It’s been a while since I’ve kept up with Electric Shadows, but I plan to update more frequently in the near future. If you’ve read the earlier posts on this blog, you know how geeked out I am over early kung fu movies. I have to thank David Wells of Soft Film and Soft Tofu for pointing me to eBay, and the Asian dealers in movie memorabilia who can be found there. One of the reasons I started Electric Shadows was to record my research into these movies, and share the images I’ve been finding on eBay. Probably ninety per cent of the kung fu/swordplay/action films of the period between 1920 and 1960 have disappeared. For these films, ads and promotional items are all that remain. Recently I acquired, in separate auctions, some advertisements for Hong Kong martial arts movies made in 1948.
The Hong Kong film industry started to revive in 1947 after shutting down for the war. By 1948, production numbers were up, and action films were back in demand. Shanghai veterans Hung Chung-ho and Ren Pengnian were among the most prolific action genre filmmakers in immediate post-war Hong Kong. Hung is the grandfather of Sammo Hung. He and his wife made swordplay movies in Shanghai, and after moving to Hong Kong, they carried on the tradition. THIRTEENTH SISTER’S ADVENTURE IN NENG YAN TEMPLE was released in August of 1948. It’s an adaptation of a famous 19th century martial arts novel, “Heroic Sons and Daughters.” Thirteenth Sister is the heroine of the story, and in this excerpt, she rescues the hero from bandits, then refuses his offer of marriage. Later that same year, in November, Hung released SECURITY ESCORT MASTER WONG TIN-BA, PART 1 and PART 2. There’s a synopsis on the Hong Kong Film Archive’s site for the second film: “Security escort Wong Tin-ba is an extraordinary martial artist and do-gooder who bravely confronts evil. He is finally victorious over the local tyrant Cheung Seven.” The stars of Thirteenth Sister are Chan Yim Nung and Luk Fei-hung. Chan Yim Nung is the female lead in Security Escort too, and Chan Kam-tong plays Wong. I don’t have any information about the actors. The images show a considerable opera influence in the costumes, and the choreography was probably very stylized.
Ren Pengnian, who directed China’s first feature film in 1921, also settled in Hong Kong right before the war. Ren and his wife, the kung fu actress Wu Lizhu, specialized in action films, both contemporary and traditional. In Shanghai, they had worked with Yuen Siu-tin, Yuen Wo-ping’s father, and he appears in several of their post-war Hong Kong films. In fact, he’s in THE BIG FIGHT BETWEEN HERO COPPER HAMMER AND MADAM NINE FLOWERS, PART 1 and 2, which was directed by Ren Pengnian and released in September 1948. Tso Tat-wah was the star, Hero Copper Hammer. The HKFA notes on the film don’t mention Yuen Siu-tin, but praise two other actors: “Actor Lam Ka-sing was noted for his skills in the Northern school of kung fu, while actor Yip Chuen-wah was also a deft hand in the martial arts. Both actors displayed their brilliant skills in fighting against the ten Kung Fu masters of the Northern and Southern schools in the battle scene of the Sung mansion.”
And here are a couple of flyers for martial arts films by the Cantonese director Chu Kea, who was one of the founders of the United film studio. He would make two melodramas with child actor Bruce Lee in the 1950s, but he was best known as a director of Cantonese opera films. TWIN-HEADS SELLING MARTIAL ARTS is an opera film, starring Koo Tin-ng, a martial actor. According to the HKFA, “his performing style is now considered a lost art.” FLYING HEROINE, released a few months before TWIN-HEADS, is an example of the social justice themes that play out in many wuxia and kung fu films. A young woman victimized by a local bully dreams of revenge only to find her dreams come true.
These movies were forgotten for decades and overlooked by film historians until very recently. The B-movie or exploitation film genres thrived in China despite war, civil unrest, and political opposition. Audiences were looking for entertainment and the vicarious thrill of watching a heroic figure triumph over evil. By 1949, another Cantonese director, Wu Pang, would initiate the long-running Wong Fei-hung film series, the forerunner of so many modern kung fu movies. These films are part of the roots of today’s Hong Kong-style action.
One more interesting bit of history that turned up as I researched these films is that the Chinese-American filmmaker Esther Eng, who was working in Hong Kong at the time, appeared under the name Ng Kam-ha in both the Ren Pengnian movie THE BIG FIGHT BETWEEN HERO COPPER HAMMER AND MADAM NINE FLOWERS and the Hung Chung-ho movie THIRTEENTH SISTER’S ADVENTURE IN NENG YAN TEMPLE, as well as a third 1948 martial arts film, MR. KWANGTUNG EXPOSES THE CORRUPT TEMPLE. She must have been a fan.
Hung Chung-ho • kung fu movie history • Ren Pengnian