Stephen reviews: Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Starring Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche, Michael Pitt, Chin Han, Peter Ferdinando

Directed by Rupert Sanders


I was looking forward to this movie with a mixture of hope and dread. My expectations were set low, but at the same time I had a hunch that Ghost in the Shell was possibly the only anime franchise that might work well as a Hollywood production. The serious tone, cyberpunk setting, and evil corporations mesh well with the kind of FX-heavy, sci-fi action films that Hollywood likes to churn out. So does it work? Well, if by working you mean that it is a functional mass market formulaic Hollywood film, then yes I suppose it does. It checks off all the boxes that modern Hollywood films are supposed to have at any rate.

The film is basically a hodgepodge of scenes from the various anime titles, mostly the first movie, so it was pretty much all stuff I’ve already seen. I can’t really call this a bad thing since this is an adaptation of the story. This live-action film was honestly in a tough spot. It had to stay true enough to the original to avoid pissing off the fanboys, but it still had to have enough mainstream appeal to make a profit. On top of that, there has never been a truly successful Hollywood anime adaptation (sure, I liked Fist of the North Star, but that was hardly a commercial hit), so they were understandably playing this pretty cautiously and avoiding risky artistic decisions. This leaves the film kinda drab, neither good nor bad.

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The Champion (1973)

TheChampion+1973-57-bThe Champion [豪客] (1973)
AKA Shanghai Lil and the Sun Luck Kid, Karate King, Chivalrous Guest

Starring Chin Han, Shih Szu, Lung Fei, Yee Yuen, Shut Chung-Tin, Lee Wai, Chi Fu-Chiang, Cheng Fu-Hung, Hsieh Hsing, Chan San-Yat, Blacky Ko Sau-Leung

Directed by Chu-Got Ching-Wan & Yeung Jing-Chan

Expectations: Not much, even though I like Shih Szu a lot.

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The Champion is probably better known by its US release title, Shanghai Lil and the Sun Luck Kid, but neither title really fits this rather mediocre martial arts movie. I guess Chan Han’s character could be considered a champion of the persecuted coal miners in the film, but since the miners are nothing more than shirtless extras pushing mine carts even this is something of a stretch. In any case, just know not to expect any kind of tournament or competition, and definitely don’t look forward to the adventuresome buddy picture that Shanghai Lil and the Sun Luck Kid suggests.

In actuality, The Champion is about Lu Fu (Chin Han), an innocent man recently released from prison after serving a term in the place of his brother. In the three years that Lu Fu has spent locked up, his brother Lu Tei Pao (Lung Fei) has taken over the coal mine, which in effect means that he is in control of the entire village. He is a ruthless man who purposefully set up his brother to get him out of the way, and I think he also killed his parents shortly thereafter. Not that it really matters, but the storytelling isn’t the clearest about that last bit. What does matter is that Tei Pao wants Lu Fu dead now that he’s out of prison, and the repeated attempts on his life from Tei Pao’s various lackeys is what makes up the majority of The Champion.

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Trilogy of Swordsmanship (1972)

trilogyofswordsmanship_5Trilogy of Swordsmanship [群英會] (1972)

Starring Shih Szu, Yueh Hua, Tin Ching, Meng Yuen-Man, Kao Pao-Shu, Bolo Yeung, Cheung Ging-Boh, Lily Ho Li-Li, Lo Lieh, Chung Wa, Chin Han, Wang Ping, Kong Ling, Ku Chiu-Chin, Lau Ng-Kei, Chen Yan-Yan, Lee Wan-Chung, Ti Lung, David Chiang, Li Ching, Ku Feng, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan, Wong Chung, Wu Chi-Chin, Cheng Lui, Chan Sing, Wang Kuang-Yu, Wong Ching-Ho

Directed by Griffin Yueh Feng, Cheng Kang & Chang Cheh

Expectations: High.

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On more than one occasion I’ve said that anthology movies just aren’t my thing. But a Shaw Brothers anthology film? My interest was piqued, although the mere idea of a wuxia anthology film seems like something of a ludicrous idea. Even at a full 90 or 120 minutes, a wuxia story is compressed and hard to understand, so cutting three of them to fit into a total of 107 minutes just doesn’t seem like a good idea. But it is. Totally.

Each film brings something unique to the screen. The first tale, directed by Griffin Yueh Feng (even if the screen credit says otherwise), is called The Iron Bow. It’s a lighthearted tale of love and unwanted attention, and it’s a perfect example of how to stage a martial arts short story. Master Shi (Tin Ching) is infatuated with the young Ying Ying (Shih Szu), but she doesn’t care for him at all. He is a rich official who comes with a procession of men to ask for her hand in marriage, but Ying Ying’s father thought ahead. When he died he left an iron bow in the family’s restaurant, and said that any man who could draw the bow was worthy of his daughter’s hand. This leads to many comical situations to balance the wuxia violence, and it results in a very pleasing bite-sized film. Yueh Hua and Shih Szu also have a fantastic spear battle, and Bolo Yueng pops up at the end with a rare full head of hair. Pure entertainment, if a bit light.

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Finger of Doom (1972)

FingerofDoom_1Finger of Doom [太陰指] (1972)

Starring Ivy Ling Po, Chin Han, Chen Feng-Chen, Hung Sing-Chung, Park Ji-Hyeon, Yeung Chi-Hing, Tung Li, Ou-Yang Sha-Fei, Shum Lo, Lan Wei-Lieh

Directed by Pao Hsueh-Li

Expectations: Fairly high.

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Finger of Doom gets points for being different. The film has all the usual trappings of the wuxia genre, but it is actually defined by the elements that make it closer to a horror film. While there have been many horror-themed swordplay films throughout the years, I’m not quite sure how many there were around this time, so Finger of Doom could be one of the first to blend the two genres. In any case, this aspect makes Finger of Doom unique and well-worth a look for any Shaw fan on the hunt for something a little different than the standard wuxia story.

Finger of Doom opens as the Four Heroes of Dragon Hill are tricked into an audience with an errant kung fu master, Kung Suen Mao Neong. Kung quickly subdues the heroes with a flick of her wrist that unleashes her Finger of Doom technique, or in layman’s terms: a small metal spike driven into the base of the victim’s neck. It causes the victim excruciating pain, but after taking a dose of Kung’s antidote the victim is left with no pain or fear of death. Oh, but they’re also under Kung’s control! They effectively become her zombie bodyguards, carrying Kung around in her red wooden coffin during the daytime to shield her from the sun. The kung fu is strong with this one indeed.

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The Champion of Champions (1972)

ChampionofChampions_3The Champion of Champions [大地龍蛇] (1972)
AKA The Dragon and the Snake, The Dragon Snake, Hero of the Earth

Starring Chin Han, Lily Li Li-Li, Suen Liu, Suen Yuet, Lau Lai-Lai, Chui Fook-Sang, Hon Siu, Sek Fung, Miao Tian, Lee Yan-Wa

Directed by Lee Ga

Expectations: Low.

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Shaw Brothers productions usually come with a base level of quality that is able to make even the most mundane of stories into an OK movie. The Champion of Champions is the exception to the rule and easily the worst film I’ve seen from them, proving that the Shaw studios did indeed produce at least one horrible movie during their long run in the business. And I’m a big fan, I can only imagine what a non-fan would think of this movie. I do have to give the movie the benefit of the doubt, as the print isn’t ideal and the subtitles were cut-off and especially hard to follow. But no amount of remastering and removable subtitles can fix all the problems with The Champion of Champions.

Due to that subtitle issue I mentioned, I’m not exactly 100% on the plot of the film. The opening credits play out over a couple of guys killing an entire government mansion full of people, everyone from the guards to the guys working the printing presses. But then no one mentions this ever again, and the two guys doing this weren’t even main characters. It’s possible that it’s related to another flashback we see about another character’s past and motive for revenge, but I honestly don’t know.
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The Killer (1972)

thekiller_1The Killer [大殺手] (1972)
AKA Sacred Knives of Vengeance

Starring Chin Han, Chung Wa, Wang Ping, Chiang Nan, Cheng Miu, Yeung Chi-Hing, Ku Feng, Cheng Kang-Yeh, Cheng Lui, Wang Kuang-Yu

Directed by Chor Yuen

Expectations: High.

threehalfstar


The Killer didn’t exactly light up the Hong Kong box office when it was released, but it offers a great take on a simple and classic martial arts storyline. Hsiao Hu (Chung Wa) returns to his hometown after an absence of many years, only to find that it has been overrun by drug smugglers! Hsiao is told that it’s the work of a large martial arts school in town, so he roughs up the students and breaks their sign. But the school is actually innocent of all wrongdoing; Hsiao is being played! To protect themselves, the school calls in Inspector Ma (Chin Han) to bring Hsiao to justice. The only thing is that Hsiao and Ma are old friends from their youth in the circus, and they both love Xiao Mei (Wang Ping), who’s now a famous singer in town. Ah shucks, how’re they gonna get outta this one? Sounds like the kind of story that Chang Cheh (or Three’s Company) could’ve had a field day with, but director Chor Yuen handles it with a slightly softer touch than Chang would have used.

Chor Yuen tells the main story very directly as you’d expect in a genre film, but the character’s back stories are handled with quick flashbacks that inform us in short order who these people are and how their lives are — or were — intertwined. This deft economy of storytelling adds an artistic flair to The Killer which sets it apart a lot from similarly themed brotherhood films. The audience is also in on the deception right from the beginning, so we’re watching both how the dominoes are set up and how they gloriously fall down.

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Duel for Gold (1971)

duelforgold_1Duel for Gold [火併] (1971)

Starring Ivy Ling Po, Wang Ping, Chin Han, Lo Lieh, Richard Chan Chun, Fan Mei-Sheng, Lee Pang-Fei, Chung Wa, Tong Tin-Hei, Yeung Chak-Lam, Wong Wai, Law Hon, Lee Siu-Chung, Lau Kwan, Unicorn Chan, Simon Chui Yee-Ang

Directed by Chor Yuen

Expectations: I’m so excited.

threehalfstar


In his first film with the Shaw Brothers, director Chor Yuen emerges immediately as a new force in the genre, painting visual pictures and telling a thrilling story unlike anything seen yet in the Shaw Brothers catalog. Duel for Gold was by no means his first film (he had already made 67 films since starting directing in 1957), and his experience behind the camera elevates this wuxia heist yarn to excellent heights. It is held back by some average choreography throughout a good portion of the film, but you can’t win them all. I especially look forward to his next film, The Killer, which features Yuen Woo-Ping’s first choreography work for the Shaw Brothers (working alongside his brother Yuen Cheung-Yan, already a Shaw Brothers choreographer).

But before we get too deep into the fights, Duel for Gold‘s story is equally important to its success. Written by the ever dependable Ni Kuang, Duel for Gold is exactly what it sounds like, a duel among thieves and the security force of the Fu Lai Security Bureau for 100,000 taels of gold. The film opens as the credits come on-screen over slow-motion shots of battling heroes. But the focus is not on these warriors, instead the camera is focused on an incidental item in the foreground: a barren tree branch; a broken, bloody gravestone; the swaying grass. In between these shots are a bunch of quick cuts of the battle’s aftermath, of the carnage wrought by expertly handled swords and greed. And then the voice of a narrator directly addresses the audience, telling us that we’re right to assume the film is about men dying for money, and that what we’re seeing is the ending to the tale, but to indulge him as he tells us the story of how we got there.

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