Interview: Chung Chang-Wha
Following the screenings of Five Fingers of Death and The Swift Knight during the New York Asian Film Festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, director Chung Chang-Wha participated in onstage Q&As conducted by FILM COMMENT editor Gavin Smith. The following is an edited transcript of the two sessions.
You began making films in Korea in the early Fifties, and it was only in 1968 that you came to work for the Shaw Bros. in Hong Kong. It was unusual for a Korean director to be working in Hong Kong, so that made you a bit of an outsider initially. But by the time you made Five Fingers of Death, which was the final film you made for the Shaw Bros., you had established yourself as one of their top directors. You made this film around the same time that Bruce Lee emerged on the scene and the Shaw Bros. had very much wanted Lee to sign with them, but instead he signed up with Golden Harvest. Was Five Fingers of Death in any way an attempt to rival the kinds of films that Bruce Lee went on to make?
Actually, Five Fingers of Death was made in 1972, before Bruce Lee came to Hong Kong, but its distribution was subsequent to Bruce Lee’s arrival.
What inspired you to shift away from the traditional wuxia kind of sword play and switch to kung fu martial arts?
When I was preparing for this film I thought that I needed to find something that would differentiate it from the work of the other directors who were working for Shaws. And the main thing that I wanted to concentrate on was finding the middle point between traditional martial arts films and something modern. I would like to stress once again that even though it came out after Bruce Lee’s arrival in Hong Kong, the filming process of this film actually started beforehand, and it wasn’t really influenced by his style at all.
I wanted to ask about a very specific aspect of the film that I think is unusual in the films of the period, which is that you introduce into the Chinese context the three Japanese samurai. I wonder if you could talk about that, given that you are from Korea.
I actually studied Chinese history before I made this film. And during this period—I think it’s the King dynasty—there were Japanese influences. And even in the original screenplay, there were these Japanese samurais. And I focused on developing these characters.
Five Fingers of Death
Another unusual choice is your casting of Lo Lieh.
Lo Lieh used to play villain characters in other films. I didn’t want a handsome, attractive actor to play the main character. Instead I wanted to hire an actor who had a more familiar face that the audience could sympathize with.
The film was an enormous international success for the Shaw Bros. It opened in America in March of 1973 and it was only later in that year that Bruce Lee’s films began to appear. So this was really an important film for the Shaw Bros. Were they grateful for the success that you brought them?
[Laughs] I would like to talk about Raymond Chow, who was the executive producer of Shaw Bros. The Shaw Bros. replaced Chow and hired Mona Fong, who was a kind of a second wife to Run Run Shaw. Raymond Chow is, I would say, a good producer, but in contrast Mona Fong was a former singer. And after I heard many expressions of gratitude from Run Run Shaw, he and I had quite a conflict. Warner Bros. suggested making a sort of a sequel to Five Fingers of Death. But what we got for the costumes and props for the sequel—the swords and the costumes were actually shorter in length than what I’d ordered. They didn’t really fit the actors. There were standard sizes, usually, for the sword and the costumes. And I went to Mona Fong—it was her decision to make such changes. She told me to just use what I had been given. And I was completely confused and frustrated, and I told her I’m not a comedy director. I can’t film anything with these rubbish props and costumes. Obviously this lady didn’t know anything about filmmaking and she wanted to cut the budget from the props and costumes. So I told her I won’t waste my passion on this, it’s useless. Eventually I concluded that as long as I work under this lady my work won’t be any good. So that’s why I left Shaw Bros. Run Run Shaw later heard about this incident and he asked me to come back. He even suggested he would set up another production company just for me. However, I refused, because the production company would still be under Mona Fong. And Raymond Chow, who left Shaw Bros., created Golden Harvest and recruited Bruce Lee and that’s when I joined Golden Harvest.
It’s striking that you use music cues that are drawn from the Ironside theme by Quincy Jones and some of John Barry’s music for Diamonds Are Forever. This lifting of music from American movies was a common practice in Hong Kong movies at that time.
The music director and I discussed what would be the perfect score for a specific atmosphere. So it was pretty much under my and the music director’s choice.
How difficult was it to be a Korean director working for a Chinese company and did you speak Mandarin or Cantonese?
During my college years I chose to study Chinese instead of English, I kind of regret that now. Knowing Chinese worked well for collaboration with Shaw Bros., but now I’m here in America, I should have learned English.
How long did a film typically take to make under the Shaw Bros. studios?
Usually writing a screenplay took about three months, and then preproduction two months, and then the filming process took usually three months.
Could you talk about how you came to the Shaw Bros. studios and how you gradually made your way up the ladder? You had made many films in Korea and had become known as a director of action films. The Shaw Bros. recruited you in 1968, and within three years, you became one of their top directors.
I was recruited by Run Run Shaw because of a film called Special Agent X-7 that was actually a collaborative work between Hong Kong, Korea, and Japan. There was a scene that takes place in the streets of Hong Kong, and the way we filmed it was quite secretive. I rehearsed with the actors beforehand, without notifying the people in the street, so when we actually shot the film, people were not aware of the camera. It was pretty much chaos. Of course, the police and the government knew that we were filming, but the people in the street were not aware of it. For the close-up of the actor, I used a telephoto lens, from somewhere else not in that street. Run Run Shaw saw this and liked it and recruited me. In that period, other directors would have actually built the street in the studio, but Run Run Shaw liked my way of shooting low-budget.
Once you were at the Shaw Bros. studios, what for you were the challenges of working in the Hong Kong system? Were there ways of doing things that were very different than the way you’d been used to working?
Run Run Shaw had many Chinese directors, and as a foreigner I was not offered a good choreographer for my films. That was one of the difficult things I had to cope with. There was some rivalry between me and the Chinese directors but the director King Hu was actually a good friend of mine. He was a good colleague, and we build a great companionship throughout my time in Hong Kong.
In your filmmaking in Korea, you were very strict about storyboarding: every scene, every shot had to be storyboarded. Were you able to continue to work that way in Hong Kong?
<p>Storyboarding was my way of building continuity. Continuity of action is the floor plan of a martial arts action film, and I thought it was a very important way to pre-plan and implement such action sequences.
It seems there were also opportunities for you to experiment a bit, technically. One of the things that I’m specifically thinking of is an amazing scene in The Swift Knight where you cross-cut very quickly between the faces of the two antagonists, the Swift Knight and Zhu Pao, as the camera zooms in on their faces. That seems to be a kind of technical experiment that wouldn’t have been important to Run Run Shaw but perhaps mattered to you as a filmmaker.
I believe directors should always find something new and innovative, and should serve the audience with something fresh and entertaining because they pay for their tickets, and I’ve always thought that I should meet the audience’s expectations. That was why I always tried something different from other Chinese directors, or something they didn’t do. I remember sleeping only maybe three hours every day to study and find something new and fresh. One of the things I did was a punch, or something, that could rush into the frame. It was something that I saw in televised sports, like baseball, and I borrowed that and brought it to film . And you mentioned the zooming in and cross-cutting at the same time. From such a use of montage, I thought I was able to create characters in motion and the atmosphere of the sequence very well.
The Swift Knight
Could you talk a little bit about the way you use wirework in The Swift Knight? It has an unusual quality—it’s very light and delicate, and very subtly used.
I wasn’t the first director to use wire action. In fact many Chinese martial arts films used it. Honestly, I don’t like wire action that much. Because of the fantastical nature of the technique, I did use it in this film. And as you mentioned, Run Run Shaw liked wire action a lot and asked me to use as much as I could. I pretty much dropped wire action in Five Fingers of Death. I wanted to show the speed and the dynamic action, so instead I used the trampoline.
What was your inspiration for the story of The Swift Knight?
I did think about the storytelling a lot even though it is an action film. I think story is the most important thing, and it is directly related to audience expectation. And just as you have fantasies, when I was troubled I used to think the swift knight could come to me and help me out. And in this film, the most important thing I wanted to convey was the adult’s dream. Even if you are an adult, you always dream about the swift knight who could come to your aid.
Did starting out in the Korean film industry give you a different approach to filmmaking than your Chinese colleagues at Shaw Bros.?
I think directors should always try to find their own style. They should be different. There’s got to be something to differentiate me from other directors, and a fresh new story could be such a differentiating element. At first when I was in Hong Kong, I watched other directors under Shaw Bros. There were maybe 50 other filmmakers, and I watched them all. I watched their films because of an old Korean saying: that you have to know the enemy in order to win.
How do you view the influences your movies have had on the styles of other directors, such as Quentin Tarantino with Kill Bill?
The first time I saw Reservoir Dogs I thought there was so much blood that it was kind of detestable, actually. But when Kill Bill (the first and the second one) came out, I started to like him. If other directors borrow one of my sequences and make it into their own, I like their attempts.
What do you think about the evolution of martial arts films since you began directing?
Back in the Seventies, when Five Fingers of Death came out, the American film industry made many Western action films, and because of Five Fingers of Death they were able to mix the Western action film and the martial arts film. I do watch a lot of martial arts films, and there were a few good films that came out, but one of the things I don’t like about them is the lack of story. I also think there has to be reality in martial arts, and changes of action throughout the films. And to talk about computer graphics: I do think computer graphics brought a lot of development into martial arts films, but I think it lacks reality, which I think is one of the most important things in action films.
Do any of the films you made in Korea survive?
The Korean films I made were distributed to many southeast Asian countries, and at that time, because of a lack of support, we actually sent the originals instead of giving out copies of the film. And many of them are missing—perhaps 70 percent of my films, including some of my favorites actually, are missing because of that. The Korean Film Archive looked for them, and they were able to find only one film. In the Korean Film Archive there are several films of mine, restored, but I don’t think they have been distributed in America yet because they don’t have subtitles.