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Interview de Toby Russell

Si nous aimons rire d'un certain cinéma déviant, nous sommes très loin de mépriser les hommes et les femmes qui s'y sont impliqués ou compromis. Il nous a ainsi paru enrichissant de faire raconter le nanar et son univers par les gens qui l'ont vécu de l'intérieur. La diversité des intervenants et de leurs réponses nous a rendu encore plus proches du cinéma que nous aimons : vous découvrirez, au fil des entretiens que ces différentes vedettes ont bien voulu nous accorder, des informations précieuses pour le cinéphile et le cinéphage, des anecdotes cocasses et, en esquisse, le portrait attachant de personnages souvent hauts en couleur.
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Toby Russell


Toby Russell is a key man in the independant kung fu movie scene and has worked many years in HK and Taiwan before co-founding "Vengeance video", the "Eastern Heroes" video label. He's also a Robert Tai's friend since 1984 and a fan since before 1980, especially when he watched "Devil Killer" and decided he had to meet this "mad" man as he calls him.



Toby's knowledge has allowed us to ask a wide range of questions, prepared not only by Nanarland but also our friends from HKCinemagic and Robert Tai's Temple (Dr Kungfu), gathered to explore with Toby this too unknown universe. Hopefully for us, he kindly answered to all our questions with great openness, and we all thank him for his time and his kindness.

Interview menée par :

In the first part conducted by Yannick Langevin from drkungfu.free.fr, Toby Russell gives us important clues about Tai's world, his crew (which Toby was himself fully involved in), and Taiwanese 80's kung fu movie scene.



In the second part, Arnaud Lanuque from hkcinemagic.com has added more questions about Toby and his journey to kung fu movies in the 80's and 90's.



And finally, Nanarland.com team adds more questions about bruceploitation wave, Godfrey Ho and Malaysian cinema.


TOBY RUSSELL and Taiwanese Kung Fu movies



ABOUT ROBERT TAI AND TOBY RUSSELL's experience with him

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 in Shaolin Dolemite.

I was a R. 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 Venom films) So one day I am at the cinema in Leister 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"

You said Robert Tai asked you to act in "Mafia Vs Ninja", 3 hours version. You already knew Alexander Lo. How did you meet Eugene Thomas and Sylvio Azzolini?


Silvio Azzolini in Final Duel

When I first arrived in Taiwan I only had the telephone number of Chiang Sheng he was too busy to show me around so asked him for the number of Chu Ker, (I knew him from HK and 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 was 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 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 stillz 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 venom films,

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

Robert Tai and Alexander Lo first met for "Incredible Kung Fu Mission" (if I'm not wrong). How is born and how was their particular Master / Disciple relation? Are there notable differences with your personal connections with Robert Tai?


Alexander Lou and Robert Tai, master and disciple in front and behind the camera.

Alexander was the kid brother of Tang Lung, who made films in the early 70's. In fact Devil killer uses his film for the old parts. I guess Tang Lung sent Alexander to Lam Tien Hung after he won the Taiwan 1978 Tae Kwan do championship. Tai liked Alexander right from the start and asked him if he wanted to study film making under him, he agreed and worked with him on films like Heroes and Fistfull of talons before Devil killer and Shaolin v Ninja.



Tai treats all his students the same very strict but very loyal and kind.

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 becomes his first movie entirely directed by him, 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, so before Mafia Vs Ninja.

How do you explain those differences that have a notable incidence on the journey of Robert Tai and his crew?

shaolin v ninja 80/1

Shaolin chasity 81/82

ninja guards of shaolin 82

Shaolin against Lama 82

mafia 83/4

Considering your Robert Tai filmography, did you saw "Shaolin Vs Ninja" before getting involved in "Mafia Vs Ninja"?

Yes I saw it in 83 in Malaysia , I met them in 84

Shaolin Vs Ninja is considerate by fans like an important step for action filming 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 such underestimated today and the print in such a bad shape?

The film is the brain child of Lam Tien Hung and Robert Tai, at that time Ninja movies were in because of Sho Kosugi 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 by Samo and Yuen Kwai who used some of them on Ninja in the dragons den (With tai's permission). Jackie also wanted Tai's men fro 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 teenage)

The stuntmen I talk 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 of cooks of kung fu, the double front somersault with no trampoline or ramp. The 3rd was William Yen a younger class mate 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 sheild guy and also the

swordsman in Ninja Vs Shaolin Guards). It was their high performance acobatics and guts together with Tai's creative mind that made Shaolin v 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 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 can 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 v Ninja.



But I do know for a fact that Chin Su Tung's brother Ching Siu Lung (Actor, editor, sound fx) was one of the editors of Ninja final duel, and he gave Siu Tung the tapes to look 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 R 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 film maker 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 Robocop Laser disc and used them on J. Woo's the killer, 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 3rd 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.

Fists of Legends 2 is a "two-rolled-in-one" movie initially taken from "Return of the Assassin" (1973) choreographed by Lau Kar Wing, withLarry Lee that you seem to like much seeing the place you give him in Top Fighter. How was born this crazy, almost insane mixture between a fake Bruce Lee and a fake Jet Li?


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

My Friend George Tan came up with the Idea as he was given The Larry lee film "The Bodyguard" to him by Roy Mc Aree the owner of the film, I just produced it, I enjoyed this project very much everything went smoothly ,we shot the new footage in 4 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, shame as he is much better than Jet Le. Van damage (Todd senefonte) was the real double for Van Damme on many of VD films, he showed Van Damme the film, Van Damme was so impressed that he fired him.

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 do you come to choose Rudy Ray Moore?

I asked Tai what was the original Idea of the movie and he himself is not sure, the project was financed by a Malaysian millionaire called Terry Chang he 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 2 films made (35mm) and 2 versions of video sere is released , Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan, Korea is all I know who had this. Again it was George who wanted to use Rudi Ray More 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.

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 follows him?

The problem with Tai is his temperament, he has a very powerful personality, if a producer can not 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 the 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 80's films).



A few boss's 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 life time 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 when I saw wooden men I did not need to see Drunken Master to know he was the best.

ABOUT TAIWANESE KUNG FU MOVIES In the early 80's

In the early 80's, Taiwanese independent kung fu movie scene seemed like a little world where every one knew each other. Was there a Taiwanese big family? What were the relations between Robert Tai, Ng Kwok Yan, William Cheung Kei, Lee Tso Nam and Joseph Kuo? At which scale did you get involve with them?

All these guys know each other since the late Sixties; they are like a big family. I worked with many of them in some way or other, acting, producing, interviews, odd jobs, like bringing negatives for Lee Yi 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????

Do you think early 80's Taiwanese Directors are still or have been underestimated relating to their influence on modern action and ninja action? If yes, what are the reasons for that?


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

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 dragons den.

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 on those pictures, 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?

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.

Do you think the return of the Venoms to Taiwan and the shooting of Ninja in the Deadly Trap sound a bit like the dusk of this generation of fighters all presented later in Shanghai 13? How did Philip Kwok, Lu Feng and Chiang Sheng feel during those shootings?


Chiang Sheng and Chien Tien Chi in Attack of the Joyful Goddess

Lu feng and Chiang Sheng were happy to return to Taiwan, Phillip 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 joyful goddess , the cinema was full so he said let's not watch the film lets go eat instead.

Your Robert Tai filmography dated Heaven and Hell from 1977 instead of 1980, so who's right?

Of course it's 77


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