NYAFF 2012 Interview: Action Trailblazer Chung Chang-wha

Ben Umstead, East Coast Editor
For those not knee deep in action and martial arts cinema, the name Chung Chang-wha may not ring a bell, but some of the Korean director's films (working in Hong Kong at Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest) will most certainly cause some kind of mind-clang. Chung brought kung fu to the international stage with the likes of King Boxer (Five Fingers of Death), The Skyhawk, and Broken Oath. Though he hasn't had an active role in cinema for decades, his contributions have clearly been great -- Five Fingers' influence and popularity alone is worthy of this statement. And this isn't only to action cinema, but to Korean cinema of the 50s/60s. For these reasons and plenty more, this past week at the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival, Chung was on honored with the Star Asia Lifetime Achievement Award. Our correspondent, The Lady Miz Diva, sat down to chat about his long and varied career in the film industry. This interview is being cross-published on Diva's own website The Diva Review.  

The Lady Miz Diva:  What was it like for you to be here in New York and see a sold-out house for Five Fingers of Death, a film you made 40 years ago?
 
Chung Chang-wha:  At the time when I first started making films, my wish was to make films that will last forever.  So last night I felt like, 'Wow this is really New York, and New Yorkers are so passionate about films.'  I was so touched by New Yorkers' passion to welcome my film.
 
LMD:  How did it feel to accept the Star Asia Lifetime Achievement Award?
 
CC-w:  I have chased my dreams for my whole life and the results came to me in the form of the award last night.  I was so happy and touched to receive it.
 
LMD:  In America, a very famous child star called Tatum O'Neal was the youngest Best Actress Oscar winner in 1974, when she was ten years old.  Around that time, the press asked her what her favourite movie was and she said, "Five Fingers of Death."  Did you have any idea in Asia the popularity of that film overseas?
 
CC-w:  When I was in Hong Kong, I knew that story about Ryan O'Neal's daughter.  At the time, I felt like it's so good to be a director.  I'd been through a lot of hard work and a lot of people liked it.
 
LMD:  I hadn't seen the film for a long time but watching it at the festival I was surprised at how well the fights held up.  In fact, there seems to be a return to audiences wanting to see more real martial arts fighting with minimal CGI.  Can you talk about the fight choreography?
 
CC-w:  When I started planning this film as a foreign director -- because I was not a Cantonese director -- I was able to capture the unique sense and mysteriousness of those martial arts, so I could demonstrate the powerfulness and realness in martial arts action.
 
LMD:  You started making films in the 1950's and you made all different sorts of films; comedies, dramas, romances.  What drew you to action?  What did you feel you could add to that genre?
 
CC-w:  At that time in Korea, we directors were focused more on home dramas and melodramas; those two dramas are the mainstream in Korea.  But, actually, the audiences were so sick and tired of tearjerking movies, and then at the time in Hollywood, really fast action films were coming to Korea.  Audiences in Korea were fascinated with those Hollywood films.  Then I watched Shane by George Stevens, and I felt that he was really a great director.  In Shane, the montage and action was so speedy, even if it wasn't really a spectacle movie or if it was low budget, still it was really well made.  I saw the future of Korean films in that film; that I could make really well-made films with a low budget but really speedy.  So I wanted to benchmark that style, not copy it.  At that time in Korea, there was no such concept as action films and I felt that I should front that genre.
 
LMD:  What exactly brought you from Korea to Hong Kong?
 
CC-w:  At the time, I was shooting the film, Forever.  It was a collaboration of Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong films.  I was shooting scenes on a Hong Kong street and using spycams.  Of course, I got permission from the government, but the pedestrians weren't aware of what was happening; it brought a lot of reality to the film with the pedestrians' reactions.  And then Run Run Shaw {President of Shaw Brothers Studio} happened to watch the film.  Run Run Shaw said, "All our directors at Shaw Brothers spend a huge amount of money on sets and studios and you are using real streets and saving money.  I need you."
 
LMD:  When you moved from Shaw Brothers to Golden Harvest, the two biggest Hong Kong studios in their time, did you sense any change in your filmmaking?  Did you have more freedom or take a different approach to how you created your films?
 
CC-w:  The difference was that Shaw Brothers was already well-built as a company, so the directors can shoot whatever they want with all the resources they had.  But with Golden Harvest, because it was a new company, there were smaller budgets, and so I would have more location shooting.
 
LMD:  I think all your fans would like to know why you stopped making films in the seventies?
 
CC-w:  When I was working in Hong Kong, after my success, the President of South Korea, Park Chung-hee, called me to come back to Korea to help the Korean film industry develop and flourish.  So, I was really welcomed at the time and got a lot of support.  So I started my own productions with a lot of other colleagues and directors, but after a year and a half, the president who invited me was murdered.  Then after Park Chung-hee was murdered, the next person, Chun Doo-hwan, became the President, but actually it was just part of the coup d'état.  So, he started suppressing and limiting my film work.  Actually, I made twenty-nine films, but the government didn't give me more chances to film.
 
At the time, the whole film environment was really horrible in Korea because of the President, Chun Doo-hwan.  It affected my actual health, I couldn't really see.  At that time, my wife suggested we move to the US.
 
LMD:  Are there any filmmakers or action stars you admire in movies today who might convince you that there's maybe one more film to make?
 
CC-w:  As a matter of fact, a couple of years ago, I got a proposal from Hong Kong.  They actually sent me the book, but after I read it, the story was just the same old story.  I felt like doing this story would ruin my career, so I rejected it.
 
LMD:  What do you think makes a great action film?
 
CC-w:  First of all, the most important element in an action film is, ironically, the storytelling; because all the action films should contain four human emotions, which are joy, anger, happiness and sadness.  But many action films forget that, that's why I think that storytelling is very important.  On top of that, I think newness should be very important.
 
LMD:  Lastly, for my own edification, how did you achieve the famous glowing hands effect on Lo Lieh during Five Fingers of Death?
 
CC-w:  Actually, I used red lights in front of his palms.  Now that I know about CGI, it could've been better, but it was the best at the time.
 
~ The Lady Miz Diva
July 1st, 2012
Around the Internet:
  • Hanajun

    Good interview indeed.

    When he mentioned the part about the President inviting him then getting assassinated, I thought, "Where have I seen this before?" Then I remembered, The President's Last Bang. Such crazy times.

  • pozyczkanadowod

    nice

  • Cuttermaran

    Good interview. Thank you.

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