also transliterated as Zhang Che, Zhang Zheh, Chang Zheh
.1922, Qingtian, Zhejiang Province, China
d. 22 June, 2002, Hong Kong, China
The Hong Kong film industry, it is often said, did not come into its own until it consciously severed some of its ties with the mainland Chinese film industry: the rejection of Mandarin in favour of Cantonese, the addressing of Hong Kong-specific topics and themes instead of "universal" Chinese concerns, etc. For this reason, scholars such as Stephen Teo often point to such films as Michael Hui's comedy The Private Eyes
(1976) as an important breaking point. It is interesting, then, that one of the directors most responsible for the flowering of the Hong Kong cinema in the 1970s was (though born on the mainland) Taiwanese.
Chang Cheh, like his colleague King Hu, was an outsider to the Hong Kong film industry, and yet his films are quintessentially – iconically – Hong Kong films. Chang was an unparalleled master of the martial arts film in all its forms. In addition, he was one of the most prolific directors of all time: at the peak of his considerable powers, Chang was making five (1971), six (1969), even eight (1972) films a year. Any filmmaker who can make a picture as powerful as The New One-Armed Swordsman
(1971) should certainly be allowed to rest on his laurels for the rest of the year. But not Chang: that same calendar year also saw the releases of The Duel
and Duel of Fists
, two more classics, as well as King Eagle
and The Anonymous Heroes
. When Chang died in 2002, the filmmaking world lost not only one of its most talented unsung heroes, it lost its number-one role model for a certain style of low-cost, quickly made, top-flight entertainment. No wonder Shaw Brothers, Hong Kong's “Hollywood of the East”, saw fit to employ him for the better part of three decades.
Chang wrote his first script in 1947 (1)
. This film, The Woman with the False Face
, was the first Mandarin-language film shot in Taiwan. The film he co-directed (with Cheung Ying) in 1949, Storm Cloud over Alishan
, was the first Mandarin-language film produced by a Taiwanese company. Chang also wrote the film's theme song, “Gao Shan Qing”, which became a substantial hit (2)
. Chang would write or cowrite much of the music for his later films, as well.
After working in theatre for much of the 1940s and 1950s, Chang wrote another script for The Cruel Heart of My Man
(1956), which featured Cathay star Li Mei. The film's success led directly to Li inviting Chang to come to Hong Kong to write a vehicle for her. This he did – Wild Fire
was released in 1957 – but Chang failed to make significant inroads into the Hong Kong film industry. For some time, he made a living writing film reviews, a column for a Taiwanese newspaper, and romance and martial arts novels, all under pseudonyms (3)
That Chang sometimes went by other names (as did his films) makes the researcher's task difficult. Biographical information on Chang is inconsistent at best and incomplete at worst. Various sources differ even on his birthdate: 1922 or 1923? These historical lapses can be traced in part to studio public-relations efforts, and to the fact that, until fairly recently, Chang was not taken very seriously. He was seen as little more than a program director who churned out reliable product – like a Sidney Lanfield or a Norman Taurog in Hollywood. We probably won't know much more about Chang (and others) until the Shaw Brothers' vaults are thoroughly scoured by some diligent researcher.
Whilst in Hong Kong, writing would sustain him for some time: between 1962 and 1967 Chang was the principal on-staff screenwriter for Shaw Studios, producing more than 20 screenplays. A few films as director soon followed – The Butterfly Chalice
(1963; co-directed with Yuan Qiufeng), Tiger Boy
(1964; his first film with actor “Jimmy” Wang Yu) – but his breakthrough did not come until 1967.
It was in this year that Chang made The One-Armed Swordsman
, an instant classic of the swordplay genre and the film that made a superstar of Wang Yu. The film's story is nothing terribly original – indeed, none of Chang's films are notable for their innovative stories. If anything, his films' plots are anti
-original, in that they possess very clear narratological and structural links to traditional Chinese folktales. The story was never the reason that people went to see a Chang Cheh film. They went for the fight scenes. And for the blood.
And there was a lot of blood. On a par with Kurosawa, though the arterial flow in Chang was more of a gush than a spray. But this is splitting hairs. In all seriousness, Chang's approach to bloodshed was, if not quite revolutionary, surely unlike any other director's before him, and it is a large part of his legacy. Even today, to an audience inured to ultraviolence on screens large and small, Chang's films still possess the power to shock with their cavalier attitudes toward body dismemberment, and their often-casual disdain for human life. Anyone can die at any time in a Chang Cheh film – even the hero – and there's an excellent chance that he (and it's almost always a ”he”, more on that below) will perish in a manner most gory. It is simply a matter of course for one or more characters in a Chang film to lose body parts and to be tortured by goons who wield remarkably baroque instruments of pain.
The rest of Chang's career can be charted through the actors with whom he worked. One can identify several distinct phases of Chang's career, each based on his performers, many of whom he made into stars. The first chapter, noted above, is comprised of the numerous films he made with Wang Yu. Chang's next major collaboration began in 1970 with Vengeance
, which starred the immensely gifted duo of Ti Lung and David Chiang. These two extremely handsome and versatile performers would become superstars through their frequent collaborations with Chang (4)
. Ti, known to modern audiences mostly for his parts in John Woo's A Better Tomorrow
series, was the handsome, somewhat friendlier-looking of the two. Chiang is noted for his intensity and seriousness. These two fine performers – occasionally augmented, as in the fantastic Blood Brothers
(1973), by the muscular and acrobatic Chen Kwan-Tai – served as perfect foils for one another. Sometimes they played allies and sometimes they played enemies. In either case, their films resound with the energy and chemistry that is the hallmark of the most successful screen teams. Nowhere is this chemistry on better display than in one of Chang's undeniable masterpieces, The New One-Armed Swordsman
. Here, the revenge plot which forms the basis of nearly every Chang film receives particularly vivid treatment, with the crippled Chiang out to avenge the murder of Ti, who has been viciously ripped apart by chains.
Chang continued to work with Ti and Chiang throughout the 1970s, when Shaw gave him the opportunity to develop a promising young star. Fu Sheng (also known as Alexander Fu Sheng) was one of the first members of The Shaw Training Center for Young Actors and Actresses, and he proved to be one of the most successful, until his death in a car accident at age 28 in 1983. Fu Sheng was young, handsome and acrobatic. He also had a gift for a light touch that none of Chang's previous collaborators had had. His films with Chang, including the weird Chinatown Kid
(1977) and the sprawling three-part Brave Archer
series (1977–81), made him a superstar. The Brave Archer
films are notable for their ludicrously complicated plots, in which characters constantly double- and triple-cross one another, and in which new characters are introduced (and disposed of) with barely a nod. And the stories get increasingly baroque with each subsequent film, to the point where they are almost literally incomprehensible. Is this, then, the mark of incompetence? Should we even be talking about Chang as a “great director”?
Chang's disdain for lucid plotting is a sign not of ineptitude but of a director with better things to do. It is vital to remember that Chang was working within the confines of one of the most sophisticated entertainment machines the world has ever seen: the Hong Kong film industry of the 1970s. Shaw films were shown all over Asia, Australia and North America. In appealing to a global audience, one obvious option was to make compelling, universal stories (Chang's films do possess a kind of universality as, again, they are not unrelated to folktales.) But another way to go was to appeal to the mass market by displaying handsome men with incredible martial arts skills bloodying the hell out of their opponents. Add to this the lush colours and ornate settings that became another of Chang's trademarks, and it is unsurprising that the films were as successful as they were.
Many of Chang's best films were made all the better by the talents of the incomparable fight choreographer Lau Kar-Leung (also known as Liu Chia-Liang), who would soon go on to become an immensely skilled director in his own right. Lau was unmatched in recognising and taking advantage of the natural talents of the remarkable actors/acrobats in the Shaw stable. His fights in Chang's films are intricate, lengthy, and full of eye-popping physicality. It is a mark of Chang's talent that, in most cases, he would let the fight scenes unfold in long shots and long takes – exactly the strategy adopted by the directors of the Astaire/Rogers musicals, where the important thing is to see how the actors' bodies move. The battle scenes in Chang's cinema, whether hand-to-hand combat or replete with clashing swords, axes, poles and flying guillotines, are kineticism in purest form. They are breathtaking.
The loving appreciation of the male form is, undeniably, a subtext in Chang's work, and one of the reasons that the fight scenes are so thrilling. Chang's camera appears to gaze lovingly at the invariably handsome, muscular men with great physical gifts that star in his films. Moreover, his stories often centre on male friendship and loyalty – the code of male honour runs quite plainly through Chang's oeuvre as a major thematic. Though Chang did make several fine films with female action stars (notably 1968's Golden Swallow
, starring Cheng Pei-pei), his heart seemed to lie in the films in which he was able to explore themes of masculinity. It was something of an open secret that Chang was homosexual, and this knowledge informs his work in an interesting manner (5)
Chang's Fu Sheng era overlapped somewhat with what is now known as his “Five Venoms” cycle. The latter featured, again, a number of new stars that Shaw wished to promote. Given his track record for exploiting new talent, Chang was the logical choice for this project. These new performers – Kuo Choi, Lu Feng, Lo Meng, Chiang Sheng, Sun Chien, and their occasional partner Lo Lieh, and Wang Lung Wei as the heavy – changed the face of the martial arts film forever. Several of the Venoms (so named because of their appearance in Chang's The Five Deadly Venoms
, in which they play mysterious martial artists with the monikers Lizard Venom, Scorpion Venom, Toad Venom, Centipede Venom, and Snake Venom) appear in Chinatown Kid
and the Brave Archer
films alongside Fu Sheng. When he died, they were poised to take his place in the hearts and box offices of Hong Kongers.
Counting the Brave Archer
films and Chinatown Kid
, Chang made 14 films with the Venoms (seven in 1979 alone), among them some of his best and most baroque (the two terms, for Chang, are often synonymous.) The standout perhaps may be Crippled Avengers
(1978). This film is the complete package, and represents a distillation of the Chang Cheh style.
First, the film is filled with the sort of violence that even today makes audiences squirm. The titular avengers are titularly crippled by the evil Tu Tien Toh, who systematically renders them blind, deaf, mute, legless, and, most horrifically, idiotic – this last by fitting Chiang Sheng's head into a demonic-looking vice. The vividness of the violence is matched only by its relentlessness. And the red of the blood finds its counterpart in the supersaturated hues of the costumes and sets.
The fight scenes are nothing less than thrilling. Of particular note is the battle between Kuo Choi and Chiang Sheng on one side and Lu Feng, the most technically accomplished of the fighters, on the other. Chiang jumps through an ever-smaller series of iron rings, some no wider than 18 inches. He and Kuo grab each other's ankles and roll, as a giant wheel, to attack Lu Feng. And the fight goes on for ten minutes or more, with no trick left untried. Chang and Lau truly outdid themselves in this scene, which represents the high-water mark of mannerist kung fu.
With so many muscles around – particularly those of the beefy, leonine Lo Meng – it is hard not to gaze at the performers' bodies. The raw physicality of the Venoms exceeds that of all of Chang's other star performers. As his career progressed, he became more and more fascinated with the extremes to which the male body could be physically developed.
Finally, the plot of Crippled Avengers
is, like so many other Chang films (and so many martial arts films), built on a platform of revenge, though it's not quite so simple in this case. In the film's prologue, Tu Tien Toh's son (Lu Feng) has his hands chopped off by invaders. So Tu takes it upon himself, once his son has grown to adulthood, to cripple the sons of the men who wounded his own son. Those sons, played by the rest of the Venoms, are our heroes, waging war against the cruel Tu. The Good and the Evil are not so clearly identified here, which is somewhat unusual. Not unusual, however, is the fact that the developments in the film's plot depend on the pendulum-like swing of revenge, with each side retaliating against the other for a past slight.
More interesting than this, though, is the presence of a structuring device, which Chang uses with great frequency throughout his career. This is the rigidly mathematical nature of his narratives, and it is a device that Chang used as early as his films with Wang Yu. By “mathematical”, I do not mean simply that the film is broken into numbered chapters – it runs much deeper than that. If there is a “structuralist” (without being a “Structuralist”) martial-arts filmmaker, it is Chang Cheh, who uses numbers to guide both the overall narratives and the smaller details of his films.
In the narrative world of Chang, the amputation of a limb of one of the heroes requires that one of the villains be similarly mutilated. If two good guys are killed, then two bad guys must die to set the balance right. But it often gets more extravagant than this. Here, David Bordwell describes the “weird variant of payback” to be found in The New One-Armed Swordsman
[T]he cocky young swordsman Lei Li (using one sword) is defeated by Master Ho, expert with the jointed staff (consisting of three rods). As punishment for losing, Lei must hack off his own right arm. Later, his friend Feng fights Ho with two swords and is defeated; Ho then chops Feng's body in half. In the final battle, shouting, “What you did to Feng Chen I shall do to you!” Lei eventually uses three swords in quick succession to counter Ho's three-sectioned staff. Vengeance is intensified: Ho ends up impaled by three swords (in retaliation for Feng's death) but also minus an arm (vengeance for Lei's own loss). (6)
weird, this patterning. Add this micro-patterning to the macro-patterns that often form the basis for Chang's narratives (for example, the five ninja schools which, in sequence, defeat and, later, are defeated by, the heroes of Five Element Ninjas
), and Chang's obsession with numbers becomes evident. His stories may seem baroque and overly complicated, but they almost always rest on a foundation of brutal, mathematical logic. This logic renders the films easy to comprehend – again, imperative for the global market – proving, I think, that Chang was as savvy as he was talented. A director's success and longevity depend on his or her films receiving a wide audience. Chang found ways to please the crowds that also happened to afford him the opportunity to experiment with the themes and structures that meant the most to him as an artist. In many ways, Chang Cheh's films are the perfect blending of art and commerce, and thereby embody the wonderful paradox at the heart of moviemaking.
Compiling an authoritative filmography for a director as prolific as Chang Cheh is somewhat difficult, especially since the record-keepers of the Hong Kong film industry are not always the most reliable sources. There is a preponderance of alternate titles assigned to his films by distributors and exhibitors around the world. Like many other martial arts films, Chang's pictures were often retitled and re-edited to cash in on particular fads, or simply to make them look more attractive to action-movie fans. Rather than clutter this filmography with every available alternate title for every film (see the Internet Movie Database combined filmography
for a full list), I have included one or two of the most familiar alternates. Similarly, the Chinese title transliterations have not been included in this filmography.
The filmography below has been compiled from a variety of sources, including the website Chang Cheh: The Godfather of the Kung Fu Film
, Stephen Teo's book Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions
and the Internet Movie Database entry on Chang.
Storm Cloud Over Alishan
(codirected with Cheung Ying, 1949)
(1957) also writer
The Butterfly Chalice
(codirected with Yuan Qiufeng, 1965) also writer
(1966) also writer
The Magnificent Trio
(1966) also writer; also known as Heroic Three
Trail of the Broken Sword
(1967) also writer
The One-Armed Swordsman
(1967) also writer
(1967) also writer
The Golden Swallow
(1968) also writer and lyricist; also known as The Girl with the Thunderbolt Kick
The Singing Thief
Return of the One-Armed Swordsman
(1969) also writer; also known as One-Armed Swordsman Returns
(1969) also cowriter
The Invincible Fist
(1969) also known as Invincible Iron Fist
Have Sword Will Travel
(1969) also known as The Bodyguard
The Wandering Swordsman
(1970) also cowriter; also known as Kung Fu Vengeance
The Heroic Ones
(1970) also cowriter; also known as Thirteen Warlords
The Little Killer
(1970) also known as The Singing Killer
The New One-Armed Swordsman
(1971) also known as Triple Irons
(1971) also known as Duel of the Iron Fist
The Anonymous Heroes
Duel of Fists
(1971) also known as Fist Attack
The Deadly Duo
The Boxer from Shantung
(codirected with Bao Xueli, 1972) also known as Killer from Shantung
The Angry Guest
(1972) also known as Kung Fu Killers
The Water Margin
(codirected with Wu Ma and Bao Xueli, 1972) also known as All Men Are Brothers
Trilogy of Swordsmanship
(1972) one episode only
(codirected with Bao Xueli, 1972)
Man of Iron
(codirected with Bao Xueli, 1972)
also cowriter; also known as Warrior of Steel
(1972) also cowriter; also known as Strike 4 Revenge
(codirected with Gui Zhihong, 1973) also known as Street Gangs of Hong Kong
(1973) also known as Kung Fu Invaders
The Generation Gap
(1973) also cowriter
(codirected with Wu Ma and Bao Xueli, 1973)
The Iron Bodyguard
(1974) also known as Temple of the Dragon
The Savage Five
(1974) also known as Five Tiger Generals
Men from the Monastery
(1974) also known as Disciples of Death
Shaolin Martial Arts
(1974) also cowriter; also known as Martial Arts of Shao Lin
Na Cha the Great
(1974) also cowriter; also known as Na Cha
Five Shaolin Masters
(1974) also known as Five Masters of Death
All Men Are Brothers II
(codirected with Wu Man, 1975) also cowriter;
also known as Seven Blows of the Dragon II
Disciples of Shaolin
(1975) also known as The Hung Boxing Kid
The Fantastic Magic Baby
The Bloody Escape
(1975) also known as The Four Assassins
Invincible Kung Fu Brothers
(1976) also known as The Shaolin Avengers
The Boxer Rebellion
(1976) also known as Bloody Avengers
New Shaolin Boxers
(codirected with Wu Ma, 1976) also known as Demon Fists of Kung Fu
The Shaolin Temple
(codirected with Wu Ma, 1976)
The Naval Commandos
(codirected with Wu Ma, 1977)
Magnificent Kung Fu Warriors
(1977) also known as Magnificent Wanderers
The Brave Archer
(1977) also known as Kung Fu Warlords
The Chinatown Kid
(1977) also cowriter
The Brave Archer, Part Two
(1978); also known as Kung Fu Warlords II
The Five Venoms
(1978) also cowriter; also known as The Five Deadly Venoms
(1978) also known as Unbeatable Dragon
(1978) also known as Mortal Combat
; also known as Return of the Five Deadly Venoms
(1979) also known as Life Gamble
(1979) also known as Shaolin Rescuers
(1979) also known as Magnificent Acrobats
The Magnificent Ruffians
(1979) also cowriter; also known as Destroyers of the Five Deadly Venoms
The Kid With the Golden Arm
Ten Tigers from Kuangtung
Ode to Gallantry
Flag of Iron
(1980) also known as The Spearman of Death
Legend of the Fox
Heaven and Hell
(1980) also known as The Rebel Intruders
Two Champions of Shaolin
(1980) also known as Two Champions of Death
The Shanghai Thirteen
(1981) also cowriter and producer
The Brave Archer, Part Three
(1981) also known as Blast of the Iron Palm
; also known as Kung Fu Warlords III
The Sword Stained with Royal Blood
House of Traps
The Brave Archer and His Mate
(1982) also known as Brave Archer 4
; also known as Kung Fu Warlords IV
Five Element Ninjas
(1982) also known as Chinese Super Ninjas
The Weird Man
Disciples of Shaolin
(1983) also known as Invincible One
(1983) also known as Warrior
Attack of the God of Joy
(1983) also known as Assault of the Joyful Goddess
The Nine Demons
(1984) also known as The Demons
Great Shanghai 1937
(1986) also writer
Slaughter in Xi'an
(1987) also writer
Cross the River
(1988) also writer
(1989) also known as Just Heroes
Ninja in Ancient China
The Magic Kid
The Woman With the False Face
Love in the Wild
The Cruel Heart of My Man
The Tender Trap of Espionage
(Lo Wei, 1960)
Song Without Words
(Lo Wei, 1961)
The Girl With the Golden Arm
(Tang Huang, 1961)
You Were Meant for Me
(Wang Tian-lin, 1961)
It's Always Spring
(Yi Wen, 1962)
Come Rain, Come Shine
(Tang Huang, 1962)
Her Pearly Tears
(Wang Tian-lin, 1962)
The Female Prince
(See Luk Chow, 1964)
The Warlord and the Actress
(Ho Meng-hwa, 1964)
(Kao Li, 1965)
(Lo Wei, 1965)
Inside the Forbidden City
Call of the Sea
(Lo Wei, 1965)
The Perfumed Arrow
To my knowledge, there are no book-length studies of Chang Cheh. The best single resource, by far, on Chang Cheh is the first website listed in the Web Resources.
David Bordwell, Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment
Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2001.
Ralph C. Croizier, “Beyond East and West: The American Western and the Rise of the Chinese Swordplay Movie”, The Journal of Popular Film
, vol. 1, no. 3, Summer 1972.
Sek Kei, “The War Between the Cantonese and Mandarin Cinemas in the Sixties or How the Beautiful Women Lost to the Action Men” in The Restless Breed: Cantonese Stars of the Sixties: The 20th Hong Kong International Film Festival
, Hong Kong, Hong Kong Urban Council, 1996.
Richard Meyers, Amy Harlib, and Bill and Karen Palmer, Martial Arts Movies: From Bruce Lee to the Ninjas
, Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1985. [Recommended with reservations – nice pictures, but occasionally inaccurate]
A Study of the Hong Kong Martial Arts Film: The 4th Hong Kong International Film Festival
, Hong Kong, Hong Kong Urban Council, 1980. See especially “Biographical Notes” (no author given), pp. 167–168, and Lau Shing-Hon, “The Tragic-Romantic Trilogy of Chang Cheh”, pp. 91–96.
A Study of the Hong Kong Swordplay Film (1945
–1980): The 5th Hong Kong International Film Festival
, Hong Kong, Hong Kong Urban Council, 1981.
Chang Cheh: The Godfather of the Kung Fu Film
The absolute best Chang Cheh site on the web. Contains links to articles, interviews and images.
A site dedicated to Shaw Studios. With news, bios of its stars and directors and general Hong Kong film info.
A website detailing the Shaw family history.
Creating the Martial Arts Film and the Hong Kong Cinema Style – an article by Chang Cheh
A useful and interesting article by Chang Cheh himself.
The Venoms Resource
Fan site - much-improved of late.
to search for Chang Cheh DVDs, videos and books at
- Later in his career, almost all of Chang's films were written or co-written by I Kuang, “undoubtedly the most prolific writer at work [in 1980] in the film industries of Hong Kong and Taiwan.” “I Kuang”, in the “Biographical Notes” section of A Study of the Hong Kong Martial Arts Film: The 4th Hong Kong International Film Festival, Hong Kong: Hong Kong Urban Council, 1980, p.174.
- “Chang Cheh” in the “Biographical Notes” section of A Study of the Hong Kong Martial Arts Film: The 4th Hong Kong International Film Festival, Hong Kong, Hong Kong Urban Council, 1980, p.167.
- Identifying the number of films that a given performer made with Chang is as difficult as identifying the total number of films Chang made in his lifetime. Estimates for the latter vary between about 72 and 100. He churned these pictures out, and it seems even studio record-keepers could not keep pace with him.
- Chang has spoken on the subject as more a market force than anything else. The following excerpt is from The Making of Martial Arts Stars -- As Told by Filmmakers and Stars, Hong Kong, Hong Kong Film Archive, 1999, pp. 16–24. Translated by Stephen Teo. (Also available at http://changcheh.0catch.com/ar/art4.htm)
"[The] popularity [of the Hong Kong cinema] was built on female stars, and stars like Ling Bo and Yam Kim-fai played male parts. Insiders in the Hong Kong film industry were quite obstinate about this tendency, so I took up the slogan of yanggang (masculinity) in my film column "My Views on Cinema." Now, this slogan is taken as a mantra not only in the film industry but also in the music industry. But in the film industry at the time, the realisation of yanggang would have to wait until the resurgence of a new martial arts movie style – a resurgence guided by the moguls Run Run Shaw and Raymond Chow. At that time, I had been recommended by Raymond Chow to enter Shaw Brothers. The rise of yanggang was a requirement of the market and not discrimination against actresses. Female audiences also wanted to see male stars. After all, the fans of male singers were mostly females."
I think Chang is probably correct on this last point. But it also (not to be coy) provides a fully rational explanation for a tendency which probably pointed to his own homosexuality – which, in the eyes of Hong Kong industry at the time, was probably better kept in the closet.
- David Bordwell, Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2000, p.249. Emphases in original.