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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Neglected Directors of Shaw: Sun Chung Part 3




The impassioned filmmaker gave tragic swordsmen a break for a brief period to focus on a straight ahead kung fu adventure with comical overtones. While kung fu comedy had become the rage at the time (thanks to Jackie Chan and his SNAKE IN THE EAGLE'S SHADOW), Sun Chung maintains a modicum of seriousness here in THE KUNG FU INSTRUCTOR while never letting the comedy completely overrun the proceedings. It began shooting in July of 1978 after THE DEADLY BREAKING SWORD and was finished and released before it. Touted as 'The Chief Instructor', then as 'The Kung Fu Master', this entertaining movie would be standard fare if not for Ti Lung's stoic portrayal as Wang Yang, a righteous martial arts instructor who enters a town torn apart by two feuding families.


This is a slightly lesser effort compared to Sun Chung's two previous swordplay extravaganzas. Wong Yu co-stars as a dedicated young man determined to study under the new master in town. Ku Feng is on hand as the main antagonist, Meng, who tries various methods of either buying off the new teacher in town, or framing him. When none of these work, he pays hired killers to simply end the man's life. When that, too, fails, the villainous Meng must eradicate teacher Wang on his own. The whole film is a worthwhile viewing experience, but one can't help but feel Sun Chung was being pushed into doing commercial product once more in order to bow to fickle audience tastes.

Sun Chung instructs THE KUNG FU INSTRUCTOR

Still, Sun Chung's cinematographic touches were in abundance here and THE KUNG FU INSTRUCTOR was a successful production for Shaw Brothers in the end. Kung fu comedies were multiplying left and right and would continue to garner strong box office receipts. This style of HK action film would reach an apex in Sun's career with the release of his next movie--a film that abandoned bloody violence. The dramatic presentation of heroism was all but non existent unlike the directors vibrant swordplay features he excelled at. This time, neither Ti Lung, nor Fu Sheng were anywhere around.

Sun Chung followed up his enjoyable, if generic kung fu opus with another similar movie, but with a heavier accent on comedy and relatively little seriousness. KID WITH A TATTOO began production as THE RESTLESS KID and THE DAUNTLESS YOUNGSTER--two titles that are anything but solemn. The directors other films in production at the same time were THE SEVEN EVILS (TO KILL A MASTERMIND) and KUNG FU GENERATION (aka RAGING TIGER, MY REBELLIOUS SON, TWO GENERATIONS OF KUNG FU). Sun's new kung fu comedy was hyped for its lack of any female roles (unusual in a Sun Chung movie) and that because of its all male cast, this was a movie for guys. Curiously, some would take such ballyhoo as bearing homoerotic tendencies, but this type of hoopla is no different than women dominated pictures being labeled as 'Chick Flicks'.

Sun Chung (right) goes over a fight scene with Yuen Wah (left) in KID WITH A TATTOO

Sun Chung could do above average kung fu flicks, but his strength was most prominent in swordplay productions. TATTOO was an unusual script and production and the epitome of the Xiaozi (Boxing Punk) style of HK action film, itself an offshoot of the Yanggang vernacular. Both were terms derived from the masculine cinema of Chang Cheh. This Sun Chung picture juxtaposes both creating one of the strangest kung fu comedies to ever emerge from Hong Kong's once unusually prosperous film industry.

This comical caper about Li Pao Tung, a brash young man, the son of a cotton mill owner, learns kung fu from a mysterious beggar named Chen Ying Kan. In actuality, this beggar is an undercover policeman attempting to bring down a drug and ammunition smuggling ring. His identity discovered, an assassin tracks him down and engages the beggar in a duel. Li is nearby and overhears Chen's last words. Learning that the head of the gang is known as the 'Dagger In the Cotton', Li believes that his dad has secretly been the head of this criminal organization all these years. The killers discover Li and go after him while Captain Fang searches for the now dead Chen's whereabouts. Kung Fu movie fans may be disappointed as Wong Yu spends the bulk of the film either avoiding or pranking on his father, or running from the killers. He fights occasionally, but mostly evades their attacks. Granted, comedy was extremely popular at the time and Sun Chung delivers some genuinely funny moments. Shaw's best example of kung fu comedy, THE TREASURE HUNTERS (1981), also featured bumbling heroes that were lacking in kung fu skills, but made up for it with cunning. Wong Yu is that kind of character here. He defeats perennial bad guy, Wang Lung Wei by attrition as opposed to his kung fu skill. The best fights are reserved for Yuen Wah and Dick Wei. Sun Chung's kung fu endeavors may not be as dramatically focused as his swordplay spectaculars, but they are certainly a lot of fun.


Various behind the scenes shots during the production of RENDEZVOUS WITH DEATH

RENDEZVOUS WITH DEATH is an exceptional example of Wuxia excellence. It's one of the most strikingly gorgeous Shaw Brothers productions showcasing a menagerie of colorfully ornate set pieces. Once more Sun puts Wong Yu in the lead role, but he's less childish here than in some of his other movies, particularly KID WITH A TATTOO. Wong Yu periodically does his imitation of Fu Sheng, but maintains a serious demeanor throughout. Wong Yu plays a strong willed and highly skilled swordsman who accepts a mission by a mysterious prince to escort a box whose contents are confidential. What's inside is coveted by a menagerie of warriors including two supreme swordsmen--Beggar Yang and Golden Rod Gu Fei Tian. From here on out, Sun Chung keeps the twists and turns coming at a fast pace, but never to the point where confusion sets in.

Sun Chung (right) demonstrates an action while Tang Chia (left) and Wong Yu (middle) watch on.

Tang Chia goes it alone here without the aid of Huang Pei Chi in the action department and doesn't disappoint in the various martial arts sequences; a special mention of the opening fight and Chen Kuan Tai's battle at the inn are among other highlights. Nothing in this movie fails to impress. Sun Chung is once more in top form and why shouldn't he be? The exploits of the martial world were his comfort zone. He could handle virtually any genre styling, but his work was doubtlessly best among the company of honorable swordsmen and their deceptive enemies. Sun's RENDEZVOUS with Wuxia also contains some of the most stunning sets and art decor of his illustrious career. Even if nothing else worked, the dazzling visual palette is immensely satisfying. After this brilliant return to form, Sun Chung would transplant martial arts movie conventions to the modern day tropes of the gambling action sub genre, a style of film that would gain incredible momentum by the close of the decade.


Gatefold poster for THE NOTORIOUS EIGHT (1981)

In 1972, award winning director, Cheng Tseng Chai delivered the first film to focus on the ever popular practice of gambling. Loved by the Chinese and a favorite hobby to many, the art of gambling was introduced in THE CASINO (1972). And while that film was a wild, gore drenched action picture revolving around the title establishment, Sun Chung followed suit with his own gambling adventure almost a decade later, only this one was more of a drama-thriller than an action film. The script bears some resemblance to a kung fu/Wuxia movie featuring a young gambling upstart named Chen who brazenly challenges the 'Gambling Devil', Hu Guan Tian. Losing a great deal of money to 'the Devil', Chen learns that Hu preordained the match to get even with Chen's father who had disrupted Hu's finances some years before. Chen then seeks out an elder gambler named Zhou and the remaining 'Eight Gambling Generals of Trickery Hall' to aid in his own brand of vengeance. If you have little to no interest in gambling, then NOTORIOUS EIGHT is likely to not catch your attention the first time around. Sun Chung captures some suitably tense moments and the ending is a bit downbeat, but most will feel like Sun Chung wasn't playing with a full deck here. This was the directors first and only foray into the world of casino's and gambling halls leaving the dens of iniquity to Cheng Kang and Wong Jing, the latter of which made the gambling movie a profitable sub genre in Hong Kong that is still popular today.



With the Fu Sheng flick, RAGING TIGER still in production (soon to settle on the title of MY REBELLIOUS SON), Sun Chung tried his hand at horror. In his debut Shaw production, THE DEVIL'S MIRROR (1972), Sun flirted with horror conventions married to a swordplay setting, but while the results then were more fun than frightening, things were a bit different ten years later.

Sun Chung (left) and Tang Chia (right) go over an action scene from REVENGE OF THE CORPSE.

RETURN OF THE SWORDSMAN starred Pai Piao as a righteous constable at war with a vicious underworld gang. Failing to kill him, the officer is poisoned by his scheming wife who is having an affair with one of the members of the gang. Later, a group of grave robbers unleash the vengeful spirit of the constable who kills those that wronged him in gruesome fashion. Arguably Sun Chung's rarest title on his resume, it hit HK theaters as REVENGE OF THE CORPSE (1981) and was also known in some quarters as THE BLOODTHIRSTY DEAD. It should be noted that this Wuxia horror hybrid was also the directors biggest hit in Hong Kong theaters.

HUMAN LANTERNS (1982) cast spread

Sun Chung followed up his martial arts zombie tale with an even more grotesque item entitled LANTERN SCARE that later settled on the more nasty sounding title of HUMAN LANTERNS. Sun's propensity for martial tragedy reaches its zenith here with nary a likable character in sight. The few innocents in the script die horribly and suffer for the misdeeds of others who learn far too late the err of their past ways. Liu Yung (Lung) and Chen Kuan Tai bluster and mock their way through the film laying blame at one another for kidnappings and murders occurring within their families. Meanwhile, the real culprit sits back and watches the cookie crumble all around them. Lo Lieh totally steals the show away from everyone else as Chao Fang, a man whose good soul was crushed by swordsman Lung some years earlier. Pondering his revenge on the boisterous Lung, Chao is merciless in his vendetta which includes some Ilsa Koch an Ed Gein favorite past times--making ornaments out of human skin--in this case, it's ornately designed (human) lanterns.

Sun Chung (right) demonstrates a shot between Liu Yung (middle) and Chen Kuan Tai (left) from HUMAN LANTERNS.

Even with its grim subject matter, Sun Chung's picture never gets too overly sleazy. The scenes with nudity are "tastefully" accomplished. Only one sequence is truly disturbing and the remaining death scenes are made more vicious by what is implied instead of what is actually shown. In typical Shaw Brothers fashion, some characters come to bad ends that you don't necessarily expect. The finale is gruesomely accomplished with some exciting tracking shots, furious fighting, thunder and lightning and lighting schemes that will delight fans of Mario Bava.

HUMAN LANTERNS cast photo; Sun Chung in the middle

This horror tinged take on YOJIMBO (1961) is one of Sun Chung's most well known and popular films of his career. The general somber tone of Sun Chung's other swordplay pictures is amplified here with its motley crew of callous and despicable characters; the few decent individuals suffering greatly for the selfish deeds of others. The coda shows this horror thriller (like many of Shaw's horror films) to be a morality tale--a lesson learned far too late by the one surviving cast member.


Sun Chung (right) demonstrates how he wants a scene to play out with Tang Chia at left.

Sun Chung was often accused of being a fastidious, if dedicated director to his craft. His classmate and colleague Kuei Chi Hung was also branded as being particularly tyrannical. Director Sun was never as prolific as his contemporaries, taking an approach to filmmaking akin to the highly respected director, Cheng Kang. You wouldn't find Sun Chung working on four or more films at once (he infrequently had three) as some of his more prolific fellow filmmakers, but his career definitely slowed down in 1982 after the release of MY REBELLIOUS SON--a film, as derivative as it may be, touched on change--something the Shaw Brothers struggled with in the 1980s amidst a new crop of filmmakers and filmmaking styles working for other companies.

One of a ten lobby still set from RAGING TIGER before the title was suddenly changed to MY REBELLIOUS SON (1982)

This troubled production began back in 1979, but was derailed by a severe injury suffered by its star, Fu Sheng while shooting THE DEADLY BREAKING SWORD and again while shooting HEROES SHED NO TEARS (1980). The script (already a derivative affair of Liu Chia Liang's HEROES OF THE EAST [1978] and MY YOUNG AUNTIE [1980]) appears to have suffered by the lapse as two plotlines are aborted halfway through settling on a string of fight sequences between Fu Sheng's Xiaozi character and various foreigners. What little plot there is isn't the strongest material Sun Chung has ever had to work with. Once more, the director seems somewhat lost when not immersed in the martial world settings of grieving and vendetta fueled swordsmen.

Behind the scenes shots from MY REBELLIOUS SON

Fu Sheng again essays the type of role he made popular--that of a buffoonic adolescent with a righteous heart. His father runs a well known and respected pharmacy, a business which Chang Siu Tai's dad wishes he'd show more interest in. A group of foreign dignitaries aligned with some greedy locals have their sights set on some valuable Chinese treasures kept in the village temple. Refusing to allow them to steal the relic, the foreigners invite a band of Japanese martial artists to aid in eliminating the young upstart. Sun Chung directs some marvelous sequences here, but they're few and far between, sadly. The intriguing idea of foreign imperialism invading Chinese culture as well as the culture clash between the young and old ideals isn't expanded upon and is summarily dropped later in the film. Also a romantic subplot between Siu Tai and a beautiful westernized Asian lass is likewise erased from the narrative.

Lobby card for MY REBELLIOUS SON. A sticker with the new title covers the RAGING TIGER title, the name the film was going to hit theaters with initially.

Sun Chung's signature directorial flourishes are mostly absent here, too. Fu Sheng's offscreen wife, Jenny Tseng, was originally cast as his love interest, but reports of Fu Sheng's alleged infidelity caused the couple to separate amidst allegations of an impending divorce. Early photos from the film show her in the role that was later taken over by Cecilia Wong. Regardless of some serious flaws, Sun Chung manages to pull off a movie that is highly entertaining and a lot of fun that is mostly due to Fu Sheng's lively and spirited performance. Wong Yu attempted the Fu Sheng shtick in KID WITH A TATTOO, but no one could do the playfully defiant brat like Fu Sheng. The action choreography is also a curious blend of old fashioned kung fu and the New Wave approach that was overtaking HK action movies at the time. Fans of Chang Cheh's FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (1982) will spill their noodles when the intimidating Chen Hui Min appears onscreen (playing a ninja!) as the chief nemesis. While it's very entertaining, this is also somewhat disappointing in that the picture is Sun Chung imitating Liu Chia Liang with little to none of Sun's patented ingenuity visible.


Director Sun briefly left Shaw Brothers to tackle two independently produced martial arts films--one a period piece (A FISTFUL OF TALONS) and the other a modern day kickboxing movie (DESTINY'S CHAMPION). A FISTFUL OF TALONS (1983) is the most interesting of the two and the closest Sun Chung came to recapturing his glory days of Wuxia excellence. He also managed to parlay his influential distinctions which signified his best movies, but were largely missing from his last Shaw production released in the latter part of 1982. A FISTFUL OF TALONS starred cult fave, Billy Chong, an Indonesian actor who enjoyed a brief popularity before retreating from the industry after this movie was completed. It's essentially another variation on the tired theme of the Qing regime, this time taking place during the Manchu's dying days and the early Republican Era. Surprisingly, Sun Chung implements his sweeping camera moves and his stylistic use of slow motion that were lacking in MY REBELLIOUS SON (1982).

Sun Chung on the set of THE KUNG FU INSTRUCTOR

The directors other indy movie was the curious and obscure anomaly, DESTINY'S CHAMPION (1984). The ending title card bears a 1998 copyright, but this film screams 80s like a heavy metal headbanger. Unlike his previous period martial arts film, there's virtually nothing on display here that would let you know you were witnessing the work of master movie maker, Sun Chung. DESTINY'S CHAMPION, as meandering and un-involving as it is, could have been directed by anyone. Essentially a Chinese version of ROCKY and THE KARATE KID, it's about a vapid youth named Tang who tries to win over a spunky and fiery girl who happens to be dating an obnoxious kickboxer who has money and drives a fancy car. The two have a run in that results in a novel twist wherein Tang later gives his nemesis a concussion, hitting him from behind with a pipe. As the bad guy recuperates, an old man named Benson Zhang (played by Ti Lung), a former fighter, trains Tang for his big challenge match with the self absorbed and easily irritated Dickson. A pretty lifeless, flaccid affair, viewers will at least get a kick out of seeing Ti Lung as an old man and spotting numerous Shaw bit players that frequented Sun Chung's Shaw Brothers days.


Sun Chung on his vacation in the USA

Returning to the once glorious Shaw Studio, a filmmaking giant that had been reduced to the equivalent of an upscale independent by the mid 1980s, Sun Chung turned in one last picture--and one that was a return to form for the enigmatic and inspired movie maker. THE MASTER STRIKES BACK (also known as HONG KONG 1841) bore a title that acted as a metaphor for its director. Sun Chung was seemingly invigorated here, bringing back all his breakthrough techniques one last time and even shooting some scenes in a new and impressive fashion. The release title is a bit of a misnomer and gives the impression of an action film. While there is action, this picture is more of a dramatic feature that concludes with an exciting duel between the protagonist and antagonist.

The script offers up numerous instances for kung fu set pieces, but Sun Chung ignores them instead concentrating on the characters and exploring the various avenues less traveled. Ti Lung plays a stoic military coach sent to this out of the way village to straighten up a flagging and lazy police force who spend the bulk of their time whoring and cavorting all the while siring bastard children they could care less about. The new coach, Tong Tie Zheng, arrives with his son and almost instantly stirs the ire of the corrupt chief constable, Jin Bu Huan. Events escalate to a deadly serious level when Tong finally turns the languid officers around, now preferring to train instead of spending their time and money in the brothels. It's a strong show supported by a powerfully melodramatic performance by Ti Lung and a deliciously vile villain role by the always reliable Chen Hui Min. Sun Chung successfully creates a flurry of emotions in this modest twilight production of the Shaw Brothers Era and even manages to design a nightmarish sequence of pure terror that is far more intense than some horror films.

When the Shaw Brothers shut their moviemaking empire in 1986, renting the facilities out to local and foreign production houses, they focused on television shows becoming the largest provider of televised entertainment in Asia. Sun Chung, a director of much promise and prominence in the 1970s, continued directing into the early 1990s helming at least three additional films with varying degrees of success with titles like LADY IN BLACK (1987), CITY WAR (1988) and ANGEL HUNTER (1992) .

While his ingenuity may have waned in his later years, the spark of those dynamically impassioned classics of his best days at Shaw Brothers remain. It took him nearly a decade to define his unique celluloid persona to which he leaves behind a collage of classic films that assure Sun Chung as not only one of the great unsung, untapped talents outside of Asia, but one of Hong Kong cinemas brightest and esteemed filmmakers.


achillesgirl said...


"Rendezvous With Death" and "The Kid With The Tattoo" are rather underrated, and I'm so glad you give them kudos here.

Thank you so much for writing this great article!

venoms5 said...

I'm grateful you liked it, Sylvia! It was fun revising and redoing the old one I'd written. The Ho Meng Hua redux may be the next one I do.

Marla said...

These are super great articles, and I very much appreciate reading them. "Avenging Eagle" and "My Rebellious Son" rank as two of my favorite films. Sun Chung is an amazing director. Congratulations on your fantastic webpage, Venoms5! (p.s. I'm MarsHarmony on the forums.) Thanks again.

venoms5 said...

Thank you for the kind words, Marla, I'm glad you enjoyed the articles!

Alexandra Scaffino said...

Superb biography of a superb director. Great research work, very interesting pictures. Sun Chung is one of my favourite asian directors. He deserves an high podium in the cinema industry. I ask to you for your permission for copy four or five lines concerning the awards received for Avenging Eagle, of course citating the source, Coolasscinema and your name. Thanks Brian for your passion. Alexandra.

venoms5 said...

Sure, Alexandra, no problem! Thanks for the kind words. I am currently working on one for Kuei Chi Hung and Ho Meng Hua.

musica said...

Wow,thanks you very much for this article! I love Sun Chung's films and his unique/offbeat style---nice to see this underrated directors get his props for a change! Also thanks for the one on Fu Sheng---another favorite of mine!

FieryReign said...

Great article! I was looking for this on the KFC forums, but it was removed? I don't blame you...

Probably my favorite martial arts director, I've been trying to hunt most of his films down.

No info on "Hill Fortress"? I see this movie listed in his filmography but I can't find a single piece of info about it, let alone someone who's actually seen it...

venoms5 said...

If I have any extensive info on HILL FORTRESS, it's in Chinese. If I find anything, FieryReign, I will post here.

Unknown said...

I love this article, I believe Sun is very underated so it's hard to find such good sources of info and analysis on his work like this article. It's a treasure, thank you so much.

I love his directional style and camerawork. He puts so much in one frame and the fluidity of his camera and editing is just riveting.

He's one of my all time fave action directors worldwide.

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