Saturday, November 30, 2013

Happy 58th Birthday Gordon Liu!! (Profile)

Happy 58th Birthday Gordon Liu aka Master Killer aka San Te aka Bai Mei!!! 

Check out this profile on everyone's favorite old-school Shaolin Monk!

Gordon Liu Chia Hui
Good Monk, Bad Monk
by Dr. Craig Reid

Gordon Liu Chia Hui (Cantonese Lau Kar Fai) is one of the coolest kung fu stars you will ever meet. Though perhaps the most recognized and popular Shaolin-righteous-monk character from the Old School Shaw Brothers kung-fu films, he doesn't promote himself as such, or flaunt himself in "look at me" fashion design, or try to be the next "Hong Kong star" vying for Hollywood's attention. Instead, he's an unassuming man, simple in nature, sincere in spirit and open in heart.

I met up with Liu in the lobby of the Le Meridian Hotel in Beverly Hills, just a few hours after he had finished a few day's stint, dubbing his Monk Bai Mei character from KILL BILL: VOLUME 2. If you've seen his films, his eyes are intense, his body taut, his posture proud, because he's the hero that will save China (or at least part of it). But in real life, he's dressed in dark blue and gray, sporting a gray woolen hat shaped like his bald head, and he has a gentle smile and soft eyes - clearly a man at peace.

We drive to Monterey Park to meet up with a family member and partake in an afternoon of yum cha (dim sum). I politely mention that I'm not into chicken feet and pig ears. Moments later we're surrounded by every waitress and bus boy at the restaurant. None ask for autographs, but just stare and smile, not in awe, but with familiarity. I ask if he's uncomfortable and would he like to go somewhere else. Liu happily smiles, shakes his head, then laughingly orders chicken feet.

Liu doesn't come across eager to please - or full of himself - like so many other Hong Kong imports. And why? Because he's not opera, he's not flash, he's a real kung-fu man top to bottom, in mind, body and spirit. His life and background as a martial artist is not about entertainment or sport; it's a way of life, the way real martial artists should be: spirited calm, enlightened with humbleness...a dying art.

"I find it sad that most people and kids in Hong Kong nowadays are not interested in practicing martial arts like we used to," Liu laments. "And it's also one of the reasons why the Hong Kong film industry is dying, because nobody wishes to put themselves through the rigorous training like we used to do.

"Actors now rely on special effects, fancy wire techniques and doubles. Actors know they can be kung-fu stars without the hard training, learning and sacrificing, and understanding of philosophy that my generation went through. It seems that everyone has forgotten that practicing martial arts is not about money, or purely training to get into a film. Martial arts and film are two different things. You can be a martial artist and get into film, but in reality, you can't be an actor and get into martial arts. Of course there are always exceptions, but I think you understand my point."

It becomes readily apparent that he has old school opinions when it comes to martial arts and martial arts in cinema, though he presents them in a non-demeaning manner and is quick to note that he's merely sharing his thoughts and opinions (since, after all, I'm asking him to do so) and that his words are not intended to be disrespectful or disparaging to anybody.

"Actually after Jet Li's SHAOLIN TEMPLE, that changed the look of kung fu films, not to be confused with Jackie's films or the wu xia, flying and wire-work films, I mean the kung fu, kung fu films," he points out. "It seems many now think that traditional Shaolin kung fu is about wushu, which is really about sport and flair and not the real Shaolin martial arts. So now even people go to the Shaolin temple wanting to learn Shaolin martial arts. And although some do train very hard, they're not learning authentic Shaolin kung fu.

"You see, when you learn, say, opera, which is for entertainment, or wushu, they both usually lack the learning of the philosophy and spirit of kung fu. So no matter how good your physical abilities can be - and obviously a lot of wushu and opera people are very good technicians of kung-fu technique - they don't all understand the spirit of the martial art and what that stands for. It's opening up oneself, about love and peace. Also, doing kung fu should not be about money or competition. You should be competing with yourself to defeat what you were and become a kung fu man. It's not for entertainment, although obviously martial art film has been able to use it as such. And I am of course guilty of being a part of that."

Gordon is arguably the most well-known Chinese actor to play a Shaolin priest, a role he made famous in the 1978 Liu Chia Liang-directed Shaw Brother film, THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN (released in America as THE MASTER KILLER), where he played the real-life Shaolin hero Monk San Te.

He was born in Canton, China in 1955 as Xian Qi Xi (Cantonese, Sin Gum Hay, which he Anglicizes as Louis Sin). He acquired the name Gordon during his days at English elementary and high schools in Hong Kong during the 1960s. When his family first moved to Hong Kong, they lived for several years near the martial arts school run by the noted Hong Jia stylist Liu Zhan, who traces his martial pedigree back to the kung fu legends Hong Xi Guan and Wong Fei Hung, and who is the father of Hong Kong's acclaimed martial arts film director Liu Chia Liang. At age seven, Gordon became so enamored with Liu Zhan's martial art skills that he often skipped school to train. It's often been written that Gordon is the half brother or adopted brother of Liu Chia Liang. So which is it and what's the truth?

Gordon explains, "When I was a kid, I was really naughty and would really try to avoid going to school. Then when I saw Liu Zhan, I knew kung fu was something I had to learn, and that kung fu would be an important part of my life. So now I had an excuse to skip train in martial arts. Now, my parents didn't want me to practice kung fu; they saw it as something violent. They wanted me to study arty things and they didn't know I was training.

"It was actually Liu shimu ('shimu' is what you call the wife of the 'shifu,' Cantonese 'sifu') that took a real liking to me, saying that I looked so cute with my long hair and backpack. So to clear it up, I'm not an adopted brother or a blood brother. I later on basically became Liu Zhan's godson. He became my godfather, so like with other martial artists and Beijing opera performers, I began using, or adopted, Lui's surname as my stage name. So I'm really the 'God brother' and 'kung-fu brother' of Liu Chia Liang."

When I ask if his parents were mad about that, he stoically replies, "Yes, they were. But I didn't get along with my parents. Yet I respected Liu Sifu so much, and my path was one of the martial arts, it was just a natural step in my path as a martial artist."

This is similar to Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and all of their opera brothers who, as members of the "Seven Little Fortunes," adopted their teacher's name of "Yuen" as a stage name - though later on Jackie and Sammo chose not to keep it.

Ironically, Liu hated the notion of shaving his head and getting into film. "After high school, my brother-in-law was a Chief Police Inspector and was trying to push me into doing the same thing, saying that he could help elevate up to becoming inspector too. So I thought about joining the police force. But what stopped me? There was no way I was going to cut my long flowing hair, no way I would ever be bald."

Between our outbursts of laughter, he explains what finally got him into film. For years he had been declining Liu Chia Liang's invitations to act in the kung-fu films he was working on. Finally Liu pulled senior kung-fu brother rank on him, essentially forcing him to act in movies.

"So I did a bunch of films for director Chang Cheh in Taiwan for a couple of years (SHAOLIN MARTIAL ARTS (1974), FIVE SHAOLIN MASTERS (1974), MARCO POLO (1975). It was during that time that I learned to speak mandarin and then I went back to Hong Kong."

During Gordon's time in Taiwan, Liu Chia Liang made a successful directorial debut in Hong Kong with SPIRITUAL BOXER (1974). After that, Shaw Brothers all but gave him free reign to direct what he wanted. Chia Liang cast Gordon as Wong Fei Hong in CHALLENGE OF THE MASTERS (1976), then as a freedom fighter in EXECUTIONERS OF SHAOLIN (1977), which introduced us to Monk Bai Mei. Which now brings us to KILL BILL: VOLUME 2.

In real life Monk Bai Mei is considered to be a Shaolin traitor for defecting to the Wu Dang martial arts school of thought and helping the Ching government burn down the Jiu Lian Shan Shaolin Temple. Monk Bai Mei was popularized in such Hong Kong films as EXECUTIONERS, ABBOT OF SHAOLIN and CLAN OF THE WHITE LOTUS (1980), where he was played by Lo Lieh. In fact, Gordon was Bai Mei's protagonist in WHITE LOTUS. So Liu has gone from playing one of Chinese history's most stalwart Shaolin monks San Te to now playing one of the temple's darkest monks, Bai Mei. Or has he?

The original plan was to track down and ask Lo Lieh to play Bai Mei; unfortunately, he was extremely sick in the hospital and soon thereafter passed away. Then the film's fight director, Yuen Woo Ping, encouraged Tarantino himself to play the part. Tarantino said he'd do it if Gordon wouldn't.

Gordon recalls, "I understood why Quentin wanted me, even though I've always played righteous heroes. He was looking at me for my martial arts skills, and also I think because of my understanding of this very Chinese character. I know Bai Mei is usually a bad guy, but in this film he's merely a teacher to the Bride, but a strict one at that.

"I have to admit, though, before this film, I didn't know much about Quentin. But my friends in Hong Kong recommended I should watch RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION. I watched them, and was impressed. I also heard he knew a lot about Hong Kong and martial art movies."

And Gordon's thoughts on working with Uma and Yuen Woo Ping? "Yuen sifu's work in CROUCHING TIGER was very beautiful, but it was not real fighting. I knew that Quentin wanted something different, real fighting, and when we put these two approaches together, I knew it would be good. Yuen sifu and I have done lots of movies, so we worked happily together.

"If I fight with one of my brothers or another martial artist, they know what to expect, where to turn and stop. With a non-martial artist I have to make an extra effort or add an extra movement to make sure the routine ends up in the right place. I have to make the other person look their best. I also worry with non-martial artist that if I hit them the wrong way, they will get hurt. For Uma, who is tall, learning the kung fu is hard because her center of gravity is too high. Uma knew that this was not her expertise, but she never gave up. She kept trying. I was impressed by her spirit. Some people in her place would let a bad take go by, saying it's good enough, but she didn't. She would redo it again and again until it was up to her standard."

Gordon closes by happily admitting that he's been married now for over 20 years. At age 50 he still practices kung fu every day, stating, "Because once you start, it's not something you stop at some point in life. You keep at it. It's a life-time commitment. It just seems that many who do kung fu films, when they retire from acting - in other words, using martial arts for film only - then they stop doing martial arts. Is that the way of a real kung fu man? You probably know my answer."

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Please check out the full movie of "Shaolin and Wu Tang" I posted in honor of his birthday which starred and was directed by Gordon!

Also, check out another full movie of Gordon's I posted with my review:



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