Four Riders (1972)

fourriders_1Four Riders [四騎士] (1972)
AKA Hellfighters of the East, Strike 4 Revenge

Starring David Chiang, Ti Lung, Chen Kuan-Tai, Wong Chung, Lily Li Li-Li, Ching Li, Yasuaki Kurata, Tina Chin Fei, Andre Marquis, Lo Dik, Lo Wai

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: High.

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On one hand, Four Riders wants to be a serious film about how G.I.s deal with the end of a war and what they do with themselves in its wake. But on the other hand, Four Riders wants to deliver all kinds of thrilling, ridiculous action that goes completely against the grain of realism. I expected the over-the-top action — how could I not when the DVD box reads: “…as a kung fu master, combat instructor, explosives expert, and missile specialist must take on a venal drug smuggling gang.” Reading that prior to watching the film really played with my expectations, as I imagined all sorts of mid-’80s action extravaganzas built on similar team-based premises. But this is all a misnomer, as Four Riders has nothing to do with what these men did while they were in the army.

The film opens in the snowy countryside of Korea. The year in 1953 and the Korean War has just come to a close. Chang Cheh spends the first few minutes of the film letting us take in the Korean landscapes, showing us the mountains, the gentle streams of snow water, and eventually the luscious green foliage of spring. This natural progression leads us to a military camp, where Ti Lung is currently stationed… but not for long. As his superior officer drives up, Ti rips off his stripes, throws them in the general’s face and proceeds to start a brawl. In the chaos he steals the boss’s jeep and heads off towards the urban fun of Seoul. The war is over, so he’s indulging his spontaneous, reckless spirit and making up for lost time.

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Man of Iron (1972)

manofiron_6Man of Iron [仇連環] (1972)
AKA Dirty Chan, Warrior of Steel

Starring Chen Kuan-Tai, Ching Li, Wong Chung, Chu Mu, Tin Ching, Bolo Yeung, Yeung Chi-Hing, Pao Chia-Wen, Chiang Tao, Li Min-Lang, Wang Kuang-Yu, Cheung Ging-Boh, Chan Chuen

Directed by Chang Cheh & Pao Hsueh-Li

Expectations: Moderate.

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Man of Iron immediately sets itself up as a sequel to The Boxer from Shantung, but the only returning character is the street where everything happens. I’ve also heard the film referred to as a remake of the previous film, but this is also a misnomer as the stories are vastly different. The Boxer from Shantung is a re-telling of the classic gangster tale Scarface, but Man of Iron bears little resemblance to this rag-to-riches gangster tragedy. Instead, we just have Chen Kuan-Tai playing a character who wants to move up in the gangster hierarchy, but the characters themselves, while sharing some similar goals, are pretty far from being actually similar.

Man of Iron is set 20 years after the end of The Boxer from Shantung. The street and the people who populate it have moved on, and new gangs have grown to control the area. There are two major gang bosses: Chang Gen Bao (Chu Mu) and Yu Zhen-Ting (Yeung Chi-Hung). One day, Yu Chow-Kai (Tin Ching), the son of the gang boss Yu, is gambling and has all of his money taken by Qiu Lian-Huan (Chen Kuan-Tai), a man with a small gang of friends that’s tired of being small time. Yu’s son is a man who has inherited his place in the gangster world, so he is easily bested and intimated by Qiu, a man who has fought to be where he is.

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The Deadly Knives (1972)

deadlyknives_2The Deadly Knives [落葉飛刀] (1972)
AKA Fists of Vengeance

Starring Ching Li, Ling Yun, Lily Li Li-Li, Cheng Miu, Chen Yan-Yan, Chan Shen, Dean Shek Tin, Lau Gong, Goo Man-Chung, Chen Feng-Chen, Tang Ti, Lee Ho, Lee Wan-Chung, Lee Sau-Kei

Directed by Chang Il-Ho

Expectations: Low, but hopeful.

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The Deadly Knives is about as standard as Shaw Brothers movies come. It has very little to set itself apart, and I doubt I will remember it in a few months. It’s still entertaining and enjoyable, but it’s just another heated revenge movie featuring the Chinese vs. the Japanese in the good ol’ Bruce Lee mold. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, but The Deadly Knives is kinda lazy in this way, and at times it almost feels like it knows it and doesn’t care.

The Chinese vs. Japanese struggle in this particular film surrounds a forest and the logging operation that resides there. It is owned by the Yan family, but this particular forest is strategically useful to the Japanese Army. A Japanese businessman named Mr. Ogawa (Cheng Miu) enlists the help of Mr. Guan (Tang Ti), a Chinese man who prefers money over Yan, his Chinese neighbor. Meanwhile, Yan Zi Fei (Ling Yun) and Guan Yue Hua (Ching Li) are returning home from college on the train. They are the offspring of the two Chinese families in the midst of this struggle, but are blissfully unaware as they talk about getting married. All they need is the approval of their families… so… clearly, this isn’t going to work out for them.

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The Angry Guest (1972)

AngryGuest_1The Angry Guest [惡客] (1972)
AKA Kung Fu Killers, The Annoyed Guest

Starring David Chiang, Ti Lung, Chang Cheh, Ching Li, Kurata Yasuaki, Fong Yan-Ji, Chan Sing, Bolo Yeung, Woo Wai, Yau Ming

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: High.

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I imagine if you’re reading this you like Shaw Brothers movies. What I’m unsure of is your affection for Sean Connery-era James Bond films. If you happen to be one of those people who enjoys both, I think you’ll get quite the kick out of Chang Cheh’s The Angry Guest. The film is a direct sequel to 1971’s Duel of Fists, taking that film’s reunited brothers on another thrilling journey in an exotic country. Last time it was Bangkok, Thailand, as Fan Ke (David Chiang) was in search of the brother he never knew he had, Wen Lieh (Ti Lung), and this time we’re on our way to Tokyo, Japan.

But for fans of Duel of Fists‘ realistic approach to capturing Muay Thai boxing on-screen, don’t expect any of that to make it into the sequel (outside of a scant few moments during the training intro). After defeating the crime boss Chiang Ren (Chan Sing) and breaking his leg at the end of Duel of Fists, the brothers came back to Hong Kong. Fan Ke resumed his career as an architect that stands around Hong Kong construction sites and points at things, and Wen Lieh took to training the students at the family’s kung fu school. But when Chiang Ren escapes from prison, he hooks back up with his gang, murders Wen’s mother and friend, and takes his girlfriend (Ching Li) hostage. But Chiang Ren’s Japanese boss, Yamaguchi, isn’t satisfied with his performance against the brothers before, so he has the kidnapped girl brought to his base of operations in Tokyo.

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The Boxer from Shantung (1972)

boxerfromshantung_6The Boxer from Shantung [馬永貞] (1972)
AKA Ma Yong Zhen, The Shantung Boxer, The Killer from Shantung

Starring Chen Kuan-Tai, Ching Li, Cheng Kang-Yeh, David Chiang, Chiang Nan, Fung Ngai, Ku Feng, Tin Ching, Wong Ching, Mario Milano, Chan Ho, Lee Man-Tai, Liu Wai, Shum Lo

Directed by Chang Cheh & Pao Hsueh-Li

Expectations: High.

threehalfstar


Ma Yong Zhen (Chen Kuan-Tai) has recently moved to Shanghai from the country with his best friend, and he’s sure that the good days will come. A chance meeting with local crime boss Master Tan Si (David Chiang in a fantastic small role) introduces Ma to a different way of life, one that he’d like to live for himself. Yes, The Boxer from Shantung is a Shaw Brothers version of the Scarface story (11 years prior to Brian De Palma’s famous remake), but honestly, the crime story — while skillfully told and engaging — is also one of the film’s weaknesses for modern viewers. We’ve just seen this kind of film far too many times to truly lose ourselves in all the characters’ struggles, although with all the fun martial arts battles, you could definitely do a lot worse than The Boxer from Shantung.

The film is notable for introducing the world to Chen Kuan-Tai, and there couldn’t have been a better story for him to debut with. By showing his character’s rise, we are able to watch Chen Kuan-Tai flex his acting skill along with his martial abilities. He is skilled in both regards, and almost single-handedly makes The Boxer from Shantung a remarkable film to watch. Chen exhibits no nervousness or shaky acting. He is a force of resolute, badass charm throughout the film, exuding star power and raw energy. Throughout the film he always retains his decency, so the character never falls so deep into self-destruction that he becomes unlikeable. This role could have easily gone to Ti Lung to make this yet another Ti Lung/David Chiang/Chang Cheh film, but Chang Cheh wisely cast the newcomer in the role of the fresh-faced guy looking for his big break. With an actual fresh face in the role, we’re sucked into the story all the more and the film feels distinct and different from the previous films of Chang Cheh.

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Mission Impossible (1971)

missionimpossible_5Mission Impossible [劍女幽魂] (1971)

Starring Ching Li, Chen Hung-Lieh, Chiang Nan, O Yau-Man, Su Chen-Ping, Ma Kei, Yee Yuen, Ngai So, Tsai Hung, Yuen Sam, Law Bun, Lui Jun

Directed by Joseph Kuo Nan-Hong

Expectations: Moderate.

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Mission Impossible is a rare Shaw Brothers film. When Celestial Pictures acquired the rights to the Shaw catalog and they undertook the massive project of remastering and re-releasing the films to DVD, there were a number of movies that somehow slipped through the cracks. Perhaps prints were lost or some such unavoidable circumstances occurred. Some films were remastered but never transitioned to DVD for unexplained reasons, only appearing on the Singapore-only Zii Eagle set-top box that contains hundreds of Shaw films. Mission Impossible is one of those slip-through-the-cracks, unremastered movies, so the print is pretty bad. Not the worst I’ve seen, but still a huge step down from what I’ve become accustomed to while making my way through the catalog. I’ve definitely become spoiled.

But sometimes it’s good to revisit your roots, so I actually kind of enjoyed watching Mission Impossible in its damaged form that reminded me of how most Shaw films used to look before Celestial took over. They were neglected, dingy prints that were incredibly hard to come by in the US (exacerbated by the fact that the Internet was in its infancy and I was still a teenager with limited resources). But there is a special charm to watching old, faded prints. Are the dark, shadowy visuals just the print, or was the cinematography specifically designed to achieve this look? The fun of a bad print is that it is up to you to deduce the filmmaker’s intent from the context clues. Definitely not a task that everyone will get a kick out of, though. :)

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Duel of Fists (1971)

duel of fistsDuel of Fists [拳擊] (1971)
AKA Striking Fist, Duel of Fist

Starring David Chiang, Ti Lung, Ching Li, Chan Sing, Ku Feng, Woo Wai, Parwarna Liu Lan-Ying, Wong Chung, Yeung Chi-Hing, Cheng Miu, Tang Ti, Yau Ming, Lee Pang-Fei

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: Very high.

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Duel of Fists is similar to The Anonymous Heroes in that it’s ultimately a minor Chang Cheh film, but that doesn’t stop it from being highly entertaining and interesting in its own right. Despite having a similar title to The Duel, the story in Duel of Fists is much more straightforward. But where Duel of Fists breaks ground and offers Chang Cheh another opportunity to step up his game is in its location shooting, taking the Shaw team on the road to Bangkok and offering up the exotic sights of 1970s Thailand to enthrall viewers. The film also explores the subculture surrounding the Muay Thai boxing circuit, becoming one of the first, if not the first, film to feature the style. I can’t find any information on any films prior to this that featured Muay Thai, but as info is hard to come by on these films I think it’s best to say it’s “one of the first” instead of making unfounded, broad claims.

The film opens at Songkran, the Thai New Year festival traditionally held from April 13th–15th and celebrated by throwing water on random strangers. We are given a taste of things to come, before being quickly whisked back to Hong Kong, where David Chiang plays a civil engineer. One day, his father confesses on his deathbed that he once had an affair with a Thai girl during one of his business trips, and he asks David to find his half-brother that he never knew he had. So off Chiang goes, and we go with him to experience the exotic culture and country, as well as a different breed of martial arts film.

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