Stephen reviews: Animal Treasure Island (1971)

Animal Treasure Island [どうぶつ宝島 Doubutsu Takarajima] (1971)
AKA Jolly Joker

Starring Minori Matsushima, Asao Koike, Eiko Masuyama, Fusako Amachi, Jouji Yanami

Directed by Hiroshi Ikeda


This film is pretty much what it says: an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous novel Treasure Island with lots of animals in it. The only human characters are the main character Jim, his baby brother Baboo, and a girl named Kathy who shows up about halfway through the movie. The rest of the cast are anthropomorphic animals of all kinds, and the film is full of all the swashbuckling seafaring adventure that you would expect of a pirate story.

I’ve never read the novel it was based upon, but I did look over a summary of the plot for comparison. It seems that Animal Treasure Island is a very loose adaptation. The basic premise is pretty much the only thing the two stories have in common. A boy named Jim with large dreams of exploring the ocean lucks upon a pirate treasure map and the money to finish his own homemade boat. So he sets off with his mouse pal Glan and his baby brother in tow, running afoul of pirates lead by a pig named Captain Silver.

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Deaf and Mute Heroine (1971)

Deaf and Mute Heroine [聾啞劍] (1971)

Starring Helen Ma Hoi-Lun, Tang Ching, Shirley Wong Sa-Lee, Wu Ma, Lee Ying, Paul Wei Ping-Ao, Yeung Wai, Tang Ti, Hao Li-Jen

Directed by Wu Ma

Expectations: Moderate.

threehalfstar


Deaf and Mute Heroine is exactly the type of movie I hope for when I delve deep into the obscure and forgotten films of the past. Not only is it an entertaining film, it delivers one of the best wuxia finales of the era. The last 15 or so minutes are non-stop, and stuffed full of incredible, impressive wuxia filmmaking. It all feels so ahead of its time too, at least in terms of the amount of wuxia fantasy that is attempted and realized on-screen.

The film opens with a fight, as the Deaf Mute Heroine defeats a set of bandits and steals their booty of 300 pearls. These pearls set in motion the villains’ desire to hunt down and kill the Deaf Mute Heroine, as well as the other components of the story. But don’t be fooled into thinking that Deaf and Mute Heroine has an actual story! We’re supposed to be content with just knowing that the Deaf Mute Heroine is a force of good in the world, working to thwart these evildoers by stealing their pearls. Anything else, including any backstory on the main character, is to be supplied by your imagination.

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A Touch of Zen (1971)

touchofzen_2A Touch of Zen [俠女] (1971)

Starring Hsu Feng, Shih Jun, Pai Ying, Tien Peng, Cho Kin, Miao Tian, Cheung Bing-Yuk, Sit Hon, Wang Shui, Roy Chiao Hung, Han Ying-Chieh, Man Chung-San, Sammo Hung

Directed by King Hu

Expectations: High.

fourstar


A Touch of Zen starts off innocently enough, but by the end of the film the viewer has journeyed through religion, the soul and the more standard martial intrigue you were probably expecting. It is a martial arts film wholly unlike any I’ve ever seen, coming years ahead of its time and eschewing nearly all the general ideas of entertainment that martial arts films are usually built upon. A Touch of Zen is a wuxia film with higher aspirations. It is a fascinating, pure example of film as art, and like any good work of art, true understanding only comes with extended thought and multiple viewings. This is the type of film that people spend their whole lives in awe of; its power to provoke thought while also engaging the more primal needs is unique and unparalleled.

A Touch of Zen is partially based on the story The Gallant Girl (or The Magnanimous Girl) from Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, and it is here that the film draws its initial characters and setting. Ku Shen-chai (Shih Jun) is a scholar living in the derelict Ching Lu Fort. He studies not for wealth or status, but for personal gain and knowledge, much to the chagrin of his mother who thinks a man over 30 should be married and on his way to a lucrative career. Ku’s stall in the nearby town, where he paints portraits and does calligraphy, just doesn’t fit the bill in her eyes. So when a young woman and her elderly mother move into the nearby general’s mansion that has stood uninhabited for many years, Ku’s mother immediately thinks of joining the two families.

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Redbeard (1971)

Redbeard+1971-84-bRedbeard [紅鬍子] (1971)

Starring Lee Hung, Wang Yin, Chen Chiu, Chen Hung-Lieh, Tsui Fu-Sheng, Cheng Miu, Suen Yuet, Cheung Kwong-Chiu, Siu Gwong-Po, Lo Dik, Man Man, Wong Yu, Liu Chik, Chang I-Fei

Directed by Chang Tseng-Chai

Expectations: High.

twostar


I apologize if this review turns out a little strange; I think it’s mostly going to be me trying to make sense of what I just watched. My confusion isn’t exactly the film’s fault; it’s more to do with the film’s presentation. As an extremely rare Shaw Brothers film, I was only able to track it down as a badly discolored VHS that’s gotta be at least 4th or 5th generation. I can usually deal just fine with this kind of ugliness, but Redbeard is an incredibly talky film, so when half the subtitles are cut off it makes it kinda hard to keep up. I don’t think a beautiful remastered version with full subtitles would fix all the film’s issues, but it would definitely make for a more pleasant experience.

The film opens with a group of people on horseback, led by Little White Snake (Lee Hung), chasing down a train. They assault the moving train in order to rescue their chief, Chow Tian-Hua (Wang Yin). While making their escape, Tian-Hua is wounded, but they make it out alive and to their hideout. From what I could gather, Tian-Hua and his rescuers are the redbeards of the title, although I don’t really have a clear understanding of what a redbeard is. It seems that Tian-hua and his redbeards are some kind of outlaws in opposition of the army, but as the redbeards seem to only want to take care of their own and farm their land, I’m not entirely sure what the conflict is about.

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Shadow Girl (1971)

ShadowGirlShadow Girl [隱身女俠] (1971)

Starring Lily Li Li-Li, An Ping, Wai Wang, Yue Fung, Cho Kin, Ding Keung, Chui Fook-Sang, Miao Tian, Tin Man-Chung, O Yau-Man, Law Bun, Gam Tiu

Directed by San Kei

Expectations: Moderate.

twostar


I’ve seen a lot of varied Shaw Brothers films, but I never expected to see their version of an invisible man tale. But that’s just what Shadow Girl is… kinda. I don’t remember the Invisible Man’s mother flying around in a circle and poking out people’s eyes, but that’s where the term “creative license” comes in. The film actually isn’t a take-off on the classic H.G. Wells story, the invisibility here is merely the hook that makes the story unique and interesting. How does Yin Chu (Lily Li) turn invisible? Is it just her kung fu training that has enabled this ability, or is it something more?

I’m building it up more than necessary, though, because this isn’t presented as a mystery in the film. The characters that come into contact with Yin assume she’s a ghost, but we’re in on the gag right from the first scene, as we see Yin undressing on a river bank and slowly turning invisible before she ventures into the water. Later flashback scenes give us more detail on why she has this ability, and why she’s roaming around the countryside with no home, but it’d be a stretch to call these aspects mysterious.

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Mission Impossible (1971)

missionimpossible_5Mission Impossible [劍女幽魂] (1971)

Starring Ching Li, Chen Hung-Lieh, Chiang Nan, O Yau-Man, Su Chen-Ping, Ma Kei, Yee Yuen, Ngai So, Tsai Hung, Yuen Sam, Law Bun, Lui Jun

Directed by Joseph Kuo Nan-Hong

Expectations: Moderate.

threestar


Mission Impossible is a rare Shaw Brothers film. When Celestial Pictures acquired the rights to the Shaw catalog and they undertook the massive project of remastering and re-releasing the films to DVD, there were a number of movies that somehow slipped through the cracks. Perhaps prints were lost or some such unavoidable circumstances occurred. Some films were remastered but never transitioned to DVD for unexplained reasons, only appearing on the Singapore-only Zii Eagle set-top box that contains hundreds of Shaw films. Mission Impossible is one of those slip-through-the-cracks, unremastered movies, so the print is pretty bad. Not the worst I’ve seen, but still a huge step down from what I’ve become accustomed to while making my way through the catalog. I’ve definitely become spoiled.

But sometimes it’s good to revisit your roots, so I actually kind of enjoyed watching Mission Impossible in its damaged form that reminded me of how most Shaw films used to look before Celestial took over. They were neglected, dingy prints that were incredibly hard to come by in the US (exacerbated by the fact that the Internet was in its infancy and I was still a teenager with limited resources). But there is a special charm to watching old, faded prints. Are the dark, shadowy visuals just the print, or was the cinematography specifically designed to achieve this look? The fun of a bad print is that it is up to you to deduce the filmmaker’s intent from the context clues. Definitely not a task that everyone will get a kick out of, though. 🙂

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The Mighty One (1971)

mightyone_1The Mighty One [童子功] (1971)

Starring Ivy Ling Po, Liu Ping, Ling Yun, Go Ming, Lung Fei, Hsieh Hsing, Cheung Yee-Kwai, Shaw Luo-Hui, Yuen Sam, Chan Yau-San, So Gam-Lung, Wa Luen

Directed by Joseph Kuo Nan-Hong

Expectations: Moderate.

threestar


The Mighty One kicks off with a bang as a group of devious villains stride up to a pleasant, peaceful homestead. They are the Notorious Five of the Dragon Valley, led by the red-faced Brother Fang, and they seek the missing pages of The Mighty Creed (AKA The Mighty Power of Five Masters). But the aged, retired swordsman who lives at the home refuses to give up the manual’s location, so Brother Fang kills him while the Notorious Five playfully beat up the old man’s children, throwing one into a tree and pinning another to the floor with a dagger.

The basic framework of this scene continues on through the rest of The Mighty One, as the Notorious Five go around the countryside asking about the manual and kicking ass when no one has any answers. Enter Water Knight Hsiang Kuei (Ling Yun) and Hsiao Chu (Ivy Ling Po), the only two to give the Notorious Five and Brother Fang a challenging fight. No one knows who these two are or where they came from, which means they’ve never seen a Shaw Brothers film, as anyone who has will immediately know exactly who these two are. While their identities are obscured throughout most of the movie, I don’t think it was the filmmaker’s intent for it to be a big twist, as it’s not revealed as such.

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