The recent recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Venice Film Festival, Chung Chang-Wha is the Korean director, who changed the face of international movies. As a boy, he studied music but after seeing a movie by director Choi In-Kyu, he begged his father to get him a job in film. He was apprenticed to Director Choi, and began a tough apprenticeship. After losing his parents and one of his brothers in the Korean War, he went into filmmaking as a way to provide for his surviving family. His early movies weren’t much loved, and after losing all of his family’s money on his film The Final Temptation, he was at a dead end.
Wondering what to do next, he realized that the Korean movies of the day were slow-moving melodramas and tearjerkers, and he decided he had to do something different. Taking Shane as his model, he taught himself how to film action from a Korean perspective, and in 1960 he released A Sunny Field, which became a hit and was heralded as a breath of fresh air. Next came a series of action movies for which he taught himself special effects, developed new techniques for filming action, and kept up with the international trends of the time. Then, when King Hu’s Come Drink With Me swept Asia, he began to make uniquely Korean swordplay movies.
Traveling to Hong Kong in 1966, he made two films on location, shooting with hidden cameras on the streets of the city for a James Bond style movie, Secret Agent X-7. The head of the Shaw Brothers studio, Run Run Shaw, was impressed with the footage and invited him to make a movie for Shaw. Run Run Shaw had always worked with Japanese and Korean talent, but he was so impressed by Chung’s work that he offered him a long contract and required his other directors to study Chang’s work.
His biggest movie for Shaw, King Boxer (Five Fingers of Death), was a massive international hit and he made several other films for them, often mentoring young filmmakers like John Woo. But after King Boxer, Chung had a disagreement with Run Run Shaw over costumes and budgets, and left for Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest studios. There he worked with Sammo Hung and Angela Mao on movies like The Skyhawk, The Association, and Broken Oath. At the invitation of the Korean government, he returned to Korea and began to make movies there.
Chung Chang-Wha is responsible, as much as Bruce Lee, for sparking the international kung fu craze in the 70’s, and for innovating action filmmaking at Shaw Brothers. He’s also one of the most important pioneers in the Korean film industry, and he has given the world King Boxer (Five Fingers of Death) that has influenced directors from Quentin Tarantino to Edgar Wright. That’s more than enough for one lifetime.