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Chang Cheh: A Memoir

A Preface by Sek Kei


Chang Cheh and King Hu were, by common consent, the two flag bearers who ushered in the 'new school wuxia movement' in local cinema in the 1960s and 70s of the last century. They both cast a long shadow. The masterpieces of King Hu are acknowledged to be polished and fastidious. Chang Cheh, by contrast, was prone to sloppiness. A prolific director, his works are often rough on the edges. But his yanggang (staunch masculinity) style was so overwhelmingly powerful that it simply uprooted the foundation of local cinema and established the supremacy of the male action star for years to come. His influence on local cinema, in this aspect, was beyond that of King Hu, or any other directors.

Chang Cheh, then, can be compared to a dauntless warrior who wreaks havoc, or better still, a revolutionary who calls for the overthrowing of the old. He might even be said to be Hong Kong cinema's Mao Zedong - his martial arts films fostering a cultural revolution in Chinese cinema. They were literally a call to arms - the real Cultural Revolution itself was essentially an armed struggle, a militaristic movement.

In fact, Chang Cheh's first martial arts film Tiger Boy came into being in 1966, when the Cultural Revolution ran rampant on the mainland. But it was the hugely popular 1967 production One-armed Swordsman that really made his name. 1967, incidentally, was the year of violent riots as the Cultural Revolution zeal reached Hong Kong. In retrospect, the success of One-armed Swordsman may not be purely coincidental. Without the timely fervour and the geopolitical peculiarities, Chang Cheh might not have been able to pull off his 'military revolution' in local cinema.

Aesthetics of Violence in the Individualistic Rebel

I am not familiar with Chang Cheh's life story, especially his complicated early days in Mainland China and Taiwan. All I know is from reading his posthumous manuscripts and the essay by Huang Ren of Taipei in memory of Chang. I am interested in understanding his involvements in the intricate literati and political circles during the Nationalist and Communist confrontation. It is a pity that Chang Cheh did not give a more detailed account of this period of his life.

Chang Cheh's advocate of a 'military revolution', his own distinct character aside, could be traced to his time of growing up, when China was suffering from turmoil, bloodshed and humiliation. He longed for a national revival, having acquired first-hand experience in gruesome and violent struggles. It was in Hong Kong that he finally found the chance to launch his yanggang revival.

At the core of the yanggang revival lies the reestablishment of male dominance. He had repeatedly said that Chinese cinema, including Hong Kong cinema of the 1950s and 60s, was too effeminate. With female stars the bigger box office draw, male characters often paled alongside them on the screen. It was an abnormality that needed to be redressed, Chang claimed, and he wanted local cinema to be like its Western or Japanese counterpart, where chivalry or heroism was the order of the day.

In fact, in the 1950s and 60s, there was no lack of popular martial heroes on screen, notably the title character of the Wong Fei-hung kung fu series. Wong, played by Kwan Tak-hing, is the embodiment of the traditional Confucian patriarch who upholds the social norms of benevolence, justice, morality and respect for elders. Chang Cheh, on the other hand, was a true revolutionary, bending on personal liberation and striving to shake off the yoke of tradition and convention. His heroes, often fighting to death for personal beliefs, friendship or country, answer to no one but themselves. Such personalised heroism was rarely depicted in local cinema or even the larger Chinese diasporic cinemas.

King Hu's films also features larger-than-life male characters, but whether they were orthodox heroes in the chivalric and loyal mode, treacherous imperial eunuchs, or accomplished monks accessing higher wisdom, they followed the traditional archetypes. Besides, it is well known that King Hu was at his best with his heroines.

Chang Cheh stuck at yanggang to the bitter end. His heroes are invariably arrogant, proud, unrestrained and bloodily violent, with no regards for the Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist conducts of congeniality, gentleness and modesty. With the rise of Chang Cheh, Chinese cinema for the first time experienced a surge of the 'aesthetics of violence'. In fact, violence and bloodshed was a regular feature in Chinese history; the 20th Century, marred by the War of Resistance, the Civil War and the Cultural Revolution was particularly gruesome. Violence, however, has never been prominent in Chinese arts, until Chang Cheh and his films brought it to the fore with unflinchingly naked displays of violence, literally in flesh and blood.

Flying High Amid Hong Kong's Transition

Timing is everything. Chang Cheh's masculine and violent style was in tune with the Cultural Revolution that was sweeping over China and a Hong Kong in transition, so were his favourite subjects of youthful rebellion. In fact, it was the era of New Waves, student movements all over the world and anti-tradition, anti-establishment revolutions, not to mention the brutish Cold War and gory Vietnam War. It was a world of cultural clashes and physical violence.

By comparison, the post-1967 riots Hong Kong was a relatively calm and stable society. In a sense, the people and the government came into a kind of tacit agreement to concentrate on economy and leave politics aside. Martial arts films served as a convenient conduit for youthful restlessness, where anger, rebelliousness, discontent and violent urges could be discharged on the screen as an entertainment form and the real energy directed to labour. As the martial arts films of King Hu and Chang Cheh began to fly high, literally and metaphorically, Hong Kong's economy also took a miraculous leap forward.

Chang Cheh, in total, made about a hundred films, with the period from 1966 to 1976 (coinciding with the period of the Cultural Revolution) his most prolific and influential. Most of his masterpieces were made during this time, including period film One-armed Swordsman, The Assassin (1967) and The Golden Swallow (1968), Qing period films The Blood Brothers (1973), Shaolin Martial Arts (1974) and Disciples of Shaolin (1975), Early Republican period pieces Vengeance! (1970), Boxer from Shangtung (co-dir Pao Hsueh-li, 1972) and Seven Man Army (1976), and contemporary films Dead End (1969), Duel of Fists (1971) and Four Riders (1972).

His films are actually rather uniform in style, but their subject matter isn't. Among them, Boxer from Shangtung, depicting gangster wars in the old Shanghai Bund, set the trend of gangster films in local cinema. (It also inspired the TV series The Bund/Shanghai Tan of the 1980s which took Hong Kong, Taiwan and the mainland by storm.) His Young People (1972), The Delinquent (co-dir Kuei Chi-hung, 1973), The Generation Gap (1973), Police Force (co-dir Cai Yangming, 1973) and Friends (1974) heralded the marginalised youth genre. The Pirate (co-dirs Wu Ma, Pao Hsueh-li, 1973), loosely based on the folklore figure Cheung Po-tsai, is one of the first films to expand on the subject of pre-colonial folklores. Seven Man Army is about the War of Resistance and Four Riders alludes to the Vietnam War. Of course, at the core, they are still Chang Cheh heroic films.

From 1974 to 1976, Chang Cheh shifted his base to Taiwan and formed his own Chang's Film Company, which was in fact an affiliate of Shaws, his long time employer. One interesting thing is that, although a Shanghainese by Hong Kong definition, he turned increasingly Cantonese. The new company's first productions were adaptations of Cantonese 'southern Shaolin' folklores: Heroes Two (1974) and Five Shaolin Masters (1974) (the latter also touches on Triad legends), the martial arts of which focuses on Southern combat styles such as Hung Fist (Hong Quan) and Wing Chun (Yongchun). He also tackled 'international' historical subjects in this Taiwan period, such as Marco Polo (1975) and Boxer Rebellion aka Spiritual Fists (1976). He expressed in his posthumous manuscripts that he really poured his heart into Boxer Rebellion. Sadly, the film suffered at the heavy hands of the censors in both Taiwan and Hong Kong, and the director's cut can no longer be found.

He returned to Hong Kong and Shaws in 1977 and released a string of films in the years that followed, including adaptations of Jin Yong's martial arts novels. However, he was past his peak and the films were largely contractual obligations. In the 1980s, he formed another film company, Chang Ho Motion Picture Co Ltd (aka Long River Film Company), which, by first making period wuxia films in Taiwan, then later in the mainland, gave training to a batch of new filmmakers. Though not well received in Hong Kong, they laid the groundwork for mainland wuxia films.

The 1993 mainland collaboration Shen Tong was his last directorial work.

Danse Macabre

The martial artistry in Chang Cheh films is of the hard hitting school, emphasising blood, gore and masculine prowess. Chang's heroes are not immune to death. If anything, the heroic and tragic deaths underscore their mortality, which has become the trade mark of Chang Cheh films.

His martial artistry does not defy physical limitations, nor does it leap into the superhuman realm of the martial arts world, much less the supernatural. King Hu's martial artistry, on the other hand, starts with the corporeal and progresses into the sublimated, ethereal incorporeal. This transcendence from the physical to the metaphysical is the ultimate Chinese cultural ideal. Chang Cheh's mortal heroes come from the lineage of assassins depicted in the history book Records of the Historian, warriors in the classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and outlaws in The Water Margin. Naturally, Chang was also influenced by the sensationalist violence of Western and Japanese cinema, especially the samurai films of Kurosawa Akira and Gosya Hideo.

Chang Cheh's physicalisation of violence steered local action films onto the direction of hand-to-hand combat, modulating the genre from swordsmen to boxers, or from the brandishing of Japanese swords and karate chops of the early days to authentic Chinese kung fu. Although Chinese stars Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li, who had made it big internationally on their genuine martial artistry over the last three decades, did not belong to the 'Chang Clan', they all had to thank Chang for paving their success.

The truly realistic aspect of Chang Cheh films is not the gory fights, but the flesh and blood of the male bodies. That the males have the penchant to show off their sculpted chests is a trade mark of Chang Cheh films. Chang's splendid physical specimen is often subject to a regime of trials: chops and cuts, tortures, quartering and disembowelment, wreathing in pain and blood before they finally die. The emphasis on violence and death became Chang Cheh's trade mark. He dares to break the taboo and faces violence and death head-on. On this score, very few Chinese directors had been as consistent and insistent as he was.

Chang Cheh heroes have to steadfastly face their tragic fate of being butchered and killed. Revisiting Chang Cheh films, the deepest impression one gets is the almost inevitable and ritual danse macabre (dance of death). The heroes, suffering their fatal wounds, make a last-ditch effort to wipe out their enemies before finally succumbing to death. It is his most exaggerated and implausible treatment of violence, yet also a consistent trait of the director's 'aesthetics of violence'. Chang Cheh insisted on the ritual to the very end.

He always said that the warrior set pieces in traditional Chinese opera are 'stylised dance'. His danse macabre is inherited from the dying fight in Peking opera, which is usually performed by the wusheng (male actors specialising in military and fighter roles). The inter-cutting of danse macabre on and off stage in Vengeance! - a story about wusheng brothers in a Peking opera troupe in the Republican period - is now a classic scene. The stylised death on stage is a sharp contrast to the realistic bloody death off stage, further ritualised and choreographed by the use of slow motion.

Few in Chinese cinema, or in any other art forms in that matter, dare to ritualise or eulogise death, or see it as the heroic realisation and the ultimate expression of life as Chang Cheh did. Death placed on such a lofty height is no longer a tragedy but self-fulfilment through sacrifice.

Homosexuality and Heterosexuality in Delicate Balance

It is undeniable that the sadistic and masochistic appeal of violence is prominent in Chang Cheh's films. His focus on the male body and the comradeship and enmity between men has led to speculations of 'sexual preference'. But heterosexual love is no less a regular theme in his films. Homosexual and heterosexual relationships in his films undergo an intricate development. It deserves further exploration.

So far as I can remember, Chang Cheh's heroes never kill women, but women do bring them death or grievous harm - in One-armed Swordsman, the hero is maimed by his female junior (inspired by Jin Yong's The Giant Eagle and Its Companion); in Blood Brothers, the three brothers fall out because of a woman. But most of the time, his heroes die for fellow men, not women. This 'brethren loyalty' survived well into the gangster films of the 1980s.

It has to be noted that Chang Cheh's masculine stars were not homogenous; they evolved with the times. Jimmy Wang Yu and Lo Lieh, his first generation of yanggang stars, were both typically masculine, only that the former was more unrestrained and the latter deeper in character. Ti Lung and John (David) Chiang of the second generation were in greater contrast. Ti Lung was the typical imposing knight-errant, and John Chiang, smaller in statue, had a feminine side to his masculinity. He was more agile, fun, mischievous and romantic, almost like the hero and heroine in one. He turned out to be the most interesting of all Chang Cheh heroes.

Another agile, mischievous hero was the third generation Alexander Fu Sheng. His persona was youthful, like a sunny big boy. He was the typical xiaozi (a Mandarin colloquialism meaning 'kid' or 'brat') that Chang Cheh preferred after he had passed midlife. They are the embodiment of the disciple character in his later films. The heroes in his earlier works are usually lone wolves who have no masters or fathers. They either venture alone or in the company of their sworn brothers. His third generation stars, however, are put under the guardianship of their masters, a surrogate of the father figure.

The best example of this change is Shaolin Martial Arts in which the old master enjoys the respect of his disciples. On his deathbed, the old master sends off his disciples to perfect their training from other masters. It is quite clear that the Chang Cheh of this stage was no longer the rebel, but rather an elder and father figure who had tradition and succession in his mind.

Shaolin Martial Arts was released in 1974. It is an ensemble with a prelude featuring the danse macabre. The second half focuses on Alexander Fu Sheng, who seeks to practice his arts under the coaching of a new master, Mischievous Old Man played by Yuan Xiaotian. Two years later, Yuen Woo-ping (son of Yuan Xiaotian) gave this story a new life in two films he directed, Snake in the Eagle's Shadow (1978) and Drunken Master (1978), and made Jackie Chan a star. Yuan Xiaotian reprised his roles of the Mischievous Old Man in these two films.

It is only normal that, with advancing years, Chang Cheh's brand of masculinity would be mellowed with the father-son, master-disciple sentiment. But his heroes remained the 'young rebels' to the very end. They were invariably hotheaded and laughed at Death to his face. They never did 'grow up'. Alexander Fu Sheng tragically died young in a car crash. None of Chang Cheh's new actors reached Fu's stardom. In time, a crop of new directors emerged to overtake local cinema, and with them, a succession of leading male stars. But there has yet to be another mature father figure.

The End of the Masculine Era?

In fact, as early as the 1970s, local cinema was no longer dominated by yanggang action films. Li Han-hsiang's 'scam films' and erotic films and Michael Hui's comedies have emerged to be the major forces. The 1980s was the age of New Wave where female stars had a greater role to play. Still, mainstream films remained male-oriented and male stars were more popular than their female counterparts. Even in the 1990s, the biggest crowd-pullers were all male, such as Stephen Chow, Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-fat and Andy Lau.

From mid-1970s on, Chang Cheh's direct influence on local cinema began to wane. His impact, though, continues to be felt via the 'Chang clan' and other related people. Newcomers and new talents rejuvenated local cinema and in the 1980s, the versatility and vibrancy of local productions finally put Hong Kong cinema on the map.

Chang Cheh's masculine style had rubbed off on many local directors, most visibly on Lau Kar-leung, John Woo, Tsui Hark, Kirk Wong, Ringo Lam, Johnnie To, Benny Chan, Stanley Tong, Daniel Lee, Patrick Leung, Andrew Lau and Wilson Yip. Even Wong Kar-wai's debut work, As Tears Go By of 1988 follows the gangster film mode where the male lead faces death for his sworn brother rather than pursuing his romantic interests.

Due to the dominance of Chang Cheh's yanggang style, local cinema suffered from a lopsided development, leaving male stars the sole attraction. Times have changed and in the last decade, with Hong Kong facing a confidence crisis, local cinema has also been suffering from a steady stumble, despite occasional blockbusters such as Stephen Chow's Shaolin Soccer of 2001. With male stars losing their lustre, a new generation of female stars becomes the box office draw in this time of depression.

Chang Cheh lived to a ripe old age and passed away in 2002, taking with him the age of masculine domination. Facing another transition, the survival of Hong Kong depends not on one but the cooperation of both sexes. The individualism and indomitable spirit in Chang Cheh's films, however, deserve to live on. Recent years saw the gradual rise in creative energy and the drive towards self-strengthening of the Chinese cinema. Chang Cheh, I think, will be comforted by these changes.

 

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