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Gwendolyn Ng
Friday, Apr 18, 2014

Showbiz

Accidental martial arts hero

The Straits Times | Gwendolyn Ng | Friday, Apr 18, 2014

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.

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