[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF coverage, head over here. For Japan Cuts, here.]
Chung Chang-Wha (also Jeong Chang-Hwa) is best known for his film Five Fingers of Death (aka King Boxer), one of the iconic Shaw Brothers movies that helped bring kung-fu films to the west. Rather that stressing weightlessness and flight, it brought strength and weight to its action. It’s a classic martial arts movie, and you’ve at the very least heard its music cue in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. (Tarantino routinely ranks Five Fingers of Death as one of his favorite movies of all time.)
Yet Chung Chang-Wha also had a rich career in Korean film before working for Shaw Brothers studios in the 1970s. While many of his early works are lost or missing, Chung Chang-Wha crafted memorable action films in his native country. In fact, it was his Korean spy film, Special Agent X-7, that brought him to the attention of Shaw Brothers Studios.
I had a great chance to sit down with Chung Chang-Wha last weekend prior to the screening of The Swift Knight. He was so kind and dapper. It was a bit like chatting with an older relative. With an interpreter, we briskly touched on his thoughts about tempo and rhythm in filmmaking, Korean film of the past and present, wuxia films of the 1970s, and why he suddenly feels like making a movie in New York City.
How was yesterday’s screening of Five Fingers of Death? [Editor’s note: At the screening, Chung Chang-Wha was given a Star Asia Lifetime Achievement Award.]
It was so touching, because in France the audience reaction was really good, but here, in NYC– New York is a very international city, very big and metropolitan, so it was so touching that the audience was so passionate and asked questions.
What was the Korean film industry like in the 1950s and 1960s when you started making films?
It was a real difficult time because the whole production system was very poor, and we didn’t have that many studios there. Also, investments were really poor, so only the directors had all the responsibilities and capabilities for making films.
Before you went to Hong Kong, what Korean films that you made were you especially proud of?
I love my film Sunny Field, which there are no original prints of now, which is very sad and tragic. But actually it was my first action film and it became a turning point in my career. It’s a very significant film for me.
I was actually wondering if any of those early films are available. I know there’s the Korean Film Archive. Have they made any attempts to locate, restore, or preserve those movies?
They recently found the film Dolmuji in Taiwan — by “they” I mean the Korean Film Archive, they found it. They’re trying to recover it, but it’s so damaged, so it’s not really 100% recovered.[Editor’s note: During the Q & A for The Swift Knight, Chung Chang-Wha received a similar question about his pre-Shaw Brothers films. After a wry smile and laugh, he mentioned that it always sort of hurts to get those questions. (Sorry!) Roughly 70% of his pre-Hong Kong films are missing, damaged, or lost. In the past, rather than sending duplicate prints of Korean films to other countries, original prints were sent. If anything, it means that these lost films could still be out there, though it’s anyone’s guess where they are.]
I read somewhere that you trained in music. Did that inform you as a director?
It really important! [laughs]
My experiences with my music education affected my understanding of tempo and rhythm. I think the cinema is all about tempos and rhythms as an art form. It helps me think off how to control films, like what should be slow and what should be fast and what should be strong.
Do you find that different genres have different rhythms? Like is there an action rhythm, a melodrama rhythm, a comedy rhythm?
Could you discuss what you feel those rhythms are?[laughs] That’s a real tricky question. [a beat] I guess first of all, I’m proud to have made action films in Korea when I did because at that time, in the late 1950s and 1960s, everyone else was making literature films and home dramas, which are both kind of slow. I think those genres, though, are less a matter of tempos since they’re more about storytelling. So at that time, Korean audiences were going to Hollywood movies for that reason — [the literature films and home dramas] were so slow. That’s why I’m proud to have been part of that first generation of action films from Korea. What I don’t like about home dramas is that the dialogue is the really important part of the genre while I personally think that the movies should be more about the mise en scene. It’s contrary to my views, so I don’t care for that genre. In addition to that, in Korean home dramas — not like French films — the dialogue lacks it own aesthetics, so they just make the dialogue into whole conversations. That’s another reason why I think Korean audiences didn’t care for those home drama films.
Actually, you know, I was also wondering if you’ve ever composed music or written your own music.
No, I haven’t composed any music for my movies, but since I have the musical background I discussed the music selections with the music directors, and I think that’s what helps make my films really outstanding.
Were you the first person to use trampolines and powder in an action movie?
Yes, I was the first one to start using those techniques. When I started filming Five Fingers of Death in Hong Kong, I felt like I needed to make a distinction between that film and the films being made by Cantonese directors. And Five Fingers of Death is all about power moves, so I needed to think of a way to exaggerate the power and energy in the film.
What did you feel about the Cantonese action movies before Five Fingers of Death?
Before I started making Five Fingers of Death, wuxia films were the main focus of Hong Kong films. But I felt that there were too many wuxia films at the time, so the audience might get tired of watching these kinds of movies. So I wanted to set the time period somewhere between the wuxia movies and a more modern time in China. It was another way to make a distinct mark from other films and filmmakers of the time.
There’s a screening of The Swift Knight at NYAFF as well. How do you feel about The Swift Knight?
I wrote the story of The Swift Knight because I wanted to make something new in wuxia films. I wanted to bring some uplifting bits into the films, and actually there are two police officers in the movie. They’re there for comic relief at certain points so that the audience can feel comfortable watching these movies.
How do you feel about contemporary Korean cinema, especially since it’s been exploding so much over the years?
I know that so many of the recent movies are so advanced in terms of technology, technique, and every aspect, and I also know that young directors are trying really hard these days, but one thing I don’t like about recent movies in Korea is that there’s too much violence. Sometimes it’s all about just violence. I’d like to see some more humanism and humanity and emotions in there. That’s my only wish.
Are there any filmmakers in Korea today who are meeting your wishes?
Of course there a lot of really great young directors these days, but I especially like Bong Joon-Ho’s style.
Have you thought about getting behind the camera again?
Of course! [laughs]
[laughs] Are you developing anything or is there a dream project you’d like to work on?
After coming to New York City and observing people living here, it seems like I could make some more human dramas here because of how diverse people are, and people live in their own diverse ways. I think that’s real interesting, and I just got that idea as I came here.
Have you jotted anything down yet or are you just in the process of observing and accumulating?
I was always thinking of the underlying human dramas all the time, but since New York City is so diverse, I think that it would be really good to draw out the stories.
Do you have a favorite scene you’ve shot or even a favorite film that you’ve made?
You know, actually I think Five Fingers of Death and The Swift Knight are my best and favorite films.
What do you think makes those two movies your favorite?
What I like about those two films is that the storytelling is pretty unique, I think, and it’s also kind of mysterious as I say that. Another thing I like about those two films is that they are kind of contrary. Five Fingers of Death represents a lot of power and energy while The Swift Knight is all about narrative, and I really liked the narrative in that film. But still, I still find some flaws as I rewatch those films, so I still feel like I could do better if I were to make those films nowadays.