Clones and Venoms

Hong Kong holds a lot of mystique for the Kung Fu movie fan. How many iconic fight scenes and action sequences were staged on these very streets? The mountainous arena-like walls surrounding the city in themselves were familiar landmarks to us,  but once we pin-pointed specific locales for some of these now classic films, you could not help but feel the excitement down into your bones.

But no other place did this more for us than the Shaw Brothers now abandoned film studio. Founded in 1958 by Run Run and Runme Shaw, this film company name is as well known as any film it ever produced.  The stars and feature films created and produced at this location have had volumes written about them over the last 50 years.  Bruce Lee even made a historic visit to the studio during the shooting of Blood Brothers (1972) where he was photographed with David Chiang and Chen Kuan Tai among others.

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THE CLEARWATER CONNECTION

Located in Clearwater Bay only a few miles from where we would be meeting with one of its most well known stars, The Shaw Brothers historic large yellow Shaw Studio sign stands defiantly on the street corner against the continually growing city around the crumbling studios. We had been allowed time-limited access to the property to get some footage for our documentary but this world-known studio had not been officially filmed since its heyday. The front driveway led to a well worn office front where the trees and bushes lining it were over taking the concrete. The indistinguishable “SB” logo was still prominently intact on the face above the buildings doorway, even if now a faded yellow and blue.

Standing there, hurriedly filming the structure for the documentary, I could not but think how many times former Wuxia stars of our youth drove up and down this very driveway. Passing these doorways I was standing in front of, the likes of Lo Lieh and Ti Lung would  enter into cinematic battle in the classics we all grew up on. It was clear that it was not going to be too long before what was left standing in this location would be replaced by the next building or park in the planning stages.

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Walking away I think we all realized more than ever that our mission to try and rescue some of these many films from obscurity and neglect was made even more clear by the fading wood Shaw logo above the empty security guard booth disapearing behind us in the car window.

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Our next destination though would be a living testament to the beaten studio we just left behind us. Lo Meng was an actor who not only had secured himself as a Shaw Brothers staple in films like The Chinatown Kid and the classic Five Deadly Venoms but also made an early career appearance in a project directly related to our documentary, the Bruceploitation film Soul Brothers of Kung Fu (1977) with Bruce Li and Carl Scott.

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Meng met with us in a somewhat noisy restaurant in the underbelly of a 5 star hotel in central Hong Kong. Wearing black Daffy Duck pajamas under a hoody sweat top, the unassuming “Toad” took his seat to be grilled by us about his career and life. Still vibrant and recognizable as the battle honed Kung Fu star of his youth, Meng gave us about forty five minutes of unique stories from his life in front of the camera.  To the young Kung Fu fan in me, spending this time listening to one of the Venoms, the Kid with the Golden Arm, was going to stay with me and be revived every time I slid another Shaw Brothers film into the DVD player.

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A FINGER POINTING TO THE MOON
Our next day we had a few shooting locations to take on before meeting with two more well known action stars in the genre; Philip Ko and Mars. The first location we went to was Tsing Shan Monastery where Lee’s memorable “a finger pointing to the moon” lesson took place. The monastery made sure the historic location was clearly marked and recognizable. A life sized cut out of both Lee and his student, Stephen Tung, now stands in the same space where the real actors once stood. The tea time sequence with Braithwaitte as well as Lee’s discussion with the monk (Roy Chiao) were also shot in this same space resting high above Hong Kong in one of the areas oldest temples. To have seen these moments countless times on screen and now occupy the exact same space is a difficult experience to express but memorable is certainly and easy way to summarize.

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ENTER TWO DRAGONS

On the other side of the city towards Kowloon we went to meet with a Bruceploitation staple Phillip Ko Fei. Ko is easily recognizable by face if not by name to the fans of the many sub genres of Asian Kung Fu films. I first remember seeing Ko on screen at a showing of The Dragon, The Hero (1979) in San Francisco Chinatown’s historic Great Star Theater in the late 70s. The theater had small press material they handed out at the door with photos and a synopsis of the film and I still have the one I got there to this day.   One of Godfrey Ho’s better films, this action story was on its face another classic Kung Fu battle royal. But I was pulled into the afternoon showing only by noticing the image of Dragon Lee on the small ad in the San Francisco Chronicle.

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Dragon had come to my young attention in The Real Bruce Lee (1977) and Dragon Lee and the Five Brothers (1978) just a year earlier so a film he was in I would make the trip to see. This would be the first time I caught a Kung Fu film in its original language and even for a young teenage fan, the specialness of a non dubbed import up on the Chinatown screen stood out.  And though Dragon’s role was a supporting one, he did not disappoint in his appearance. Ko would be memorable as the hour-glass-turning henchman doing battle with another childhood Kung Fu idol of mine, John Liu, in the film’s climax.

 

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Discernible for his Shaw Brothers appearances in Seven Blow of the Dragon (1972) or The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter, in the many “shapes” genre films such as The Invincible Armour and classic The Hot, The Cool and the Vicious (1976) and of course his multitude Bruceploitation appearances in films like Enter Three Dragons (1978) and Fist of Fury II (1977) Ko has one of the longest acting careers in the business. Ko also made a splash as half of the lead duo in the well received Two On The Road in 1980. But for the purposes of this documentary, we focused most of the attention on the films where he would tangle with Dragon Lee and Bruce Li. Ko as it turned out was making his very first personal interview appearance with us. Never before had he been asked to talk before a camera and luckily for us had quite a lot stored up in his brain.  His take on the industry attempting to revive Lee’s magic through the many imitators was invaluable.

What made the moment even more interesting for us is the arrival of his Enter The Dragon co-star, Mars. Both these actors would secure names for themselves over the course of the 1970s and 80s but both as budding stuntmen appeared (even if fleetingly) in the Bruce Lee classic Enter The Dragon. The two as joint interview subjects made this moment both fun and memorable for everyone.

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Afterwards, as I had with almost all of the subjects, I got both of them to sign several of my Brucepoitation posters. Mars put his stamp on my US release poster to Bruce Lee The Man, The Myth (where he played the bullied construction worker Charlie) and Ko signed both the Enter Three Dragons and Fist of Fury II posters I had brought. We luckily had some extra time with Mars who offered to drive us back to our hotel while playing tour guide to several locations where he worked with Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung.

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We were near bringing the main Hong Kong slate of shooting to a close but still had one more filmmaker to talk to before flying out to Taiwan to meet with some very big players in Kung Fu cinema history. One man in Hong Kong who is arguably the equivalent of the Roger Corman of Bruceploitation and the far east and is one of the leading pioneers of the ninja craze of the 1980s we would be meeting with the next day. A man whose name on any Bruceploitation poster almost guaranteed you an interesting viewing, or quite possibly reviewing, of some of the more wild and colorful action sequences and stories in Asian kung fu history.

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NEXT: THE GODFREYS MUST BE CRAZY

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