Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Cool Ass Cinema Presents: An Interview With Special Effects Makeup Artist, Steve Neill

Steve Neill with his gun he built for LASERBLAST (1978); on set of THE STUFF (1985)

Neill wearing his Kong suit in TV ad
Steve Neill has been in the special effects, makeup and modeling field for over 30 years; and in that time he has worked on many cult film favorites and high profile major studio productions. He comes from a long line of elder statesmen--some of which have left us--and others who have continued their professions in makeup and special effects. Steve Neill's resume is an eclectic mix of movies, television (THE A TEAM) and commercials (McDonald's Mac Tonight moon man; the King Kong Transamerica ad [see insert]). He has collaborated with a variety of equally talented SPX artists like Jim Danforth, Dave Allen, Randy Cook (Randall William Cook), Peter Kuran and Rick Stratton. Further, a tenure at Francis Ford Coppola's and George Lucas's American Zoetrope film studio gifted Neill with a passion for filmmaking that complemented his talent for makeup design and creature creations. Additionally, a lifelong interest in aircraft and models has served him well over the years, and on the projects he undertakes today at the SNG studios, a filmmaking facility he runs with his partner, Mary Cacciapaglia.

Mr. Neill was kind enough to agree to an interview via email to discuss his lengthy career in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror.

Venoms5: Can you tell me a bit about yourself growing up and where your interest in modeling and makeup came from? Were you a Famous Monsters kid like many of your colleagues?

Steve Neill: Yes I was. I grew up watching Science Fiction and Horror movies. Later on I started making my own monsters and models. While in high school I saw the film 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), which greatly influenced me in becoming a Science Fiction filmmaker. I also saw PLANET OF THE APES (1968) which inspired me to recreate the makeup prosthetics which later led to my pursuing prosthetic makeup effects.

V5: You met both Francis Ford Coppola and Rick Baker in the early 70s. In what ways were they influential on your career path?

SN: Francis was a great mentor in developing my filmmaking skills while working at the American Zoetrope. Later I moved to LA and met and became friends with Rick Baker. We lived in the same neighborhood and spent a lot of time together. I learned a great deal from him and later he started referring me to jobs which started my career in makeup effects. I very much appreciate Rick's helping me get my start in the business.

V5: Was Larry Cohen's GOD TOLD ME TO (1976) your first project; and if so, how did you get the job?

SN: Yes, that was my first project. Rick Baker referred me to Larry on that one.

V5: Can you tell me anything about the Bigfoot project you were attached to and how it morphed into THE CRATER LAKE MONSTER?

SN: Yes, originally Rick Baker referred me to William Stromberg to build a Bigfoot suit in 1975. Later the script was changed and it became THE CRATER LAKE MONSTER (1977). I built the big dinosaur and other makeup effects for that movie.

Steve Neill photo of his Crater Lake Monster head
V5: Can you describe the process of building that monster head?

SN: I sculpted the head out of clay on my apartment's kitchen floor in Toluca Lake. Then I made a huge bathtub size mold in plaster. To get it out of the kitchen we had to pass it through the kitchen window which was wider than the door. Working in the back alley, I poured the head up in latex and made a fiberglass under-skull for it to support the latex. The rest of the dinosaur head was composed out of foam and latex construction. Later it was painted. Solid latex teeth were added and the mouth was constructed from foam rubber and coated with latex. The eyes were created from plastic hemispheres painted from the inside.

V5: What was your reaction when you learned your Crater Lake monster head ended up being used in the film HISTORY OF THE WORLD PART 1 (1981) without your knowledge? What became of it?

SN: I thought it was great because without doing anything I got to add that movie to my resume. I have no idea what happened to the head after that, though.

David Allen doing stop-motion animation on his unrealized project, THE PRIMEVALS.

V5: When did you meet David Allen and is there a story you could share about him? You worked with him a number of times throughout your career.

SN: I met David through Randy Cook. We became friends. I liked his script, 'The Primevals' very much. When I was doing LASERBLAST (1978) for Charlie Band I took David's script to Charlie because I thought he'd be able to make David's project into a movie. This instead led to a long career of David Allen doing visual effects work for Charlie Band. From that point on, David and I worked numerous times on projects for Charlie. David was a wonderful man and a good friend whom I miss to this day.

V5: What would you say was the reason Allen's ambitious project was never completed?

SN: Well it was simply Empire Pictures not following through and finishing it. 

Steve Neill photo of his prop gun seen in LASERBLAST (1978).

V5: You built the alien gun in LASERBLAST (1978). What parts went into its construction? Did you design multiple guns or just the one seen in the movie?

SN: I only made the one gun and that was loosely based on a concept sketch. Parts of the gun were sculpted and molded. Other parts were Star Trek tricorder parts, surplus electronic parts and a 35mm film can.

V5: You acted in this picture too, playing the humanoid alien we see at the beginning with the laser gun arm attachment. Did you enjoy the acting experience?

SN: Yes, very much. I worked that day in the Lancaster desert with my good friends, David Allen, Ve Neill, and Paul Gentry. The four of us alone made the opening sequence.

V5: What was the budget on LASERBLAST?

SN: I don't remember the budget for the movie but my budget was about $3,500 which was pretty good for back then.

Steve Neill photo behind the scenes on the King Kong Transamerica Insurance commercial.

V5: Going back to your acting, you've played a gorilla on a few occasions in film, TV and commercials. What was it like being a suit actor and how many suits did you build?

SN: I loved doing gorilla suit work. Rick Baker gave me the inspiration for doing that. He also referred me to jobs requiring gorilla suit acting, which I also loved! I built about four gorilla suits total.

V5: I'm assuming working on THE DAY TIME ENDED (1979) wasn't a very pleasant experience. Can you elaborate on this film's production and the difficulties you encountered?

SN: That picture was my concept alone. I created it. I sold the idea to Charlie based on a page and a half synopsis. I wrote the screenplay with my friend Wayne Schmidt. The script was quite strong and the story explained quite well the science behind the experiences the characters were having. So far so good. Later, after Bud Cardos was hired by Charlie to direct the film, he hired a TV writer to rewrite our script and he proceeded to destroy it. After the movie was made, it was handed back to Dwayne, David Allen, Randy Cook, me and a few other greats to fix it and add more visual effects. It ended up being a watered-down, mediocre movie loosely based on my original story idea, 'Vortex'.

V5: What work did you do on THE DARK (1979), and could you elaborate on Tobe Hooper's involvement on that picture before John Bud Cardos came aboard?

SN: That was the first time I met Tobe Hooper, whom I later became friends with, and did a motion picture with called SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION (1990). I don't know why he didn't remain director. Needless to say I was disappointed when Bud Cardos came on as director. I did the prosthetic makeup effects for the creature on that movie.

V5: Did you ever have any interaction with Edward L. Montoro, and if so, what sort of person was he?

SN: I don't remember Ed very well at all. 

Steve Neill photo of his DR. HECKYL & MR. HYPE (1980) makeup for Oliver Reed.

V5: Do you have any memories of applying Oliver Reed's makeup in DR. HECKYL AND MR. HYPE (1980)?

SN: I got a call one day from Rob Bottin who said he had a job for me working on an Oliver Reed movie. He told me it would be a wild ride working with Oliver but he thought I could handle it. I later met with Charles Griffith, the writer of the original LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1960) and his wonderful wife Jill. My first meeting with Oliver Reed was to make a life mask and my old good friend Rick Stratton assisted me that day. Oliver Reed was a wonderfully charming, intelligent, talented and professional man. Through the entire shoot of the movie I never once encountered an unpleasant experience working with this consummate professional. We became friends while working together and spent many a wild evening painting the town red, drinking and pillaging while having the time of our lives. I will always cherish the experience with him as one of the shining moments of my life. 

Building the cocoon for the Mutant in FORBIDDEN WORLD (1982); photo from Fangoria #24

V5: You worked for Roger Corman on a handful of pictures, including his New World outer space movies. How did working at New World compare to your time with Charles Band?

SN: In a lot of ways working for Roger Corman was much better than working for Charles Band. Roger was charming and treated me very well while giving me many opportunities to be creative. He was very organized and consistent. I always knew what to expect from him (including being paid on time).

*Photo from Fangoria #24
V5: One of my favorite New World movies for Corman you worked on is GALAXY OF TERROR (1981). Do you have any memories of this production?

SN: Not really because one of my masks for one of the aliens was merely adapted to the movie. It was a creature head that Rick Stratton and I had built for another movie that was never used. In fact, I have never seen GALAXY OF TERROR (1981). *Fango #24 states this mask was originally intended for THE CREATURE WASN'T NICE (1983).

V5: In an old Fangoria magazine I read about a film you were attached to, possibly as a producer, titled LAB 23. What was that about and what became of it?

SN: It was a script I wrote with my friend Mike Hoover about unlocking future DNA evolutionary trends in human beings. We were never able to get it financed.

Steve Neill photo of his FULL MOON HIGH (1981) wolfman
V5: You worked with Larry Cohen a number of times on films like Q (1982) and IT'S ALIVE 3: ISLAND OF THE ALIVE (1987). Do you have a favorite effect or effects from your films you did with him?

SN: Yes, I did seven pictures for Larry Cohen and my favorite was FULL MOON HIGH (1981) with Adam Arkin. I made a werewolf suit that I wore at the beginning of the movie when I attack Adam and bite him. I am still friends with Larry Cohen to this day. We talk often and it looks like we will be working together again soon on more films. 

Steve Neill at left behind chair with clawed arm over Sigourney's mouth on set of GHOSTBUSTERS (1984).

V5: You were part of the Entertainment Effects Group on GHOSTBUSTERS (1984) and FRIGHT NIGHT (1985). What did you do on these two productions?

SN: On GHOSTBUSTERS (1984) I created the arms and creature hands for the chair sequence and I was the puppeteer for the hand that bursts out of the chair to grab Sigourney's face. Additionally, I was master puppeteer for the Terror Dog and worked onstage with Ivan Reitman to communicate his direction via headset and microphone to my puppeteers under the stage. I also puppeteered the Terror Dog feet breaking out of the statues, wore the Terror Dog suit once, helped sculpt the full-size Terror Dog and did some of the mechanics on Stay Puft.

For FRIGHT NIGHT (1985) I did Chris Sarandon's vampire makeup prosthetics, Evil Ed's forehead appliances for the cross burning, some of the hands; and Chris Sarandon's pencil through-the-hand prosthetic were mine and some of the teeth.

V5: With GHOSTBUSTERS being remade and a reliance on CGI, do you think practical effects will become dominant again?

SN: I think CGI has its place. I think practical effects will reclaim its popularity in the dwindling love affair with CGI. Practical is the key word. 

Steve Neill's baby Quetzalcoatl for Larry Cohen's Q (1982);Fangoria #24 photo

V5: You worked on both low and big budget movies. Do you have a preference, or do you think both have their advantages as well as their disadvantages?

SN: I have no preference. If a project is interesting and fun, no matter what the budget is, I want to do it.

V5: You got a chance to work on STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979). Can you discuss your experience there, and your later work on STAR TREK: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY (1991)?

SN: I was friends with Fred Phillips and one day I got a call from him asking if I would help him work on the new STAR TREK movie. Nearly fainting on the floor, I said yes. I was the first one to work with Fred in the old makeup room at the Paramount back-lot. My first assignment was to do Leonard Nimoy's Spock ears. They had to replicate the original ears exactly. I later brought in my friends, Rick Stratton, Mark Siegel and Ve Neill to work with us as the amount of work increased for the makeup effects. I later met with Robert Wise and Gene Roddenberry to design a bridge alien with a domed head that I made the prosthetics for and Ve Neill applied it. It was another one of those shining moments in my career. Years later on STAR TREK VI (1991) I only made Klingon forehead appliances for Richard Snell.

V5: I'm a huge fan of the original series. Is there an episode, or even a makeup job on the show you're particularly fond of?

SN: 'Balance of Terror' is my favorite episode of the original series. Spock's makeup will always be my favorite.

Steve Neill photo with his Enterprise.

V5: You also built an enormous replica of the Starship Enterprise. Can you explain the genesis of this project? It's in the Smithsonian as well, correct?

SN: One replica resides in my office. One with the Museum of Science Fiction in Washington DC and a third is currently being built for a collector. The original inspiration for building such a large model came from a childhood dream while watching the original show in high school. I swore that one day I would have such a model.

Neill's RETURN OF SWAMP THING creature
V5: Out of everything you've done is there one film/TV show/commercial you're particularly proud of and why?

SN: STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979) because it fulfilled my dream of coming to Hollywood, working with Gene Roddenberry and the cast of STAR TREK.

V5: If you could go back and do something different or not at all what would it be and why?

SN: I would have stuck to my filmmaking career as I am doing today.

V5: What are you currently working on now, and have you ever thought of writing or producing again; or even sitting in the directors chair?

SN: Currently I am doing all those things on a TV series I created that we are in production on titled BUT SOMETHING IS THERE.

Steve Neill photo on set of THE STUFF (1985).

Neill (middle) with Mac Tonight; Steve Neill photo
V5: Last question, what advice would you give to artists with an interest in modeling and makeup design?

SN: The best advice I can give to anyone who has a passion for these things is to pursue it at all costs and never listen to anyone telling them they can't do it. MAKE IT SO. 

I would like to thank Mr. Neill for consenting to this interview. CAC wishes him continued success in all his future endeavors. *All behind the scenes photos property of Steve Neill unless otherwise noted*.

You can see more of Steve Neill's work at the links below:





Sunday, June 12, 2016

Cool Ass Cinema Presents: An Interview With Former Shaw Brothers Star, Actor & Martial Arts Choreographer Philip Kwok

If you've ever seen a Kung Fu film in a movie theater, a Drive-in, or watched one on television in the 1980s and early 1990s (as well as their resurgence in recent years), chances are you've seen a movie with Kuo Chui, aka Philip Kwok Chun Fung in it. Fans of the genre who didn't grow up with the old school style of Hong Kong action likely recognize him as Mad Dog (see insert) from John Woo's Gun Fu classic HARD BOILED (1992); or his role as General Chang in the Bond movie TOMORROW NEVER DIES (1997). However, the loyal Kung Fu fan base know him best from many a Shaw Brothers classic; particularly a series of films all directed by the Godfather of Chinese Macho Cinema, Chang Cheh. This series of films began with 1978s FIVE VENOMS and featured the likes of Kuo Chui (Kwok's Mandarin translation), Chiang Sheng, Lu Feng, Lo Mang and Sun Chien in various martial arts adventures. An incredible acrobat, Kuo Chui's decades of hard work has paid off, remaining an in-demand action designer, even working as a choreographer on productions in other countries. While his Shaw Brothers work is strongly revered, his other high-profile works are worthy of mention--such as co-choreographing the influential classic A CHINESE GHOST STORY (1987); the gore-filled comic cult favorite STORY OF RICKY (1992); the Wuxia spectacular THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR (1993); and the RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK styled THE TOUCH from 2002 starring Michelle Yeoh. Mr. Kwok was kind enough to consent to an interview about his career, with emphasis on his early years making films in Hong Kong and Taiwan, his opinions on the industry, and his current projects.

Kuo Chui early roles from clockwise top left: THE RED BOY (75); NEW SHAOLIN BOXERS (76); BOXER REBELLION (76); MAGNIFICENT WANDERERS (77)

VENOMS5: Mr. Kwok, when did your interest in martial arts begin and how did you get into the Taiwanese Opera Troupe?

PHILIP KWOK:  I never learned Wu Shu (Kung Fu). When I was 12 years old, I saw circus kids perform and every kid there could do all kinds of acrobatics; and so at that time I started learning how to do somersaults by myself! My parents and sisters were Taiwanese Opera performers, too. When I was 14, I left home and lived by myself and soon joined the Taiwanese Army (Lu Guang-Taiwanese dialect Opera). In 5 years I had learned how to do somersaults and other acrobatics, and at age 19 I left the Lu Guang troupe! 

Philip Kwok (Kuo Chui) performing an incredible flipping routine during the battle with Lu Feng (right) at the conclusion of FLAG OF IRON (1980).
V5: Can you explain further how you got your amazing acrobatic skills?

PK: After I left Lu Guang, I became a street performer and met some like-minded Fu Xing opera students, one of whom was Jiang Sheng (Chiang Sheng). So we created a Fu Xing circus act and performed virtually everywhere. We would do flips and all sorts of opera technical performances; and then one year later we disbanded the team. The action movies then were all martial arts and no real acrobatic ingredients but we would soon pick those techniques up too!

Cast photo for MARCO POLO (1975): Fu Sheng, Chi Kuan Chun (middle back), Philip Kwok (middle front), Tang Yen San; photo courtesy of Philip Kwok
V5: How did you meet director Chang Cheh?

PK: I met director Chang while he was shooting the ALLIED FORCES movie (BOXER REBELLION), where I attended a show of actors doing their martial arts demonstrations and performing to show what they could do. Chang Cheh thought my performance was good and then put me and Fu Sheng together to see how we compared. Director Chang was pleased with the result and asked me if I wanted to be in a movie. Naturally I said yes, so he asked the screenwriter Ni Kuang to write a role for me in his film MARCO POLO (1975) as a guy who can flip and jump extremely well.

Kwok perfecting his jumping skill by leaping out of a deep pit of filthy water in MARCO POLO (1975).
V5: Can you tell me about your experience making MARCO POLO (1975)?

PK: Well I had never performed in a movie before. I was most comfortable doing the action. So when it came time to do scenes with no Kung Fu in them, I always felt my heart beating very fast, and I was extremely nervous saying the lines. I caused an NG (a shot that's No Good) many times; and the more takes I messed up, my heart would race faster! The most difficult Kung Fu action I did in the movie was the jumping and flipping in the dirty water pit scenes where I was trying to learn how to do somersaults in that water pit. Being in the water made it more difficult to do the flips but I got used to it.

V5: Do you recall why the choreographer Lau Kar Leung (Liu Chia Liang) left the film? Was it creative differences? I know he wanted to make his own movie at that time.

PK: I never learned why Master Liu left Director Chang. I heard things from others on the set. It was too much gossip so I won't comment on it. Until now, I still don't know what really happened between them.

Clockwise from top left: HEAVEN AND HELL (80); CHINATOWN KID (77); THE BRAVE ARCHER (77); LIFE GAMBLE (79)
V5: Do you remember the problems of shooting HEAVEN & HELL (1980)? It began production in 1975 and was halted a few times with new scenes and new actors and not released till 1980.

PK: Actors were working on more than one film at once so it was difficult to allocate too much time on one picture. I often experienced this although we never ask about the reasons some films take longer to be released.

V5: When Chang Cheh returned to Hong Kong in late 1976 after closing down Chang's Company, did you have to sign a new contract for Shaw Brothers?

PK: Since I came back with him to Hong Kong, director Chang decided my contract with Shaw Brothers. At that time we could only film movies for director Chang. When he left Shaw Brothers we had no option to say no, only yes. So when we finished shooting NINJITSU (NINJA IN THE DEADLY TRAP) in Taiwan, I asked for my release and I left director Chang because I had to survive and support my family.

Clockwise top left: FIVE VENOMS (78); KID WITH THE GOLDEN ARM (79); `10 TIGERS FROM KWANG TUNG (80); FLAG OF IRON (80)

V5: How did the story of FIVE VENOMS (1978) come about? Do you remember how Chang Cheh got the idea to bring you, Chiang Sheng, Lu Feng, Sun Chien, Lo Mang and Wei Pai together for the first time?

PK: Chang Cheh filmed a lot of movies prior to us. David Chiang and Ti Lung and other brothers were usually the main characters in those movies. Director Chang knew his actors would eventually move on so other brothers had to take their place. He then introduced the 4th Generation of talent. Chang and screenwriter Ni Kuang came up with a bold new approach by building a suspense drama around five animals. No one thought, or even knew FIVE VENOMS (1978) would be so popular. It was very successful!

V5: Lo Mang and Sun Chien. Did you have difficulties melding their styles with your own?

PK: When shooting action we incorporated our skills very well. However, Lo and Sun were limited in what they could do as far as action. Myself, Chiang Sheng, and Lu Feng, we were all Opera trained so we were very agile and could use a variety of weapons such as knives, guns, sticks in addition to the acrobatics.


V5: My favorite movie you did with the Venoms was SHAOLIN RESCUERS (1979). The last fight where all of you fought Lu Feng was fantastic. Any stories from the set to share about making it?

PK: DOWNTOWN HERO (SHAOLIN RESCUERS) was my favorite as well. My character was really good in that one. I got to show some of my strengths, and my character was like a real person. Very casual. I also got to do a lot of comedy! The action choreography was varied and difficult, too. Within the time set to do the action sequences I was very satisfied with my performance in completing the difficult moves required of me.

Philip Kwok (middle) surrounded by Manchu soldiers in SHAOLIN TEMPLE (1976). Lu Feng at left with sword.

V5: How long did it take to choreograph a fight scene in those days?

PK: Back then shooting a movie took two months to finish, working nine hours a day. Shooting a large scale fight could take seven days or more; and filming an end fight sometimes took ten to fourteen days.

V5: Did you use real weapons? Any injuries on set?

PK: We were highly skilled and had good teamwork so no major injuries when using fighting sticks and various bladed weapons.

V5: Robert Tai Chi-Hsien became a director later on. Did he shoot any scenes in Chang Cheh's movies or did he only help out with the choreography?

PK: Robert Tai had been an action director during that period at Shaw's. He became a film director when he left Chang Cheh for Taiwan. If he ever directed any scenes in Director Chang's movies I don't know about it.


V5: Why did the 5 Venom group split up in the early 1980s?

PK: In regards to breaking up, we simply left Shaw Brothers. Later on, Chang Cheh left the studio, too. So then the whole group was scattered. The time of Chang Cheh's brilliance had passed. Some had no way without him so they had to change their careers in the end.

V5: NINJA IN THE DEADLY TRAP (1981) was your directing debut. I heard you didn't enjoy the experience. What were some of the problems during shooting?

PK: This question brings back memories of the past. The problem I recall is that going to Taiwan wasn't worth leaving the Shaw Brothers Studio. I mentioned earlier about not desiring to leave, but I had no choice. I obeyed Director Chang out of gratitude even though I no longer had the patience to fulfill his wishes. I had worked very hard the last 12 years. The filming of NINJITSU wasn't smooth at all. The production would stop for whatever reason and start up again, and we had very little resources. It's a long story. Many things happened during the making of this movie and I don't want to go into detail.

V5: How many weeks did it take to make and was it a success at the box office?

PK: From the beginning we had very little resources to work with so shooting took longer than expected. However, us three brothers--myself, Chiang Sheng and Lu Feng--made the process bearable. Once the production fell behind director Pao Hsueh Li (OATH OF DEATH) helped out, filming the non-action scenes. He split into two teams to finish it. It took a little over two months to complete. I'm not sure how well it did at the box office.

V5: After working many years at Shaw Brothers Studio, how did it feel when they closed down?

PK: Shaw's closing was a pity but there was no way for them to continue making movies at that time. It was very unfortunate for the industry. This industry is utilitarian but has no emotion at all. The closure was probably for the best. If someone else had taken over Shaw's company and mismanaged it, it would be such a waste. This is my feeling on the matter.

Philip Kwok (Kuo Chui) working on BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF (2001).

V5: You worked on foreign films as well. Was it a good experience for you working on American and French movies?

PK: I was lucky enough to be able to work on a James Bond movie, TOMORROW NEVER DIES (1997) and in Europe on BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF (2001) and SAMURAI (2002). I really enjoy shooting abroad. They offer a great challenge and the production resources are superb. Hong Kong cannot compare. Before the Bond movie I had a chance to make a film with John Woo in the United States--HARD TARGET (1993). There was a problem with the stunt union there so I wasn't able to go. Director Woo had nobody to design the action properly!


V5: In your opinion what is the biggest difference in shooting movies today vs. the old days? Do you prefer one over the other?

PK: I like the old films. There was more emotion in them; more room for drama. But as good as the old films are, the newer movies are more scientific and have technological advances we didn't have back then to create dazzling action!

V5: You are one of the busiest, most in-demand action choreographers working today. What are you currently working on now?

PK: I just finished filming a TVB-TV series called WALLED CITY HERO. It's packed with a lot of varied fist combat action. I am currently in preparation for a new TV series to begin filming in September. 

Kuo Chui (left) becomes blood brothers with Chiang Sheng and Lo Mang in THE REBEL INTRUDERS (1980).

V5: Out of your entire career, what do you want your fans to remember best about you? Any particular work you're proud of?

PK: I would like to thank all my friends who have supported me. I work behind the camera now, no more acting. When I'm working I can upload the shooting so my Facebook friends can keep up with the news! Doing action choreography and filming are my favorite jobs and I am most proud of all the actors I have taught martial arts!

I would like to once more thank Mr. Kwok for taking the time to do an interview with CAC. His participation and kindness is much appreciated. I wish him all the best success in his future endeavors.

***I would also like to thank June and Crystal for doing translations for this interview***

Friday, June 10, 2016

Return of the Chinese Boxer (1977) review


Jimmy Wang Yu (Rapid Fist Tsao Pai Leung), Lung Fei (Black Crane), Hsieh Han (Kitsu), Emily Cheung Ying Chan (Female Ninja), Philip Ko (Chen Liu), Jack Long (Kun Pan So), Blackie Ko (Thai Fighter), Cheng Tien Chi (Thai Fighter), Yeung Fui Yuk (Nagata), Kam Kong (Monk Yen Feng), Wang Yung Hsing (Flying Dagger), Hsieh Hsing (Kin Po, Jujitsu Fighter), Sun Jung Chi (Chao Hsao Lung), Lei Chun (Colonel Wei), Ching Chi Min (Lady Fong), Ma Chi (General To), Chen Ti Men (Japanese Lord)

Directed by Jimmy Wang Yu

"Every man has his technique, and they're all different. But when you know mine... you'll be dead".

The Short Version: Wang Yu's extravagant Martial World/Kung Fu hybrid is essentially his ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE EAST; both an in-name only sequel to his Shaw Brothers directorial debut and a flashier do-over of his ONE ARMED BOXER movies with an added historical context. Wang's title boxer is a cartoonish, near-invincible hero who is always one step ahead of everybody else. The first 30 minutes promise an epic but Ku Long's convoluted script betrays itself almost immediately--veering away from jingoism to endless, increasingly wacky fighting sequences, and back again. A plethora of colorful characters and some misplaced flashbacks keep things confusing. Despite minor obstacles and repetitiveness of past flicks, the actor's last time in the director's chair is Kung Fun all the way. A mixed bag, but the sort of bag that's filled with candy in the form of Kung Fu zombies, a pistol packin' Lung Fei, a hot female ninja, and an army of steam powered Wang Yu dummies.... so dig in if you've a martial arts sweet tooth. 

The Japanese plot to infiltrate China and take over from within by ingratiating themselves with General To, an easily manipulated military leader who fancies swords. Kitsu, a member of the Izu Clan, is sent along with a female ninja to meet with the General and deliver him a gift of two special Japanese samurai swords--gradually setting the invasion of China in motion. Learning of this, a loyalist sends his niece to alert the righteous General Shang Ta and deliver to him a pair of swords and two pearls as a gift. They're ambushed by the Japanese on their way, but saved by a mysterious man possessing great kung fu skills. Discovering he's the Rapid Fist, Tsao Pai Leung, the Japanese seek out the one fighter who can defeat him, another Japanese proficient in guns and weapons named Black Crane.

In many cases, Jimmy Wang Yu movies are interchangeable in terms of the scenarios and his character portrayals. Always containing varying levels of Grand Guignol nuttery, the violence and bloodshed frequently challenged the Shaw's trademark brutality in sheer excess. As for Wang Yu's characters, they either incur an unbelievable amount of punishment; or come away with barely a scratch. There's not a lot of gore in RETURN OF THE CHINESE BOXER, but there's a surplus of insanity to go along with Wang Yu's Warner Brothers cartoon of a hero who is constantly one step ahead of the bad guys.

The title may imply a 'return' of his Chinese Boxer from the Shaw Brothers favorite, but it's a different character entirely... even though Wang's Rapid Fist Tsao Pai Leung could be any of the dozens he played before it. As far as the English export title is concerned, the famous HK personality is simply capitalizing on the earlier picture with the only similarity being he produced and directed both of them.

Wang Yu is a much better director than he probably ever got credit for, and there's signs of it here; despite an all-too familiar plot that unravels in fractured fashion. The actor yet again melds his two hits, THE CHINESE BOXER (1970) and ONE ARMED BOXER (1972)--the latter of which was a Kung Fu combo of the former title and Wang's career-making movie from 1967, ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN. Director Wang again delivers a pseudo-remake, but frames a Qing Era-Japanese invasion plot around a basic Fist and Kick narrative. Judging by the way the movie plays out, it would appear Wang Yu may have had a hand in the film's script, too.

Written by Ku Long (also listed as Gu Long), a famous and prolific writer of Wuxia epics, his script is neither as intricate nor as linear as some of his more popular works--particularly for Shaw Brothers Studio. The standard China vs. Japan motif contains little in the way of political machinations that ultimately get distracted by the cavalcade of Kung Fu battles. The Fist & Kick equivalent of a Wuxia story, BOXER is filled with an enormous amount of characters despite the paper thin plot line. Curious editing decisions give the impression the film may have run into either financial problems or Jimmy Wang Yu's ego. A confusingly placed flashback (involving the death of a Jujitsu fighter) and the last minute significance of a pair of swords and two pearls get lost in translation.

Born July 7th, 1938, Ku Long (real name Hsiung Yao-hua) began writing in 1955. While still in High School, his first published work, 'From the North to the South', had no martial arts. By 1960, he would begin his successful career novelizing the adventures of romantic, scholarly swordsmen using his own personal interests in poetry and foreign culture to formulate a unique writing style. Eventually, his writing would be turned into movies and television programs. The Shaw Brothers and director Chu Yuan put the Wuxia genre back into the limelight in 1976 with KILLER CLANS, the film version of Ku Long's classic 1971 novel, 'Meteor, Butterfly and Sword'. Over a dozen more of Ku's works were adapted for the big screen by Chu Yuan; not to mention dozens of others turned into movies by other directors. Ku Long even adapted his own novels for the screen in addition to scripts specifically written for the celluloid medium. He contracted liver disease in 1977 and passed away at only 47 years of age in 1985 from Cirrhosis of the Liver. Ku Long's penmanship graces many of the genres best works.

Directors are traditionally defined by their signature style. Jimmy Wang Yu had one in his directed efforts. Regardless of the familiarity of the whole thing, his eye for composition, low angles (especially the camera peering through a character's legs), and usage of sets are accounted for in this grand Eastern. At times the scope is epic but the narrative quickly falls back into a comfort zone with a reliance on action sequences; and there's a lot of them in RETURN OF THE CHINESE BOXER. For instance....

At the 32 minute mark, the film stops dead in its tracks for a flashback tournament sequence. Using an almost identical set to the one from MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1976), what follows is a 12 minute action set piece where we're introduced to a slew of martial artists--all with their own unique fighting style. Adding little to the storyline other than to introduce two fighters who will figure into the plot later on, it's just an excuse to pad the running time. It's the best kind of padding, though. This is a KF movie, after all.

The choreo in this sequence is exquisite and varied featuring a gallery of HK cinema familiars like Jack Long (THE 7 GRANDMASTERS [1978]), Sun Jung Chi (MONKEY FIST, FLOATING SNAKE [1979]), and Philip Ko (TIGER OVER WALL [1980])--all fighting each other to the death. Genre fans will love this 12 minute marathon of martial mayhem--seeing some of the Kung Fu genres notable masters beating the hell out of one another. The fighters are further distinguished by their costumes and weaponry--some of which are intricate in design. The film's action director, Hsieh Hsing (he makes his entrance in the exact same way Lung Fei does in MOTFG), plays the Jujitsu expert, Kin Po.

Hsieh Hsing's action design is the glue that holds the picture together. Some of the fights are ambitious--evidenced in an impressive train assault near the beginning and a sequence shortly thereafter wherein Wang Yu is trapped inside an old shack while the Japanese bring it down with hooks tied to ropes. As the film progresses, the action becomes more insane with the film adding increasingly kookier elements. In some ways, the serious tone being innocuously replaced by a fantasy-oriented one works to its advantage.

Hsieh Hsing co-choreographed many of Chang Cheh's Taiwan offerings when he made a dozen movies there using Shaw capital that couldn't be extracted; some of these include MARCO POLO (1975), SEVEN MAN ARMY (1976), and THE NAVAL COMMANDOS (1977). He'd previously designed the fights on the Taiwan-lensed Shaw Fist and Kicker, THE CHAMPION (1973) starring Shih Szu and Chin Han.

Compared to his previous works with a Nipponese slant, Wang Yu's Japanese influence is even stronger this time out. They're never referred to as ninja, but Ku Long's script finds room for them--mainly in the form of a Kunoichi (female ninja) played by the alluring Emily Cheung Ying Chan in an early role. Bad guys (and girls) is something RETURN OF THE CHINESE BOXER has an abundance of.

Well known for his antagonist roles, Lung Fei gets one of his most charismatic turns as the gun-toting Black Crane, a Japanese specialist in pistols and rifles. He's a literal 'Gun Fu' expert; carrying an 8-barreled rifle and wearing a costume covered in flintlock pistols. Lung worked with Wang Yu on a number of his Taiwanese made Fist and Kick flicks, one of the most famous being THE ONE ARMED BOXER released in 1972. In that plotless epic Lung Fei played the lead heavy, a Japanese with unkempt hair and vampire teeth!

Wang Yu's movies from this period could be counted on to deliver some of the nuttiest imagery you've ever seen. There are no vampiric villains or fighters with elongated arms, but there are Kung Fu zombies and a warehouse full of steam-powered Wang Yu robots! At the beginning he's seen practicing Dummy Kung Fu--catching arrows in mid-air and Kung Fu-ing dummies from one end of a gym to the other. Elsewhere you'll see Wang walking up walls; and standing, single-legged, atop a pole wielded by Kam Kong--who played the evil blind priest in the schizophrenic ONE ARMED BOXER sequel, MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1976).

English dub fans are again treated to some funny lines. One of the best is uttered within the opening minutes by a subdued Chen Ti Men, the constant cackle master of the same year's THE DEADLY SILVER SPEAR (you'll recognize the same cave set, too). Playing the Japanese lord who sets up the plot with this marvelous conversation starter, "I've invited you all here... to discuss things.... mainly the question of Chiner... amongst others..."; then there's classic dubbed Tough Guy dialog too like, "No one beats The Claw! Come on!"

Many of Wang Yu's movies leave a lot to be desired, but his directorial efforts are well made productions even if most of the time he was cloning hits from Shaw Brothers, the company that made him famous. If you're already a fan of the actor, this picture comes highly recommended. It's not quite on the level of some of his other directed works like THE CHINESE BOXER (1970), THE BRAVE AND THE EVIL (1971), or THE SWORD (1971), but there's little denying this was intended to be Wang Yu's magnum opus.... and in many ways, he has succeeded in designing a love letter to his fan-base encapsulating all the best elements of his past career.

This review is representative of the German bluray. Specs and Extras: 1080p widescreen 2.35:1; unrestored version; booklet about Wang Yu (German language only); still gallery; English and German trailer; running time: 1:39:04
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