Sunday, July 14, 2013

Interview with Lau Kar Leung: The Last Shaolin

Original Photo Credit:

Interview with Lau Kar Leung:
The Last Shaolin

by Olivier Assayas and Charles Tesson,
in collaboration
with Elizabeth Cazer and Tony Rayns

Key Films Directed by Lau Kar Leung:

  • The 36th Chamber of Shaolin aka The Master Killer (1978)
  • Challenge of the Ninja aka Heroes of the East (1979)
  • Mad Monkey Kung Fu (1979)
  • My Young Auntie (1981)
  • 18 Legendary Weapons of China (1982)
  • Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1983)
  • Shaolin Temple 3: Martial Arts of Shaolin (1986) starring Jet Li
  • Tiger on Beat (1988) starring Chow Yun Fat
  • Drunken Master II (1994) starring Jackie Chan

  • [green text] indicates a comment made by this web page's editor (Steven Feldman)
    [brown text] indicates a comment made by the translator (Yves Gendron)
    blue text indicates a difficult-to-translate and/or questionable passage
    red text indicates a comment found to be of great importance by this web page's editor

    Interview with Lau Kar Leung: The Last Shaolin
    by Olivier Assayas and Charles Tesson, in collaboration with Elizabeth Cazer and Tony Rayns, conducted on April 26, 1984. Translated from Mandarin-Cantonese into French by Cai Kejian. Translated from French into English by Yves Gendron. Smoothed out into more colloquial English by Steven Feldman.

    Original (pre-Yves Gendron) version published in Cahiers du Cinema 362/363 (September 1984), pp. 26-30.

    [From a message posted to Mobius' Home Video Forum entitled
    by Yves Gendron, October 19, 2000; subsequently re-written by Steven Feldman, October 31, 2000:]

    [On the occasion of DRUNKEN MASTER II's release in North America and to honor it's maker -- famed classic martial arts filmmaker Lau Kar Leung [aka Liu Chia Liang] -- here's an extensive, exhaustive interview conducted with the old master by the highbrow French movie magazine, LES CAHIERS DU CINEMA, covering everything from the old WONG FEI-HUNG serial to Lau Kar Leung and Jet Lee doing a movie together in the mid-eighties. It's actually a sixteen-year-old piece -- old then, but still pertinent, informative and highly enjoyable. A word of warning, though: this was translated from French by myself, so the English here is frequently laborious and awkward [but not so awkward now]. Sorry about that.
    For those who wonder what the old master is doing these days, well, contrary to some rumors, he is not dead. In a newspaper interview conducted last December, he said he'd beaten the cancer that afflicted him. He's retired from the movies now and stays at home taking care of his two young daughters, while his thirty-years-his-junior wife, busily studies law at an English university. Check the Special Administration . . . Box Office Page around the middle to the end of December to see more.
    Here goes.]

    Interview with Lau Kar Leung: The Last Shaolin

    Cahiers: You were born in a family who made their living in traditional martial arts. Your father was a great kung fu master, himself. Was it inevitable that your life would be dedicated to martial arts, or were there any other choices?

    Lau K-l: I began to learn martial arts at seven. My father was then a martial arts master in Canton, where I myself was born. Later, we came to live in Hong Kong. My father was not especially, shall we say, a cultured man, apart from his knowledge in martial arts. Once in Hong Kong, he didn't have any other choice than to continue with the teaching of kung fu. I was learning with my father, without ever dreaming at that time to do movies. I thought that, later, I would be teaching kung fu alongside him. Quite by accident, many of my father's friends, who were Cantonese opera singers, proposed that he do movies. I rather like movies, but I didn't know what it was like to make them. Led on by curiosity, I participated in the shooting of one. One day, two days, it was fun, but I was annoyed, too, because of the long wait between takes. When my father asked me if I wanted to do movies, I told him, no, they're too boring. I was impatient and wanted to do something else.

    Cahiers: How old were you when you did your first movie? Which one was it?

    Lau K-l: Fifteen. Oh, that's so old. What movie? With this actor who was still a child at that time. He's still alive. What was his name again? Yu Jie (Yu Tai in Cantonese, Yu Jia in Mandarin). Give me a piece of paper. I'll write down his name for you.

    Cahiers: And the director.

    Lau K-l: Ku Long Zhong. No, Ku Wen Zhong. I don't know how to write down his name. He died such a long time ago. At that time, there was a most peculiar practice in the studios. We the actors and the bit players of the "martial" category to which I belonged weren't paid if we weren't called [for shooting scenes] that day. We would receive a call, come on the set, and wait.

    Cahiers: When did you began to receive more important parts? In the Mandarin-speaking cinema?

    Lau K-l: No, in the WONG FEI HUNG serial.

    Cahiers: At the time, to play in a kung fu movie, was it necessary to know about it [martial arts], or was there some sort of [martial arts] school at the movie studios?

    Lau-K: No, there wasn't any kung fu school for actors such as the one the Shaws built later. At that time, those who were doing fight scenes in the movies belonged to what was called the "Wu Heng" (discipline of the "martial"), like those who make somersaults in the opera who are not necessarily kung fu adepts like us.

    Cahiers: Did kung fu masters disapprov of their colleagues who first agreed to do movies?

    Lau K-l: No, there wasn't any reprobation from them. The only problem was that movies at that time were not quite made for kung fu people like us. In those movies, the fights were quite bogus; there was no contact! Whereas for us, doing real kung fu, we had to hit a opponent and fast! The main actors could hardly withstand our blows. Once, I was called onto the set for a week's work, but by the end of the first day, the actors didn't want me around anymore; they were too scared of me.

    The actress Yu Su Qiu, for example, never gave one single true punch in any of her movies. In the movie world, they said Guoshu but not Gongfu (kung fu). It was only with the WONG FEI HUNG serial that true kung fu appeared on screen for the first time. Martial arts masters had asked themselves, why not show true kung fu in the movies, performed the way we do it? Thus, several kung fu schools associated with one another, each doing it's part in the budget to produce the WONG FEI HUNG serial. All the main parts were given to kung fu adepts, not amateurs. After the beginning of this series, directors didn't want any artists who didn't know about martial arts.

    Cahiers: It's Southern kung fu which we see in WONG FEI HUNG?

    Lau K-l: Yes, Southern. Wong Fei Hung, who was the patriarch of the school I belong to, was himself a Southerner. Many schools have been founded by his third generation disciples -- my father and his fellow students, for example. I was too young to be taught by such old masters as Lu Acai, Lam Sai Wing, and Wong Fei Hung.

    Cahiers: At the time of the WONG FEI HUNG serial, was the audience dismissing the Cantonese movies, favoring instead the Mandarin ones with bigger budgets?

    Lau K-l: Yes. When we were doing WONG FEI HUNG, we were a separate team. Other producers or directors didn't want any of us in their movies. They thought we only knew kung fu and were unable to do comedies or anything else. There was a very strict division. Dramas were produced by Yonghua, opera movies by Cantonese singers. Apart from that, Mandarin-speaking studios like Shaws or Cathay were quite contemptuous of us. They considered their level of quality quite superior. They had actors and actresses like Li Li Hua or Yan Jon who would have never lowered themselves to do a Cantonese movie.

    Cahiers: When did you begin to put yourself behind the camera as fight choreographer?

    Lau K-l: It was around twenty-three years ago. It was a Cantonese movie whose title was NANLONG BIFENG (SOUTH DRAGON, NORTH PHOENIX).

    Cahiers: Your first famous movie was produced by Great Wall [not the Great Wall of China, but the name of a movie company]?

    Lau K-l: Yes, with its main parts played by Fu Qi and Chen Sissi. The director was the same who later directed SHAOLIN SI (SHAOLIN TEMPLE). But I don't remember the title. Ah yes, it was JADE BOW.

    Cahiers: It was a Mandarin language movie?

    Lau K-l: Yes, my first. Produced by Great Wall, a pro-mainland, pro-Communist company. This movie was a great success at the box office because the fights were so original. After seeing this movie, the people at Shaws asked themselves, how is it that they [Great Wall] made such a successful swordplay movie (wu xia) and not us? They searched, learned that I was the fight choreographer, and hired me on the spot.

    [The main Chang Cheh-related section of the interview starts here]

    Cahiers: You were hired by the Shaws in the sixties?

    Lau K-l: Yes, to work with Chang Cheh.

    Cahiers: Shaw's swordplay movies were using mainly special effects but no true kung fu, weren't they?

    Lau K-l: With JADE BOW, I mixed it up. I adapted kung fu to special effects. Before Bruce Lee, Shaw, seeing the great success of samurai movies with the Hong Kong audience, asked Chang Cheh to put many elements of those action movies into his own -- the nickname "kung fu movies" didn't exist yet -- while at the same time exalting Chinese heroism. Thus, there was this hero, who while he was holding his guts in one hand, was still fighting anyways! The audience loved these heroes who didn't die! The mood was very Japanese.

    Cahiers: Do you think it's possible to mix the two kinds of martial arts -- the Japanese and the Chinese?

    Lau K-l: Chang Cheh succeeded. For my part -- I was fight choreographer -- I had to set up the fight scenes according to the director's instructions. I had no say in the matter. Before my estrangement from Chang Cheh, he told me that the hero must never fall dead from a wound, but always had to rise and go on with the fight and that those were the kind of heroes which the audience admired. And as he was pointing out to me why such vitality was perfectly justified, I asked him to demonstrate it to me. He answered: "A disemboweled man, even with his guts out, can still move, can't he? Then he added: "Anyways, the bloodier it gets the better!"

    Cahiers: How did the coming of Bruce Lee change all that?

    Lau K-l: When Bruce Lee came to Hong Kong, he first contacted Shaws, but they dismissed him because he asked for a condition that was unacceptable: that they relinquish the rights of his movies in the USA. Later, Lo Wei, who appreciated Bruce Lee's value very well, went to find him. From then on, there was a distinction between the kung fu movies (those of Bruce Lee) and the sword-plays (those of Chang Cheh). Later, Chang Cheh departed from Shaws to go to work in Taiwan, because at that time, true sword-plays were dwindling.

    Cahiers: But he was always closely associated with Shaws?

    Lau K-l: Yes, because the Taiwanese studio for which he worked was only a branch of Shaws. Shaws had earned a tremendous amount of money in Taiwan, but was forbidden to take it out of the country. So, they sent Chang Cheh to spend it by making movies.

    Cahiers: Is it true that Chang Cheh came to make more authentic kung fu movies throughout your collaboration?

    Lau K-l: At that time, Chang Cheh had two fight choreographers: Tang Chia and me. Tang Chia didn't want to go to Taiwan, so Chang Cheh came to see me, asking me to give him a hand. He told me, "Without you, I won't be able to go through with it." He asked me what to do to rescue martial arts movies. I answered: fight scenes must be truer, like those in Bruce Lee movies. "But how?" he answered back. I told him that we must portray heroes who really existed and revive the kung fu the way they practiced it.

    Cahiers: Chang Cheh is from Shanghai?

    Lau K-l: Yes, he's not Cantonese, and he's unacquainted with things from there. Chang Cheh asked me what kind of stories would be most suitable to be put on screen. I suggested he use the Shaolin temple stories. His first reaction was to say: "Actors like David Chiang and Ti Lung will never agree to shave their heads."

    [The main Chang Cheh-related section of the interview ends here]

    Cahiers: What do you think of Bruce Lee's kung fu?

    Lau K-l: When we were kids, we knew each other very well. Bruce Lee was passionate about kung fu. It was his life. His contribution was recognized by those of us who were doing kung fu. He introduced it to the whole wide world. But he was missing something; That was the "Wude" (martial arts philosophy) and the "Xiu yang" (self-control). He only knew how to fight. He hit to hurt, for the pleasure of the strikes. He was too much a Westerner. The traditional Chinese courtesy was alien to him. When you watch his movies, the violence and the power of his blows can't be missed. For us, the principle is Dian dao ji zhi (to stop when we hit the opponent, to know how to retrain yourself and slow down the strike at the very moment of the hit). Someone is really strong in kung fu only if he's able to do that. Bruce Lee was limited in his knowledge of martial arts: his kicks and his boxing -- that was it. Likewise, his "zhaoshu" (gestures) were also quite limited.

    Cahiers: Bruce Lee's kung fu was a blending of many techniques.

    Lau K-l: Yes. There were elements derived from Aikido, Tae Kwon Do, Karate, Western boxing -- all that, with a little of Chinese kung fu. But Bruce Lee was very smart. He applied himself diligently, and when he practiced kung fu, he gave it his all. He was a superb actor. He began to do movies very young.

    Cahiers: In the movies you made about Shaolin, you strongly stress the description of the master/student relationship.

    Lau K-l: Yes, in China we hold on dearly to politeness, to "Lijiao" (Confucian ethics). Between the master and his disciples and between senior and junior, the distinction is very clear and sharp. As master, we must remain respectable, and as disciple we must respect the master. Chang Cheh is a non-Cantonese. That's why he was never able to show the link between master and disciples well in his kung fu movies. He could write a script, but he didn't understand kung fu very well. Besides, at the time when I departed from Chang Cheh, kung fu movies began to tire themselves out.
    When I returned to Shaws, I intended to terminate my contract with them. Because, despite our best efforts -- as much in the filmmaking as in the fights -- our movies didn't sell. I told Mona Fong (Shaw's executive president) that I didn't want to do movies for Shaws anymore and that from now on I would dedicate myself to the teaching of kung fu in the USA. Mona Fong, who didn't want to let me go, proposed instead that I direct myself my own movies. She asked me if I felt able to breathe new life into kung fu movies, which weren't drawing much of an audience at the time. The fact is that kung fu is basically not very varied, with always the same gestures and moves. An audience gets tired of it very fast. I accepted the proposal, telling myself that I would try to completely change the style of fights. To me, an action movie must have funny parts. Until then, kung fu movies always ended with a killing, a big slaughter. I said that I won't do that. In my opinion, it is not necessary to destroy the villain to make the audience happy. A dyed-in-the-wool scoundrel who repented and found the righteous way could be just as good. I then promised Mona Fong to make a movie: SPIRITUAL BOXER. It's a "kung fu comedy": the movie was a great box office success, and from then on, many filmmakers followed that path. Jackie Chan, to begin with.

    Cahiers: We have seen and loved EXECUTIONER FROM SHAOLIN. The description of the conjugal life was amazing.

    Lau K-l: Yes. The relationship between husband and wife, mother and son. To me, it was like telling the story of my own family. My mother was also doing martial arts, but not of the same school as my father. Every day, she would tell me: "Your father is teaching you badly. I shall teach you!" And she would continue, "Your father's kung fu is obsolete."

    Cahiers: What we see on the screen -- is it your mother's kung fu or your father's?

    Lau K-l: Both. My mother was doing wing chun kung fu, and my father, hung gar. When they were doing pushing hands exercises together, one against the other, it was impossible to separate them.

    Cahiers: You're going to shoot in mainland China with Li Lin-jie [better known now as Jet Li]?

    Lau K-l: That's true. I'm going in China the third of May for the shooting. In fact, there are two movies. The first is called SOUTH AND NORTH SHAOLIN, and the second, THE BURNING OF SHAOLIN TEMPLE. The writers are from the Mainland. But the entire shooting team will be from Hong Kong and they will be working with Chinese actors.

    Cahiers: What do you think of Li Lin-jie?

    Lau K-l: He's still a kid! Very nice. He's beginning to learn how to act but in his very first movie, SHAOLIN TEMPLE, he did absolutely not know how to play comedy. His kung fu can be said to be not bad. When he learned that it was me who would direct, it scared the crap out of him, because he had already seen one of my movies.

    Cahiers: Shooting a movie in Mainland China -- isn't that going to put you in trouble with Taiwan?

    Lau K-l: I'm in trouble with Taiwan already. I can't go there anymore.

    Cahiers: How long will the shooting last?

    Lau K-l: Around 125 days for each movie. Almost five months in all.

    Cahiers: And where are you going to shoot?

    Lau K-l: A little everywhere. Bejing, Zhengzhou, Hengzhou, Guilin, Dun-huang, in Henan province. Horseback scenes will be shot in Mongolia.

    Cahiers: Are you also going to shoot in the authentic Shaolin Temple of Hunan Province?

    Lau K-l: Yes, of course. I've seen it -- the old temple of Shaolin. Nothing special. It's less handsome that I imagined it. Moreover, a great deal of the temple is already in ruins, and we don't see much. There are a lot of pilgrims and tourists and nothing extraordinary to see.

    Cahiers: Your actor/students, like Lau Kar-fai, Wang Yu, Siu Hou -- are they going with you for these two movies?

    Lau K-l: Siu Hou, yes, but not Wang Yu [this "Wang Yu" is Young Wang Yu, not Jimmy Wang Yu] or Lau Kar-fai [aka Liu Chia-hui aka Gordon Liu -- who is Lau Kar Leung's step-brother]. They don't want any trouble with Taiwan. As for me, as a kung fu filmmaker, I consider martial arts from Taiwan or the Mainland to be Chinese martial arts, and everything I do is meant to put value on Chinese martial arts. Taiwan has no reason to be petty with me. It's no betrayal from me, I'm only dedicating myself to promote martial arts from my country. If Taiwan doesn't let me come back, I consider it proof of their narrowmindedness. Cinema is only an art-form, and furthermore, I don't do politics. Many of my movies are in ancient China, with no relationship with present-day events. But, so what? I love movies and I'll do as I please.

    [Interview conducted by Olivier Assayas and Charles Tesson with the collaboration of Elizabeth Cazer and Tony Rayns. Conducted on 26 April 1984. Translated from Mandarin-Cantonese to French by Cai Kejian. Translated further into English by Yves Gendron. Published in Les Cahiers du Cinema No 362-363 Special: Made in Hong Kong in 1984.] [Smoothed out into more colloquial English by Steven Feldman.]

    [PS: In 1995, the same Olivier Assayas who co-conducted this interview directed Maggie Cheung for his movie Irma Vep. And later on married her.]

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