Sammo Hung Kam-bo. The name doesn't really ring a bell does it? Not like Bruce Lee or say Jackie Chan. The funny thing is, he's starred and acted in almost all of their movies. Actually, if you stay for the credits after pretty much any popular martial arts movie released in the '70s till now, you'll see his name. Over and over and over again. Remember that bad ass kick Bruce Lee delivered to that thug in the heroin den in Enter the Dragon? Sammo Hung put that there. Or how about that “God Punch” Stephen Chow dealt “The Frog” in the final battle scene from 2004's Kung-Fu Hustle? He put that there too. Or maybe you remember the guy riding the bike in Jackie Chan's Mr. Nice Guy from 1997? Yep, that was him too. No, literally, he was actually the guy riding the bike. Here, let me explain... he's kind of like a big deal.
When the troops were withdrawn from Vietnam in 1973, they brought more than uncertainty about their government and war soaked eyes back home with them. The arts and culture of Asia had rubbed off on them in a big way. That, combined with the increased immigration of Asians to the U.S, and the assimilation of the already present Asian American community into the middle class, planted the seeds for the now infamous “Kung-Fu Craze” of the early seventies. Though the trend was largely centered around martial arts and cinema, it also trickled down and spread throughout all facets of post-Vietnam American culture, from the food in restaurants to television and comic books, even making it's presence known in popular music ( David Bowie and Iggy Pop's China Girl, Carl Douglas's Kung-Fu Fighting). America was fascinated with Asian culture. Kung-Fu movies were particularity popular among urban black audiences as well, usually paralleling many of the same social themes found in blaxplotation films of the time, but with much more spectacle and bravado while also providing a secondary option in terms of having a non-white protagonist from a lower class community rising up to defeat an immoral or scandalous upper class. It's a recurring storyline seen in many martial arts movies especially in Sammo Hung's directorial debut, Iron-Fisted Monk.
Sammo Hung Kam-Bo was born in Hong Kong in 1952 and pretty much hit the ground running. Both of his parents worked as wardrobe artists in the local film industry and guardianship was given to his grandparents due to his parents' busy schedules. His grandmother was Chin Tsi-Ang, one of the first female martial-arts actresses and his grandfather was Hong Kong film director Hung Chung-Ho. While living with his grandparents, Hung was enrolled in the China Drama Academy at the age of nine. While there, he became a member of the “Seven Little Fortunes” performing group and soon developed a friendly rivalry with one of the younger members of the group, better known these days as international martial arts superstar Jackie Chan. At the age of 14, a teacher of Hung's from the academy recommended him for some stunt work through industry connections and got him a job working at Shaw Brother's Studios, the largest production company of Hong Kong movies at the time (kind of like Warner Bros., but for China), helping out action director Han Yingjie with stunts and various choreography. His experiences on set with Yingjie piqued his interests in film and he soon became fascinated with movies. Unfortunately, after only two years on the job, Hung had a serious injury which left him temporarily hospitalized. After the incident, Sammo momentarily stepped away from stunt work and became an extra, then an actor, before moving on to become a popular stunt coordinator, and then eventually getting behind the camera to direct on his own.
No doubt, trying to cash in on the same success his peers had in the states (Jackie Chan's The Drunken Master, Jet Li's Fists of Legend, Sonny Chiba's Street Fighter, etc) Iron-Fisted Monk never really caught the attention of the American audience. If I had to guess, I would say it was probably due largely to two factors: The growing popularity of the horror genre towards the end of the '70s when the movie was released, and the all-around darker tone of Iron-Fisted Monk compared to other movies being exported from China at the time (the almost random rape and murder of two characters by the “Manchu” and a kid almost getting stabbed in the middle of the street are pretty good examples). Although Hung never got too popular overseas his name slowly began to grow in his homeland. In 1978 Hung was tasked with re-shooting and finishing the fight choreography for Bruce Lee's final film Game of Death, after which he then formed Gar Bo Motion Picture Company, which was a subsidiary of Golden Harvest Films and another large movie production studio in Hong Kong with director Karl Maka and actor Lau Kar Wing, the brother of yet another famous martial artist, Gordon Liu (He was Lucy Liu's lieutenant and leader of The Crazy 88's in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill). Unfortunately, the company disbanded after only two years when Maka moved on to form Cinema City and Films Co. which went on to become Hong Kong's third largest production company behind Golden Harvest and Shaw Bros.
As time went on Sammo, grew more and more popular among his peers. His influence on Chinese cinema expanded as he went on to create his own genre called “Jiangshi” based on supernatural Chinese folklore. He also became one of the many influential directors involved in the Hong Kong New Wave movement of the late '80s, which introduced the world to a new crop of creative and innovative directors that have since become household names. Think of John Woo (Broken Arrow, Face/Off) and Wong Kar-Wai (In The Mood For Love, Chungking Express). These days Sammo Hung is just as busy as ever still directing, producing and even writing for multiple up and coming projects, but for a guy that's starred in over 75 movies, worked behind the scenes on over 200 more, created his own genre, and went to school with Jackie Chan it's hard to believe that more mainstream audiences aren't as familiar with his name as they are with his work. I guess you know a bit more about him now though so that's a start right? NOW GO TELL OTHERS!
1. http://mercurie.blogspot.com/2008/06/kung-fu-craze-of-seventies-part-one.html The Kung Fu Craze of the Seventies by Terence Toweles Canote
2. The Cinema of Hong Kong: History, Arts, Identity by David Desser