Hong Kong martial arts film icon Sammo Hung on his career, stars including Donnie Yen, Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan – and eating

“Amitabha!”, Hung shouted in character, before climbing up three tables stacked on top of each other and then somersaulting back to the ground. He hurt his leg, was in great pain, but Yu ignored his pleas and Hung finished the show limping.

Sammo Hung at an interview with the Post in 1989. Photo: SCMP

“In the two months that followed,” Hung, now 72, recalls, “I wasn’t able to train at all. I was just sitting around and eating. I happened to be going through my adolescent growth spurt and my weight ballooned as a result.”

It is certainly rare for a martial arts actor as venerated as Hung to be his size, especially back in his prime.

“I didn’t mean to keep my body shape like this, I just let it develop as it pleased,” he chuckles. “I’ve maintained my body shape ever since because my intestines are well developed and they absorb nutrients really well.”

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When we meet up one Friday afternoon in early March, in a corner suite at the Regent Hong Kong, in Tsim Sha Tsui, some 60 years have passed since that pivotal moment in Lai Yuen.

Incidentally, the luxury hotel is a few minutes’ walk from Mirador Mansion, the building in which Hung had been undergoing his gruelling training with Yu around the time of his injury.

These days, Hung looks a bit slimmer than the portly figure to which audiences have long grown accustomed.

This has primarily to do with the diet orchestrated by his wife, the former Miss Hong Kong and actress Joyce Godenzi, who is 58. She is sitting across the room from us with great poise, supplying Hung with snippets of information – usually film titles – whenever memory fails him.

Hung and his wife Joyce Mina Godenzi in Hong Kong in March 2024. Photo: Xiaomei Chen. Hair: Perry @ GHD Styling Team. Make-up: Guerlain Makeup Team

In Hung’s case, those gaps in recollection are probably less a consequence of “dementia” – as he has somehow seen fit to joke about on occasion – than the fact that he has worked in a staggering number of films.

The 200-plus productions in which he has taken part – as actor, director, producer, martial arts choreographer and action director – have made it a straightforward task for the Hong Kong Film Awards, the city’s most prestigious industry prize body, to this year recognise Hung with its Lifetime Achievement Award, which will be presented to him at the awards ceremony on April 14.

“I don’t know why,” he offers at one point, “but since I started working as a filmmaker, all the way up to this moment, I’ve always felt like I know nothing about anything.

“Even in the old days, I had no idea at all about the salaries that my actors were getting,” says Hung. “I just told my producers that I wanted this or that actor, and then they would sort it out for me.

“For me to be able to make so many films in this industry, it’s all about the many kind and capable people who have been helping me out. Even now, I’m still very much like a kindergarten kid.”

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Sammo Hung was born on January 7, 1952, in Hong Kong, into a family tree weighted with film industry workers. When he was little, his mother would call him “Sanmao” – “a common way Shanghai people called their kids”, explains Hung.

It is often emphasised in his biographical note that his paternal grandparents were Hung Chung-ho, a prolific director in the 1930s and 40s, and Chin Tsi-ang, one of the first female action stars of Chinese-language cinema and an evergreen actress who continued to appear in films until the early 2000s (including in Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love) – even though Hung didn’t have a chance to see them work when he was a child.
Instead, some of Hung’s earliest memories of filmmaking come from his maternal grandfather, a props designer who would take him along to film sets to help out on small tasks, and who, far more consequentially, would later send nine-year-old Sammo to Yu Jim-yuen’s Hong Kong-China Opera Institute to study Peking opera for the next seven years.
Yu Jim-yuen (front) with his students, including Sammo Hung (front row, second from right), at Yu’s birthday party in 1988. Photo: Sing Pao

The change of scenery seemed like a good fit for the boy: he was struggling to complete his Primary 2 school year for the third time, while frequently getting into trouble on the streets.

But Yu’s stern, disciplinarian approach to teaching and readiness to resort to a near-sadistic level of corporal punishment turned the wayward child’s life into a living hell.

As Hung and his fellow survivors would later say, it was an extremely common experience to have been beaten on the buttocks by their sifu, or master, with a rattan cane.

When I ask Hung to describe the single most unforgettable aspect of his training days, he says that quite often, Yu would punish all the students when only one of them had done something bad.

Hung (centre) as his mentor, Yu Jim-yuen, in Painted Faces (1988).

In one episode, after Hung had run away from the school for three days and his fellow student Yuen Wah was caught secretly helping him, the latter was beaten 70 times with a cane, and became one of Hung’s best friends in life.

“I still have a scar on the top of my head from those days,” says Hung, before explaining how one of Yu’s exercises required his young protégés to hold a handstand for more than an hour.

When Hung was “13 or 14”, he says, with his “two feet leaning on a wall, I was standing with my two hands on a wooden bench for one and a half hours. It’s no joke, you know?

“At some point, I was completely exhausted. I fell down and my head hit the bench. Blood came streaming down my face, and I remember thinking, ‘Why am I sweating so much? Is the weather that hot?’ But it was all blood.”

Hung (centre) makes his first-ever cinema appearance in Education of Love (1961).
Hung made his acting debut under the name Chu Yuen-lung in the 1961 film Education of Love. Meanwhile, he and his fellow apprentices – including Jackie Chan, Yuen Wah, Yuen Biao, Corey Yuen Kwai and several others – would become renowned for their performances under the troupe name Seven Little Fortunes, which first came about when they were booked for a nightclub show.
Their stories from this time were most notably recounted in the 1988 biographical drama Painted Faces, directed by Alex Law Kai-yui. Hung was invited by Law to play Yu, his sifu, in the leading role, and he won the second of his two best-actor prizes at the Hong Kong Film Awards for the part. (His previous was for 1982’s Carry on Pickpocket, which he also directed.)
Hung used to feel indignant at Yu’s approach but nowadays, he has only respect for his late master, apparent in his short film “Exercise”, which was included as part of the 2020 anthology feature Septet: The Story of Hong Kong.
Timmy Hung (left) in a still from the short film Exercise, part of Septet: The Story of Hong Kong (2022).

In it, the filmmaker cast his own son, Timmy Hung Tin-ming, to play Yu, and presented what can only be described as a rose-tinted view of his coming-of-age period.

“We have many stories – too many – from our training days,” says Hung. “It’s only after the fact that you could see the silver lining.”

Sammo Hung started working as a stuntman in films at the age of 14, and finished his apprenticeship under Yu and became a full-time performer at 16.

The Shaw Brothers production The Golden Sword (1969) marked his first credit as a martial arts choreographer, after Han Ying-chieh – Yu’s son-in-law and Hung’s mentor on his early film shoots – dropped out of the project.

I’ll keep doing my own thing and continue to realise the ideas that I’ve come up with

Sammo Hung
Hung had the good fortune to meet King Hu, the visionary filmmaker, early. He was one of the children who sang chorus behind the scenes for Come Drink With Me, Hu’s 1966 wuxia classic, and, following Han’s lead, Hung began to officially work under Hu on A Touch of Zen, the 1971 film that went on to win the Technical Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1975.

Hung still recalls how, under the summer sun at the Shing Mun Reservoir, in Hong Kong’s New Territories, Hu once spent a whole day doing one close-up shot of an actor looking to the camera above.

“We were all wondering: ‘What’s taking so long?’” he says. (Just a few years later, when he was making his own directorial debut, 1977’s The Iron-Fisted Monk, Hung found himself doing more than 40 takes for a close-up shot of the actor Fung Hak-on.)

Hung in a still from The Valiant Ones (1975), directed by King Hu.

Hung and Hu’s collaboration continued on The Fate of Lee Khan (1973) and The Valiant Ones (1975).

“After a day of shooting, Hu would often take us to dinner, and after that we would chat about cinema, about characters,” says Hung. “He would finally send us home at 4am and we’d all wake up at 6am to get back on set again.”

As Hung’s own career took off, the two went their separate ways.

One of the last times Hung saw Hu was in the outdoor car park of a Hong Kong hotel, where Hu got out of his car and, true to form, kept talking under the sweltering sun. Hu invited Hung to join him on The Battle of Ono, which was supposed to be Hu’s American feature debut before he died suddenly in 1997.

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In roughly the same period that Hung worked with Hu, he also got acquainted with Bruce Lee.

Hung was working as the martial arts choreographer on Thunderbolt (1973) when Lee came on set, inside the Golden Harvest studio, to visit some people.

“He had no idea who I was,” says Hung of their first encounter.

The ensuing turn of events – “not fighting, just a friendly match” as Hung puts it – sounds like it might as well have been taken from a martial arts pulp fiction.

Hung (left) and Bruce Lee in a still from Enter the Dragon (1973). Photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc

As he recalls: “I said, ‘He’s awesome.’ Lee must have heard and misunderstood, because he immediately went, ‘And so? Wanna fight?’ I was like, ‘OK.’

“Before I’d raised my leg to waist level, Lee’s foot was already in my face. So I said, ‘Well done.’”

A rematch between the two would take the form of the opening fight in Enter the Dragon (1973).

Sammo Hung is one of the most high-profile members of a declining species known as martial arts film stars, but it is no exaggeration to say that he, in his many other capacities, has reinvented Hong Kong cinema several times over.

Hung in a still from The Prodigal Son (1981).
In the late 70s, alongside Jackie Chan (who was also breaking through with films such as 1978’s Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master), Hung ushered in a new era of kung fu comedies with hits such as Warriors Two (1978), Knockabout (1979) and The Prodigal Son (1981), all of which Hung directed and starred in.
Hung and Chan worked together on, and co-starred in, a range of enjoyable films, including Project A (1983), which launched Chan into superstardom across Asia. The two former apprentices have remained close throughout their lives.

“It’s related to our personality,” Hung says of the duo’s signature brand of action comedy.

“But it’s also down to the martial arts abilities we learned from our training days, the skills we knew, the moves we could do – these were all parts of our arsenal. Not everyone could do what we did.”

Hung (back) and Chung Fat in a still from Encounter of the Spooky Kind (1980).
As if starting one trend wasn’t impressive enough, Hung was also the pioneer behind the action-horror comedy craze launched with Encounters of the Spooky Kind (1980), which he directed, and pushed to greater heights with the Mr. Vampire series (1985-88) that he conceived and produced.
The contemporary action comedies he made, such as the Lucky Stars series spanning both the 80s and 90s, were equally popular.

Looking back, Hung says he was surprised by every film that became a hit, “because when I made each of them I was merely guessing what would become successful. I was only thinking, ‘This is a nice gimmick,’ or ‘I think the audience will enjoy this.’”

Hung is also a bit of a star-maker himself. He had a strong working relationship with Angela Mao Ying, the legendary martial arts actress who rivalled Bruce Lee for popularity in the early 70s.
(From left) Carter Wong, Angela Mao and Sammo Hung in a still from Hapkido (1972).

Apart from being her regular co-star, Hung choreographed Mao’s fight scenes in some of her biggest hits, such as Hapkido and Lady Whirlwind (both 1972).

A decade later, Michelle Yeoh Choo Kheng, the Oscar-winning Malaysian actress, made her first-ever film appearance, in The Owl vs Bombo, the 1984 film directed by Hung; Yeoh took on her first action leading role in Yes, Madam, produced by Hung, the following year.

When I ask Hung specifically about Yeoh, he says, “She’s a very hard-working person; she has put in a lot of effort. I think behind every successful person there’s a story of hard work.”

Hung stepped away from the Hong Kong scene in 1997, after directing Chan in Mr Nice Guy and Jet Li Lianjie in Once Upon a Time in China and America.

I don’t really think too much about money. As long as I come across an idea that is good

Sammo Hung
Then came a stint in the United States that saw him headline the CBS television drama series Martial Law between 1998 and 2000, after which he returned to Hong Kong to continue his film career and enjoyed a renaissance in the role of action choreographer.
Hung’s three Hong Kong Film Awards as an action choreographer since the 2000s – for Ip Man (2008), Ip Man 2 (2010) and Paradox (2017) – were all for films directed by Wilson Yip Wai-shun.
In the eyes of many, Hung’s tabletop fight with Donnie Yen Ji-dan in Ip Man 2 ranks among the best martial arts film sequences of the past 20 years.

Of Yen, who arguably joined the A-list with his Ip Man role, Hung quips, “There’s no point evaluating his career now – are you even allowed to say anything bad about him? Yen is such a big star. There’s no need to say anything more.”

Donnie Yen (left) and Hung in a still from Ip Man 2 (2010).

When I ask Hung if he still remembers the first time in his career he felt he had succeeded, he says, “It’s difficult to say.”

But then he adds, “After I made Encounters of the Spooky Kind, some people who had watched it early said to me: ‘How could you expect a film like this to succeed? You have no chance!’

“And then the film came out and took the box office by storm and those very same people said, ‘See? I knew from day one that your film would be a big hit!’”

Hung pauses for a second to let his listeners’ laughter subside. “So I just let others talk. I’ll keep doing my own thing and continue to realise the ideas that I’ve come up with.”

Hung receives the award for best action choreography at the 37th Hong Kong Film Awards in 2018. Photo: K.Y. Cheng

Which is all well and good – except that Hung has sneaked this admittedly effective gag into every other in-depth interview or public seminar that he has given in the past few years, at times even linking it to different films: The Iron-Fisted Monk is another one that he has referenced with the same punch line.

“Back then, after I’d finished making each film, all I cared about were the moments I got to listen to the laughs in a cinema – that’s when I was happiest,” he says.

In a sense, Hung is as much a great artist as he is a terrible businessman. Acting in the capacity of both a filmmaker and a producer, Hung has long joked, albeit with a hint of truth, that all the top-grossing films he’s made were inevitably for production companies owned by others.

A quick example. In 1987, halfway into the shooting of Spooky, Spooky, a horror comedy being produced and directed by Hung for his own studio, Bojon Films, he received an invitation from Leonard Ho Koon-cheung, of Golden Harvest, to come up with a Lunar New Year release in just a few months’ time.

(From left) Yuen Biao, Hung and Jackie Chan attend the Qi Xiao Fu (Seven Little Fortunes) 50th Anniversary Photo Exhibition opening ceremony at Ocean Terminal, in Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui neighbourhood, in 2009. Photo: SCMP

In a move that made no sense to anyone except Hung, he shelved his own production and accepted Ho’s offer. The resulting film, Dragons Forever, was completed within three months and proved a major blockbuster over the Lunar New Year period in 1988.

Meanwhile, Hung lost what he estimated to be around HK$8 million on Spooky, Spooky due to lapsing contracts in the intervening months.

“I always lose money whenever I play the boss, so no more of that for me,” says Hung. “I can’t say if I’m an artist or not, but I do have a lot of ideas.

“I don’t really think too much about money. As long as I come across an idea that is good, is new, is entertaining to the audience, and is exciting, I’ll try my best to make it happen.”

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It should not have come as a surprise that eating turns out to be the only running motif in our conversation.

Early on, when I ask Hung to revisit his earliest memories as a child actor, he replies, “The memories included: ‘Were we full after eating?’ ‘Did we have anything to eat?’

“That’s what we thought about as kids. We trained together and we ate together.”

Without prompting, he tells me of the time he and a senior apprentice were working on a film; during meal times, the two would go to a particular restaurant that charged HK$1.20 for a dish with all-you-can-eat rice.

Hung at an interview with the Post in 1982. Photo: SCMP

“I ate nine bowls of rice and my sihing [“elder brother”] ate eight,” says Hung proudly, pointing out that the bowls back then were considerably larger than the ones we use today.

“The restaurant owner ended up kicking us out and telling us never to come back again.”

The theme would go on. What’s he been up to? “Busy buying groceries and cooking dinners.”

What does he enjoy the most on a film set? “The moment of calling: ‘Meal time!’ I find the food especially tasty on set.”

Will he train a new generation of action actors? “Not if they’re going to end up selling char siu bao for a living.”

Does he exercise? “Yes, with my upper lip and lower lip when I eat!”

I have a lot of things to say [about the state of Hong Kong cinema], I just don’t have the courage to

Sammo Hung

Regardless of all the talk, Hung is, in person, both fitter and frailer than his former burly self. Occasionally, there is a wistful tone that suggests things may be slowly winding down – for both Hung’s career and the filmmaking environment that rendered that a possibility in the first place.

As a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic, Hung’s much heralded stunt team is, after decades of operation, no longer active.

While his fans will soon be able to see him on the big screen, in director Soi Cheang Pou-soi’s mega-budget action epic Twilight of the Warriors: Walled In, set for a May 1 release in Hong Kong, Hung says he has no imminent film projects to work on. He is “unemployed”.

The irony does not escape Hung that, just as his prospering career once coincided with the Golden Age of Hong Kong cinema, his lifetime achievement recognition from the Hong Kong Film Awards is arriving amid huge uncertainties about the industry’s future and the very real prospect that Hong Kong martial arts films may go extinct.
Hung in a still from the upcoming film Twilight of the Warriors: Walled In.

Hung says he is “pessimistic, very pessimistic” about the state of things. “I have a lot of things to say, I just don’t have the courage to.”

Whatever the state of Hong Kong cinema, Hung has been around long enough to be able to look back with equanimity.

And while he admits he uses a cane for short walks, and a wheelchair for longer ones, his room service Caesar salad and minestrone soup have been getting cold for an hour.

At what looks to be a late-stage diet move for the notorious calorie-consumer, he shrugs: “I don’t want to be around for too long,” then after a second, “30 or 40 more years would be enough for me.”


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