Bruce Lee and I (1976)

Bruce Lee and I [李小龍與我] (1976)
AKA Bruce Lee: His Last Days, His Last Nights, Bruce Lee: His Last Days, I Love You, Bruce Lee

Starring Betty Ting Pei, Danny Lee, Wang Sha, Tony Liu Chun-Ku, James Nam Gung-Fan, Wong Man, Ku Wen-Chung, Lee Pang-Fei, Lee Sau-Kei, Wong San, Gam Dai, Pang Pang, Ling Hon, Kong San

Directed by John Law Ma

Expectations: Low.


The Bruceploitation genre is one that consistently surprises, offering as many unique ideas as it does scenes of “Bruce picking his successor” or footage from his funeral. I had heard that Bruce Lee and I was an especially exploitative look at Bruce Lee’s final days through the eyes of his mistress Betty Ting Pei (who plays herself here). In part, this is true; the film opens with a wild sex scene between Bruce and Betty, with Bruce taking regular breaks to smoke pot or take pills from the bedside table. It’s a whirlwind of bodies and drugs, and in the movie it directly leads to his death. Later the film contradicts this — and perhaps that’s the point — but it’s by far the most memorable thing about the movie, so viewers are likely to come away remembering the very thing the film was trying to dispute.

Bruce Lee’s death was sudden and the exact cause of death has always been up for debate. It was officially ruled a “death by misadventure,” which only led to further speculation on the part of his adoring and growing fan base. Bruce died at the home of Betty Ting Pei, which was initially covered up by Lee’s family who wanted to preserve Bruce’s image in the media. Did Bruce and Betty have an affair or were they just good friends? Who knows, and more importantly does it even matter? Despite the salacious opening that basically fuels the legend, Betty Ting Pei’s participation in this film suggests that it’s an attempt to tell her side of the story so we might understand the bond and friendship that she shared with Bruce Lee.

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The Golden Lion (1975)

The Golden Lion [金毛獅王] (1975)

Starring Chiu Hung, Li Ching, James Nam Gung-Fan, Fang Mian, Wang Hsieh, Lee Man-Chow, Pang Pang, Chan Shen, Wong Ching-Ho, Law Hon, Chai No, Goo Chim-Hung

Directed by Ho Meng-Hua

Expectations: Low.


In the United States, when we hear that a movie has been held unreleased for any extended length of time — in this case, four years — the natural assumption is that irreparable artistic or financial issues exist with the movie preventing its release. Some of these concerns might carry over to the 1970s Hong Kong industry, but with the Shaw Brothers studio I feel like their continuous production methods led to lower priority films being abandoned, regardless of any fault in the film itself. The changing landscape of the Hong Kong industry from wuxia to hand-to-hand kung fu is the most likely culprit, causing the once flourishing wuxia genre on to the back burner for both studios and audiences.

Looking into the box office records of Ho Meng-Hua’s previous films also sheds some light on the issue. Neither of his two 1971-released wuxias, The Lady Hermit and The Long Chase, did very well, with The Lady Hermit specifically underperforming at 75th place out of 83 films released that year. Ambush was filmed in 1971 like The Golden Lion, and when it eventually released in 1973 it also did poorly, ranking 77th out of 87 films. Both Ambush and The Golden Lion star Chiu Hung & Li Ching, and while Li Ching was a great part of many Chang Cheh films, neither Li or Chiu were big enough stars to carry films on their own. In 1975, The Golden Lion also performed poorly, coming in at 84th of 92 films. Ouch. Poor wuxia. 🙁 Thanks to Celestial Pictures and the passage of time, though, we are allowed to find the hidden gems that failed to resonate in their day. The Golden Lion is one such film… in fact, I’d say it’s one of Ho Meng-Hua’s best and most satisfying wuxias.
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The Thunderbolt Fist (1972)

TheThunderboltFist_2The Thunderbolt Fist [霹靂拳] (1972)

Starring Shih Szu, Chuen Yuen, James Nam Gung-Fan, Wong Gam-Fung, Tung Lam, Fang Mian, Chen Feng-Chen, Gam Kei-Chu, Wong Ching-Ho, Chu Gam, Kam Kong, Gai Yuen, Shum Lo, Hsu Yu, Kong Lung, Chow Yu-Hing, Austin Wai Tin-Chi, Stephen Tung Wai

Directed by Chang Il-Ho

Expectations: Moderate, but I’m pumped because I haven’t seen a Shaw film in months.

twohalfstar


Up until the last 20 minutes or so, The Thunderbolt Fist is a fairly boring and average Shaw Brothers film. Since I’m a huge fan, I still had a good time watching it, but this definitely isn’t the film to jump into the Shaw Brothers on. I shake my head once again as to how Shaw films like this find their way to a US DVD release, while legitimate classics are still only available in Hong Kong. Anyway, The Thunderbolt Fist!

Since this isn’t an innovative film, The Thunderbolt Fist is a pretty basic Chinese vs. Japanese tale. It begins with the ridiculously evil Japanese riding into a quiet Chinese town. They assault the townspeople, take over their businesses and strong-arm their way into controlling the supply lines, forcing the Chinese to buy and sell their goods from them. When a lowly picker of ginseng pleads for mercy, the wicked Japanese swordsman chops off his hands in one quick swipe!

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The 14 Amazons (1972)

14amazons_1The 14 Amazons [十四女英豪] (1972)

Starring Ivy Ling Po, Lisa Lu, Lily Ho Li-Li, Yueh Hua, Fan Mei-Sheng, Wong Chung-Shun, Lo Lieh, Tien Feng, Wang Hsieh, Shu Pei-Pei, Wang Ping, Lau Ng-Kei, Karen Yip Leng-Chi, Li Ching, Tina Chin Fei, Ou-Yang Sha-Fei, Wong Gam-Fung, Betty Ting Pei, Teresa Ha Ping, Chen Yan-Yan, Lin Jing, Bolo Yeung, Goo Man-Chung, James Nam Gung-Fan, Tin Ching, Paul Chun Pui, Yeung Chi-Hing, Cheng Miu, Chung Wa

Directed by Cheng Kang

Expectations: Very high. This is one of the greats, right?

fourstar


The 14 Amazons is a true Shaw epic, bringing together a large ensemble cast and a well-known, classic Chinese tale just like The Water Margin had done a few months earlier in 1972. The two films are epics of different proportions, though, and feel almost nothing alike. Where The Water Margin is a small slice of a larger tale (and it feels it), The 14 Amazons feels meatier and more contained (even though it is also part of a larger story). But to compare the two films is wrongheaded, as they complement each other instead of being in competition.

The 14 Amazons is based on the Generals of the Yang family group of stories that have been passed down through Chinese culture since as early as the 11th century. The film specifically tells the story of how the Yang family defended the western Song borders from the invading barbarians from Western Xia. We open on the battlefield as Commander Yang Tsung Pao (Chung Wa) is wounded and cornered without many options. Understanding his fate, he sends two of his generals, Chiao Ting Kuai (Fan Mei-Sheng) & Meng Huai Yuan (Wong Chung-Shun), to travel home to inform his family of his death and to ask for more troops to be sent to the border. They comply against their wishes to stay and help him, and here the film introduces us to the titular female characters.

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King Boxer (1972)

KingBoxer_1King Boxer [天下第一拳] (1972)
AKA Five Fingers of Death

Starring Lo Lieh, Wang Ping, Wong Gam-Fung, Tien Feng, Tung Lam, Fang Mian, Goo Man-Chung, James Nam Gung-Fan, Yau Lung, Chen Feng-Chen, Chan Shen, Gam Kei-Chu, Chiu Hung, Someno Yukio, Yeung Chak-Lam, Hung Sing-Chung, Bolo Yeung, Tsang Choh-Lam, Wong Ching-Ho

Directed by Cheng Chang Ho

Expectations: High.

fourstar


Opening with the sound of an alarm, King Boxer lets you know straight away that it is a film to take notice of. As an advancement of the budding hand-to-hand genre, King Boxer is exactly the film the genre needed at this point in time. It builds on the foundation set by previous films — specifically The Chinese Boxer and Fist of Fury — and takes the genre closer to what it would later become. There’s no secret why this is the film that broke through to America and created a kung fu sensation; it’s an amazingly entertaining and well-made piece of work.

At the heart of the tale is the oft-told story of battling martial arts clans, but in King Boxer it’s the way the story is told that sets it apart. It is both rooted in martial arts traditions and something unique. It takes facets of the traditional kung fu film and orders them in a non-traditional way, resulting in a film that feels familiar, yet is never boring or predictable. It also explores its themes of jealousy, courage and cowardice much more fully than the traditional ’70s martial arts film, making King Boxer fulfilling on multiple levels.

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The Water Margin (1972)

watermargin_10aThe Water Margin [水滸傳] (1972)
AKA Seven Blows of the Dragon, Outlaws of the Marsh

Starring David Chiang, Tetsuro Tamba, Toshio Kurosawa, Ku Feng, Chin Feng, Fan Mei-Sheng, Yueh Hua, Wong Chung, Ti Lung, Lily Ho Li-Li, Pang Pang, Tung Lam, Wu Ma, Cheng Lui, Paul Chun Pui, Chen Kuan-Tai, Danny Lee, Wu Chi-Chin, Lee Hang, Lau Dan, Lei Lung, Zhang Yang, Leung Seung-Wan, Lo Wai, Lee Wan-Chung, Shum Lo, Wong Ching-Ho, James Nam Gung-Fan, Lau Gong, Cheng Miu

Directed by Chang Cheh, Wu Ma & Pao Hsueh Li

Expectations: High.

fourstar


The Water Margin is a classic of Chinese literature, a novel written in the 14th century that has inspired and entertained the Chinese people ever since. That’s quite the run for a novel, and judging by the amount of quality storytelling in Chang Cheh’s The Water Margin, it’s with good reason. The novel, also known as Outlaws of the Marsh, is about a group of 108 men and women who came together at Liang Shan Mountain in an effort to fight the corrupt Imperial ruler. Chang Cheh’s adaptation attempts to bring a small slice of the overall story — chapters 64-68 — to the silver screen, focusing on the tale of how Lu Junyi the Jade Unicorn (Tetsuro Tamba) and his protégé Yen Qing (David Chiang) came to join the group. At the same time, Chang casts virtually every actor employed by the Shaw studio, resulting in a true martial arts epic that feels huge and sprawling. Certain characters might not get much screen-time or development — Chen Kuan-Tai is on-screen for less than 10 seconds, drinking a bowl of wine — but it is made very clear that this is a teeming world full of rich characters. We may not be privy to all the details, but you can rest assured that every character has a motive and a rich backstory.

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Lady With a Sword (1971)

LadyWithASwordLady With a Sword [鳳飛飛] (1971)

Starring Lily Ho Li-Li, James Nam Gung-Fan, Meng Yuen-Man, Wang Hsieh, Chai No, Lam Jing, Ou-Yang Sha-Fei, Lee Pang-Fei, Lee Hoi-Lung, Chen Feng-Chen, Lee Ho, Lei Lung, Goo Man-Chung

Directed by Kao Pao-Shu

Expectations: Pretty low, based on the poor title.

threehalfstar


You’ve no doubt heard the adage, “Don’t judge a book by its cover” before, but you also shouldn’t judge a foreign movie by its lazy English title. Many Hong Kong films feature translated titles very similar to their Chinese counterparts, but because Lady With a Sword was originally named after its hero, Feng Fei Fei, no real translation to English could be made. I imagine that whoever was in charge of the English titles at Shaw Brothers decided to slap on the first thing they came up with and call it a day. So we’re stuck with Lady With a Sword, one of the most boring titles for a film ever.

Although, as the film played I kept rolling the title around in my head, trying to uncover some justification for why someone would slap it on this film (other than the fact that it is indeed about a lady with a sword). Film companies ultimately want to make money, so you’d think they’d want to use a title that relates in some way. By the end of the film, I had come around to it not being that bad of a title because at its heart, Lady With a Sword is about the mothering instinct and how when pushed, a female is not only capable of anything a man is, they are capable of more because of that instinctual ability to throw all caution aside to protect their loved ones. There had been many previous swordswomen films, but this one dared to actually treat them like women with distinct traits and desires, instead of a gender-neutral person that many mistake for a man.

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