Meeting the great and prolific screenwriter Ngai Hong
He may never have studied martial arts, but writer Ngai Hong (AKA Ni Kuang) has sent most of
prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" /Hong Kong’s kung fu heroes in action.
Ngai wrote the scripts for the Bruce Lee classics The Big Boss and Fist Of Fury, for Wang Yu’s One-Armed Swordsman, Gordon Liu in 36
th Chamber of Shaolin… The list seems endless. Thanks to the kind introduction of lethal lady lawyer Elizabeth Yang, I was invited to join a private dinner for Ngai Sifu, and to chat with him about the glory days of
Hong Kong martial arts cinema.
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Ngai Hong is now best known as an author, primarily for his creation ‘Wisely’, the hero of a series of science fiction novels. The character is the equivalent of a Chinese Dr Who, an adventurer investigating supernatural phenomenon. Though there’s never been a really good film adaptation of the character, Wisely has been played by Sam Hui, Chow Yun-fat and Andy Lau. Jet Li played the character (by any other name) in Dr Wai : Scripture With No Words. In fact, the other local literati attending the dinner had no idea that Ngai Hong had written two of Bruce Lee’s films, or, indeed, so many of director Chang Cheh’s Shaw Bros classics.
I asked him about Lee’s Fist Of Fury character, Chen Jun. Was Chen an historical person, or had Ngai made it up? I created him, replied the author. I just liked the sound of the name. (I had heard that the character’s name was chosen at random from a list of students of Fok Yun-kap.) Ngai remembered the tension between Lee and Lo Wei. “(Bruce) always used to call Lo Wei by name, never ‘director’,” laughs Ngai. “Lo Wei told him that, on the set, he should address him as ‘director’ (do yeen), but Lee said ‘but isn’t your name Lo Wei?’ and that’s what he called him.” He recalls Lee being hyperactive, constantly asking people to feel the power of his punch and, if they declined, insisting that they hit him instead. Ngai holds up his fist, wincing at the remembered pain of striking Lee’s rock hard abdomen.
Who came up with the stories for these classic films? “I did!” replied the author. “If the director came up with the story, that would leave me nothing to do. The director came up with the
idea for the movie, and that was all.” Did he work at the studio? “No, I worked from home, writing long hand.” Ngai says it only took him a couple of weeks (at most) to finish a screenplay. Someone from the studio would pick it up, and he’d be on to the next one.
Two weeks at most… Wow. You might say these are ‘just’ kung fu movies, but go back and look at the brilliant plot construction of Fist Of Fury, Blood Brothers, Executioners from Shaolin… These films provided the structures that defined the rest of the genre. Ngai’s contribution to the golden era of kung fu cinema began it (1967’s One Armed Swordsman) and ended it (1983’s 8 Diagram Pole Fighter). He wrote only one more film, the rarely seen Chang Cheh benefit flick Just Heroes.
Ngai was raised in
Shanghai, and still speaks Cantonese with a very heavy Shanghainese accent. He used to work as a cop in
Inner Mongolia, which would certainly give you some stories to tell. He moved to
Hong Kong in 1957, and soon achieved fame as an author, screenwriter and pundit. I first became aware of Ngai in
England when I saw videotapes of a late night talk show he hosted with fellow bon vivants James Wong and Chua Lam. (I had no idea what they were saying, but they seemed to be having a real good time…), and saw him on-screen playing Sammo Hung’s father in Skinny Tiger, Fatty Dragon.
Given that Ngai is now best known for creating Wai See-lei AKA Wisely, its ironic that a decent screen adaptation of these books has so far proved elusive. Wisely first came to the screen in 1986’s Golden Harvest thriller The Seventh Curse, played, in a framing sequence, by Chow Yun-fat. The main protagonist is Ngai’s other great literary creation, Dr Yuen. The following year, Sam Hui played the role in
City’s rather disjointed Legend of the Golden Pearl. In 1991, Chin Kar-lok played Wisely in the best adaptation, Tsui Siu-ming’s visually stunning Bury Me High (the greatest feng shui-themed action film ever!). There was also very average supernatural thriller The Cat (starring, confusingly, Waise Lee) and the god-awful Wesley’s Mysterious File (starring Andy Lau). (Ching Siu-tung’s Jet Li vehicle Dr Wai isn’t officially part of the Wisely canon, but borrows heavily from the character.)
At one time, producer Raymond Wong was considering a new Wisely film, starring Donnie Yen, but this has yet to get past concept stage.
I was very privileged to meet this unsung hero of
Hong Kong’s movie history, and hope we can get together again soon so I can hear more tales of kung fu cinema past.
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