Traces of a Dragon (2003)

Traces of a Dragon [龍的深處:失落的拼圖] (2003)
AKA Traces of a Dragon: Jackie Chan & His Lost Family

Starring Jackie Chan, Charles Chan Chi-Ping, Fang Shi-De, Fang Shi-Sheng, Chan Yu-Lan, Chan Gui-Lan

Directed by Mabel Cheung

Expectations: Moderate.


Traces of the Dragon is a documentary about the lives of Jackie Chan’s parents, the details of which were unknown to Jackie Chan himself until some time around the filming of this documentary. Crazy as that sounds, it’s true; his parents were focused more on surviving and keeping the family afloat than regaling their young son with tales from their lives before he was born. Jackie wasn’t around his parents for much of his youth, anyway. His distaste for regular school led to a 10-year, contracted enrollment in the Peking Opera school where he would meet Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, laying the groundwork for his life of entertainment and death-defying stunts. And from the way they talk about it in the film, it doesn’t seem like Jackie did much of anything but practice his skills during these school years.

Jackie Chan may have gone on to become a global star, but his parents’ lives are actually far more interesting and worthy of a documentary than his. It’s such a moving tale that the director of the documentary — well-respected Hong Kong filmmaker Mabel Cheung — would later dramatize it into the 2015 film A Tale of Three Cities. They not only lived through the Second Sino-Japanese War and the continued Chinese Civil War that followed it, his father was involved in the war as a Nationalist operative and both of his parents were hugely affected by these country-wide struggles. Their story is one of war, refugees, and making the hardest choices that life can throw your way.

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The Fantastic Magic Baby (1975)

The Fantastic Magic Baby [紅孩兒] (1975)

Starring Ting Wa-Chung, Lau Chung-Chun, Chiang Tao, Cheung Chuen-Lai, Woo Gam, Tsai Hung, Fung Hak-On, Ku Kwan, Teng Jue-Jen, Chen I-Ho, Yeung Fui-Yuk, Chao Li-Chuan, Siu Wong-Lung, Lee Lung-Yam, Phillip Kwok Chun-Fung

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: High. Chang Cheh and Journey to the West!


In a career full of intriguing and entertaining films, Chang Cheh’s The Fantastic Magic Baby is one of his most interesting and unique. On the surface, it is an adaptation of a story from the Chinese classic Journey to the West, but it quickly reveals itself to be much more than that. Like Chang’s Shaolin Cycle films, The Fantastic Magic Baby honors and preserves the legacy of a Chinese tradition, showcasing the beautiful movements of the Peking Opera as only a Chang Cheh film could.

For those unfamiliar with Journey to the West, the basics are all present in the film. The Monk Tripitaka (Teng Jue-Jen) is traveling to retrieve sacred Buddhist scriptures from India with his companions Sun Wukong the Monkey King (Lau Chung-Chun), Bajie AKA Pigsy (Chen I-Ho) and Sha Seng AKA Sandy (Yeung Fui-Yuk). Demons and other devious entities catch wind of their travels and seek to imprison them in order to eat the monk’s flesh, which can supposedly prolong their lives 1,000 years. In this particular story, it is Princess Iron Fan (Woo Gam) and the Ox Demon King (Chiang Tao) who desire the monk’s flesh. They send their son Red Boy (Ting Wa-Chung) — the fantastic magic baby of the title — to capture Tripitaka for their pleasure. Red Boy is perfect for the mission because he has recently mastered the Three Types of True Fire, which are so powerful that not even the Monkey King can withstand them.
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Disciples of Shaolin (1975)

Disciples of Shaolin [洪拳小子] (1975)
AKA The Invincible One, The Hung Boxing Kid

Starring Alexander Fu Sheng, Chi Kuan-Chun, Chen Ming-Li, Wang Ching-Ping, Lo Dik, Chiang Tao, Fung Hak-On, Han Chiang, Fan Sau-Yee, Hui Lap, Cheung Siu-Kwan

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: High.


Chang Cheh’s Shaolin Cycle films are among my favorite productions in the entire Shaw Brothers catalog, so whenever I see a new one I get extraordinarily excited about it. Disciples of Shaolin did not disappoint, although it is far more subtle in its greatness than I expected. It’s a great martial arts picture, but more importantly it is primarily a character-driven drama. As such, it’s one of Chang Cheh’s most nuanced and focused films. Especially at this time in his career, Chang made a lot of films that were large-scale and wide-reaching. Even his explorations into modern romance and delinquency never felt quite as tightly focused on a single character as Disciples of Shaolin focuses on Fu Sheng’s character, Guan Feng Yi.

Guan arrives in town in search of his brother, Wang Hon (Chi Kuan-Chun). Wang works at the local textile mill, dutifully operating one of the weaving machines. Guan is a poor man, but he’s a happy-go-lucky guy regardless (as you’d expect with Alexander Fu Sheng). Wang is his polar opposite, living life with a strict sense of duty and responsibility. On the way in to see Wang, Guan couldn’t help but notice the poor quality of kung fu being taught to the employees, so when he asks Wang to get him a job at the mill, his first suggestion is to take over teaching kung fu. To this notion Wang flatly refuses, advising Guan that it would be prudent to hide his abilities. Wang does not elaborate on his reasoning, but his stern face communicates the grave nature of his request.

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Lady of the Law (1975)

Lady of the Law [女捕快] (1975)

Starring Lo Lieh, Shih Szu, Chang Pei-Shan, Dean Shek Tin, Yeung Chi-Hing, Chan Shen, Tung Lam, Ou-Yang Sha-Fei, Ying Ying, Ma Lee-Sha, Tung Choi-Bo, Cheng Lui, Chiang Tao, Law Hon, Li Min-Lang

Directed by Shen Chiang & Stanley Siu Wing

Expectations: Moderate.


Like last week’s All Men Are Brothers, Lady of the Law was a film that was completed (or at least mostly completed) a few years prior to its release in 1975. For various reasons, the Shaw studio had lots of movies sitting around in various states of completion. Some saw feature release (like Lady of the Law), others were kept as shorts and released together as anthology films (such as Haunted Tales), while many others were simply left unfinished, never to be seen again. According to some magazine scans available on the ever-resourceful Cool Ass Cinema website, it appears that Lady of the Law was initially shot in 1971. It is my assumption that it began life under director Shen Chiang, with Stanley Siu Wing later coming around and finishing it up for release. I don’t know this for sure, but I’ve heard similar stories on other movies (like Curse of Evil) so there’s definitely some precedent.

Unlike a lot of movies with behind-the-scenes drama, Lady of the Law is an absolutely thrilling film packed to the brim with wuxia entertainment and excitement. Literally just a day or so before I watched this movie, I was thinking to myself how I hadn’t seen a Shaw Brothers wuxia in a while, and how much I missed them (since they kind of stopped making them during these years I’m going through now). And then BAM! in comes Lady of the Law to rock my world and remind me just how much I love these wonderful wuxias of the Shaw Brothers. Shen Chiang crafted a couple of great ones, like The Winged Tiger and Heroes of Sung, but honestly I think Lady of the Law is his best film.

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The Valiant Ones (1975)

The Valiant Ones [忠烈圖] (1975)

Starring Pai Ying, Hsu Feng, Roy Chiao, Han Ying-Chieh, Simon Yuen Siu-Tin, Ng Ming-Choi, Sammo Hung, Hao Li-Jen, Lee Man-Tai, Yuen Biao, Yeung Wai, Lau Kong, Wu Chia-Hsiang, Chiang Nan, Chow Siu-Loi, Chao Lei

Directed by King Hu

Expectations: High. King Hu!


I enter each unseen King Hu film with equal amounts of trepidation and delight. I’ve loved every one of his films that I’ve seen, so I guess I’m worried that the spell will break and I’ll hit one that just doesn’t do it for me. The Valiant Ones is not that film; it’s a stone-cold killer of a movie. It’s a real shame that a film as good as this one is languishing in obscurity, but that’s how it goes. If nothing else, it allows me to dream of a future restored edition that will continue to raise King Hu’s status among fans of world cinema. No matter how low-res and full of video noise the old master is for The Valiant Ones, the power of King Hu’s filmmaking overrides it all to entertain as only he can.

The Valiant Ones tells a story of pirates and the chivalrous knights tasked with stopping their pirating ways. According to the film’s intro, Japanese ronin teamed up with bandits in the 13th Century to create fearsome pirate bands that tormented the land and sea. The Valiant Ones is set in the 16th Century, when the pirates had multiplied to the point that the government lost any kind of control over the regions they inhabit. There have been multiple attempts to eradicate the pirates, but it has always proved unsuccessful. Now a chief of a Southern clan needs to reach the capital and must be escorted through the pirate-infested land. For this task, General Yu Da-You (Roy Chiao) assembles an experienced team who are up to the challenge, including a husband and wife duo (Pai Ying and Hsu Feng) who are lethal and absolutely unstoppable.

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The Flying Guillotine (1975)

The Flying Guillotine [血滴子] (1975)

Starring Chen Kuan-Tai, Ku Feng, Wai Wang, Kong Yeung, Liu Wu-Chi, Ai Ti, Wong Yu, Lam Wai-Tiu, Norman Chu Siu-Keung, Ricky Hui Koon-Ying, Liu Wai, Lee Sau-Kei, Lee Pang-Fei, Man Man, Wu Chi-Chin, Lei Lung, Lin Wen-Wei, Wai Pak

Directed by Ho Meng-Hua

Expectations: High. Flying Guillotines!


Every one is familiar with the Jimmy Wang Yu classic Master of the Flying Guillotine, but before that film cemented itself into kung fu history, there was Ho Meng-Hua’s The Flying Guillotine. It was Ho’s film that introduced the weapon to the modern martial arts film, and by nature of its story, it also serves as an origin story for the weapon. The flying guillotine was a real weapon used during the Qing Dynasty under the rule of the Yongzheng Emperor (1722–1735). This is roughly the same timeframe that Chang Cheh’s Shaolin Cycle films inhabit, although no one knows exactly when the burning of the Shaolin Temple occurred (and there are multiple conflicting stories of various Shaolin temples burning, too!). Anyway, the flying guillotine was apparently a real thing, as crazy as that sounds.

The Flying Guillotine begins in the chamber of the emperor (Kong Yeung), who finds himself desiring a pair of advisors killed off without a lot of hullabaloo. He gives this task to Chief Xin Kang (Ku Feng), who sets about devising a way to assassinate the men quickly and accurately from such a range that no one can identify the killer. While walking down the street and contemplating the job, Xin Kang takes special interest in a man performing with a Diabolo (a Chinese Yo-Yo consisting of a wooden object spun and thrown with a rope). Inspiration strikes and the flying guillotine is born! The emperor loves the weapon so much that he then asks Xin Kang to form a 12-person strike team proficient in the usage of the flying guillotine.

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Five Shaolin Masters (1974)

fiveshaolinmasters_1Five Shaolin Masters [少林五祖] (1974)
AKA Five Masters of Death

Starring David Chiang, Ti Lung, Alexander Fu Sheng, Chi Kuan-Chun, Mang Fei, Leung Kar-Yan, Fung Hak-On, Tsai Hung, Johnny Wang Lung-Wei, Chiang Tao, Li Chen-Piao, Gordon Liu Chia-Hui, Lo Dik, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan, Stephan Yip Tin-Hang, Lau Kar-Wing

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: The highest. Chang’s Shaolin Cycle is dope.

threehalfstar


Like Heroes Two and Men from the Monastery, Five Shaolin Masters tells a tale about refugees from the burning of the Shaolin Temple. Hung Hsi-Kuan and Fong Sai-Yuk ended up in Kwangtung in the south of China, but the heroes of Five Shaolin Masters fled north to Central China. Structurally, the film also takes a page from Shaolin Martial Arts in that our five heroes must train tirelessly to defeat seemingly invincible enemies. And like this suggests, Five Shaolin Masters ends up feeling like a blended version of all of Chang Cheh’s previous Shaolin Cycle films.

Due to this repetition of themes and structure, Five Shaolin Masters does not reach the heights of either Heroes Two or Shaolin Martial Arts, though it does come close thanks to power of the action. The complexity and dynamism of the choreography by Lau Kar-Leung and his brother Lau Kar-Wing bring the film’s relentless action to brilliant life, culminating in the five stunning, concurrent fights that make up the film’s finale. This is pure martial bliss, and I can’t imagine a martial arts film fan not getting a huge jolt of enthusiasm from this lengthy section of the film, if not the whole thing.

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