, one of the great martial arts
directors to emerge from Hong Kong cinema
in the latter part of the 20th Century
. Also an actor
He was born in Canton (Guandong province) in about 1935 (sources give 1934-1937) into a family steeped in the tradition of the martial arts. His father, a professional teaching master named Lau Cham, had studied under Lam Sai Wing, the famous Butcher Wing, whose sifu was legendary exponent of Hung Gar, martial arts master Wong Fei Hung (that's the guy that Jackie Chan plays in Drunken Master.)
Liu started learning at seven. When the family later moved to Hong Kong, his father continued his teaching and became friends with some people involved in the young movie industry, going on to play his own sifu, Lam Sai-Wing, in the long-running Wong Fei Hung series (a gargantuan series running to over 100 full length films, by now.)
After initial doubts, because the filming process was so boring, with huge delays between takes, Chia Liang started taking small roles, achieving his first success in the Wong Fei Hung series.
In a 1984 interview with the high-powered intellectual French cinema magazine Les Cahiers du Cinema, he describes the state of the industry at the time:
At the time, to play in a kung fu movie, was it necessary to know about it or were there at the movie studios some sort of school?
No there wasn't any kung fu school for actors such as the one the Shaw built later. At that time, those who were doing fighting scenes in the movies belong to what was called the "Wu Heng" (discipline of the "martial"), like those who make somersaults at opera and who are not necessarily kung fu adepts like us.
Did kung fu masters disapproved of their colleagues, who first agreed to do movies?
No, there wasn't any reprobation from them. The only problem, was that movies at that time were not quite made for kung fu peoples like us. In those movies, the fights were quite bogus; there was no contact! While for us, who were doing real kung fu, we had to hit a opponent and fast! The main actors could hardly withstand our blows. Once I was called for a week but by the end of the first day, the actors didn't wanted me anymore, they were too scared of me.
The actress Yu Su Qiu for example, never gave one single true punch in any of her movies. In the movie world, they said Guoshu but not Gongfu (kung fu). It was only with the Wong Fei Hung serial that true kung fu appeared first on screen. Martial art masters had told themselves; why not show in the movies true kung fu, like we're doing it? Thus, several kung fu schools associated one another, each doing it's part in the budget to produce the Wong Fei Hung
serial. All the main parts were given to kung fu adepts, no amateurs. After the beginning of this series, directors didn't want any artists who didn't know about martial arts.
It's southern kung fu which we see in Wong Fei Hung?
Yes southern. Wong Fei Hung, who was the patriarch of the school I belong to, was himself a southerner. Many schools have been founded by his disciples of the third generation: my father and his fellow-students for example. I was too young to be taught by those old masters like Lu Acai, Lam Sai Wing, Wong Fei Hung.
At the time of the Wong Fei Hung serial, the audience were dismissing the Cantonese movies and favored instead the mandarin ones with bigger budget?
Yes. When we were doing Wong Fei Hung, we were a separate team. Others producers or directors didn't wanted any of us in their movies. They thought we only knew kung fu, and were unable to do comedies or anything else. There was a very strict division. Drama were produce by Yonghua, opera movies by Cantonese singers. A part from that, mandarin speaking studios like Shaw or Cathey were quite contemptuous toward us. They considered their level of quality quite superior. They had actors and actresses like Li Lihua or Yan Jon who would never lowered themselves to do a Cantonese movie.
Moving behind the camera, Chia Liang started taking on the responsibilities of a fight choreographer around 1960
. His first big hit was with Jade Bow
, produced by the "pro-mainland, pro-communist" company Great Wall
. The film enjoyed considerable success, mainly due to the novel fight scenes, and Shaw Brothers
, the leading film company of the day, hired him after learning that he was the choreographer.
Along with Tong Kai, who handled crowd scenes, he choreographed many films for Shaw Brothers' leading director Chang Cheh through a period in the company's history that spanned the flowering and decline of the wu xia (swordplay) genre and the mid-seventies birth of the 'modern' kung fu flick. Influential and innovative, films such as The One-Armed Swordsman and The Boxer from Shantung owed a lot of their success to Liu's unique choreography. By the seventies, Chang Cheh's melodramatic, over-serious directorial style was losing touch with the cinema-going public and the director himself had little understanding or appreciation of the kung fu skills used in his films. Both Liu and Chang Cheh found themselves working in awkward conditions in Taiwan, for a subsidiary of Shaw's, because though Shaw had a made lot of money in the country, they couldn't legally extract it, and so spent it on making films there.
Asked by a troubled Chang Cheh what direction the wu xia cinema should take, Liu advised a 'back to basics' approach, with more emphasis on the real kung fu skills and mythos and less on the wirework; more cheerful endings, where the villain doesn't always have to die, and where the hero doesn't have to hold his intestines in place manually for the final fight scene; and more comedy throughout. At least partly following this advice, Cheh went on to make a sequence of films based on legendary Shaolin figures: Heroes Two, Men From the Monastery, Shaolin Martial Art, Five Shaolin Masters and Disciples of Shaolin, which were instrumental in pulling the industry out of its post-Bruce Lee doldrums.
When he finally took on a directorial role, in 1975, reportedly after falling out with Chang Cheh, he created Spiritual Boxer -- probably the first kung fu comedy as such, and the first modern Wong Fei Hung film; in both respects it was the direct ancestor of films such as Snake Under Eagle's Shadow and Drunken Master that were to rocket Jackie Chan to stardom. The director's adopted brother, Gordon Lau (Liu Chia Hui) took the starring Wong Fei Hung role.
After this auspicious start, and with the kung fu genre sprouting interesting new shoots all around him, in no small part due to his own exemplary work in the preceding decade, he carved out a unique place in Hong Kong cinema for himself. In seminal films such as 36th Chamber and particularly Dirty Ho he demonstrates his ability to seamlessly combine his intricate, powerful and always authentic choreography with the traditional director's tasks of moving the plot and developing characters - to an extraordinary degree - while always leaving the audience involved, amused, or simply gaping. Thematically, his works from this period are focused on simple human concerns: trust, family, power and the teacher/student relationship.
As the ever-fickle audience tired of this brand of historical kungfu, in favour of the 'Gun-fu', and Jackie Chan/Sammo Hung action comedies with more modern settings, the director (who had in fact prepared the way for these newer talents) started producing his own action comedies (Tiger on the Beat, starring Donny Yen is notable, in particular) but never really regained the box-office success he'd enjoyed previously. Together with an ill period, when he was hospitalised with cancer in the mid-eighties, this has to some extent written him off for modern producers. He's reluctant (after falling out with the backers on Drunken Master II, which he made some contribution to, and which he's still given the director's credit for) to embark on projects for which he doesn't have full control, though he's still given the odd outing as an actor, usually in the role of a martial arts master of some kind.
His fight scene with Sammo Hung, in Pedicab Driver, where he plays the owner of a gambling casino through whose ornate and expensive-looking windows Sammo drives the eponymous pedicab, sees him convincingly whup this comparative youngster, in what is considered by many to be the finest pole-fight scene in cinema.
Filmography (as director. Films where he also appears as an actor are marked '*')
Also (snippets which I will hopefully add to, from time to time:)
Choreographer/Actor in 30 Million Dollar Rush (Carl Mak, 1985) (modern slapstick/action comedy)