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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The Pirate (1973)

thepirate_2The Pirate [大海盜] (1973)

Starring Ti Lung, David Chiang, Tin Ching, Lau Gong, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan, Fan Mei-Sheng, Yue Fung, Dean Shek Tin, Wu Chi-Chin, Yeung Chak-Lam, Lo Dik, Wang Kuang-Yu, Cheng Kang-Yeh, Ko Hung, Yuan Man-Tzu, Wong Ching-Ho

Directed by Chang Cheh, Wu Ma & Pao Hsueh-Li

Expectations: High. Pirates, Ti Lung, David Chiang, and Chang Cheh? How can I not be pumped?

threehalfstar


I didn’t know quite what to expect going into The Pirate, but it’s safe to say that the opening sequence fulfilled pretty much every expectation I had. The film commences with a naval battle between a British ship and a Chinese pirate ship. The pirate captain is none other than Ti Lung, playing the chivalrous pirate Chang Pao-Chai, who was a real pirate in the 19th Century. Ti Lung performs like a Chinese Errol Flynn, athletically swinging from ropes and laying waste to everyone in his path with ease after the pirates board the British ship. I’ve loved the swashbuckling good times of Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks for years, so as soon as the film started it had me right in its pocket. (Do pirates have pockets?)

Having fulfilled the average moviegoer’s idea of a pirate movie, the film is free to reveal its true nature. It’s not so much about smuggling or thieving, as it is a drama about morality. Written by that ever-resourceful scribe Ni Kuang, The Pirate slowly introduces multiple factions that each have their own goals and desires. Of course, they all intersect and conflict with one another as the plot unfurls, with two defined villains, two heroes who are also villains depending on your moral standpoint, and one neutral group that is at the mercy of the others’ whims. This landscape works to great effect in presenting the tortuous life of a pirate with enemies on all sides.

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Police Force (1973)

PoliceForce_1Police Force [警察] (1973)

Starring Wong Chung, Lily Li Li-Li, Alexander Fu Sheng, Wang Hsieh, Helen Ko, Wang Kuang-Yu, Wong Shu-Tong, Tung Lam, Fung Hak-On

Directed by Chang Cheh & Ulysses Au-Yeung Jun

Expectations: Moderate.

twohalfstar


It’s never nice when a film pulls a bait-and-switch, but Police Force is one such film. It’s possible that I was an accomplice in this, though, because as soon as I saw Alexander Fu Sheng kicking ass in a karate tournament I got so revved up that anything short of a kung fu barn-burner might have disappointed. But Police Force is only an action film some of the time, and even then a fair portion of the action is more gun-based police stuff than straight kung fu.

Fu Sheng plays a karate master (or a “Karate Kid” as the villain calls him 🙂 ) who is inexplicably singled out by Kao Tu (Wang Kuang-Yu), a petty robber, as a good mark for a job. Really, dude? You just watched Fu Sheng annihilate the competition at the karate tournament, and then decide to target him? OK, whatever! Sometime later, Kao Tu and his buddy assault Fu Sheng and his girlfriend (Lily Li) on a mountain, but Fu Sheng manages to kill one of them before Kao Tu does him in. Fu Sheng’s death fuels Lily Li and Wong Chung’s movie-long search for his killer, but as a viewer it felt deeper than that. Within these 15 minutes of screentime, Fu Sheng is so electric that his charm and energy leaps off the screen with incredible force. This was his first substantial role and he absolutely kills it. There’s no way to watch this movie and not think that he HAS to star in future films. Star power is something that certain people just have, and Fu Sheng has it in spades.

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The Generation Gap (1973)

GenerationGap_1The Generation Gap [叛逆] (1973)
AKA The Traitor

Starring David Chiang, Agnes Chan Mei-Ling, Ti Lung, Lo Dik, Yeung Chi-Hing, Lin Jing, Kong Ling, Johnston Wong Chan-Sin, Ricky Hui Koon-Ying, Shum Lo, Lee Pang-Fei, Dean Shek Tin, Lee Sau-Kei, Chiang Tao, Wong Pau-Gei, Helen Ko, Alexander Fu Sheng

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: Moderate. I never know what to expect with Chang Cheh’s modern films.

threestar


The Generation Gap is another entry into Chang Cheh’s collection of films about the troubled youth of Hong Kong, but this is perhaps his most successful at a dramatic level (at least up to this point chronologically). Does that mean it’s one to watch if you’re interested in dipping your toes into the modern films of Chang Cheh? I guess, although I think your enjoyment of it will directly relate to how much you love you already have for early ’70s Hong Kong film. But whatever, I can’t guess how and why someone else will like this movie, I can only speak for myself. And I liked it quite a lot.

The Generation Gap is about the romance between 21-year-old Ling Xi (David Chiang) and 16-year-old Cindy (Agnes Chan). Their parents both disapprove of the coupling for many reasons, but like all young lovers, they feel like they’ve found the best thing on Earth and their parents are being needlessly protective. The film charts the relationship as it grows and attempts to mature, and as you can imagine there are aspects of it that don’t go as planned (or dreamed) by the two lovebirds.

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