Disciples of Shaolin (1975)

Disciples of Shaolin [洪拳小子] (1975)
AKA The Invincible One, The Hung Boxing Kid

Starring Alexander Fu Sheng, Chi Kuan-Chun, Chen Ming-Li, Wang Ching-Ping, Lo Dik, Chiang Tao, Fung Hak-On, Han Chiang, Fan Sau-Yee, Hui Lap, Cheung Siu-Kwan

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: High.


Chang Cheh’s Shaolin Cycle films are among my favorite productions in the entire Shaw Brothers catalog, so whenever I see a new one I get extraordinarily excited about it. Disciples of Shaolin did not disappoint, although it is far more subtle in its greatness than I expected. It’s a great martial arts picture, but more importantly it is primarily a character-driven drama. As such, it’s one of Chang Cheh’s most nuanced and focused films. Especially at this time in his career, Chang made a lot of films that were large-scale and wide-reaching. Even his explorations into modern romance and delinquency never felt quite as tightly focused on a single character as Disciples of Shaolin focuses on Fu Sheng’s character, Guan Feng Yi.

Guan arrives in town in search of his brother, Wang Hon (Chi Kuan-Chun). Wang works at the local textile mill, dutifully operating one of the weaving machines. Guan is a poor man, but he’s a happy-go-lucky guy regardless (as you’d expect with Alexander Fu Sheng). Wang is his polar opposite, living life with a strict sense of duty and responsibility. On the way in to see Wang, Guan couldn’t help but notice the poor quality of kung fu being taught to the employees, so when he asks Wang to get him a job at the mill, his first suggestion is to take over teaching kung fu. To this notion Wang flatly refuses, advising Guan that it would be prudent to hide his abilities. Wang does not elaborate on his reasoning, but his stern face communicates the grave nature of his request.

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Lady of the Law (1975)

Lady of the Law [女捕快] (1975)

Starring Lo Lieh, Shih Szu, Chang Pei-Shan, Dean Shek Tin, Yeung Chi-Hing, Chan Shen, Tung Lam, Ou-Yang Sha-Fei, Ying Ying, Ma Lee-Sha, Tung Choi-Bo, Cheng Lui, Chiang Tao, Law Hon, Li Min-Lang

Directed by Shen Chiang & Stanley Siu Wing

Expectations: Moderate.


Like last week’s All Men Are Brothers, Lady of the Law was a film that was completed (or at least mostly completed) a few years prior to its release in 1975. For various reasons, the Shaw studio had lots of movies sitting around in various states of completion. Some saw feature release (like Lady of the Law), others were kept as shorts and released together as anthology films (such as Haunted Tales), while many others were simply left unfinished, never to be seen again. According to some magazine scans available on the ever-resourceful Cool Ass Cinema website, it appears that Lady of the Law was initially shot in 1971. It is my assumption that it began life under director Shen Chiang, with Stanley Siu Wing later coming around and finishing it up for release. I don’t know this for sure, but I’ve heard similar stories on other movies (like Curse of Evil) so there’s definitely some precedent.

Unlike a lot of movies with behind-the-scenes drama, Lady of the Law is an absolutely thrilling film packed to the brim with wuxia entertainment and excitement. Literally just a day or so before I watched this movie, I was thinking to myself how I hadn’t seen a Shaw Brothers wuxia in a while, and how much I missed them (since they kind of stopped making them during these years I’m going through now). And then BAM! in comes Lady of the Law to rock my world and remind me just how much I love these wonderful wuxias of the Shaw Brothers. Shen Chiang crafted a couple of great ones, like The Winged Tiger and Heroes of Sung, but honestly I think Lady of the Law is his best film.

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The Young Rebel (1975)

The Young Rebel [後生] (1975)
AKA The Rebel Youth

Starring David Chiang, Ti Lung, Chiang Nan, Lin Jing, Simon Yuen Siu-Tin, Lo Dik, Lee Hoi-Sang, Eddy Ko Hung, Chiang Tao, Fung Ngai, Wan Man, Ming Ming, Tino Wong Cheung, Cheung Chok-Chow

Directed by Ti Lung

Expectations: Moderate. Ti Lung’s other film was pretty enjoyable.


The Young Rebel is yet another film within the delinquent youth sub-genre popular with Chang Cheh. Here it is Ti Lung behind the camera, though, and while the results aren’t up to Chang levels, The Young Rebel is without a doubt a more successful and sophisticated film than Young Lovers on Flying Wheels (Ti Lung’s directorial debut). It shows a lot of artistic promise and ingenuity, and it makes me a bit sad to think that Ti didn’t continue this line of his career. I suppose if he had that also means he might have stepped back from acting some, and since he still had so many iconic films to come, it probably all worked out for the best. In any case, I enjoyed The Young Rebel a lot, and I think it’s definitely worth the time of any Shaw fan.

The film begins on a curious, dour note with Xiang Rong (David Chiang) and Gen Lai (Ti Lung) riding in the back of a car. Xiang asks Gen if he remembers the time when his father was run over by the truck and Xiang didn’t cry. That’s not the kind of thing someone forgets, and this sends us back in time to that fateful moment. With Xiang’s father dead, Xiang is now the man of the house and responsible for the care of his aging mother and young sister. Xiang is still a young man himself, hardly ready for this level of responsibility. His good friend Gen Lai helps him to get a job as a bicycle delivery man at a local market.

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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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Kidnap (1974)

kidnap_1Kidnap [天網] (1974)

Starring Lo Lieh, Fan Mei-Sheng, Woo Gam, Tung Lam, Liu Wu-Chi, Lam Wai-Tiu, Cheng Miu, Yeung Chi-Hing, Li Min-Lang, Fung Ging-Man, Chiang Tao, Wang Hsieh, Chiang Nan, Wang Lai

Directed by Cheng Kang

Expectations: Very high. Been lookin’ forward to this one for a while.

threehalfstar


Kidnap opens by stating that it is a work of fiction, and that any resemblance to real persons is purely coincidental. But this is not the case at all. The film is based on a series of crimes that occurred in Hong Kong between 1959-1962, and came to be collectively known as “The Strange Case of the Three Wolves.” The general points of this true story make up the framework of Kidnap (and its 1989 remake Sentenced to Death — one of the earliest Category III Hong Kong films), so I imagine the disclaimer is merely there to allow the filmmakers to embellish certain elements to make a complete and satisfying film tragedy.

Lo Lieh plays Lung Wei, a soldier struggling to get by as a gas station attendant. He’s sick of his place in life and the constant humiliation from his boss and others. His friends are in similar situations. Chao Hai-Chuan (Fan Mei-Sheng) is a make-up artist for the film industry, but it doesn’t pay enough to cover all of his family’s bills so he has a second job doing make-up at a strip club. He becomes known as Hair-Sticking Chao because he is often asked to glue pubic hair onto the girls. Niu Ta Keng (Tung Lam) is a truck driver, but he can’t hold down a job because of his volatile temper. Finally, Tong Hsiao-Chiang (Lam Wai-Tiu) is a gambling addict who is in deep debt, with no way out in sight. No word on what he does for a living, but I got the impression that gambling was pretty much all he did.

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Na Cha the Great (1974)

nachathegreat_1Na Cha the Great [哪吒] (1974)

Starring Alexander Fu Sheng, Lo Dik, Chiang Tao, Fung Hak-On, Lin Jing, Jamie Luk Kim-Ming, Li Chen-Piao, Yuan Man-Tzu, Sze-Ma Wah-Lung, Lee Wan-Chung, Fung Ngai

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: Pretty high. I enjoyed Na Cha and the Seven Devils and I hope this is equally fun.

twohalfstar


When I think of words to describe the films of Chang Cheh, “fantasy” is not even remotely within the brainstorm. Elements of the fantastic enter many of his films, but Chang rarely handles them in a way that inspires the imagination like typical fantasy. The idea that a man could cut off his own arm and then become a fearsome one-armed swordsman (The New One-Armed Swordsman) is definitely within the fantasy genre, but Chang grounds the idea to the point that it’s not about suspending disbelief. So when I watched Na Cha and the Seven Devils a few months ago, knowing that I had Chang Cheh’s take on the character in my future, it was hard to imagine how Chang would handle the incredible fantasy of an adaptation of the Chinese classic novel Investiture of the Gods.

Turns out that he ambitiously reaches in both directions, bisecting the film into a largely grounded first half and a wildly fantastic second half. I’d love to tell you that my favorite Shaw Brothers director handles both halves well, but unfortunately I can’t even say that he does so with either half. The whole movie feels half-baked and without the usual thematic sharpness that is evident in his other films around this time. The groundwork is there, but there’s little artistry pulling it all together into a pleasing, emotional package. My feeling is that the abundance of special effects hindered Chang’s abilities somewhat. A separate special FX director, Lam Kwok-Cheung, is credited, and according to Chang Cheh’s memoir, Lam led a team from Japan to achieve the film’s many photographic effects.

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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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