In the early 1970s, before Bruce Lee popularized the martial arts genre, before the English overdubs became so easy to mock, the first kung fu film to be a hit in the West was Five Fingers of Death, directed by Korean director Chung Chang-wha. The cult classic is on filmmaker Quentin Tarantino’s 2002 list of his top 12 favorite films of all time. Tarantino, a well-known fan of cult cinema, paid homage to Chung in his Kill Bill flicks. The use of the “Ironside” TV theme before a fight and eye-gouging—give props to Five Fingers of Death, which was the title for its U.S. release; elsewhere it is known as King Boxer.
How Chung—who was recently honored at the San Diego Asian Film Festival in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of his film—came to be the man responsible for this kung fu classic, could be a film itself. But it would take multiple genre flicks, from war to family melodrama, to do justice to the life of Chung, replete with heartbreaking tragedy, obstacles being overcome and frenetic action. Lots and lots of action.
In pre-war Korea, Chung was possessed with a need to create. In college, he studied music composition, but what he really wanted to do was make movies. His father, a successful businessman, was less than thrilled with the idea of his son becoming a filmmaker but nevertheless helped Chung land a job as an assistant to Choi In-gyu, one of Korea’s top directors at the time. Chung recalls fetching seolleongtang for Chae’s breakfast each morning and other fond memories.
“[Chae] was mean,” said Chung, in Korean. “He would yell at the actors if they didn’t act well. And he would kick me, since I was standing next to him. So I learned to move away from him whenever the director got mad.” After being an assistant for about four years, Chung finally got the opportunity to direct his first film, using money borrowed from his father to produce the movie. But the Korean War cut that dream short. “The [North Korean] invasion happened, and everything burned,” said Chung.
Chung experienced the devastation of war firsthand; he remembered the collapse of a bridge over the Han River and seeing people plunge to their deaths. Chung was later captured by North Korean soldiers and accused of being a spy, but eventually a former teacher of his convinced the soldiers he was no spy.
After his release, Chung learned that his parents and one of his two brothers died while trying to reach Busan, where the family had agreed to rendezvous. A member of the South Korean army at the time, Chung was released from his military obligations in order to care for his younger brother. The one way he believed he could provide for his surviving family amidst the war was to complete his first film, and he used his inheritance to fund it. “I loved movies so much,” said Chung. “It was my life. I was able to find happiness through film.”
Success, however, eluded him. “Who had money to go to the movies?” said Chung, explaining why his film failed. “All that money invested was gone.”
With the war’s end, Chung was given the chance to make more movies, but he had something else in mind. “In Korea, the movies were heavily influenced by Japan, just dramas—melodramas, historic dramas. People sitting around, only talking,” said Chung.
The classic 1953 American Western film Shane left an impression on Chung “The story was good, and the tempo was fast. ‘We need to make movies like this. I need to get like this,’ is what I thought,” said Chung. “For Korean movies to live on, they would need to emulate the American style, with better stories and more faster-paced action.”
Years later, Chung shot a film in Hong Kong called Special Agent X-7, which caught the attention of Run Run Shaw, the head of the preeminent Hong Kong movie maker, Shaw Brothers Studio. Shaw recruited Chung to bring modern action sensibilities to their studio in the late 1960s, to go along with their slate of kung fu and wuxia films.
As the lone Korean working for the Shaw Brothers, Chung often didn’t get to work with the best fight choreographers, stuntmen or crew members. Meanwhile, the studio’s other directors would often give him the cold shoulder. “It happens everywhere,” said Chung. “Even amongst animals, when you come into their boundaries, they get defensive.‘ But I’m going to make it here,’ I thought. I had that kind of confidence.”
After enjoying success with his modern action movies, Chung wanted to expand into kung fu films as well. “I wanted to do a wuxia film because I hadn’t tried it yet, and because I wanted to show I could do that as well, and maybe even better,” said Chung. “[But] Run Run Shaw laughed when I said I wanted to do a wuxia film.”
But when those turned out to be hits as well, Shaw told Chung to make more, which eventually resulted in Five Fingers of Death, in 1972. “I thought I’d try to find the middle point between wuxia and the modern martial art film in order to be attractive to not only the Hong Kong and Chinese audience, but also abroad and America. That was Five Fingers Of Death.”
Chung was now established in Hong Kong, but one day he got a call from South Korean President Park Chung-hee. “[Park] said, ‘If you come and make films here, I’ll support you’,” said Chung. “I made a lot of money in Hong Kong. And I also felt homesick.”
About a year and a half after Chung’s return, Park was assassinated, and his eventual successor, military strongman Chun Doo-hwan, censored multiple forms of expression. For Chung, that meant 10 to 20 minutes of his films would be randomly cut. “People wouldn’t understand the story, so the films just flopped,” said Chung. “All the money I made in Hong Kong, I lost.”
With his health deteriorating, his wife took action. “Without telling me, she got the visas to immigrate to America,” said Chung. They settled in the San Diego suburb of La Jolla and his filmmaking career came to an end.
Today, Chung is highly regarded by both the Korean and Hong Kong film industries. He was an early supporter of Hong Kong action director John Woo, and Im Kwon-taek was one of his assistants.
In November, the San Diego Asian Film Festival joined other festivals in honoring Chung on the occasion of Five Fingers of Death’s 40th anniversary. The hometown crowd, filled with friends, had Chung beaming and speaking some phrases in English, which he is very reluctant to do in public. At his age, which he would not reveal, he still cuts an impressive figure. And he still has the fingers of a man you don’t want to mess with.
This article was published in the December 2012 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today!