The Valiant Ones (1975)

The Valiant Ones [忠烈圖] (1975)

Starring Pai Ying, Hsu Feng, Roy Chiao, Han Ying-Chieh, Simon Yuen Siu-Tin, Ng Ming-Choi, Sammo Hung, Hao Li-Jen, Lee Man-Tai, Yuen Biao, Yeung Wai, Lau Kong, Wu Chia-Hsiang, Chiang Nan, Chow Siu-Loi, Chao Lei

Directed by King Hu

Expectations: High. King Hu!


I enter each unseen King Hu film with equal amounts of trepidation and delight. I’ve loved every one of his films that I’ve seen, so I guess I’m worried that the spell will break and I’ll hit one that just doesn’t do it for me. The Valiant Ones is not that film; it’s a stone-cold killer of a movie. It’s a real shame that a film as good as this one is languishing in obscurity, but that’s how it goes. If nothing else, it allows me to dream of a future restored edition that will continue to raise King Hu’s status among fans of world cinema. No matter how low-res and full of video noise the old master is for The Valiant Ones, the power of King Hu’s filmmaking overrides it all to entertain as only he can.

The Valiant Ones tells a story of pirates and the chivalrous knights tasked with stopping their pirating ways. According to the film’s intro, Japanese ronin teamed up with bandits in the 13th Century to create fearsome pirate bands that tormented the land and sea. The Valiant Ones is set in the 16th Century, when the pirates had multiplied to the point that the government lost any kind of control over the regions they inhabit. There have been multiple attempts to eradicate the pirates, but it has always proved unsuccessful. Now a chief of a Southern clan needs to reach the capital and must be escorted through the pirate-infested land. For this task, General Yu Da-You (Roy Chiao) assembles an experienced team who are up to the challenge, including a husband and wife duo (Pai Ying and Hsu Feng) who are lethal and absolutely unstoppable.

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The Fate of Lee Khan (1973)

The Fate of Lee Khan [迎春閣之風波] (1973)
fateofleekhan_2

Starring Li Li-Hua, Pai Ying, Tien Feng, Han Ying-Chieh, Hsu Feng, Roy Chiao, Angela Mao, Helen Ma Hoi-Lun, Wei Pin-Ao, Wu Chia-Hsiang, Ng Ming-Choi, Lee Man-Tai, Chiang Nan, Woo Gam, Gam Dai

Directed by King Hu

Expectations: Super high. I’ve been very eager to continue exploring King Hu’s filmography for a while now.

threehalfstar


The Fate of Lee Khan is a fantastic film, hidden in the shadows of other, more well-known King Hu films. I’ve never heard anything about this movie, but yet it is an incredibly solid and effective piece of filmed martial intrigue. It’s similar in a lot of ways to Dragon Inn, but that is hardly a complaint. It is a true joy to watch as a world-class director returns to a smaller scale story after opening up the genre in ways previously unknown in A Touch of Zen. I need to re-watch Dragon Inn to confirm this, but it seems as if King Hu’s storytelling ability has matured a lot since that film, and the economy with which he delivers an intense, compelling story in The Fate of Lee Khan is a masterful achievement. The inn featured here is also a vibrant center of the region, as opposed to the desolate way station of Dragon Inn.

The film opens by setting itself in the context of history. Our story is set in the late 1300s, during the Yuan Dynasty established by the Mongolian leader Kublai Khan. The Chinese people, frustrated with political corruption and oppression, organized a revolt under the lead of Chu Yuan-Chang. But as we’re told in the intro, the war is not just fought on the battlefields, but also through the devious methods of espionage. Lee Khan is a powerful man in charge of the Yuan spy activity, and at the outset of the film his sister and trusted advisor manage to secure a war map detailing the movements of Chu’s forces. The rebel spies refuse to let the map go easily, so when word comes that Lee Khan is coming to the Spring Inn, forces from both sides gather there to decide his fate.

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Back Alley Princess (1973)

BackAlleyPrincess+1973-4-bBack Alley Princess [馬路小英雄] (1973)

Starring Polly Kuan, Samuel Hui Koon-Kit, Lau Wing, Angela Mao, Lee Kwan, Tien Feng, Wang Lai, Tong Ching, Carter Wong, Wu Jia-Xiang, Han Ying-Chieh, Fung Ngai, Huang Chung-Hsin

Directed by Lo Wei

Expectations: Hmm?

onehalfstar


Back Alley Princess feels like one of those movies that was popular in its day, but it’s hard for a modern viewer to see exactly why. It’s an odd mix of a light comedic tone, heavy drama involving a prostitution ring, and some martial arts action… none of which are of quality enough to stand on their own. Ordinarily a multi-genre film like this might have a story that strings it all together, but in the case of Back Alley Princess that didn’t seem to be too high of a priority (which is somewhat odd, because Lo Wei generally packs a lot of story twists and turns into his scripts).

What Back Alley Princess is full off is a whole lot of working-class strife. Chili Boy (Polly Kuan) — AKA Hot Pepper Kid in some translations — and Embroidered Pillow (Samuel Hui) are a team of con-men doing whatever they can to make a few bucks and survive on the streets of Hong Kong. This leads them to meet up with the martial arts troupe of Teacher Chiang (Tien Feng), who agrees to join up with Chili and Embroidered Pillow in the interest of making more money. But this isn’t really the foundation of a story, as the film’s main concern is seemingly to endear Chili Boy to the audience so Lo Wei can drive the point home how important family and community are to the individual.

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A Man Called Tiger (1973)

AManCalledTiger_1A Man Called Tiger [冷面虎] (1973)
AKA The Man Called Tiger

Starring Jimmy Wang Yu, Okada Kawai, Maria Yi Yi, James Tin Jun, Minakaze Yuko, Kasahara Reiko, Tien Feng, Kuro Mitsuo, Lee Kwan, Kam Shan, Han Ying-Chieh, Lo Wei

Directed by Lo Wei

Expectations: I hope have much hope for this, but I’m open to it.

twohalfstar


A Man Called Tiger is one of those old movies that you’ll either respect or hate. Its story is rather convoluted for something that should be fairly easy to convey in a martial arts picture: a man, in this case Jimmy Wang Yu, attempts to uncover the specifics of his father’s murder. But since this is a Lo Wei film, and from his Shaw Brothers wuxias I know he loved a good twisting plot, he has filled the film with other characters all searching for their daddies too. I’m not even exaggerating when I say there are no less than three fathers being searched for, and I’m not entirely sure that there wasn’t a fourth. All this crammed into a slim 76 minutes, too.

At least, that’s what I thought initially. I bought the film as part of Shout Factory’s Jimmy Wang Yu Collection, but prior to that being released I had also hunted down a VCD of the film. Completely unbeknownst to me, the VCD contained the full Hong Kong release version of the film, running 100 minutes. I queued it up in hopes that the missing 24 minutes would flesh out the missing father plots, and tie up some of those loose threads. The film definitely makes more sense at its full length, but it’s much slower, and one of the characters still appears without any explanation. Seriously, she first appears when she picks up Wang Yu as he is fleeing from a group of bad guys, and they clearly know one another. A few minutes later, she’s naked in a hotel bed declaring her love for Wang Yu. I don’t know who she is, but I think she was looking for her father.

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A Touch of Zen (1971)

touchofzen_2A Touch of Zen [俠女] (1971)

Starring Hsu Feng, Shih Jun, Pai Ying, Tien Peng, Cho Kin, Miao Tian, Cheung Bing-Yuk, Sit Hon, Wang Shui, Roy Chiao Hung, Han Ying-Chieh, Man Chung-San, Sammo Hung

Directed by King Hu

Expectations: High.

fourstar


A Touch of Zen starts off innocently enough, but by the end of the film the viewer has journeyed through religion, the soul and the more standard martial intrigue you were probably expecting. It is a martial arts film wholly unlike any I’ve ever seen, coming years ahead of its time and eschewing nearly all the general ideas of entertainment that martial arts films are usually built upon. A Touch of Zen is a wuxia film with higher aspirations. It is a fascinating, pure example of film as art, and like any good work of art, true understanding only comes with extended thought and multiple viewings. This is the type of film that people spend their whole lives in awe of; its power to provoke thought while also engaging the more primal needs is unique and unparalleled.

A Touch of Zen is partially based on the story The Gallant Girl (or The Magnanimous Girl) from Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, and it is here that the film draws its initial characters and setting. Ku Shen-chai (Shih Jun) is a scholar living in the derelict Ching Lu Fort. He studies not for wealth or status, but for personal gain and knowledge, much to the chagrin of his mother who thinks a man over 30 should be married and on his way to a lucrative career. Ku’s stall in the nearby town, where he paints portraits and does calligraphy, just doesn’t fit the bill in her eyes. So when a young woman and her elderly mother move into the nearby general’s mansion that has stood uninhabited for many years, Ku’s mother immediately thinks of joining the two families.

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Dragon Inn (1967)

dragoninn_8Dragon Inn (1967)
AKA Dragon Gate Inn

Starring Shih Jun, Pai Ying, Polly Kuan, Miao Tian, Sit Hon, Cho Kin, Go Ming, Got Siu-Bo, Ko Fei, Tien Peng, Han Ying-Chieh, Man Chung-San

Directed by King Hu

Expectations: High, this is one of the most influential early martial arts films.

fourstar


When it comes to martial arts films, 1967 was a huge, formative year. The first mega-hit of the genre, The One-Armed Swordsman, made Jimmy Wang Yu a star and cemented director Chang Cheh as the genre’s leading visionary. Just a few months after the release of that film, director King Hu, having recently left the Shaw Brothers after creative differences on Come Drink With Me, unleashed Dragon Inn. As an independent film out of Taiwan it may not have had the budget or the clout of the Shaw Brothers studio behind it, but Dragon Inn is arguably more well-known than almost all the 1960s martial arts films from the Shaw studio. I knew all this going into Dragon Inn, and even with an incredible amount of historical hype behind it, Dragon Inn wowed me with its cinematic artistry and an ahead-of-its-time ability to craft thrilling martial arts sequences through editing.

The story of Dragon Inn is a well-known one, but that doesn’t impede the film’s ability to enthrall. The government is corrupt and controlled by devious eunuchs, and our story begins as Zhao Shao Qin, a eunuch with unparalleled power, orders the execution of General Yu, a good man who was framed. Yu’s family is sent to the remote outpost of Dragon Gate, where Zhao has plans to murder them far from the watchful eyes of civilization. He sends a delegation of his most powerful soldiers to await the family’s arrival at the inn, but thankfully there’s a few people at Dragon Gate still loyal to General Yu and his resilient spirit.

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Fist of Fury (1972)

FistofFury_1Fist of Fury [精武門] (1972)
AKA The Chinese Connection

Starring Bruce Lee, Nora Miao, Tien Feng, James Tin Jun, Wong Chung-Shun, Han Ying-Chieh, Ngai Ping-Ngo, Riki Hashimoto, Robert Baker, Fung Ngai, Lo Wei, Jun Katsumura

Directed by Lo Wei

Expectations: I’m so excited.

fourstar


Fist of Fury is arguably the best of Bruce Lee’s films. After the building storm of The Big Boss, Fist of Fury ups the action and delivers what just about every modern, Western viewer of The Big Boss wanted: a movie where Bruce Lee basically just goes around and kicks ass. The storyline here is little more than simple revenge, but it’s the way that Lo Wei and Bruce Lee explore this theme that makes it such an iconic, influential and important Chinese film. On the surface it’s quite the “Defending China against Foreign Invaders” movie, but it’s also a cautionary tale.

The film opens with some text, informing us that Bruce’s master and the leader of the Ching Wu school, Ho Yuan Chia, was poisoned. Ho was real person, a Chinese folk hero who rose to fame for besting foreign martial artists, such as a Russian wrestler. I imagine he was the inspiration for the Russian wrestling scene in The Boxer from Shantung. Anyway, Bruce returns home to find that his master is dead. Consumed with rage and grief, he claws at the dirt covering his master’s coffin. The only thing that stops his fury is a swift hit with a shovel to the head, knocking him out. His rage is furious and unstoppable, and he will stop at nothing to get justice for his master.

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