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Monday, August 12, 2013

Tough Guys Files #4: Michael Chan Wai Man Part 2


By the late 1970s, Chan Wai Man had found a good degree of success in show business. Already notorious for his gangster background, this didn't stop fans from seeing his movies; if anything, it made moviegoers curious to seek them out. 

The steady flow of Triad influence on the Hong Kong film industry was soon to become a major problem; and the industry would reflect this, although not necessarily in a negative way. Kung fu movies were still being made in abundance and righteous swordsmen were still flying across the screen with rapidity. Societal issues were always present in HK cinema, but a change in how these issues were explored, and the way Chinese movies were made in general was on the horizon. Of course, this would be Chan's second wind; and possibly a more comfortable transition to the changing cinema style of the 1980s that would soon find him in numerous roles tailor made for his prior life as a gangster in Hong Kong. The dawn of the new decade would also bring about an independent feature that was an autobiographical endeavor and an influence on similar films that followed.


The plot is a bit of a stretch, but it makes for a highly entertaining movie. This is Wu Ma's version of one of his mentors Shaolin cycle of movies; and made on a much smaller budget. Still, Wu Ma does a fine job of making his own movie while showing the influence of Chang Cheh. Ti Lung plays a traitorous Chinese who is actually only pretending to have sold out his country. He secretly trains a motley clutch of Shaolin captives and plots the evil emperors (Chen) demise. One of Chen's favorite roles, he does very little fighting till the end; he settles mostly for presiding over the torture of his captives.

Directed by then newcomer Kirk Wong, and written with Chan Wai Man specifically in mind, THE CLUB (1981) was reportedly based on real events in Chan's life. An independent feature financed by Bang! Bang! Films, Chop! Chop! Films would have been more appropriate. There's no gunplay, but there's a handful of chopper action with various bladed implements including two outboard boat motors zeroing in on their fleshy targets. Chan himself called it the first real Hong Kong gangster movie. While it's certainly an innovative production for the many similar pictures that followed, it wasn't technically the first of its type.

Movies about gangsters and the Triads had been around at least since the early 1970s. Chang Cheh touched on their old world origins in FIVE SHAOLIN MASTERS (1974); and featured them in a handful of his Early Republic movies like THE DUEL (1971) and THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972). In these movies, the gangs were not so much glorified as the violence they perpetrated, and that brought onto them by the hero(es). These early depictions were virtually night and day when compared with their flashier 'blood and bullets' counterparts of the late 80s and 1990s. Kuei Chi Hung's critically lauded THE TEAHOUSE (1974) and its sequel are among the earliest examples to tackle the subject of criminal organizations seriously without focusing on bloody action. Hua Shan's ultra violent BROTHERHOOD (1976) is another, but favors sleaze and fights over dramatic exposition. 

Aside from the bloody mark THE CLUB (1981) left on the Chinese gangster movie, an extremely rare earlier example mined similar territory. It, too, starred Chan and is discussed elsewhere in this article.


Kirk Wong's first feature is a groundbreaking modern day gangster drama. It's significant mainly because it's supposedly written specifically for Chan Wai Man in simulating some of his prior, real life gangland activities. The movie is gritty, bloody and has a high amount of nudity. The gangsters don't use guns here, but love swinging their choppers around. In fact, chopper movies would seem to be trying to outdo one another from here on out. Chopper mania reached an apex with the Shaw's HONG KONG GODFATHER (1985) -- a film that proved hard to beat where geysers of blood and knife wounds were concerned. THE CLUB takes a while to get going, but if you're a Chan Fan (not that Jackie guy), you'll want to add it to your collection.

Chen Hui Min takes on Eddie Ko in THE INVINCIBLE KILLER (1978)

It was around this time in the late 1970s and into the 1980s that Triad Societies began infiltrating the Hong Kong film industry at an alarming rate. There's been a long standing rumor that the Shaw Brothers were largely responsible for this infiltration; but it should be noted that many HK stars that worked for Shaw's asked to freelance and do movies for outside companies with more lucrative offers. The Shaw's forced no one to do this as a result of their alleged slave wages. Considering most of their actors were under tight contracts akin to the old Hollywood studio system, they were allowed to do outside film work after proving their box office worth. Other actors and actresses were allowed to freelance from the start.

Promotional ad for FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (1982)
By the early 1990s, organized crime within filmic circles had gotten so severe, that in 1992, some 200 actors and filmmakers took to the streets in protest. Granted, you had what was considered good and bad Triads -- those who were reasonable businessmen, and those who were not. Chan was the latter, of course. During the mid 80s and throughout the 90s, movies about Triads had become extremely profitable thanks to John Woo's A BETTER TOMORROW (1986). A flood of similar underworld movies followed and made Chow Yun Fat a superstar.

Chen (right) is not IN THE LINE OF DUTY (1986)
In his later career, Michael Chan's background as a Triad would be exemplified in a number of modern action pictures and gangster thrillers. Much of the time, these would be cameos or supporting roles; often playing gang leaders or mob bosses in parts that were no doubt second nature to Chan. His sole directorial credit, GANGLAND ODYSSEY from 1990, is among these. IN THE LINE OF DUTY from 1986 is another. Chan is in the film near the beginning playing a crime boss who escapes his bonds aboard a plane and ends up battling both Michelle Yeoh and Hiroyuki Sanada. 

Chen (left) and Lo Lieh (right) in SHAOLIN HANDLOCK (1978)
In the 70s, he had starred in numerous similar movies, such as the awful MARTIAL ARTS aka CHINESE MACK (1974) -- an impoverished version of Chang Cheh's THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972). These earlier gangster pictures glorified their "dark heroes"; but unlike the later, modern day interpretations, these kung fu fighting hoodlums eventually saw the error of their ways via a redemptively violent death. Those films accentuated the martial arts action while masquerading as morality plays. As the 70s progressed, this style of action film evolved further away from the kung fu movie conventions. One such picture came from director Sun Chung.

In 1978, Chan Wai Man starred in this Sun Chung film -- a Shaw co-production with an independent company from producer-actor Chung Kuo-jen titled GODFATHER'S FURY.

Promotional materials for the rare GODFATHER'S FURY (1978)
Originally titled 489, it was the first of a series of gangster-crime-action-dramas that utilized numerical codes for its title. '489' was, as relayed by its producer, code for the leader of a criminal syndicate.

This particular movie is among the most rare HK films, and one that deals with Triad Society. It has yet to surface on any format, and may possibly be a lost motion picture. 

At the time, Shaw Brothers were heavily promoting both Chan and the movie. Chan Wai Man (this was during his more prominent period listed under his Mandarin name of Chen Hui Min) and director Sun Chung had a bit of success with 1977s JUDGMENT OF AN ASSASSIN; which saw Chan essay the freakishly scary main villain, The Bloody Devil. You can see the make up artists preparing Chen for his facial appliance for that movie in the insert photo.


Chang Cheh's most ornately gory martial arts picture is this wildly colorful, bloody comic book come to life. The plot is of the basic revenge school of kung fu -- lone student avenges the death of his teacher and friends at the hands of invading ninjas with eyes on total control of the martial world. Chen Hui Min plays calculating villainy to the hilt here. He explodes when he fights, but the rest of the time he's calm; yet the piercingly sinister visage is always present on his face. Chan and the other actors pull out all the bloody stops for the extended finale. Cheng Tien Chi and Chu Ko made Chen look great in the fight scenes; arguably his finest hour in a martial arts role. A classic of epically heroic proportions.


Ti Lung (left) fights his old nemesis Chen Hui Min (right) in THE DEADLY BREAKING SWORD (1979)
JUDGMENT OF AN ASSASSIN was one of a few times where Chan played a white-haired villain. Liu Chia Liang's EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN (1977) popularized the bringer of death adorned with a milky colored scalp by way of Lo Lieh's portrayal of Pai Mei. Chan played such characters in Sun Chung's exemplary THE DEADLY BREAKING SWORD (1979). In it, his hair color changes towards the end -- a side-effect of the medicine given to him by 'The Evil Doctor' played by Ku Feng. The color white represents death in China, and in Chan's case, his hair changing color signifies an increase in strength; Chan's bad guy in THE HEROES (1980) has a thick white streak running down the middle of his hair as you can see in the insert photo. This was one of the actors favorite roles.

Chen Hui Min with Chang Cheh (left) and Sun Chung (right) in 1977
Part of the promotion of GODFATHER'S FURY was hyping Chan the man -- with special attention paid towards his ornate tattoos covering various parts of his body. Possessing this body art since he was younger, Chan had the designs made in Japan, but had them applied back in Hong Kong by a Chinese tattoo artist. Tattoos on the body at that time most often denoted an individuals ties to gangs. Nowadays they're common. Among the several designs adorning Chen's figure are an enormous dragon engulfed in smoke and flame that covers his back; and eagles are displayed on his arms and chest. Upon closer inspection in some of his later movies, he seems to have added to these tattoos. He also has assorted designs on his legs.

While Chen was much ballyhooed in Shaw's publicity department in 1977, this wasn't the actors first time at Shaw's. In 1972, he had a small role as Two Spears Tung Ping in Chang Cheh's gore-laden epic, ALL MEN ARE BROTHERS (released in 1975). His tattoos are briefly on display in this movie, and most especially in the second Chang Cheh movie Chan starred in, the spectacular FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS from 1982. Chan's tats are glorified in many more of his movies. In 1979s underrated HANDCUFFS, Chan has some fake tattoos added to his already existing ones for the film.


Another of those wacky, chaotic HK films with a troubled production history -- the type that could turn sloppiness into an art form. Popular actor Liang Chia Jen (Leung Kar Yan) directs for the first time and packs an incredible amount of energy into his movie even if the scenario seems to take place in some alternate universe. Chan's role here is minimal; and he's another psycho killer. The scene where he stalks Liang's wife in their home while a thunderstorm beats down on the house is a major highlight. He's also prone to mercilessly torturing his victims, smacking around kids and running over pregnant women.


Chen (left) has a great fight with Yasuaki Kurata (right) in V.I.P. aka THE MAD, THE MEAN & THE DEADLY (1978)
Having starred, co-starred, guest-starred in some 200 movies, Chan Wai Man was very much in demand back in the day. He's slowed down since the mid 90s, but even pushing 70 years of age, he still does movies even now. At his peak, he worked with virtually every big name. Some actors like Chen Sing, Ti Lung, Lo Lieh, Lu Chuan (Shikamura Ito), Ko Fei and David Chiang, Chan has worked with on more than a few occasions. 

There were some he never worked with for one reason or the other. According to the man himself, he and Sammo didn't get along. A fight between the two at a public disco led to both HK movie titans never officially working together. Jackie Chan allegedly didn't want to be upstaged by the revered Tough Guy, so extensive scenes of Chan from both DRAGON LORD (1982) and PROJECT A II (1987) were cut out. That trick he does in the latter Jackie Chan movie by flipping a couch over with a single foot was impressive. Even more so in that there were no wires and he did it on the single take.

Chen Hui Min administers a shot of bullets in MERCENARIES FROM HONG KONG (1982)

Trouble and confrontation wasn't necessarily resigned to the movies where Chan Wai Man was concerned. In the wild and wooly 1970s, he would often be challenged in the street by eager, if careless souls ignorant of his capabilities and wishing to try him out. The challenging of a rival school was also a regular occurrence at this time. Considering the hundreds of similar scenarios that played out in countless kung fu movies, these were cases of the art imitating life.

Chan (right) battles it out in a junk yard with his kung fu brother Cheng Kei Ying (left) in THE INVINCIBLE KILLER (1978)
Carter Wong (left) is a ring man for Chan at boxing event
On another occasion, Chan wasn't in the fight, but was to have been the referee! Chan's frequent collaborator and younger kung fu brother, Cheng Kei Ying had challenged Korean bootmaster Hwang Jang Lee to a deathmatch after the feared Korean kicker had allegedly made some comments about Chinese kung fu men being incapable of successfully combating his Taekwondo. Someone notified the police and the fight never took place. This altercation may have been one of the reasons Hwang Jang Lee returned to Korea and made movies there.


Chan's last Shaw Brothers movie, and one of the last Shaw movies period is this dramatic quasi-action picture starring Ti Lung as a roughhouse instructor assigned to a remote military outpost. He's to whip the men into shape, but the corrupt local official (Chan Wai Man) would prefer the soldiers stayed drunk and in the whorehouse. It's a stunning film with only one real fight at the end. The dramatic elements that build up to it make the final confrontation all the more satisfying. Chan is incredibly cruel here as the devilish Jin Bu Huan. One of Sun Chung's best, most under appreciated movies.


With all this volcanic miasma of masculinity erupting all over Hong Kong between the Tough Guys of Asian cinema, Chan Wai Man did tap into his lighter side by doing comedy in some of his movies. Some of these include an early example of the rambunctiously zany side of Wong Jing's filmmaking imagination with WINNER TAKES ALL (1982). There's lots of crazy special effects, robots, ninjas, and enough nuttiness for a couple more movies -- nuttiness being a recurring staple of Wong Jing's future productions. He soon became one of HK's most successful filmmakers. Shaw's was cognizant of his talents and they promoted him heavily in the early 1980s.

Wong Jing (Wong Tsing) was one of the youngest directors at Shaw's at that time. He showed a great deal of promise and brought an energy to the studios output that matched the New Wave approach being embraced by other studios around Hong Kong. This was especially evident in Wong's exciting and violently over the top action comedy MERCENARIES FROM HONG KONG (1982). You can see both Chen and Ko Fei goofing around between takes on that film in the above insert photo. 

Sadly, the Shaw's were not able to keep up with the slew of innovations emitting from filmmakers outside their doors. Even so, Chen Hui Min seemed to enjoy poking fun of his image in some of his modern day pictures at Shaw's.

Chen (right) is in awe of Hui Ying Hung's penis in THREE STOOGES GO UNDERCOVER (1984)
Lan Nai Tsai's (Lam Nai Choi) THREE STOOGES GO UNDERCOVER (1984) features Chan appearing during the last half hour playing the head stooge to a big boss counterfeiter played by Shek Kin. Kara Hui Ying Hung is the hard ass cop prone to excessive force. A classic scene has her disguised as a young man (again?!) while Chan attempts to get her to use the stand up urinal in the men's room. The result is actually really funny.

Other comedy movies followed such as the non-Shaw POM POM STRIKES BACK! (1986) which had Chan playing yet another Triad killer; but this time in a comedy setting. Most recently, Chan co-starred with a few other of his old school kung fu colleagues in the action-comedy hit GALLANTS (2010).

Chen in BROKEN OATH (1977)

In his heyday, Michael Chan Wai Man enjoyed a steady twenty years of popularity with numerous lead roles. He's lived that rare life where much of his film career mirrored and reflected his past experiences. He also stands out among his colleagues as the real deal where fighting was concerned. He lived and breathed action (even having champion dogs for fighting as well as bears and chickens!). He was the extreme archetype of machismo. Chen Hui Min is, and was a fighter, father, martial arts champion and instructor. Whether you can look past the man's shadowy past or not, Hong Kong cinema is forever tattooed with many memorable roles from one of the most brutally refined examples of masculinity to ever punch, kick and slash its way across a movie screen.

***Sources for this article include an interview with Michael Chan by Bey Logan and numerous articles from assorted Hong Kong film magazines***


Anonymous said...

Great ! Great job. This is very interesting. I like this guy,
his presence, his charisma. Thanks !

venoms5 said...

Thank you. I'm the same about his presence and charisma. I imagine Chan has a great many wild stories to tell.

Anonymous said...

Thank you ! Big fan of Chan Wai Man, I wonder where I can find more of his old magazine article.

venoms5 said...

You're welcome. Try ebay.

Unknown said...

This guy was very disrespectful about Brandon Lee. He hated that Brandon was an original that didn't want to rip his father off. Michael Chan had no issue with it cos he himself even tried ripping Bruce off but was a pale immitation.

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