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Ching Siu Tung - Fantastic Action

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

High-flying martial arts heroes, magical wuxia duels and supernaturally tinged romances have long been trademarks of Hong Kong Cinema, especially during the heady days of the 1980s when imagination and wacky creativity seemed to be the main forces driving the industry. One of the key figures in this movement is Tony Ching Siu Tung, a director, producer, action choreographer and actor whose career of more than forty years has seen him involved in some of the most important and influential films to have emerged from the genre. Working his way steadily up the ladder and picking up an impressive number of awards along the way, Ching has gone from strength to strength, and remains one of the top directors in the business today. Indeed, he has continued to work with the very biggest names in Hong Kong and on increasingly high-profile international releases, with his own latest outing as director, An Empress and the Warriors, having proved to be yet another box office smash.

From Taking Falls to Calling the Shots

Ching Siu Tung was born in Hong Kong in 1953, the son of acclaimed Shaw Brothers director Cheng Kang, who was responsible for The Sword of Swords and 14 Amazons amongst other popular kung fu films. After making an early appearance in King Hu's classic Come Drink With Me, Ching was enrolled at drama school to learn Peking Opera, mixing dance, acrobatics and martial arts. As with many others of his generation, his career began as a stuntman, with his relatively short stature meaning that he often worked as a body double for actresses. From this, he won small roles in the Angela Mao films Stoner and The Tournament, as well as in a number of Shaw productions.

In 1974 he tried his hand at action direction with the likes of The Shaolin Boxer, The Teahouse and Kidnap. He continued working in this line during the 1970s, often picking up roles in the films he choreographed, until at the end of the decade the demand for period set martial arts films began to wane. With this, he moved into television work, mainly acting as fight coordinator, and it was here that he met several young directors who would soon go on to launch the Hong Kong New Wave. This provided Ching with some valuable contacts, and in 1980 he worked with Patrick Tam on his wuxia The Sword, and more importantly, with Tsui Hark on his crime thriller Dangerous Encounter of the 1st Kind, apparently helping him to make the proceedings as violent as possible.

Duel to the Death

In 1982, Ching was finally given the chance to direct with Duel to the Death, which he also wrote. The film was very much a culmination of his interests and talents, into which he basically poured everything he knew. As such, whilst on a basic level the film revolved around the battle between a Chinese and a Japanese swordsman (played by Damian Lau and Norman Tsui, respectively), Ching imbued his protagonists with near-supernatural abilities, and threw in a dizzying array of flying ninjas and other offbeat touches. The result was a film that played out like a live-action cartoon, shot in a wildly kinetic style and playing with the rather stoic wuxia conventions in wonderfully creative fashion. The film was much praised by critics, winning Ching a nomination for Best Action Choreography at the Hong Kong Film Awards. Sadly, although the years have seen it take its rightful place as a classic of the genre, the film was not a hit during its original release.

Despite the commercial failure of his debut, Ching returned to the director's chair a couple of years later for Witch From Nepal. This time around, whilst sticking to similar themes and again including plenty of wire work, he gave the proceedings a modern setting, with Chow Yun Fat playing a man who discovers that he has been chosen as the protector of a mystical tribe, resulting in romance with a mysterious young woman and his developing a range of bewildering magic powers which he has to use in battle against the titular demon. Although boasting a handful of truly imaginative sequences, the film was a rather muddled affair, with Ching's skill as a storyteller not yet being the match of his visual talents. Perhaps as a result, despite winning Best Action Choreography at the Hong Kong Film Awards, it was another box office flop, though it did bring the director once again to the attention of Tsui Hark and his newly formed production company The Film Workshop, for whom he worked as action director on his acclaimed Peking Opera Blues in 1986.

A Chinese Ghost Story and Tsui Hark

Obviously impressed by Ching's imaginative vision, Tsui Hark gave him his next big break with the chance to direct A Chinese Ghost Story. The film offered a different take on the Hong Kong ghost genre, which had recently been enjoying a resurgence thanks to the success of Mr. Vampire, focusing on the romance between Leslie Cheung's naive young scholar and Joey Wang's winsome spirit. Drawn from the writings of Pu Songling and taking place against a period backdrop, the film really gave Ching the chance to cut loose, and his visual skill came to the fore through fantastic scenes of flying ghosts, giant tongues and rapping Taoist monks. The film was a massive hit both at home and abroad, though it was, and indeed continues to be the subject of speculation as to exactly how much of a hand Tsui Hark had in the proceedings, with some claiming that it was actually him behind the camera for the most part. This rumor has been denied by Tsui himself, who has stated that he worked mainly on the story and introduced the love theme, and certainly, the film itself has much in common with Ching's earlier works in terms of look and style. Whatever the truth may be, the film earned Ching nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards, including Best Director and Best Action Choreography, as well as a number of awards at fantasy cinema festivals around the world.

Given Tsui's reputation for being a fiercely hands-on producer, who other directors had accused of being difficult to work with, it is easy enough to see how such suspicions might begin to circulate. However, Ching certainly seemed comfortable working with him, and continued to do so, directing the sequels A Chinese Ghost Story 2 and A Chinese Ghost Story 3 in 1990 and 1991. The two also collaborated on a number of other high-profile projects, with Ching contributing action direction to the John Woo directed hits A Better Tomorrow 2 and The Killer, both of which were much praised for their explosive thrills. Another noteworthy franchise, which Ching worked on for Tsui was the acclaimed wuxia Swordsman series, loosely based upon the writings of Louis Cha (Jin Yong). The first installment was directed in 1990 by the legendary King Hu, with Ching co-directing, providing choreography and adding a touch of the fantastic, winning a Hong Kong Film Award in the process. Interestingly, the same year he was competing with himself for the award, having also been nominated for the Gong Li and Zhang Yimou starring A Terra-Cotta Warrior, a lighthearted slice of time travel action which he directed for Tsui.

In 1992, he provided action choreography for the Raymond Lee directed, Tsui produced and scripted Dragon Inn remake - although revisioning would perhaps be a more accurate description, since the film was a wild wuxia affair, very much in Ching's trademark style. Boasting an amazing cast that included Tony Leung Ka Fai, Maggie Cheung, Brigitte Lin and Donnie Yen, the film has long been regarded as one of the best of its kind, not least for its breathtaking action scenes. In the same year, Ching was given the reigns of Swordsman 2, which featured Jet Li in the lead role, sharing the spotlight with the actress Brigitte Lin. The film managed the difficult feat of surpassing the original, mainly since it was a far more kinetic effort. Certainly, Ching outdid himself in terms of complex and thrilling wirework, and the film offered martial arts fans some of the most exciting and outrageous fight scenes ever committed to celluloid. As well as bringing in a slew of award nominations, the film was also far more of a box office hit than its predecessor, a fact which lead Ching to direct the next in the series, Swordsman 3: The East Is Red the following year.

Royal Tramp and the Decline of Wuxia

Although many of his most famous films were made in collaboration with Tsui Hark, Ching also found success on his own, and rapidly established himself as the best action choreographer in the business. 1992 was somewhat of a banner year, as in addition to his wuxia outings he also co-directed the two Royal Tramp films with Wong Jing. Again based loosely on the works of Louis Cha - very loosely indeed in this case - the two period comedies both starred Stephen Chow and Brigitte Lin and were massive box office hits. Ching continued to work with Chow on a number of other occasions, for example on the similarly themed comedy Justice, My Foot! and then again on The Mad Monk in 1993, which was directed by Johnnie To. Around the same time, Ching also worked with To on his films The Heroic Trio and Executioners, both of which benefited from his acrobatic brand of choreography.

Wuxia remained a fertile field for Ching during the early 1990s, and he had worked on several major productions, including Sammo Hung's The Moon Warriors, the Wong Jing comedy Flying Dagger and Michael Mak's Butterfly and Sword. However, by this time costume martial arts films were starting to lose their box office appeal, and Ching also began to work on more contemporary set action thrillers, such as the Jackie Chan hits The Twin Dragons and City Hunter, as well as Wong Jing's scattershot Future Cops. In 1994 he directed Wonder Seven, starring Michelle Yeoh, a somewhat unsuccessful attempt to blend his wuxia sensibilities and style with that of the modern action thriller.

In the mid-nineties, he had a pair of hits, working as stunt choreographer on Jeffrey Lau's A Chinese Odyssey Part One: Pandora's Box and A Chinese Odyssey Part Two: Cinderella. The two Stephen Chow vehicles, based upon the classic Journey to the West, both struck big at the box office, and saw Ching being able to bring his imaginative and magical visions to life on a grand scale. He was in similarly creative form in 1996, directing the oddly titled Dr. Wai in The Scripture with No Words. Another offbeat mixture of fantasy and contemporary adventure, this time starring Jet Li and Takeshi Kaneshiro, the film was sadly rather chaotic, much in the manner of Witch From Nepal and did not catch on at the box office. Returning to action choreography, he rounded out the decade working with Ann Hui on The Stuntwoman, and on the thriller The Blacksheep Affair.

Bringing the Action to Zhang Yimou

Ching began the new century with more wuxia comedy in the form of Andrew Lau's The Duel, before returning to directing with Conman in Tokyo, a gambling caper which offered him somewhat of a change of pace. After this, he enjoyed international success again by teaming with Stephen Chow for his massive hit Shaolin Soccer, adding a suitably cartoon like feel to the proceedings and winning himself a Golden Horse award for Best Action Choreography as well as a nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards. Aside from his work on the sleazy Wong Jing exploitation thriller Naked Weapon, this seemed to mark Ching's career moving up a notch. Certainly, his next film was a far more prestigious production, namely Zhang Yimou's Hero, for which he provided the choreography. A luscious martial arts costume epic with an A-list cast, the film was a massive worldwide blockbuster and scored countless international awards, with Ching himself winning at the Hong Kong Film Awards. The film also represented a shift in style in terms of his choreography, being more focused than in some of his earlier works and utilising more in the way of computer technology.

After making his Western filmmaking debut with the Steven Seagal thriller Belly of the Beast in 2003, Ching reteamed with Zhang Yimou for his next hit House of Flying Daggers and then again in 2006 for the sumptuous Curse of the Golden Flower. The two again saw Ching's choreography taking a more mature, controlled look whilst at the same time retaining the high-flying spirit for which he had become known.

Perhaps enjoying this new lease of life, Ching began to work more overseas, and in 2006 he provided action choreography for the Indian superhero film Krrish, with his efforts winning him a Filmfare Best Action Award and a Zee Cine Award. Following this, he worked on the Japanese action fantasy Dororo, and rather less impressively, on the awful In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale for infamous German director Uwe Boll. Thankfully, he soon made up for this with his typically excellent work on Peter Chan's superb historical epic The Warlords, toning down his fantastic approach for a more gritty, grounded feel.

An Empress and the Warriors

Ching's most recent outing saw him return to the director's chair for An Empress and the Warriors, on which he also worked as action choreographer. A pre-emptive strike at basking in some of the box office glory of John Woo's Red Cliff, the film saw pop princess Kelly Chen taking on the unlikely role of a warrior princess, supported by male co-stars Leon Lai and Donnie Yen. A more lighthearted affair than most of its peers, the film proved popular at the box office, and though not really representative of Ching at his best, it did allow him to have fun in a manner reminiscent of some his earlier, wackier works, and confirmed that he was still able to make a genuine commercial concern of the wuxia form.

Whether the film's success inspires a return to his fantastic roots remains to be seen, though whatever Ching chooses to do next, or indeed whoever he might choose to work with, audiences can be assured that he will be filling screens with flying costumed heroes for years to come.

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Published October 22, 2008

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