Marco Polo (1975)

Marco Polo [馬哥波羅] (1975)
AKA The Four Assassins

Starring Alexander Fu Sheng, Chi Kuan-Chun, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan, Phillip Kwok Chun-Fung, Richard Harrison, Shih Szu, Lo Dik, Gordon Liu Chia-Hui, Leung Kar-Yan, Johnny Wang Lung-Wei, Li Tong-Chun, Carter Wong, Tang Tak-Cheung, Ting Wa-Chung, Chang I-Fei, Lee Ying, Chan Wai-Lau, Han Chiang

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: Very high. New Chang Cheh always gets me excited.


It’s fair to assume that a film titled Marco Polo would be centered around Marco Polo, the trader who became a trusted advisor to Kublai Khan, the Mongol leader who completed the conquest of the Song Dynasty and established the Yuan Dynasty. In Chang Cheh’s film, though, Polo is merely a small component. He is at the heart of the plot, but he honestly doesn’t do much more than glare at some people now and then. This really bothered me, and I spent a good portion of the movie trying to understand why the film might be titled after a character who does so little. I eventually came to a conclusion (which I’ll get around to), but it’s one that will require a second viewing to fully appreciate. At this juncture, I’d call it an uncharacteristically weak film for Chang Cheh, which is to say that I liked it a lot instead of flat-out loving it. 🙂

Upon returning from a three-year mission, Marco Polo presents a report of his travels to Kublai Khan. Meanwhile, a pair of Chinese rebels make their way into the court and attempt to assassinate the Khan. One is killed, and the other, Zu Jianmin (Carter Wong), manages to escape. Since he is injured and cannot move too quickly, the Khan asks Marco Polo and his three personal bodyguards (Gordon Liu, Leung Kar-Yan & Johnny Wang Lung-Wei) to kill Zu and his allies when he reaches his home. This proves to be a bit harder than anticipated, as Zu’s four sworn brothers (Alexander Fu Sheng, Chi Kuan-Chun, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan & Phillip Kwok Chun-Fung) escape and begin harsh training to improve their martial arts skills.

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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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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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The Man with the Iron Fists (2012)

the_man_with_the_iron_fists_2012Starring RZA, Rick Yune, Russell Crowe, Byron Mann, Lucy Liu, Dave Bautista, Jamie Chung, Cung Le, Daniel Wu, Zhu Zhu, Gordon Liu Chia-Hui, Andrew Ng, Grace Huang, Andrew Lin, Chen Kuan-Tai, Leung Kar-Yan, MC Jin, Pam Grier, Jon T. Benn

Directed by RZA

Expectations: Low, but hopeful.

twohalfstar


The Man with the Iron Fists is a strange movie, without a doubt. But I don’t think it’s bad; it’s more oddly misguided than anything else. What’s weird is that it feels this way based almost completely on how much RZA gets right in his homage to the classic kung fu films of the Shaw Brothers. Yes, “right.” The sets are magnificent and recapture the opulence of Shaw sets beautifully, the wirework is delivered with top-notch Hong Kong skill, and the story is filled with the wide range of colorful characters that any good wuxia demands. The weapons are suitably eccentric, and the battles are all well choreographed (by Corey Yuen), too. If you didn’t know any better, you might think that The Man with the Iron Fists was actually a Chinese production. RZA actually managed to resurrect the spirit of classic kung fu films, but — and this is where the “strange” comes in — the lens we experience all this classic kung fu goodness through is that of modern American filmmaking.

So because the film has so much good working for it, the bad sticks out and demands to be reckoned with in more apparent and frustrating ways than would otherwise be noticeable. The choice to film primarily in English is an expected one, but, at least for me, many of the actors sounded more like ’70s kung fu dubbing than actual actors in a scene. This could be bad acting, poor direction, or it could be by design. If it is intentional, that’s one hell of a bold choice for an unproven, first-time director making what is essentially a large-scale vanity project, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was true. I’m sure RZA grew up watching the dubs that made their way to the States in the ’70s, and as a result has a nostalgic fondness for them. No matter what the reason, though, it’s off-putting, especially to someone like me that has never really grown fond of those iconic dub jobs.

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True Legend (2010)

True Legend [蘇乞兒] (2010)

Starring Vincent Zhao, Zhou Xun, Andy On, Guo Xiao Dong, Li Zo, Suen Hanwen, Jay Chou, Michelle Yeoh, David Carradine, Gordon Liu, Conan Stevens

Directed by Yuen Woo-Ping

Expectations: High, been looking forward to this for a while.


True Legend marks Yuen Woo-Ping’s return to the director’s chair, his first film since 1996! The dude made Iron Monkey and Tai Chi Master for God’s sake, so this is something of a big deal for martial arts film fans. And yeah, it’s pretty awesome. Vincent Zhao plays Su Can, a virtuous military leader who passes on a governorship in order to perfect his wushu and eventually open a school. He persuades the prince to bestow this governorship on his adopted brother Yuan, who reluctantly accepts. Five years later, Yuan returns from battle to meet with his adopted father and Su Can. Catching up is the furthest thing from his mind though, as Yuan seeks revenge for the murder of his father!

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Uncle Jasper reviews: Executioners from Shaolin (1977)

Executioners from Shaolin [洪熙官] (1977)

Starring Chen Kuan-Tai, Lily Li Li-Li, Lo Lieh, Wong Yu, Kong Do, Cheng Hong-Yip, Gordon Liu Chia-Hui

Directed by Lau Kar-Leung


Another month, another film from the Shaw Bros Shaolin cycle… Except this time we have Shaw’s other prolific director at the helm. While many associate the Shaolin cycle with Chang Cheh, Lau Kar-Leung inherited the mantle in this stellar 1977 effort, which further chronicles the life of Chinese folk hero Hung Si-Kwan, played as usual by the magnificent Chen Kuan-Tai. But this film differs greatly from the concise, historical-based efforts of Chang Cheh, who placed the focus on patriotism and brotherhood against the occupying Manchu forces. Lau Kar-Leung, ever the cinematic ambassador of Chinese martial arts, instead shifts the focus to Hung Si-Kwan’s development of his renowned style, Hung Gar kung fu.

Let’s face it. Lau Kar-Leung made films for kung fu nerds. (This review will also be geared towards that crowd, so don’t feel too bad if a lot of this technical / historical gibberish leaves you scratching your head.) Don’t get me wrong, the classic revenge tale that this film tells can be appreciated by even your most casual movie fan, but to really reap the benefits of what Executioners has to offer it helps to understand some of the finer points of kung fu styles and martial technique. Hung Gar is comprised of both tiger and crane techniques. The tiger being a powerful external style based primarily on brute strength while the crane relies more on deft movements and pinpoint accuracy. Executioners from Shaolin tells what I’m assuming is a mostly fictional tale of how the tiger and crane styles became united under one banner.

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Uncle Jasper reviews: Challenge of the Masters (1976)

Challenge of the Masters [陸阿采與黃飛鴻] (1976)

Starring Gordon Liu Chia-Hui, Chen Kuan-Tai, Lau Kar-Leung, Kong Yeung, Wong Yu, Lau Kar Wing, Lily Li Li-Li, Fung Hak-On

Directed By Lau Kar-Leung


I was a little nervous on revisiting Challenge of the Masters after such a long time in-between viewings of it. It’s a film that I have a long history with since copying it off of a well-worn VHS copy back during the infancy of Blockbuster Video. Yeah, that’s how we did shit back in the days before digital distribution, instant streaming, and the rise of the World Wide Web. Back then, I had no idea what the deal with the Shaw Brothers was. I recognized Gordon Liu in a couple of other films, but directors, actors, and choreographers meant very little to me at the time. I just knew that when I saw that big, fat SB shield accompanied by the thundering fanfare, it was going to be a higher grade kung fu film than I was used to getting. Challenge of the Masters wound up becoming my favorite martial arts film of the Shaw Bros studios. Now revisiting it 17 years later, I can safely say that is an accolade which still stands.

The film is an “origin story” of sorts to the character of Wong Fei-Hung, whom Gordon Liu plays masterfully here. Jet Li did such a good job of making him seem like a righteous and invincible badass in the Once Upon a Time in China series, that it may come as a shock here to find the character portrayed as a clumsy, unsophisticated, buffoon of sorts, prone to bouts of self-pity and frequent temper tantrums. This is all for the sake of the film however, as Challenge of the Masters presents the ultimate journey in martial arts cinema by taking the “unteachable” teenage Fei-Hung and details his transformation into China’s most well-known folk hero.

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