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Statistics :
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Interview with Toby Russell, a student of Robert Tai
Toby Russel and Taiwanese Kung Fu movies 1/1 - Page 2
Info
Author(s) : Yannick Langevin
Arnaud Lanuque
Date : 17/2/2007
Type(s) : Interview
 
 Intext Links  
People :
Wayne Archer
Sylvio Azzolini
Chang Cheh
Jacky Chen Shao Lung
Chen Kuan Tai
Ricky Cheng Tien Chi
William Cheung Kei
Chiang Sheng
Ching Siu Lung
Tony Ching Siu Tung
Billy Chong Chun Lai
Chu Ko
Mona Fong Yat Wah
Alan Hsu
Sammo Hung Kam Bo
Joseph Kuo Nam Hung
Yasuaki Kurata
Philip Kwok Chung Fung
Lau Kar Wing
Lee I Min
Larry Lee Gam Kwan
Lee Tso Nam
Alexander Lo Rei
Lo Wei
Lu Feng
Rudy Ray Moore
Ng See Yuen
Carl Scott
Todd Senofonte
Sun Chung
Robert Tai Chi Hsien
George Tan
Tang Lung
Eugene Thomas
Tsui Hark
Jean-Claude Van Damme
Jimmy Wang Yu
Wong Gwok Chue
John Woo
William Yen
Dennis Yu Wan Kwong
Corey Yuen Kwai
Movies :
Attack Of The Joyfull Goddess
The Blade
The Bodyguard
Challenge Of The Lady Ninja
The Child Of Peach
A Chinese Ghost Story
Devil Killer
Drunken Master
Duel To The Death
A Fist Full Of Talons
Fist Of Legends 2
Incredible Kung Fu Mission
Life Gamble
A Life Of Ninja
Ninja Final Duel
Ninja In The Deadly Trap
Ninja In The Dragon’s Den
Ninja Vs Shaolin Guards
Of Cooks And Kung Fu
Secret Rivals 3
Shanghai 13
Shaolin Vs Ninja
Shaolin Wooden Men
Swordsman 2
The Thundering Mantis
Top Fighter
Companies :
Shaw Brothers
 
< Previous
Page 1 : Toby Russel and Kung Fu Movies
 
Next >
Page 3 : Godfrey Ho, Malaysia and Bruceploitation
 
 Notes  
Questions by Yannick Langevin for Robert Tai Temple and Cinemasie.com


On ROBERT TAI

Yannick Langevin: You said you wanted to meet Robert Tai after you had seen Devil Killer. What did strike you the most in Robert Tai's work to the point you wanted to meet him?
Toby Russell: I was a Robert 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 Venoms films). So one day I am at the cinema in Leicester 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."
 
Yannick Langevin: You said Robert Tai asked you to act in Mafia Vs Ninja , the three-hour version. You already knew Alexander Lo. How did you meet Eugene Thomas and Sylvio Azzolini?
Toby Russell: When I first arrived in Taiwan I only had the telephone number of Chiang Sheng, he was too busy to show me around so I asked him for the number of Chu Ko (I knew him from HK and he 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 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 the 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 stills 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 Venoms films.

I did not meet Eugene Thomas and Sylvio Azzolini 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 Vs Ninja and Ninja Final Duel. He left to Dallas after the filming 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's how he got into Tai's movies. He also made many good films in Taiwan for other directors. No one's heard from him since around 1990.

 


Eugène Thomas, Toby Russelll and John Ladalski in Ninja Final Duel

 

Yannick Langevin: Robert Tai and Alexander Lo first met for Incredible Kung Fu Mission (if I'm not misatken). How was born their particular Master / Disciple relation? Are there notable differences with your personal connections with Robert Tai?
Toby Russell: Alexander Lo was the kid brother of Tong Lung, who made films in the early 70s. In fact Devil Killer uses his film for the old parts. I guess Tong Lung sent Alexander to Lam Tien Hung after he won the Taiwan 1978 TaeKwanDo championship. Tai liked Alexander right from the start and asked him if he wanted to study filmmaking under him. He agreed and worked with him on films like Shaolin Heroes and Fist Full of Talons before Devil Killer and Shaolin vs Ninja. Tai treats all his students the same, very strictly but with loyalty and kindness.

 


Alexander Lou and Robert Tai, master and student before and behind the camera

 

Yannick Langevin: 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 it becomes the first movie entirely directed by him, while 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, that is before Mafia Vs Ninja. How do you explain the difference that have a notable incidence on the filmography of Robert Tai and his crew?

Toby Russell: Shaolin Vs Ninja 80/81 ; Shaolin Chasity 81/82 ; Ninja Guards of Shaolin 82 ; Shaolin against Lama 82 ; Mafia 83/84

 
Yannick Langevin: Considering your Robert Tai filmography, did you watch Shaolin Vs Ninja before getting involved in Mafia Vs Ninja?
Toby Russell: Yes I saw it in 83 in Malaysia , I met them in 84.
 
Yannick Langevin: Shaolin Vs Ninja is considered by fans like an important step for filming action 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 so much underestimated today and prints are in such a bad shape?

Toby Russell: The film is the brain child of Lam Tien Hung and Robert Tai, at that time Ninja movies were in because of Sho Kosugi's 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 bySammo Hung and Corey Yuen Kwai who used some of them on Ninja in the Dragon's Den(With Tai's permission). Jackie also wanted Tai's men for the 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 their teens).
The stuntmen I talked 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 Cooks of Kung Fu, the double front somersault with no trampoline or ramp. The 3rd was William Yen, a younger classmate 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 shield guy and also the swordsman in Ninja Vs Shaolin Guards). It was their high performance acrobatics and guts together with Tai's creative mind that made Shaolin Vs 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 Tony 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 could 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 Vs Ninja.

But I do know for a fact that Chin Siu Tung's brother Ching Siu Lung ( actor, editor, sound effects) was one of the editors of Ninja Final Duel, and he gave Siu Tung the tapes to look at 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 Robert 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 filmmaker 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 the Robocop Laser disc and used them on John Woo's film. 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 Third 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.

 
Yannick Langevin: Fists of Legends 2 is a “two in one” movie initially taken from Return of the Assassin (1973) choreographed by Lau Kar Wing, with Larry Lee that you seem to like much seeing the place you give him in Top Fighter. How did they come up with this crazy mixture between a fake Bruce Lee and a fake Jet Li?
Toby Russell: My friend George Tan came up with the idea as he was given The Larry Lee film "The Bodyguard" by Roy McAree, the owner of the film. I just produced it. I enjoyed this project very much. Everything went smoothly. We shot the new footage in four 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. [It's a] shame as he is much better than Jet Le. Van damage (Todd Senofonte) was the real double for Van Damme on many of his films, he showed Van Damme Fist of Legends 2. Van Damme was so impressed that he fired him.

 


Todd Senofonte (the fake JCVD), Jet Le (the fake Jet Li), Larry Lee (the fake Bruce Lee) and Robert Tai in Fists of Legends 2

 

Yannick Langevin: 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 did you come to choose Rudy Ray Moore?
Toby Russell: I asked Tai what was the original idea of the movie and he himself was not sure. The project was financed by a Malaysian millionaire called Terry Chang, who 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 two films made (35mm) and two versions of video were released in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan and Korea, is all I know who had this. Again it was George who wanted to use Rudy Ray Moore 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.

 

 

Yannick Langevin: 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 followed him?
Toby Russell: The problem with Tai is his temperament. He has a very powerful personality. If a producer cannot 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 they 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 80s films).

A few bosses 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 lifetime 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 Chan when I saw Shaolin Wooden Men I did not need to see Drunken Master to know he was the best.

 

 

On TAIWANESE KUNG FU MOVIES In the early 80s
Yannick Langevin: In the early 80s, the Taiwanese independent kung fu movie scene seemed like a little world where everybody knew everybody. Was that a Taiwanese big family? What were the relationsips between Robert Tai, Ng Kwok Yan, William Cheung Kei, Lee Tso Nam and Joseph Kuo? At which step were you involved with them?
Toby Russell: All these guys know each other since the late sixties; they are like a big family. I worked with many of them in some ways or other, acting, producing, interviewing, doing odd jobs, like bringing negatives for Lee I 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????
 
Yannick Langevin: Do you think early 80s Taiwanese directors were still underestimated as far as their influence on modern action and ninja action go? If yes, what were the reasons for that?
Toby Russell: 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 Dragon's Den.

 


Henry Sanada and Conan Lee in Ninja in the Dagon's Den

 

Yannick Langevin: 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 during the shooting of these films, 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?
Toby Russell: 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.
 
Yannick Langevin: Do you think the return of the Venoms to Taiwan and the shooting of Ninja in the Deadly Trap spelt a bit like the end of this generation of fighters all presented later in Shanghai 13 ? How did Philip Kwok, Lu Feng and Chiang Sheng feel during the shootings?
Toby Russell: Lu Feng and Chiang Sheng were happy to return to Taiwan, Philip 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 Joyfull Goddess, the cinema was full so he said let's not watch the film, lets go eat instead.

 


Chiang Sheng and Ricky Cheng Tien Chi in Attack of the Joyful Goddess

 

Yannick Langevin: Your Robert Tai filmography dated Heaven and Hell from 1977 instead of 1980, so who's right?
Toby Russell: Of course it's 77.
 
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