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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***

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