There’s nothing but love for martial arts movies these days.
If you remember when they were called “chop-sockies,” and were only available as poorly dubbed videotapes, then you know how much things have changed. 2008 has already seen the Jackie Chan/Jet Li Hollywood-Monkey King mashup THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM, the widely acclaimed blockbuster KUNG FU PANDA, a martial arts film written and directed by a distinguished playwright (David Mamet’s REDBELT), and premium US DVD releases of new Asian action films like FLASH POINT and THE REBEL. The genre has gone mainstream. It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always that way. For most of the 20th century, martial arts filmmakers struggled in a low budget ghetto. What’s surprising about the best of their work is how well the fight scenes have held up.
Kung fu cinema started when directors and tech crews first worked with actors trained in combat. Early Chinese action directors like Ren Pengnian, Hung Chung-ho (grandfather of Sammo Hung), and Wu Pang labored mightily to bring realistic fight scenes to the screen, despite constant financial constraints. Their films would make money only if produced quickly and cheaply. The stunt crews, recruited from opera troupes and kung fu schools, worked under the guidance of “dragon tiger masters,” experts in the myriad Chinese fighting styles. Actors like Kwan Tak-hing, who was opera-trained, and Shek Kin, veteran of a Chin Woo Association school, executed the choreography with professional polish. There was rarely a chance to re-shoot, so the fights and stunts had be done right the first time.
A surprising number of the old kung fu and swordplay films made in Hong Kong after World War II had strong female characters. Nuxia (swordswoman) stories had been popular in Shanghai back in the silent era, and some of the old favorites were remade in the immediate postwar period. The people of China and Hong Kong, toughened by war and deprivation, were in the mood for stories of heroines who fought back against oppression. A half century ago, the actress who best embodied the role of the lovely but lethal nuxia was Yu So-chau (also known as Yu So-chow).
Born in either 1929 or 1930 to an opera family in Shanghai, Yu So-chau was taught martial arts and stage movement by her father, Yu Jim-yuen, who also counted Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung among his students. She grew up backstage and was performing the “flower drum” at age eight. Later in life she recalled that her father was “very strict – every time there was a mistake he would hit fiercely.” Another time she said, “He would not hesitate to hit you on stage when you did not do well, even during a performance.” Despite the harsh treatment, Yu thrived in Shanghai’s competitive theatrical scene. She was barely into her teens when she was cast in the supporting role of Green Snake in the opera “The Tale of White Snake.” She promptly outshone the leading lady and was promoted to the title role. Another successful role was in “Peaceful Heavenly Kingdom.” Her combat specialties included fighting three foes simultaneously by kicking away the spears they threw at her in a nonstop barrage, and fencing with double straight swords.
The 1940s were perilous times in China. Financial pressures forced the Yu family to tour throughout occupied China and even into Singapore. The young actress was zealously guarded by her parents. There was one close call when the girl was spotted by some “rough characters” who wanted to introduce her to a Japanese general. “Mother was with me and we were able to bluff our way out…we hid in the forest by the train station that night,” Yu remembers. “We were able to ride on top of the train the next day and somehow ended up back in Shanghai.”
With the end of the war came a resurgence in film production. As a result of the Nationalist crackdown on martial arts films and the Japanese occupation of Shanghai in the years preceding the war, many of the small studios that specialized in action/adventure filmmaking had already relocated to other cities. The industry was hungry for new talent, and Yu So-chau, elegant and accomplished, was a natural star. A family friend arranged for her to go to Suzhou and appear in a film called DOUBLE PISTOL HEROINE. Because the Chinese words for “firearm” and “spear” sound the same, Yu assumed she had been hired for her skills in spear-fighting. Much to her surprise, she was starring in a Western! Always game, she learned to ride a horse for the role.
Although she was never paid for her work in DOUBLE PISTOL HEROINE (except for two bags of candy!), Yu was soon offered $3000 to go to Hong Kong and make two films in Mandarin (KUNG FU COUPLE and REVENGE OF THE GREAT SWORSDMAN, both released in 1949). For an 18-year-old, that was impressive money. Things were looking up. Yu came back to China to star in the opera “Yang Kwai Fei” in Kunming. Her performance was widely acclaimed. But soon word came that the Communists were advancing on the city. Yu had survived the war only to find herself in the path of revolution. A friend slipped the Yu family a pair of tickets to Hong Kong. So-chau and her brother took off without delay.
In Hong Kong, Yu worked with Hung Chung-ho and his wife Chin Tsi-ang on a series of wuxia films called FONG KONG HEROINE (1950-1951). In the Hong Kong Film Archive publication “The Making of Martial Arts Films – As Told by Filmmakers and Stars,” Chin recalled meeting with Yu’s father during the shoot. “(He) was idle and I said to him, ‘That wouldn’t do, why not find a place and teach kung fu?’ There was room in my house and I could foot the expenses.” In this way, the China Drama Academy was founded, with Chin’s grandson Sammo Hung as one of the first students. Yu’s pupils learned stagecraft, make-up, and singing along with their knockabout martial arts training.
Yu Jim-yuen was in Hong Kong because So-chau had been making enough money to rent a small apartment. She wrote to her parents as soon as she was settled. “Father promptly arrived with a whole troupe of performers, and Mom was also able to make her way to Hong Kong eventually. And for a while, there were a large number of people living in my tiny apartment!” Most of these actors and singers probably found work in films or in Hong Kong’s thriving opera scene. But none of them found greater success than Yu Jim-yuen’s daughter.
Yu So-chau starred in over 200 films between 1949 and 1966. Most of her work is in the opera or wuxia genres, and although very few of her early movies have survived, her influence continues to be felt. Yu was one of the leads in the BUDDHA’S PALM series, an inspiration for Stephen Chow’s KUNG FU HUSTLE. As the elegant heroine of nuxia epics like RED BUTTERFLY and THE ROUGE TIGRESS, she was a prototype for the swordswomen in modern films like CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON and HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS. When the trend changed to contemporary adventure, Yu starred in the “Jane Bond” series about pulp heroine Wong An, a lady cat burglar who runs an all-female gang. Although action films were her bread and butter, she appeared in melodrama and comedy as well. In BACHELORS BEWARE, she’s a knockout as a wealthy socialite who proves a formidable adversary for Lin Dai’s wily country cousin when the two vie for a handsome playboy.
She was a favorite of the top action directors and choreographers of mid-century Hong Kong because her combat skills are the real deal. Whether fighting multiple stunt men or another pro like Shek Kin or Walter Tso Tat-wah, Yu keeps the action going in real-time. With a sword in each hand, or wielding a sword in one hand and scabbard in the other, she effortlessly blocks and parries, finding an opening and slipping through, thrusting to her target while twisting and pivoting from her waist. She was both extraordinarily graceful and absolutely convincing in her swordplay.
Even for the best wuxia actors, it was a tough industry. Yu made as many as four films in a single month, working on two or three at a time. “It would take five to seven days to do a film,” she recalls. “On some days I would be in period costume in the morning and change to modern clothing for the afternoon. This took a toll on me during the fight scenes.” She worked with all the top action stars and directors. Once, when shooting a fight scene with her father for a film called PRECIOUS SABER BEAUTY, “Dad fought me on the second floor of a restaurant and retreated down the stairs during rehearsals. But at the actual time of filming, he improvised and jumped from the second floor twelve feet down to the first floor. I was giving chase and had no choice but to follow. The director loved it.” She added, “Dad was already in his fifties then.”
This was the Dad of PAINTED FACES, Jackie Chan’s 1988 tribute to the China Drama Academy and Master Yu Jim-yuen. The story is based on Chan’s memories of his sifu. It gives a good idea of how he drilled his charges in both kung fu and an insane work ethic. Chan, Sammo Hung (who plays Master Yu in PAINTED FACES), Yuen Biao, Corey Yuen, Yuen Wah, Yuen Qiu, and many more stunt performers owe their career to Master Yu. But Yu So-chau was the big sister, the first star. She retired from the entertainment world in 1966 and married Cantonese opera headliner Mak Bing-wing. She now lives in San Francisco. Her films are still remembered fondly by Hong Kong people.
I’ve written Madame Yu’s name as So-chau here, because I try to keep to the HKFA standard spelling. In the US, she is known as Yu So-chow. Her website is here.
I’d like to thank Michael Mak and the Hong Kong Film Archive for permission to use the material from Madame Yu’s oral history recording, and Windsor Sung for the translation.
Here’a a clip of Yu So-chau’s swordplay from A GODDESS’ SWORD.
Features • Jackie Chan • Yu Jim-yuen • Yu So-chow