Chang Cheh: Death and Glory

Chang Chen was the defining director of his era, establishing many conventions of the wuxia and kungfu genres, and launching many careers.
Sean Gilman

Vengeance Is His: Chang Cheh’s Martial Lore runs May 23 - 29, 2018 at the Quad Cinema in New York.

As if the riches of the New York repertory scene weren’t embarrassing enough already, on Wednesday, May 23 the city’s second massive retrospective of a director with the surname Chang in less than a week opens, with the Quad Cinema’s 14-film exploration of the career of martial arts director Chang Cheh.1 An extraordinarily prolific director, credited with 76 films during his 1967-1982 heyday at the Shaw Brothers studio, Chang was the defining director of the era, establishing many of the dominant modes of the wuxia and kung fu genres, as well as launching the careers of dozens of stars, choreographers and directors. The Quad series is but a small sample, yet nonetheless a fine cross-section of his work, touching on all the various phases of his career: his early wuxias, his Republican-era films which helped define the Heroic Bloodshed genre ultimately made world-famous by his protégé John Woo, his historical epics and literary adaptations, and finally his gothic late films. Through it all runs a current of blood and destruction unrivaled in the career of any great director, stories of men (always men) driven to ever more elaborate ways of killing their fellow men and, just as often, themselves, in sacrifice to higher ideals of duty, loyalty, honor, and friendship. There’s little sex and less humor in the cinema of Chang Cheh; what respite there is from his worlds of overwhelming violence is brief and poignant, knowing glances between souls who know all too well their doom, and are determined to meet it head-on and die standing up.

Chang Cheh was the son of a military advisor in Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang. During the war against the Japanese, he was educated in the interior of China, and after the war found himself in Shanghai working in the government propaganda department. When the Nationalists lost the post-war civil war, Chang fled with the rest of the KMT to Taiwan, where he dabbled in both politics and film directing. Ultimately he made his way to Hong Kong, where he worked as a critic and screenwriter for awhile, first at the MP&GI studio and then Shaw Brothers, where he made his first foray into the action genre with an ultra-low budget experimental film, for which he did his own choreography, called Tiger Boy in 1966. That film is now believed to be lost, but it, alongside the success of King Hu’s Come Drink with Me and the previous year’s Temple of the Red Lotus, convinced the Shaws to move into full-time production on martial arts movies. This suited Chang very well, as he was not fond of the kinds of female-driven melodramas and musicals that had been the studio’s specialty since the late 1950s (his first film for Shaws, 1965’s The Butterfly Chalice, was just such a huangmei musical). Chang wanted to reassert the muscular masculinity of the Chinese hero, and set about doing just that with a series of films built around star Jimmy Wang Yu. The Quad series kicks off with their breakthrough hit, 1967’s The One-Armed Swordsman. Wang Yu plays a decent young man who has his arm severed by his master’s daughter in a fit of petulant jealousy. Hideously maimed and left for dead, he is rescued by a peasant girl and decides to live a quiet life in the woods. But when bandits attack, he’s forced into action, learning a new kind of sword-fighting technique and wreaking all kinds of destruction, but reluctantly and always with an eye on the quiet life. Showing off all the resources of sets and costuming and the deep roster of supporting players at the Shaw studio, the film is lushly operatic, with enough Freudian implications to fuel dozens of master’s theses.

The peak of the Chang/Wang Yu collaborations though is 1968’s Golden Swallow. A sequel to Come Drink with Me, with that film’s star, Cheng Pei-pei, reprising her role as the title character. Unfortunately for her, however, Chang Cheh wasn’t the least bit interested in her as an actress or in having a female hero in his movie. In many ways, though they shared a similar background and apprenticeship, Chang and King Hu were polar opposites. You can even see it in the opening credits of Golden Swallow as compared to the opening of Hu films like Legend of the Mountain and A Touch of Zen. All three films open with shots of nature: the Hu films with rivers crashing into rocks and forests teaming with life, insects and birds, everything suffused with motion and light. Golden Swallow begins with rocks: a mountain, a cliff, covered with moss but no water, no living, moving thing to be seen. After a striking prologue, which Chang artfully shoots with large sections of the frame blacked out, revealing only a long strip of action at eye level, or foot level, or in a diagonal slash across the frame, Cheng’s Golden Swallow is hit by a poisoned dart, effectively removing her as the primary action star of the film named after her. Instead, the narrative is driven by Wang Yu, playing Silver Roc, a friend and former fellow student of Swallow’s who has let his desire for revenge on all the wrong-doers of the world (and he has been done wrong) drive him into a kind of murderous rampage, a quest to prove to everyone, and to Golden Swallow in particular, that he’s the greatest killer of them all. His moral opposite is played by Lo Lieh, a rival for Swallow’s affection who while also a great warrior, would rather give people a chance at reforming their evil ways than kill them. It’s a breathtaking swath of destruction Wang Yu carves through the jianghu, the wuxia world outside the normal bounds of society, his all-consuming death drive the endpoint of the gangster logic at the heart of the wuxia system.

Jimmy Wang Yu shortly thereafter left Shaws to try his own hand at directing, and to replace him Chang elevated two actors who had worked as stuntmen and in supporting roles on the earlier films. David Chiang and Ti Lung would prove to be the greatest of Chang’s stars, paired together on something like a dozen films through the early 1970s. They made traditional period wuxias as well as gangster films set in the wild times of 1920s ‘30s Republican China, as well as modern day films. One of the best and most representative of Chang’s ideal of brotherhood is 1970’s Vengeance!, in which Ti Lung is making a living as an actor who is murdered when he refuses to let a local kung fu master/gangster fool around with his wife. (Chang intercuts his glorious death with scenes of him performing Chinese Opera, making literal the formal connection between traditional performance and movie martial arts.) Chiang plays his brother, who shows up in town to exact revenge. The Duel similarly finds Chiang out for vengeance, but this time he is only temporarily aligned with Ti Lung. Having been tricked by gangsters into murdering Ti’s godfather, Chiang’s hero (referred to throughout as “Jiang Nan, The Rambler”) helps Ti get his revenge on them, though the code of honor they share demands that they will ultimately have to oppose each other in the titular duel. It’s basically a "Gunfight at the OK Corral" story, except one where Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday square off for a showdown after the dust settles on the Clantons. 

Chiang and Ti also star together in The Heroic Ones, the first example of the next great phase of Chang’s career. Based on real events from the late Tang Dynasty, they play two of the thirteen sons (mostly adopted) of a general from the North who is enlisted to help rescue the Emperor, who has been besieged by bandit rebels. They succeed, but jealousies between the brothers and manipulation at the hands of scheming and therefore decidedly unmanly officials, lead to many deaths, including two of the best of Chang’s career: one transcendently heroic, the other ghastly. The latter would also be incredibly stupid if it wasn’t also so damned tragically honorable. The Water Margin, based on five chapters from the middle of one of China’s Four Great Classical Novels,2 features an even bigger cast and even more duplicity and manipulation, but ultimately boils down to a fairly simple men on a mission plot: a gang of righteous bandits try to enlist the help of a local martial arts master. But though he turns them down, he is betrayed by his wife’s lover to the local authorities who have him arrested. The bandits try various schemes to rescue him, ultimately leading to a massive battle on the outskirts of town, with creatively named good guys taking on an array of much less interesting foes. David Chiang leads the cast, though pretty much every character actor in Hong Kong plays a least a bit part. Much more difficult to follow is 1977’s The Brave Archer, an adaptation of 20th Century author Jin Yong’s novel Legend of the Condor Heroes. The film, with Alexander Fu Sheng playing the dim-witted scion of Song Dynasty warriors caught in the war between various colorful factions of the jianghu, becomes even more confusing when you realize it’s based on the same source as Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time—trying to match Wong’s lovelorn heroes to Chang’s comic book villains is a fascinating, if ultimately fruitless exercise. Chang directed four Brave Archer films, and they’re among the most purely fun films he ever made, if only for the brightness of the studio settings, the weirdness of their plotting and approach to exposition, and the callow dopiness of Fu Sheng. 

1976’s Shaolin Temple tells of how the famous monastery was infiltrated and burnt by agents of the Qing Dynasty. The film begins with the monks admitting their first outsiders to learn the secrets of their martial arts, including the young Fong Sai-yuk, played by Alexander Fu Sheng. They eventually admit a dozen or so young men, along with some refugees from the Ming resistance against the now-ruling Manchurians, led by Ti Lung and David Chiang. As in most versions of the Temple story, the Shaolin are betrayed from within by a rogue priest, though in this version it is not Pai Mai, the White Eye-Browed Monk, but another fellow altogether, although we all know that Wang Lung-wei, the greatest of all Shaw Brothers bad guys, must be involved somehow. Shaolin Temple in many ways anticipates Lau Kar-leung’s 1978 The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, both thematically (in the insistence that those who can fight must engage with the outside world in the name of righteousness) but also in its depiction of the pedagogy of the Temple, where the monks engage in decidedly non-martial tasks in order to learn essential fighting skills. Shaolin Temple is also the peak of Chang’s particularly fruitful Shaolin period, where Heroes Two, Shaolin Martial Arts, The Men from the Monastery, Five Shaolin Masters, Disciples of Shaolin, The Shaolin Avengers, The New Shaolin Boxers were released between 1974 and 1976. Heroes Two, made at the beginning of the cycle, starts where Shaolin Temple ends: the burning of the Temple. It’s two heroes, Fong Sai-yuk (Fu Sheng) and Hong Hsi-kuan (Chen Kuan-tai) escape and make their way out of danger, only for the foolish Fong to accidentally betray his brother to the Manchus. He spends the rest of the movie trying to rescue him. Fong Sai-yuk is a popular folk hero, probably better known in his incarnation by Jet Li in a pair of early 90s films directed by Corey Yuen (The Legend of Fong Sai-yuk I & II). Hong Hsi-kuan is less well-known, but he is ultimately regarded as the founder of the Hung Gar fighting style, the style of the real-life Wong Fei-hung and also that of choreographer and director Lau Kar-leung. Lau was essential to the early Chang Cheh films, especially as he moved away from swordplay wuxia and toward kung fu filmmaking with the Shaolin movies. Lau, along with Tong Kai, a student of Yuen Woo-ping’s father Yuen Siu-tien, choreographed many of Chang’s greatest films, bringing both an authenticity and heretofore unseen acrobatic athleticism to the fight scenes. Many of the themes and styles of this period Lau would explore when he began directing films in his own right in the late 70s, but already his influence can be felt, even in the opening titles, which, as in Heroes Two, become opportunities for the actors to show off the various techniques they’ll be using in the film to come. 

The final phase of Chang’s career begins with 1978’s The Five Deadly Venoms. With David Chiang and Ti Lung getting older, and Fu Sheng making Brave Archer films, Chang formed a new group of highly acrobatic stunt performers and choreographers that became known as The Venom Mob. In this first film they play the eponymous villains, and while when they get to show their stuff in the end, the lead-up to it is a mostly tedious kind of detective story, with the primary interest coming from the mechanics of each of their distinctive fighting styles (Centipede, Snake, Toad, Lizard and Scorpion). Much better is the same year’s follow-up Crippled Avengers (also known as Return of the Five Deadly Venoms, to capitalize on the first film’s popularity, though it is unrelated). Featuring some of the best fights of Chang’s career, and certainly his best non-Lau Kar-leung fights, it’s about a trio of regular guys, and one kung fu master, who are viscously maimed by a local tough guy and his son (his son was similarly maimed by another, even more vicious villain). Fashioning prosthetics and learning new skills, they learn to used their infirmities (severed legs, blindness, deafness, lunacy) as weapons in their quest for revenge. Of the Mob, Philip Kwok (as the blind one) and Chiang Sheng (as the crazy one) in particular standout, their training sequence/ring dance is as beautiful and joyous a sequence as one is likely to ever find in Chang Cheh’s bleak worlds. 

Those worlds get even bleaker in Chang’s early 80s films. Masked Avengers is driven by the quest to defeat a demonic cult of bad guys who wear masks and have a fondness for crucifying heroes in ingenious ways. In this and the films that follow it in the Quad’s series, House of Traps and Five Element Ninjas, Chang becomes increasingly disinterested in people in favor of technology, elaborate martial devices and traps loom in gothic dungeons, sets that wouldn’t look out of place in a Roger Corman Poe adaptation or a Hammer horror film. Still starring the Venoms, the lack of star power among them exacerbated by plots that call for anonymous, collective heroes. Where in earlier films the charm of a David Chiang or the moody obsessions of Wang Yu could give a human face to the impersonal codes and forces of history that drive Chang’s plots, by the late 80s his heroes have become nothing but meat for the machines of evil to grind to a bloody pulp, their opposition to these forces equally impersonal, their battles not so much for love of anything, as an expression of the human will to oppose evil, feats of struggle and endurance. The fights themselves become increasingly long and monotonous, a struggle for the audience almost as much as the actors. They can be grueling, nihilistic affairs, as shocking as anything that the Hong Kong New Wave, with incendiary films like Dangerous Encounters-First Kind (Tsui Hark, 1980) or The Happenings (Yim Ho, 1980), was producing at the same time, albeit hidden in a stately, theatrical approach to acting, on studio sets and with all the colors and costumes of the Shaws studio behind them. In many ways, these late works are some of the most fascinating and revealing of Chang’s career, the purest expression of his vision of a world haunted by death in all its meaningless misery and honorable glory.



1. I previewed the Metrograph’s fifteen film Sylvia Chang series for the Notebook last week.

2. Which along with The Water Margin (a.k.a. Outlaws of the Marsh), include Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West and The Dream of the Red Chamber (a.k.a. The Story of the Stone).

Don't miss our latest features and interviews.

Sign up for the Notebook Weekly Edit newsletter.


Chang ChehLong Reads
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.