Boxer Rebellion (1976)

Boxer Rebellion [八國聯軍] (1976)
AKA Spiritual Fists, Bloody Avengers

Starring Alexander Fu Sheng, Chi Kuan-Chun, Leung Kar-Yan, Jenny Tseng, Woo Gam, Johnny Wang Lung-Wei, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan, Li Li-Hua, Sun Yueh, Tsui Fu-Sheng, Liu Wei-Bin, Richard Harrison, Henry Bolanas, Wong Cheong-Chi, Han Chiang, Someno Yukio, Yeung Fui-Yuk, Lam Fai, Chiang Tao

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: High.


Of all the films that Chang Cheh directed over his career, Boxer Rebellion was one that the director thought was among his most successful (in artistic terms). The film’s depiction of the Boxer Rebellion and its anti-foreigner sentiment did not agree with the British censors in Hong Kong, so the film was only released in a heavily truncated version (with something like 30–45 minutes edited out) and with the title changed to Spiritual Fists. The film failed miserably under these conditions and this angered Chang Cheh, because as the editor of his memoir notes, “he really poured his heart into Boxer Rebellion.” Later in the book, Chang expresses the wish that someone would rescue the film from a “musty closet” so that it may be seen as intended, if for no other reason than to pay tribute to the work of Fu Sheng held unseen within. Chang died in 2002, but if he had lived just another few years he’d have seen his dream realized when Celestial restored and finally released the full version of Chang’s epic film in 2005.

I have not seen the edited version of the film, but this restored, original vision is without a doubt one of Chang’s finest efforts as a director. He had previously made epic films that brought together large casts and told big, sprawling stories, but not a single one of them is anywhere close to the level of scale and scope seen in Boxer Rebellion. Chang talks in his memoir about tiring of making Shaolin pictures around this time, so once again he looked to craft something new for the Hong Kong market. He set his sights on the war picture, first shooting Seven Man Army (to less-than-satisfactory results, according to Chang), and then following it up with Boxer Rebellion, the highest budgeted Hong Kong film at the time. The resulting film shows a clear influence from its predecessors, with the scale of his epics like The Water Margin or The Heroic Ones, and the intimacy of his Shaolin films like Heroes Two or Disciples of Shaolin.

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Marco Polo (1975)

Marco Polo [馬哥波羅] (1975)
AKA The Four Assassins

Starring Alexander Fu Sheng, Chi Kuan-Chun, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan, Phillip Kwok Chun-Fung, Richard Harrison, Shih Szu, Lo Dik, Gordon Liu Chia-Hui, Leung Kar-Yan, Johnny Wang Lung-Wei, Li Tong-Chun, Carter Wong, Tang Tak-Cheung, Ting Wa-Chung, Chang I-Fei, Lee Ying, Chan Wai-Lau, Han Chiang

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: Very high. New Chang Cheh always gets me excited.


It’s fair to assume that a film titled Marco Polo would be centered around Marco Polo, the trader who became a trusted advisor to Kublai Khan, the Mongol leader who completed the conquest of the Song Dynasty and established the Yuan Dynasty. In Chang Cheh’s film, though, Polo is merely a small component. He is at the heart of the plot, but he honestly doesn’t do much more than glare at some people now and then. This really bothered me, and I spent a good portion of the movie trying to understand why the film might be titled after a character who does so little. I eventually came to a conclusion (which I’ll get around to), but it’s one that will require a second viewing to fully appreciate. At this juncture, I’d call it an uncharacteristically weak film for Chang Cheh, which is to say that I liked it a lot instead of flat-out loving it. 🙂

Upon returning from a three-year mission, Marco Polo presents a report of his travels to Kublai Khan. Meanwhile, a pair of Chinese rebels make their way into the court and attempt to assassinate the Khan. One is killed, and the other, Zu Jianmin (Carter Wong), manages to escape. Since he is injured and cannot move too quickly, the Khan asks Marco Polo and his three personal bodyguards (Gordon Liu, Leung Kar-Yan & Johnny Wang Lung-Wei) to kill Zu and his allies when he reaches his home. This proves to be a bit harder than anticipated, as Zu’s four sworn brothers (Alexander Fu Sheng, Chi Kuan-Chun, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan & Phillip Kwok Chun-Fung) escape and begin harsh training to improve their martial arts skills.

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All Men Are Brothers (1975)

All Men Are Brothers [蕩寇誌] (1975)
AKA Seven Soldiers of Kung Fu, Seven Blows of the Dragon II, Seven Kung Fu Assassins

Starring David Chiang, Fan Mei-Sheng, Chen Kuan-Tai, Wong Chung, Danny Lee, Wang Kuang-Yu, Yue Fung, Ti Lung, Chu Mu, Tin Ching, Tung Lam, Chen Feng-Chen, Bolo Yeung, Lau Gong, Wong Ching, Chang Yang, Betty Chung, Ku Feng, Tetsuro Tamba, Chin Feng, Chen Wo-Fu, Michael Chan Wai-Man, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan

Directed by Chang Cheh & Wu Ma

Expectations: Super high! A sequel to one of my all-time favorite Shaw films? Yes, please!


The Water Margin is one of my all-time favorite Shaw Brothers films (along with all of Shaw’s other films based on the classic Chinese novel —  Delightful Forest, Pursuit, and to a lesser extent The Amorous Lotus Pan and Chang’s segment in Trilogy of Swordsmanship), so All Men Are Brothers had a lot to live up to. The key to my immense affection for each film lies in how they all carry their own style and are therefore able to stand on their own in companionship with the other films, like the 108 Liang Shan bandits themselves. All Men Are Brothers is another very welcome addition to this lineup, taking its own path along the way to dramatizing a section of the illustrious book.

All of the previous films dealt with chapters from either the beginning or the middle of the book, but All Men Are Brothers seeks to tell the end of the tale. It takes material mostly from Chapters 90–100 (out of 100 total chapters), which deal with the redemption of the outlaws through their struggle to defeat the rebellious Fang La and his generals. A couple of flashbacks tell earlier tales to provide some character depth, and the film opens with Yan Qing’s procurement of the bandits’ pardon from the emperor (which is detailed in Chapter 81), but the film is mostly concerned with bringing everything to a close.

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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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Shaolin Martial Arts (1974)

shaolinmartialarts_2Shaolin Martial Arts [洪拳與詠春] (1974)

Starring Alexander Fu Sheng, Chi Kuan-Chun, Leung Kar-Yan, Johnny Wang Lung-Wei, Gordon Liu Chia-Hui, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan, Chiang Tao, Fung Hak-On, Irene Chen Yi-Ling, Yuan Man-Tzu, Lo Dik, Chiang Nan, Fung Ngai, Simon Yuen Siu-Tin, Lau Kar-Wing, Lee Wan-Chung

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: Extremely high. I love the first two Shaolin Cycle films, and have wanted to see this one for years.

fourstar


Shaolin Martial Arts is a brilliant evolution of the kung fu movie that features a huge and incredibly talented cast. They really brought out the big guns for this one, including Shaolin Cycle stars Alexander Fu Sheng and Chi Kuan-Chun, Leung Kar-Yan (AKA Beardy) and Johnny Wang Lung-Wei in their film debuts, Gordon Liu in his Shaw Brothers debut (his only previous credit was as an extra on the 1973 independent film The Hero of Chiu Chow), Lau Kar-Wing, even Simon Yuen shows up as a cranky old master. And that’s just the bigger names, as the film also boasts wonderful performances from Chiang Tao, Fung Hak-On, Chiang Nan, Fung Ngai, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan, Irene Chan Yi-Ling and Yuan Man-Tzu. But despite this varied and well-used cast, not a single one of them are the true star of the film.

The monumental cast is but one half of the creative puzzle, and the matchless team of writer/director Chang Cheh, co-writer Ni Kuang, and action choreographers Lau Kar-Leung and Tang Chia have truly created something special and unique with this film. Where Heroes Two and Men from the Monastery told dramatic tales of folk heroes running for their lives after the burning of the Shaolin Temple, Shaolin Martial Arts is about the passage, preservation and impermanence of knowledge. Shaolin itself is the star of the movie, and more specifically: the Shaolin martial arts. The film’s Chinese title translates to Hung Gar and Wing Chun, so this focus on style and martial technique is even clearer in the original language (similar to how Heroes Two is called Fang Shih-Yu and Hung Hsi-Kuan in Chinese).

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Friends (1974)

Friends_1Friends [朋友] (1974)

Starring David Chiang, Alexander Fu Sheng, Lily Li Li-Li, Lee Yung-Git, Lo Dik, Matsuoka Minoru, Wai Wang, Helen Ko, Danny Chow Yuen-Kin, Chen Wo-Fu, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan, Wang Kuang-Yu

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: I’m really excited for this one. I’ve really come to love these deliquent youth movies of Chang Cheh’s.

threestar


From a quick glance over Chang Cheh’s filmography, Friends seems to be his final modern-day delinquent youth action drama. And wouldn’t you know it… it feels like it! There is a positive energy running through Friends that isn’t in the other films. Friends notably starts with a scene set years after the main section of the film, when the titular friends are gathered together and reminiscing over their wild, youthful days gone by. They are all successful in their various fields, and can now look back on their earlier struggles and laugh at their absurdity. Chang’s previous youth films were all steeped in angst and an inability to fit in with society in one way or another, so to open Friends showing that these characters have already achieved this goal of assimilating successfully into society (and seemingly doing so without compromising their dreams) immediately announces a different type of film than his other films in the genre.

The film then cuts back in time an indiscriminate number of years, to when the group was just a bunch of unmotivated friends stuck in entry-level jobs. Hua Heng (David Chiang) dreams of being an artist, but for now he has a job painting a mural on the side of the Seiko building. Hua’s girlfriend, Gao Xin (Lily Li Li-Li), is a bar girl deep in debt to her employer, and at risk for turning to prostitution to pay him back. The others work as delivery boys, mechanics, and other similar jobs, but there is one outlier.

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Men from the Monastery (1974)

MenfromtheMonastery_1Men from the Monastery [少林子弟] (1974)
AKA Disciples of Death, Dragon’s Teeth

Starring Chen Kuan-Tai, Alexander Fu Sheng, Chi Kuan-Chun, Chiang Tao, Lo Dik, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan, Wu Hsueh-Yan, Wong Ching, Fung Ngai, Wu Chi-Chin, Fung Hak-On

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: High, I like this one.

threehalfstar


Men from the Monastery was the second film in Chang Cheh’s Shaolin Cycle, and it serves as both prequel and sequel to Heroes Two. The story is broken up into segments like an anthology film, except it’s more like being fed pieces of the narrative in chunks that eventually add up to something. The first two segments occur prior to the events of Heroes Two, while the third and forth segments act as the continuation of the combined stories of both films. It’s a structure unique to Men from the Monastery (at least up to this point chronologically), and while I’d generally prefer a standard narrative, it works very well here, especially with the events of Heroes Two fresh in my mind.

We begin with Fang Shih Yu (Alexander Fu Sheng) while he is still a student at the Shaolin temple. Within a few minutes, he’s challenging the “Wooden Men Alley” to prove that he has the skills to leave. At this point, Chang Cheh also subtly introduces us to Shaolin’s perennial villains: Wu Dang (better known in the Western world as Wu Tang) and Pai Mei, the White Eyebrow Priest (who only appears in shadow for a moment). Flashes of Fang’s wooden-man trial and his subsequent battle on poles are shown in Heroes Two when we first meet him, but it’s great fun to see these sequences play out as full scenes. It’s almost like Chang Cheh originally had a three-hour cut of Heroes Two and decided to split it up into two complimenting films. I honestly think this may have been the case, as there are possibly some other indicators of this (such as Chi Kuan-Chun’s inclusion in the Hung Fist intro to Heroes Two). So feel free to add “out-of-order, chapter-based films” and “splitting a long film in two” to the list of things Tarantino co-opted from the Chang Cheh playbook. 🙂

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