Interview de Toby Russell
TOBY RUSSELL and Taiwanese Kung Fu movies
You said you wanted to meet Robert Tai after you had seen "Devil Killer". What did strike you the most in Robert Tai's work to the point you wanted to meet him?
I was a R. Tai fan after I saw Incredible kung fu mission, secret rivals 3, and thundering mantis (I did not know he made Venoms films at that time even though I had seen most of the Venom films) So one day I am at the cinema in Leister square I see a Poster "coming soon Devil Killer" the poster is in chinese but I can read many chinese words and I saw that Robert Tai directed this film, so I knew it must be something good, so finally when I saw it, it blew my mind right from the opening credits till the end fights, they were different to all the fights I had seen in other films, they were overpacked with movement and all of the frame was used with fighting, no people running around waiting to fight, they all fight at once, stylish, acrobatic weapons and powerful moves, it was like fireworks. After the film, I said to my friend Wayne archer (actor in many HK films): "I must go to Taiwan and find that Tai guy and work for him -he's mad"
When I first arrived in Taiwan I only had the telephone number of Chiang Sheng he was too busy to show me around so asked him for the number of Chu Ker, (I knew him from HK and was a real cool guy). I called him up and went to visit him. We hang out for many days whilst he was shooting TV. I met a kid there called XIao Shan, we became good mates. I asked him if he knew Tai, he said yes he knew him as he was made a series for him called "Big monk little hero" (very good show), he gave me the number of Alexander so I rang him up, He thought I was joking when I told him I was a fan of his and wanted to meet him, anyway we met and I told him about the kung fu craze in UK, USA and west indies, he never knew about it and was shocked, he said he would bring Tai to a meeting soon.
I did not meet Eugene and Silvio until a few days later at Mr Lan's house. Silvio was originally from South America, he was studying kung fu in Taipei, he only made Mafia v Ninja and Ninja Final Duel. He left after the filming to Dallas to open a kung fu school.
Robert Tai and Alexander Lo first met for "Incredible Kung Fu Mission" (if I'm not wrong). How is born and how was their particular Master / Disciple relation? Are there notable differences with your personal connections with Robert Tai?
Alexander was the kid brother of Tang Lung, who made films in the early 70's. In fact Devil killer uses his film for the old parts. I guess Tang Lung sent Alexander to Lam Tien Hung after he won the Taiwan 1978 Tae Kwan do championship. Tai liked Alexander right from the start and asked him if he wanted to study film making under him, he agreed and worked with him on films like Heroes and Fistfull of talons before Devil killer and Shaolin v Ninja.
Your Robert Tai's filmography published in Eastern Heroes N°6 contains totally different production years than the ones usually seen on the internet. Shaolin Vs Ninja would had been done in 1980 instead of 1983, so becomes his first movie entirely directed by him, Mafia Vs Ninja would had been done in 1982 instead of 1984, and Shaolin against Lama and Ninja Vs Shaolin Guards would had been done in 1981, so before Mafia Vs Ninja.
shaolin v ninja 80/1
Shaolin Vs Ninja is considerate by fans like an important step for action filming and wire works, Ching Siu Tung himself would have been influenced by it with the help of his brother who worked on it. What makes the movie so special in your opinion and what is the story behind its production and shooting? Could you explain why this movie is such underestimated today and the print in such a bad shape?
The film is the brain child of Lam Tien Hung and Robert Tai, at that time Ninja movies were in because of Sho Kosugi films. What was unique about this film is that some of the stuntmen/actors used were the best asia had seen at that time and remain so to this day. This was even said by Samo and Yuen Kwai who used some of them on Ninja in the dragons den (With tai's permission). Jackie also wanted Tai's men fro Dragon Lord bun hill scene, Tai said he would allow it only if Jackie let him shoot the scene, Jackie refused (Jackie, Samo, and Tai are good friends since teenage)
I don't think Ching Siu Tung's brother worked on this film but Alan Hsu did and he is a good friend of Siu tung and it was him who passed on a lot of the secrets to Ching, also Ching can view the film in private in a HK lab. You can see the scene when the Shaolin abbot is killed by ninjas it's almost the same in Duel to the death as Shaolin v Ninja.
Fists of Legends 2 is a "two-rolled-in-one" movie initially taken from "Return of the Assassin" (1973) choreographed by Lau Kar Wing, withLarry Lee that you seem to like much seeing the place you give him in Top Fighter. How was born this crazy, almost insane mixture between a fake Bruce Lee and a fake Jet Li?
My Friend George Tan came up with the Idea as he was given The Larry lee film "The Bodyguard" to him by Roy Mc Aree the owner of the film, I just produced it, I enjoyed this project very much everything went smoothly ,we shot the new footage in 4 and a half days, I wanted William Yen to be the lead , but he said he was retired from films, he said Tai had worked him too hard and all for nothing, so he left to open a restaurant in Shichuan China, shame as he is much better than Jet Le. Van damage (Todd senefonte) was the real double for Van Damme on many of VD films, he showed Van Damme the film, Van Damme was so impressed that he fired him.
Ninja Final Duel has been edited and reedited several times to be released on different format. The last example is Shaolin Dolemite with the modern addition of Rudy Ray Moore. What does Robert Tai initially wanted to do with almost 12 hours of rushes? What's your contribution in that long process, and finally how do you come to choose Rudy Ray Moore?
I asked Tai what was the original Idea of the movie and he himself is not sure, the project was financed by a Malaysian millionaire called Terry Chang he also owned Kings Video in Taiwan (Tai got him the Shaw's deal)
How do you explain that such a brilliant creative man like Robert Tai had never benefited from bigger budgets and why were you almost the only one who follows him?
The problem with Tai is his temperament, he has a very powerful personality, if a producer can not handle him they are finished, Lo Wei fired him, Sun Chung fired him, Chang Cheh and him had many fights - he close down the venoms sets many times. Once he even flew back to Taiwan out of protest during the filming of Life Gamble, Mona Fong had to send people to beg him to return as the could not finish the film without him, Chang Cheh said the footage is no good unless Tai is involved. He is very creative and he does not like being told what to do, you must leave him alone and let him do his thing, as soon as you tell him no I want this or that, he shouts at you: "if you want that then do it yourself!"
ABOUT TAIWANESE KUNG FU MOVIES In the early 80's
In the early 80's, Taiwanese independent kung fu movie scene seemed like a little world where every one knew each other. Was there a Taiwanese big family? What were the relations between Robert Tai, Ng Kwok Yan, William Cheung Kei, Lee Tso Nam and Joseph Kuo? At which scale did you get involve with them?
All these guys know each other since the late Sixties; they are like a big family. I worked with many of them in some way or other, acting, producing, interviews, odd jobs, like bringing negatives for Lee Yi Min, many things. It's sad there is no movie industry here anymore. Chang Kee is the son of Lam Tien Hung, Mr Lam's other Son is Lan Hai Han the young ninja master in Mafia v Ninja, he later worked for Tsui Hark (swordsman 2, the blade). I wonder why????
Do you think early 80's Taiwanese Directors are still or have been underestimated relating to their influence on modern action and ninja action? If yes, what are the reasons for that?
No, I think most people in the world know that Taiwanese ninjas are the best, most of them were trained by Tai in the park during pre filming of Shaolin v ninja. Ask Yuen Kwai why he used them in Ninja in the dragons den.
Several Shaw Brothers Actors played in Taiwanese movies at this period like Ti Lung with the Venoms and Yasuaki Kurata, Chen Kuan Tai with Lee Tso Nam and Jimmy Wang Yu with himself. Ti Lung told me it was not a very happy period for him. What do you know about the atmosphere on those pictures, especially Shanghai 13, but also other ones like Ninja in the deadly trap, Life of a ninja and Challenge of the lady ninja with Chen Kuan Tai and Yasuaki Kurata?
Ti lung told me twice that Heroes was his fave Taiwan film, he was sad at that time as Shaw brothers were going down. Shanghai 13 was done by Hwang Kwo Chu and not Tai, I understand the film had many small problems.
Do you think the return of the Venoms to Taiwan and the shooting of Ninja in the Deadly Trap sound a bit like the dusk of this generation of fighters all presented later in Shanghai 13? How did Philip Kwok, Lu Feng and Chiang Sheng feel during those shootings?
Lu feng and Chiang Sheng were happy to return to Taiwan, Phillip kwok was not, Chiang Sheng really could not care less about movies, they mean nothing to him, I was with him in HK for the premiere of Attack of the joyful goddess , the cinema was full so he said let's not watch the film lets go eat instead.
Your Robert Tai filmography dated Heaven and Hell from 1977 instead of 1980, so who's right?
Of course it's 77