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A retrospective of the late Hong Kong director Kuei Chih Hung, screening titles such as Deaf Mute Killer and Killer Constable offershis son, Beaver Kwei, producer of the 2009 mainland China hit Sophie’s Revenge, the chance to see his dad’s The Killer Snakes for the firsttime.
“This is a film that’s totally psychotic and perverse and grossed out,” Kwei said with laugh. “It’s beyond rated R.”
Kuei was a director of nearly 60 films for the Shaw Brothers Studios from the late 1960s through the early 1980s. He started out directing musicals and then became one of the first Hong Kong directors to experiment in the crime dramas for which the city’s industry would come to be so well known.
“He’d bitch about his work every day, never quite satisfied with how his work had turned out, or how it was being distributed,” son Kwei said. “He was only ever happy when he knew, for a day, that a film had worked at the box office, then he’d start worrying again. He’d be so happy to know that his films were getting a second look today.”
The retrospective of seven films, running from Monday through Wednesday at the Hong Kong Science Museum and the Hong Kong Space Museum, was curated by Bede Cheng at the Hong Kong Film Archive. Also screening are Kuei’s The Delinquent, The Teahouse, Hex, The Boxer’s Omen and Hex after Hex.
Kuei raised his family on the Shaw Bros. lot, living in subsidized apartment blocks and just a few floors above his mentor, the legendary martial arts director Chang Cheh (The Five Deadly Venoms). Shaw first shipped the promising Kuei from Taipei to Hong Kong, and then shipped him out to the Toho studio in Tokyo to train under Japanese directors.
“Shaw kept everybody in their little kingdom,” Kwei says. “Directors in one block and stars in the next building.” Kwei did his homework on the Foley stage at night when his mother, who now lives in Florida, was surrounded by the tools of the sound effects trade: “Coconut shells, buckets of gravel and doors that led nowhere. I grew up there.”
Tony Ching Siu-Tung, director of Chinese Ghost Story lived in their building, as did Derek Yee Tung-sing, the actor-turned-director and screenwriter of films such as One Night in Mongkok and Protege.
Kuei tried to convince his son to become an engineer. Did he ever consider the advice? “Nah,” Kwei said. “I always knew I’d be in films. But I also knew I didn’t want to be a director.”
Kwei, whose career as a fledgling producer got a big boost in 2009 from helping little-known Chinese director Eva Jin Yimeng and international star Zhang Ziyi work together to create a box-office hit in Sophie’s Revenge.
“It’s whole different system today, nowadays anybody can pop up and pretend to be director. My dad would have thought this was The Wild West.”
For the first third of the senior Kuei’s career, strict film censorship in Hong Kong, a British colony until 1997, prevented movies from portraying corrupt English police. “But the directors had no fear,” Kwei said. “They figured out clever ways to tell stories about what was really going on. When I came back to China, I thought, ‘Great! The censorship will make us have to work hard to be creative and make better films.’ ”
Kwei says he truly sees China’s censorship — which frowns on graphic cinematic sex and violence and anything that challenges the primacy of the one-party state — as “sensible and reasonable.” “It’s a challenge,” he says.
After dabbling in the period martial arts films that have become so popular in Hong Kong and China since his heyday, Kuei died at age 66 in 1999.
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