The Web of Death (1976)

The Web of Death [五毒天羅] (1976)

Starring Yueh Hua, Lo Lieh, Ching Li, Wang Hsieh, Angela Yu Chien, Wong Chung, Lily Li Li-Li, Cheng Miu, Ku Feng, Kong Yeung, Norman Chu Siu-Keung, Chan Shen, Chan Mei-Hua

Directed by Chor Yuen

Expectations: Excited to see another Chor Yuen movie.


Chor Yuen re-defined the wuxia film genre with Killer Clans and The Magic Blade, but The Web of Death is more of a step in a different direction. Elements introduced in the previous films (like the focus on survival and the true danger of the martial world) are still present and relevant in The Web of Death, but they are no longer the primary focus. In The Web of Death, Chor Yuen goes full-on fantasy, delivering a tale of magical powers and deadly clan rivalries that could only come out of ’70s Hong Kong. If the previous films were about avoiding subtle tricks like a poisoned drink, The Web of Death is about more overt threats such as a trapdoor that opens into an acid bath. This move towards fantasy is significant, though, as Shaw’s prior wuxia films always contained elements of fantasy but were never all-out extravaganzas. In this way, The Web of Death is like a bridge between the early days of trap-laden, studio-bound wuxias and the fantasy heights the genre attained in the ’80s and ’90s. As a huge fan of those later offerings, I can’t help but love The Web of Death just a little bit more for pushing the genre in that direction.

The Five Venoms Clan is in possession of the most fearsome weapon in the martial world: the Five Venoms Spider. It may look like nothing more than a smoking lantern adorned with a red spider handle on its top, but it’s actually a cage for the fearsome spider within. This spider is capable of incredible things, including deadly lasers and a poisonous mist. Nothing is known that can defeat the power of the spider, or even defend against it. If your opponent wields the spider it’s basically time to say your goodbyes, if you only had the time. The spider is so deadly that even the Five Venom Clan itself is scared of it. They lock it away in an unknown location, and there it stays until a few members of the clan want to take control of the martial world at an upcoming tournament with it. The mere idea that the spider may re-emerge in the martial world sends shock waves through the clans. Fei Ying Xiang (Yueh Hua) of Wudang — or Wu-Tang if you’d prefer — and his brother Fei Ying-Jie (Wong Chung) are dispatched by their master to learn of the spider’s whereabouts and stop its use. The brothers split up to search separately, and the twisting, dense adventure begins.

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The Magic Blade (1976)

The Magic Blade [天涯明月刀] (1976)

Starring Ti Lung, Lo Lieh, Ching Li, Tang Ching, Tanny Tien Ni, Lily Li Li-Li, Fan Mei-Sheng, Ku Feng, Norman Chu Siu-Keung, Lau Wai-Ling, Cheng Miu, Chan Shen, Teresa Ha Ping, Ku Kuan-Chung, Kong Yeung, Ng Hong-Sang, Chan Sze-Kai, Wong Ching-Ho

Directed by Chor Yuen

Expectations: Very excited to finally re-visit this.


The Magic Blade is a highly regarded wuxia in the Shaw Brothers catalog, and the nearly unanimous praise led me to review the film in 2010 (two months after starting Silver Emulsion). At the time I thought it was OK, but I didn’t understand why it was so well-loved. As the weeks went on, I kept thinking about the film, and how I must have missed something. I determined that context was the thing missing from my viewpoint, so later that year I began my chronological Shaw Brothers review project to fill my head with all the context I could handle. It’s now seven years later and I have finally arrived back around to The Magic Blade. It seems most people love the film right away, but for me I definitely needed the context to truly appreciate its mastery of the wuxia form.

The Magic Blade portrays a martial world full of strife and treachery. Like Killer Clans, it focuses on the dangers of the martial life and how prepared & alert one must be to survive against others’ devious intellect. The film opens on the deserted and quiet Phoenix Town, but this peace doesn’t last long. Out of the silence comes a procession of musicians, dancers, courtesans and other servants who prepare the town square for a grand display of entertainment for their master Yen Nan Fei (Lo Lieh). The celebration is cut short when a poncho-wearing Fu Hung Hsueh (Ti Lung) ominously appears out of the shadows. The two men have an appointment and a score to settle. Midway through their fight, though, a pair of expert assassins, Wood Devil and Tree Devil, ambush them. Fu and Yen are both swordsman of considerable skill and talent, and they have been targeted by the current leader of the martial world, Master Yu. Despite their vendetta to fight to the death, Fu and Yen team up for the time being to combat their shared threat.

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Killer Clans (1976)

Killer Clans [流星蝴蝶劍] (1976)

Starring Chung Wah, Yueh Hua, Ku Feng, Ching Li, Wong Chung, Lo Lieh, Danny Lee, Yeung Chi-Hing, Cheng Miu, Ngaai Fei, Wang Hsieh, Lam Wai-Tiu, Chen Ping, Ling Yun, Fan Mei-Sheng, Teresa Ha Ping, Kong Yeung, Tin Ching, Cheng Kang-Yeh, Ku Kuan-Chung

Directed by Chor Yuen

Expectations: Super high. Been looking forward to these Chor Yuen wuxias for a long time.


In the lineage of Shaw Brothers wuxias, Killer Clans represents the dawn of a new paradigm. The number of wuxia films released by the studio had diminished considerably from the early days of the genre, when literally every martial arts film was a sword-swingin’ tale of chivalrous heroes. In the few years prior to Killer Clans, a good portion of the wuxias released by Shaw were actually holdovers from earlier years, finally released and then promptly forgotten. But Killer Clans, based on Meteor, Butterfly, Sword (流星·蝴蝶·劍), a 1973 novel by Gu Long, performed well enough to make the year’s box office top 10 (either #6 or #7, depending on the source).

To say that this new direction in wuxia filmmaking was a success is an understatement, but it almost never was. Like Chang Cheh, ever searching for a subject that would light the fires of passion, Chor Yuen felt stagnant and in need of a fresh style of film. Chor had abandoned wuxia filmmaking for Cantonese comedies (The House of 72 Tenants, etc.) and dramas (Sorrow to the Gentry, etc.), but the diminishing box office takings of these films demanded he look elsewhere for his film ideas. He decided to adapt some wuxia novels in a style unlike the traditional Shaw wuxia film, but Run Run Shaw rejected every one of his pitches saying that they wouldn’t make money.

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Heroes of the Underground (1976)

Heroes of the Underground [丁一山] (1976)

Starring Ling Yun, Ching Li, Meng Yuen-Man, Cheng Kang-Yeh, Wai Wang, Kong Yeung, Liu Wai, Tin Ching, Yeung Chak-Lam, Yeung Chi-Hing, James Ma Chim-Si, Shum Lo

Directed by Pao Hsueh-Li

Expectations: Low, but hopeful.


I knew going into Heroes of the Underground that it wasn’t a martial arts movie, but it was still quite a disappointment. I often schedule contextually interesting movies into my chronological series and I penciled this one in based on a couple of factors. For one, it was written by the same team responsible for Come Drink With Me: King Hu and Ting Shan-Hsi (presumably from the late ’60s when they worked at Shaw together). Secondly, I’ve previously reviewed every Pao Hsueh-Li film up to this point in his career, so I might as well hit this one in order while I can. Thirdly, there were a lot of movies released in 1975 that were finished earlier and held back from release, so when I learned Heroes of the Underground was completed in 1973, I thought it might be worth watching along with the others. And finally, it just looked fun; Ching Li on the poster with a machine gun was quite persuasive! Unfortunately, on every one of those points the film is a disappointment.

Heroes of the Underground tells a story of rebellion during the Second Sino-Japanese War when Japan occupied China and oppressed the people. It is a time regularly depicted on film, from dramas to classic kung fu films to modern films like Ip Man. The film’s Chinese title is merely the main character’s name, though, Ding Yi-Shan, and usually this is an indication that the movie is centered around a renowned hero from history or folk legends. I couldn’t find anything that indicated the character was drawn from fact, but I did find a 1943 Lao She novel, Cremation, which shares a few character names, a setting, and a general plotline of resistance to the Japanese occupation.

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Haunted Tales (1980)

hauntedtales_2Haunted Tales [碟仙] (1980)

Starring Ching Li, Ling Yun, Lin Chen-Chi, Lau Luk-Wah, Yeung Chi-Hing, Ku Kuan-Chung, Chan Shen, Shum Lo, Liu Lai-Ling, Sa Sa, Lau Nga-Ying

Directed by Chor Yuen (The Ghost, Story #1) & Mou Tun-Fei (The Prize Winner, Story #2)

Expectations: The poster is great, so I have high hopes.

threestar


Haunted Tales is a two-film horror anthology from the Shaw Studio, but those expecting a common theme between the tales should seek such synchronicity elsewhere. The first story is a reserved, classically styled ghost story, and the second is a debaucherous, exploitative morality play that’s closer to something Kuei Chih-Hung would have made. But while the tales do not complement one another, they are both engaging and quite entertaining in their differing ways, so Haunted Tales comes out as a great Shaw Brothers take on the horror anthology.

My research on the film led me to this post on the wonderful and always informative Cool Ass Cinema website. I encourage you to read the post if you’re interested in this film, or just some behind-the-scenes ideas of how the Shaw studio was run, and while you’re there explore the site a bit. It’s full of great stuff! Anyway, the gist is that the first story (The Ghost) began life with Chor Yuen as Hellish Soul in 1975, but production shut down and a few years later Ho Meng-Hua was brought in to complete some re-shoots (which also resulted in an unfinished feature). The Prize Winner, Mou Tun-Fei’s short that closes the film, also began shooting as a feature. Instead of completing the features, they were salvaged and combined into Haunted Tales. That explains the differences in tone!

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Na Cha and the Seven Devils (1973)

NaChaandthe7Devils_1Na Cha and the Seven Devils [梅山收七怪] (1973)

Starring Ching Li, Tina Chin Fei, An Ping, Wai Wang, Chen Hung-Lieh, Yu Lung, Got Heung-Ting, Yeung Oi-Wa, Chang Feng, Yueh Yang, Got Siu-Bo, Ho Fan, Lam Lam, Ngai Chi-Wong, Aai Dung-Gwa, O Yau-Man, Law Bun

Directed by Tetsuya Yamanouchi

Expectations: Moderate, but I think it’s gonna be fun.

threestar


Na Cha and the Seven Devils is the type of movie that only certain people will like. It’s essentially an FX movie — nearly every scene has some form of supernatural shenanigans going on — and while the FX are quite ambitious, they don’t necessarily hold up well to modern standards. To be honest, they don’t even necessarily hold up to 1973 standards; everything looked at about a similar level to the work seen in Ho Meng-Hua’s four-film Journey to the West series, and those were all made 5–7 years prior to this. But when a film considered low-budget by American standards has such a plethora of supernatural delights, it’s unfair to think that they’re all going to look fantastic to someone 43 years in the future. And besides, I love these sort of special effects, especially in Hong Kong films, so I loved every minute of Na Cha and the Seven Devils. I merely seek to give you an idea of what we’re talking about here.

Our story begins on Mt. Kunlun, existing high in the sky between heaven and the mortal world, where there is a peach tree that only blossoms every thousand years. It takes another thousand years for the peaches to appear, and another thousand years still for the them to ripen. But, if it’s not already apparent, these are no ordinary peaches! We get our first taste of their power when the mischievous child god Na Cha (Yu Lung) decides he’s hungry. He devours a peach, his eyes glow a bright yellow, and suddenly he can see right through the clouds and into the mortal world! He can also crack rocks & trees in half and cause earthquakes with a single blow! The only problem is that when Na Cha shook the tree to get his peach, he knocked loose the remaining seven peaches. These rogue magical peaches landed on the Earth, and now Na Cha and a pair of his brothers are tasked with retrieving the peaches before the devils can eat them and become immortal.

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The Blood Brothers (1973)

BloodBrothers_1The Blood Brothers [刺馬] (1973)
AKA Dynasty of Blood, Chinese Vengeance

Starring David Chiang, Ti Lung, Chen Kuan-Tai, Ching Li, Cheng Miu, Wong Ching-Ho, Tin Ching, Yeung Chak-Lam, Fan Mei-Sheng, Danny Lee

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: Very high.

threehalfstar


Immediately following the Shaw fanfare, The Blood Brothers explodes out of the gate. A man yells that Officer Ma has been assassinated. Oh no! This is definitely an attention-getting opening, but The Blood Brothers is actually a MUCH more reserved film than this opening would suggest. After the credits have played and the dust has settled, we learn that the assassin is Chang Wen Hsiang (David Chiang), and he asks the court to allow him some paper and ink to write down his tale. Chang doesn’t dispute that he killed Ma Hsin I (Ti Lung), but he insists that his reasoning will make sense once his full story has been told.

Nine years previous, Chang and his sworn brother Huang Chung (Chen Kuan Tai) are staking out a remote road in hopes of robbing whoever should pass their way. It’s been a slow day, but as they argue about possibly going elsewhere, a horse approaches. On it rides one Ma Hsin I, and soon Huang and Ma are trading blows. Ma is too formidable an opponent for this to be just a simple robbery, and Ma also challenges the two men with questions about the nature of the lives they lead. Ma makes an impression on them, as he is a natural leader with ambition, so the three become blood brothers and vow to join forces against the Taiping Army AKA the Long Hairs AKA the Hair Bandits. If I didn’t know the film was based on actual events, I might be inclined to think this was some kind of attack on hippies. 🙂

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