King Gambler (1976)

King Gambler [賭王大騙局] (1976)

Starring Chung Wah, Chen Kuan-Tai, Chen Ping, Shut Chung-Tin, Ou-Yang Sha-Fei, Wang Hsieh, Ku Feng, Fan Mei-Sheng, Teresa Ha Ping, Chui Ga-Lam, Wong Chung, A Mei-Na, Chan Mei-Hua, Liu Wu-Chi, Ma Chien-Tang, Chan Shen, Kong Yeung, Ku Wen-Chung, Terry Lau Wai-Yue, Ling Yun, Shum Lo, Yeung Chi-Hing, Cheng Miu, Wong Ching-Ho, Lau Luk-Wah

Directed by Cheng Kang

Expectations: Super excited to see more Cheng Kang… and it’s a gambling movie!

There are many gambling movies from all over the world, but the Hong Kong gambling film is a beast all its own. I am a huge fan of this sub-genre of Hong Kong cinema, and of the filmmaker most associated with it: Wong Jing. Over the course of my chronological Shaw Brothers series, I’ve covered a couple of early gambling films (The Casino, The Gambling Syndicate), but those films feel like extensions of the traditional action genre more than they resemble what the gambling genre evolved into. King Gambler, on the other hand, is right on the money when it comes to tone and style. The film was clearly an influence on Wong Jing, as both directors showcase similar ideas and sensibilities in how they portray gambling and the people involved in the games. As such, I really enjoyed Cheng Kang’s King Gambler. Apparently 1976 Hong Kong shared my enthusiasm, too, because the film made #9 at the yearly box office (with only a couple of Shaw films doing better that year).

King Gambler is a structurally interesting movie. It begins by introducing us to the Sha family and how their mastery in sleight of hand and other forms of trickery were passed down from one generation to another. We then see a short game of mahjong, in which one of the Sha family members (played by Shut Chung-Tin) beats the young Peng Tian Shi (Chen Kuan-Tai). The resentment of being so resoundingly beaten does not sit well with Peng, and when the film flashes forward many years, Peng is now a wealthy casino owner known as The Card Tyrant. He has not risen above his feelings surrounding the Sha family, though. Peng offers an elder Sha (Wang Hsieh) a job, but he refuses to use his superior hearing skills to cheat for Peng. Retaliation comes swift and brutal, leaving the elder Sha permanently blinded. This is merely the first few minutes of the film; the prologue. The majority of the movie concerns itself with the young members of the Sha family and how they deal with Peng in the wake of this offense.

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The Web of Death (1976)

The Web of Death [五毒天羅] (1976)

Starring Yueh Hua, Lo Lieh, Ching Li, Wang Hsieh, Angela Yu Chien, Wong Chung, Lily Li Li-Li, Cheng Miu, Ku Feng, Kong Yeung, Norman Chu Siu-Keung, Chan Shen, Chan Mei-Hua

Directed by Chor Yuen

Expectations: Excited to see another Chor Yuen movie.

Chor Yuen re-defined the wuxia film genre with Killer Clans and The Magic Blade, but The Web of Death is more of a step in a different direction. Elements introduced in the previous films (like the focus on survival and the true danger of the martial world) are still present and relevant in The Web of Death, but they are no longer the primary focus. In The Web of Death, Chor Yuen goes full-on fantasy, delivering a tale of magical powers and deadly clan rivalries that could only come out of ’70s Hong Kong. If the previous films were about avoiding subtle tricks like a poisoned drink, The Web of Death is about more overt threats such as a trapdoor that opens into an acid bath. This move towards fantasy is significant, though, as Shaw’s prior wuxia films always contained elements of fantasy but were never all-out extravaganzas. In this way, The Web of Death is like a bridge between the early days of trap-laden, studio-bound wuxias and the fantasy heights the genre attained in the ’80s and ’90s. As a huge fan of those later offerings, I can’t help but love The Web of Death just a little bit more for pushing the genre in that direction.

The Five Venoms Clan is in possession of the most fearsome weapon in the martial world: the Five Venoms Spider. It may look like nothing more than a smoking lantern adorned with a red spider handle on its top, but it’s actually a cage for the fearsome spider within. This spider is capable of incredible things, including deadly lasers and a poisonous mist. Nothing is known that can defeat the power of the spider, or even defend against it. If your opponent wields the spider it’s basically time to say your goodbyes, if you only had the time. The spider is so deadly that even the Five Venom Clan itself is scared of it. They lock it away in an unknown location, and there it stays until a few members of the clan want to take control of the martial world at an upcoming tournament with it. The mere idea that the spider may re-emerge in the martial world sends shock waves through the clans. Fei Ying Xiang (Yueh Hua) of Wudang — or Wu-Tang if you’d prefer — and his brother Fei Ying-Jie (Wong Chung) are dispatched by their master to learn of the spider’s whereabouts and stop its use. The brothers split up to search separately, and the twisting, dense adventure begins.

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Brotherhood (1976)

Brotherhood [江湖子弟] (1976)

Starring Lau Wing, Woo Gam, Lily Li Li-Li, Wang Hsieh, Shut Chung-Tin, Chiang Tao, Cheng Miu, Chan Shen, Leung Seung-Wan, Fung Ging-Man, Yeung Chak-Lam, Keung Hon, Ngaai Fei, Shum Lo, Liu Wai, Lee Sau-Kei, San Kuai, Hao Li-Jen, Wong Ching-Ho, Ku Kuan-Chung, Bobby Canavarro, Yuen Biao

Directed by Hua Shan

Expectations: Excited to finally see a Hua Shan movie that isn’t Super Inframan.

Brotherhood is a great piece of entertainment, but as a cohesive film it’s a little less successful. It tells a story of Liao (Lau Wing), a man who becomes part of a powerful Hong Kong triad, but long stretches of the movie leave this character by the wayside to focus on the triad itself and the politics within. It shifts its focus so seamlessly that I honestly didn’t notice until it had been at least 15 minutes, but once the realization hit it was hard to ignore. The movie works its way back around to Liao, but the two stories aren’t intertwined well enough. When we rejoin Liao, he’s also evolved into a different type of person. I would have preferred to see the evolution, although with tons of movies that already do this, perhaps I should just enjoy Brotherhood for cutting out the middleman. In any case, I had some troubles with the film (that might be resolved with a re-watch), but none of them really hinder the film’s constant, high-value entertainment.

Liao Da-Jiang is a petty criminal pulling robberies with a group of three other guys. We enter the movie mid-jewelry heist, and unbeknownst to the criminals it is to be a pivotal moment in their lives. Liao is older than your typical juvenile delinquent, so Brotherhood felt like it could be the next step from that sub-genre of Hong Kong crime films. We can assume that Liao’s poor choices as a teenager led him to this moment, but as an adult the consequences are more lasting and serious. The twists and double crosses come fast and brutal in Brotherhood, and they eventually lead Liao to join the San He Tang triad. The triad is also experiencing a time of huge change, with its own share of brutal double crosses. The plot follows these two threads in fairly obvious ways, but as I mentioned, Brotherhood is always highly entertaining thanks to a couple of factors (namely the well-rounded cast, the harsh brutality of the violence, and the action choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping and Yuen Cheung-Yan).

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The Magic Blade (1976)

The Magic Blade [天涯明月刀] (1976)

Starring Ti Lung, Lo Lieh, Ching Li, Tang Ching, Tanny Tien Ni, Lily Li Li-Li, Fan Mei-Sheng, Ku Feng, Norman Chu Siu-Keung, Lau Wai-Ling, Cheng Miu, Chan Shen, Teresa Ha Ping, Ku Kuan-Chung, Kong Yeung, Ng Hong-Sang, Chan Sze-Kai, Wong Ching-Ho

Directed by Chor Yuen

Expectations: Very excited to finally re-visit this.

The Magic Blade is a highly regarded wuxia in the Shaw Brothers catalog, and the nearly unanimous praise led me to review the film in 2010 (two months after starting Silver Emulsion). At the time I thought it was OK, but I didn’t understand why it was so well-loved. As the weeks went on, I kept thinking about the film, and how I must have missed something. I determined that context was the thing missing from my viewpoint, so later that year I began my chronological Shaw Brothers review project to fill my head with all the context I could handle. It’s now seven years later and I have finally arrived back around to The Magic Blade. It seems most people love the film right away, but for me I definitely needed the context to truly appreciate its mastery of the wuxia form.

The Magic Blade portrays a martial world full of strife and treachery. Like Killer Clans, it focuses on the dangers of the martial life and how prepared & alert one must be to survive against others’ devious intellect. The film opens on the deserted and quiet Phoenix Town, but this peace doesn’t last long. Out of the silence comes a procession of musicians, dancers, courtesans and other servants who prepare the town square for a grand display of entertainment for their master Yen Nan Fei (Lo Lieh). The celebration is cut short when a poncho-wearing Fu Hung Hsueh (Ti Lung) ominously appears out of the shadows. The two men have an appointment and a score to settle. Midway through their fight, though, a pair of expert assassins, Wood Devil and Tree Devil, ambush them. Fu and Yen are both swordsman of considerable skill and talent, and they have been targeted by the current leader of the martial world, Master Yu. Despite their vendetta to fight to the death, Fu and Yen team up for the time being to combat their shared threat.

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Emperor Chien Lung (1976)

Emperor Chien Lung [乾隆皇奇遇記] (1976)

Starring Lau Wing, Wong Yu, Tin Ching, Shut Chung-Tin, Shum Lo, Chiang Nan, Cheng Miu, Kong Yeung, Lam Fung, Teresa Ha Ping, Chan Shen, Cheng Kwun-Min, Shih Ping-Ping, Mi Lan, Lun Ga-Chun, Cheung Chi-Hung, Wang Han-Chen, Pang Pang, Lee Pang-Fei, Wong Ching-Ho, Chu Siu-Boh, Ching Si

Directed by Wong Fung

Expectations: I don’t know what to expect, honestly.

Emperor Chien Lung to my chronological lineup of Shaw Brothers films for a few reasons. For one, I knew it had some limited martial arts content, and that it starred Lau Wing and Wong Yu. Secondly, it was the top grossing Shaw Brothers film of 1976 and it spawned multiple sequels (which might have more martial content than this one). It was also directed by Wong Fung, who intrigued me with his film Rivals of Kung Fu and his legacy with the original Kwan Tak-Hing Wong Fei-Hung series. Thankfully, my curiosity was well-placed, and Emperor Chien Lung is a fantastically fun and well-crafted film.

Emperor Chien Lung is absolutely sick and tired of the sheltered life of an emperor. He is fed the same foods and dressed in the same clothes every day, and literally every aspect of his life is governed by tradition and routine. One day, he hears a tale of how Emperor Tang Ming-Huang disguised himself as a commoner and mingled amongst his people. Chien Lung decides to do this as well, and his adventures outside the palace are what makes up the bulk of the film. It bears an anthology feel, with each tale wrapped up tight before proceeded ahead with the next one. Chien Lung learns things along the way, and he even picks up a sidekick, Chau Yi Qing (Wong Yu), but nearly everything else is self-contained within each story.

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The Condemned (1976)

The Condemned [死囚] (1976)

Starring David Chiang, Tsai Hung, Lily Li Li-Li, Ku Feng, Woo Gam, Pai Ying, Kong Yeung, Chan Shen, Yuen Sam, Wong Ching, Shum Lo, Lee Hoi-Sang

Directed by David Chiang

Expectations: Moderate.

At first, The Condemned seems like it will be another in a long line of martial arts films where a hero comes to town and vanquishes the area’s marauding bandits. That is essentially what ends up happening, but the road there is far different than just about any other Shaw film I can think of. Ni Kuang has crafted yet another excellent script, and director David Chiang translates it to the screen quite effectively. It offers a rare starring role to one of my beloved supporting actors, Tsai Hung, and the interplay he has with David Chiang is thrilling to watch. Thanks to all of this, The Condemned is a real hidden gem of a film waiting for a new audience to rediscover it.

Feng Dagang (Tsai Hung) is a righteous martial artist who has been sent by his master to help Mr. Xue (Yuen Sam) with an especially nasty group of bandits. These guys rape, pillage and cause all sorts of mayhem at will, so it will be quite a task to defeat them. Mr. Xue is saddened that only the student has arrived to aid him, and he’s disheartened that Feng will remedy the problem sufficiently. But when the bandits attack Mr. Xue’s home, Feng proves himself to be a stalwart and capable fighter. The only problem is that when the police arrive, the situation looks as if Feng has been the perpetrator of all the death and violence in the Xue home.

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The Sexy Killer (1976)

The Sexy Killer [毒后秘史] (1976)
AKA The Drug Connection

Starring Chen Ping, Yueh Hua, Si Wai, Wang Hsieh, Angela Yu Chien, Tin Ching, Chan Shen, Lee Pang-Fei, Yeung Chak-Lam, Lam Fung, Lau Kwok-Shing, Tung Lam, Kong Yeung, Lin Wen-Wei, Mi Lan, Lam Yi-Wa

Directed by Sun Chung

Expectations: Pretty high.

Expectations can be a film’s worst enemy at times. In the case of The Sexy Killer, I went in thinking about how I had enjoyed the exploitative Shaw films I’d seen in the last few years, as well as how much I liked Sun Chung’s earlier films in my Shaw series (not to mention The Avenging Eagle). But The Sexy Killer was not strong enough to stand up to this kind of pressure. It disappointed me at nearly every turn, only redeeming itself with a great third act (but still a marginal film overall). I may like The Sexy Killer more on a re-watch, but I feel like I’d reach for The Kiss of Death or something from Kuei Chih-Hung’s filmography before I willfully sat down with this one again.

The Sexy Killer begins strong, though. We open in a rock ‘n’ roll club, where teens dance the night away to saxophone-infused atonal jams. One of these dancers is Gao Wanjing (Mi Lan), but she is really here for a more deviant reason: She’s looking to score some heroin to quiet her addictive yearnings. When the dealer comes around she agrees to “do anything” for her fix, and before we know it, the police are investigating the scene where her unconscious body has been found. Her sister, Gao Wanfei (Chen Ping), has come with the cops and she can hardly contain her rage when she sees her sister in such a sorry state. Gao Wanfei is sick of police bureaucracy and their slowness in cleaning up the city, so she vows to do some cleaning of her own.

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