Something that martial arts movie fans in the West are going to have to come to terms with if they want to stay on top of the best action coming out of China is the explosive popularity of China’s martial arts TV series and its cannibalization of the martial arts movie. This is especially true of the latest, a monstrous three-part series produced by Henan Television (HNTV). Featuring new and veteran martial arts-trained stars, it chronicles leading events in the history and legends of Shaolin. The first part is now airing in China with the second having just wrapped production.
(left) Video preview for LEGEND OF SHAOLIN KUNG FU – PART 1. Scroll down for more video.
Martial arts series have been a staple of Hong Kong and Taiwanese TV since the 1970s but only in the last 15 years or so has it grown to rival and even surpass Hong Kong’s leading martial arts movies in terms of budgeting and action choreography. This largely is a result of the growing demand for dramatic costume series in mainland China and the decline in profitability and demand for martial arts movies. Increasingly, top action film directors such as Ching Siu-tung, as well as veteran kung fu stars like Yuen Biao are spending as much, if not more time shooting action sequences for television that are just as good, if not better than what is being shown only sporadically in theaters.
Jimmy Lin (center) and Yuen Biao (left of center) surrounded by co-stars in LEGEND OF SHAOLIN KUNG FU 2: 13 CUDGEL MONKS. Scroll down for more pics.
Martial arts series, usually 40 episodes long, have the added advantage of being able to tell an in-depth story with fully fleshed out characters that could never fit into a standard 90-minute movie. What is often the case is that a popular movie such as FEARLESS becomes the basis for a related TV series that expands on the film’s story. For SEVEN SWORDS, Tsui Hark planned both the TV series and film concurrently.
LEGENDS OF SHAOLIN KUNG FU is an unusually ambitious example where the 120-episode series has been divided into three separate parts, each featuring different tales and cast members as various legendary and historical figures from Shaolin history.
Part one is HEROES IN TROUBLED TIMES. It is partly based on the novel “Broken Arm Abbot” and is centered on the exploits six Shaolin disciples of a one-armed abbot set during China’s Southern and Northern Dynasty era. It stars TV actor Bao Guo-an (ROMANCE OF THE THREE KINGDOMS), Anthony Wong (EXILED), Wang Gang (KUNG FU DUNK), Wu Ma (HOUSE OF FURY), and Ji Chunhua (WING CHUN). Also featured are many mainland wushu practitioners in supporting roles. This includes Xie Miao, the grown up kid from Jet Li’s MY FATHER IS A HERO and Li Yuan, a future star who bares some resemblance to a young Chen Kuan-tai.
Also appearing in the series is Ji’s SHAOLIN TEMPLE co-star Yu Cheng-hui (YELLOW RIVER FIGHTER).
Although action choreography for the first part of the series was handled by fantasy wire master Ching Siu-tung (HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS), considerable effort is being made by series director Du Xiao to keep the wushu action more grounded in reality.
This entry was completed last year and has already begun airing in China.
THIRTEEN CUDGEL MONKS, the second part in the series completed production as of June 2nd, after nearly six months of shooting. It stars big-screen fighting legends Yuen Biao (RIGHTING WRONGS), Leung Kar-yan (THE POSTMAN STRIKES BACK) and Ji Chunhua (DEADEND OF BESIEGERS).
Yuen plays Tan Zong, a historical figure in Shaolin lore who famously came to the aid of future Tang Dynasty emperor Li Shimin by leading 12 martial disciples against usurping warlord Wang Shichong (Leung Kar-yan) in 621.
In Chinese history, Wang was a general who had deposed the Sui Dynasty’s last emperor Yang Tong to briefly become emperor himself. Yet after his ally Dou Jiangde, Prince of Xia was captured along with Wang’s nephew Honglie by Tang general Li Shimin, he surrendered following a long siege and the Tang Dynasty began.
According to Shaolin legend, it was Tan Zong and his 12 monks who came to Li’s defense during an attack and later captured Wang’s nephew. This in turn helped convince Wang to surrender to Tang forces.
Ji Chunhua (left) and Leung Kar-yan on the set of LEGEND OF SHAOLIN KUNG FU 2: 13 CUDGEL MONKS.
The bald-headed Ji Chunhua, who earlier played a different role in part one, portrays Wang Honglie in what becomes a full circle for his film career which began with him playing a chief lieutenant to Wong Shichong in Jet Li’s SHAOLIN TEMPLE in 1982. That film was not only China’s first attempt to tackle the subject of the 13 cudgel monks but was also responsible for the rebirth of the mainland Chinese martial arts movie as it introduced northern wushu to the genre’s lexicon.
Yuen Biao is best known worldwide for his starring roles in classic kung fu hits from Golden Harvest such as THE PRODIGAL SON and EASTERN CONDORS and for his close association with both Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung. All three came from the same Chinese opera school and frequently worked together in films such as WHEELS ON MEALS and DRAGONS FOREVER. He most recently played a police officer in Jackie Chan’s ROB-B-HOOD and starred in the WING CHUN series along side Sammo Hung and Ji Chunhua.
Leung Kar-yan, who portrays the lead villain in the series has been working extensively as a TV actor in recent years despite being best known internationally for his classic kung fu roles where he was affectionately known as “Beardy” by fans. His last significant starring role in a martial arts movie was in the Shaw Brothers production SECRET SERVICE OF THE IMPERIAL COURT (1984), although he can be seen in a variety genre films since including Ching Siu-tung’s CONMAN IN TOKYO (2000). He recently co-starred with Yuen Biao in the REAL KUNG FU (2005) series.
Action direction for 13 CUDGEL MONKS was performed by another martial arts movie veteran, Yuen Bun. Since graduating from stunt actor to action director on Shaw Brothers’ THE DUEL OF THE CENTURY in 1981, Yuen has been instrumental in the development of some of the best action choreography coming out of Hong Kong, although usually in a collaborative role alongside his more famous peers including Tong Gaai and Ching Siu-tung. Some of his best solo work can be seen in ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA III, IV and V.
The third and final part in the LEGEND OF SHAOLIN KUNG FU trilogy is titled EIGHTEEN ARHATS. Details on this part, including casting and plot are still unknown. The title refers to the famous 18 Lohan Hands, the original Shaolin kung fu forms that according to legend were first taught to Shaolin monks by Bohidharma.
Looking at all three parts, LEGENDS OF SHAOLIN KUNG FU is a huge production by any standard and will undoubtedly be making its way to other territories. In the U.S., Tai Seng is the likeliest candidate to distribute the series although they have yet to sign any deal.
Tai Seng has become the leading distributor of Chinese-language martial arts series on DVD in the U.S. They currently have over 20 series available on DVD with English subtitles and two more on the way, including FEARLESS: A CHINESE HERO starring Ekin Cheng as Huo Yuanjia and THE LEGEND OF HERO which is based on the “Man Called Hero” comic book series.
Another high-profile series to watch for is THE LEGEND OF BRUCE LEE starring Bruce Lee look-alike Chan Kwok-kwan, or as he is now billed, Danny Chan of KUNG FU HUSTLE and SHAOLIN SOCCER fame. It also features international action stars Ray Park (THE PHANTOM MENACE), Michael Jai White and Gary Daniels. This CCTV production is expected to premiere in China in August.
For more details on LEGEND OF SHAOLIN KUNG FU visit Wu-Jing.org.
LEGEND OF SHAOLIN KUNG FU 2 forum thread
LEGEND OF SHAOLIN KUNG FU 1: HEROES IN TROUBLED TIMES previews
Anthony Wong • Ching Siu-Tung • gallery • Leung Ka-yan • shaolin • TV • Wu Ma • Yuen Bun