Profile: Sammo Hung Kam-bo

Posted in Profiles by - October 31, 2014
Profile: Sammo Hung Kam-bo

Date of birth: 7 January, 1952 (Hong Kong)

Other names: Chu Yuan Lung, Hong Jin Bao, Hung Ching Pao, Samo Hung, Zhu Yuan Long

Occupation: Actor, director, writer, action director, producer, stuntman.

Biography: Sammo Hung has had a profound influence on the continuing development and popularity of Hong Kong action cinema. He has helped to shape new genres, launch film careers, and shine a light on the histories and personalities behind traditional kung fu styles. As a performer, Sammo is a mix of contradictions. His burly frame belies an incredible grace and physicality, and his often buffoonish screen persona disguises an incredible cinematic intellect as a director, producer and fight choreographer. His lack of typical leading man looks meant he was often overshadowed by his martial arts movie contemporaries – people like his childhood friend, Jackie Chan. Despite this fact, it is universally acknowledged by fans of the genre that no kung fu performer has ever looked better than when they are being directed by Sammo Hung.

Sammo Hung grew up in a show-business household in 1950s Hong Kong. He was one of four children to the Shanghai actor Chin Chi-ngan, but due to his parents’ work commitments, he was mostly cared for by his grandparents. His grandmother, Chin Tsi-ang, was a veteran Chinese actor who appeared in over 80 films from 1941 until her death in 2002. His grandfather was the film director Hung Chung-ho who made over 40 films between 1937 and 1950. His brother, Lee Chi-git, followed Sammo into the film industry as an actor and choreographer, as well as his sister Fanny Lee Fan-nei – both of whom have since worked on Sammo Hung projects.

Sammo was enrolled into the Beijing Opera Academy at the age of nine under the tutelage of Sifu Yu Jim-yuen. He would become the foremost member of the Seven Little Fortunes troupe, performing acrobatic displays of kung fu, acting and gymnastics for the next seven years. During this time, he picked up the authoritative name of ‘Big Brother’ – a referential nickname which has stuck with him throughout his life and career. In reference to his sifu, Sammo’s name was changed to ‘Yuen Chu’. During his time at the Academy he also started to adopt the nickname ‘Sammo’, meaning ‘three hairs’ in reference to a popular Chinese comic book character, first published in 1935 by the artist Zhang Leping. His Seven Little Fortunes classmates included many future icons of Hong Kong action cinema, including Jackie Chan (renamed ‘Yuen Lau’), Yuen Biao, Yuen Wah, Yuen Mo, Ng Ming-choi (renamed ‘Yuen Choi’), Yuen Tak and Corey Yuen Kwai. Sammo would later win Best Actor at the 8th Hong Kong Film Awards for his portrayal as Sifu Yu Jim-yuen in the biopic Painted Faces (1988), detailing his grueling formative years spent at the Beijing Opera Academy.

Sammo made his film debut a year after joining the Beijing Opera school in the 1961 film Education of Love. As a teenager, Sammo was a relatively skinny youth. In his 2015 autobiography, Never Grow Up, Jackie Chan recalls a time when Sammo was forced to stay in hospital for an extended period of time after breaking his leg while training. “His grandpa brought noodles in thick gravy to the hospital everyday, and he swelled up like a balloon,” Chan writes. “His leg got better, but he never lost the extra weight.” As a result, Sifu Yu Jim-yuen would stop him from performing. Feeling dejected, Sammo was the first of the group to make quick and considerable inroads into the Hong Kong film industry, firstly as a stuntman and fight choreographer, then with bit-parts in mostly villainous roles due to his heavy physique. During the 1960s, he would meet and work with the visionary director King Hu as a supporting actor and choreographer on A Touch of Zen (1971), which became the first Chinese film to win the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. In 1970, Sammo signed to Raymond Chow’s fledgling production studio, Golden Harvest. His first role for the company was as a fight choreographer on The Fast Sword (1971), directed by Huang Feng who had followed Raymond Chow from Shaw Brothers to help set up the rival film studio.

Sammo, along with Huang Feng, helped to shape the fortunes of Golden Harvest with a string of successful films, including Hapkido (1972), When Taekwondo Strikes (1973), and The Himalayan (1976). These films focused on non-Chinese fighting arts and helped to set the look and feel of the new production house. They also made international stars out of actors like Carter Wong and Angela Mao Ying, who was marketed as a ‘female Bruce Lee‘ throughout the 1970s. During this period, Sammo also appeared in Bruce Lee’s final fight scene, which featured at the start of Enter the Dragon (1973). He worked with Jimmy Wang Yu in an attempt to promote him as an Asian James Bond for the international market in The Man from Hong Kong (1975) – an Australian-Chinese co-production which, ironically, co-starred an actor who had actually played James Bond, George Lazenby. Sammo also worked with young director John Woo on Hand of Death (1976), and Korean director Jeong Chang-hwa on The Skyhawk (1974) – in which veteran actor Kwan Tak-hing reprised his role as the legendary Foshan folk hero, Wong Fei-hung – and Broken Oath (1977), which would prove to be Angela Mao Ying’s final film for Golden Harvest.

Sammo made his directorial debut with The Iron Fisted Monk (1977) in which he played a prototype to the underdog kung fu clown made famous by Jackie Chan in the highly successful comedy Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1978). His second film as director was a comedic tribute to Bruce Lee called Enter the Fat Dragon (1978), which was made independently from his contract with Golden Harvest. Fascinated by the origins of traditional kung fu styles, Sammo directed two films which are widely regarded as some of the best examples of the genre. Both Warriors Two (1978) and The Prodigal Son (1981) focused on the close combat style of Wing Chun – the style made famous by Bruce Lee as taught to him by his sifu, Ip Man – and told the story of real-life practitioner Leung Jan. In Warriors Two, Leung Jan is depicted as an old man by Leung Kar-yan, although the main star of the film was Korean super-kicker Casanova Wong. Hung would use Casanova Wong to great effect in new scenes commissioned by Golden Harvest to be used in Robert Clouse’s “new Bruce Lee film”, Game of Death (1978). In The Prodigal Son, Leung Jan is played as a spoiled rich kid by Sammo’s former classmate Yuen Biao, who had key roles in the Sammo Hung film Knockabout (1979) and Yuen Woo-ping’s The Magnificent Butcher (1980). The latter film perfectly cast Sammo as Wong Fei-hung’s burly disciple Butcher Lam Sai-wing, and marked his first collaboration with Yuen Woo-ping.

Unlike the filmmakers tied into biding contracts at Shaw Brothers, Sammo Hung enjoyed a considerable amount of freedom during his time at Golden Harvest. In 1978, he set up Gar Bo Motion Picture Company with the comedian Karl Maka and Lau Kar-leung’s brother, Lau Kar-wing. Their first film together was the crime comedy Dirty Tiger, Crazy Frog (1978), followed by Odd Couple in 1979, before Karl Maka left the company in 1980 to launch Cinema City with Dean Shek and Raymond Wong. That same year, Sammo set up Boho Films, which would eventually produce around 40 films. This included the pioneering supernatural kung fu film Encounters of the Spooky Kind (1980), which launched a craze for ‘jiangshi’ Hong Kong horror films and was later followed by his involvement in The Dead and the Deadly (1982) for director Wu Ma, and the Mr. Vampire series.

In 1983, Sammo launched another production company, D&B Films, with Hong Kong entrepreneur Dickson Poon and the comedian John Shum. Together they produced 77 films before disbanding in 1992. D&B were most famous for setting the trend in female-led action films throughout the 1980s, helping to launch the careers of Cynthia Rothrock and Michelle Yeoh. Sammo also helped to promote the Hong Kong comedy genre thanks to his highly successful Lucky Stars franchise, starring an ensemble of reoccurring comedic character actors. Featuring bawdy humour and a roll-call of famous cameos, the first film in the series – Winners and Sinners (1983) – took nearly HK$22m at the box office. The second Lucky Stars film, My Lucky Stars (1985), was completed just in time to meet the Chinese New Year release date thanks to simultaneous filming sessions by Eric Tsang and Jackie Chan. The film made a huge HK$10m in its opening week.

Throughout the 1980s, Sammo was instrumental in transforming the fortunes of his former Beijing Opera schoolfriend and Golden Harvest contract player Jackie Chan, whose career had stalled following a lack of success in the west with Battle Creek Brawl (1980). Sammo directed Jackie Chan in the hit action comedy Project A (1983), which took HK$14m in its opening week and helped to launch Jackie Chan as a contemporary action film star. Sammo continued to direct Jackie Chan is some of the actor’s best films, including Wheels on Meals (1984), Heart of the Dragon (1985) and Dragons Forever (1988). According to co-star Yuen Biao, it was on the set of the latter where tensions started to grow between the two lifelong friends, as Chan’s international fame continued to grow unabated whilst Sammo’s success began to dwindle towards the late 1980s and into the 90s.

Despite producing some of his best work – including the all-star enjoyment of Millionaire’s Express (1986), the intense Vietnam War violence of Eastern Condors (1987) and the excellent action of Pedicab Driver (1989) – none of his late 80s films were particularly big hits. The latter was his first film for a new production company, Bojon, made with Golden Harvest backing. In total he made five films for Bojon and most of them flopped, like the misjudged gay comedy Pantyhose Hero (1990) and the bizarre action film Slickers vs. Killers (1991). When Golden Harvest pulled his production Into the Fire (1991) from theatres due to its poor returns, Sammo terminated his working relationship with Golden Harvest which had lasted for over two decades.

In the early 1990s, Sammo concentrated more on behind-the-scenes roles and helped to capitalise on the new wave of wuxia productions, directing the films Moon Warriors (1992) and Blade of Fury (1993), and also working as the fight choreographer on the Wong Kar-wai arthouse classic Ashes of Time (1994). Ironically, it was thanks to Jackie Chan that his fortunes changed, when the two rekindled their working partnership with Thunderbolt (1995), in which Sammo worked as the fight choreographer, and later Mr. Nice Guy (1997), which was the first time Sammo had directed Jackie Chan in ten years.

In 1998, Sammo Hung was cast as the lead in a prime-time American TV series for the CBS television network, created by former Nash Bridges producer Carlton Cuse and executive produced by long-time Jackie Chan collaborator Stanley Tong. Martial Law starred Sammo as the kung fu cop ‘Sammo Law’ opposite popular US comedian Arsenio Hall in a buddy cop formula similar to the Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker film Rush Hour (1998). Despite the fact that Sammo had to speak much of the English dialogue phonetically, the show proved to be a huge success and ran for two seasons before Sammo dropped out, cited poor scripts as the reason.

The 2000s saw a rebirth in his popularity in Hong Kong, which started with The Legend of Zu (2001), the long-awaited sequel to Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain (1983). Sammo was the original action director on the Stephen Chow comedy Kung Fu Hustle (2004), before dropping out for personal reasons and leaving Yuen Woo-ping to complete the film. Sammo finally reunited on-screen with Jackie Chan in the 2004 Disney production Around the World in 80 Days (2004), in which Sammo was bizarrely cast as Wong Fei-hung! Sammo has again enjoyed success in bad guy roles, most notably in his films for Wilson Yip. In SPL (2005), he played a big time crook and fought against Donnie Yen for the first time in his career. He later worked as fight choreographer for Wilson Yip’s Ip Man (2008). The film starred Donnie Yen as the titular Wing Chun master and detailed the early life of Bruce Lee’s sifu. It was on the set of the film’s sequel, Ip Man 2 (2010), when Sammo Hung was rushed to hospital to undergo emergency heart surgery. He later blamed his weight and his love for cigars as the reason for the illness.

Sammo has also championed the Wing Chun style on the small screen with the 2006 series Wing Chun, in which he and Yuen Biao both reprised their roles as Wong Wai-bo and Leung Jan from his 1981 masterpiece, The Prodigal Son. The show also starred Sammo’s real life son, Sammy Hung.

Sammo Hung has four children with his former Beijing Opera school friend Jo Yun-ok. He has three sons: Timmy Hung Tin-ming (born 1974), Jimmy Hung Tin-cheung (born 1977) and Sammy Hung Tin-chiu (born 1979); and a daughter, Stephanie Hung Chao-yu (born 1983). The couple divorced in 1994 when Sammo started a relationship with former Miss Hong Kong, Joyce Godenzi. Despite never having any martial arts training, Sammo cast Godenzi as a Vietnamese guerrilla fighter in Eastern Condors, and later produced her leading lady debut in She Shoots Straight (1990). The pair married in 1995. In 2010, Sammo Hung was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the New York Asian Film Festival. In 2016, Sammo Hung returned to the director’s chair for the first time in nearly 20 years to make The Bodyguard.

Speech! From Hong Kong Action Cinema, 1995: “Throughout my career, all I ever wanted to do was make good movies and entertain the audience. The box office you can’t control. Sometimes a film is a flop and ten years later everyone says it’s a classic! You never know. It isn’t the director’s job to know. It’s his job to make the best films he can.”

Filmography (as actor): 1961 Education of Love; 1962 Big and Little Wong Tin Bar; The Birth of Yue Fei; The Princess and the Seven Little Heroes; Little Dragon Girl Teases White Snake Spirit; 1963 Father and Son; The Monkey Soldiers Come to the Rescue; 1964 The Crisis; The Rainbow Pass; 1966 The Eighteen Darts (Part 1); The Eighteen Darts (Part 2); 1967 Paragon of Sword and Knife; Dragon Gate Inn; 1968 The Bells of Death; Black Butterfly; Paragon of Sword and Knife II; The Jade Raksha; Death Valley; 1969 Raw Courage; Mad, Mad Sword; Dragon Swamp; The Swordmates; The Golden Sword (+ action dir.); The Sweet Sword; Killers Five; The One Armed Magic Nun; The Devil Warrior; Sword of Emei; Vengeance is a Golden Blade; 1970 Wrath of the Sword; The Eagle’s Claw; The Iron Buddha (+ action dir.); The Crimson Charm; Brothers Five (+ action dir.); The Golden Knight; A Taste of Cold Steel; The Angry River (+ action dir.); 1971 A Touch of Zen (+ action dir.); The Invincible Eight (+ action dir.); The Shadow Whip; The Comet Strikes; Swordsman at Large; The Fast Sword (+ action dir.); The Lady Hermit; The Eunuch; The Living Sword; Six Assassins; The Lady Hermit; Vengeance of a Snow Girl; The Blade Spares None (+ action dir.); 1972 The Thunderbolt Fist; Trilogy of Swordsmanship; Lady Whirlwind (+ action dir.); Bandits from Shantung (+ action dir.); Hapkido (+ action dir.); The Fugitive; The Devil’s Mirror; The Imperial Swordsman; 1973 Life for Sale (+ action dir.); The Rendezvous of Warriors; When Taekwondo Strikes (+ action dir.); Enter the Dragon; Bloody Ring (+ action dir.); The Devil’s Treasure (+ action dir.); Ambush; 1974 The Wandering Life; Ultraman the Frozen Station; The Skyhawk (+ action dir.); Village of Tigers; The Tournament (+ action dir.); The Association (+ action dir.); Big Brother; Manchu Boxer (+ action dir.); Stoner (+ action dir.); The Dragon Tamers; 1975 The Man from Hong Kong (+ action dir.); Bruce, Hong Kong Master; Winner Take All; Story of Chinese Gods; Kung Fu Stars (+ action dir.); The Valiant Ones (+ action dir.); All in the Family; The Young Rebel; Bruce Lee, D-Day at Macao; My Wacky, Wacky World; 1976 The Himalayan (+ action dir.); Hand of Death (+ action dir.); The Double Crossers; The Traitorous; Queen’s Ransom; End of Wicked Tigers (+ pro, action dir.); The Breakthrough (+ action dir.); Tiger of Northland (+ action dir.); 1977 Shaolin Plot (+ action dir.); The Iron Fisted Monk (+ dir, pro, scr, action dir.); Broken Oath; The Dragon, the Odds; 1978 Game of Death (+ action dir.); Enter the Fat Dragon (+ dir, action dir.); My Darling Gals; Return of Secret Rivals; Warriors Two (+ dir, action dir.); Dirty Tiger, Crazy Frog (+ pro, action dir.); Heroes; Magnum Fist; 1979 Knockabout (+ dir, action dir.); The Incredible Kung Fu Master (+ action dir.); Odd Couple (+ action dir.); 1980 The Magnificent Butcher (+ action dir.); Encounters of the Spooky Kind (+ dir, scr, action dir.); By Hook or By Crook; Two Toothless Tiger (+ pro, action dir.); The Victim (+ dir, action dir.); 1981 The Prodigal Son (+ dir, scr, action dir.); Chasing Girls (+ pro.); 1982 Carry on Pickpocket (+ dir, action dir.); The Dead and the Deadly (+ pro, scr, action dir.); 1983 Winners and Sinners (+ dir, scr, action dir.); Project A (+ dir, scr, action dir.); Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain; 1984 Pom Pom (+ pro, action dir.); The Owl vs. Bombo (+ dir, pro.); Wheels on Meals (+ dir, action dir.); 1985 My Lucky Stars (+ dir, action dir.); From the Great Beyond (+ pro.); Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Stars (+ dir, pro, action dir.); Yes, Madam! (+ pro.); Heart of the Dragon (+ dir.); 1986 Millionaire’s Express (+ dir, action dir.); Lucky Stars Go Places (+ pro, scr.); Where’s Officer Tuba? (+ pro.); 1987 Eastern Condors (+ dir, action dir.); To Err is Human; 1988 Dragons Forever (+ dir, action dir.); Painted Faces; China’s Last Eunuch (+ pro.); Paper Marriage (+ action dir.); 1989 Pedicab Driver (+ dir, scr, action dir.); The Fortune Code; 1990 Shanghai Encounter; Encounters of the Spooky Kind II (+ action dir.); Eight Taels of Gold; Pantyhose Hero (+ dir, action dir.); Skinny Tiger, Fatty Dragon; Island of Fire; She Shoots Straight (+ pro.); Best is the Highest (+ dir.); 1991 Touch and Go; Lover’s Tear; The Tantana; My Flying Wife; Daddy, Father and Papa (+ action dir.); The Gambling Ghost; The Banquet; Slickers vs. Killers (+ dir, action dir.); 1992 Ghost Punting (+ dir.); 1993 Kung Fu Cult Master (+ action dir.); Painted Skin (+ action dir.); 1995 Don’t Give a Damn (+ dir, pro, action dir.); 1996 Somebody Up There Likes Me; How to Meet the Lucky Stars; Ah Kam; 1997 A Chinese Ghost Story: The Tsui Hark Animation; 1998 The Pale Sky; 1999 No Problem; 2001 The Legend of Zu; The Avenging Fist; 2002 The Hidden Enforcers; Flying Dragon, Leaping Tiger; 2003 Men Suddenly in Black; 2004 Astonishing; Around the World in 80 Days; Osaka Wrestling Restaurant; 2005 Legend of the Dragon (+ action dir.); Dragon Squad; SPL; 2007 Twins Mission; 2008 Fatal Move; Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon (+ action dir.); Wushu; 2009 Kung Fu Chefs; 2010 14 Blades; Ip Man 2 (+ action dir.); The Legend is Born: Ip Man; 2011 Choy Lee Fut; Road Less Traveled (+ pro.); A Simple Life; 2012 Naked Soldier; The Last Tycoon; 2013 Princess and the Seven Kung Fu Masters; 2014 Once Upon a Time in Shanghai; Rise of the Legend; 2016 The Bodyguard (+ dir, action dir.); 2017 God of War; 2019 A Lifetime Treasure; The Last Honor; 2024 Twilight of the Warriors: Walled In.

Filmography (as director): 1978 Naked Comes the Huntress (+ action dir.); 1982 Men’s Inhumanity to Men; 1984 Possession of a Ghost; 1988 The Haunted Island; 1989 Seven Warriors (+ pro.); 1992 Moon Warriors; 1993 Don’t Call Me Gigolo; Blade of Fury (+ action dir.); 1994 China’s First Swordsman; 1997 Mr. Nice Guy; Once Upon a Time in China and America (+ action dir.); 2020 Septet: The Story of Hong Kong (+ scr.).

Filmography (as producer): 1979 From Rags to Riches; 1984 Long Arm of the Law; The Return of Pom Pom (+ action dir.); Hocus Pocus; 1985 Mr. Boo Meets Pom Pom; The Island; Mr. Vampire; It’s a Drink! It’s a Bomb!; 1986 Mr Vampire II; From Here to Prosperity; The Strange Bedfellow; Silent Love; Rosa; Goodbye Mama; 1987 My Cousin the Ghost; Promising Young Boy; Scared Stiff; The Final Test; Sworn Brothers; Mr Vampire III (+ action dir.); The Happy Bigamist; 1988 On the Run; Picture of a Nymph (+ action dir.); Mr Vampire IV; One Husband Too Many; 1989 The Blonde Fury; Into the Fire; Bachelor’s Swan Song; Burning Sensation; 1991 Bury Me High; 1992 The Scorpion King.

Filmography (as action director): 1966 Come Drink with Me; 1970 The Twelve Gold Medallions; 1973 The Fate of Lee Khan; 1974 Games Gamblers Play; 1976 The Private Eyes; 1977 Fists of Dragons; 1978 The Amsterdam Kill; Gee and Gor; 1984 Hong Kong 1941 (+ scr.); 1987 The Romance of Book and Sword; 1988 In the Blood; 1993 The Eagle Shooting Heroes; 1994 Ashes of Time; 1995 Thunderbolt; 1997 Double Team; 1998 Knock Off; 2003 The Medallion; 2004 Kung Fu Hustle; 2008 Ip Man; 2010 Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame; 2011 My Kingdom; 2012 Tai Chi Hero; 2016 Call of Heroes; 2017 Paradox2024 Back to the Past.

This post was written by
Editor and creator of Kung Fu Movie Guide and the host of the Kung Fu Movie Guide Podcast. I live behind a laptop in London, UK.

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