“He’s gorgeous!” said my Mum, boggling at Yueh Hua playing the titular role in The Lizard. “He’s warm, funny, and he’s really really good.”
The Lizard (1972) is a combination rom-com / kung fu / heist movie produced by Shaw Brothers Studios and directed by Chor Yuen. I could sense the surprise in my Mother’s voice. She is not a fan of martial arts movies – she can’t stand the violence – and only watched The Lizard to keep me company one evening. In fact, I chose the film when I realised that she would be sitting up with me as I thought she would enjoy the broad humour, the entertaining plot, the lovely sets and costumes, and the engaging performances. Like many Westerners who don’t watch martial arts movies, Mum was under the impression that the movie she would be viewing with me would be shoddily made with risible acting.
But Shaws didn’t set out to make bad movies, they were in the business of making crowd pleasers that reflected well on their brand and made the audience want to come back for more. They resourced productions like The Lizard with the best technical, and among the best human, resources available in Hong Kong at the time.
This included a large stable of talent, both behind and in front of the camera. One of Shaws’ most gifted stars was Yueh Hua. He died recently; you can read an obituary here.
Hua was a product of the Shaws system, as well as being one of its most reliable mainstays. His filmography boasts a remarkable 138 films, many of them for Shaw Brothers. His biography on The Hong Kong Movie Database states that he acted in about five films a year during the 1960s and 1970s. It must have been exhausting! However, the consistent work plus the opportunity to collaborate with other talented people would have given him a chance to refine his skills. In return, he proved to be a box office draw for Shaws, and a performer who could be relied upon to turn in consistently good, and often excellent, performances.
Working my way through Shaws catalogue of martial arts movies, one thing that has struck me about Hua was that he was a most versatile actor: at the start of his career he played the rambunctious Sun Wukong (King Monkey) in Ho Meng Hua’s trilogy of films inspired by Journey to the West as well as a seminal performance as the impish Fan Dapei / Drunken Knight in Come Drink with Me (1966). This made him a star and he then often played earnest leading men in films such as Killer Darts (1968) and The Shadow Whip (1971). I especially liked his portrayal of the jaded but morally robust hero in The Casino (1972) (he and co-star Lily Ho made a sexy couple in this film).
During his career he also branched out into playing important character roles, such as the mysterious Monk Wu Hua in Clans of Intrigue (1977) or an ambiguously aloof wandering swordsman in Heroes Shed No Tears (1980). His performance in Death Duel (1977) shows that he could also make an effective cold-eyed villain. Regardless of which part he played, he always distinguished himself through subtle performances and a strong screen presence.
We are lucky that he left a wonderful legacy of films behind.
Thank you, Yueh Hua, and Rest in Peace.
I have written about Shaw Brothers Studios is ‘Ask for the Moon: Innovation at Shaw Brothers Studios’. If you would like to buy the book, please go here.