Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, Yuen Kwai, Yuen Biao, Yuen Wah and Yuen Chau are household names today and superstars who changed the course of Hong Kong cinema. Yet there was a time when they were merely bit players in movies, serving as stuntmen or even extras, often faceless or nameless. They were once the members of the "Qi Xiao Fu" (Seven Little Fortunes), who underwent harsh and stern training from opera veteran Yu Zhanyuan at the master's Hong Kong-China Opera Institute.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Hong Kong-China Opera Institute's formation and alumni are organising a reunion with some returning from the far corners of the globe. To celebrate the occasion, the Hong Kong Film Archive (HKFA) will present "Humble Beginning: Early Films of the Yuen Clan" from November 14 to 29 with early titles in which the Yuen Clan members performed stunts or served as martial arts director.
The eight films to be screened include Sammo Hung's directorial debut "The Iron-fisted Monk", his first film "Education of Love", the King Hu's classic "The Valiant Ones", in which Hung was both actor and martial arts director; "New Fist of Fury", the first film in which the stuntman Yuen Lau used the name Jackie Chan and assumed top billing; "Fist of Fury", the Bruce Lee's film in which Jackie Chan served as stuntman; "Seven Little Valiant Fighters" (aka "Two of a Kind") and "The Grateful Monkey" both showcase for the kids' amazing skills; and "Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan", in which Yuen Chau performed stunts.
With the help of institute alumni, the HKFA will also organise an exhibition entitled "Qi Xiao Fu 50th Anniversary Exhibition" from November 15 to February 21, 2010, at the Exhibition Hall of the HKFA, featuring rare photographs, film footage and interviews as a tribute to Master Yu Zhanyuan.
To supplement the screenings and exhibition, a seminar titled "Hong Kong's Big Fortune" will be held at 5pm on November 21 at the Cinema of the HKFA. Cultural critic Dr Ng Chun-hung and film critics Po Fung and Fung Ka-ming will share their views on the influence of the Yuen Clan on Hong Kong’s cinematic culture and world cinema. The seminar will be conducted in Cantonese. Admission is free.
"Qi Xiao Fu" had more than seven members, its ranks actually numbering over 70. It was originally a troupe of child actors who performed Peking opera and acrobatics, mostly on stage but sometimes in films. They were either from poor families or too unruly for parents to discipline. Students at the Hong Kong-China Opera Institute were given names with the word "Yuen". They were the original Yuen Clan, creating action magic long before the other famous Yuen Clan formed by Yuen Woo-ping and his late father Yuan Xiaotian.
Different kids of the clan were selected for different performances according to their skills. They were trained by the demanding Yu Zhanyuan with severe discipline bordering on the Dickensian. Yet Yu was loved and remembered by his students. Based on their opera training, the clan managed to foster remarkable careers with great adaptability and tenacious determination. The harsh training prepared the clan so well that some of them went on to global fame and influence.
Who would have thought years ago that the timid and thin, and not-yet-teenage student in the "Education of Love" (1961), an adaptation of Edmondo De Amicis's heartwarming book "Cuore", would grow up to become the heavyset kung fu star Sammo Hung? Even though it was his first appearance in cinema, Hung, billed as Chu Yuen-lung, already glowed with a star quality that foretold the greatness to come.
In director King Hu's "The Valiant Ones" (1975), Hung is already moving out of the stuntman shade to cast his wide shadow on the landscape of Hong Kong films and martial arts cinema. His action choreography matches Hu's brilliant decoupage step by dynamic step, demonstrating clearly his mastery of martial arts direction. The print to be screened is an early restoration project by the HKFA, parts of which were repaired digitally.
Hung's directorial debut, "The Iron-fisted Monk" (1977), not only ushered in the era of kung fu comedies, but also arguably marked the beginning of his tenure as "Big Brother" of Hong Kong cinema in a golden age that reached its peak in the 1980s. The film impresses the audience with its superbly staged fight scenes, and even more importantly, its intimate and sometimes humorous portrayal of Cantonese folk life.
Bruce Lee's "Fist of Fury" (1972) likely changed Jackie Chan's life. Under the name Chan Yuen-lau, he served as stuntman for the Japanese villain played by Hashimoto Riki. His remarkable stunts and dedicated work ethic caught the eye of producer Willie Chan and director Lo Wei, who later invited him to be the leading actor in the sequel "New Fist of Fury" (1976). This is the film in which Jackie Chan becomes Jackie Chan, emerging from the obscurity of his Yuen Lau days to assume top billing.
Action choreographed by Master Yu Zhanyuan, "Seven Little Valiant Fighters" (1962) features the Yuen Clan kids, who act, clown but mostly perform, tumbling in and out of scenes and fighting different kinds of creatures. The extra pleasure of this film comes from recognising Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, Yuen Wah and Ng Ming-choi among the hyperactive munchkins. The clan is mobilised to play kid monkeys in the costume sing-song palatial drama "The Grateful Monkey" (1963). Their amazing acrobatics manifested not only animal qualities, but also superhuman capacities.
The students in the Hong Kong-China Opera Institute had their fair share of girls who certainly knew their kicks and punches. Director Chor Yuen's "Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan" (1972) attained its cult status largely on the evocative chemistry between the two female leads as they exploit, seduce, bed and fight each other in a relationship more complicated than love-hate. Without the stunt work of Yuen Chau and her partner Sharon Yang Panpan, the intensity of that relationship would not be the same.
All the films are either in Mandarin or Cantonese. "Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan", "The Valiant Ones", "Fist of Fury", "New Fist of Fury" and "The Iron-fisted Monk" have English subtitles. "The Iron-fisted Monk" has been classified as Category III and only ticket holders aged 18 and above will be admitted.
Tickets priced at $30 for the screenings are available at all URBTIX outlets. Half-price tickets are available for senior citizens aged 60 and above, people with disabilities, full-time students and Comprehensive Social Security Assistance recipients. Reservations can be made by phone on 2734 9009, or on the Internet at (www.urbtix.hk).
Detailed programme information and various discounts can be obtained in the "ProFolio 49" distributed at all performing venues of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department. For enquiries, please call 2739 2139 or 2734 2900 or browse the websites: (www.lcsd.gov.hk/fp).
Ends/Friday, October 23, 2009
Film still of "Education of Love" (1961).