung manages some gloriously impressive shots in this engrossing and Gothic swordplay suspenser.
Carrying on with Chu Yuan's policy of adapting novels to the silver screen, Sun Chung follows suit with his version of a Jin Yong (Chin Yung) novel written by the over worked I Kuang. THE PROUD YOUTH (1978) was the directors first movie of a six film working relationship with actor Wong Yu. Even though it's not a bad picture by any stretch, THE PROUD YOUTH is Sun Chung imitating Chu Yuan (not to mention Chu was working on a similarly titled movie--THE PROUD TWINS).
Outside of some magnificent shots (the opening waterfall sequence is especially beautiful), hypnotically colorful sets and some bloody action moments, the results are less than satisfying. The plot is epic, but hampered by a 92 minute running time. These 'novel to film' adaptations are easier to follow for Asian audiences, or those familiar with the source material. All others will be confused. Thankfully, Sun Chung would return to more compact, but riveting swordplay thrillers after this, but would also direct a modern day crime thriller dealing with Hong Kong's modern day criminal underworld.
TRIAD'S ON THE INDEPENDENT CIRCUIT
Early in Sun's Shaw career, he was also doing films for independent companies under a pseudonym. He continued to do this, but retained his real name for these sporadic non Shaw Brothers features. One of them was a Triad gangster production for producer Chung Kuo jen. Entitled GODFATHER'S FURY (1978), this obscure and rarely seen film concerns an aging underworld boss who retires and hands over operations to one of his underlings. Other members disagree with this arrangement and take action through assassinations within the organization. The retired elder then returns to settle the matter. Things are complicated when a police officer is discovered to be the son in law of the former gang leader. Ku Feng, Chen Hui Min and Cheng Kei Ying are among the cast.
Sun Chung frequently dabbled in modern crime opuses and even married the underworld themes of the concrete jungle to period swordplay pictures such as THE AVENGING EAGLE (1978) and TO KILL A MASTERMIND (1979). The original title for GODFATHER'S FURY is 489, a coded title for the leader of the crime syndicate. This numerical use of film titles was also adopted by notable crime specialist, Hua Shan who rose to prominence with such modern day Triad films like BROTHERHOOD (1976), 438 (1978), independent films like GANG OF FOUR (1978) and its sequel 108 aka ISLAND OF VIRGINS (1978) and also THE BROTHERS (1979). But where Hua Shan took a far more rough, raw and occasionally gruesome approach to this material, Sun Chung turned this kind of violent subject matter into a more artistic endeavor.
HONG KONG AFTER DARK
With changing audience trends and the rise of independent film studios taking a big piece of the theatrical pie, the Shaw's occasionally became incensed at some of their production slates box office potential being "raped" by quick flicks cashing in at the last minute. This had been going on for years, but by this point in the decade, the Shaw's were losing their grip on the HK audience. This led to Shaw Bros. cutting down on bigger budgeted movies and urging their stable of directors to keep costs low and quantity levels high.
On at least two occasions, the "Shaw Directors Group" was brought together to crank out the mighty moguls own fast cash quick fix. The rare production of HELLO SEXY LATE HOMECOMERS (1978) brought together the team of Huang Feng, Chu Mu, Hua Shan, Li Han Hsiang, Ho Fan, Hsia Tsu Hui and Sun Chung to produce this terribly obscure adult movie. It was based on a popular late night HK adult talk show, itself modeled on a Japanese program of the same style. One of the shows hosts, Angel Chen Wai-yeng also stars in the movie. This quickly compiled Shaw film was in direct competition with Golden Harvest's own version of this hit TV show. The Shaw Brothers release also beat his competitors film to theaters by a few months. Incidentally, John Woo was involved in the production of Harvest's version.
RETURN OF THE SWORDSMEN
Returning to the comfort zone of swordplay cinema, Sun Chung got back to work on what would become his most famous motion picture and one of the greatest martial arts features of all time. THE AVENGING EAGLE was truly something special. Shot concurrently with THE PROUD YOUTH, director Sun no doubt focused the bulk of his attention on this passionately crafted tale of revenge and redemption starring the powerhouse team up of Ti Lung and Fu Sheng with a deliciously evil performance by Ku Feng as the nasty villain. In addition to his sweeping use of tracking shots and slow motion, Sun Chung experimented with a unique editing technique that utilized freeze frame shots at specific points in the movie. Critics apparently took notice as the film won an award for 'Best Editing' at the 16th Annual Golden Horse awards.
Sun Chung fully embraced his cinematic style in this production and his efforts (as well as everyone else involved) were well rewarded. AVENGING EAGLE was one of four films entered into the 25th Annual Asian Film Festival--The others being Chang Cheh's superlative SHAOLIN RESCUERS (1979), Chu Yuan's lovely SWORDSMAN & THE ENCHANTRESS (1978) and Liu Chia Liang's humanistic kung fu epic HEROES OF THE EAST (1978). The four day festival saw two actors win for their roles in AVENGING EAGLE--Ti Lung won the 'Most Outstanding Actor' award for his role of Chi Min Sing. Fu Sheng also took an award for the 'Highest Achievement For An Actor In An Action Film' for his role as Cho Yi Fan, the vengeance seeking, but remorseful man trailing Chi Min Sing aiding him against the Iron Boat gang. Unfortunately, Fu Sheng was not present at this event possibly due to injuries sustained during filming another picture and his award was accepted by Esther Niu Niu on his behalf.
Hitting a home run with a winning formula, Sun Chung was equally successful with yet another strong, overly emotional Wuxia dramatic production. THE DEADLY BREAKING SWORD (1979) which again re-teamed Ti Lung and Fu Sheng. Ku Feng returned as well, but played a non martial arts character, but no less sadistic. Chen Hui Min, who played villains in Sun Chung's JUDGEMENT OF AN ASSASSIN, THE PROUD YOUTH and GODFATHER'S FURY, essayed an antagonist that was on par with his turn as the Bloody Devil in Sun's return foray into the Wuxia arena.
Shot under the working titles of THE ROMANTIC DAGGER and THE LITTLE DAGGER, the plot concerns a regal prostitute who uses a brash young man and an arrogant swordsman to bring an evil doctor to justice for betraying and killing her brother years before. All the performances are exemplary. Fu Sheng is a bit over the top, but it fits the role. This picture is also notable for being one of two times Fu Sheng had a serious accident on the set. His injury here put another Sun Chung production he was starring in on the back burner, not to be completed and released until 1982. Director Sun again expands on his cinematic techniques he brilliantly showcased in THE AVENGING EAGLE to equally great effect here. The original score is also a highlight with a somber, yet strong main theme sung by Fu Sheng's wife, Jenny Tseng, an actress and popular singer. THE DEADLY BREAKING SWORD would end up as one of the directors most successful films at the HK box office.
In the late 1970s, Sun Chung had become one of Hong Kong's hottest directors. He had two major hits on his hands--both starred the dynamic star power of Ti Lung and Fu Sheng, two men who worked incredibly well together and who were close friends off camera. For the directors next venture into Wuxia territory, the cinematic landscape would be a decidedly different affair altogether. The plot concerned a vicious, secretive and ever growing criminal syndicate known as the Chi Sha. Government spies infiltrate the gang and disrupt their operations from within resulting in the gangs members suspecting one another of treachery. One by one, the gangs leaders are snuffed out, but the mastermind behind the organization remains unknown. TO KILL A MASTERMIND utilized most all of Sun Chung's innovations and added one--virtually none of the main cast members were known commodities. In interviews at the time, comparisons were made between Sun Chung's cast of unknowns and Chang Cheh's new crew, the Venoms, which apparently didn't sit well with Sun Chung for whatever reason. Famed screen villain, Wang Lung Wei was the one recognizable face of some repute. Whereas Sun's more recent films accentuated characterization, this new production abandoned it focusing more attention on the brute force of the fight scenes.
Tang Chia goes solo here in the fight choreography and fashions some stellar duels. The likable, reliable and overly friendly action designer was as important to Sun Chung as Liu Chia Liang was to Chang Cheh. Like the elder Liu, Tang Chia eventually pursued his own career in directing, but only when Sun Chung embarked on a few independent action pictures outside the walls of Shaw. Sun's new movie (which went under the working titles of THE SEVEN UNTOUCHABLES and THE SEVEN EVILS) was heavily promoted with a good deal of ballyhoo pushing this new cast of up and coming stars-to-be. Their youth and martial arts backgrounds were promoted as well. Among the cast were several prominent stuntmen who were getting a major push. The most successful of these was Yuen Wah. After nearly two decades in the business, he was finally getting a shot at the limelight. Despite the major marketing and ambitiousness of the production, TKAM failed to ignite at the HK box office and died quickly. Undaunted, Sun Chung moved on, but decided to take a leave of absence from the martial world for more comedic pastures.
*A huge thanks to Kenny for taking time to impart some additional details on HELLO SEXY LATE HOMECOMERS and TO KILL A MASTERMIND for this article.
CONTINUED IN PART 3....