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Act of Vengeance: an interview with David Chiang.

Ambushed on a quiet mountain track, a mortally-wounded gangster sets a cigarette between his lips as an eerie low breeze pierces the silence (The Boxer from Shantung, 1972). A one-armed swordsman defeats hordes of assailants, slicing off his adversary's arm in an act of symmetrical retribution (The New One-Armed Swordsman, 1971). A cocksure warrior is quartered by his treacherous "brothers," his sundered body connoted by a razed canopy (The Heroic Ones, 1970). An expert martial-artist mimics a praying mantis to evolve a unique form of combat (Shaolin Mantis, 1978). A palace eunuch pleads passionately for clemency from an unmerciful, misruling regent (The Empress Dowager, 1975).

Few Hong Kong actors have contributed more indelible moments to Chinese cinema than David Chiang (Da-Wei/John Chiang). A contract player at the vertically-integrated Shaw Brothers studio, Chiang found stardom in a dazzling succession of swordplay (wuxia) and kung fu films, many directed by his mentor Zhang Che (Chang Cheh). Chiang's renown was established in 1970, when his steely, smoldering turn as an embittered assassin--in Zhang's Vengeance--won a major prize at the Asian Film Festival. There followed a remarkable run of films at Shaw Brothers, showcasing a celebrated onscreen partnership with idol Ti Lung. The 1970s also saw Chiang launch his own directing career, signing two films in 1974 (the social-problem drama The Drug Addicts; knockabout comedy A Mad World of Fools) that would typify his directorial output in the ensuing two decades. Still an active force in the industry, David Chiang remains an actor coveted by the major directors. His career is one of the most enduringly successful in Hong Kong film history.

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The son of famous movie stars, Chiang was born in 1947 in Shanghai; the family relocated to Hong Kong three years later. His brothers Chin Pei (Paul Chun) and Derek Yee--director of recent hits Protege (2007) and Shinjuku Incident (2009)--would become significant figures in the local film industry. At age four David Chiang made his acting debut in Mandarin cinema, and worked steadily as a child actor through the 1950s and early 60s. By the end of the 1960s he was chosen for lead roles by Zhang Che.

Early outings including The Wandering Swordsman (Zhang Che, 1969) and Have Sword, Will Travel (Zhang Che, 1969) crystallized Chiang's persona, and set the template for the martial-arts films that flourished in the 1970s. Zhang's plotlines invariably center on valiant heroes defending martial codes of honor, brotherhood, and righteousness (yi) against powerful wrongdoers. As such, they demand stoic players with Herculean builds, but Chiang's wiry, lean frame distinguished him from his onscreen comrades. His slight physique yields a graceful agility in scenes of often brutal physical action. To the figure of the noble swordsman he brings a wry impishness, a stunning self-assurance that nettles his foes and magnifies their inferiority. And he cultivates a playing style that qualifies Zhang's ethos of yanggang ("staunch masculinity"), leavening coiled intensity with flashes of dangerous charm and disarming sensitivity. None of these characteristics were allowed to harden into formulas, and Zhang and Chiang ventured into diverse genres in the 1970s, producing youthpics (Young People, 1972; The Generation Gap, 1973), nationalistic military films (The Anonymous Heroes, 1971; The Naval Commandos, 1977), and films about Shaolin patriots (Five Shaolin Masters, 1974; Shaolin Temple, 1976).

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By the mid-1970s, Chiang sought fresh departures. He flirted with international stardom in The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (aka The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula, Roy Ward Baker, 1974), a bewitching coproduction between Shaw Brothers and Hammer Films co-starring Peter Cushing. The film endows gothic ghouls with kung fu prowess, and strives for an almost mathematical parity between two house styles. It found favor with neither Shaw or Hammer acolytes, but it has since become a cult item in the West. Chiang shed his action image to startling effect in Li Han-hsiang's The Empress Dowager, and turned toward comedy upon parting from Shaws in the late 1970s. He displayed considerable flair for this genre in his Legend of the Owl (David Chiang, 1981), an anarchic parody of TV's Mission: Impossible series. Newly independent, Chiang spent much of the 1980s working for two prominent studios--Cinema City and D&B Films--as actor and director. He directed several acclaimed dramas explicit in their social awareness (Silent Love, 1986; My Dear Son, 1989), but even his ostensibly trivial comedies (Double Fattiness, 1988; The Wrong Couples, 1987) are rooted in themes of class disparities and familial togetherness. Emigrating from Hong Kong in 1992, he continued to star in high-profile Hong Kong films (Once Upon a Time in China II, Tsui Hark, 1992; Election, Johnnie To, 2005) and relocated to the territory in 2007.

Recent roles in television have expanded Chiang's persona. Wuxia miniseries The Master Swordsman (Daniel Lee, 2001) trades on Chiang's swordplay legacy, but now the actor imbues his aging warrior with a ruefulness sown by bereavement and misplaced trust. In they lavish TVB [Hong Kong's Television Broadcast station] melodrama The Revolving Doors of Vengeance (2005), Chiang--rarely cast in villainous roles--portrays the scheming, avaricious uncle of three feuding nephews; his sly performance suggests a toxic gamesmanship underlying the character's family betrayals. Such versatility on the small screen led to more diverse roles in movies, including a showy, mephistophelian turn in assassination thriller Daisy (Andrew Lau, 2006). Six decades into his career, Chiang's capacity for unpredictability and creative reinvention shows no signs of waning.

The following interview, conducted in Hong Kong in March 2011, is an attempt to shed light not only on Chiang's career, but also on the working practices and routines of several major Hong Kong studios and filmmakers since the late 1960s. It ought, therefore, to hold a general interest to those readers unfamiliar with Chiang's work. It is hoped that what follows will prompt such readers to discover Chiang's films firsthand, not least because they constitute an enthralling and significant part of Chinese film history.

After a childhood spent acting in films, how did you come to be a contract player at Shaw Brothers?

When I was a child actor I was just fooling around in the studio, l didn't even know what kind of films we were making. After many years, when I was seventeen or eighteen years old, I began working as a stuntman. My first job was in an American film called The Sand Pebbles [Robert Wise, 1966]. My brother Chin Pei was an actor in that film, and he introduced me to Mr Lau Kar-leung and Mr Tang Chia, two action directors. I started working with them at Shaw Brothers. One day I did a stunt in a film, and the film's director Zhang Che started to notice me. He knew who my father was. And because I could speak Mandarin, whenever small roles with dialogue came along, he would let me try to do them. Eventually, Shaw Brothers wanted to sign me as an actor, but I had to think it over. First of all, I could make a lot more money as a stuntman than as an actor--stunt work paid HK$5000 each month, but acting paid only HK$900. Yet I thought that I had a chance to be as famous as my father. If I continued doing stunt work, there would be no way. So I signed to be an actor.

You worked almost exclusively with Zhang Che for the next few years, invariably in action films. Since you had trained with action directors, did Zhang Che ask you to help devise action scenes?

No. Mr Lau and Mr Tang always designed the action, but sometimes the actors would make some suggestions. We could give our own ideas. Zhang Che would talk to us before production began; he'd tell us what kind of film we were making and what our characters would be like. We offered our own ideas about that. Sometimes he accepts our ideas, sometimes not. And we have to follow him. We have to listen, but we can give him some ideas too. After the work, we are friends. During the work, he's the teacher.

What kind of production schedule did a Zhang Che film have at this time, in the early 1970s?

Making films was not very fast at Shaw Brothers. One film would take three or four months just to shoot. At that time, other companies shot a film in seven days. And our films were swordfighting films, which were very complicated. We always worked in the studio, and it wasn't easy--setting up the lighting and everything. We would make only five to seven shots each day. And I'd be on the set shooting for around fourteen hours a day. It wasn't fast. There was no rehearsal period either. I might have to practise using a weapon, like the three-sectioned staff in Blood Brothers [Zhang Che, 1973], but we didn't set aside particular days to practise. We'd practise in the studio just before we shot the scene.

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The films were dubbed and released in the Mandarin dialect.

At that time, in the 1970s--yes, you're right. We didn't use sync sound, because without it we could shoot the film faster. We could shoot one picture in three months, but if we used sync sound it would add another two or three weeks to the schedule. So usually we shot the film silent, and then dubbed the sound after shooting. We did this for every film.

It doesn't sound like your voice on some of the films. Was your dialogue dubbed by Shaw Brothers' voice "doublers"?

Right. It isn't my voice you hear on the sound track in those days. I didn't think my voice was good, and also I didn't know the technique of dubbing. But in the mid-1970s, Li Han-hsiang directed me in a film called The Empress Dowager. He said, "No--you have to try to dub yourself." I said, "OK, I'll try." And I discovered it's easy, because I can match my own voice to my own actions. Director Li said, "That's good, this is the sound I want." After that film I tried to dub all my films. It's better to dub my own work.

How did you approach your acting roles at Shaws?

Well, I had seen a lot of kung fu films before I began acting at Shaw Brothers--I saw [Jimmy] Wang Yu films and other fighting films from Taiwan. But I wasn't trying to learn from those actors. It was the opposite; I wanted to be totally different from the others. Don't follow the guys--that's my philosophy. Try not to be the same as them. I used to be a stuntman and I have a flexible body, so in the fighting scenes I tried to use the trampoline a lot. I did that often because I'm better at it than the others. And also my teacher [Zhang Che] knew that I was not the same as the other actors. I can't take off my shirt; I'm not that muscle man. So he always gave me different kinds of roles.

As you made so many films with Zhang Che, did each new production seem like a fresh departure or was there ever a feeling of repetitiveness?

No, it felt fresh every time. Some people have said we always repeated the same thing, but the films are loved by lots of people--even when they seemed the same. Actually, we mostly made Asian swordfighting films. It wasn't only us at Shaw Brothers who did this. Hundreds of films were made each year in Hong Kong; ninety percent were fighting films. The stories and the characters were often the same. But the audience loved it. I asked my teacher, "Can we change our way?" My teacher told me, "Never change your style, never change your image in film." If you change your image, only a small number of people in Hong Kong appreciate it.

This raises the question of how much control you had over your career at Shaw Brothers. There's an assumption among many critics that contract players are constrained by the studio system, with little freedom to choose projects.

We could say no if we wanted to. Well, of course, I wouldn't say no to Zhang Che. But sure, I did say no if I didn't like the script, the director, or the actor or actress. Anyway, for years I didn't have time to act with other directors. I made four or five films each year with Zhang Che. Within seven or eight years, I made 41 pictures for Shaw Brothers. But as for freedom, the actors were given protection by the Shaw company. Of course, we always thought that we should be given more freedom by Shaw Brothers in those days. But after we left Shaw Brothers, we missed the big company and we missed the years together. We were like a family: when we were together we wanted our freedom, but when we were finally free we missed the protection.

You were named "Asian Movie King" at the Asian Film Awards for your performance in Vengeance. Did that have a significant effect on your career?

Sure. Even now, when I visit Mainland China, they still mention the award when they introduce me. I didn't need that Best Actor award, but it was really useful for my career.

In 1974 you starred in The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, Shaw Brothers' famous coproduction with Britain's Hammer Films. How did the European approach differ from the Hong Kong mode of production?

Totally different; the English way was totally different from Hong Kong filmmaking--the way they directed, the way they worked. In Hong Kong, we would film one shot or bit of dialogue, then we'd cut; we wouldn't shoot the whole scene. On my first day filming Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, the English crew shot the whole scene. I couldn't get used to it. At that time at Shaw Brothers, we didn't do that because it seemed so wasteful--a waste of time and film stock, which was very expensive. Also, at Shaw Brothers in those days, we would shoot with only one camera. But the English crew used three cameras to shoot a scene.

Was that for the action scenes or conversation scenes?

Yes, even for conversation scenes--three cameras. And when we had fighting scenes, the English crew asked Lau Karleung, the action director, to design the whole fight. Back then, in Hong Kong films, we only rehearsed fights shot-by-shot. But the English director needed to shoot the whole fight without stopping. The film was not very successful in Asia, and the English approach was so different from ours, but we learned something from it.

This film was shot using sync sound, wasn't it? As the director shot so much coverage, you must have had to memorize long passages of English dialogue.

Yes, that's all my English that you hear. Early on, Mr [Peter] Cushing asked me to go to his hotel with the script. So I went there and he taught me all the English from the first page of the script to the last. And after three hours, Mr Cushing could point to one sentence on the page and I could continue the next sentence. He was really so helpful to me.

As an international coproduction, did the film open up fresh opportunities for you?

The English producer of the film [Michael Carreras] wanted me to sign a contract with the Hammer studio. He liked me a lot. My teacher Zhang Che asked me: "Do you want to be the king in Asia or a beginner in England?" So I didn't sign. [Carreras] offered me a lot of money. But I stayed in Hong Kong. I don't know what would have happened if I had gone there. In recent years we have a lot of Hong Kong actors going to Hollywood. They make some films there, but people in Hong Kong prefer their local films. Even when Chow Yun-fat makes Hollywood films, some of them are not successful at the Hong Kong box office. That's why I say, stay in Asia.

The popularity of the swordplay film waned in the early 1970s, and kung fu movies rose to prominence. Did this industry shift affect you at all?

Sure. When it changed, some new stars came along--Alexander Fu Sheng, Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee. And I discovered I'm not as good as them; the way they tight. At first, I tried to keep doing swordfighting scenes. But the market wouldn't allow it. I knew I wasn't as good at fighting as the new stars, so that's why I changed to become a director. The first film I directed was called The Drug Addicts.

And that film is a departure from Zhang Che's swordplay films. As a director, did you consciously try to distinguish your style from that of Zhang Che?

Exactly. I didn't make any swordfighting films, because I know I can't be better than my teacher; he's always the best. No matter how well I make the film, people would still want to compare me with Zhang Che. That's why I tried to make different kinds of films. The subject matter in my films is different--I like stories about the family. Maybe I was wrong, but I always try to include some different messages in my own films; I always try to say something in the film. Sometimes the Hong Kong audience likes it, but sometimes they don't care about the issue.

Do you think that films can influence social change in Hong Kong?

I don't think so. Some people used to say that our films are so violent they might change the young people in Hong Kong; they thought our films might turn the young audience violent. But my teacher asked them, "What comes first: the war or the film?" Zhang Che said that. At Shaw Brothers we only tried to make the films realistic, good, and beautiful. Even the fighting scenes we tried to make look beautiful and real.

You continued directing after you left Shaw Brothers. Were you approached to direct these films or did you initiate them yourself?

At the end of the '70s, I left Shaw Brothers and went to work in Taiwan. After two or three years, I discovered that I was out of the business in Hong Kong. After only three years! Everything in Hong Kong had changed so fast--the camerawork, the lighting, the equipment. So I decided not to go back to Taiwan, and I stayed in Hong Kong. Cinema City [a Hong Kong studio] asked me to direct a movie, but I said, "No, I'm not ready; let me try to be an assistant first." I had to learn again from the very beginning. I was an assistant director for one month, and then I started my directing career again in Hong Kong.

Do you recall the average budget of those productions in the early 1980s?

A film like Legend of the Owl, which I directed in Taiwan, cost around four or five million dollars. That was not an expensive production at that time.

What production practices were typical at Cinema City and D&B Films back then?

One film, from start to finish, would take about eight months to make. The longest part was getting the script ready, which took three or four months. We had to have a script. We would change it every day before shooting, but at least we needed to have it. Sometimes I'd change the script on the set too. That's the way it works in Hong Kong. Shooting would last only two months, and the rest was postproduction editing. Usually we would start editing after the first ten days of shooting. I used to see the rough cut every day. Every three days I'd go and help the editor with editing, after I had finished the day's filming. And as director I had final cut of the film.

How many takes were common in those days? As a director, would you shoot many takes of a scene?

No. I don't agree with directors always wanting to make thirty or forty takes. I always watch the acting--that's the most important thing to me. I think the best take is always the first. The performances are more natural. After a few takes, the actor begins to "act," and it's too forced. Also, I used the same actors in a few films--Maggie Cheung, Jacky Cheung, Lydia Shum, Bill Tung. They're all good actors and actresses. That's how I saved a lot of time; I didn't have to teach them how to act. We would rehearse a little bit, so they knew what I wanted. But they had a script, they knew what to do--what do you want to change by doing many takes?

Stylistically, the dramas that you have directed employ a largely unobtrusive visual style, whereas your comedies often call attention to the camera.

I don't have a "style," but I just know I have to show a difference between drama and comedy. In drama, the actor's performance leads. In comedy, the camerawork and acting combine, they work together. A camera movement can make you laugh just as much as an actor can.

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You were acting and directing frequently throughout the 1980s, but then you relocated to Canada.

That's right. In 1992 I decided to emigrate with my family. By the end of the 1980s, Hong Kong people were worried about what would happen after 1997. And the local film business at that point was bad. It was lousy.

Because of the gangsters that came into the business when the industry was flourishing?

Right. People came with guns and knives. I was so angry about that. That's why I left Hong Kong. I turned down a lot of jobs before I left, and two months before we went to Canada, my teacher, Zhang Che, asked me, "Please do this TV series for me in Taiwan." He had just begun his first producing job for TV. He asked me to do it, and I can't say no to him. I told him "I'm immigrating to Canada." He said, "Well, you have to come back." So I went to Canada in July and came back to Asia in September! After I had finished that series, TVB asked me to do another TV series. I accepted, and after that I traveled back and forth between Canada and Hong Kong for the next fifteen years, working in Asia.

Did you become a contract player at TVB? You have worked regularly in Chinese television since the early 1990s.

I was semi-independent and still am. TVB asks me to make some series and I choose which ones to do. Usually I make two or three different series each year. Each series has about thirty episodes. So I make between sixty and seventy episodes over seven or eight months every year. Actually, not all of them are for TVB. Sometimes I work for studios in South China, because it is more comfortable for me to work there. In China we only have to work 14 hours a day, but in TVB we have to work 22 hours a day. At TVB we would go outside to shoot a daytime shot, and then at around 4pm we'd go back to the studio and work until 3am. And we would get only two hours rest and start again at 6am. The schedule is like this because we have to shoot many episodes. In China the most we would shoot is 14 hours each day, and also we can make more money in China than in Hong Kong.

You seem to have found a greater diversity of roles in television.

Yes. Recently, in Revolving Doors of Vengeance, I played a bad guy, which I had never done before. I have also played a good businessman, a rich man, a poor guy, a funny guy. And the audience accepts it because these are TV series, not films. With a film, it is only ninety minutes long--the audience can't accept me being different. But in TV there are thirty episodes, the audience has time to get used to me playing a different kind of character, and gradually they like it.

And you still continue to act in prominent Hong Kong movies, such as Johnnie To's Election.

Johnnie To and I had been good friends for thirty years. He only once asked me to be in his film. The film I made for him was because he thought the character must be like me. It wasn't because I'm famous or because he knows me at all. It was four or five days' work on Election. But I didn't ask for anything. How can he pay me? He can't afford to pay me if I ask for my full salary. And I won't accept it if he only pays me less. So because we are friends I did the film for no money.

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Since we're talking fees, could I ask what kind of salary you earned as a Shaw Brothers star in the early 1970s?

Let's see ... I could make about half a million dollars in a year, for four films. I think it was the highest salary actually, at that time--the 1970s. Half a million was a lot.

How do you view the current Hong Kong film industry?

It all depends on the China market right now. Even Johnnie To and my brother [Derek Yee] have to film something for China. The pressure is coming from China. The Mainland producers pay you but they want something they want. They want something the Chinese government wants. So it's different now. It's not a film business, it's only a business. We have to depend on China.

Do you have to, do you think? Couldn't you make a Hong Kong film with local finance for regional markets?

No, I don't think so. We need the China market, the big audience--because the films cost too much money to make nowadays.

How do you feel about the pressures facing the new local stars today? The media attention has become more intense since you first became a star in 1970.

Yes. Back then it was always the good news about us that was reported. Nowadays, it's mostly the bad. That's the difference. There are only a few new stars right now. It was different for us at Shaw Brothers. In our time, the big bosses protected us. But nowadays the actors have to protect themselves. Even the studios that hire them like them to have some bad news. At least they can have the front page.

Hong Kong filmmakers are increasingly looking back to your Shaw Brothers era. Did you see Peter Chan's The Warlords, the remake of The Blood Brothers?

Yeah. I liked it. Of course it's different than our film. Andy Lau asked me if I saw the picture and what I thought of it. I told him, "I think you and Jet Li should have changed roles. It would be better." Andy Lau is handsome. How come his wife loves Jet Li and not Andy Lau?

You presumably find it gratifying to know that your work still fascinates people.

I do. Some people ask me about the Shaw Brothers days. I can only say that I'm glad to tell them about it, because at least I can tell them how Hong Kong movie history developed. I'm so satisfied with my career. I had a good teacher [Zhang Che], a good company [Shaw Brothers], I worked hard, and my luck was very good. I still love it. I don't want to retire at all. It's not about the money. I'm so happy that I still can work. I still can act. I still can fight in films. I'm 64 right now. I think I can keep fighting when I'm 70!

Selected Filmography

The Anonymous Heroes. Zhang Che, 1971.

The Blood Brothers, Zhang Che. 1973.

The Boxer from Shantung. Zhang Che; Pao Hsueh-li, 1972.

Double Fattiness. David Chiang, 1988.

The Drug Addicts. David Chiang, 1974.

Election, Johnnie To. 2005.

The Empress Dowager, Li Han-hsiang. 1975.

Five Shaolin Masters, Zhang Che. 1974.

The Generation Gap, Zhang Che. 1973.

Have Sword, Will Travel, Zhang Che. 1969.

The Heroic Ones, Zhang Che. 1970.

The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires / The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula. Roy Ward

Baker, 1974.

Legend of the Owl. David Chiang, 1981.

A Mad World of Fools, David Chiang. 1974.

My Dear Son, David Chiang, 1989

The Naval Commandos, Zhang Che; Pao Hsueh-li; Wu Ma; Lau Wai-Ban, 1977

The New One-Armed Swordsman, Zhang Che, 1971

Once Upon a Time in China II, Tsui Hark, 1992

Shaolin Mantis, Lau Kar-leung, 1978

Shaolin Temple, Zhang Che, 1976

Silent Love, David Chiang, 1986

Vengeance, Zhang Che, 1970

The Wandering Swordsman, Zhang Che, 1969

The Wrong Couples, David Chiang, 1987

Young People, Zhang Che, 1972

Suggested Reading

Bettinson, Gary. "David Chiang." Directory of World Cinema: China. Bristol, UK/ Chicago: Intellect Press, 2012.

Cheh, Chang. Chang Cheh: A Memoir. Hong Kong: Hong Kong Film Archive, 2004.

Fu, Poshek, ed. China Forever: The Shaw Brothers and Diasporic Cinema. Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois P, 2008.

Glaessner, Verina. Kung Fu: Cinema of Vengeance. New York: Bounty Books, 1974.

Hunt, Leon. Kung Fu Cult Masters: From Bruce Lee to Crouching Tiger. London and New York: Wallflower P, 2003.

Stokes, Lisa Odham. Historical Dictionary of Hong Kong Cinema. Langham, Md.: Scarecrow P, 2007.

Teo, Stephen. Chinese Martial Arts Cinema: The Wuxia Tradition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2010.
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Author:Bettinson, Gary
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Geographic Code:9HONG
Date:Sep 22, 2011
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