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Filmart: Martial Arts Master Sammo Hung on Being “a Happy Dictator on Set”



You could argue that no one has done more for cinema in Asia, and more for global cinema from Asia, than Sammo Hung.

There was proof of that on display at the Asian Film Awards on Sunday night (Hong Kong time) when the veteran filmmaker and martial arts master was handed a lifetime achievement award and a highlight reel traced his 200-plus film career back to the 1960s and showed the audience flashes of the genius that has driven Hung’s career ever since.

From child star to getting bashed by Bruce Lee in the opening scenes of Enter the Dragon; from an assistant to the great Hong Kong action director King Hu to the stunt director who helped guide Jackie Chan and helped invent the action comedy genre and on to the star and director of a string of hits of his own, Hung has helped shape the action genre into what we see it today. That he’s still going strong is further testament to his talent – ​​and, at 71 years of age, he’s just starred in another martial arts film that’s in post-production.

There was even more proof of Hung’s impact on display in LA Sunday night when Michelle Yeoh could be found waiting to see whether she’d be honored with the best actress Oscar for her role in Everything Everywhere All at Once. The Malaysia-born actress is just one among generations to have had their talent discovered, nurtured and then fully realized under Hung’s guidance. He gave Yeoh her first role – a tiny part in The Owl vs Bombo(1984) – quickly spotted her star power and gave her the lead in her very next film, Yes, ma’amthe very next year.

Hung’s own origin story is worthy of cinematic treatment. Raised in Hong Kong under the guidance of his grandmother and martial arts master Chin Tsi-ang, Hung joined the prominent Chinese Drama Academy aged around nine, and he was trained in the arts of Peking opera alongside Chan, and other future action directors including Corey Yuen (X-Men). “The most important thing was that you learned very quickly because our Master would hit us!” laughed Hung as he recalled the discipline of those days, during a sitdown interview with The News84Media in the lead-up to the Asian Film Awards.

From there Hung worked his way through the ranks of the massive Shaw Brothers studio, working on what are now martial arts classics, including Hu’s seminal Come Drink With Me (1966), before establishing himself a star in his own right, both behind and in front of the camera. Often playing his portly figure off against his dexterous, gravity defying martial arts skills, Hung mixed action and comedy and sometimes striking social drama into the films that followed across the decade. “If people are looking at my career I want them to say here was a man who never gave up,” says Hung.

In his chat with THRthe veteran filmmaker discussed his career and legacy, as well as discovering new talent.

Congratulations on the lifetime achievement award. Can you remember how you felt when this journey began, and were you always confident that your “lifetime” would be spent in film?

The cinema scene has been really quiet over the past three years, and for action films not many things have happened over the last five to six years. From 2020 it has felt so quiet for me as well, almost as though I am an outsider of the movie scene. So when I was told of the lifetime achievement award, I felt really surprised and happy because it felt as if people still know me – and it validates the work I have done in cinema. You know when I started out in film I never thought of a “lifetime achievement award.” I didn’t think of any awards. Every day in my work I just thought about doing the best I could do, and about how I could do really good things. That’s what I have done every day since I started.

In those early days who did you look for – in terms of inspiration and guidance?

King Hu was like an uncle, but more. It’s a really hard thing to explain just what I learned from him because there was so much. I would always go to his house and then I would talk to him about life, about philosophy, about society, about everything then at 5am he would shut down his home and we would go off and we would start making films.

What do you enjoy most about the creative process of bringing your ideas to the big screen?

Everything I have done has been important, whether it has been successful or not, because in everything I have done I have tried my best. I’ve always tried to give the audience new things to see. I learned that you have to keep thinking about your work, and about new ideas. Keep thinking all the time. I read a lot of comic books. I loved comic books. So I tried to capture that inspiration and try to make some variations on what I saw in comics but make it seem real on the screen. That was where the inspiration first came from.

You’re also known for your skill in identifying talent – ​​what do you look for when choosing to work with other filmmakers?

I won’t talk about individuals but I can say that the most important thing with all of them is trust. You have to find people you can trust and who will trust you and the ideas that you want to involve them in. I’d like to say what I like most about making movies is being able to scold people and get away with it. But the truth is I am a happy dictator on set. I am in charge but I am authentic.

Can you share your thoughts on how you see the Hong Kong film scene today – what encourages you about it?

There is not much I can say other than I am happy. Box office is back, cinema is back. Since 2020 no one, not even me, was going to the cinema. So when Hong Kong audiences are supporting Hong Kong cinema it is a really good thing, for the industry and for the city. So hopefully we’re seeing more people go back to the cinema now.

Have you spent time in the lead up to this award reflecting on your journey and the impact you have made?

If there was one word I could use for my career it would be ‘good’. This is a small word but it can mean a lot. When I was young I made good choices – and I followed those good choices until now. When a man is “good,” it means that he has the determination and persistence to pursue the role he has chosen – and he didn’t give up. I have always kept the two parts of my life separate. Film is not necessarily related to real life. As you can see, these days there are a lot of people experiencing really bad things, really sad things in their lives. Film for them is entertainment. It can make you escape the realities of your life, but it can give you some new hope.

Can you share a message for the young filmmakers who look to you and your work for inspiration?

The first thing is you have to be hard-working. The second thing is don’t give up easily. And the third thing is if you see anything – any idea, any inspiration – please grab it.

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