I'll See Your Wong Fei Hong and Raise You a One Armed Swordsman
June 19, 2012 2:35 PM   Subscribe

Rumored to be the son of a former warlord as well as gay, Chang Cheh was definatly one of the undisputed masters and architects of modern martial arts cinema. He began his career in film as a writer and eventually began directing for the iconic Shaw Brothers Studio. Heavily influenced by the technically superior samurai movies coming out of Japan at the time, he had his first international blockbuster in 1969 with The One Armed Swordsman starring former swimming champion Jimmy Wang Yu. From there, he would go on to direct literally dozens of classic (and some not so classic) kung fu flicks with a signature style that even the most casual fan of martial arts would recognize.

From his ultra-violent wuxia swordplay films of the late 60s and seventies which made international superstars out of Wang Yu, David Chiang, and Ti Lung to his work with Alexander Fu Sheng and the famous Venom Mob (mostly opera house trained performers), Chang Cheh set new standards for on screen violence, lavish settings, and, with the help of fight choreographer Lau Kar Leung, famous for his ability to display the tremendous talents of the performers, he brought action back to the center stage in Hong Kong Cinema. Also worth mentioning is his former assistant director, who revolutionized action films himself in the 80s-90s.
posted by jake1 (16 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Which aspect is his sexuality salient to? I'd like to spend extra time analysing that link. Thanks.
posted by taff at 2:49 PM on June 19, 2012

Which aspect is his sexuality salient to?

I'd start by checking out The Hung Boxing Kid.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 2:54 PM on June 19, 2012

@taff. Very good question actually. Before Cheh, the wuxia industry was mainly directed toward and headlined by women. After Chang Cheh had firmly taken the reins of the genre, that came to a halt. But instead of establishing an equilibrium, themes of seriously intense loyalty and brotherhood were heavily featured and all romance stopped. And as Cheh's career progressed, the costumes got seriously butch, the actors got buffer and showed a lot more skin. I dont think its a stretch to say that there was some seriously fetishistic shit going down in those flicks. These tendencies were also passed on down to his protege John Woo. I certainly dont intend to malign Cheh or gays, but its hard to believe that his (purported) homosexuality played no role in this.
posted by jake1 at 3:02 PM on June 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

And I have always considered Woo and Cheh to be the unparalleled shit, before, after and while thinking....this is kinda gay.
posted by jake1 at 3:05 PM on June 19, 2012

That's always been my favorite unreleased Miles Davis album.
posted by Nomyte at 3:27 PM on June 19, 2012

How 'bout that! A Chang Cheh post!

I am a huge admirer of Chang, and not just because this post affords me the opportunity to self-link to a blog post that I wrote about him and an essay for Senses of Cinema that I wrote about him some years ago.

I've also done some more academic work on Chang: the journal Asian Cinema recently published my essay “Brutal Mathematics: Narrative Structure in the Films of Chang Cheh," though copyright prohibits me from linking to it. Publication info is: Asian Cinema, Vol. 22, No. 2 (Fall/Winter 2011), pp. 112-138.

The best resource on Chang remains that first "Chang" link, above, without which there would be no modern-day English-language scholarship on the man. A very valuable site.

Chang is so misunderstood and underrated. His films are bloody and oddly homoerotic, yes, but, more interestingly to me, very carefully structured, as well as being filled with, no kidding, the finest martial arts choreography (courtesy of, as noted, Lau Kar-Leung, in many cases) ever committed to film. Watch the final, 17-minute fight scene of Crippled Avengers, aka Return of the Five Deadly Venoms, if you don't believe me. (It starts at about 1:18 in that YouTube version.)

His influence runs very, very deep in Hong Kong cinema.
posted by Dr. Wu at 3:40 PM on June 19, 2012 [9 favorites]

posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 3:57 PM on June 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

@Holy shit! I used your essay to brush up on my Cheh knowledge which led me to that first link. Small world. By the way, any verification on that rumor that his dad was a warlord? (since I think we both know who the expert on Cheh is here, prof)
posted by jake1 at 3:58 PM on June 19, 2012

@Dr. Wu, my bad.
posted by jake1 at 3:58 PM on June 19, 2012

I seriously just clapped like an idiot seal at the Shaw Brothers logo. Jimmy Wang Yu is the (one-armed) man and Golden Swallow is on my personal list of all-time epic films.

@jake1, as an aside: I think you might get a better reaction by describing Cheh films as homoerotic, rather than injecting a loaded term like gay into the discussion of cinematic tone. There is a very real and recognized element of homoeroticism in HK cinema, but unfortunately gay has mutated into an awful schoolyard taunt as an adjective.
posted by last night a dj saved my life at 4:29 PM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I remember these movies from growing up in Vancouver - there would always be a double kung fu billing at either the Shaw Brother's theater or the Golden Harvest Theatre (both closed - though the GH theater has been stylishly repurposes). I loved these weekend trips to the movies.

And speaking of homoeroticism - there was always some pretty overt lesbian lovemaking in the middle of many of these kung fu movies (that had nothing to do with the plot like at all). Awkward as hell when watching these with your parents on either side of you.

As a grown up gay dude now - I'd like to say that Cheh's movies had an extremely postive effect on me.
posted by helmutdog at 4:44 PM on June 19, 2012

jake1, I don't know anything about Chang's father. But since it's more fun to believe that his father was a warlord than to believe anything else, I will choose to believe it.

My nomination for weirdest Chang film is Chinatown Kid (starring the great Alexander Fu Sheng) -- it's one of his very few non-period-piece films, and it has a totally wacko synth score (that, I swear, shows up in sampled form on Paul's Boutique...).
posted by Dr. Wu at 5:25 PM on June 19, 2012

I'll see you Chinatown Kid and raise you a Heaven and Hell.
posted by jake1 at 5:38 PM on June 19, 2012

Tsui Hark did a (IMHO) fantastic remake of The One-Armed Swordsman called The Blade. I highly recommend it to any fans of the original.
posted by cazoo at 8:10 PM on June 19, 2012

On the gay thing...

The first link includes a transcript of Chang's appearances in Yang ± Yin, an absolutely amazing documentary directed by the (openly gay) Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan. The film was commissioned in 1996 as part of The Century of Cinema, a project by the BFI that celebrated the hundred-year anniversary of the first public film screening by commissioning personal film-history surveys by directors from various cultures (though not specifically countries; for example, Jean-Luc Godard, who is Swiss, covers French cinema, and Kwan, who is from then-independent Hong Kong, covers films from Hong Kong, mainland China, and Taiwan). Martin Scorsese's A Personal Journey Through American Movies was made as part of the same initiative.

Anyway, Kwan chose to look exclusively at how gender and sexuality were portrayed through the history of mainland, Cantonese and Taiwanese films. Here's the section on Chang:

TI LUNG [one of the Chang's main leading men]: Men relate to each other much as they relate to women. I agree with Chang Cheh about this. Men have their own charisma, their own way of moving, that can be attractive, too.

PEGGY CHIAO, CRITIC: Those Chang Cheh films are all about male bonding. He worships the male body. All those muscles, all that nudity. It's all very sexual. I think it's his vision of male paradise! Very interesting.

CHANG CHEH: It's my reading of a Chinese tradition, nothing else. No Chinese reader thinks of homosexuals when he reads a book like The Three Kingdoms. Nobody thinks the heroes of Water Margin are gay.

V.O.: There's a strong emphasis on phallic weaponry, bodily penetration and even disembowelment in many of Chang's films. I asked him how much he was aware of the symbolic undercurrents.

CHANG CHEH: Freud tells us that everything has sexual origins. He finds sexual symbolism everywhere. Swords, knives, even guns can be male sexual symbols.

[A foreboding clip from The Slaughter in Xian starts.]

CHANG CHEH: I don't know if it's true or not.

posted by alexoscar at 11:35 PM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Jake1, I've only watched three clips so far, and yet this post is the greatest I've seen in a long time. Hmm! I had no idea Jimmy Wang Yu was in a movie in which he taped a grenade in George Lazenby, nor that Chang Cheh was gay. Hmm! Thank you, teacher! I will try to use these secrets well, for honor and brotherhood, along with perhaps an undercurrent of homoeroticism! Also, I may go listen to Wu-Tang Clan's 36 Chambers.

HUNH! [leaps twelve feet into the air and through a window]
posted by ignignokt at 4:38 PM on June 20, 2012

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