In 1972, The 14 Amazons bagged the Best Director prize for Cheng Kang, Best Supporting Actress for Lisa Lu, and Best Sound Recording for Wang Yung-hua at the 11th Golden Horse Awards. The film also earned Cheng Kang a sobriquet in Hong Kong film industry as the “Million Dollar/Delay Director”. “Delay” in Cantonese sounds the same as “Dollar.” In the 60s and 70s, few films grossed over one million HKD. The first “Million Dollar Director” was Chang Cheh (The One-Armed Swordsman (1967) ). During Cheng Kang’s Shaw Brothers period, his third work The Twelve Gold Medallions (1970) grossed 1.44 million HKD (second-highest grossing film of the year); The 14 Amazons grossed over 2.5 million HKD. However, due to his meticulous attention to details, The 14 Amazons took a year to shoot and Kidnap (1974) took even two years to finish. Hence, the “Million Dollar Director” becomes “Million Delay Director.” Cheng Kang entered the industry as a scriptwriter and oftentimes he worked as writer/director for his films. Such modus operandi further slows down the production process. It was said that the research materials and script for Kidnap were 12 inches thick.
Cheng Kang had a legendary life. Though born into a landowning family, he stopped schooling after third grade. The story goes like this: when Cheng was 13 years old, a sparrow hid inside the family porcelain vase. Little Cheng took up the vase but accidentally dropped it. Afraid to be scolded by his stepmother, he left home and never came back.
He boarded a cargo ship to Hankou, only to find his homeland occupied by the Japanese. He led an itinerant life, joining the “Children’s Theatre Troupe” to tour around. In 1949, he fled from Guangzhou to Hong Kong and quickly worked his way up as the most outstanding, sought-after scriptwriter in Cantonese cinema, collaborating with renowned directors including Ng Wui, Lee Tit, Chu Kea, Wong Hang, Chun Kim, and Chor Yuen. His collaborations with Ng Wui were often resounding successes: Sunset Rendezvous (1951), Her Fickle Heart (1954), Story of Father and Son (1954), Madam Wan (1954), Big Thunderstorm (1954), The Actor’s Romance (1955), Sea (1963) were all fascinating films. Cheng’s scripts, whether original or adaptation (including Chinese and Western literary canons, May Fourth literature, and local popular novels), based on Western films or popular radio plays, all reflect his ease and sophistication in scriptwriting. After the decline of Cantonese cinema in the 60s and his subsequent stint in Shaw Brothers, his productivity finally slowed down. He had attempted to direct during his Cantonese film period, but formal writer/director role began in his Shaw Brothers period.
Strictly speaking, Cheng was a better scriptwriter than director. Though a southbound filmmaker, with acute observation of surroundings and absorption of Ng Wui’s humanism, he quickly blended into the East-meets- West, North-South-coexisting Hong Kong society to produce many realistic and poignant screenplays. But the quality of his works began deteriorating after he joined the standardised, mechanised, and sensationalistoriented Shaw Brothers (Many films contain at least one or two female
breast shots regardless of plot, genre or background). It seems that Cheng Kang’s creative freedom wasn’t as freewheeling as in his Cantonese film period. In the later stage of his career, he inevitably was forced to make audience-pleasing works such as King Gambler (1976), Call Girls (1977), and Gambler’s Delight (1981). His career trajectory served as an elegy for the Cantonese filmmakers of his generation.
This Writers/Directors i n Focus Series attempts to look back on and reconsider the careers and accomplishments of filmmakers that have taken up writer/director roles in Hong Kong cinema. The series will focus more on the role of scriptwriter in hopes that the audience can become more aware of the importance of scriptwriting in the filmmaking process (script studies has hitherto largely been overlooked). Future programmes in the series may include writers/directors such as Yueh Feng, Lee Hang, Wong Hang, Tso Kea (aka Ho Yu), Chun Kim (aka Sima Choi-wah), Lee Sun-fung, and Chor Yuen. As the first writer/ director that kick-starts the series, Cheng Kang can surely be christened “The Grand Scriptwriter” in Cantonese cinema. We hope the audience can be convinced through the more than 20 films presented here.
Cheng Kang:A Short Bio
Born in 1924 in Anhui to a wealthy family, Cheng Kang ran away from home at the young age of thirteen for fear of being penalized by his step-mother for breaking an expensive vase. He hid himself in a cargo ship and travelled to Hankou, found a job as a doorkeeper at the public library and started self-learning by reading practically every book in the library after hours. He later enrolled himself in a children theatre troupe and started touring the country, first
as an actor and then as director at the age of eighteen. He fled to Hong Kong from Guangzhou after 1949 and volunteered himself as reader/researcher for Li Ngaw, the most popular writer/narrator for radio drama serials in Macau and Hong Kong at the time. Because of this, Cheng was able to tab himself into the film industry (many of
Li’s serials were sold and made into films). He wrote his first screenplay, Midnight Bells (Dir: Leong Sum) in 1950. In less than a year’s time, he had made his directorial debuts with Mother and Son in Grief and Advent of Spring . Soon, he was the top screenwriter in Cantonese cinema.
In 1967, Cantonese cinema was almost at a halt. Cheng Kang joined Shaw Brothers Co. He was first assigned to do make-up filming for a few incompleted films. He made his
directorial solo The Sword of Swords in 1968, to be followed by Killers Five (1969) and The Twelve Gold Medallions (1970). The latter was a box-office hit. Since then, he felt great pressure and started writing very slowly, thus earning the nickname the “Million Delay Director” (as opposed to the “Million Dollar Director,” with “delay” and “dollar” being homophonic). Despite such slowness and meticulousness, Cheng was forced into making a series of highly commercial and low-brow films in his later period in both Shaw Brothers and Taiwan.
Cheng had written more than 300 screenplays in his life time, 98 of which were made into films, out of which he directed 17. He had two sons. Ching Siu-lung is a famous Foley artist. Tony Ching Siu-tung is an acclaimed martial arts choreographer and director.
Guest-curated by Cantonese Cinema Study Association (CCSA)
The contents of the programme do not represent the views of the presenter.
The presenter reserves the right to change the programme should unavoidable circumstances make it necessary.