Accidental martial arts hero

Veteran Taiwanese actor Shih Jun's childhood ambition was to be a cowboy in the wild, wild West. He ended up being an iconic wuxia hero in legendary Chinese director King Hu's world of the wild, wild East.

A chance meeting with the late film- maker at a shaved ice dessert parlour in the 1960s changed the course of his life.

Speaking to Life! in crisp Mandarin over the telephone from Taipei, Shih, 78, says: "I studied agriculture in university and ended up working as a research assistant to a chemistry professor before I joined show business. It was never my intention to be an actor.

"Hu took one look at me and asked if I would like to be an actor. I shook my head and declined. But he insisted I tried it out." Shih, who had no martial arts background, hit the jackpot in his first acting role as the lead in the iconic wuxia film Dragon Gate Inn (1967) helmed by Hu.

The tale of swordfighting martial artists was a hit in Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea and throughout South-east Asia. Shih Jun went on to star in a string of other Hu-directed movies, including A Touch Of Zen (1970), Legend Of The Mountain (1979) and The Wheel Of Life (1983).

He will be in town this Saturday for the Singapore Chinese Film Festival to share stories about his mentor at a panel discussion. The public can catch screenings of the four Hu and Shih films mentioned above at the festival. Hu was 65 years old when he died in 1997.

When Shih entered the movie industry, at least one person voiced doubts about his suitability as a star.

He recounts with a laugh how veteran wuxia star Cheng Pei-pei had questioned Hu about his choice of such an ugly man for leading roles.

The Beijing-born, Hong Kong-based director defended his choice by saying that Shih Jun looked like a man from ancient times.

The actor says: "Perhaps it was my looks that made me look pretty much like someone from the past era. Also, I come from Hebei, China. When it comes to traditional Chinese values like respecting the elders, it's something that I probably do pretty well."

Hu's choice of leading man was vindicated as Shih went on to win awards such as Best Actor at the Asia Pacific Film Festival for Wheel Of Life and the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 49th Golden Horse Awards in 2012.

These days, Shih Jun is busy promoting the legacy of Hu through a foundation - he is chairman of the King Hu Arts and Cultural Foundation. He says: "Many young people studying movies may not be aware of director Hu. I hope people will remember his contributions to the Chinese movie industry."

What does he think of modern-day martial arts flicks?

"Movies such as Taiwanese director Lee Ang's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) have the advantage of special effects to make them more visually appealing and exciting for the audience.

"I feel that actors filming action and wuxia movies now have it easier, compared with actors in the past. They are able to achieve what the director wants with the help of special effects," says Shih, who is impressed by Hong Kong actor Donnie Yen's performance in the Ip Man movies in 2008 and 2010.

Shih will next appear in Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien's wuxia flick, The Assassins, which stars Taiwanese actress Shu Qi and is set to be released later this year.

He says: "I had only a small role as a herbalist and I didn't have many scenes, but it was an enjoyable and relaxing experience filming the movie."

While he has not retired from acting and is still open to the right offers, he adds that he has had second thoughts about his career.

Shih, who has a 40-year-old daughter, says: "If I could turn back time and choose my career again, I probably would not be an actor. My character isn't suitable for show business.

"I admit it, I'm introverted and restrained. I'm too reserved. I can probably play an soldier, but I definitely can't do romance. I've only managed to come so far because of the guidance of my mentor, director Hu."

nggwen@sph.com.sg

2nd Singapore Chinese Film Festival
Where: Cathay Cineplexes, The Arts House and The National Museum of Singapore
When: April 17 to April 27
Admission: $12 and $13 from Cathay Cineplex box offices (go to www.cathay.com.sg), the Arts House box office (go to www.bytes.sg), information counter at the National Museum; or Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg), depending on the screening venue
Info: There will be a panel discussion, King Hu: The Man, His Stories And Wuxia Legacy, on Saturday at 4pm. Admission is free, but registration is required. For details, go to www.sfs.org.sg/scff/

This article was published on April 16 in The Straits Times.

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