Sunday, June 30, 2013

Cinema of Virtue: Liu Chia Liang, Master of Kung Fu Cinema Part 2


"We want to show our foreign fans that, although the Chinese people are small in stature, we are good fighters..."-- Liu Chia Liang in Southern Screen, July 1977 page 30.

Shooting the opening scene of 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN
THE 36 CHAMBERS OF SHAOLIN (1978) was essentially Master Liu's version of Chang Cheh's SHAOLIN TEMPLE ([1976]; it even included a brief expansive shot from that film showing the inside of the temple set). Easily one of the best movies of its kind to depict the actual training of Chinese kung fu, Liu again manages to weave some genuine pathos for his characters keeping them grounded in reality and overly sympathetic. This was in direct opposition to the adrenaline charged, testosterone fueled masculinity of Chang's pictures.

Liu's magnum opus took 3 months to complete and employed upwards of 500 extras. All the hard work paid off handsomely, as the film was a huge success. The directors devotion to Chinese martial arts is embedded in virtually every frame. It's a brilliant movie from a brilliant director.

Chang Cheh's massive Shaolin spectacle was episodic in structure detailing an array of characters and featuring many training sequences leading up to a 30 minute battle at the end. When Liu Chia Liang made 36TH CHAMBER, his film was equally sprawling, but put the central focus on a single character -- the historical monk, San Te essayed to perfection by Gordon Liu. He magnified the amount of kung fu training sequences going into much greater detail than had been seen before. What was ingenious about this was that through the meticulous, and varied training methods (detailing how the monks became martial arts masters) San Te endures, the character is gradually built before our eyes. It's one of the most fascinating character arcs ever seen in a martial arts film. You're virtually watching a young boy grow up to be a man within a two hour time span. It's easy to see why this film is so well regarded today.

Behind the scenes on 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN with Master Liu Chia Liang (middle)

Master Liu cuts his adopted brothers hair for his iconic role.
There were many great kung fu movies, and many great directors of kung fu movies. Liu Chia Liang was unique in that he was a martial artist making them. He was always interested in delivering top kung fu pictures for the domestic Asian markets. But now, he was recognized outside of Asian territories. His enormous success and accolades seemed to imbue the director with a desire to impress his foreign fans as well. Unfortunately, this all seemed to change by 1980. Still, there was much for the director to celebrate, and it was a great time to be Liu Chia Liang and his adopted brother, Gordon Liu.



The youngest of the Liu/Lau family of fighters, Jimmy Liu is the nephew of Liu Chia Liang. He had a good look about him, but he never hit it big in movies. Some of the films he headlined were clones of whatever was popular at the time, while others were barrel scrapers of the highest order. His sole starring role for Shaw Brothers in the disastrous TIGRESS OF SHAOLIN (1979) is a superb example of the latter. And who could forget him being raped by a homosexual ghost in THE FEARLESS DUO (1978)? Even Hwang Jang Lee couldn't save that one. He did co-star in the Lau Brothers production, CARRY ON WISEGUY (1980) aka WARRIOR FROM SHAOLIN. Two other pictures he starred in -- CRAZY COUPLE and DRAGON'S CLAWS (both 1979) were run of the mill, but worth watching. The latter film benefits from a lead villain performance by Hwang Jang Lee. Jimmy Liu didn't confine his showbiz prowess solely in front of the camera. He also operated in other duties behind it, as well. Reportedly, he's still active today as a kung fu instructor.

L-R: Master Liu, David Chiang, Cecilia Wong; SHAOLIN MANTIS
Sandwiched between two of the directors greatest movies was possibly his oddest, most divisive film for Shaw Brothers. While equally subversive (particularly in its treatment of protagonist and antagonist) when compared to both his first movie, and HEROES OF THE EAST (which was also in production at the time), SHAOLIN MANTIS (1978) was an unusual blend of Liu's typical familial martial values mixed with a tragic plot line. The typical hero role is made complicated for this film clouding discernment as to whether he's actually a good guy or bad guy. The proposed hero is sent by the tyrannical Qing emperor to uncover a powerful family of government rebels. He manages to get close to the family to learn their secret, even marrying the daughter in the process!

It sets up a bewildering arc that confuses the audience on how they should feel regarding the lead character. It's both a unique plot contrivance, and also the films greatest detriment. Liberties are also taken in the creation of the Mantis style. It's simply a bizarre movie all around, but a rather daring experiment for the esteemed director.

Liu Chia Yung (left) fights David Chiang (right) during finale of SHAOLIN MANTIS
Whatever ones opinion of SHAOLIN MANTIS, there's no denying that Master Liu made David Chiang (he's known as John Chiang nowadays) look the best he'd ever looked in a kung fu movie (he was also impressive in THE CHALLENGER [1979] and THE LOOT [1980]). Earlier in the decade, David was known as the 'Movie King' at Shaw's for his popularity with fans and the number of box office hits he was attached to. He was believable in swordplay films, but his hand-to-hand failed to convince at times. Liu made him look good. Chiang got a second wind at this point in his career, and headlined a slew of kung fu movies in the late 1970s and into the early 1980s. 

David Chiang (left) battles Gordon Liu (right) in SHAOLIN MANTIS
Gordon Liu has a guest star turn at the opening of SHAOLIN MANTIS playing a bald shaolin monk ordered to fight Chiang's character in a duel.

Speaking of Gordon Liu, his bald head became such an iconic image, that to see him in a movie sporting a head full of hair seemed downright bizarre. And seeing him with hair in his next movie is at first odd, but it's such a great film, you soon separate the familiarity of San Te from Gordon Liu.

Cast photo for Liu Chia Liang's production of HEROES OF THE EAST

Gordon Liu and Yuka Mizuno promoting HEROES OF THE EAST
Master Liu continued his own brand of innovation with his next project, HEROES OF THE EAST (1978). Working with the tentative title of 'The Heroic Chinese', Liu's next film was essentially the polar opposite of all the blood and viscera strewn 'Chinese vs. Japanese' fist and kick flicks that dominated the early part of the 1970s. Liu's film trades violence and generous splashes of red for a battle of the sexes that leads to a serious misunderstanding between the two cultures. What follows is a series of intricate duels wherein Gordon Liu takes on a new Japanese villain each with their own varied style of martial art.

Peppered with highlights, the Shaw's were apparently confident they had another hit on their hands as HEROES OF THE EAST was heavily promoted in their magazine publications. The Japanese heavy cast was ballyhooed to a great degree, most especially the participation of Yasuaki Kurata and the gorgeous model, Yuka Mizuno.

L-R: Gordon Liu, Yuka Mizuno, Liu Chia Liang
In the end, Liu had outdone himself yet again with this subversive take on a familiar storyline packed with incredible, ingenious fighting sequences. It's all the more amazing in that nobody dies. Chang Cheh, and Shaw Brothers movies in general were renowned for their countless, gory martial arts movies. Unlike most directors, Liu Chia Liang focused more attention to family and tradition than to blood and guts.

From here on out, Liu Chia Liang's movie career would be dominated by kung fu pictures saturated with increasingly grating comedy shenanigans. The films themselves were a delight in the intricacies of the fight sequences, but often the heavy-handed humor made for a difficult viewing experience at times. Save for one motion picture, all of Liu's Shaw movies from this point on would contain a thick aura of comedy, or operate as kid friendly entertainment.

This was readily apparent in Liu's next two movies -- DIRTY HO and MAD MONKEY KUNG FU (both 1979). The humor is concentrated in the former -- born out of certain characters parcel to some jarringly bizarre battles; but it points towards the sort of extreme silliness Liu's movies were angling for in subsequent pictures. The latter is non-stop action laced with near constant goofiness.

Behind the scenes on DIRTY HO; Liu Chia Liang at right
The English title of DIRTY HO refers to the conman character played by Wong Yu. The plot is somewhat complicated, if cynical in execution. Essentially, it's the tale of the 11th Prince covertly mingling amongst commoners while manipulating a petty thief to help eliminate a string of assassins hired by 4th Prince, Frankie Wei Hung to keep him from ascending the throne. The final scene, while humorous, is pessimistic as the prince discards Ho after he's served his purpose; much like you would a piece of garbage. The 11th Prince basically wants his cake and eat it, too. Slaves aren't to question, but only do, and that's how Gordon Liu's character shows himself to be come the finale.

DIRTY HO features some of the directors most creative choreography; most particularly in the 'congenial duels' found throughout -- a number of fights take place while hidden under the guise of a friendly conversation. For example, everyone else is oblivious to the fact that two men are trying to kill each other while sharing their love for art!

Both here and in MAD MONKEY KUNG FU, Master Liu devises creative fighting sequences that are enhanced by the artfully designed Shaw sets. MAD MONKEY KUNG FU is a particularly irritating movie, but the fights save it, and that's really all it has going for it. Liu Chia Liang not only directed and designed the plethora of action, but he took the lead role, as well. Master Liu often took small roles in his films, but this was the first time he'd taken the lead. His student, Hsiao Hou, co-stars (see above photo), but he fails to be a memorable presence despite being an incredible acrobat and kung fu performer. The film is very popular among fans, and it probably has the most action of all the films on the directors resume.


Hui Ying Hung both castrates and guts Wang Lung Wei in 8 DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER

L-R: Hui, Chiang Sheng, Sun Chien; INVINCIBLE SHAOLIN
Reportedly spotted by a Shaw talent scout, Kara Hui Ying Hung was a nightclub dancer before Chang Cheh put her in a few of his movies including THE BRAVE ARCHER (1977) and INVINCIBLE SHAOLIN (1978). She signed with the company in February of 1975. Other early roles include an assaulted teen in Kuei Chi-Hung's nasty CRIMINALS 5: TEENAGERS NIGHTMARE (1977) and came to a tragic end in Wang Feng's obscure THE LAST JUDGMENT (1979). Having learned martial arts from her sisters prior to appearing in movies, she didn't get a chance to do much in the way of fighting till her co-starring role in the awful THE TIGRESS OF SHAOLIN (1979). From 1981 onward, she got many fighting roles, most famously in the works of Liu Chia Liang. She won a Best Actress award for her role in MY YOUNG AUNTIE (1981) aka THE ELDER. She was also alleged to have been romantically involved with Liu. Her brother was the late Austin Wai Tin Chi. Kara has had one of the longest careers of any HK movie actress, and still appears in motion pictures today.

In 1979, Lo Lieh was given an opportunity to fulfill his dream of directing a film solely of his own. That particular movie was CLAN OF THE WHITE LOTUS (1980). Operating as something of a sequel/remake of Liu Chia Liang's EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN (1977), the revered Master Liu helped out his friend by choreographing all the marvelous fight scenes. Lo Lieh even played the White Lotus of the title -- the superior colleague of the now dead White Brow Priest, Pai Mei. The team-up of Lo and Liu (see insert photo) was a much ballyhooed event at the time. 

Sometime around the completion of MAD MONKEY KUNG FU (1979), Liu's temperament changed. Despite his wealth (he had an affinity for fancy cars) and popularity, Master Liu became disenchanted with the company. As relayed to Chang Cheh by Sir Run Run Shaw himself, Liu was not "someone for long-term partnerships."

His sense of pride and ego seemingly got the best of him at times. His relationship had soured with Chang Cheh in 1975, and a few years later, the same had happened between him and the Shaw's. Whereas at one time he seemed eager for international appeal, he had now changed that sentiment, too. Still, he remained constant in always displaying traditional Chinese martial arts onscreen with superlative choreography.

Liu left the company briefly to work with his brother on a few independent films under the Lau Brothers Film Company banner. Liu didn't direct any of these, only designed the action sequences. Reportedly, Liu was an avid gambler on horse races, but luck wasn't on his side when it came to making independent movies.

He eventually returned to Shaw's, and to familiar territory, with RETURN TO THE 36TH CHAMBER and MY YOUNG AUNTIE. The Shaw's, obviously excited about the potential of Liu's 36TH CHAMBER sequel, entered the picture at Cannes; but Liu was reportedly not interested in this sort of exposure. It's worth noting that Liu Chia Liang took a huge gamble with RETURN by having Gordon Liu play an entirely different character the second go round.

MY YOUNG AUNTIE (1981) is arguably the more interesting of the two; mostly in the way the director bridges the generation gap while presenting Western influence on Eastern culture. Some fans dislike Fu Sheng for his impish antics, but Liu Chia Liang lets his disciple Hsiao Hou run wild seemingly every time. He's a marvel to watch onscreen, but too often he appears to suffer from ADD.

Liu Chia Liang battles Korean, Kwan Young Moon (right) in MY YOUNG AUNTIE

Director Liu instructs Mai Te Lo in MY YOUNG AUNTIE
Both films are incredibly silly, and despite being suitable for the entire family (nobody dies in these two, either), the oppressive, forced humor may be too much for some viewers to take. Overly exaggerated comedy was a staple of Liu's movies beginning in 1980. Even predominantly serious films like LEGENDARY WEAPONS OF CHINA (1982) wasn't immune to irksome humor (not to mention some scenes being backed by annoyingly shrill music). However, the fight sequences remained incredible, and both those pictures (RETURN and AUNTIE) benefited from supporting villain roles from Chuan Yung-wen aka Kwan Young Moon; a Korean Taekwondo expert familiar to kung fu movie fans.

Director Liu on set of MARTIAL CLUB
The silliness continued with 'The Gyms'; or MARTIAL CLUB as it was known upon its theatrical release in 1981. This was Master Liu's favorite of his films (previously it was HEROES OF THE EAST), and considering his upbringing and early career pre-Shaw's, it's not hard to understand why. MARTIAL CLUB contains some of the directors best work, and it's obvious the subject of a young Wong Fei-hung amidst rival gyms was close to the directors heart. Master Liu tinkered with cinematic tropes once more -- this time in having perennial villain, Wang Lung Wei play a good guy! The film is one of the best kung fu films ever made, and while the comedy is prolific, it's not nearly as abrasive as it is in some of the directors other productions. Strangely enough, it was titled INSTRUCTORS OF DEATH on these shores despite nobody dying in the movie.

Liu Chia Liang and his brother Liu Chia Yung (right)

It was around this time that the troubled actor, Alexander Fu Sheng would star alongside his brother, Chang Chan Peng, in Liu Chia Yung's hilarious THE TREASURE HUNTERS (1981). He would also become a pupil of Liu Chia Liang, and star in a few of his movies. This meant there were more overwrought comedy scenarios coming, but also some true kung fu classics. An example of the latter began shooting in May of 1981 as 'The Heroic Family'. With virtually zero humor, it was to be the directors most serious, gloomy work yet; and ultimately proved so in more ways than one.


Thursday, June 27, 2013

Cinema of Virtue: Liu Chia Liang, Master of Kung Fu Cinema Part 1


"I want to put the sense of movement of kung fu into my films, and I always use real kung fu. Kung fu is the driving force in all my films." -- A Tribute to Action Choreographers, Liu Chia Liang interview, pp61

There have been many great directors of Hong Kong kung fu movies over the years. Arguably, no other martial artist (or martial arts director) has been as dedicated to personifying the Chinese arts for Asian movie lovers than Liu Chia Liang; or in Cantonese as he's predominantly referred to today, Lau Kar Leung.

Regrettably, the champion purveyor of kung fu cinema passed away Tuesday, June 25th, 2013 after an approximately two decade long battle with cancer. Diagnosed with Lymphoma in 1994, his health declined further in 2005 when he got pneumonia while working in cold temperatures on Tsui Hark's SEVEN SWORDS (2005). It was his last motion picture. His families from his first and second marriages were by his bedside when he passed on at 10:17am Tuesday morning. He was 76 years old.

Living and breathing Chinese kung fu his entire life, Master Liu came from a family of martial artists with a lineage that stretched back to the great Wong Fei-hung. The young Liu's father, Liu Chan (Lau Cham), was a student of the famous Lam Sai-wing (himself the subject of a well known Sammo Hung movie). Lam (or Butcher Wing) was a student of Wong Fei-hung (one of China's most revered national heroes, and the subject of numerous kung fu films).

Beginning his training at an early age (sources state between 7 and 9 years old), the Hung Fist passed down from Fei-hung to master Lam to Liu Chan was in turn passed on to his son, the young (soon to be) master Liu -- a fourth generation disciple of Fei-hung. Adversity and determination paid off, and by the time he was 14, the young master was already coaching others. He got his break in the movie industry in the 1950s at age 17 (some sources say 18) appearing in a number of productions as an extra or stuntman; many of which were early films about Wong Fei-hung starring the venerable Kwan Tak Hing.

According to Master Liu, in the early days of the Wong Fei-hung movies, these types of stagey kung fu pictures were financed by kung fu schools; and, unlike later, it wasn't uncommon for HK films to be shot with sync sound. Action choreography was very different from where it would be in the late 1960s and beyond, but master Liu was one of the chief proponents in its evolution. 

Liu Chia Liang (at left), David Chiang (middle), Liu Chia Yung (right)
It wasn't till Chang Cheh recruited Liu (along with Tang Chia [Tong Kai in Cantonese]) that his star really began to emerge. It wouldn't blossom till 1975, but starting in the mid 1960s, Liu was under the banner of what was then the biggest, most high profile film studio in Asia; not to mention being one of the largest film studios in the world -- the Shaw Brothers studio.

Tasked with executing action sequences for Chang Cheh's varied, and exceedingly ambitious production slate, Liu Chia Liang and Tang Chia (whose differing styles complemented one another) were as important of a choreographing team as David Chiang and Ti Lung were as an acting duo. It was quite an indomitable force to be reckoned with -- Liu and Tang creating the fights, Chiang and Lung acting them out, and Chang Cheh directing them.

Liu Chia Liang (standing) on ANGRY GUEST (1972) set
Beginning in 1973, Liu went with Chang Cheh to Taiwan to shoot a series of pictures for Shaw Brothers. The Hong Kong based company had a lot of capital there that by law, couldn't be extradited out of the country. After Cheh set up Chang's Film Company, Liu's expertise in Hung Fist would be put to use in creating realistic fighting sequences that hadn't been seen before. A few years earlier, bare-fisted battles blazed across the screen in THE CHINESE BOXER (1970), and in countless similar films afterward. These maneuvers were more Karate-like and lacked grace, despite looking sufficiently brutal onscreen. Liu made kung fu more fluid and realistic in showcasing the actual style itself. 

For the next few years, Chang Cheh did a successful string of films that highlighted Hung Gar and its Shaolin origins. The choreography of Liu Chia Liang was a key element in the success of these pictures. However, towards the end of the decade, Master Liu, on his own, would apply emphasis on the martial arts itself, with less emphasis on the violence.


Master Liu's brother, Liu Chia Yung (Lau Kar Wing in Cantonese), operated in much the same capacity that his older brother did. He appeared in, choreographed, and directed almost as many movies as his more famous brother. The younger Liu brother did work more on the independent circuit, though. They even had a production company (Lau Brothers Film Company) independent of Shaw's where they made a few pictures like FISTS AND GUTS (1979) and CARRY ON WISEGUY (1980) to name two. Onscreen at Shaw's the two brothers fought each other in CHALLENGE OF THE MASTERS (1976) and most famously in Liu's much celebrated LEGENDARY WEAPONS OF CHINA (1982). Both brothers had very different personalities. The older Liu was aggressively passionate about his work with an ego to match. The younger sibling seemed to be far more laid back and seemingly less interested in being in the limelight. Both men made enormous contributions to Hong Kong cinema.

Liu Chia Liang (middle) with Chang Cheh (right)
Creative differences between Chang and Liu emerged during the shooting of MARCO POLO (1975) in Taiwan. Finally tiring of blood and guts theatrics, Liu wanted to make his own movies. There could be only one king on the mountain. Liu wanted to do things his way, and while under the aegis of Chang Cheh, that wasn't happening. Both men were similar in some ways, and different in others. The hand of Chang Cheh is noticeable throughout Liu's career, although the devout master of Chinese kung fu placed his own stamp on his pictures. Furthermore, a rift arose between the two (apparently spurred on by Liu, himself) and a reconciliation wasn't forthcoming till the late 1980s.

Master Liu & Chen Kuan Tai (left) on SPIRITUAL BOXER set
Now back in Hong Kong, and given the greenlight by Mona Fong, Liu was set to direct his first motion picture. Beginning production under the title of 'Skillful Fighter', the film was a light comedy effort (the first kung fu comedy) that poked fun of superstitious Chinese beliefs and folklore surrounding the Boxers -- fighters who could allegedly summon powerful gods to protect them from bodily harm and death. Starring a virtual unknown in Wong Yu (Huang Yu), famous actors Ti Lung and Chen Kuan Tai appeared as guest stars during the beginning to add some additional star power. Taking only about a month to complete, the experimental film was a success for the first action choreographer ever given the directorial reigns. It also ensured more movies would be coming from Master Liu. 

THE SPIRITUAL BOXER (1975) was modestly similar to a super production Chang Cheh was working on at that time entitled THE BOXER REBELLION (1975; released in early 1976). The latter was a controversial 137 minute epic (drastically cut for its theatrical run and the title changed) surrounding the historical event itself; while the former merely used the Boxers and their spirit possession trickery as a comedic plot device. Liu would again mine similar territory in 1982s LEGENDARY WEAPONS OF CHINA.

Master Liu and his disciple, Wong Yu (right)
An unrelated sequel to this movie, THE SPIRITUAL BOXER 2, was released in 1979. Compared to the first, it wasn't as successful in what amounted to a poor kung fu-quasi horror comedy. It was possibly deemed a good gamble after the first film proved lucrative upon its re-release that year. Wong Yu returned in a different role, and the picture dealt with China's 'Corpse Herders' -- technically, funeral arrangers who used black magic to transport corpses back to their family villages. The comedy is mostly weak, and the action doesn't show up till late in the film. It would be the first misstep of Liu's career. But after 1978, Master Liu couldn't go much higher having reached his pinnacle that year.


The most famous Liu brother wasn't even of blood relation. Gordon Liu Chia Hui (Lau Kar Fai in Cantonese), the godson of Liu's mother, was first introduced in Chang Cheh's exemplar SHAOLIN MARTIAL ARTS (1974). He had a fairly sizable supporting role as an ill-fated Eagle Claw student. He also played one of the main Mongol villains in MARCO POLO (1975), and had much smaller parts in Cheh's FIVE SHAOLIN MASTERS (1974), THE BOXER REBELLION (1975), and SEVEN MAN ARMY (1976). He was eventually sent back to Hong Kong so that he could take part in his adopted brothers movies. He co-starred with Chen Kuan Tai in CHALLENGE OF THE MASTERS (1976), and took guest star turns in both EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN (1977) and SHAOLIN MANTIS (1978). His career skyrocketed in 1978 upon the release of THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN, one of the most famous, and enduring kung fu movies of all time. Most fans refer to him as 'the Master Killer'; so named for that films English translated theatrical release title. Gordon Liu also made being bald fashionable for kung fu fans all around the world.

Director Liu (middle at right of camera); Gordon Liu (at right)
Liu's next few films were Shaolin affairs. It was his own 'Shaolin Cycle' of pictures akin to those that Chang Cheh shot while in Taiwan. The first of these had only a tenuous connection to that fabled temple. It was also Liu's first of two cinematic depictions of Wong Fei-hung for Shaw Brothers. Vastly different from Chang Cheh's style of heroism, Liu's second go as director opted for a moralistic approach. It's arguably the perfect martial arts film to watch for those who have no interest in the genre; or for those with an interest in studying the arts itself. There's much drama and humility found here, and Gordon Liu features in one of his best acting roles in the lead as a very young version of Wong Fei-hung. 

As diverse as Liu's first two movies were, the influence of Chang Cheh was in evidence. Chang began using the names of his protagonists as the films Chinese titles starting with HEROES TWO (FANG SHIH YU AND HUNG HSI KUAN [1973]), and Liu Chia Liang follows suit with the Chinese title of CHALLENGE OF THE MASTERS, which translates to LU AH TSAI AND WONG FEI HUNG.

Lo Lieh as Pai Mei -- one of a few white-haired villain roles he portrayed.
His second Shaolin effort -- EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN -- was a more straight ahead kung fu film; and feels like a direct sequel to Chang Cheh's sprawling 120 minute epic, SHAOLIN TEMPLE (1976). It begins at virtually the same moment that Chang's film ends with the burning of Shaolin and the small band of warriors that managed to escape. 

Master Liu (right) gives Pai Mei (Lo Lieh at left) instructions
Liu began work on 'Two Generations of Masters' after wrapping THE SPIRITUAL BOXER (1975). Not long after, the familiar moniker of EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN (1977) was attached. The opening ambush is of special note for its ferocity -- an area of action Liu rarely ventured. From there, the film slips into more comfortable expository surroundings. Just as Cheh had introduced Priest White Brows, Pai Mei in SHAOLIN AVENGERS (1976), Master Liu made him the central antagonist of his movie. The director found three times was definitely the charm at the box office. Not only was it a great success, but it reinvigorated Lo Lieh's career, and spawned a slew of white-haired villain movies.

Chen Kuan Tai
Luck was on Liu's side in other ways, too. In October of 1976, Chen Kuan Tai (who plays Shaolin hero Hung Hsi Kwan in the film) abruptly left the Shaw studio disrupting other pictures the actor was working on at the time. Chen's departure didn't affect the completion of EXECUTIONERS at all. Overall, this movie encapsulated Liu's strict adherence to tradition and the importance of family. Aside from its weak ending, it's a signature film in the directors oeuvre.


Liu Chia Liang was riding high at this point. He had three box office hits under his belt, and his work ethic, passion, and production slate showed no signs of stagnation, nor slowing down. His next picture would resonate beyond Hong Kong's borders becoming a huge hit all around the world. It became the directors signature motion picture, and propelled Gordon Liu into superstardom.


Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Superman 2 (1981): Richard Lester versus Richard Donner

In mounting the production of SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE (1978), Ilya and Alexander Salkind had envisioned doing two movies at one time; much like the duo had done with THE THREE MUSKETEERS and THE FOUR MUSKETEERS (released in 1973 and 1974 respectively). However, the massive budget and shooting schedule proved to be a daunting task and left them feeling uneasy about possibly wasting money on a sequel should the first picture not be a success. 

Donner's version
Production on SUPERMAN 2 was shut down in late 1978, and when the first movie was a surprise smash in December of that year, the sequel -- already around 75% complete -- was put back on the fast track to completion. 

Original director, Richard Donner was asked back, but his ego stipulated he would only return if he was given total control and only if producer Pierre Spengler was not involved. With those conditions not coming to fruition, Donner was out and Richard Lester was in.

Also out were all the scenes featuring Marlon Brando whose monetary demands were deemed unreasonable from an economic standpoint. These scenes were re-shot in Lester's version bringing back Susannah York (as Superman's mother) for some of the newly shot footage.

In 2006, Richard Donner's version (as close to his vision as possible) was released to DVD packed with extras. It's also graced with the conspicuous presence of Donner opining in a frequently negative fashion as if a great injustice had been done to fans of the series the world over.

Lester's version
The differences between the Richard Lester and Richard Donner cuts of SUPERMAN 2 (1981) are pretty staggering. Both films present a diametrically opposing view of what each director went for in terms of their vision. Lester has rarely ever said much about the picture outside of claiming ownership of the theatrical release; while Donner, here at least, is highly critical to the point of overkill. He freely slams and condescends the Lester film (and by his own admission, he's never seen it from beginning to end) so often, it's apparent the sting of his removal lingers some 35 years later.

Lester's version
I'll just get it out of the way and state that, in my opinion, the Richard Lester version of SUPERMAN 2 is the superior release. Despite touching up his version with modern effects technology, the '81 movie dominates Donner's in nearly every way. As Donner points out, his cut of the film that finally saw a DVD release in 2006 is as close to his vision as you can get. His cut even opens with this disclaimer -- "The following film represents SUPERMAN 2 as it was originally conceived and intended to be filmed."

Lester's version
Taking that into consideration, his version is, in my view, seriously flawed, and inferior to the one released to American movie theaters in 1981. Even so, there are some things I like better in his version, but these are few and far between. The following is a breakdown of the differences that I feel are pertinent to the success of Lester's vision over the 2006 Donner version, and also the few things I did like from Donner's picture.


The beginning of Richard Donner's 2005 assemblage starts with a condensed version of the entire first movie; this includes new footage of the three super villains escaping their imprisonment in the Phantom Zone via a missile diverted by Superman from the conclusion of the first picture. The music that opens the film is very different from the theatrical release. It's noticeably less boisterous. The credits that follow are slightly different utilizing a different 'S' font, for example. 

According to Donner, the three villains were to have broken free at the end of the first film, ending that picture on a cliffhanger note. Either way, the line of dialog yelled out by Zod, "FRRRREEEEEE!!!" is cringe-worthy, and surely must have inspired George Lucas for that laughable utterance of "NNNNOOOOOOOOOO!!!" by Darth Vader at the end of STAR WARS: REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005).


The opening of Lester's film shows us how the three villains came to be captured -- killing a Kryptonian guard and shattering a power crystal. We then see a shorter version of their trial before they're jettisoned into space. Instead of a lengthy montage of scenes, we get a very nice 5+ minute montage of SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE (1978) intermixed with the opening cast and technical credits. Zod and his cohorts are not shown escaping the Phantom Zone till much later; and thankfully, no guttural bellowing of "FRRRREEEEEE!!!" accompanying it. 


Richard Donner's first scene immediately after the credits has Lois Lane suddenly putting together the connection that Clark is in fact Superman. There's no build up to it; no opening action scene to pique her curiosity; she simply looks at a newspaper article and has an epiphany. This is then followed  by Lois jumping out of a window thinking Clark/Superman will save her. He does, but what makes this scene ridiculous is that once she's saved, she never questions just how Clark got downstairs so fast, nor does a crowded city street seem to notice Clark blowing strong wind from his mouth to slow Lois's rapid descent, or the red lasers he shoots from his eyes to open the awning that breaks her fall.

Coincidentally, Lester has a similar scene in his picture, but it simply plays off of Clark's bumbling nature. However, nobody seems to question just how in the hell he was able to crush the front end of a taxi (above) when he crosses a street without looking. So in that, both films have a moment of over-reaching comedy that's a bit hard to swallow.

Furthermore, Lester's film, like Donner's, features a scene where Lois puts her life in danger in an effort to oust Clark as the boy in blue and red. It comes much later, though. This sequence, in Niagara Falls (above), is far more believable. There's no one around to see it; and Superman is able to rescue her in a way that doesn't reveal himself, and reinforces his maladroit disposition all at the same time.


While Donner's movie lacks an action scenario to start things off, Lester's movie abides with a Parisian set piece involving a group of terrorists who have placed a Hydrogen bomb on the Eiffel Tower. It sets up the events of the film nicely. Not only does Superman rescue Lois Lane from certain death, but his quick disposal of the ticking Hydrogen bomb results in the freedom of the three arch villains from the Phantom Zone.

I prefer this opening to Donner's. His film lacks action, and Lester's fills in the gaps -- this being one of them.

Some reviewers have commented how serious Richard Donner's version is compared to Lester's. There's humor in both, but I don't find Lester's film to be campy at all. Much of the funny business in the theatrical release is derived from the characters and their nuances. Clark is clumsy simply because that is his nature. The same holds true for Otis, the doting sidekick of Lex Luthor. Granted, the scenes with Luthor and Otis in the theatrical release were all shot by Donner, anyways. However, his assembled cut has additional nonsense not found in the theatrical. Miss Teschmacher finding a bathroom in the Fortress of Solitude complete with flushing toilet sounds? Are you serious? 


Well here we are at a key point in this movie. Listening to his commentary, Donner is right pleased with himself for filming a scene where Lois Lane shoots Clark Kent with a gun in an effort to prove he's Superman. Personally, I find it hard to believe that Lois would risk a man's life to prove a point, although it's learned she's using blanks to pull off her stunt. Still, let's not forget she casually risks her own life by jumping from an upper floor window to again prove this very same point. The latter moment is one of the more painfully stupid moments in Donner's cut of the picture and shows his interpretation of Lois to be noticeably unstable.  


Eschewing the erratic, violent nature of Donner's Lois Lane, the reshot sequence of Clark's true identity makes more sense in Lester's version. Clark being clumsy, he trips over a bearskin rug and falls into a fire; yet his hand is unscathed. It's alluded to in a bit of dialog from Lois that subconsciously Clark meant to do it as Lois had been hounding him about his identity up to this point. For me, the Superman reveal in this fashion has more poignancy and believability in furthering the relationship of these two characters. Not only that, but it leaves the psychotic nature of Donner's Lois on the cutting room floor. 


Once Zod, Non and Ursa land on Earth, they begin their investigation of this new terrain, and also bask in their newfound super powers since their escape from Krypton's crystalline prison that confined them. Curiously, their exploration is erratically edited. They've barely been on Earth before the scene cuts away to something else. Then about five minutes later, we're back with the villains again in the same location. It gives the impression that they've not budged from their landing point the entire time. 

Lester's version
Lester's version
Their assault on the town is trimmed down considerably. For example, the stunt of the jeep going up a ramp and exiting the top floor through a sign of a bikini clad woman with the phrase, "Flash'em a coppertone tan" is taken out (see above). Even brief moments such as Ursa smiling after causing a helicopter to crash is eliminated. Why? Some critics state Donner makes the villains more menacing in his version. I don't think so. The editing in his cut strips a lot of that away; and losing the nuances present in Lester's film leaves the villains as little more than black-clad automatons. 

It has no bearing on my overall opinion of his movie, but the Donner version also takes Lucas level liberties with some effects shots. For example, when the soldiers hit Zod with a flamethrower, he blows the fire away from him and onto an adjoining building. The flame effects are new here, and not the ones originally shot. 


Instead of breaking up this scene a multitude of times, Lester's movie opts to stay on the villains till after Ursa fries the snake into a burnt cinder. There's also an added moment here missing from Donner's film that adds a bit of depth to the character of Non -- the silent, but deadly (and child-like) super villain. This right hand man of Zod is essentially the Kryptonian version of Otis, but far less inept. There are a handful of scene extensions with Non that are trimmed from Donner's version. These helped in giving him a personality as opposed to drawing him as a mere slave to his master.

The remaining segments showing the villains toying with the humans and destroying the town are much longer in Lester's version. As mentioned above, much of this is cut out of Donner's film. The villains did not have super powers prior to escaping the Phantom Zone, so it's only natural they'd want to utilize them in a variety of ways.

Donner's cut seems preoccupied with losing as many reactionary shots as possible; which again, forces some scenes to lose their momentum, and also lessens the expository refinements of the characters.


The editing in Donner's version is a bit of a mess when compared to the familiarity of the Lester cut after all these years. Some of the scenes are broken up in such a way, it disrupts not only exposition, but momentum as well. For example, Superman has already given up his super powers when General Zod, after receiving affirmation from Lex Luthor, makes the statement that the son of Krypton has abilities equal to their own. He's already gotten them back in Lester's film in the prior scene. This sort of scene shuffle is unnecessary. Some other scenes feel like they've been cut up simply to be as different as possible from Lester's film. If this version was indeed his intended vision, it's simply sloppy.

Lester's version
In addition, there are other moments of scenery shaving that leave certain sequences feeling rushed, or unfinished. And it isn't because shots weren't completed, because they exist in the theatrical release. Some of this trim work is low-key humorous moments that express character traits and qualities; such as the intro of the small town cops who have a run-in with the three Kryptonian villains. There's no lead-in to them meeting up with the bad guys in Donner's film. We see the police car in a wide shot and the deputy says, "They must be from LA." Yet we haven't even seen who he is referring to yet. Why the establishing shot and additional dialog from Lester's film was eliminated is bewildering, and one of a few similar instances found in Donner's streamlined, but less engaging picture.


In both versions, Kal-El decides to give up his Kryptonian super powers so he can enjoy an intimate relationship with a human woman; that woman being Lois Lane. It's understood that because he's the "Man of Steel", he can't co-mingle with a fragile human. In Donner's movie, Superman and Lois have already bedded down BEFORE he gives up his powers. I suppose one can tinker with this idea, but if he can be with a human woman while he's the Man of Steel, why the need to eliminate his powers at all then? And where did Lois get that bright blue Superman shirt? Is there a merchandising outlet somewhere within the Fortress of Solitude? If there's a toilet with working plumbing, than I suppose so.


Lester's version makes more sense, yet again. Before they consummate their relationship, Kal-El makes the decision of a lifetime -- to abandon his role as Earth's savior. It's interesting to note Chris Reeve's performance between the two pictures. In Donner's movie, he comes off a bit selfish and impulsive; traits you wouldn't expect Superman to display (at least not till SUPERMAN 3!). But in Lester's film, Superman's choice, as misguided as it may be in hindsight, shows genuine compassion and emotion in making his decision. In this version, Superman discusses his decision with his mother in re-shot footage, since the Brando bits were not used.


This is one of a scant few instances where I think Donner did it best, but only because we get more of it. This was sort of the last stand of humanity, and when Washington has essentially surrendered, it's left up to the Man of Steel to save the day. There are two moments during this extended sequence with Zod that seem out of character, though. One sees him casually leaning against a wall with his arms and legs crossed. The other has him take up a machine gun and kill some men with it while he laughs. Ursa I could understand displaying this malevolent sort of emotional display, but Zod was always reserved, only showing emotion when he became excited, or angry.


In Richard Lester's interpretation, he condenses the action and makes it a quickly edited montage ending once the villains have knocked down the door to the Oval Office. While it's efficient in showing the power of the bad guys, I do like the way the scene plays out in Donner's film better simply because it's longer. But thankfully, Lester's film eliminates that awkward moment with Zod laughing while machine gunning Secret Service and military men.


While Donner's movie is filled with continuity errors and choppier editing, the version of the film everyone is most familiar with has been scrutinized for not sufficiently explaining how Superman gets his powers back after giving them up so he can be with Lois Lane. At around the 60 minute mark, Superman, while at his Arctic home with Lois (above pic), explains his discovery of a glowing crystal shard that was kept by his Earth father when he was a boy. Superman goes on to explain that he was drawn to it, and this shard led him to the Arctic locale where it, the crystal, "built" the Fortress of Solitude. 

When Superman returns to his home in an effort to try and get his powers back (he's told earlier that the process cannot be reversed), he finds that same crystal lying where Lois carelessly left it; not far from the destroyed mechanism that operates the molecule chamber. Still retaining a flicker of its great power (above insert pic), it provides enough strength for Superman to regain his abilities. So the same shard that brought his full power to fruition, does so once more.

The Donner version (above and insert pics) doesn't have the explanation Superman gives to Lois. Instead, it is revealed via Jor-El at the moment he returns to the Fortress. Superman finds the glowing crystal amidst the rubble of the molecule chamber. He places it into the mechanism and Jor-El appears and reveals his son has a second chance. So basically it's the same thing in Lester's film, only without Marlon Brando's floating head explaining that the crystal contains his last remaining lifeforce.


The big battle between Superman and the three Kryptonian criminals is slightly different in terms of the action, but some of what is seen is Lester's footage, anyways; and it's much shorter than the one in Lester's film. There's some additional and different dialog (Superman asking Zod if he cares to step outside is replaced with "Haven't you ever heard of freedom of the press?") and some alternate destruction scenes -- the most noticeable is Superman being thrown into the torch of the Statue of Liberty. Some of the sight gags and comical bits from Lester's version are eliminated. However, the product placement for Coke and Kentucky Fried Chicken remain.


While Richard Donner is no stranger at handling action, Richard Lester shows he's no slouch in the arena of big budget pictures. His Metropolis showdown is far more exciting, and longer than what we get in Donner's preferred version. But then, to be fair, Donner didn't get to shoot all of his footage for the entirety of the film. Regarding the Metropolis duel, on his commentary track, he never goes into detail as to whether his version of this battle would have been longer, or any more different. In fact, Donner doesn't seem to remember a whole lot.  

The humorous bits when the villains emit devastating wind gusts with their mouths are a nice touch, and are born out of the resulting destruction ie a bald man's wig flying off; ice cream hitting a guy in his face; a roller skater being propelled backward; and a guy in a phone booth holding on to that last call for dear life.

Donner gives the theatrical cut a lot of flack for its alleged heavy accent towards campy comedy. I have to disagree. His own footage bears signs of it (the aforementioned flushing toilet in the FOS, the Otis character, etc), and not limited to his scenes in the sequel, but also in the first picture which is all his. 

Some of the re-shot dialog from Zod comes off much better in Lester's version, too. 


As revealed by Richard Donner, the original ending of SUPERMAN (1978) was to have been a cliffhanger showing the three arch villains escaping the Phantom Zone via a diverted missile followed by them heading towards Earth. The reversing time to prevent destruction wrought by Lex Luthor and the death of Lois Lane was supposed to have been used in SUPERMAN 2. 

As redundant as it is to see that ending tacked onto the sequel, it's nothing compared to the glaring goof that has Clark returning to that mountainside diner to settle things with a burly bully that had roughed him up during his spell as a mortal. At the point where Superman had turned back time, he never would have went to the diner in the first place. Apparently this went unnoticed on Donner (and his editor) who proclaims on the DVD commentary that this is how he would have ended the film.  

Aside from that, Superman is bullied a bit by Zod (who's uncharacteristically gabby here) and his companions, and it looks very awkward. When the villains are defeated after the big switcheroo (the music used isn't all that exciting and feels out of place), Luthor tries to smooth things over with Superman, but he flies away with Lois seemingly leaving the 'greatest criminal mind of our age' behind. Even more startling is what comes next. Superman proceeds to destroy the Fortress of Solitude with Luthor in it! How cold-blooded is that for the Man of Steel? However, he does the reverse time gimmick putting everything back to normal well before the villains were accidentally loosed from their prison; which leaves only the glaring continuity error described above staring you in the face. 


Lester's film returns us to the Fortress of Solitude for one last showdown with the super villains. Both good and bad guys show off abilities we haven't seen yet. The villains turn invisible and Superman uses his 'S' as some sort of netting that temporarily puts Non at bay. Unlike Donner's version, Zod and company have a brief battle with Superman before the Kryptonian savior shows he's a bit of a trickster himself by manipulating Lex Luthor into unwittingly leading the villains to their doom. The finale of Donner's version is talky while Lester's is thankfully not. The familiar John Williams music (Ken Thorne was the composer working from original material from John Williams) heightens the sequence. 

Again unlike the Donner cut, the return to the diner makes far more sense as there's no turning back time to mess things up. To compensate, Lester's version features the 'Kiss of Forgetfulness' scene. To erase the knowledge of his identity, Kal-El lays a magical kiss on Lois's lips which causes her to forget he is Superman. I thought the scene worked just fine while maintaining the romanticism felt between the two characters in this relationship that can never be. 

The very last sequence is also fitting. Superman returns the American flag to the top of the White House, and as he does, he exchanges dialog with the President proclaiming that he won't let him down again. If you recall, Superman was busy thinking about his libido and not world affairs during the time the Kryptonian villains were wrecking havoc. Since Superman represents the very essence of American patriotism, this scene is an important one in the success of Lester's picture. It's a fitting way to end the picture as Superman flies into space while the familiar theme music soars over the soundtrack. 


For a film that was as huge as this one, and had as many production problems as it did, Lester's SUPERMAN 2 (1981) is pretty spectacular; and an amazing cinematic feat all things considering. Most films that have this level of difficulty with reshoots turn out to be disasters. And Donner's film, while it's nice to finally see it over three decades later, is an average film at best. Primarily of curiosity value, Donner's SUPERMAN 2 (2006) fails to overshadow what has come before it, in my opinion. At any rate, Richard Donner still has one helluva good Superman movie under his belt. And if it hadn't been for that hugely successful 1978 adventure, there never would have been a SUPERMAN 2 (1981).

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