Hong Kong Action Legend Sammo Hung on 50 Years of Blood, Sweat and Sacrifice: “Every Nerve Ending Has to Be in Play"

Sammo Hung - 2019 H

The 2019 HKIFF's "Filmmaker in Focus" looks back on his glory days, diagnoses the industry's current problems and ponders the nature of his fame as an East Asian superstar.

Sammo Hung is a name any fan of Hong Kong action cinema knows and reveres. A pillar of the Hong Kong film industry's golden age in the 1980s, Hung used his creativity and childhood training in Peking opera to craft breathtaking choreography and unforgettable physical feats on screen, reshaping action cinema worldwide.

An award-winning actor, director, studio mogul and star-maker, the 67-year-old legend has been named the Filmmaker in Focus of this year’s Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF). In addition to publishing a commemorative book dedicated to his work, the event will showcase 10 of Hung's seminal films, including Eastern Condors, The Valiant Ones, Winners and Sinners and Encounters of the Spooky Kind.

Still passionate about filmmaking after a career spanning more than half a century, Hung's enthusiasm was on full display when he sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to chat about fame, a pesky new generation of actors, Hong Kong's action cinema tradition and cursing.

You started working in films in the 1960s, and have one of the most distinguished careers in the Hong Kong film industry. How do you feel about being named the Filmmaker in Focus at the 2019 HKIFF?

It caught me by surprise, but I’m very happy for this opportunity to let the Hong Kong audience be reminded of this fat old man who risked his life many times on film. I don’t want to boast about any contribution, but I was part of the group of people who toiled for the film industry. It makes me happy to know that the audience has a chance to remember the old days.

In the 1980s and 1990s, you helped popularize the action-comedy genre, gave rise to the Chinese hopping vampire (goeng-si) subgenre and set up film companies that produced many Hong Kong cinema classics. Looking back, what do you see as your proudest achievement?

Not any particular one film. I’m proud of all my films. I’ve enjoyed great success in many different genres. I have been very blessed to have so many ideas and to continuously produce successful films. I’m very thankful to the heavens for giving me the wisdom. Since the first film I directed [1977's The Iron-Fisted Monk], all of my films have done well. I can call it luck, but I’ve also worked very hard. So I always tell my children, “Don’t blame your father for going to work making movies and not spending time with you when you were small. If I didn’t work as hard as I did, I couldn’t have given you what you have now.” You can’t have your cake and eat it, too. There was nothing we could do. At that time, everyone had to figure out a way to provide for their families, so that the children didn’t have to starve and suffer. Most of what we did was give physical labor — blood and sweat. We have been quite lucky.

Did you ever dream about stardom of this scale when you first started in the movies over 50 years ago?

Even now, I haven’t given much thought to superstardom. I’m still quite surprised by my fame — even now, when I go to, for example, a rural area in Indonesia or India, some people know who I am. I never aspired to be a screen hero; all I ever wanted was for people to respect what I do.

One year, I went to Universal Studios in Hollywood. I got there early, and was waiting at the gate. A lot of tourists were arriving, and many of them asked to take pictures with me. An elderly American couple next to us watched flummoxed, and at one point they couldn’t contain themselves anymore. So they asked, “Excuse me, what do you for a living? How come so many people are asking to take pictures with you?” I told them, “I’m a star! I’m a big movie star! But in Hong Kong!” (Laughs.) What I really hope is for the younger stars that I helped discover to have that kind of recognition. That’d give me comfort.

Aside from acting, you have been a director, producer, action choreographer, actor, studio owner and founder and leader of a stunt team. Which of these roles do you think is most representative of you?

I think what describes me best is director. As a director, I can control every aspect of a film, how the actors should behave, how the story should go. I used to try and find inspirations everywhere — I would go to the airport or train station and just study people, the way they moved and interacted and their expressions. But I can’t do that now, I’d be bombarded by people with their phones — selfie requests.

You made your directorial debut in 1977. But between Once Upon a Time in China and America (1997) to The Bodyguard (2016), there was a period of almost 20 years that you didn’t direct. Why?

I didn’t like the ways things had become. It was a time when actors were so in demand, that with a call time of 8 a.m., they’d tell you they could only arrive at noon from another job. After two hours in makeup, they’d say they’d have to leave at 4 p.m. There was a film I made that two actors were tied together back to back, and they didn’t actually see each other’s faces for the whole shoot because it was so rushed. I just didn’t want to deal with those kinds of situations, so I stopped directing. I have a bit of a temper. That kind of thing really pisses me off.

Also, I think it takes a sense of childlike wonder to direct films and create a story. You have to believe in it yourself. Somewhere along the way I’ve lost that.

You’ve created numerous iconic action scenes and won for best action choreography at the Hong Kong Film Awards four times. Which action scene do you remember the most?

Many action scenes I’ve done were rather good. Such as The Prodigal Son (1981), Eastern Condors (1987), even the first film I directed, The Iron-Fisted Monk. Looking back, I’d say many action scenes in my films have been quite good.

Apart from receiving awards for your action work, you have been a two-time best actor winner at the Hong Kong Film Awards. Which is more challenging, the physical or the emotive aspect in acting?

It was definitely the physical, action aspect that was more demanding. Every bone, muscle, tendon, nerve ending has to be in play in an action scene. Whereas to portray emotion, it depends very much on the person you’re acting with. There were times when I acted in a scene, and it didn’t feel right no matter how I did it. Then I realized I wasn’t getting anything from the person acting opposite me; there was no connection or interaction, so the scene didn’t come together.

A large part of your career was in comedy as well, including the recent film A Lifetime Treasure. What do you enjoy most about the genre?

I can’t say I particularly enjoy acting in comedies. What I really enjoy is thinking up a good gag. But it was a different time, there was no WeChat, no social media. Now once the film is released, everyone will spoil the gag on social media, so it won’t work anymore. I made a cameo in A Lifetime Treasure because I’m good friends with the director Andrew Lam, who has been in the film business for a long time. I see how the Hong Kong film industry is doing now, and Andrew’s film is a very local, Hong Kong film, so I thought I’d help out when he asked me.

In the late 1990s, you went to the U.S. to play the lead on the CBS series Martial Law, which had the distinction of being the first primetime hit show starring an East Asian actor. What was most memorable about your U.S. career?

It was a kind of miracle for Martial Law to have happened. I played a cop from China on the series. But at the end of the day, I realized that American writers weren’t able to write the experience and existence of an immigrant cop from China living and working in the U.S.

You founded the Sammo Hung Stuntmen Association in the 1970s, which was instrumental to the global success of Hong Kong action cinema. What are your thoughts on the future of Hong Kong action filmmaking?

Look at the younger generation in Hong Kong now — where can you find kids who would learn and practice martial arts? There will be no new generation of action stars in Hong Kong now. When we were young, we looked up to the action stars on the big screen and aspired to be them someday. We trained and practiced. And now maybe a kid practices martial arts, but then becomes a salesperson, which he can be anyway without any martial arts training. There is no one for him to look up to. Kids don’t dream of becoming action stars in movies anymore.

Martial arts is still practiced in China, but if you look at Chinese martial artists, it took time for them to have a breakthrough. For example, Jet Li, he was in Hong Kong for a long time before he became a star in Tsui Hark’s films. And Wu Jing [actor-director of Chinese mega-blockbusters Wolf Warrior 2 and The Wandering Earth] had been working in the Hong Kong film industry for almost two decades before he finally made it to the top. 

As a local industry champion, can you share more of your assessment of the present state of the Hong Kong film industry?

The state of the Hong Kong film industry now is lousy! The local studios, they don’t want to invest in big-budget films. We used to shoot one single scene in a month; now a whole film is shot in 11 days! And we used to spend HK$2 million-$3 million shooting in one day; now no local film has that kind of budget. I’m not saying a big budget guarantees a good film, but we really don’t have that kind of scale anymore. What we need is a good, solid Hong Kong action film, the kind that made our mark in the world in the past. No one wants to invest in those films anymore. And Chinese co-productions, we only do those because we need the Chinese market, and if we don’t co-produce with Chinese companies, we can’t show our films in China. But Chinese co-productions can’t capture the genuine essence of the Hong Kong action film, and there are too many systematic limitations with Chinese co-productions.

Do you think that Hong Kong film can maintain its unique position and idiosyncrasies? How can that legacy be preserved?

It is very difficult. I truly believe the Hong Kong government should do more to help the film industry. Look at South Korea. Twenty or 30 years ago, there was no film industry there. But the South Korean government gave it a big push, and now Korean films are on the world stage and everyone is watching Korean TV dramas. The policies the Hong Kong government has set for the local film industry, like when they give HK$2 million [for first-time directors to make a feature film, which recently was raised to HK$5.5 million] — what kind of film can be made with only HK$2 million? They are spending millions on events like the film festival, which is a very good thing, but if they don’t help preserve the Hong Kong film industry, they might as well give those millions to buy lunchboxes for the poor. Hong Kong cinema represents us.

The Hong Kong government announced an injection of HK$1 billion into the Film Development Fund, do you think that would help?

It depends on how they use that money. I’d say they should give me HK$300 million to make a film (chuckles).

With your experience in the film industry, have you taken up any advisory role for the Hong Kong government, such as for the Film Development Council?

No one has asked me, and I’m not sure if I’d want to. I’d only curse at people, and point out whatever is wrong today. I wouldn’t want to be like a nagging old lady, complaining all the time.

Do you blame the audience for their lack of interest in local films?

No, I don’t. If a film is bad, you can’t force people to go see it. What can you do, beat them with a stick?

You have cut down your film work in recent years, and have said that you enjoy spending time with your grandchildren. Do you plan to retire completely?

As long as I can still think, eat, sleep, walk and be useful, I don’t think about retiring. I have the gifts of being able to think, eat, sleep, walk and those are gifts from heaven, so I wouldn’t want to waste them and say I quit.

Have you thought about what you’ll share with the public at the Filmmaker in Focus seminar?

I’ll curse and swear at them (deadpans, then laughs).