This blog post will test your knowledge of kung fu films, challenge your understanding of who’s had the greatest impact on the development of Chinese martial arts movies and maybe even cause you to examine your kung fu film “nerd quotient.”
My first question is, What ever happened to Tony?
Tony the Tiger? No, but he was g-r-reat! Tony Jaa? Too much of a suit-and-Thai guy to be linked to Chinese cinema. How about To Ni? Nah, he was a background actor often seen in old films but rarely credited.
My question refers to the first actor to bear the brunt of Bruce Lee’s iconic death blow: Tony Liu, aka Liu Yong.
Tony Liu in Adventures of Emperor Chien Lung, Courtesy of Celestial Pictures
Tony Liu co-starred in three Bruce Lee films, all of which scored big at the box office. In Enter the Dragon (1973), Liu wore a yellow gi and fought John Saxon in Han’s martial arts tournament. In Return of the Dragon (1972), Liu played Tony, one of the Chinese waiters at the restaurant Bruce Lee was protecting from the Mafia. Liu’s most famous character — at least, in the minds of many Americans — was the son of the big boss in The Big Boss, aka Fists of Fury (1971).
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That Tony Liu–Bruce Lee scene in The Big Boss turned out to be a defining moment in Lee’s career. It unfolded as follows:
It’s nighttime at the ice factory, and Tony Liu and Bruce Lee are going at it. Liu lunges in with a desperate punch, but Lee blocks the blow — and then it happens. Lee unleashes a gut punch in what will become one of his signature moments. For the next 15 seconds, we see Lee’s muscles tense as his outstretched arm is frozen in fury. Then he turns to the camera, his snarling lips and eye-growling face reflecting nothing but anger and the desire for revenge.
Bruce Lee in The Big Boss
After a run of look-how-handsome-he-is movies, Tony Liu signed with Shaw Brothers in 1975. The following year, he was selected to portray a real person, one who arguably had the greatest impact on the development of Chinese martial arts. Was that Ta Mo (Bodhidharma), Zhang San-Feng, Ip Man, Huo Yuan-Jia or even Bruce Lee? Nope. It was Emperor Chien Lung (1711-1799).
Four films on the life and times of Chien Lung have been made, and Tony Liu played him in each one. They are Emperor Chien Lung (1976), The Adventures of Emperor Chien Lung (1977), Voyage of Emperor Chien Lung (1978) and Emperor Chien Lung and the Beauty (1980).
Just who was Chien Lung, and why was he significant?
After the brutal 13-year reign of Emperor Yong Zheng, perhaps best-known for razing Shaolin Temple and slaughtering most of the monks, his fourth son Hong Li rose to power and became Emperor Chien Lung, the fifth ruler of the Ching dynasty. He governed China from 1736 to 1796.
Emperor Chien Lung is famous for secretly visiting southern China six times while dressed as a commoner. His goal was to learn how his subjects felt about him and how he might improve their country and their lives.
Due to his expertise in the martial arts, Chien Lung also was known as the last kung fu emperor. In Adventures of Emperor Chien Lung, we bear witness to how he learned to defend himself while growing up in the cold lands of northern China and how, as a teen, he saved his grandfather from a ferocious black bear during a hunting trip.
Emperor Chien Lung’s contribution to martial arts filmdom is enormous though inadvertent. Recognizing that what his father had done to Shaolin Temple was tragic and wrong, he took it upon himself to rebuild the monastery and revitalize the Shaolin martial arts. He also commissioned the creation of Beijing opera schools, which became the training ground for Hong Kong’s stunt performers. That group, of course, includes the likes of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Ching Siu-tung.
Back to Tony Liu: He’s now 63 years old and still living in Hong Kong. His career has spanned 45 years and 75 films, and it’s not over. For that, Mr. Liu deserves, ahem, a Tony Award.
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