East most definitely met West on 18th September when the prestigious British Academy of Film and Television Arts (affectionately known as BAFTA), in partnership with the Asian Film Awards, hosted a special, one off masterclass with legendary action choreographer and director Tony Ching Siu-Tung at the Princess Anne Theatre. Kung Fu Kingdom was at BAFTA HQ at 195 Piccadilly in London to cover this rare event and speak with the man himself.
Hong Kong & BAFTA
For Tony Ching, being invited to give a masterclass at BAFTA is fitting given the academy’s link to Hong Kong Cinema. In the late 1970’s, Sir Run Run Shaw, the man behind the famous Shaw Brothers Studio made a “substantial donation” to BAFTA to help fund its growth and development at 195 Piccadilly. As a thank you, the then Vice-President Sir Richard Attenborough announced the decision to name their small theatre in his honour, and The Run Run Shaw Theatre still bears his name today. In speaking with us and later in the masterclass, Tony spoke about how he had spent time as a child on the Shaw Brothers set – his father Ching Gong was a Shaw Brothers studio director:
“I actually grew up on the film studio and that’s why I got very interested in action movies. I spent a lot of time with famous directors whilst they were shooting the films, for example King Hu [Hu Jinquan – Come Drink with Me].”
The masterclass gave fans of films such as “Duel to the Death”, “A Chinese Ghost Story”, The Swordsman trilogy and Yimou Zhang’s wuxia epics “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers”, an insight into the man and creative pioneer behind many of the captivating, epic Hong Kong movies we still cherish today.
Through his interpreter, Tony spoke of his upbringing, studying performance and martial arts at the famous Peking Opera school then going on to work as a stunt technician for Hong Kong television studios, after his graduation. The hours were long, and the pay minimal but for the young aspiring Tony, provided the solid training ground needed for his future work. He reminisced about those days fondly:
“Since there were not many stuntmen in the industry at that time we worked many shifts. Days were so long we would sometimes sleep in a nearby cafe. I saw this as fun at the time, not hard necessarily but I was young then.”
It was fascinating to hear this great director (who gave up acting to work behind the camera, the man behind iconic moments like the “Echo Game” scene from “House of Flying Daggers”) talk about learning his trade largely through trial and error. From a fan’s point of view it was exciting to imagine that Tony honed his talent into a truly innovative and inspiring skill from a humbling, chaotic on-the-job education.
If audiences wanted to know just how a master director and choreographer thinks and works they certainly learned that night from one of the best. Tony explained how he prides himself on making sure that he and his team come up with unique creative sequences packed with that all important wow factor. He detailed the meetings between his team and production staff, originating ideas, and location visits. In making sure he could deliver the best, Tony emphasised the importance of listening to the director and guiding them as to how their sequences can be achieved. He also stressed the importance of ensuring that all the actors whether they are experienced martial artists or beginners, are properly trained and made aware of any dangers. When directing actors, Tony stressed that safety was paramount but so was making sure they didn’t lose face:
“I make sure they look really really good, give them the basic training and gradually give them lots of encouragement. It is important to make sure they don’t lose face, it’s all about encouragement. It’s important that as well as director and action choreographer that you’re responsible for their well-being to make sure they feel safe. Actors can’t always see the danger, so I must make sure there is backup. These actors are putting their lives in my hands, so I make sure they listen, are safe and no harm comes to them.”
Tony spoke extensively about his life and work in the film industry, working with the biggest names that was a who’s who of action talent, including Andy Lau, Zhang Ziyi, Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Tsui Hark and Michelle Yeoh. He also had some interesting insights to share on the future of action films, of both Hollywood and Chinese cinema.
“Obviously everything’s a challenge and we can’t say that because you have a particular storyline we’re not going to shoot it. So every time we work on a film, we have to think about something unique.”
In the masterclass Tony spoke at length about the importance as an action choreographer and co-ordinator to listen to the director and follow their instructions. He explained how in Hong Kong, action directors are more hands-on although don’t fully understand the machinations of stunt work and so Tony, with his team, help them put it together:
“We need to know what the director wants and that we can deliver. Not many can do this. Apart from action you need story.”
In discussing the future of filmmaking not just in China but in Hollywood as well, Tony observed a return to more traditional action sequences with maybe a little CGI to enhance rather than dominate the action. To both Kung Fu Kingdom and the masterclass audience Tony held up Tom Cruise in “Mission; Impossible Fallout” as a solid example of this resurgence of old-school action and coming full circle, back to basics.
With over five decades’ of working in cinema we wondered what the future continued to hold for Tony, he told Kung Fu Kingdom:
“Because I love films and the film industry is my life-long career I think I am going to do these until the day I die, but of course I can’t work as hard as I used to. As long as I have something to do I will make sure it is really good.”
It was an honour and a pleasure to meet Tony Ching Siu-Tung – an unassuming, kind and amiable character. So which of his wuxia movie moments make it to your most memorable list? Do you think we’ve come full circle now through wirework, CGI & Special FX and heading back to basics with pure martial arts? Let us know in the comments below; Like, share and join in the conversation on Facebook and follow us on Twitter & Instagram. (Click on into a masterclass in FU with these reviews!)