Joined: 23 Jul 2001
|Posted: Sat Dec 29, 2001 2:49 pm Post subject:
"Here's an extensive, exhaustive interview conducted with the old-master by the high brow french movie magazine LES CAHIERS DU CINEMA covering everything from the old WONG FEI-HUNG serial to Lau kar Leung and Jet Lee doing a movie together in the mid-eighties. It's actually a sixteen years old piece, (1984) old then but still pertinent, informative and highly enjoyable.
Well contrary to some rumors, he is not death. In a newspaper interview conducted last December he says he's beaten the cancer that afflicted him. He's retired from the movie now and stay at home taking care of his two young daughters while his thirty years his junior wife, is busy studying law either in a english university.
Here it goes.
Interview with Lau Kar-leung:The Last Shaolin.
Cahiers: You were born in a family whose living was in traditional martial arts. Your father was a great kung fu master himself. Was it inevitable that your life would be dedicated to martial arts or were there any others choices?
Lau Kar-leung: I began to learn martial arts at seven. My father was then a martial art master in Canton where I was born myself. Later, we came to live in Hong Kong. My father was not especially.... shall we say a cultured man, apart from his knowledge in martial art. Once in Hong Kong, he hadn't any other possibility than to go on again with the teaching of kung fu. I was learning with my father, without ever dreaming at that time to do movies. I thought later I would be teaching kung fu alongside him. Quite by accident many of my father's friends, who were Cantonese opera singers, proposed him to do movies. I rather like movies, but I didn't know how it was like making them. Let on by curiosity I participated in the shooting of one. One day, two days, it was fun but I was annoyed too because of the long wait between the takes. When my father ask me if I wanted to do movies, I told him: no ,too boring. I was impatient and wanted to do something else.
Cahiers: How old were you when you did your first movie? Which one was it ?
Lau K-l:Fifteen. Oh that's so old. What movie? With this actor who was still a child at that time. He's still alive. What was his name again? Yu Jie (Yu Tai in Cantonese, Yu Jia in mandarin), Give me a piece of paper I write you down his name.
Cahiers: And the director.
Lau K-l: Ku Long Zhong, No, Ku Wen Zhong. I don't know how to write down his name. He died such a long time ago. At that time, there was a most peculiar practice in the studios. Us the actors and the bit parts of the "martial" category to which I belonged, we weren't paid if we weren't called that day. We would be receiving a call, we came on the set and we waited.
Cahiers:When did you began to receive more important parts? In the mandarin speaking cinema?
Lau K-l:No, in the WONG FEI HUNG serial.
Cahiers:At the time, to play in a kung fu movie, was it necessary to know about it or were there at the movie studios some sort of school?
Lau-K: No there wasn't any kung fu school for actors such as the one the Shaw built later. At that time, those who were doing fighting scenes in the movies belong to what was called the "Wu Heng" (discipline of the "martial"), like those who make somersaults at opera and who are not necessarily kung fu adepts like us.
Cahiers:: Did kung fu masters disapproved of their colleagues, who first agreed to do movies ?
Lau K-l:No, there wasn't any reprobation from them. The only problem, was that movies at that time were not quite made for kung fu peoples like us. In those movies, the fights were quite bogus; there was no contact!. While for us, who were doing real kung fu, we had to hit a opponent and fast! The main actors could hardly withstand our blows. Once I was called for a week but by the end of the first day, the actors didn't wanted me anymore, they were too scared of me.
The actress Yu Su Qiu for example, never gave one single true punch in any of her movies. In the movie world, they said Guoshu but not Gongfu (kung fu). It was only with the WONG FEI HUNG serial that true kung fu appeared first on screen. Martial art masters had told themselves; why not show in the movies true kung fu, like we're doing it? Thus, several kung fu schools associated one another, each doing it's part in the budget to produce the WONG FEI HUNG serial. All the main parts were given to kung fu adepts, no amateurs. After the beginning of this series, directors didn't want any artists who didn't know about martial arts.
Cahiers: It's southern kung fu which we see in WONG FEI HUNG?
Lau K-l: Yes southern. Wong Fei Hung, who was the patriarch of the school I belong to, was himself a southerner. Many schools have been founded by his disciples of the third generation: my father and his fellow-students for example. I was too young to be taught by those old masters like Lu Acai, Lam Sai Wing, Wong Fei Hung.
Cahiers:: At the time of the WONG FEI HUNG serial, the audience were dismissing the Cantonese movies and favored instead the mandarin ones with bigger budget?
Laur K-l: Yes. When we were doing WONG FEI HUNG, we were a separate team. Others producers or directors didn't wanted any of us in their movies. They thought we only knew kung fu, and were unable to do comedies or anything else. There was a very strict division. Drama were produce by Yonghua, opera movies by Cantonese singers. A part from that, mandarin speaking studios like Shaw or Cathey were quite contemptuous toward us. They considered their level of quality quite superior. They had actors and actresses like Li Lihua or Yan Jon who would never lowered themselves to do a Cantonese movie
Cahiers: When did you began to put yourself behind the camera as fight choreographer?
Laur K-l:It was around 23 years ago. It's a Cantonese movie whose title was NANLONG BIFENG (SOUTH DRAGON, NORTH PHOENIX).
Cahiers:Your first famous movie was produce by Great Wall?.
Laur K-l: Yes, with main parts played by Fu Qi and Chen Sissi.The director was the same who directed later SHAOLIN SI (SHAOLIN TEMPLE). But I don't remember the title. Ah yes,JADE BOW.
Cahiers:It was a mandarin speaking movie?
Laur K-l:Yes, my first. Produce by Great Wall, a pro-mainland, pro- communist company. This movie was a great success at the box office because the fights were so original. After seeing this movie, Shaw peoples told themselves: how did they make a such successful swordplay movie (wu xia) and not us? They searched, learned that I was the fight choreographer and hired me on the spot
Cahiers: You were hired by the Shaw in the sixties?
Laur K-l: Yes to work with Chang Cheh.
Cahiers:Shaw's swordplay movies were using mainly special effects but no true kung fu were they?
Lau K-l:With JADE BOW I mixed it up. I adapted kung fu to special effects. Before Bruce Lee, Shaw, seeing the great success of samurai movies with the Hong Kong audience, ask Chang Cheh to put many elements of those action movies in his own -the nickname kung fu movies didn't existed yet- while in the same time exalting Chinese heroism. Thus, there was this hero, who while he was holding his guts in one hand, was still fighting anyway! The audience loved these heroes who didn't die! The mood was very Japanese.
Cahiers:Do you think it's possible to mixed the two kind of martial arts, the Japanese and the Chinese?
Lau K-l:Chang Che succeeded. For my part -I was fight choreographer-I had to set up the fight scenes according to the director instructions. I hadn't anything to say. Before my estrangement from Chang Cheh, he told me that he hero must never fall dead from a wound, but had always to rise and go on with the fight and that was this kind of heroes which the audience admired. And as he was pointing out to me why such vitality was perfectly justified, I asked him to demonstrate it to me. He answered: "A disemboweled man, even with his guts out, can still move can he! Then he added: "Anyway the bloodier it gets the better!
Cahiers: How the coming of Bruce Lee change all that.
Lau K-l: When Bruce Lee came to Hong Kong, he first contacted Shaw, but they dismissed him because he asked for a condition that was unacceptable: that they leave him the rights of his movies to be in the USA. Later, Lo Wei, who very well saw Bruce Lee value, went to find him. From then on, there was a distinction between the kung fu movies (those of Bruce Lee) and the sword-plays (those of Chang Cheh). Later, Chang Cheh departed from Shaw to go to work to Taiwan, because at that time true sword-plays were dwindling.
Cahiers:But he was always closely associated with Shaw ?
Lau K-l:Yes, because the Taiwanese studio for which he worked was only a branch of Shaw. Shaw had earned a tremendous amount of money in Taiwan, but was forbidden to get it out of the country. So they send Chang Cheh to spend it by making movies.
Cahiers: Is it true that Chang Cheh came to make more authentic kung fu movie throughout your collaboration?
Laur K-l: At that time Chang Cheh had two fight choreographers, Tang Chia and me. Tang Chia didn't wanted to go to Taiwan so Chang Cheh came to see me asking me to give him a hand. He told me "Without you, I won't be able to go through with it. He asked me what to do to rescue martial arts movies. I answered: fight scenes must be truer like those in Bruce Lee movies. "But how?" did he answered back. I told him that we must portrayed heroes who really did exist and revive the kung fu such as they practiced it.
Cahiers: Chang Cheh is from Shanghai?
Laur K-l:Yes, he's not Cantonese and he's unacquainted with things from there. Chang Cheh ask me what kind of story could be most suitable to be put on screen. I then suggested him the stories of the Shaolin temple. His first reaction was to say: "Actors like David Chiang and Ti Lung will never agree to shave their head."
Cahiers:What do you think of Bruce Lee' s kung fu.
Laur K-l: When we were kids we knew each other very well. Bruce Lee was passionate about kung fu. It was his life. His contribution was recognize by us who were doing kung fu. He introduced it to the whole wide world. But he was missing something; That is the "Wude " (martial arts philosophy) and the "Xiu yang " (self-control). He only knew how to fight. He hit to hurt, for the pleasure of the strikes. He was too much a westerner. The traditional Chinese courtesy was alien to him. When you watch his movies, the violence and the power of his blows can't be mist's. For us the principle is Dian dao ji zhi (to stop when we hit the opponent, to know how to retrain yourself and slow down the strike at the very moment of the hit). Someone is really strong in kung fu only if he's able to do that. Bruce Lee was limited in his knowledge of martial arts; his kicks and his boxing that was it. Likewise his "zhaoshu" (gestures) were also quite limited.
Cahiers:Bruce Lee's kung fu was a blending of many techniques.
Laur K-l:Yes. There is elements diverted from A?do, Taekwondo, Karate, western boxing, all that with a little of Chinese kung fu. But Bruce Lee was very smart. He learned with much applications and when he practiced kung fu, he put it all. He was a superb actor. He began to do movies very young.
Cahiers: In the movies you made about Shaolin, you strongly stress on the description of the masters/students relationship.
Laur K-l: Yes in China we hold dearly to politeness, to "Lijiao" (confusian ethics). Between the master and his disciples and between senior and junior, the distinction is very clear and sharp. As master, we must remain respectable and as disciple we must respect the master. Chang Cheh is a non-Cantonese. That why he was never able to show well the link between master and disciples in his kung fu movies. He could write a script, but he didn't understand kung fu very well. Besides, at the time when I departed from Chang Cheh, kung- fu movies began to tired themselves out. When I returned to Shaw, I intended to terminate my contract with them. Because, despite our best efforts as much in the film-making as in the fights, our movies didn't sell. I told Mona Fong (Shaw's executive president) that I didn't wanted to do movies for Shaw anymore and that from now on I would dedicate myself to the teaching of kung-fu in the USA. Mona Fong who didn't want to let me go, proposed instead that I direct myself my own movies. She ask me if I felt able to give new breath to kung fu movies, which didn't draw much of a audience at the time. The fact is that kung fu is basically not very variable, with always the same gestures and moves. An audience get tired of it very fast. I accepted the proposal telling myself that I would try to change completely the style of fights. To me, a action movie must have funny parts. Until then, kung fu movies always ended with a killing, a big slaughter. Me, I said, I won't do that. In my opinion, it is not indispensable to destroy the villain to make the audience happy. A dedicated scoundrel who repented and found the righteous way can be as much satisfactory. I then promised Mona Fong to make a movie: SPIRITUAL BOXER. It's a "kung fu comedy": the movie was a great box office success and from then on many filmmakers followed that path. Jackie Chan to begin with.
Cahiers:We have seen and loved EXECUTIONER FROM SHAOLIN The description of the conjugal live was amazing.
Lau K-l:Yes. The relationship between husband and wife, mother and son. To me it was like telling the story of my own family. My mother was also doing martial arts but not of the same school as my father. Every day she would tell me: "Your father is badly teaching you, " I " shall teach you!" And she went on " Your father's kung fu is obsolete".
Cahiers:What we see on the screen, is it your mother's kung fu or your father's.
Laur K-l: Both. My mother was doing wing chun's kung fu and my father hung gar's. When they were doing pushing hand exercises together, one against the other, it was impossible to separate them.
Cahiers: You'r going to shoot in mainland China with Li Lin-jie. (Jet Li true name)
Laur K-l: That's true. I'm going in China the third of May for the shooting. In fact there is two movies. The first is called SOUTH AND NORTH SHAOLIN and the second: THE BURNING OF SHAOLIN TEMPLE. The writers are from Mainland. But all of the shooting team will be of Hong Kong and they will be working with Chinese actors.
Cahiers:What do you think of Li Lin-jie?.
Laur K-l:He's still a kid! Very nice. He begins to know how to act but in his very first movie SHAOLIN TEMPLE , he did absolutely not know how to play comedy. His kung fu can be said to be not bad. When he learned that it was me who would direct, he became scared stiff because he had already seen one of my movie.
Cahiers: Shooting a movie in Mainland China. Isn't that going to put you in trouble with Taiwan?
Laur K-l:I'm in trouble already with Taiwan. I can't go there anymore.
Cahiers:How long will be the shooting?
Laur K-l:Around 125 days for each movie. Almost five months in all..
Cahiers:And where are you going to shoot?
Laur K-l:A little everywhere. Bejing, Zhengzhou, Hengzhou, Guilin, Dun-huang, in Henan province. Horses will be shoot in Mongolia.
Cahiers:Are you also going to shoot in the authentic Shaolin Temple of Henan Province?
Lau K-l:Yes of course. I've seen it, the old temple of Shaolin. Nothing special. It's less handsome that I imagined it. Moreover, a great deal of the temple is already in ruins and we don't see much. There is a lot of pilgrims and tourists and nothing extraordinary to visit.
Cahiers:Your actors-student like Lau Kai-fai, Wong Yu, Siu Hou, are they going with you for these two movies?
Lau K-l: Siu Hou yes but not Wong Yu or Laur Kar-fai. They don't want any troubles with Taiwan. As for me, as a kung fu film-maker, I consider that martial arts from Taiwan or Mainland are Chinese martial arts and that everything I do is to put value on Chinese martial arts. Taiwan has no reason to be petty with me. It's no betrayal from me, I'm only dedicating myself to promote martial arts from my country. If Taiwan doesn't let me come-back I considered it like a proof of their narrow mindedness. Cinema is only an art form, and furthermore I don't do politics. Many of my movies are in ancient China without any relationship with present day events. But so what I love movie and I go on to do as I please."