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Films at the Gate: Red Fists, the Man Behind SHAOLIN TEMPLE

Films at the Gate starts is almost here! Check out the 2012 schedule chosen by curator Jean Lukitsh. Here’s another terrific post from Jean about one of her picks SHAOLIN TEMPLE. Thanks Jean!


To say that Cheung Sing-yim (1935- ), the director of Jet Li’s debut film THE SHAOLIN TEMPLE, is relatively unknown is putting it mildly. This is a guy who is not only responsible for Li’s career, but also that of a number of other successful martial arts actors. His proteges include Wu Jing (Donnie Yen’s opponent in the legendary alley fight in SHA PO LANG, aka KILL ZONE, 2005) and Yu Chenghui, who can currently be seen in the arthouse hit THE SWORD IDENTITY (2011). And we don’t even really know his name. He’s also been credited in English as Chang Hsin Yen, Cheung Yam-yin, and Zhang Yinyan. (In Chinese, his name is 张鑫炎).

Cheung began his film career as an editor in Hong Kong in the 1950s. He worked on low budget Cantonese opera and martial arts films from 1952 to 1957. The Wong Fei-hung series, which was based on the life of a southern Chinese kung fu master, was very popular at that time, and Cheung edited at least a half dozen of those films, including HOW WONG FEI-HUNG FOUGHT FIVE DRAGONS SINGLE-HANDEDLY and WONG FEI-HUNG WINS THE DRAGON BOAT RACE (both 1956). In 1958, he went to work for The Great Wall Movie Enterprises Ltd, the premiere left wing studio in Hong Kong.

Cheung & Li on a SHAOLIN TEMPLE set

The political turmoil that rocked China after World War II was felt in Hong Kong too. Refugees from Shanghai, China’s pre-war Hollywood, had flocked to the British colony. Some of those filmmakers were staunch socialists, and the studios they founded reflected their views. Of course, their films had to compete in the marketplace too. In China, the Communists banned kung fu and gangster films. In Hong Kong, the leftist studios could bend the rules a little. The first film Cheung Sing-yim edited for Great Wall was a gangster flick, THE GREEN SWAN NIGHTCLUB (1958), that starred Hsia Moon, the “Crown Princess” of the studio. In 1961, Cheung is credited as assistant director on the Great Wall production THE LADY RACKETEER. As action films became more important to the studio’s bottom line, Cheung’s expertise in assembling fight scenes was in high demand. In 1966, he directed THE JADE BOW, a classic swordplay story, for Great Wall. To handle the action choreography, he brought in Lau Kar-leung and Tong Kai, who would go on to create some of the best kung fu movies of the 1970s at the Shaw Brothers studio. Cheung obviously has always had an eye for good kung fu.

Cheung Sing-yim continued to direct both dramas and the occasional action film for the Great Wall studio, and he may have never been more than a footnote in the history of Hong Kong cinema had fortune not smiled on him in the early 1980s. A consortium of left wing studios, including Great Wall, approached the Chinese government with a bold proposal – to film a kung fu movie at the real Shaolin Temple, the “birthplace of kung fu.” Cheung was tapped to helm the project, and when investors demanded “real kung fu” in keeping with the authenticity of the site, he cast the film with tournament champions and coaches from the national Chinese martial arts teams. The gamble paid off, as THE SHAOLIN TEMPLE (1982) was an international success. Cheung also directed the 1984 SHAOLIN TEMPLE sequel and a Chinese swordplay cult classic called YELLOW RIVER FIGHTER (1988), starring Yu Chenghui. In 1996, he co-directed TAI CHI II with the legendary kung fu director Yuen Woo-ping. This was the film that introduced Wu Jing to the screen. He has been active as a producer in both film and TV projects in Hong Kong and China in recent years, specializing in martial arts projects. -Jean Lukitsh

Selected filmography:
1956 HOW WONG FEI-HUNG FOUGHT FIVE DRAGONS SINGLE-HANDEDLY, editor
1961 THE LADY RACKETEER, assistant director
1966 THE JADE BOW, co-director (with Fu Chi)
1971 THE PATRIOTIC KNIGHTS, director
1980 WHITE HAIRED DEVIL LADY, director and screenwriter
1982 THE SHAOLIN TEMPLE, director
1984 KIDS FROM SHAOLIN, director
1988 YELLOW RIVER FIGHTER, director
1991 RED FISTS, producer
1996 TAI CHI II, co-director (with Yuen Woo-ping)
2005 SEVEN SWORDSMEN (TV series), producer