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Chang Cheh: A Memoir

A Preface by John Woo


Chang Cheh was a native of Zhejiang, and it was always entertaining when he spoke Cantonese. The crew, the cast and the stuntmen often laughed so hard that tear came out. For example, we heard tau sik (sneaking a bite of food) when what he wanted to say was tau jaap (sneak attack). It was only after a lot of head scratching that we finally figured it out. Chang Cheh was not offended in the slightest, and laughed heartily with us. He was like a benevolent elder who smiled forgivingly at some unruly kids's trouble-makings. However, when he told us how a shot should be filmed, we sprang to attention. Putting in our heart and soul, and every effort possible, we did our best to fulfil our duties, because director Chang Cheh had our unreserved respect. Every shot he designed was a challenge, a learning process to us, and the thought of contributing, however small a part, to a Chang Cheh film always gave us a surge of pride. Should anyone come up short, he gave him/her not chastisements but encouragements and directions; he only saw the strengths in a person and not his/her weaknesses. The film industry is a dog-eat-dog world where you never feel secure; pressure comes from everywhere and the fear of failure almost hangs you down. However, Chang Cheh managed to make us feel that filmmaking was fun, spiritual, almost poetic, state and a dignified pursuit. We felt that the studio was where we belonged.

Though he had a brief stint in politics when he was young, Chang Cheh never played politics in his films or in his personal life. He had the romanticism of an artist and the integrity of an intellectual; upright in character, he had his lines firmly drawn. Modest, open-minded and tolerant, he had not the aggression nor manipulation that makes a politician. Chang Cheh was a man of few words and a man of his word. He saved his eloquence for his films and his writings. The structural fluidity of his cinematic images and writings, besides being captivating, exhibits a depth that reveals his true self and character. His films—charaterised by the pursuit of lofty ideals but never at the expense of ordinary human emotions—extol the martial arts as well as the gallantry spirit. Grandeur in style and magnificent in presentation, his films leave the audience in cathartic exaltation.

Chang Cheh might not have a silvery tongue, but he sure had a keen eye, a big heart and embracing arms for talents. His long-time collaborators, including renowned screenwriters Ni Kuang, Chiu Kang-chien, martial arts directors Tong Kai and Lau Kar-leung, cinematographer Miyaki Yukio (aka Gong Muduo), and the rest of his crew were among the elites of the industry. They played a significant role in the success of Chang Cheh's films. From their works, we the apprentices learned the business of directing from Chang, the importance of screenwriting, and why a script is the soul of a film. By blending the spirit, beauty and artistry of wuxia (martial-chivalric) with powerful images, Tong Kai and Lau Kar-leung reinvented martial arts choreography to give perfect expression to Chang's romantic inclinations.

Chang Cheh had the Mida's touch when it came to star making. He had great eyes in recognising actors' potential and his hunch never failed him. He had discovered and nurtured a galaxy of stars, and many became screen idols. He coached and nurtured his stars with enthusiasm, wisdom and mutual admiration. Based on their temperament, potential and personal appeal, he tailor-made each a screen persona that was unique in character. Jimmy Wang Yu, Lo Lieh, John (David) Chiang, Ti Lung, Wang Chung, Chan Koon-tai, Alexander Fu Sheng, Danny Lee, Kuo Chui and others were charismatic stars with a unique style. Chang Cheh was not just a star maker - he could draw the best from every actor. They saw in him their mentor.

In the early days, seniority meant much in the film industry and young newcomers were often given the short shrift. Chang Cheh alone would give upstarts a chance. He highly esteemed the young; he could feel their vibrancy and creativity. The heroes in his films are invariably young men with their attendant romanticism, but they also demonstrate graceful knight-errantry, putting righteousness and chivalry first. They seek assurance from standing up to challenges. Before working for Chang, I was a shy, reserved young man. Lacking self-confidence, I dared not voice my ideas and opinions. After watching his series of films like One-armed Swordsman (1967), The Golden Swallow (1968), The Wandering Swordsman (1970) and Vengeance! (1970), I gained the feeling that I too could possess the kind of youthful romanticism in those heroes. During the times when I felt lost, uncertain of my abilities and my future, he encouraged me to focus on directing, which, at that time, was an impossible dream for a newcomer. We never talked much, but knowing my potentials, he found my bearings for me and helped me bolster my self-confidence and self-esteem. Looking back, Chang Cheh not only taught me how to direct, but also the way of life. I am always grateful.

Chang Cheh's films are youthful in spirit. He believed in himself and persisted with his dreams, and his creative mind remained young despite the advancing age. His thinking was as lucid as ever, and he never ceased writing or giving newcomers a helping hand. In fact, he always cared about the actors and film workers whom he had nurtured and loved as his own sons. His unreserved love and care was awe-inspiring. Chang Cheh was always a pioneer. From the early 1960s to the late 1980s, he brought breakthrough after breakthrough to the cinema, revamping tired and worn clichés with modern perspectives and cinematic techniques. He invented the yanggang (staunch masculinity) wuxia genre, and his series of romantic wuxia classics not only started a trend but also ushered in the 'new school wuxia movement'. The unique cinematographic style, free flowing and kinetic martial arts choreography of his films influenced local and overseas cinemas alike, putting Hong Kong cinema on the map. Local productions were from then on seen in a new light and with new respect. We will always be thrilled by his works and proud of his achievement.

Chang Cheh's contribution to Hong Kong and Chinese cinema has long been assured, and the influence of his works is still felt. We admire him for his cinematic style and integrity, and we are grateful for his legacies which have now become part of our cherished memory and have never failed to inspire us. He is, by any definition, a master of our time.


- September 2002, Los Angeles -

 

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