The Shaolin Avengers (1976)

The Shaolin Avengers [方世玉與胡惠乾] (1976)
AKA Fong Sai-Yuk and Wu Wai-Kin (literal translation), Incredible Kung Fu Brothers

Starring Alexander Fu Sheng, Chi Kuan-Chun, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan, Lung Fei, Johnny Wang Lung-Wei, Shan Mao, Leung Kar-Yan, Jamie Luk Kim-Ming, Chan Wai-Lau, Tsai Hung, Lo Dik, Ma Chi-Chun, Weng Hsiao-Hu, Ricky Cheng Tien-Chi

Directed by Chang Cheh (with Wu Ma)

Expectations: Pumped for more Shaolin.


The greatness of The Shaolin Avengers lies in its structure. The film opens with its finale, fading in and out into flashbacks that show how our heroes and villains all came to this particular battle. It could have been told in chronological order and the audience would have similarly understood the characters’ journey to the finale, but introducing us first to the final struggle colors the flashbacks in ways that chronological order could not. It may be called The Shaolin Avengers, but I found the structure to remove a lot of the tension inherent in a traditional revenge story. Instead, I pondered the nature of life, how small moments remind you of people or places, and how important preparation is to success. You don’t simply wake up bad ass, you must be dedicated and willing to endure hardship so that you can emerge a better, streamlined version of yourself.

The Shaolin Avengers re-tells the stories of Fang Shih-Yu AKA Fong Sai-Yuk (Alexander Fu Sheng) and Hu Huei-Chien AKA Wu Wai-Kin (Chi Kuan-Chun), as previously seen in Men from the Monastery. It removes Hung Shi-Kuan’s character altogether, which allows for more time devoted to the early days of Fang before he sought training at the Shaolin Temple. In Men from the Monastery, there is a slight mention of Fang’s mother bathing him in rice wine, but here in The Shaolin Avengers we see the circumstances that led to this, as well as the hardship involved with the bathing itself. Hu Huei-Chien’s story is virtually unchanged, though, and in comparing scenes — such as the death of Hu’s father in the gambling house — they might have even used the same script (or very close to the same script) for these scenes. The main difference is that now the two characters’ stories are fully intertwined and dramatically complete, instead of the disjointed, episodic quality that Men from the Monastery has. So you could say that The Shaolin Avengers is essentially a remake of Men from the Monastery, but I hesitate to write that because it seems reductive to classify The Shaolin Avengers as a mere remake.

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Out of the Dark (1995)

Out of the Dark [回魂夜] (1995)

Starring Stephen Chow, Karen Mok, Wong Yat-Fei, Lee Lik-Chi, Lo Hung, Ben Wong Chi-Yin, Lee Kin-Yan, Heung Dip, Chow Chi-Fai, Tam Suk-Mui, Hau Woon-Ling, Leung Kar-Yan

Directed by Jeff Lau Chun-Wai


Out of the Dark is a great horror comedy to watch during the Halloween season, but describing it is going to be a little difficult. The film moves at absolute breakneck speed, and if you’re not ready the jokes, characters and plot alike will all fly past you before you even have time to notice they were there. I watched the first 15 minutes three times and I noticed new things and developed a better understanding every time. At this point, I’ve seen hundreds of Hong Kong films but this one really threw me! It is with movies like this where the language barrier hinders enjoyment the most, but if you’re able to lock into the groove of Out of the Dark, it’s a truly hilarious and transcendent film experience.

Out of the Dark centers around a Hong Kong apartment building and its inhabitants. An elderly resident has recently died, but her spirit is not ready to leave the building just yet. She haunts the apartment she shared with her son and his family, and she’s looking for revenge on those that caused her death. Enter Stephen Chow’s character Leon (one of the film’s references to Luc Besson’s The Professional), an odd guy who dresses in all black and talks to a lily plant he carries around in a pot. Together with the building’s ragtag security team and a few residents, Leon looks to help the spirit achieve her goal of justice.

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7-Man Army (1976)

7-Man Army [八道樓子] (1976)
AKA Seven Man Army

Starring David Chiang, Ti Lung, Alexander Fu Sheng, Chen Kuan-Tai, Li Yi-Min, Chi Kuan-Chun, Pai Ying, Ting Wa-Chung, Leung Kar-Yan, Johnny Wang Lung-Wei, Gordon Liu Chia-Hui, Miao Tian, Fung Ngai, Chen Ming-Li, Wang Ching-Ping

Directed by Chang Cheh (with co-directors Hsiung Ting-Wu & Wu Ma)

Expectations: Moderate.


As I mentioned in my review of Boxer Rebellion, Chang Cheh had become tired of making so many Shaolin movies in a row that he sought something fresh to sink his teeth into. He decided on the war film, a genre you don’t see a lot in Hong Kong film. Boxer Rebellion was shot second but released first, and it’s an atypical war picture that focuses on the boxers who believed themselves invulnerable to the foreigners’ guns. 7-Man Army is more a traditional war film that is an opposite in ways to Boxer Rebellion. 7-Man Army is about a small group of men who know exactly how fragile their lives are, but in the defense of their country they have no choice but to continue fighting.

7-Man Army tells a true story set a couple of years after the Mukden Incident, in which the Japanese staged a bombing to facilitate an invasion of China. The events depicted in the film were during the 1933 Defense of the Great Wall, specifically around the Gubeikou area. After a battle, the Chinese took back this section of the Great Wall, but seven men were all that remained of the Chinese forces. Cut off from all communication to their reinforcements, the men dug in and withstood multiple assaults on their position. These brave men were commemorated with a monument on the site of their burial, which can be visited via the Gubeikou Great Wall Kangzhan Memorial Hall (see #3 on the on-site map). There is also a monument on Kinmen Island, off the coast of Taiwan, called the Badu Tower. It’s also worth noting that the film’s Chinese title (and Wikipedia entry) cites the location as being the Badaling region, roughly 65 miles southwest of Gubeikou. In any case, Chang Cheh is once again fictionalizing a part of Chinese history for the masses, and 7-Man Army is quite successful in this task (despite what Chang says about the film being an artistic failure in his memoir).

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Boxer Rebellion (1976)

Boxer Rebellion [八國聯軍] (1976)
AKA Spiritual Fists, Bloody Avengers

Starring Alexander Fu Sheng, Chi Kuan-Chun, Leung Kar-Yan, Jenny Tseng, Woo Gam, Johnny Wang Lung-Wei, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan, Li Li-Hua, Sun Yueh, Tsui Fu-Sheng, Liu Wei-Bin, Richard Harrison, Henry Bolanas, Wong Cheong-Chi, Han Chiang, Someno Yukio, Yeung Fui-Yuk, Lam Fai, Chiang Tao

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: High.


Of all the films that Chang Cheh directed over his career, Boxer Rebellion was one that the director thought was among his most successful (in artistic terms). The film’s depiction of the Boxer Rebellion and its anti-foreigner sentiment did not agree with the British censors in Hong Kong, so the film was only released in a heavily truncated version (with something like 30–45 minutes edited out) and with the title changed to Spiritual Fists. The film failed miserably under these conditions and this angered Chang Cheh, because as the editor of his memoir notes, “he really poured his heart into Boxer Rebellion.” Later in the book, Chang expresses the wish that someone would rescue the film from a “musty closet” so that it may be seen as intended, if for no other reason than to pay tribute to the work of Fu Sheng held unseen within. Chang died in 2002, but if he had lived just another few years he’d have seen his dream realized when Celestial restored and finally released the full version of Chang’s epic film in 2005.

I have not seen the edited version of the film, but this restored, original vision is without a doubt one of Chang’s finest efforts as a director. He had previously made epic films that brought together large casts and told big, sprawling stories, but not a single one of them is anywhere close to the level of scale and scope seen in Boxer Rebellion. Chang talks in his memoir about tiring of making Shaolin pictures around this time, so once again he looked to craft something new for the Hong Kong market. He set his sights on the war picture, first shooting Seven Man Army (to less-than-satisfactory results, according to Chang), and then following it up with Boxer Rebellion, the highest budgeted Hong Kong film at the time. The resulting film shows a clear influence from its predecessors, with the scale of his epics like The Water Margin or The Heroic Ones, and the intimacy of his Shaolin films like Heroes Two or Disciples of Shaolin.

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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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