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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Cinema of Virtue: Liu Chia Liang, Master of Kung Fu Cinema Part 3

"He truly took great care of people around him, and he was very willing to help the younger generation. He was a treasure of the film industry."--Chow Yun Fat on Master Liu Chia Liang's death.

The vain, yet romantic Liu Chia Liang entered the 1980s helming a set of back-to-back box office hits. Offscreen, his personification of Chinese kung fu was just as important. Not only was he heavily involved in charity and martial arts events, he would mentor even more actors (including Eric Tsang Chi Wai, Yuen Te and Adam Cheng [see insert], and current instructor of Lau's Hung Fist, Mark Houghton). Moreover, the 80s would contain numerous, sometimes devastating obstacles for the master martial artist to traverse.

LEGENDARY WEAPONS OF CHINA (1982) was Liu Chia Liang's inaugural motion picture for the 1982 year. The cast was his usual stock of capable performers, but with the addition of Alexander Fu Sheng. Chang Cheh made him famous in 1973, and the young actor was incredibly loyal to him -- much like a son to his father; and that's the way their relationship was perceived. When the actor finally went to work for other directors, he was eventually mentored by Master Liu once more. He would appear in a few of his films leading up to the young actors death in 1983.

But prior to that, Liu Chia Liang put the characteristically impish demeanor of Fu Sheng into overdrive -- first playing a faux spiritual boxer in LEGENDARY WEAPONS OF CHINA; then a co-starring role opposite Adam Cheng in the colorful, but painful CAT VS. RAT (1982); and finally, another co-starring role in 8 DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER (1984).

Plot wise, Fu's grating portrayal operates as a red herring, but thankfully, the director packs in enough spectacular action sequences to make up for the films early segue into nonsense. LEGENDARY WEAPONS starts off like gangbusters with a Darth Vaderish Chu Te Hu commanding subordinates to gouge out their eyes and rip off their extremities! Voodoo style kung fu and lots of magic tricks are trotted out via the evil Mao Shan priests. Director Liu complements his love letter to ancient Chinese weapons by giving each of the 18 implements the spotlight throughout the picture, and encores them all in rapid succession during the climactic duel.

DISCIPLES OF THE MASTER: WONG YU (real name Wang Chi-chuan)

Wong Yu (left) cons Lo Mang in LION VS. LION (1980)

As a young assassin in THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1975)
Debuting in Li Han Hsiang's FACETS OF LOVE (1973) as the Emperor, Wong Yu (sometimes listed as Huang Yu, or Young Wang Yu) was selected by Liu Chia Liang for his breakout role in THE SPIRITUAL BOXER (1975). The young actor found fame under the tutelage of Master Liu, and expanded his resume under other directors like Sun Chung. His popularity allowed him to live comfortably, but he was never a huge star, and didn't have much staying power after Shaw's closed in 1985. Wong Yu was also an entrepreneur involved in a gasoline business in North America. Diagnosed with a chronic disease in 1980, Wong contemplated leaving the movie industry multiple times during his Shaw tenure. In later years, personal and health problems (heart and brain surgeries) took their toll on him. At just 53, and reportedly living in poverty, he died from hepatitis in May of 2008. 

For the most part, Liu's previous movies were very successful. LEGENDARY WEAPONS OF CHINA no doubt shocked everybody when it grossed approximately 10 million in Hong Kong alone. It ended up being the directors biggest hit of his Shaw Brothers years. The picture was in competition with Jackie Chan's DRAGON LORD (1982) released on the same day. To put things into perspective, Jackie Chan had reinvented the genre in 1978, reaching a box office pinnacle in 1980 with the release of THE YOUNG MASTER. Shortly thereafter, he was one of the leaders in a New Wave style that usurped the old, practical style of HK filmmaking. Chan's DRAGON LORD grossed approximately $18 million. Furthermore, Chang Cheh's FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (1982), released in April of that year, pulled in a meager $1.6 million. 

Over the course of his career, Liu Chia Liang had subverted genre conventions to suit his vision. He now had a sizable smash on his hands versus the encroaching New Wave, and Jackie Chan's one after the other blockbusters.

Filming CAT VS. RAT in 1982
Unfortunately, he followed LEGENDARY WEAPONS up with CAT VS. RAT -- a rather tired, irrepressibly childish picture. The storyline involving two rival youngsters constantly trying to outdo one another had been done multiple times already, and the unbearable comedy does the film no favors. The choreography is good, of course. The cramped sets were indicative of stormy weather ahead for Shaw Brothers.
  The same applies to the directors THE LADY IS THE BOSS (1983); although it's a vast improvement. Essentially a modernized, 80s reworking of MY YOUNG AUNTIE (1981), the fights take a backseat to pervasive comedy as the cast shouts their lines as quickly as possible. Master Liu does make an effort to dichotomize tradition with modernity, but this is merely recycled and updated from his AUNTIE picture; and the topic isn't elaborated upon. However, seeing the directors stable of actors decked out in 80s attire and reliving characters of past hits is a nice touch. An added bonus is seeing throngs of patrons waiting to see Tang Chia's SHAOLIN PRINCE (1983) at Shaw's Rex Theater!

Speaking of Tang Chia (see insert pic), the former choreographing partner to Liu Chia Liang was somersaulting into the directorial arena himself in 1982. The humble action designer began an ever so brief gig as a director with the wild wuxia-fantasy fan favorite SHAOLIN PRINCE (1983). Tang's turn as a director was highly touted, and his long-time friend, Master Liu was excited for him -- even if Tang wasn't particularly thrilled about the added responsibility. He directed only two more features culminating in the exciting, if rushed OPIUM & THE KUNG FU MASTER (1984); which could have been a Liu Chia Liang film.


Hsiao Hou (right) in DISCIPLES OF THE 36TH CHAMBER
Another discovery of Master Liu/Lau was this agile, Peking Opera trained martial artist. Like many of Chang Cheh's stock players, Hsiao Hou was a prominent performer in Liu Chia Liang's movies. He got a shot at a co-starring role alongside his master in the fan favorite, MAD MONKEY KUNG FU in 1979. He never caught on as a leading man, but he got one more go at it in 1985s disappointing DISCIPLES OF THE 36TH CHAMBER where he played famous folk hero, Fong Shih Yu. Towards the end of his Shaw tenure and beyond, Hsiao Hou (his name translates to 'little monkey') was resigned to supporting roles, or bit parts. Up to the mid 1990s, he managed to thrive as an action choreographer and stuntman. His resume includes a number of pictures for Sammo Hung.

It was also around this time the Shaw's were losing their place in Hong Kong cinema. Since the start of the 1980s, their audience (in HK, anyways) grew increasingly weary of their old fashioned approach to filmmaking (much like what happened to Hammer in the 1970s). The Shaw's soldiered on making one action period piece after another as these types of pictures were vital to their overseas markets. It allowed them to thrive a bit longer in this respect. But in HK, patrons were gradually flocking to the new wave style of productions at Golden Harvest and other up and coming studios.

The same could be said of Master Liu's movies during this period. Whether this was due to a noticeable decline in Shaw's production values, or a disinterest on the part of Liu, himself, his films lacked the luster of his works from the previous decade. Although he had one great movie left in him before the Shaw's closed their doors.

This depressive mood is stamped all over Liu's 8 DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER (1984). Despite Fu Sheng's death during production, this one was a serious affair from the start. Begun as 'The Heroic Family' in May of 1981, the bulk of the film was already completed with shooting continuing right up to Fu's fatal car accident. 

Around this time in 1981, Fu Sheng was interested in becoming a movie director, himself. With the help of the Lau brothers and Wong Jing, Fu began work on WITS OF THE BRATS (1984; see insert photo) during this time frame. The actors death on July 7th, 1983, left his film unfinished, as well as POLE FIGHTER. The last we see of Fu's character in Liu's picture, he's told he must testify at court for Poon Mei's treachery and he's not seen again.

Work on Liu Chia Liang's 'The Ten Heroes of Shaolin' was likewise postponed; and when it was completed, it had turned into the third 'Master Killer' movie, DISCIPLES OF THE 36TH CHAMBER (1985). 

Liu sits to himself at Fu Sheng's funeral in 1983.
POLE FIGHTER was a modest success, yet it's fondly remembered as one of Liu's greatest efforts today. DISCIPLES (see magazine promo insert pic) fared less well at the box office. The Shaw's were making the transition solely to television, leasing their studio out to other companies, so this picture was seemingly dumped onto a public that couldn't care less. Even the poster design is lackadaisical and bland. It doesn't even utilize any images from the film! A shot of Gordon Liu from POLE FIGHTER and Hsiao Hou from LEGENDARY WEAPONS are front and center. The film itself is a tired retread of Ming vs. Qing with folk hero Fong Shih Yu at the forefront and San Te (played by Gordon Liu this time) as a supporting character. The final fight is spectacular, and the sole saving grace of this weak sequel.

Liu and his first wife Ho Sau Ha (left of him) and four daughters from first marriage.
Liu and soon-to-be wife, Yung Jing Jing in 1983.

Even with the Shaw Brothers studio output at a low ebb and the death of Fu Sheng, all wasn't gloomy for the passionate martial arts movie-maker. Throughout his career, Liu Chia Liang was reported to be quite the ladies man -- even when he was married to his first wife, Ho Sau Ha. He was most famously associated with his frequent kung fu starlet, Hui Ying Hung. In 1983, he was often seen with a much younger actress (29 years his junior), Yung Jing Jing (Mary Jean Reimer). In 1987, the two married (although it was rumored they had married in 1984). Just like in his movies, Master Liu believed in family. He had four daughters and a son with first wife, Ho Sau Ha, and two daughters with the woman he remained with for 26 years till his death. Both families were by his bedside when he passed.

Immediately after the closing of Shaw's studio doors, Master Liu didn't sit idly by. Unlike some of his colleagues, he made a successful transition to Hong Kong's New Wave style, and remained a viable force for about ten more years. His post-Shaw hits include the Jet Li vehicle MARTIAL ARTS OF SHAOLIN (1986) aka SHAOLIN TEMPLE 3. The star-studded modern day actioner TIGER ON THE BEAT (1988) is another -- which may as well have been a Shaw production with all the former luminaries on hand. One of the highlights is a spectacular chainsaw duel between Gordon Liu and Conan Lee (see insert).

The esteemed old man of kung fu worked with Americans for the first time in 1993s TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES 3: TURTLES IN TIME. According to Liu, Raymond Chow sent him to work on the film for a week. He designed 11 action sequences in 7 days, although it appears none of his work survived the finished version. Then there's DRUNKEN MASTER 2 (1994). It had Liu directing Jackie Chan in the first of two non-Shaw Wong Fei-hung movies.

DM2 is of interest because of the controversy surrounding it. Much like the relationship between Liu and Chang Cheh had soured over time, the collaboration of these two titans of kung fu cinema dissolved much quicker. Both men have strong personalities that just didn't match. It was life imitating art -- like the familiar plot device pitting tradition against modernism found in Liu's Shaw pictures. Problems arose between the two with Liu's traditional style clashing with Chan's new style. This resulted in Master Liu's exit from the picture. 

The embittered elder filmmaker retaliated rushing out a DRUNKEN MASTER 3 (1994) without Chan's involvement. It performed poorly. He was redeemed to a degree by receiving a Best Choreography award for DRUNKEN MASTER 2. Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with lymphomatic cancer the same year.


Yang Tsing Tsing (sometimes listed as Yan Ching Ching) was a petite practitioner of martial arts hired by Liu Chia Liang. She was only 16 when she joined Shaw's in 1979. Her first role of substance was in the kung fu comedy, EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF. She was also working on TWO CHAMPIONS OF SHAOLIN and CLAN OF THE WHITE LOTUS (all three 1980) at the same time. She was a magnificent martial artist, but alas, a breakout performance eluded her. Even so, she graced a number of wuxia and kung fu favorites with her fighting prowess and presence. Arguably her most significant role was as Wang Lung Wei's mute, but deadly girlfriend in THE TREASURE HUNTERS (1981). The majority of her roles were as sidekicks, or bodyguard/assassin types; and when Shaw's closed, she thrived as a stunt double and action choreographer in other films and on television. Ann Hui's AH KAM (1996) aka THE STUNTWOMAN, is based on her life. 

When the news broke in 2000 that the old Shaw Brothers catalog of movies were being restored for release on DVD, it was hoped a return to old style kung fu would be revived with it. The Shaw's themselves attempted resurrection with a BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972) remake entitled HERO in 1997 starring Takeshi Kaneshiro and Yuen Biao.

Sadly, that film performed poorly. With anticipation of the Shaw restorations, Liu Chia Liang was leading the charge of this second wave of Shaw Brothers revivification. DRUNKEN MONKEY (2003) was intended to be a breath of fresh air in contrast to all the CGI enhanced Wuxia pictures that had dominated Chinese movie screens since the release of STORM RIDERS in 1996.

Yet again, a new era of Shaw productions was denied when DRUNKEN MONKEY failed miserably at the HK box office. Bolstered by a cast of old hands in top form such as Gordon Liu and Chi Kuan Chun (as well as director Liu), and up and comer Wu Jing, the action was spectacular; but marred by a thick, penetrating aura of comical shenanigans. The failure of DRUNKEN MONKEY was the end of Liu Chia Liang's directorial career. 

He acted in, and co-choreographed one more movie -- SEVEN SWORDS (2005) from Tsui Hark. A case of pneumonia during the shoot aggravated his condition. Liu Chia Liang would leave the limelight of the silver screen never to return before the camera. In 2010, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 29th Annual HK Film Awards. That same year in May, it was reported he would act as an advisor on Wong Kar Wai's THE GRANDMASTER (2013). His nephew, Jimmy Liu, took a role in that picture as a Hung Gar fighter. By 2011, it was reported Master Liu had to receive blood transfusions on a regular basis. 

Then on June 25th, 2013, martial arts cinema lost one of, if not its greatest, purely authentic representative of the Chinese arts in Asian motion picture history. There were others who were devout towards their art, but none so steadfast and resolute as the Master, Liu Chia Liang/Lau Kar Leung. Born in 1936 (the actual month and date varies), his 76 years on this earth were filled with numerous successes, disappointments, triumphs and tragedies the likes of which many of us will never experience. He may be gone, but he'll never be forgotten so long as we, the fans have his movies and the memories shared by those he mentored, knew him, and loved him.


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