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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The Flying Guillotine (1975)

The Flying Guillotine [血滴子] (1975)

Starring Chen Kuan-Tai, Ku Feng, Wai Wang, Kong Yeung, Liu Wu-Chi, Ai Ti, Wong Yu, Lam Wai-Tiu, Norman Chu Siu-Keung, Ricky Hui Koon-Ying, Liu Wai, Lee Sau-Kei, Lee Pang-Fei, Man Man, Wu Chi-Chin, Lei Lung, Lin Wen-Wei, Wai Pak

Directed by Ho Meng-Hua

Expectations: High. Flying Guillotines!


Every one is familiar with the Jimmy Wang Yu classic Master of the Flying Guillotine, but before that film cemented itself into kung fu history, there was Ho Meng-Hua’s The Flying Guillotine. It was Ho’s film that introduced the weapon to the modern martial arts film, and by nature of its story, it also serves as an origin story for the weapon. The flying guillotine was a real weapon used during the Qing Dynasty under the rule of the Yongzheng Emperor (1722–1735). This is roughly the same timeframe that Chang Cheh’s Shaolin Cycle films inhabit, although no one knows exactly when the burning of the Shaolin Temple occurred (and there are multiple conflicting stories of various Shaolin temples burning, too!). Anyway, the flying guillotine was apparently a real thing, as crazy as that sounds.

The Flying Guillotine begins in the chamber of the emperor (Kong Yeung), who finds himself desiring a pair of advisors killed off without a lot of hullabaloo. He gives this task to Chief Xin Kang (Ku Feng), who sets about devising a way to assassinate the men quickly and accurately from such a range that no one can identify the killer. While walking down the street and contemplating the job, Xin Kang takes special interest in a man performing with a Diabolo (a Chinese Yo-Yo consisting of a wooden object spun and thrown with a rope). Inspiration strikes and the flying guillotine is born! The emperor loves the weapon so much that he then asks Xin Kang to form a 12-person strike team proficient in the usage of the flying guillotine.

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Five Tough Guys (1974)

fivetoughguys_1Five Tough Guys [五大漢] (1974)
AKA Kung Fu Hellcats

Starring Chen Kuan-Tai, Wai Wang, Shut Chung-Tin, Fan Mei-Sheng, Wong Chung, Ku Feng, Lily Ho Li-Li, Ling Yun, Omae Hitoshi, Tung Lam, Cheng Miu, Wong Ching, Yeung Chi-Hing, Kong Yeung, Yeung Chak-Lam, Cheng Kang-Yeh

Directed by Pao Hsueh-Li

Expectations: Low, but the title is fun.

twohalfstar


There is an abundance of promise in Five Tough Guys. A dense, unique script from the illustrious Ni Kuang deals with the changing times when guns supplanted the years of training and expertise of kung fu masters. A group of excellent actors fill the roles, with superstar Chen Kuan-Tai heading up the cast, Ku Feng as the main antagonist, and Fan Mei-Sheng’s best role since The Water Margin. And the fights are choreographed by the experienced and notable pair of Lau Kar-Wing (brother of Lau Kar-Leung) and Huang Pei-Chih (brother of Tang Chia). The elements for a great film are clearly here, but unfortunately director Pao Hsueh-Li fails to bring them together into a cohesive package.

Like many of Ni Kuang’s scripts from this era, Five Tough Guys is based in part on Chinese history. The story is set during the early days of the Republic of China (around 1915), centered around General Tsai Song-Po (Ling Yun) and his rebellion against General Yuan Shikai. Yuan was the first formal president of the Republic of China, but at the time depicted in the film he was also attempting to restore monarchy to China by naming himself Emperor. He would eventually do this, which led to the National Protection War, but these events don’t occur during the course of Five Tough Guys. The film is just focused on the flight of General Tsai through enemy territory so that he can forward the rebellion’s cause.

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The Tea House (1974)

teahouse_1The Tea House [成記茶樓] (1974)
AKA The Teahouse

Starring Chen Kuan-Tai, Karen Yip Leng-Chi, Yeung Chi-Hing, Wong Yu, Fung Ging-Man, Lee Pang-Fei, Chung Chan-Chi, Lam Wai-Tiu, Lam Siu, Lee Sau-Kei, Cheung Chok-Chow, Liu Wu-Chi, Pang Pang, Shum Lo, Tung Lam, Wong Ching-Ho, Cheng Kang, Fan Mei-Sheng, Bruce Le

Directed by Kuei Chih-Hung

Expectations: High!

threestar


Chen Kuan-Tai was a firmly established martial arts star when The Tea House was released, but it was his calm, powerful performance as Big Brother Cheng that cemented his status as a well-respected actor. The film was so popular — it reached #9 at the 1974 Hong Kong Box Office — that a sequel was made the following year titled after Chen’s character. Given the ending of The Tea House, I’m really excited to see where the sequel takes Big Brother Cheng. But to get back to The Tea House: it’s an interesting film, unlike really anything I’ve seen from the Shaw Studio.

The Tea House opens with a long tracking shot through the titular Cheng Chi Tea House, showing us what “normal” looks like at the establishment before unleashing the drama that will continually disrupt business throughout the film. But it’s not so much a movie that depends on its plot; it’s more concerned with commenting on the then-current state of juvenile delinquency and the justice system’s inability to properly deal with the problem. I’ve seen many Shaw films deal with delinquency, but The Tea House engages the problem in a complete unique and fresh manner. The film has a tendency to be episodic and not completely cohesive, but what holds it together is this thematic focus on how the film’s various groups handle punishment.

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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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