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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The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974)

legendof7goldenvampires_1The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires [七金屍] (1974)
AKA The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula, Dracula and the 7 Golden Vampires

Starring Peter Cushing, David Chiang, Robin Stewart, Julie Ege, Shih Szu, Chan Shen, Lau Kar-Wing, Huang Pei-Chih, John Forbes-Robertson, Tino Wong Cheung, James Ma Chim-Si, Wynn Lau Chun-Fai, Ho Kei-Cheong, Wang Han-Chen, Lau Wai-Ling, Robert Hanna

Directed by Roy Ward Baker (with an uncredited assist from Chang Cheh)

Expectations: Been looking forward to revisiting this for a while now.

On the general scale:
twohalfstar

On the B-movie scale:
threehalfstar


What a difference a few years makes. When I first reviewed The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, Silver Emulsion was only six months old, I had never seen a Hammer horror or a David Chiang film, I had no idea who Shih Szu or Chan Shen was, and I definitely couldn’t recognize Lau Kar-Wing on sight. If I remember right, my main takeaway was that it was OK, but nothing special, and that I wanted to watch some actual Hammer films. This initial reaction is a great example of why I set out about reviewing the Shaw films chronologically.

Taken as a single film, it’s true, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires isn’t anything all that special. It is a watered-down Shaw film, mixed with watered-down Hammer elements, and I can understand it not resonating with staunch fans of either studio. But within the context of the Shaw output of the time, along with an understanding and appreciation of the Gothic Hammer feeling, the mixture adds up to one very fun, fast-paced film filled with thrills. I only see my love for this film growing with each successive viewing.

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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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The Savage Five (1974)

savagefive_12The Savage Five [五虎將] (1974)
AKA The Savage 5

Starring David Chiang, Ti Lung, Chen Kuan-Tai, Danny Lee, Wong Chung, Wai Wang, Wong Ching, Chiang Tao, Wong Bing-Bing, Lo Dik, Wang Kuang-Yu, Norman Chu Siu-Keung

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: High. Chang Cheh!

threehalfstar


The Savage Five is yet another in a large group of fantastic films from director Chang Cheh. Contrary to last week’s film, Heroes Two, The Savage Five is not a film focused on kung fu. Martial arts are present and integral to the story, but those looking for unforgettable hand-to-hand battles will be better served by other films (such as Heroes Two!). The Savage Five works instead because it is intense and emotional, presenting an engaging story with compelling characters brought to life through exceptionally well-acted performances. It’s a small-scale film, but it is quite well-executed and all the more potent for its movement away from the style of Chang Cheh’s epics.

The story is something of a variation on The Seven Samurai, if the bandits never left the town, and the heroes had to rise from the ranks of the townspeople. This is oversimplifying it, but it’s probably the quickest way to describe the film’s dynamics. But The Savage Five takes shape through its characters and how they interact with each other, so while the story may be somewhat familiar in broad strokes, it is far more interesting and less derivative than my description may sound.

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Heroes Two (1974)

HeroesTwo_1Heroes Two [方世玉與洪熙官] (1974)
AKA Kung Fu Invaders, Blood Brothers, Bloody Fists, Temple of the Dragon, Fang Shih Yu and Hung Hsi Kuan

Starring Alexander Fu Sheng, Chen Kuan-Tai, Fong Sam, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan, Chu Mu, Wong Ching, Fung Ngai, Fung Hak-On, Chiang Nan, Wu Chi-Chin

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: High, I really like this one.

fourstar


Out of context, Heroes Two seems just like any number of kung fu films that followed in its wake. This is how I first experienced it a few years ago, viewing it after my old cohort Uncle Jasper wrote a review. In the intervening years, I’ve worked my way back around to the film chronologically, and now Heroes Two plays as it should: as a complete revelation to the genre. It’s a call to arms, a new type of kung fu film that would go on to influence and define the genre for many years to come.

Heroes Two originally played with a short intro film called Three Styles of Hung School’s Kung Fu, also replicated on the DVD/Blu-ray for your viewing pleasure. It’s a great little film, showcasing the raw skill and solo talents of the stars of Heroes Two, as well as Chi Kuan-Chun who joins them in the follow-up film Men from the Monastery. Not only does this short film announce the feature’s commitment to presenting actual kung fu on-screen, it also signals that Heroes Two is a special film, bringing something new and unique to the audience. Imagine seeing Heroes Two without ever having seen the multitude of traditional kung fu films that followed it! The feature was a great success, too, ranking #12 among all Hong Kong films at the local box office, with only four other martial arts films ranking higher (Five Shaolin Masters, The Virgin Mart, The Tea House, and Chinatown Capers… if you’re wondering).

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Iron Bodyguard (1973)

IronBodyguard_1Iron Bodyguard [大刀王五] (1973)

Starring Chen Kuan-Tai, Yueh Hua, Danny Lee, Lily Li Li-Li, Lo Dik, Tung Lam, Chiang Tao, Chiang Nan, Betty Pei Ti, Ricky Hui Koon-Ying, Ku Wen-Chung, Dean Shek Tin

Directed by Chang Cheh & Pao Hsueh-Li

Expectations: High.

threestar


Iron Bodyguard has all the pieces in place for a stellar martial arts drama like The Blood Brothers or The Boxer from Shantung, but instead we get a somewhat disjointed, start/stop flow that hinders much of any momentum that the film should contain. This leads me to consider that Pao Hsueh-Li was probably the primary director on set, but as usual with these suppositions of mine, I don’t actually have any evidence to back it up. There is a line in Chang Cheh’s memoir about how he would generally direct the more epic films, while the credited co-director would handle the smaller-scale works.

Chang specifically cites The Boxer from Shantung and Man of Iron working like this, so it’s not a complete stretch to think that may be the case here with a duo like The Pirate and Iron Bodyguard. There’s also the fact that in his memoir Chang talks a lot about always wanting to move forward artistically with every film, while Iron Bodyguard features a style that Chang Cheh was using a lot in his 1971 films. It’s also possible that both directors worked on it, as this film also bears the “Jointly Directed” credit like The Pirate did, and there are some suitably epic moments throughout this one. Who knows, but I do enjoy trying to figure it out the best I can.

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