Kaiju Shakedown: Jimmy Wong Yu
The One-Armed Swordsman
In 1967, The One-Armed Swordsman burst onto Hong Kong screens as anti-colonialist riots swept the city. The carnage unleashed in that year turned the city into a war zone: in 12 months, 8,000 bombs, many of them dummies, were defused by the police. Up until then, martial-arts movies had been discreet, delicate affairs, usually starring women. But director Chang Cheh channeled all the righteous anger and bloody fury erupting in Hong Kong’s streets onto cinema screens with a film that attacked audiences like a rabid dog. The hero of the movie, a blue-collar bruiser who gets his arm chopped off by a teenaged girl in a snit fit, and who then has to turn himself into a left-handed human mutilation machine, was Jimmy Wong Yu*, who could convey an encyclopedia’s worth of badassery with a single glower.
“I was going to Hong Kong College and I was on the swimming team,” Jimmy Wong Yu said in an interview this Tuesday with Kaiju Shakedown. “In 1964, I was in a water-polo game and got in a fist fight with some of the other players. My punishment was a six-month suspension, so when the summer came, I had nothing to do. Then I saw in the paper that Shaw Brothers was holding an open audition for martial-arts actors, and I decided to go.”
The auditions were organized by Chang Cheh, then a low-level flunky at Shaw Brothers, angling for his big break, but it didn’t look likely since the only person who saw any talent in Chang Cheh was Shaw’s head of production, Raymond Chow. Shaw Brothers wasn’t a democracy, it was a dictatorship, and the only decision-maker was Run Run Shaw himself. At the audition, after making Jimmy Wong Yu do some karate, some high jumps, and a few forward rolls, Chang picked him (and three others) from the crowd of 4,000 hopefuls. In August of that year, Jimmy Wong Yu signed an eight-year contract with Shaw and was in a few forgettable movies, but then the stars aligned. In 1965, Shaw’s film magazine, Southern Screen, ran an article bragging that the studio was launching a “color wuxia offensive.” “Shaws will break with tradition,” it cried. “Creating a new vista for martial arts films. The fake, fantastical, and theatrical fighting and the so-called special effects of the past will be replaced by realistic action and fighting that immediately decides life or death.”
Chang Cheh and Jimmy Wong Yu soon realized that this was just corporate hype. Their collaboration, Tiger Boy (66), part of the new “offensive,” was in black and white.
Come Drink with Me
“The boss, Mr. Run Run Shaw, had no confidence in Chang Cheh,” Wong Yu remembers. “There was no budget. It was black-and-white. Very, very, very low budget.” The rest of the movies in the “color wuxia offensive” didn’t do so well, either. The first three flopped, production on the fourth was delayed, the fifth was completed but shelved, and only King Hu’s Come Drink with Me (66) was a hit.
But the seventh was The One-Armed Swordsman.
“I was a new face,” Wong Yu says. “I knew nothing about movies. But everything Chang Cheh asked me to do felt right, it felt comfortable. We all felt like something was different with this movie. Before we made it, the swordplay in the films was like Chinese opera—one, two, left, right, bow your head, do a jump. But we were doing real fighting.”
Released with almost zero support from Shaw, The One-Armed Swordsman caught the spirit of the times and became a huge word-of-mouth hit, raking in HK$1 million at the box office, a massive sum. Chang Cheh was given free reign to do whatever he wanted, and what he wanted was to make more movies with his pissed-off star, and his other two collaborators: action directors Lau Kar-leung and Lau’s partner Tong Kai. Utilizing an arsenal of slow motion, whip-crack zooms, freeze frames, double exposures, and blood squibs, Chang Cheh, Jimmy Wong Yu, Lau Kar-leung, and Tong Kai (together or in some combination) made The Assassin (67), The Trail of the Broken Blade (67), Golden Swallow (68), The Sword of Swords (68), and Return of the One-Armed Swordsman (69).
The One-Armed Swordsman
That didn’t mean Run Run Shaw liked them. “At Shaw Brothers, every time I needed help, Raymond Chow took care of me,” Wong Yu says. “But Run Run Shaw only had one answer: no. He was a typical businessman. Even when I was a box-office success, my pay was HK$200 basic salary per month, then when I made a film I got an extra HK$400. I lived at home with my parents.”
Jimmy Wong Yu thought he could do better. Noticing that Japanese films were always pitting one martial art against another, he said “If you can make a film about judo against karate, why couldn’t I make a film about Chinese iron fist against karate?” Though he’s killed a lot of Japanese people on the big screen, Wong Yu was also a fan of Japanese films. So he sat down and wrote a script, and gave it to Run Run Shaw.
“I told him, this script will make you a lot of money, but he said no. He had no confidence in me. ‘You are a young boy, you’ve only made a few films, you have no experience as a director.’ But it was my idea to star and direct. So I showed it to Chang Cheh, and he didn’t agree either. He said, ‘No, no, Jimmy. Stay with swordplay. You’re at the top in swordplay. If you try something new, and it doesn’t work out, you’ll just be a failure.’”
The Chinese Boxer
So Wong Yu quit Shaw Brothers. Desperate to hold onto his latest moneymaker, Shaw gave in and Wong Yu agreed: he would stay at Shaw, and Shaw would let him direct and star in The Chinese Boxer (70). At the time, the demand for fight choreographers was high and there weren’t enough of them, so only Tong Kai was available. Wong Yu tailored the movie to Tong Kai’s style (“He’s very good at organizing big fight scenes with many opponents.”) and shot The Chinese Boxer, a movie about a young guy whose teacher is killed by evil Japanese caricatures wearing cheap wigs. Wong Yu learns iron fist and kills them all while wearing a surgical mask. It was the very first modern kung fu movie, exchanging the wuxia sword for the kung fu fist. And it was a massive hit.
Despite its success, Wong Yu only made a few hundred extra dollars as his salary for wearing three hats on the production. As long as his eight-year contract was in effect, he was a slave to Shaw. When Raymond Chow left the company to start Golden Harvest—the studio that would sign Bruce Lee, the Hui Brothers, and Jackie Chan, and eventually pound the nails into Shaw Brothers’ coffin—he asked Wong Yu to come with him.
“He was like an elder brother to me,” Wong Yu says. “He offered me a contract and I took it. He gave me much more money.” This sparked a dispute with Shaw Brothers, Golden Harvest, and Wong Yu, the details of which are still murky. But the outcome wasn’t: Wong Yu left the Shaw Brothers, and his contract was torn up, but he had to agree not to make any movies in Hong Kong for three years.
Wong Yu headed for Taiwan, and became director, producer, and star of his own movies, many of which were released by Golden Harvest—and many of which were tweaks of Shaw Brothers films. Copyright was violated extensively in Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman (71), a Golden Harvest production shot in Kyoto that pitted Daiei’s blind swordsman against Wong Yu’s one-armed bladesman. (The movie was shot with two endings: in Japan, Zatoichi won; in Hong Kong, the One-Armed Swordsman claimed victory.) Shaw’s One-Armed Swordsman spawned Wong Yu’s One-Armed Boxer (72). There were Wong Yu–produced One-Armed Swordsman sequels, including One-Armed Swordsmen (76) co-starring another Shaw Brothers refugee, David Chiang. And, most famously, One-Armed Boxer vs. the Flying Guillotine (76).
The One-Armed Boxer
“I saw one of the Shaw pictures, The Flying Guillotine (75) and I thought maybe I can’t fight another fist again, but maybe I can fight a guillotine.” Wong Yu’s movies in Taiwan weren’t exactly good, but they had a purity and outrageousness that can only be compared to early heavy metal: raw, serious to the point of macho camp yet smart enough to be in on the joke, they’re equal parts ridiculous and thrilling, depending on how many beers you’ve had. One-Armed Boxer vs. the Flying Guillotine is basically one long fight scene set at a martial-arts competition that has pretty much influenced every fighting video game to come after, from Street Fighter to Mortal Kombat. Featuring an Indian fighter who comes complete with an attack owl and stretchy arms, a blind assassin disguised as a Buddhist monk who appears on screen to bursts of heavy Krautrock (the score is basically wall-to-wall Neu!), the movie is wonderfully ridiculous and doom-laden, with a finale set in a coffin shop featuring spring-loaded axes, gallons of blood, and a finishing move that rockets the loser through the air to land in a coffin.
Wong Yu was set to co-star with Bruce Lee in a movie, but Lee’s death put an end to those plans. Then Golden Harvest sent him to Australia to co-star with George Lazenby in The Man From Hong Kong (75), a movie that might be the most Seventies of all Seventies action movies, with car chases that won’t quit, action choreography by Sammo Hung (Wong Yu says he shot Sammo’s action scenes himself, and gets credited in some places as co-director), grind-house lensing by exploitation auteur Brian Trenchard-Smith, and an earworm of a theme song (“Sky High” by Jigsaw). As for the rumors that Wong Yu ate flies before kissing the female lead in order to gross her out, he says that while he is 100 percent capable of catching flies with his bare hands, he would never eat one.
In 1975, Wong Yu was hired to shoot a movie called New Spartans with co-stars Toshiro Mifune, Patrick Wayne (John Wayne’s son), Fred Williamson, and Oliver Reed. Film historian Chris Poggiali calls it “a Blazing Saddles-style spoof of ‘men on a mission’ films.” He goes on to write:
“It was a troubled shoot from the get-go, as the production had to be moved from Ireland to England when the IRA threatened to kill all the English in the cast (which also included Susan George and Harry Andrews). The tabloid press was quick to imply that Patrick Wayne and Susan George were having an affair and they flocked to the set . . . Wang Yu was basically playing himself in the movie—a martial arts movie star—but his character's name was ‘Wang Fu.’ To give an idea of the level of humor, Patrick Wayne's character was named ‘Bigdick McCracken,’ Williamson was ‘Lincoln Jefferson Washington IV’ and Reed played ‘Colonel Lancelot,’ a commando leader with one arm, one leg, and one eye.”
Due to problems with the financing, the movie was shut down after only nine days, but not before Wong Yu got into a fistfight with Oliver Reed. Drunk in the hotel bar one night, Reed got belligerent and began to insult the director. Wong Yu tried to calm him down, so Reed began to insult him. As Wong Yu put it in an onstage Q&A after receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award a few days ago at the Film Society of Lincoln Center: “People had to get between us, or I would have spent the night in jail.”
It wasn’t always action, as Wong Yu also made films like A Cookbook of Birth Control (75) and My Wacky, Wacky World (75). “I don’t think any of my films are good,” he said in our interview. “I’ll take the money and then it’s already done. Film producers offered me a lot of money, they’d say ‘Hey, Jimmy!’ and they would offer me one million dollars, which was a lot of money. Shaw only paid me a few hundred dollars each month, and here they are offering me a hundred times more for one movie. Of course, I would take the job. You would, too.”
One of Wong Yu’s biggest contributions to film was way, way behind the camera. In the late Seventies, Jackie Chan was trapped in a terrible contract with a low-rent director and producer named Lo Wei, who paid him HK$3080 per month with an additional HK$3080 for each completed film. Raymond Chow wanted to bring Jackie to Golden Harvest and give him a huge salary, big budgets, and creative freedom, but Jackie was stuck in cheapo movies with Lo Wei, who saw him as a big-nosed Bruce Lee impersonator.
Snake in Eagle's Shadow
Lo Wei loaned Jackie out and instantly he became a huge star with Snake in Eagle’s Shadow (78) and then Drunken Master (78), leading Lo Wei to lock down his contract and double his salary. Even doubled, Jackie’s take was still less than US$1,000 for every movie, even though they were earning millions at the box office. In late 1979, Jackie defied Lo Wei and shot The Young Master (80) for Golden Harvest, and war erupted between Lo Wei, Golden Harvest, and the Sun Yee On triad who were backing Lo Wei. Desperate, Golden Harvest turned to an actor rumored to be enough of a badass that even the triads respected him: Jimmy Wong Yu. According to Jackie’s autobiography, I Am Jackie Chan, Willie Chan, his manager, told him: “Jimmy is going to try to broker a peace agreement between the Sun Yee On—that’s the triad group we’re dealing with—Lo Wei, and Golden Harvest. If he succeeds, we’re off the hook. If he fails, it really doesn’t matter because you won’t be around to find out.”
According to I Am Jackie Chan, “The summit meeting between Lo, Jimmy Wong Yu, and the Sun Yee On had apparently not gone well. The news wasn’t clear, but there had been some sort of altercation that had ended with the gathering being broken up by the police.” Whatever it was that happened, according to Wong Yu, everything worked out, Lo Wei got paid, the triads backed off, and Golden Harvest was happy enough to pay Wong Yu HK$2 million for his trouble.
But the Eighties and Nineties weren’t kind to him. In 1972, he claims to have made 22 movies. Between 1983 and 2011 he only made eight. What happened in those years? “I opened a department store,” he said in the onstage Q&A. “I went into business. And I failed.”
In 2011, he was lured back to filmmaking by director Peter Chan Ho-sun to play the ultimate bad dad in the action flick Wu Xia, where he went up against his errant surrogate son, played by Donnie Yen. Even at 68 years old, he refused to use a stunt double, causing great stress to the cast and crew. “I can do it myself,” he told them. “I don’t want a stuntman.” Almost immediately after shooting wrapped he suffered a stroke that paralyzed, ironically, the left side of his body.
When Chang Cheh had approached Wong Yu about appearing in One-Armed Swordsman all the way back in 1967, Wong Yu had protested that his hero had his right arm cut off. He was righthanded, so why not cut off his character’s left arm? No one will care if you lose your left arm, Chang Cheh explained, and so Wong Yu spent a decade and a half with his right arm tied to his stomach in movie after movie, learning how to eat and fight with his left. Now the stroke had rendered his left arm useless. Throwing himself into rehab, even starring in two films soon afterwards, he took out a new lease on life, and today the effects are only slightly visible when he’s exhausted. But Jimmy Wong Yu is never exhausted.
At 71, he brags: “I’ve never lost a drinking competition. I had two solicitors in Hong Kong witness that I can drink three bottles of Hennessy XO cognac in three hours with no bad effects. Even afterwards, I can still walk from the nightclub back to the hotel.”
A few months ago, he had to fly coach and wound up punching out three kids who kept kicking the back of his seat. After the police explained to the young punks who Jimmy Wong Yu was, they declined to press charges. Asked if he’s ever lost a fight, he thinks for a minute then says: “About five years ago in Shanghai, I got in a fight with four policeman. I was very drunk. Anyways, I was winning. Then they tased me.”
*More commonly known as “Jimmy Wang Yu” the man has “Jimmy Wong” on his business cards, and Kaiju Shakedown respectfully believes that a man is allowed to determine the spelling of his own stage name.