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Monday, August 12, 2013

Tough Guys Files #4: Michael Chan Wai Man Part 1


Hong Kong action cinema has a rich history of film stars who not only played martial arts experts on screen, but were bonafide martial artists in real life. To hear stories of kung fu movie actors getting into fights, or being challenged by rivals, or issuing challenges to them wasn't just an oft-used plot device in countless kung fu movies -- these were seemingly regular, real life occurrences in Hong Kong cinemas wildest era, the 1970s. Nowadays, the number of real life fighters in Asian movies has drastically slimmed down since the genres heyday in the 1970s and 1980s. 

Back then, masculinity was something to celebrate and boast about; and testosterone was abundantly rampant in endless kung fu pictures made in Hong Kong, Taiwan and other Asian territories. Chan Wai Man (or, as he's known in Mandarin on the credits of many of his movies -- Chen Hui Min) is among Hong Kong's many true to life Tough Guys.

Born in Hong Kong in 1946, Chan began learning martial arts at a young age. At ten, he undertook Northern Shaolin style from his first instructor, then later added other styles to his repertoire including western style boxing. Admiring American boxing champion Muhammad Ali, Chan's interest in both boxing and kickboxing served him well. Having won the Southeast Asian kung fu fighting championship in 1972, he also accrued sixteen boxing-kickboxing wins to his professional career.

Prior to his fighting and film career, Chan became a member of a Triad gang sometime in his younger years. This element of criminality became a stigma that contributed to the man's popularity in the ensuing years. When he was 18, he took a job opportunity in a totally opposite direction by becoming a police officer. How unusual that a young man who lived and breathed fighting in the streets would want to become a lawman. Possibly Chen wanted to see what the other side was like? That lasted for two years till his background as a gangster led to his dismissal. 

With an already heavy reputation as a street fighter, martial arts ability in spades, and one helluva scowl, Chan was a natural for big screen domination. Most martial artists who got into movies got a few bit parts or supporting roles before diving in as a lead. Not Chan. He started out with meaty roles from the get-go. 

The insert photo at left is one such production -- Kao Pao Shu's Thai shot THE FEMALE FUGITIVE (1975). Early in his career, he played a fair number of good guys, but ultimately made villain roles his raison d'etre. With 1976s JUMPING ASH, Chan made an imprint on Asian audiences as a cold-blooded killer. These types of roles suited his intimidating looks, and he played quite a few psychos throughout his career in films like THE MAD COLD-BLOODED MURDER (1981) and PROFILE IN ANGER (1984) to name two. He possessed an immense amount of versatility that he never got enough credit for.

Throughout this article, there are a list of ten recommended movies from the career of Chan Wai Man aka Chen Hui Min. His participation varies in some of these, but this selected ten films are ten examples of satisfying entertainment featuring the Godfather From Hong Kong.


This standard revenge yarn about a righteous young man protecting oppressed villagers is among Chan's earliest roles. Its year of release is 1974, but it likely began shooting much earlier. Chiang Tao is one of the villains and he had signed a contract at Shaw Brothers in February of 1972. The plot may be generic kung fu trappings, but Chan's fighting style is brutal with some punishing punch and kick combos, and also some rough and tumble throwing maneuvers. Nothing spectacular, but an entertaining early role for fans of Chen Hui Min.

Award winning director Ho Fan is cited as discovering Chan, but the man himself has stated it was Victor Lam Lim Huen who initially got him film roles. These began with two Ho Fan directed films -- LOVE AND BLOOD (1972) and the mundane sex and kung fu flick ADVENTURE IN DENMARK (1973). Both were produced by Victor Lam.

During this period and beyond, Chan resided predominantly in the independent film arena. He appeared in occasional big studio productions for both Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest, but seemed most comfortable freelancing. He worked for most all the major directors, and even counted directing among his own list of credits, as well as a producer and action designer. In addition, Chan Wai Man was a martial arts instructor in Hong Kong.

Chen (right) battles Lu Chuan (Shikamura Ito-left) in DEADLY CHASE FOR JUSTICE (1977)
His resume is filled with movies of various genres, but action pictures were his specialty. These consisted of kung fu and swordplay films, crime thrillers, gangster and modern day actioners. He preferred doing the modern action style movies, citing the difficulties inherent in making the fancier kung fu productions; those requiring a dozen or more movements in a single take. Chan's fighting style in his movies is particularly brutal. His stance and movements are reminiscent of Bruce Lee's flurry of fists and basic punch and kick combos. However, these are powerful maneuvers that look believable on camera. Chan moves like a street fighter, and this is most noticeable in his modern day action films. Sometimes his brawler style creeps into the period piece, kung fu pictures he appeared in.

Like another friend of Chan's, Hwang Jang Lee, Chan looks like he means it when he punches and kicks his foes in his fight scenes. His actions are loaded with a passionate verve that look like pain is truly being administered to the unlucky victim on the receiving end.


Chen Hui Min (left) duels with Bruce Liang (right) during the finale of BROKEN OATH (1977)
Cheng Chang Ho's (KING BOXER) Chinese remake of Toshiya Fujita's LADY SNOWBLOOD (1973) has less emphasis on spurting blood and more on kung fu fights. Some sweeping camera shots are a plus, too. Chen Hui Min plays the main antagonist of the four kung fu rapists who are being hunted down by Angela Mao's determined avenger. Bruce Liang also stars. Watch for Sammo Hung and Han Ying Chieh in supporting roles as the two bodyguards to the evil general. I'm not the biggest Golden Harvest fan, but this is one of the company's best, most gritty and violent productions.


Regarding Bruce Lee, Chan Wai Man was a childhood friend of the 'Little Dragon'. Neither man officially trained together, or even did a movie together, but both were close since their school days and they had fighting in common. In later years, Chan tried to mentor Bruce's son, Brandon Lee. The troubled actor wasn't all that enthused about following in his father's footsteps, or even attempting to replicate the famous patriarch's success. But back in the 1970s, movie producers had no qualms about wringing the last dollar out of the deceased dragon. Almost immediately after Bruce Lee died, there was a slew of Bruce Lee imitator movies that flooded the marketplace. Some even came from Golden Harvest, the very studio that was saved from bankruptcy by Bruce's box office kung fu.

Looking at Chan's physique, it's a remarkable assimilation of Bruce's body. Both men were of slight build, but were toned and ripped in a way you didn't see very often. There's nary an ounce of fat on either of them. Not only did Chan favor Bruce a bit in the face, but both men were great friends and passionate about the fighting arts. Chan was approached by producers to join the likes of Ho Chung Tao (Bruce Li), Wong Kin Lung (Bruce Le) and others who were capitalizing on the dead actors name by imitating his mannerisms onscreen. Chan thought this would be a dishonor to his late friend and declined such offers. However, he did star in a few of these films, and some that were retitled as Bruce Lee cash-in pictures.


Sun Chung's first Wuxia adventure in five years is this unusually well made, bloody martial arts whodunit. The plot is the usual clan vs. clan scenario of these martial world adventures, but Chung shoots the film with a certain degree of grandeur. Chen Hui Min steals the show as 'The Bloody Devil'. He has a unique look about him and his fight scenes are particularly brutal. It was with this movie that Sun Chung designated his signature style that would remain for the rest of his Shaw Brothers tenure.

For instance, one of Chan's earliest movies was the Thailand set ANGRY TIGER from 1973 (see insert pic at right). This middling movie also played under the more exploitable title of SPIRITS OF BRUCE LEE despite the film having absolutely nothing to do with Bruce Lee. Chan plays Chang, a man searching for his missing brother in Thailand. You'll notice early on in the movie that Chan hasn't had his massive back tattoo done at this time.

Chen (left) has a brief fight with Bolo (right)
The same exploitation of Bruce Lee's name applies to the likes of the hilarious BRUCE'S DEADLY FINGERS (1976) starring the irrepressible Bruce Le and the indefatigable Lo Lieh. In the English release, Chan (who plays an Interpol agent out to get Lo Lieh) is top billed over Bruce Le, the main star! The movie's knee-slappingly ridiculous dubbing is difficult to resist. For that alone, this is one of the "best" of the Bruceploitation movies -- the worst sub-genre in kung fu cinema.

The extremely rare, seemingly extinct THE BIG BOSS PART 2 (1976) is another of these movies. That picture was marketed as a sequel to Lee's THE BIG BOSS from 1971 as opposed to brandishing itself as an in-name only sequel. Bruce Le and Lo Lieh co-star with Chan again. 

1978s BRUCE LI, THE INVINCIBLE (see insert pic) also went out under the title of BRUCE LEE, THE INVINCIBLE. That film had nothing at all to do with Bruce Lee, or even Bruce Lee imitators. It was a standard, period set kung fu story that had Bruce Li (Ho Chung Tao) and the muscular Chen Sing taking on Michael Chan as the main villain and a kung fu gorilla.


One of Chen Hui Min's best bad guy roles is in this superb Sun Chung Wuxia tale starring Ti Lung and Fu Sheng. Ti Lung's arrogant swordsman is the possessor of the title blade. Lian San (Chen) loses to Tuan (Ti Lung) and is believed to have died; but comes back stronger than ever and with a full head of white hair after being helped by 'The Evil Doctor' played by award winning actor, the prolific Ku Feng. Chan carves an imposing character for himself with his Throat Piercing Halberd. This is an all around gorgeous production, and one of the best from the Shaw Brothers stable. Fu Sheng's wife, Jenny Tseng, sings the lovely theme song.


As per the chaotic nature of Hong Kong cinema back in the day, a lot of movies got started, but were aborted; and others were finished a year or more after they were started -- padded out with additional material that didn't always match with the initially shot footage. Chan Wai Man was a part of some of these scuppered and scattershot productions.

In 1976, famous Shaw director Li Han Hsiang, well known for his movies on erotica, was planning the much anticipated production of DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER (1977). Reportedly and rather surprisingly, Li had abruptly put those plans on hold and high-tailed it to Europe to shoot a movie with Chan Wai Man in the lead. Tentatively titled 'Gambling For Heads', this picture was to begin shooting in Holland then move to other locales like Great Britain and France. The film was to be Li's first foray into kung fu movie territory. Unfortunately, the movie was aborted and Li went ahead with his DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER, and Chan went to work on 'The Outstanding Boxer' directed by Sun Chung. That film ended up being released as JUDGMENT OF AN ASSASSIN in 1977. Li Han Hsiang wouldn't dabble in martial arts till the award winning TIGER KILLER released in 1982.

In 1983, Korean martial artist Kim Yong-ho -- better known to HK cinema fans as Casanova Wong aka Ca Sa Fa -- shot a Korean kung fu movie entitled HWAYA. Michael Chan co-starred as the villain in the original Korean version. Flash forward to 1984 and First Films (one of the few independent companies that thrived amidst the big studio dominance of the 1970s) bankrolls a Michael Chan feature that reportedly went unfinished. With continuity thrown to the wind, the footage shot is then built around the earlier Korean picture. First Films, who had slowed down tremendously by this point, releases the movie in Hong Kong in 1985 re-christening this new version as NINJA STRIKE. It was also shown in some territories under the title of ROCKY'S LOVE AFFAIRS of all things. That title is actually fairly accurate considering all the sex scenes. There's as much, if not more sexual action as it is martial arts action.


An exceptionally well made modern crime action-drama from former Chang Cheh acolyte, Wu Ma. Chan is a ruthless hitman who suddenly decides to go straight after he seriously injures a beautiful young woman. He tries to live a normal life and marries a woman who dominates him and does what she wishes. Finally having enough, Chan ends up back working for his old boss. Meanwhile, other hitmen and the police are on his trail. If some of this sounds familiar, that's because John Woo directed something noticeably similar in 1989 called THE KILLER with Chow Yun Fat. Seeing perennial bad ass Chan Wai Man briefly as a henpecked husband is worth the admission all by itself. Watch for Wu Ma in a cameo.

The new scenes in NINJA STRIKE involving Chan consist of an all new plot about a coveted necklace that holds the key to a chest of riches. Beginning in 1940 during WW2, an American guy makes off with the necklace while former venom movie actor Wang Li holds off a gang of ninjas so the American can escape. Flash forward to present day. A noticeably chubby Casanova Wong (what a difference a year makes) appears in some extra action scenes battling ninjas that weren't in the original Korean version.

Chan Wai Man (right) and Casanova Wong (left) beat the hell out of each other in NINJA STRIKE (1985)

This particular title is a perfect example of the 'Don't Give A Damn' side of HK cinema. The slapped together nature of the picture, together with the careless attention to continuity, is a perfect recipe for comedy gold. This movie -- which also has alternate titles including the made up monikers CITY NINJA, and the highly exploitable NINJA HOLOCAUST -- is sometimes mistaken for one of the far worse "ninja" movies spewed out by that triple threat of Godfrey Ho, Joseph Lai and Tomas Tang.

It's also worth mentioning that the new footage of Chan depicts him as the hero of the movie. This wrecks havoc with the assimilated Korean footage where he plays the villain in that version. So in NINJA STRIKE, Chan flip-flops from one scene to the next as a good guy and back to a bad guy any number of times. It also appears to have been intended as another vanity project for Chan; at least in the new scenes. He's often seen working out, half naked, or bedding down one of the pretty actresses seen in the movie. His earlier film, THE CLUB from 1981, was one such picture.


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