Chang Cheh: The Tiger of Hong Kong

This semester, I am teaching a class on Hong Kong cinema, an enormously fun subject to teach, largely because the films are themselves so exciting. I’ve long been an enthusiast of Hong Kong film – when I was very young, I used to watch the poorly dubbed kung-fu films on both WWOR and WPIX on weekend afternoons.

Later, when I lived in Minneapolis after graduating from college, I was a regular-as-clockwork patron of the weekly midnight film series Cinema with Passion, held by a local organization called Asian Media Access. The series (currently, seemingly on hiatus) highlighted classic and current Hong Kong films of all kinds, with an emphasis on martial arts and wuxia pian; my moviegoing pal Dena and I referred to it as “Kung Fu Theater,” and rarely missed a show. (They even sold authentically Hong Kong movie snacks! My favorite – which Dena hated – was Haw Flakes, odd little berry-flavored sugary discs, sort of like very thin Necco Wafers.) The films were shown at the grand old Riverview Theater in south Minneapolis, just across the Mississippi from St. Paul. Great old place.

Then, in graduate school, I found that one of my professors had an even greater interest in Hong Kong film than I did. David Bordwell taught – and I enrolled in – several courses in which we scrutinized and researched Hong Kong films of all kinds. It was in graduate school that I was able to put a finer point on my enthusiasm for Hong Kong cinema, and where I developed my abiding admiration for one particular Hong Kong director who has not achieved a great deal of critical attention, at least not in English-language film scholarship: Chang Cheh.

One-Armed Swordsman

In one of those grad-school classes, I wrote a lengthy paper on the odd, recurring narrative structures in Chang’s films. (Around the same time, in the throes of all things Chang – no, not the character played by Ken Jeong in “Community,” though he, too, merits serious study – I wrote a short essay for Senses of Cinema’s Great Directors series on the director.) For years, I’d been meaning to revise and submit that paper for publication; several months ago, I finally did so, and am happy to say that the journal Asian Cinema has published “Brutal Mathematics: Narrative Structure in the Films of Chang Cheh” in its most recent (and gargantuan: 452 pages!) issue. I can’t reprint the essay here, but here’s the citation info, should you want to give it a look-see:

Asian Cinema, Vol. 22, No. 2 (Fall/Winter 2011), pp. 112-138.

A perfect image for my stupid joke: A shot of Ken Jeong, as Señor Chang from the fantastic show "Community," in a pose that evokes Hong Kong action hero Chow Yun-Fat, who was made famous by the films of John Woo, who studied under Chang Cheh. Everything comes full circle eventually.

I won’t recapitulate here my argument in that essay. Instead, I’ll just note that numerical patterns in Chang’s films run deep, informing our grasp of all kinds of important story information: action, character, motive. Those numerical patterns – which really do play out like equations being balanced – receive their greatest expression in battle scenes, most of which were choreographed by Lau Kar-Leung, and are therefore among the finest ever committed to film.

Lau Kar Leung (left) with Chang Cheh (right)

I’ve never quite understood why Chang isn’t better known in among western film viewers (or film scholars). To me, his films are exciting and visceral: they embody the standards by which martial arts films should be judged. The athleticism and kineticism depicted in these movies is extraordinary.

Perhaps Chang is not better known in the west (outside of members of kung-fu movie cults – a large and growing segment of the population, incidentally) because his films take a great many shortcuts, and viewers interpret these shortcuts to be indicative of some kind of lack of skill. These apparent shortcuts include the flat, even, three-camera-sitcom-like lighting in nearly all of his films; the fact that his films are largely studio-bound, and make no real attempt to hide their artificial setting or to embody any sense of “realism” (whatever that is); that the plotting can be convoluted and a bit arbitrary. (As well, until fairly recently, most of Chang’s films were available only in awkwardly dubbed English-language versions, a fact that surely contributed to the perception that these films were “cheap.”)

All of these shortcuts can be effectively and accurately explained away, though, I think, by noting that Chang was a workhorse director who regularly made four, five, even six films a year for Shaw Brothers. This is a filmography, people. And Shaw Brothers was in the business of providing genre films for mass audiences. Subtlety would have been out of place in these films. Sets and costumes were reused often: it saved money. That flat, even lighting is put to excellent use in showing us the astounding actions of martial-arts combatants in clear, unobtrusive ways.

But I am not a Chang Cheh apologist – I am a Chang Cheh enthusiast. There is no need to “look past” the marks of apparent cheapness to enjoy these films; they can and should be enjoyed on their own terms. Chang’s films are exciting and highly enjoyable, and, as I argue in my essay in Asian Cinema, guided by some deeply weird and fascinating narrative patterns.

As I’ve mentioned, there is fairly little good writing – or writing of any kind – about Chang Cheh’s films in the English language, save for the occasional trade-paper review from the mid-1970s, when badly dubbed Hong Kong martial arts films were extremely popular in urban American cinemas. By far the best collection of material about Chang is online, at Steven Feldman’s website Chang Cheh: The Godfather of the Kung Fu Film, to which it is my pleasure to link. It’s a humble site with few bells and whistles, but the content is terrific, and it’s clearly a labor of love. There are filmographies, interviews, and articles aplenty.

YouTube, it turns out, is also a repository of some excellent Chang Cheh material, a good deal of it surely illegally uploaded and not long for the internets. (But that won’t stop me from linking to it!) Hell, several films in their entireties are right there on the YouTube.

There’s lots more where that came from, folks.

More legally, we have a documentary produced by Shaw Brothers, Chang’s longtime studio, about one of the men who not only made them a tremendous amount of money, but was largely responsible for establishing their “image” as purveyors of top-quality martial arts films. The least they could do is make a 20-minute film about the guy.

If Chang’s name is known today, it is as the director under whom John Woo served as an apprentice; Woo has done right by his sifu, going on record often about how much he learned from Chang. And if you know the works of both directors, you can see Chang’s influence all over Woo’s films – both his Hong Kong and his American work. But since I’ve assigned my students a paper on that very topic, that’s all I’m going to say about it here.

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Posted on February 15, 2012, in Film and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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