Godfrey Ho is undoubtedly one of the wildest film makers to emerge from The Wild, Wild East. Ho’s career bridges the gap between Chang Cheh’s traditional chop-socky operas and John Woo’s “Heroic Bloodshed” extravaganzas. His idea of social progress is arming gorgeous girls with Uzis and he’s made a lucrative living out of mix-and-matching bits of footage from other people’s abandoned projects. But when he was shooting in the Beijing morgue, it wasn’t old films that were getting chopped to bits…
Godfrey, did you ever believe that Hong Kong movies would cross over in the West to the extent that are doing now?
Oh yeah! I think there’s a real connection going on now between East and West… we’re learning from each other in terms of culture, technique and marketing. I made two movies in the U.S. with Cynthia Rothrock. We’re trying to combine Eastern culture, especially the kung fun and action elements, with Western stars, so that the Western audiences will find our movies more attractive.
The Eastern guy who’s really crossed over is John Woo… I believe you’ve worked with him?
It was a long time ago when we worked together for the great action director Chang Cheh at Shaw Brothers studio in Hong Kong. Many of us worked together there and after that we all went out to make our own movies. It was hard to work at Shaw Brothers then, because there were so many people working there, all wanting to direct, so we had to leave and find our own way of doing it.
What was it like, working for Chang Cheh?
He’s so very cultured and literate. He himself is a writer, very good at creating characters and what the market wanted then was heroes, the kind of superheroes who fight to the death. Chang Cheh has a very good team of choreographers working for him. Whatever he wanted to create on the screen, they could achieve it for him. He was very much people’s traditional idea of the director, a king at the studio. That was the tradition, chair and megaphone and everything, demanding whatever he wanted, a supreme director at the time. Unfortunately, by the time I became a director that wasn’t the way it was done anymore! (Laughs.) We had to work together with the whole crew like a big family.
And what are your memories of John Woo from those days?
He’s a good fellow, very creative… he’s created his own world. He’s not a very talkative guy but he had very definite ideas about what he wanted to achieve. It’s not easy though, to fulfil one’s ambitions, especially when you are a new director, because of commercial pressures… not many producers will venture a million dollars on a new director to make a film. The producers couldn’t care less about art, you know, they want to make money. Even Run Run Shaw was a business man, you’ll notice that most of the Shaw Brothers productions were commercial efforts.
Your movie Lethal Panther, released in the UK on video as Deadly China Dolls, unfolds like a John Woo film with girl bonding instead of male bonding…
Yes, I’m trying to do something different from what John Woo has been doing, the male gangster films with Chow Yun Fat. The girls aren’t weak anymore, they’re strong characters. I wanted to show an angle that is different from traditional Chinese society, where the women had to stay at home, looking after the children all their life… it’s not like that anymore. I’d like to think I’m helping social progress along with these movies.
Tell us about some of the girls you’ve worked with.
Girls like Moon Lee and Cynthia Rothrock have practiced some form of karate or kung fu before they became action actresses, just like Jackie Chan… he studied for years before he could do the things that he does now. Some of the other girls who are good at martial arts, though, are not such good actresses and our main priority now, in making exportable movies, is having characters who can act, because the Western markets insist on that. So sometimes we have to get around that with the way we shoot the scene. ≈The martial arts – what we call kung fu – in China, there are so many different styles of it and sometimes what the girls have been doing isn’t kung fu at all, it’s like tae kwan do or karate, which we can use for action sequences but it’s not kung fu. Moon Lee and Cynthia Rothrock, though, have studied our martial arts for years and are very good.
You made a movie called Magnificent Wonder Women Of Shaolin… what a fantastic title!
Oh, that was such a long time ago that I’d forgotten it… I’m amazed that you guys know about these movies! Certain audiences in the West still appreciate these these kung fu films but they aren’t popular in Hong Kong anymore, or in the Asian markets generally. That was quite an interesting movie actually, in traditional costume and with traditional kung fu fighting. At Shaw Brothers studio you would have a fight choreographer arranging the action around several different kung fu styles, before the editing. Now it’s changed, just three or four styles, quick ones, to make for a faster tempo. Back then, there was a big demand for the actors and actresses to know how to fight. Now it’s not so stringent, almost anybody can do that, as long as they know how to move… Andy Lau, that kind of actor, can do fight scenes. The actor will know nothing about kung fu or karate really but he will able to learn, to adapt quickly to whatever you are shooting.
You’ve worked with John Liu, who has his own fighting system called Zen Kwan Do… what’s that all about?
He evolved this style all his own, which is influenced a lot by kick boxing. John Liu is one of the best kickers, his kicking is really marvellous. I was working with him one day and he had kicked over a thousand times. I said to him: “John, aren’t you getting tired?” and he replied: “No Godfrey, I’m just getting warmed up here!”… an amazing guy! It’s hard to find somebody with a body that well trained… same thing goes for Jackie Chan.
You worked as an uncredited director on Liu’s Zen Kwan Do Strikes In Paris. The supposedly true story of that film (John’s father, a NASA scientist, has to be rescued from foreign agents by his son’s martial arts prowess) is a rather fanciful one, isn’t it?
I had been working for some time as a director and John was my assistant. He had his own ambitions and I was trying to bring his career along… he’s a good friend, you know? He got the opportunity to direct this picture and I said: “OK, I’ll help you with this” but unfortunately he set out to do too many jobs himself, as actor / writer / choreographer / director… I told him: “Come on John, it’s too much, you’re going to spread yourself too thinly.” He didn’t listen to me, so although the action parts are very, very good, the story of that film is a bit confusing… that’s the problem John had, there.
You also had him fighting Dragon Lee in your film The Dragon, The Hero… can you tell us something about this classic martial arts movie?
That was the first movie in which we tried to blend Eastern and Western cultures … my partner Joseph Lai of IFD films was very conscious of this massive Western market and wanted to do something aimed at that. The movie was not intended for the Taiwan and Hong Kong markets, but to be a commercial success in the West. It was a very good investment, regardless of how it did in the Asian markets… and of course, as we said, these movies are still very popular in Europe. The story is funny too, an Eastern story but in the Western style to make it easier for Europeans to accept. Sometimes it’s hard for a Westerner to follow the story in a traditional kung fu movie, it can look so strange and funny.
You went through a period of mixing and matching footage from different projects to be released under new titles by Joseph Lai…
(Laughs) That was a purely commercial exercise, because the market was crying out for product at that time, especially the video market, which was then booming. They wanted quantity rather than quality, so Joseph, who’s a very good producer, was again trying to render movies in a Western style, to polish them, add something that Westerners can understand by shooting additional footage.
There’s this story that you signed Richard Harrison to appear in a movie and the footage ended up in several different ones…
Not a lot of different movies, just the same martial arts movies really, a lot of ninja movies. Most of the ninjas in these movies wear masks, so it’s very difficult to tell who’s in there anyway! (laughs) Richard told he that was worried because he isn’t a martial artist, but I told him he’d do a great job as long as he could hold a sword and throw a ninja star, that would be OK, because somebody else, a stunt man, is going to be fighting for him. With all those masks, who can tell? We moved the ninja genre on two or three years with those movies… I made the action fun rather than violent because again, I am into making commercial movies.
Harrison famously turned down the lead role in A Fistful Of Dollars before it went to Clint Eastwood… what kind of a guy was he?
A very kind man, very good actor, very serious about his trade. He’s a real gentleman actually and we worked together very well. He lives in The States now.
Before one London screening of Lethal Panther / Deadly China Dolls a trailer was shown for your film The Men Behind The Sun Part 2 – Laboratory Of The Devil… I believe you had some walk-outs!
Yeah, they couldn’t take the stuff with the real dead bodies, but you have to understand, that was the only way we were able to work over there. That movie was aimed at the Korean market, where they still have a strong feeling about Japanese war crimes. Then the Chinese started to take an interest so we decided to make it with Chinese producers. I flew to Beijing and we started to work at the film studios there for three or four months. They’re really still working in the Russian system there, it’s not very up-to-date. I didn’t take anyone with me apart from the main actor, so I had to rely on the Chinese technicians, who were limited by the state of the industry over there. When we came to do a scene with a dead body, they said: “We can’t do it as a prosthetic, we don’t have the technique or the materials”, so they took me to the local hospital and we talked to the doctor, who let us film him while he performed an autopsy… so that was it!
What is your next career move? Will you be carrying on with the girls-and-guns stuff?
I think so. I will try to carry on making commercial movies that people want to watch, to make movie like Deadly China Dolls in more and more of a Western style…