Films at the Gate will open on August 27 with CHINESE GHOST STORY and will wrap four days later with the popular SHAOLIN SOCCER. Hong Kong action choreographer and director Tony Ching Siu-tung had a hand in both of these films, as director and choreographer, respectively. Check out the full schedule of films coming to Films at the Gate next week, and read on to learn more about Ching’s work in a 2004 interview with Films at the Gate Curator Jean Lukitsh:
Jean Lukitsh: How did you get started in filmmaking and what kind of training did you receive?
Ching Siu-tung: I started when I was eight years old at a Peking Opera school in Hong Kong and I was there for seven years. I started working after that, taking juvenile roles or standing in for child actors, and then moved up to martial arts [as a stuntman], assistant directing, then going up to directing.
Mark Pollard: Your father, Ching Gong, was a famous Shaw Brothers director. Could you tell us a little bit about him and what impact he had on your filmmaking?
CST: Because of my father, I grew up on the Shaw Brothers sets and lived in their quarters.
JL: Did you work on any films with him?
CST: I worked on many of his movies, including 14 AMAZONS.
JL: How would you describe the role of “action director,” since it’s a different kind of job in Hong Kong than it is in Hollywood, and different from the choreographer’s job?
CST: A choreographer listens for directions from the director. The director is there telling you to “do this, shoot this.” And you are doing just the action part. Martial arts directors [in contrast] are in control of the action, and sometimes the director is not even actually on the set. Then they have to get involved in plot development. The director will listen to the action director. They are really involved in the story part of the film as well.
JL: How about the editing? Would you be involved with that too?
CST: As action director, I do my own editing. Choreographers sometimes do the editing too.
MP: On your choreography, you do so many different things, it’s always very creative. Where do you get a lot of your ideas, your inspiration?
CST: Any choreographer or action director should have much creativity anyway. It’s in my head. You get to a point where you have your own style, and then the audience will recognize it and look for it.
JL: Do you have a favorite weapon, film element, or actor that you enjoy working with?
CST: No, because I like variety. Even when working with a particular actor or actress, everybody has different styles and brings different things to the table. It’s the same with weapons and such. Variety is important.
JL: How do you go about making non-martial arts actors look like good fighters on screen?
CST: It really doesn’t take a lot of time. Before it wasn’t the case, but now, a lot of the actors have a little bit of training so at least they know how to move and do some basic [action] movements. It doesn’t take much time. The reason is I just know how to adjust the angle, adapt the filmmaking to the actors to make them look good. I always hold the camera myself. I work the camera so I have complete control.
MP: Films of yours like DUEL TO THE DEATH feature strong violence that is a little gory, but also funny and exaggerated. Is this a decision on your part to put some comedy or excessive elements into the fighting to make the violence less dark?
CST: Yes, [the comedy] lightens up the violence but also makes the movie more commercial.
JL: Talking about comedy action sequences, you have a long history of working with Stephen Chow. SHAOLIN SOCCER is one of the most popular martial arts movies of the past few years, and it’s also very funny. Is it more difficult to do comic fighting or straight action?
CST: Action with comedy is the most difficult.
JL: I like how SHAOLIN SOCCER shows both tai chi and Shaolin kung fu, hard and soft styles working together. It’s a funny movie, but it demonstrates some truths about those different styles of Chinese martial arts. Was tai chi a part of the story from the very beginning, or was it brought in later to contrast with the hard style?
CST: From the beginning, tai chi was in the movie. It’s an important part of the movie.
JL: That’s great!
MP: Some of your best films are those you directed, such as A CHINESE GHOST STORY. Do you plan on doing more directing in the future?
CST: I have always been doing both action choreography and directing all the time. I just finished a film in Thailand (BELLY OF THE BEAST). I was working on a project based on a Hong Kong comic book, but unfortunately that is not going on at this time. I will always want to do both.
MP: Most Westerners are unfamiliar with the many martial arts series on Chinese television. Have you done a lot of TV work?
CST: Of course. I just finished two TV series after making HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS. I’ve made about 1,500 TV programs. I have made about 100 movies as an action director and fifteen movies as a director. Since my very first movie, I have also won many awards as director and action director.
JL: The wirework in HERO is beautiful. Approximately how many stunt crew members does it take to make a movie like HERO?
CST: There are about twenty crew members on my stunt team.
JL: And do they step in to do the wirework, or do the actors do it themselves?
CST: It is really mostly the actors doing it themselves.
MP: Did you feel pressure to outdo yourself on HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS?
CST: No pressure, but, of course, every movie should be better than the last one.
Jean and Mark Pollard of kungfucinema.com conducted this interview with Ching in 2004, just prior to the US release of HERO, which would hold the top box office ranking for two weeks despite English subtitling, and shortly after completing HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS. Tony Ching Siu-tung is one of the most versatile filmmakers in the business, having collaborated on hit films with people like Zhang Yimou (HERO, HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS), Stephen Chow (ROYAL TRAMP, SHAOLIN SOCCER), and Donnie Yen (BUTTERFLY AND SWORD, THE EMPRESS AND THE WARRIORS), as well as directing classic martial arts movies like A CHINESE GHOST STORY and the SWORDSMAN trilogy.)
Reprinted with permission from kungfucinema.com. Special thanks goes to Alice Yeung at Edko Films for making this interview possible. Translation was provided by PK Shiu.