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Kung Fu Killers

Brian Trenchard-Smith reflects on the making of a little movie on a big mission

the man from hong kong
Brian Trenchard-Smith's 1975 film 'The Man from Hong Kong' featured Grant Page as an assassin
My one hour documentary World Of Kung Fu (1973) was a ratings success for the Seven Network, so I quickly sold a sequel concept to Channel Nine, this time 75 minutes for a 90 minute slot. The film would follow Australian stuntman Grant Page going to Hong Kong to learn more about kung fu, and to find who would succeed the late great Bruce Lee as Asia's top martial arts star.

A one page sizzle sheet, and my relationship with the Nine Network (for whom I had previously been the on-air promo producer before starting my own production company) was enough to get me a verbal acquisition deal from Nine's Len Mauger. In those days an executive's word was his bond.

A year earlier, while making The Stuntmen which featured Grant Page, I realized I was working with an extraordinarily talented all rounder whose personality was marketable in front of the camera as well as behind it. So I became his manager for the first five years of his career, promising to get his name above the title of a movie within that time frame. Kung Fu Killers was the perfect project to fulfill that promise within 18 months.

Next came the challenge of actually making it for its license fee. As I was also shooting piecemeal material for both another Grant Page vehicle Danger Freaks, and my sexually transmitted diseases mockumentary ( yes, you are not hallucinating!) The Love Epidemic, a Hexagon production, at that time, I incorporated Hong Kong sequences into both projects and was thus able to amortize a little of the cost of the Hong Kong shoot Nonetheless I only had $13,000 cash to make the picture. But extensive use of clips donated by Run Run Shaw of Shaw Brothers and Raymond Chow of Golden Harvest, seeking to publicise Asian cinema to western audiences, would help fill out the running time. I would also incorporate unused footage of Grant from The Stuntmen. Waste not, want not, my mother used to say.

I hired local cameramen in Hong Kong which also saved money, but visually the film betrays its shoestring shot-on-the-run approach. I am not going to pretend otherwise One cameraman announced his camera had failed to turn over during Grant's tricky climb of Lion Rock prior to a rope slide. He politely waited for Grant to finish the climb before telling me. Grant naturally repeated the climb. It was no doubt politically incorrect of me to create a fictional cameraman among the end credits - Wun Hung Lo. Sorry, it was 1973.

In fact, I have always been multicultural at heart. Appreciation, indeed, enjoyment, rather than fear or disdain for each other's cultures is the only way the world will be saved. I had hoped my 3 Asian shoots culminating in 1975 with The Man From Hong Kong, Australia's first co-production with an Asian film company, would lead to many more, till they became commonplace, expanding Australia's economic ties and cultural understanding with our northern neighbours.

But sadly this was not to be. Australian producers and funding bodies tended to look inward and towards our colonial past, rather than towards future relationships, which Australia surely must embrace.

Hmm. This is sounding like Kung Fu Killers was an engine for social change. Not what I am known for, by those who don't know me.

Digression: Perhaps the world is ready for meaningful change, if Barack Obama's recent reception in Europe is any indication. I bet Australia will give him a similar welcome. Hopefully in November American voters will see beyond pigmentation, and recognise the wisdom of electing as President a smart, progressive thinker with energy, charisma, and a moral compass. Then the world can breathe a sigh of relief. American residents of Australia: please vote absentee early; and, in your own best interests this time.

Back to Kung Fu Killers, my intentions were simple. Commence the process of launching Grant Page to local audiences as an Australian personality with an unique gift. Have him trigger a lot of Asian action sequences, which were really entertaining. Come in on budget. Turn a profit. Channel Nine paid $18,000. Not a great profit but enough to keep me afloat for a while. Remember, this was 1974. Viewed 35 years later, KFK is a long trailer for Asian Cinema masquerading as a Documentary Special. Somewhat scrappy and heavy handed in places too. But now, with the advantage of 20/20 hindsight, it is a really interesting time capsule. Grant is engaging as ever, and the kung fu combats are lively. Nine made a spectacular promo, and were rewarded with ratings and repeats for a while, particularly in Adelaide, Grant's home town. Mission accomplished

Were we right about who would succeed Bruce Lee?

Carter Wong was Hong Kong's nominee. I staged a fight ( ouch! very early work) between him and Grant at Victoria Peak. Carter was handsome, charismatic and skilled, but his career remained largely within Asia. His only significant American film role was in John Carpenter's terrific Big Trouble In Little China.

  jackie chan
  Jackie Chan working as a stuntman in the 1971 Bruce Lee film 'Fist of Fury': Bruce Lee (left) is "snapping" Jackie Chan's neck.
If only we had been introduced to that new stuntman/actor Jackie Chan - just 19 at the time. But his 1973 starring debut Little Tiger Of Canton had under performed at the Hong Kong box office. No one there thought he had a future, so he remained unknown to us. Ultimately Grant did some stunts for Jackie on his Australian shoot of Mr Nice Guy (1997). What a team Grant Page and Jackie Chan might have made if their paths had crossed earlier!

Brian Trenchard-Smith, August 2008.

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