Dragon Inn (1967)

dragoninn_8Dragon Inn (1967)
AKA Dragon Gate Inn

Starring Shih Jun, Pai Ying, Polly Kuan, Miao Tian, Sit Hon, Cho Kin, Go Ming, Got Siu-Bo, Ko Fei, Tien Peng, Han Ying-Chieh, Man Chung-San

Directed by King Hu

Expectations: High, this is one of the most influential early martial arts films.

fourstar


When it comes to martial arts films, 1967 was a huge, formative year. The first mega-hit of the genre, The One-Armed Swordsman, made Jimmy Wang Yu a star and cemented director Chang Cheh as the genre’s leading visionary. Just a few months after the release of that film, director King Hu, having recently left the Shaw Brothers after creative differences on Come Drink With Me, unleashed Dragon Inn. As an independent film out of Taiwan it may not have had the budget or the clout of the Shaw Brothers studio behind it, but Dragon Inn is arguably more well-known than almost all the 1960s martial arts films from the Shaw studio. I knew all this going into Dragon Inn, and even with an incredible amount of historical hype behind it, Dragon Inn wowed me with its cinematic artistry and an ahead-of-its-time ability to craft thrilling martial arts sequences through editing.

The story of Dragon Inn is a well-known one, but that doesn’t impede the film’s ability to enthrall. The government is corrupt and controlled by devious eunuchs, and our story begins as Zhao Shao Qin, a eunuch with unparalleled power, orders the execution of General Yu, a good man who was framed. Yu’s family is sent to the remote outpost of Dragon Gate, where Zhao has plans to murder them far from the watchful eyes of civilization. He sends a delegation of his most powerful soldiers to await the family’s arrival at the inn, but thankfully there’s a few people at Dragon Gate still loyal to General Yu and his resilient spirit.

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Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1967)

whosthatknocking_1Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1967)
AKA I Call First

Starring Zina Bethune, Harvey Keitel, Anne Collette, Lennard Kuras, Michael Scala, Harry Northup

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Expectations: Moderate and very interested to see where Scorsese began.

twohalfstar


There’s no dispute that Martin Scorsese is one of the great American filmmakers, so watching his debut film for the first time is something of a loaded experience. Who’s That Knocking at My Door? is definitely not at the same level of quality that his later films deliver, but it shows flashes of his brilliance throughout (though, surprisingly, no Rolling Stones songs :) ). Harvey Keitel also makes his debut here, so even if it’s not an exceptionally great film, it marks the beginning of two great careers in American cinema.

The story is rather loose and free-flowing, like something of an American take on the French New Wave style. There are also elements of the great neorealist Italian films of the ’50s and ’60s, so Who’s That Knocking at My Door? carries a distinctly European flair while also being rooted deep in its New York setting. While this is interesting and admirable, Scorsese is rather blunt about this, having Keitel go on and on about a picture of John Wayne in The Searchers appearing in a French magazine read by a woman he meets (and later falls in love with). At the time I just thought it was a way of Scorsese slipping in references to movies he liked, Tarantino-style (and it is some of that), but it’s clearly a way to push the film’s American identity forward while also tell us something about the main character’s psyche.

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Mini-Review: The Cave of Silken Web (1967)

The Cave of Silken Web [盤絲洞] (1967)

Starring Chow Lung-Cheung, Ho Fan, Pang Pang, Tin Sam, Angela Yu Chien, Lau Leung Wa, Shen Yi, Helen Ma Hoi-Lun, Shirley Wong Qui-Lee, Tin Mung, Yau Ching, Shum Lo, Tang Ti

Directed by Ho Meng-Hua

Expectations: Moderate. The last one wasn’t as good as the first.


Third in the Shaw Brother’s series of four films based upon the classical Chinese novel Journey to the West, The Cave of Silken Web is a definite step up from the previous sequel Princess Iron Fan. The focus is tightened here to one story for the entire film and it serves the arc of the story and the film better than the episodic format that the earlier films had. With only one story to focus on, director Ho Meng-Hua and his wonderful group of actors can really settle into their roles and have a great time. Not to mention that the villains here have real weight and pursue our heroes relentlessly. Chow Lung-Cheung takes over the role of the Monkey King for this film, and while he’s not quite as emotive or charismatic as Yuen Hua was, it’s pretty seamless and most viewers probably won’t even notice the difference.

The Cave of Silken Web starts off like any other story from the series, with the monk Tang and his band of protectors riding West in search of Buddhist scriptures. While looking for a place to stay for the night, they are tricked into the evil plans of the seven spider-demon sisters of the Cave of the Silken Web! They are quite devious and before you know it, Tang is turned into mist and captured in a vase and all seems to be lost. Of course nothing is yet written in stone, as the Monkey King, Pigsy and Sandy are all diligent followers of Tang and fight tirelessly to free their master.

The first half of the film is something of a rehash of most of the previous stories, but the film really hits its stride come the second half. The action moves completely within the cave and it’s a non-stop ride to the finale with all kinds of mistaken identity and hijinks that only the Monkey King can provide. Everything else takes a backseat to the last couple of minutes though when Sandy’s acquisition of the deadly Seven Flames is unleashed. The Seven Flames is the only thing capable of counteracting the seven sisters’ spider webs and it’s basically just a flamethrower disguised as a large jug. Watch as Sandy and the Monkey King lay waste to all kinds of shit with a flamethrower! I defy you to not be entertained by that! This is the first flamethrower I’ve seen in a Shaw Brothers film, and I sure hope it isn’t the last. This isn’t the type of movie I’d expect a flamethrower to pop up, but I ain’t complaining!

And if nothing else, The Cave of Silken Web teaches one very important lesson. No matter how powerful or supernatural you are (or think you are), a big rock to the back of the head is always capable of knocking you out. So watch your backs and give this one a shot. It’s not necessary to see the preceding films first, but it will help quite a bit and I recommend it.

The Assassin (1967)

The Assassin [大刺客] (1967)

Starring Jimmy Wang Yu, Lisa Chiao Chiao, Lee Heung-Gwan, Tien Feng, Wong Chung-Shun, Cliff Lok Kam Tung, Lam Jing, Fang Mian, Cheung Pooi-Saan, Cheng Lui, Wang Kuang-Yu, Ma Ying

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: High, it’s Chang Cheh’s next movie after The One-Armed Swordsman. I’m pumped!


Chang Cheh does it again with his third film of 1967, after the lackluster Trail of the Broken Blade and the genre-defining The One-Armed Swordsman. As soon as the film starts it’s clear that Chang’s intentions were different for this film. He didn’t go in hoping to directly capitalize on his past success, nor did he set out to make a traditional martial arts picture. Instead, The Assassin opens with a large block of story text about the warring states of China, accompanied by a bombastic, epic musical score. The first frame of footage is a sword graphically plunging through a human torso with a spray of deep red blood. Wow!

This opening betrays the film a bit as it sets up the modern viewer for an over-the-top, exaggerated display of wall-to-wall bloodshed and the film is very far from this expectation. In fact, it is a character-driven historical epic tragedy and it succeeds on every level. Martial arts films are not known for their quality stories and writing, but The Assassin bucks all trends and delivers one of the richest tales the genre has to offer. Instead of being a martial arts film with a few quality scenes of drama, this expectation is flipped on its head. The characters are deep and full of life, their decisions having ripple effects throughout the lives of everyone else in the story. It is all incredibly well told and is a testament to Chang Cheh’s writing ability in addition to his skill behind the camera. The Assassin sits high on top of the heap when it comes to well-written kung fu pictures.

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Mini-Review: King Cat (1967)

King Cat [七俠五義] (1967)

Starring Chang Yi, Kiu Chong, Pat Ting Hung, Lo Lieh, Carrie Ku Mei, Cheng Miu, Fang Mian, Yeung Chi Hing, Goo Man-Chung, Wong Chung-Shun, Ngai Ping-Ngo, Fan Mei-Sheng, Lee Wan Chung, Tung Choi-Bo, Ching Li, Chin Feng, Helen Ma Hoi-Lun

Directed by Hsu Cheng Hung

Expectations: Low. Hsu Cheng Hung has burned me too many times.


King Cat is another of Hsu Cheng Hung’s opera action films and is probably the worst of the ones I’ve seen yet. It’s not that it’s poorly made or acted, it’s just boring. Mostly filled with scenes of talking officials and their swordsman bodyguards, King Cat should have been the fun assassin vs. assassin tale the script wanted it to be, instead of the slow-moving and tedious film it is. This is the type of movie I would gladly see remade if in the hand’s of a skilled team, because at its heart, it has good potential. You could probably say something similar about most of these really early Shaw Brothers films, but it is especially apparent on King Cat.

Chang Yi plays the King Cat, dubbed this by the Emperor after heroically saving the Empress from assassination. The guy deserved the title because in order to save her he caught an arrow mid-flight, leapt across an insane distance to thwart the assassin, and when some evil accomplices pushed the Empress off a balcony, he jumped to the street below to catch her as she fell. And what rescue like that would be complete without sideways wall-walking the saved girl back up to the balcony? King Cat is an understatement of how awesome this guy is. The problem is that after this awesome and daring sequence, the film languishes about as Kiu Chong, the Brocaded Mouse, attempts to sabotage the King Cat’s reputation because he feels threatened by Chang Yi’s new title. Y’see, Chong and his brothers make up the famous Five Mice of Xiankong Island and they don’t like cats poking their noses into their affairs. If nothing else, this film does offer up some great wuxia names!

The last half hour picks up a bit with a good, but much too short fight between Kiu Chong and Chang Yi, culminating in a wonderful set of traps. It wouldn’t be a Hsu Cheng Hung film without a bunch of traps! The final battle continues to feature various fun traps, and more of the extremely floaty wirework on display throughout the film. Each floaty jump is accompanied by a fluttering sound effect, which is fun the first few times, but thirty jumps later, it’s not quite the same. If you’re looking for a fun action movie, look elsewhere. King Cat has its moments, but they are very few and far between.

Rape of the Sword (1967)

Rape of the Sword [盗剑] (1967)

Starring Li Li-Hua, Li Ching, Kiu Chong, Chen Hung Lieh, Tien Feng, Tang Ti, Lee Wan Chung, Yeung Chi Hing, Ku Feng, Fan Mei-Sheng, Kok Lee Yan, Tsang Choh-Lam

Directed by Griffin Yueh Feng

Expectations: Low… I don’t expect much from the non-Chang Cheh movies now.


Rape of the Sword is the first post One-Armed Swordsman Shaw Brothers movie to take full advantage of its success. While this is still within the martial opera film genre most of these early Shaws fall under, there’s tons of inspiration torn from Chang Cheh’s playbook, resulting in a much more satisfying film overall. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s golden.

The film’s story revolves around the invincible Qing Shuang sword. The sword was stolen from its rightful owner by Tang Ti in a murderous mountain duel in order to give it to an official, thus securing himself a nice, cushy job. The murdered man’s wife doesn’t take kindly to this injustice though, going undercover and plotting to retrieve the sword at the first opportunity, beginning a fun tale of revenge and betrayal.

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The Silent Swordsman (1967)

The Silent Swordsman [儒俠] (1967)

Starring Chang Yi, Yue Wai, Shu Pei-Pei, Lisa Chiao Chiao, Wong Chung-Shun, Goo Man-Chung, Cheng Miu, Tien Feng, Yeung Chi Hing, Fang Mian, Lau Leung Wa, Lam Jing, Wong Ching Ho, Lo Lieh

Directed by Kao Li


Released only six weeks after The One Armed Swordsman, I went into The Silent Swordsman with no expectations that the heroic, masculine bloodshed of Chang Cheh would have penetrated into the other films of the studio this quickly. This worked out, as The Silent Swordsman is absolutely nothing like The One Armed Swordsman and it would be unfair to compare the two films. Instead The Silent Swordsman is more of a political intrigue historical epic than a wuxia film, and should be viewed as such.

The film opens with a massive battle as invaders try to overtake the wall General Yuan defends. They should have received reinforcements by now and they fear that General Lu Qiang of Zhenxi is a traitor, refusing to send troops on purpose. General Yuan sends a message to the Sun Moon martial club, hoping that their clan leader can spy on General Lu and coerce him into providing the reinforcements. Our main character though is Shen Bingyi (Chang Yi), a young skilled martial artist who sets out to find his brother Zhong, the leader of the Sun Moon Club. He’s not in the movie in the way a traditional main character is, but by the second half the story has shifted enough to allow him into it.

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