When I read Toby Russell’s Q&A by John Richard’s on his excellent (but dead…) wasted life website, I thought about other questions I wanted to ask, about him, Robert Tai and Taiwanese kung fu. Today, I’ve my answers, and even more. And for Ara‘s pleasure, it’s in english!
A three parts Q&A with TOBY RUSSELL
Toby Russell is a key man in independant kung fu movie scene and had worked many years in HK and Taiwan before co-founding « Vengeance video », the « Eastern Heroes » video label. He’s also a Robert Tai’s friend since 1984 and a fan since before 1980, especially when he saw Devil killer and then absolutly wanted to meet this « mad » man as he calls him.
Toby’s knowledge has allowed us to ask a wide range of questions. So this is not just my questions for drkungfu and cinemasie but also my friends from HKCinemagic and Nanarland who bring together to explore with Toby this too unknown universe. Hopefully for us, He kindly answers to all our questions with great openness and we all thank him for his time and his kindness.
This three parts Q&A has been done by mail.
In the first part, Toby Russell gives us important clues about Tai’s world, his crew which he was himself fully involved, and Taiwanese 80’s kung fu movie scene.
In the second part, Arnaud Lanuque from hkcinemagic.com has added more questions about Toby and his journey to kung fu movies in the 80’s and 90’s.
And finally, Nanarland.com team adds more questions about bruceploitation wave, Godfrey Ho and Malaysian cinema.
PART 1 :
TOBY RUSSELL and Taiwanese Kung Fu movies
ABOUT ROBERT TAI AND TOBY RUSSELL’s experience with him
Toby Russell in Shaolin Dolemite.
Yannick Langevin : You said you wanted to meet Robert Tai after you had seen Devil Killer, What strikes you the most in Robert Tai’s work to the point you wanted to meet him?
Toby Russell : 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 »
Y.L. : You said Robert Tai asked you to act in Mafia Vs Ninja, 3 hours version. You already knew Alexander Lo. How did you meet Eugene Thomas and Sylvio Azzolini?
T.R. : 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.
Later that night, he rang me and said Tai and Lam Tien Hung wanted to meet me. So we met the next day, it was great, Lan brought loads of stillz of Mafia v ninja and said this is my new film we want to make an extended video version do you want to be in it? (I also got Mimmo a part in the film) it was then that Tai told me he made all those venom films,
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.
Eugene on the other hand had been in Taiwan a while, he was on a Semi pro Basketball team owned by Ng See Yuen, he had met Billy Chong and Carl scott. He met Alexander at Wong Tao’s gym and that how he got in to Tai’s movies, he also made many good films in Taiwan for other directors, No one’s heard from him since around 1990.
Y.L. : 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?
T.R. : 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.
Alexander Lou and Robert Tai, master and disciple in front and behind the camera.
Y.L. : 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.
How do you explain those differences that have a notable incidence on the journey of Robert Tai and his crew?
shaolin v ninja 80/1
Shaolin chasity 81/82
ninja guards of shaolin 82
Shaolin against Lama 82
Y.L. : Considering your Robert Tai filmography, did you saw Shaolin Vs Ninja before getting involved in Mafia Vs Ninja?
T.R. : Yes I saw it in 83 in Malaysia , I met them in 84
Y.L. : 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?
T.R. : 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)
The stuntmen I talk about are N°18 Lee Hai Hsing, N°5 Wu Hao (sadly he was paralysed form the neck down whilst shooting Shaolin against lama), he did the double for Conan lee in Ninja in Dragon’s den – on the table top, he also doubled for Chan Siu Lung in of cooks of kung fu, the double front somersault with no trampoline or ramp. The 3rd was William Yen a younger class mate of the other two, they all went to Hai Kwang (Navey) Opera school. There was also N°7 Ah Yung (he was the sword and sheild guy and also the
swordsman in Ninja Vs Shaolin Guards). It was their high performance acobatics and guts together with Tai’s creative mind that made Shaolin v Ninja a classic. There were moves in that film that were so dangerous like when N°18 flips down the stairs at night, or N°5 flips off the wall, or William Yen perfoms back flips on posts, (this top shot was cut from the film). I asked Tai why he did those dangerous moves as they would be wasted on the public, he said « those moves were for the movie industry people to see how good We are ».
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.
But I do know for a fact that Chin Su Tung’s brother Ching Siu Lung (Actor, editor , sound fx) was one of the editors of Ninja final duel, and he gave Siu Tung the tapes to look and even rang Robert Tai up and asked him how he did the shot of the ninja being hit 200 feet into the air, Siu Tung wanted to use this shot in Chinese Ghost story, but R Tai said: « You have the tapes, work it out yourself » but he could not work it out, actually it’s very clever what Tai did , but it is a secret I can’t tell you.
I don’t want to take anything away from Ching Siu Tung, he’s a great film maker in his own right it’s okay to copy others if you like, I used to be a member of the same video club as him in Kowloon, he was always there renting out movies (Bad ones too, I remember) his brother too is a great one for ripping stuff off ,he took the gun effects of Robocop Laser disc and used them on J. Woo’s the killer, Tai on the other hand rarely watches TV let alone films.
That film was never released well in the world, as Golden Sun films only deals with small companies so the only place you could get a widescreen version was Japan, the film did good business theatrically in 3rd world countries.
In around 1999, Mr Lan sold all his films to Warner brothers so I doubt they will ever release these films now. But who knows one day maybe.
Y.L. : Fists of Legends 2 is a “two 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?
T.R. : 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.
Y.L. : 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?
T.R. : 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)
I think Tai was just exploiting the guy and kept shooting until the money ran out, as far as I know, there were 2 films made (35mm) and 2 versions of video sere is released , Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan, Korea is all I know who had this. Again it was George who wanted to use Rudi Ray More for the US market only as he is a big star there, Tai was happy to do it as he would make some money from it, the full version is still not released, I am planning to do a box set with Soulblade dvd in London soon.
Y.L. : 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?
T.R. : 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! »
So many people know how brilliant he is but they also know how difficult he is to control, Ti lung refused to shoot “The Heroes” unless he got Tai in to do the fights. He was not happy with the Yuen’s who were originally the action directors (Also the Yuen’s later hired Tai’s student Chiu Chung Hsiang (child of peach) to work on a lot of their 80’s films).
A few boss’s in HK told me it was a shame about Tai’s personality, he could have been one of the greats.
He’s a bit like Van Gogh, people said he was shit during his life time but now his paintings are the most expensive in the world, The public only like what they are told to like or what is fashionable, I only like what I like, I don’t care if I am alone or in a crowd. I liked Jackie when I saw wooden men I did not need to see Drunken Master to know he was the best.
ABOUT TAIWANESE KUNG FU MOVIES In the early 80’s
Y.L. : 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?
T.R. : 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????
Y.L. : 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?
T.R. : 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.
Y.L. : 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?
T.R. : 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.
Y.L. : 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?
T.R. : 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.
Y.L. : Your Robert Tai filmography dated Heaven and Hell from 1977 instead of 1980, so who’s right?
T.R. : Of course it’s 77
PART 2 :
TOBY RUSSELL and Kung Fu Movies
Arnaud Lanuque for hkcinemagic.
FROM VENGEANCE VIDEO TO RARESCOPE
Arnaud Lanuque : What made you interested in founding your own video label ?
Toby Russell : to make money and to bring out as many kung fu films as possible
A.L. : What are your criterias when you are releasing a movie ? Do you care about the quality of the feature, the print or the presence of the original soundtrack ?
T.R. : as a good as I can make, in some cases if the film is a classic I want to make it as good as I can afford, like I want to release snake in the monkey shadow, but the mandarin track is lost and they made a new one I hated so I won’t release it until I can find the orinal Cantonese or Mandarin track, the English one belongs to rp shsh of imperial pictures.
A.L. : What do you think of the evolution of the video market? How do you intend to struggle with some new companies like HK Legend?
T.R. : HK legends are my friends. Brian White used to work for me, they are not my competition. If someone wants a film they will buy it.
A.L. : You recently ventured into the exercise of audio commentary. Do you like this experience? Do you find it a good media to share your passion to fans?
T.R. : I don’t like doing at all, I get bored with it, I am not a good talker,
A.L. : Do you intend to direct new documentaries about Chinese action movies?
T.R. : Not at the moment
TAIWAN VS HONG KONG
A.L. : You’ve worked in both places. What do you think of the difference of production, shooting between both? Was there a rivalry between Taiwanese and HK productions or a mutual understanding and solidarity as Chinese movie makers?
T.R. : HK people are more rude and nasty. They will do things to deliberately make you look bad. Taiwan is the opposite.
A.L. : Your own tastes as an audience seem to go to Taiwanese Kung Fu films. Why do you find them more interesting than those made in HK?
T.R. : No I don’t agree with that, I like both HK and Taiwan,
A.L. : As a foreigner, where did you find yourself more at ease, more welcomed by locals from the film industry?
T.R. : Film people are easy to talk to as I know their films better than them, so they are happy by this, even in HK
A.L. : How did you get involved in Possessed 2? Can you help us identify the black gentleman who has worked on it (If I’m correct, he’s also in Isle of Fantasy)?
T.R. : I had no money in HK so I asked my friend if he could get ma a small part, he did, there were two black guys in the film one was Errol Chan, the other is a New Zealander who was also in way of the dragon, I forget his name now, I was a fan of the director David Lai, I had seen his film Lonely 15 and we talked about it in between takes, good fun.
A.L. : Same question about Aces Go Places 3. Did you witness the problems Tsui Hark experienced in the making of the movie?
T.R. : Yes he got mad with the production manager for hiring me as I was so young. He said « How can this fucking kid be a top C.I.A man!!!! » I was about 19 then, I was also a father Christmas. I had to change my eyebrows with Sam Hui. I was glad to meet him, he’s the best Chinese singer in my opinion.
A.L. : Why didn’t you appear more in movies as some of your colleagues like Bey Logan did?
T.R. : I did many films in Taiwan also Malaysia but they did not get shown much overseas, sometimes I watch TV and I see myself- I forgot I did that film.
A.L. : You practice martial arts but didn’t show much of your martial abilities on screen except in Ninja final duel. Why?
T.R. : I am no good that’s why.
A.L. : Were you in good terms with the group of foreigners working in the industry during the beginning of the 90ies (Mark Houghton, Bruce Fontaine, Steve Tartalia, Jeff Falcon…)?
T.R. : Yes, I know them all, they are my friends… well most of them.
A.L. : It’s very rare for a westerner to be fully involved in the creative process of movie making in HK or Taiwan. Did you encounter any obstacles to it?
T.R. : No
A.L. : Does Trinity Goes East represents the dream work you always wanted to do? What would be your dream project and how far have you been for it with your previous productions?
T.R. : No Trinity was not a dream project but it was a film I thought would have been done much better than it was, the main problem was the location Vietnam, it’s a terrible place to shoot that kind of film, I wanted to shoot in Taiwan, HK, Malaysia anywhere but there, but Tai insisted on it. I knew it would not be so good if we did it there and I was right but the film is not so bad, but it was the first project lost money on.
My dream film would be to make a film with fights like in the Victim, the weapons of Jackie Chan, the flips of Robert Tai’s film, the kicks of HJL and the realism of Tommy Carruthers, in a 20’s Shanghai story setting.
PART 3 :
Godfrey Ho, Malaysia and BRUCEPLOITATION
John Nada & RICO for Nanarland.com.
ABOUT GODFREY HO
Nanarland Team : You are credited as an actor for Angel Mission/Born to Fight directed by Chris Lee and Godfrey Ho. This last director has a very poor reputation among fans. How was the shooting? As you’re an expert about HK cinema, what can you tell us about this mysterious character?
Toby Russell : Godfrey Ho is a really cool guy and a decent director too, I first met him when he was making a Man from Holland. I was amazed at how fast he was, I got a small part in Angels Mission, but Godfrey was overpowered by Ko Fei and all the stuntmen, he was like a school teacher taking care of a group of naughty boys.
I don’t think he is mysterious, he really did a lot of films, but those Korean IFD films he did not do those, they were made by Koreans, he was teaching film studies until last year at the HK polytechnic (Roy Horan also teaches there-science). I forget what Godfrey is doing now. I met him about 6 months ago he told me but I forgot.
N.T. : You have worked in Malaysia with John Ladalski as a scriptwriter, director and actor on 2 films. How did you find yourself on those projects? Were those works intended to be released for local markets or the international one?
T.R. : I got john those jobs, I went to Cannes in 89, I met a guy called Sunny Lim he asked me if I wanted to make films in Malaysia I said yes of course so I did. They were for Malaysian market mainly but the first film Daddha connection was sold to many countries. It was an ok film but it was unfinished as Alexander wanted more money to stay an extra week and Lim said no, so there were few scenes missing it was shot on super 16mm like ninja final. The second film was shot on 35mm, the crew were all amateurs, it was mad but good fun, the film was good too in a mad way, I did not edit that film as sunny would not even pay for me to stay an edit it, so they spoiled a lot of it. Now Sunny is going to shoot a film with Seagal, Van Damme and Mike B new Thai kung fu star.
N.T. : Action cinema from the Philippina and Indonesia are familiar but we are not much aware of the Malaysian productions. Can you tell us more about them?
T.R. : They are few and far between, but in the 50’s there were many films made by Shaw Bros and a great director called P Ramlee. The trouble with them is they are so lazy and they lack creativity, same can be said for Singaporeans.
N.T. : How Bruce Lee’ death has been lived in HK? We are surprised to see so many movies using archive images of Bruce Lee in his coffin. Wasn’t it shocking for the audience at this period?
T.R. : No
N.T. : Is it true that fake Bruce Lee movies were only made for exportation and aimed toward a western audience? Was the HK &Taiwan audience interested in such productions? Was the movie marketing (actor’s names, titles, posters retaking the real Bruce Lee) made in order to misguide foreign buyers?
T.R. : No, Taiwan was a big market for these films too, Bruce lee true story was seen dubbed into Cantonese for theatrical release, I have it.
N.T. : It seems that bruceploitation wave has a Taiwanese origin more than an HK origin, is it true in your opinion? Where did come from the idea to make fake Bruce Lee’s movies with Bruce Lee’s stock shots?
T.R. : I am not sure about this, as the producers that had those Taiwan films lived in HK too. my friend Mr SHih Chiao Chin, he shot all the funeral footage with the idea of using in movies he produced fist of unicorn and story of drunken master.
N.T. : You have met and talked with fake Bruce Lee performers such as Bruce Li Siu Lung, what’s your opinion about them and what could you tell us about peoples like Bruce Li, Bruce Le, Bruce Liang, Dragon Lee or other ones you personally appreciate?
Bruce Le : Mad scheming business man loves to talk fast and think big, not afraid to take risks, that’s why he is now in prison in china for fraud. I asked to interview him but he refused /said that people will hate him as he copies Bruce Lee, I said no they like you for it , but he still would not do it, at that time when I asked him he had hit the big time selling currency and stocks and shares. I met him many times even in Cannes
N.T. : Could you tell us about Dick Randall and André Koob, two producers who have come to Hong Kong in order to shoot movies with Bruce Le for occidental market?
T.R. : I don’t know Andre Koob, never heard of him. Dick Randall, I knew well, he was a great guy, I did the last deal of his life and his wife said his dying words were « Tell Toby the Master is at Del Compo » that’s a lab in Rome, I once took Dick and his Wife to late night kung fu cinema to watch 8 diagram pole fighter in Brixton, he loved it he said that was the best cinema experience ever!
Everybody would like to thank Toby Russell for his availability, his passion… and his patience.