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 Twin Dragons (1992)

TwinDragons_1The Twin Dragons [雙龍會] (1992)
AKA Brother vs. Brother, Double Dragon, Duel of Dragons, When Dragons Collide, Dragon Duo, When Dragons Meet

Starring Jackie Chan, Maggie Cheung, Nina Li Chi, Teddy Robin Kwan, Alfred Cheung Kin-Ting, Wang Lung-Wei, Jamie Luk Kim-Ming, David Chiang, Lau Kar-Leung, Wong Jing, Chor Yuen, Guy Lai Ying-Chau

Directed by Tsui Hark & Ringo Lam

Expectations: Moderate.

threehalfstar


I first saw The Twin Dragons as a teenager. It never really captured my attention; I think I only watched it once or twice. There were other, better Jackie films to watch over and over. Roughly 20 years later, I didn’t remember anything about it. I was able to experience the film with completely fresh eyes because of this, and I loved it. What really helped this time, too, is that now I have a more expansive knowledge of Hong Kong film, so I actually noticed that there were a TON of cameos from luminaries of the Hong Kong film industry. I’m sure I recognized Lau Kar-Leung back in the day, but now I noted the subtext of the scene in which his confident, classic style confronts the lunacy of Wong Jing. Recognizing these moments makes the film play much better and much funnier than I ever remember it being, to the point that the lack of action doesn’t even matter… especially when the film then caps itself off with such an incredible explosion of action!

Twin boys are born in a Hong Kong hospital to a Chinese couple visiting from the US. In a wonderful series of crazy Hong Kong action moments, a criminal takes one of the twins hostage and the infant finds its way into the hands of a childless, alcoholic woman who raises it as her own. Meanwhile, when the missing child was never found, the couple returned to New York and raised the other twin as an only child. The Hong Kong twin is named Die Hard (in my copy’s subtitles), and he a martial artist who works as a shady mechanic who likes to take his customers’ cars out to race with. The twin in New York, Ma Yau, is raised with a thorough education and becomes a world-class pianist and conductor. Ma Yau has recently arrived for a performance in Hong Kong, leading to mistaken identity hijinks and hilarity.

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Project A II (1987)

ProjectAII_1Project A II [A計劃續集] (1987)
AKA Pirate Patrol 2, Project B

Starring Jackie Chan, Maggie Cheung, Rosamund Kwan, Carina Lau, Lam Wai, Bill Tung, Kwan Hoi-San, Regina Kent, Wong Man-Ying, Chris Lee Kin-Sang, Tai Bo, Mars, Ben Lam Kwok-Bun, Ken Lo, Michael Chan Wai-Man, Wang Lung-Wei

Directed by Jackie Chan

Expectations: The only thing I remember is the redone Buster Keaton stunt. I don’t even remember if I liked the movie or not!

threehalfstar


The perennial question, “Is it better than the original,” always surrounds any discussion of a sequel. In the case of the Project A films, this is not an easy question to answer. The two films are markedly different from one another, with the most defining difference being the absence of Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao from the sequel (they were off making the awesome flick Eastern Condors). This allowed Jackie to branch out the sequel’s story in wildly different directions than the original film, and in a lot of ways it makes for a better, more diverse piece of entertainment.

The choreography is certainly more refined and representative of the “Evolved Jackie” that took shape in Police Story and emerged fully formed in Armour of God. There are certainly instances of Jackie’s defined style earlier, but starting with Police Story the elements come together to create the earliest examples of the quintessential Jackie Chan film. In Project A II, the fights are funny and almost constantly thrilling, without a single moment of wasted movement, and the circumstances under which Jackie finds himself fighting are truly inspired (such as the incredible sequence when Jackie is handcuffed to Chun (Lam Wai)).

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The Boxer’s Omen (1983)

The Boxer’s Omen [魔] (1983)

Starring Phillip Ko Fei, Lam Hiu Yin, Wai Ga Man, Bolo Yeung-Tze, Wang Lung-Wei, Elvis Tsui Kam Kong, Cheung Chok Chow, Leung Hak Shun, David Lam Wai, Wan Seung Lam, Lai Yau Hing, Lam Chi Tai

Directed by Kuei Chi-Hung

Expectations: High, it’s a Kuei Chi-Hung black magic movie.


Regular visitors will be familiar with the extreme exploits of director Kuei Chi-Hung, the Shaw Brothers’ resident weirdo. Films such as The Killer Snakes and Virgins of the Seven Seas show his range, but for my money his witchcraft movies are the main event. The Boxer’s Omen is a slight sequel to his previous film Bewitched, and it should open with a serious warning to anyone that could possibly be pregnant and/or have a heart condition. Kuei pulls no punches during the nearly non-stop parade of filth that constitutes The Boxer’s Omen, so fans of Hong Kong witchcraft films ready your snake gallbladders and alligator carcasses and we’ll get down to business.

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Uncle Jasper reviews: Chinatown Kid (1977)

Chinatown Kid [唐人街功夫小子] (1977)

Starring Alexander Fu Sheng, Sun Chien, Shirley Yu, Susan Shaw Yin-Yin, Kuo Chui, Lo Meng, Wang Lung-Wei, Jenny Tseng

Directed By Chang Cheh


 

I’m afraid that this review was a little bungled from the start. This is what happens when you wind up with a bad copy of a film slated for review and are left with no alternatives but to move ahead…

Any true old school kung fu movie fan has no doubt been in sustained elation since the Shaw Bros catalog had been obtained and dramatically restored by those fine folks over at Celestial Pictures almost ten years ago now. It’s been a nice decade of film viewing for fans of the legendary studio, no longer forced to waddle through 7th generation muddy pan & scan copies of their favorite martial arts classics. It’s a win-win situation for all parties involved, as I think nobody can complain about the work done on preserving the integrity and beauty of these fine films.

Then we have Chinatown Kid, which proves to be the proverbial one that got away when this whole deal went down. Not to say that the film doesn’t look amazing, the restoration here is every bit as beautiful as Celestial’s other remastering efforts. The problem is that Celestial went through its arduous, painstaking lengths only to wind up remastering THE WRONG FILM!

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