"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)|
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|
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.
ALL IN THE FAMILY: LIU CHIA YUNG
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)|
|Master Liu & Chen Kuan Tai (left) on SPIRITUAL BOXER set|
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)|
ALL IN THE FAMILY 2: GORDON LIU
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)|
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 ), 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.|
|Master Liu (right) gives Pai Mei (Lo Lieh at left) instructions|
|Chen Kuan Tai|
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.
TO BE CONTINUED IN PART 2