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Chang Cheh 1923-2002 Shaw Brothers' director Chang Cheh JUNE 22, 2002

Bruce Lee. Jackie Chan. Even Chuck Norris.

Just a few names that come to mind when one thinks of martial arts films. Another name, not as well known to many, which requires recognition this day is - Chang Cheh.

Chang Cheh, director-writer-producer for approximately 100 martial arts movies, passed away this weekend. According to AP news sources, Chang died from pulmonary failure on Saturday. He was 79 years old.

Known best for his "Venoms" movies, Chang (Chang Yi Yang) was born January 17, 1924 in mainland China. His first foray into the industry was in 1947 when he penned a script, Girl Behind a Mask, for the Shanghai-based Cathay film company.

At 26 (and now living in Taiwan) he wrote his next script, The Story of Ng Fung, which would become his directorial debut. Without having any formal film school training, Chang would rely solely on his experience of watching movies and plays.

Due to the lack of films being made in Taiwan during the early 50’s, Chang focused his efforts on other avenues. He directed the stage performance, "Pictures of Starving Citizens" to help aid the starving citizens in mainland China. He also aligned himself with the anti-Communist movement and founded the magazine Movie and Drama Battlelines. Eventually, he worked for the chief political department and was the Chief of Staff at the anti-communist/anti-Russia drama association. He directed several big theater productions ("Au Chin's Reclaiming His Kingdom" and "Genghis Khan" - to name two) which were well received.

In the mid-50’s, believing his filmmaking days were over, Chang devoted his efforts to scriptwriting, film reviews, martial arts novels, and newspaper columns. Run Run Shawn (of the famous Shaw Brothers Studios) took a liking to Chang’s writings and hired him as the new head of Shaws’ Scriptwriting Department. In the early 60’s, Chang teamed with director Tsui Chung Wung to create several box office hits. Chang though believed he didn't prosper from the fruits of his labor, unlike Wung, who received all the press for these films. He then decided to renew his directing career and after a few misses, directed the 1966 film, The One-Armed Swordsman. This "now" cult classic proceeded to break all box office records making over one million HK dollars.

Known now as the "million dollar director," his films became vehicles for many rising stars including David Chiang, Ti Lung, and Fu Sheng. In 1978, Chang would direct a film that he would be forever famous for - The 5 Deadly Venoms.

Featuring a group of phenomenally talented martial artists, the Venoms would make a slew of films together under Chang’s direction. Films like Crippled Avengers, Invincible Shaolin, and The Magnificent Ruffians would create a strong cult following for Chang & the Venoms crew. A global following which continues to this day.

Recently, Celestial Pictures (which owns the bulk of the Shaw Brothers library) has announced plans to distribute remastered copies of many of the Shaw titles (including Chang’s films) on DVD. With the re-release of these titles, some of which have been unavailable for years, it is without doubt a new generation of movie aficionados will become attune to the incredible films of Chang Cheh.

For further info on Chang Cheh, I recommend Steven Feldman's website. Rest in peace, Chang Cheh. Your devoted fans bid you safe journey.

Brave Archer set Brave Archer I (1977): Chang instructs Tien Nui (middle) and the late Alexander Fu Sheng (far right)

House of Traps set House of Traps (1982): Chang with Venom regulars: the late Chiang Sheng (plaid shirt) and Sun Chien (in white)

UPDATE 2010: A small group of us visited Hong Kong in Jan. 2010 in which we paid our respects at Chang's final resting place. Details available at Kung Fu Fandom.

© Terrence J. Brady & THIRD MILLENNIUM entertainment