PROFILE: Actor/Director: Sammo Hung

Sammo Hung is one of the most prolific stars/innovators/directors/martial arts choreographers in this history of Eastern cinema. Known more for his impressive fighting skills that belie his girth and his adept hand at comedy, his path to cinematic success was perhaps not so surprising. Born in Jiangsu province on 2nd January 1952, young Sammo came from a family of film workers and is the grandson of a celebrated actress. His mother was a movie art director.

As a child, young Sammo - his stage name is a nickname taken from a cartoon character popular at the time (literally translated it means three hairs) – was, by his own admission, a truant and a street kid, something of a bully. Directionless and hard to control, he was signed up for a stay of seven years at the Peking Opera School under the tutelage of Sifu Yu Jim Yuen to learn the practicalities of Chinese opera. This was a blessing for Sammo, who harboured a dream of acting, as his workaholic parents were busy and the grandparents rearing him were getting desperate at his antics.

Excelling at the strict discipline imposed, he headed a team called the Seven Little Fortunes, which also comprised schoolmates Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao. The conditions were hard, and much has been written about the often brutal regime. Sammo said: “We had to sign an agreement, a contact for seven years. On the third day after I signed it, I started to regret it, because the master beat the hell out of me. We were once made to do a handstand on a stool placed on a table. We did for an hour and a half.” Sammo and the other students terrible lives were immortalised on screen in his film Painted Faces. The movie does not shy away from the beatings and conditions they lived in, as they were trained for long hours each day in stage combat, acrobatics, singing and dance.

A broken ankle as a teenager saw him unable to train and he packed on a lot of weight, which he was forever unable to shift. Before his apprenticeship in film truly began, he received that trademark scar on his top lip. If you look carefully, its part of a circle that goes into his right cheek, a remnant of a broken coke bottle shoved into his face outside a Kowloon nightclub by a gangster who disliked Sammo’s acrobatics on the dance floor.

Once free of his contract with the school, Sammo set his sharp sights on a career in film and became an apprentice at 16 years of age. Starting out on screen as a hefty stuntman and ‘heavy’, he soon graduated to a credited extra. His first supporting role of note was in A Touch Of Zen, cited as possibly the first Chinese fight flick to garner international acclaim. This helped Sammo gain a contract with Golden Harvest, one of the most venerated studios in Eastern cinema. He was charged with staging fights in 1971 film The Fast Sword. He stayed with Golden Harvest until 1989. By now his name was growing and his professionalism and sharp uptake of the techniques of filmmaking was also proving him a reliable addition to a film set off-camera.

After a minor altercation with the late great Bruce Lee, the men became friends. Bruce asked Sammo to appear in Enter The Dragon, 1973. Sammo is the poor chubby fellow getting a kicking in the opening scene. This association with the Lee legacy continued as Sammo choreographed and appeared in Game Of Death (what was to have been Bruce’s next big screen project) and also worked with his daughter, Shannon Lee, in an episode of CBS show Martial Law.

Hapkido, 1972, gave Sammo a large supporting role alongside Angela Mao and Carter Wang. He plays a tempestuous young Hapkido student who cannot stay away from a challenge. He studied the martial art for the movie, a form of method acting he continued through his career, such as learning the art of nunchucks for Enter The Fat Dragon, a movie where he idolises the late Bruce Lee and does an impressive impersonation - other deft impersonations of Bruce can be seen in Skinny Tiger Fatty Dragon, a slightly disappointing film but still riotous amount of fun with Karl Maka, and Millionaires Express. Sammo’s character takes on a highly skilled Cynthia Rothrock and channels the late master to defeat her.

By now Sammo was moving out of the being the ‘bad guy’ supporting role into a ‘good guy’ and lead man. Iron Fisted Monk, 1977, saw Sammo’s official directorial debut. He plays a young man seeking vengeance against the oppressive Manchu’s over the death of his uncle. Taking himself to a Shaolin temple, he learns to fight to seek his revenge. The movie proved he had a good eye, knew how to frame a shot and pace a storyline. He also had the reputation of wanting realism in his fight scenes and made sure that actors actually did land the blows they threw.

Along with Enter The Fat Dragon, Sammo was seen to be the natural successor to Bruce Lee as Hong Kong cinema’s next big thing. But a young Jackie Chan put paid to that with his appearance in Drunken Master, and he went on to become the biggest star in Asia. Sammo, who’d made the classic Magnificent Butcher (a movie that used Drunken Master as a supporting character), was not bitter as they were students together back at the Peking Opera School. They decided current cinema was derivative of the old times and something new was needed, so they set out to work together. Along with the stunning physical ability of Yuen Biao, who Sammo introduced to the cinematic world in movies such as Knockabout, this triumvirate would be affectionately named the Three Brothers. Project A, Wheels On Meals and Dragons Forever, as well as The Lucky Stars series, would mark the Three Brothers’ screen endeavours. Each movie is credited as a modern classic, and the affection and seasoned interplay between them works like no other screen partnership had before.

A small falling out between Sammo and Jackie saw this profitable and box office smashing partnership end in bad feeling. Sammo continued to work with Yuen Biao in great pieces like Eastern Condors, and continue his own leading man career with a rash of comedies like Where’s Officer Tuba, Pantyhose Hero and Skinny Tiger Fatty Dragon. He also built up three movie companies of his own and took other projects on as action director. But as he stretched his talents, his movies took less at the box office. Looking back, Eastern Condors is credited as an absolute classic, a 1988 endeavour that sees a group of criminals dropped in Vietnam to retrieve a stashed arsenal. Yet, at the time, it got a lukewarm reception. His late-70s and early to mid-80s heyday was waning.

With his divorce in 1994 from his Korean wife and Peking Opera School sweetheart and mother of his four children, Sammo’s career had nosedived. The Chinese public do not look favourably on divorce, and the quick turnaround in marrying his new wife and Eastern Condors co-star Joyce Mina Godenzi saw him fall out of favour. Struggling to find work in an industry that once embraced him, and after a string of flops that included Don’t Give A Damn and The Pale Sky, he decided to relocate.

With Stanley Tong and the script help of Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, a vehicle was built around our now middle-aged hero. Martial Law was set in Los Angeles and ran for two seasons between 1998-2000. A surprising hit in its first season, Sammo played a good hearted Shanghai police Captain who travels to the US to find his best detective, Grace Chen, played by the beautiful Kelly Hu. Some tweaking of the format saw him gain a partner in Arsenio Hall early in the run. Broadcast on CBS in a prime-time Saturday slot it exposed Hung to a new crop of potential fans and career opportunities. Although he struggled with the English, and was said to have recited some lines phonetically, he shone in the show with specially choreographed fight scenes to best display his skill. Obligatory outtakes at the end of each episode show his struggles with understanding and speaking the language, but also show a fun-loving respected character off-screen.

LA’s TV industry seemed to respect him in a way that Hong Kong once had. Even though a disastrous change of format made sure the second season was sadly the last, Sammo had broadened his range and fan base. The advent of DVD and downloading saw his once old dusty movies remastered, repackaged and sold around the world. His impressive physical skill, direction and natural ability as an actor won him new fans and deeper admiration.

Going back to China he found work again, working with the new wave of stars. Roles supporting Vanness Wu in Dragon Squad, Maggie Q in Three Kingdoms and his own Son Timmy Hung in Kung-Fu Chefs came fast. He has also worked with Wu Jing in Twins Mission and Fatal Move. But it’s his continuing relationship with the exploding star that is Donnie Yen that has seen Sammo happily back home and cemented. His choreography in modern classic Ip Man won him a Hong Kong Film Award. Also, he played a Triad boss in Wilson Yip’s acclaimed crime drama SPL (international title Kill Zone), his first foray into ‘bad guy’ territory for twenty-five years. This was the first chance to face off against Donnie Yen on screen in a whirlwind of Brazilian Jujitsu, a satisfying final fight reel that showed a man in his mid-fifties could still dance with the younger crop.

His re-emergence however was stilted after emergency heart surgery in early 2009. Making a recovery he worked on Ip Man 2, even taking another role opposite Donnie Yen. With a slew of projects in the pipeline it’s good to see the greatest exponent of Hong Kong cinema back on the cusp of the cutting edge. JM

1 comment:

  1. Good profile - glad to see it is up to date, thanks for a great site. Interview with Sammo Hung talking about Ip Man 2: