If someone were to ask me who I thought was the most influential film maker in the history of Hong Kong Cinema, my money would be on the prolific and much beloved Chang Cheh. Having directed over 90 films in his long and storied career, Chang is the man responsible for popularizing the swordplay genre during the Golden Age of Hong Kong Cinema during the 1970s. Drawing influence from Spaghetti Westerns and Japanese Chanbara movies, he was able to create the genre which would become known to fans as Heroic Bloodshed. Films which emphasize themes such as brotherhood, loyalty, respect and honor. These types of films not only proved to be incredibly popular with local audiences but also became huge hits overseas. Films such One Armed Swordsman, The Heroic Ones, Vengeance and Blood Brothers are just a few of the films he directed that really pushed the idea of that in these films, these characters and their relationships matter just as much as the martial arts action.
With this mentality Chang Cheh was able to not only have films which contained memorable action scenes but equally as memorable characters and stories. As you look deeper into the machinations of Chang's mind, you begin to realize just how much of an impact he had not only on the martial arts genre but Hong Kong film making as a whole. During his days at Shaw Brothers, Chang took on a young assistant director who helped him on films such as Boxer From Shangtung, The Water Margin and Blood Brothers. When it came time for his young assistant to strike out on his own, he was able to apply what he had learned, use these stories and characters and transport them to a more contemporary setting.
That young assistant's name was John Woo.
Having already made over a dozen films as director, Woo felt it was time he brought his mentor's teachings to a more modern setting and ended up creating one of the most popular and most memorable Hong Kong films ever made, A Better Tomorrow. In it we are told the story of discharged prisoner and former Triad Sung Tse-Ho played by Ti Lung (Himself a frequent collaborator with Chang and along with David Chiang they had been known as The Iron Triangle during their days as Shaw Brothers) having been jailed for crimes he committed earlier in the film. Upon his release he finds that his entire world has been turned upside down. His brother Kit played by Leslie Cheung wants nothing to do with him, his best friend Mark played by Chow Yun-Fat (in a role that would single handedly define his career) is a mere shadow of his former self, eking out a living washing cars and living in a parking garage and to make matters worse, his former apprentice played by Waise Lee is now head of the Triad.
From this point in the film we see the hand of Chang Cheh hovering approvingly over it. All the troupes of Chang's work are here and it was with this style of film making Woo was able to become one of Hong Kong Cinema's biggest directors. Woo was one the first to really push the idea of Heroic Bloodshed in a modern setting and make it a hit with audiences. Many producers and film makers attempted to bring their own version of A Better Tomorrow to the screen afterward, all with varying degrees of success. However, the influence doesn't stop there. If you look at the directorial works of Wang Lung-Wei, particularly Hong Kong Godfather. A film which came out a whole year before A Better Tomorrow but is just apparent in were it draws it's inspiration from.
Hong Kong Godfather is an incredibly violent and delightfully mad Triad film which sees three Triad brothers avenge the death of their Uncle. While Wang seemed the lack the more deft touch of Chang. You can see straight away just who he seems to be channeling. Especially toward the end of the film when the violence reaches monumental levels of insanity and blood literally covers the walls. Truly a film was never more deserving to be called Heroic Bloodshed.
The 80's would see a number of Heroic Bloodshed Triad pictures. Mostly drawing inspiration from John Woo. A man who was more then happy to carry on the work of his mentor. Moving into the 90's we would see a resurgence of the Swordplay genre. This time with more fantastical elements brought in, thanks to the truly astounding choreographic work of Ching Siu-Tung. While gangster pictures were still being made, none of them would ever really reach prominence. However in 1995 we saw the beginning of one of the most popular film series of it's time with Young & Dangerous. Directed by Andrew Lau, Young & Dangerous told the story of a small group of young Triad fighting to survive on the streets of Hong Kong. Through the various character interactions and the way it plays out, you know just what Lau was trying to do. Tell those same stories John Woo tried to tell with A Better Tomorrow but re-working them for a more modern audience.
This seemed to cause yet another slew of Triad crime films. All of which featured story lines and characters all distilled from the works of Chang Cheh decades ago. It's amazing when you really start to examine just how far the reach of Chang Cheh goes. Even today, his spirit lives on thanks to film makers such as Wilson Yip and Johnnie To. During a lull of martial arts action pictures in Hong Kong, one film came out which caused shock waves throughout the industry. Directed by Wilson Yip and starring Donnie Yen, Simon Yam and Sammo Hung as well as a real breakout role for Wu Jing, 2005 saw the release of Sha Po Long. A dark martial arts crime film that featured the much anticipated on-screen clash of Yen and Hung. Two figures, despite having been in the industry for a number of years, had never had the opportunity to work together. Featuring a compelling story of a detective pushed to using questionable methods in order to bring down a powerful crime boss, Sha Po Long was able to combine a well written story with engaging characters as well as some incredibly brutal fight scenes.
It's the central relationship Simon Yam's character has with his fellow officers that you can see that these are a group of men who respect each other, care for each other and would do anything for each other. They share a bond that no one else can understand and it is this bond Yam's character has with his men in that he is able to start really getting underhanded when he thinks it's time he finishes Sammo's crime boss character off, once and for all. Again, we can see here those familiar themes of brotherhood, loyalty and honor. This combination of dark story telling and brutal action would lead to number follow ups such as Flash Point, Fatal Move, Fatal Contact, Legendary Assassin among others. All of which took a leaf from SPL's book and would go on to be moderately successful. If Chang Cheh were alive today, these are the types of films he would be making.
Johnnie To is another director, while not perhaps directly influenced by Chang Cheh, whose work shares a lot of similarities with Chang. If you watch films such as The Mission, Thrown Down, Exiled or the Election films, the true themes of Chang's work immediately leap out at you and while this is in no way intentional on the part of Johnnie To, you can't help but feel that Chang would be proud that his work has had such a profound effect on modern Hong Kong Cinema, especially when you see that with the re-emergence of period war epics, swordplay films and traditional martial arts films, film makers from Hong Kong and even Mainland China are keeping these classic stories alive in their own way.
Whether you agree with me or not, Chang Cheh is the most influential figure in Hong Kong Cinema history. His talent as a story teller and combining it with great action can be felt even to this day. Next time you find yourself watching SPL or The Mission. Just pay attention to the relationships between the characters and theme of Chang's work will begin to show themselves. Brotherhood, Loyalty, Respect, Honor. It's all there. Trust me.