WANG YU: SUPERSTAR! SUPER DIRECTOR!
Before Bruce Lee’s meteoric rise, the biggest martial arts star in Hong Kong cinema was Wang Yu, amusingly known in the U.S. as Jimmy Wang Yu (Which admittedly is much more fun to say). In the Japanese film industry they had legit masculine male action stars. But in the fifties and sixties the Hong Kong film industry didn’t really have an equivalent to Toshiro Mifune, or Ken Takakura, or Shintaro Katsu, or a dozen others.
That was until 1967, when Wang Yu starred in The Shaw Brothers production The One Armed Swordsman (“Du bei dao”), directed by both the John Ford & Sergio Leone of Martial Arts films, Chang Cheh. Like a lot of Hollywood films of the forties and fifties, most of the films coming out of Hong Kong were aimed towards women. Before Wang Yu, the biggest star of Hong Kong movies was actress Ivy Ling Po, who was so popular she played both female and male roles (Brigitte Lin would do this in the nineties). Audiences would rather watch Ivy Ling Po play a boy, than watch an actual boy.
But The One Armed Swordsman represented the same seismic quake in the Hong Kong film industry that Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars did in the Italian film industry.
All the other films that we now refer to as Martial Arts cinema sprang from the success of The One Armed Swordsman. It was the first Hong Kong film to make over a million dollars at the box office. It made Wang Yu the biggest movie star in Hong Kong, and in many Asian territories. And it turned Chang Cheh into The Million Dollar Director.
What made Chang Cheh’s movie so different, was how masculine themed and bloody it was. It owed more to violent Japanese samurai films than the feminine oriented Peking Opera style Hong Kong movies made up to that point. Nor did the sword fights have a balletic dance inspired quality. They were hacking slashing affairs, that cut limbs asunder (like the mutilated title hero), and when characters were sliced with razor sharp blades, their technicolor red blood sprayed from one end of the set to the other.
But most of all, it was brooding handsome Wang Yu at its center. Not an old man favorite that audiences had grown up with (Kwan Tak-hing), not a favorite actress masquerading as a young boy (Ivy Ling Po). But a handsome male movie star out for vengeance. The success of the picture would make Wang Yu & Chang Cheh the first action star/director team in the industry. They followed up their smash with one classic hit for Shaw Brothers Studios after another, Assassin, The Return of the One Armed Swordsman, The Sword of Swords & The Golden Swallow. Wang Yu’s success reached its peak when he traveled to Japan and starred opposite Japanese superstar Shintaro Katsu as Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman in the first Japanese-Hong Kong crossover film Zatoichi Meets His Equal.
Now while Wang Yu may of been the biggest movie star in Hong Kong, he still worked for Run Run Shaw. Shaw Brothers didn’t mind making movie stars out of people, but it did mind paying them. Similar to how Herbert J. Yates skinflint studio head of Republic Pictures felt about paying its matinee idol Gower Gulch Cowboy Stars. So Wang Yu took a page out of Gene Autry’s playbook. Once Autry became the number one Saturday matinee singing cowboy, he left Republic Pictures to make his own movies. So, too, did Wang Yu jump ship at Shaw Brothers, moving over to rival studios like Taiwan’s First Films & Union Film Company (which also produced A Touch of Zen & Dragon Gate Inn), and Raymond Chow’s Golden Harvest Studios.
Chang Cheh was so angry with him for breaking up their partnership that he privately vowed to destroy Wang Yu by making David Chang an even bigger star than his former leading man. Similar to what Herbert J. Yates tried to do to Gene Autry when he found Leonard Slye and turned him into Roy Rogers. Cheh even went so far as remaking The One Armed Swordsman with David Chang, and titling it The NEW One Armed Swordsman, and giving interviews to the press praising David Chang and damning Wang Yu. While David Chang made a lot of good movies with Chang Cheh, Vengeance, Duel Of The Iron Fist, Have Sword Will Travel, the One Armed Swordsman remake, David Chang is no Roy Rogers or Wang Yu. It wouldn’t be till Cheh started making movies with Fu Shen (aka Alexander Fu Shen) that he found a true Wang Yu replacement (like Bruce Lee, Fu Shen would tragically die before his time).
Wang Yu leaving Shaw Brothers also coincided with him beginning to direct his own pictures. And as a director, Wang Yu was one of the greatest and most innovative filmmakers in the history of martial arts movies. The last film he did for Shaw Brothers was his first film as director, and it proved to be even more historic in the development of the genre than even The One Armed Swordsman.
The Chinese Boxer (aka Long hu dou) is the first of Wang Yu’s four directed Kung Fu film masterpieces. It was released in Hong Kong in 1970, and was one of the most dynamic movies to come out of Asia that year. Only Kenji Misumi’s Baby Cart at the River Styx (US title: Shogun Assassin) ever so slightly gives it a haircut. While Chang Cheh’s film ushered in a whole wave of action movies out of Hong Kong and Taiwan, they all dealt with Wuxia sword fighting. The Chinese Boxer was the first film of the genre to have the hero eschew blades for fists. And from that day, forward the Kung Fu fighting film was born.
Later the hero taking on an entire room full of ruffians, whether it be in a tea house, casino or dojo, would become as much of a staple of the genre as the western bar room brawl, or the fast draw showdown. But Wang Yu’s cinematic first barehanded casino fight in The Chinese Boxer was never bettered. Only Bruce Lee’s destruction of the Japanese karate school in Fist of Fury can compete, and even then, it’s more Lee’s ability than the filmmaking (though Lo Wei was a much finer filmmaker then either Lee or critics want to give him credit for). Shaw Brothers sued Wang Yu for breaking his contract and won a highly publicized court case with the end result being Wang Yu could no longer make movies in Hong Kong. Necessitating a move to Taiwan. His first film after leaving Shaw Brothers and setting up shop in Taiwan was his second film as a director. The Brave and the Evil proved both that The Chinese Boxer was no fluke, and Wang Yu knew how to make a Wang Yu movie better than anybody else. The film teamed him up with legendary Taiwanese female fighting star Polly Shang-Kwan (star of King Hu’s Dragon Gate Inn), and the two make a dynamic team. Like Clint Eastwood & Sylvester Stallone, Wang Yu was the best director Wang Yu ever worked with. Along with Chang Cheh, Sun Chung (the Kubrick of Shaw Brothers), and the Taiwan Master Blaster Lee Tso Nam, Wang Yu was the greatest filmmaker of the old school Kung Fu film era (with Way of the Dragon, Bruce Lee proved he was a talentless filmmaker). Like Jacky Chan would do later, Wang Yu had a penchant for outrageous, visually stimulating fight scenes that continued to top themselves throughout the picture.
But none of the above directors had the visual commitment to their pictures that Wang Yu had (as an actor he was a true Chinese hero, but as a director his influence came from Japan). The fight in the falling snow against the two samurais in The Chinese Boxer, the nighttime climatic fight in The Brave and the Evil that turns into day, the wet fight in the castle moat during the killing blow of the same movie, the nighttime torchlit battle sequence on the beach in Beach of the War Gods. Like Eastwood, Wang Yu understood the genre he was making movies in better than most, and he understood his own persona better then anybody. Using Taiwan as a new home base, all through the seventies, Wang Yu starred in a string of bloody, skull crushing, bone snapping action flicks. Furious Slaughter, The Last Duel, Invincible Sword and Dragon Squad (which is sort of Wang Yu’s Three the Hard Way). The totally bananas Knight Errant, which was released in America as Kung Fu Mama because Wang Yu’s opponent is an invincible chubby old lady. And the amazing Blood of The Dragon, which has two big distinctions. One, it’s one of the most violent movies ever made. It’s about ninety minutes long and the last hour is Wang Yu waging a bloody one man war against a whole army, armed only with a long silver spear. And two, this violent bloodbath was directed by Kao Pao-Shu, the only woman directing films in this genre (we had a Kao Pao-Shu retrospective at The New Beverly last May).
When Wang Yu moved over to Golden Harvest, he did two savage and pitiless action films with Lo Wei, the director that made Bruce Lee a star with The Big Boss & Fists Of Fury.
The two Lo Wei films are The Tattooed Dragon & A Man Called Tiger (see review for A Man Called Tiger on this review page). Tiger was supposed to be the third of Lo Wei’s films with Bruce Lee. Some say Lee passed on the film to direct his first film Way of the Dragon (US title: Return of the Dragon). Lo Wei says different, claiming it was he who passed on Lee in favor of Wang Yu. I find it hard to believe if Bruce Lee wanted to do it, Golden Harvest refusing him anything. But for sure Wang Yu was the better casting. Which goes to the change in Wang Yu’s persona once he left Shaw Brothers behind.
All in all, while at Shaw Brothers, Wang Yu played more heroically pious type characters. It was Shaw Brothers stalwart Lo Leigh that played the more rascally types. But once leaving Shaw Brothers, Wang Yu, more often then not, played cocky, shit talkin’, violent sons-a-bitches. Like in A Man Called Tiger, he doesn’t pretend to be a gangster to infiltrate the crime organization that killed his father. He becomes a violent sadistic gangster. Sometimes, in some movies, to such a degree, you almost feel sorry for the bad guys. And it was during this time he was known in the public as The Steve McQueen of Asia.
His three other masterpieces of the martial arts genre are, Beach of the War Gods, The One Armed Boxer, & The Master of the Flying Guillotine.
Beach of the War Gods (the movie in the U.K. that Wang Yu is most known for) is Wang Yu’s biggest budget, most impressive looking epic. It tells the story of a sleepy coastal hamlet in China named Sho-lay. A four-man emissary for the Japanese army arrives in their small fishing village, and tells the town folk that a Japanese force is coming in ten days time. Their intention is to conquer China, with Sho-lay their first stop. The Japanese intend to march through China, conquering it one village at a time.
And they expect the conquered villages to finance their campaign of conquest.
The fishing village is given an ultimatum. They have ten days before the Japanese army arrives in full force. When they do the village must pay them twenty thousand tails of silver. If the payment isn’t forthcoming the Japanese will slaughter every man, woman, and child in Sho-lay. The terrified fishermen can’t believe the impossibility of the amount of the pavement, nor can they comprehend the cruelty of the approaching army. But a mysterious wandering swordsman (Wang Yu, naturally) confronts the four man emissary with Wang Yu’s cocky brand of anti-Japanese shit talk, and slaughters them where they stand. Wang Yu then impresses upon the villagers that they must give him money, so he can go out and recruit some fighters to combat the Japanese army once they arrive on the beach. Not just to save Sho-lay, but China itself.
The film is a wonderful pulpy combination of both The Seven Samurai and the story of the Three hundred Spartans (Zach Snyder’s “300” plays like a remake of Beach of the War Gods). Cinematically it’s Wang Yu’s most Kurosawa inspired film, made arrogantly amusing by all the rabid anti-Japanese sentiment. One of the deadly killers Wang Yu recruits responds to his offer by saying, “Normally I get paid for killing, but I figure I can kill a few Japs’ for free.” Another gregariously says, “Kill Japs’, why didn’t you say so!”
Japanese villains were a staple of Chinese, Hong Kong, Korean, and Filipino cinema of the time. In the film The Screaming Tiger Wang Yu wants revenge against the Japanese for slaughtering everybody in the Chinese fishing village he comes from. So he goes to Japan to kill every Japanese he meets. The whole heroic point of Lo Wei’s Fist of Fury is Bruce Lee proving that “The Chinese are no longer the sick men of Asia” by single handedly defeating the Japanese karate school, and a good portion of the occupying army. Same thing with director Hung Feng’s show stoppers Hap-ki-do (US title: Lady Kung Fu) & When Taekwondo Strikes (US title: Sting of the Dragon Masters) where Hong Kong’s petite fireball Angela Mao Ying is joined by Taekwondo Master Jhoon Rhee to defeat the Japanese, or as a title of a Chang Cheh movie describes it, “Heroes defeating Japs’”.
Wang Yu’s magnificent climatic battle on the beach of the war gods, at night, lit by torchlight, takes up the whole second half of the picture. It’s the most cinematically impressive large-scale battle sequence in all of Hong Kong seventies martial arts cinema. But that seems too much like a qualification, it’s just a fucking great battle scene. It blows Orson Wells overrated battle sequence in Falstaff Chimes at Midnight right off the screen. The end fight between the Chinese bandit rascals and the Japanese warriors, dressed in full military armor regalia, is so good, and takes up so much of the films running time, that the movie starts feeling less like a martial arts film, and more like a historical war picture along the lines of Seven Samurai, Braveheart, or Kingdom of Heaven.
His other two classics, The One Armed Boxer, and its sequel Master of the Flying Guillotine are the two films that Wang Yu is most known for in the United States. Especially among the enthusiastic black audiences that kept the genre alive in cinemas long after the mainstream audience had moved on to a new fad (Car Chase movies, Good Ol’ Boy movies, Vigilante movies, Star Wars-Jaws-Alien rip offs). These movies were Wang Yu’s attempt to take the character that made him famous, and adapt him to the martial arts audience. Yet, as opposed to the classic heroic chivalry nature of the One Armed Swordsman movies, the One Armed Boxer movies are comic book inspired gonzo extravaganzas, filled with super powered superheroes fighting an array of super powered super villains that engage in battle royals that seem orchestrated by Jack Kirby himself.
I’m not just making that comparison now. I use to say that back then.
In the seventies these movies were the closest equivalent to the Mighty Marvel Universe that cinema had to offer. The names and the super powers of the villains in The One Armed Boxer (The Kung Fu Beast, The Karate Killer, The Siamese Devils, The Tibetan Tiger Men, The Bloody Kwon-Do Master, The Judo King and The Invincible Yuga Kahn), all sound like an Asian themed line-up of a whole years worth of Fantastic Four foes. The One Armed Boxer (as The Chinese Professionals) was released in America at the height of the Kung Fu craze in 1973 by National General Pictures and did okay, but it was surrounded by dozens of other Hong Kong exports fighting for theatre space (including Chang Cheh’s The New One Armed Swordsman under the title Triple Irons and Wang Yu’s The Chinese Boxer under the title Hammer Of God). But Master of the Flying Guillotine released way late in cycle, 1977, topped the Variety chart when first released. And it played for years on the Grindhouse circuit. Along with Lee Tso Nam’s Bruce Li vehicle, Exit The Dragon, Enter The Tiger, I saw Wang Yu’s film at more theatrical engagements then any other chopsocky flick. Twice at The Carson Twin Cinema (where I saw most of the movies that later film critics would say ruined my esthetics), and on three different triple features, one at The World Theatre, the main exploitation house in Hollywood located on Hollywood Blvd by Gower, and at The Los Angeles Theatre in Downtown LA on Broadway’s theatre row (with Ms.45 and Good Guys Wear Black), and at The Palace in Long Beach (which hardly a palace and barely a theatre, and the triple feature was The Howling, Rolling Thunder, and Flying Guillotine). Then KTLA Channel 5 got the film and played it on The Channel Five Movie Theatre throughout the first half of the eighties, where I taped it off of television on VHS and watched it whenever I wanted.
Master of the Flying Guillotine isn’t the accomplished film that either The Chinese Boxer or Beach of the War God is. Even when compared to The One Arm Boxer, the sequel seems slight, like it’s barely a movie. There’s hardly any story, and what story it does have is barely dramatized. The incident that sets the story in motion, The One Arm Boxer kills the two disciples of Fu Sheng Wu Chi (a blind Tibetan monk, and the flying guillotine master), happens off screen before the movie starts (It’s the two Tibetan Tiger Men from the first movie).
It may be hard to make a case that The Master of the Flying Guillotine is a good movie.
But if you like this sort of thing, it’s easy to make the case it’s a great Kung Fu movie.
I’ve loved this movie since I was a child, and the older I’ve got, the more my affection grows. For the uninitiated it might seem like dumb crazy ass shit (for instance if I were to try to get Peter Bogdanovich into martial art movies, I wouldn’t start with Master of The Flying Guillotine). But for a martial art film expert, and Wang Yu fan, it’s like a fine vintage wine only a connoisseur can appreciate.