The Ghost Lovers (1974)

The Ghost Lovers [艷女還魂] (1974)
AKA A Woman with Half Soul

Starring Li Ching, Lam Wai-Tiu, Kim Mu-Yeong, Joo Yong, Chan Mei-Hua, Shum Lo, Wang Han-Chen, Wong Ching-Ho, James Ma Chim-Si, Hung Sing-Chung, Fung Ging-Man

Directed by Shin Sang-Ok

Expectations: Moderate.


A title like The Ghost Lovers signals a horror film with a softer edge, and this is definitely the case. It’s not so much a horror film as it is a supernatural drama, although there are lots of good scares and frightful images peppered through the film. I expected this to be the case so I wasn’t disappointed, but I wasn’t ready for how the film would twist the traditional ghost narrative into something unique. The film begins rather straightforward, but as the tragedy of the situations deepen the whole thing sort of flips in on itself. It’s hard to describe without spoiling it, and maybe even drawing attention to this point will diminish its power a bit, but it worked on me and hopefully it’ll work on you, too.

Song Lian-Hua (Li Ching) lies deathly ill in her bed, surrounded by her wet nurse and her family. Song has been betrothed to Han Shi-Long (Lam Wai-Tiu) since they were children, but they haven’t seen each other since. Han’s father was once governor of their town, but was forced to flee after his name was illegitimately slandered and they lost everything. With Song’s condition worsening, they send for Han to visit Song before she dies, but when the messenger returns he says that Han set out two days prior and should have already arrived! Promptly thereafter, Song Lian-Hua dies and it would seem that these star-crossed lovers were doomed to never meet (and Li Ching never to utter a single line in a film she stars in!)

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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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Ambush (1973)

Ambush+1973-1-bAmbush [埋伏] (1973)

Starring Li Ching, Chiu Hung, Yeung Chi-Hing, Wang Hsieh, Dean Shek Tin, Kong Ling, Tung Lam, Lee Pang-Fei, Chan Shen, Pang Pang, Unicorn Chan, Lee Man-Chow, Sa Au

Directed by Ho Meng-Hua

Expectations: Moderate.

threestar


Ambush is like a lot of the other martial arts films I’ve seen from director Ho Meng-Hua. It is a capable film, and it tells a good story, but it just doesn’t feel all that original or special. When you’re cranking out as many martial arts films as the Shaw Brothers were at this time, it makes sense that many of them might be like this, but a couple of things about Ambush help to differentiate it from previous mid-level Shaw films.

First, this was their first martial arts film of 1973, and by this point in their history the fight choreography is well beyond what you’d generally expect in something labeled “mid-range.” By modern standards it’s a little wonky, but regardless the fights of Ambush are plentiful and fun. Shaw veteran Simon Chui Yee-Ang handled the choreography himself this time and he does a great job of crafting quick-moving fights that showcase everything from fantastical wuxia feats, to basic swordplay, to the up-and-coming genre standard hand-to-hand work.

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The Fugitive (1972)

thefugitive_3The Fugitive [亡命徒] (1972)

Starring Lo Lieh, Ku Feng, Li Ching, Lee Ga-Sai, Ding Sai, Tang Ti, Dean Shek Tin, Lee Pang-Fei, Chu Gam, Tong Tin-Hei, Sek Kin, Chan Shen

Directed by Chang Tseng-Chai

Expectations: Moderate and hopeful.

threestar


Due to their grindhouse status in the West, Shaw Brothers films are often looked down upon as B-Movies. I firmly disagree and I try to reflect this opinion in my reviews of the films. But some of their films are definitely B-Movie material, and The Fugitive is a perfect example. While it is a great little action movie, it has a threadbare story and is so over-the-top at times that you could never take it seriously. These things matter in many films, but in a B-Movie these are the cherries on top. And The Fugitive is pretty damn cherry-tastic.

The film opens on a wanted poster depicting the feared outlaws Liao Fei Lung (Lo Lieh) and Ma Tien Piao (Ku Feng). These very same men ride into town and hold up the bank. Things don’t exactly go to plan, but these bandits are not your average bank robbers — they are experts in horseback riding and marksmanship! The bandits easily shoot their way out of town with the spoils of the robbery.

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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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Trilogy of Swordsmanship (1972)

trilogyofswordsmanship_5Trilogy of Swordsmanship [群英會] (1972)

Starring Shih Szu, Yueh Hua, Tin Ching, Meng Yuen-Man, Kao Pao-Shu, Bolo Yeung, Cheung Ging-Boh, Lily Ho Li-Li, Lo Lieh, Chung Wa, Chin Han, Wang Ping, Kong Ling, Ku Chiu-Chin, Lau Ng-Kei, Chen Yan-Yan, Lee Wan-Chung, Ti Lung, David Chiang, Li Ching, Ku Feng, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan, Wong Chung, Wu Chi-Chin, Cheng Lui, Chan Sing, Wang Kuang-Yu, Wong Ching-Ho

Directed by Griffin Yueh Feng, Cheng Kang & Chang Cheh

Expectations: High.

threehalfstar


On more than one occasion I’ve said that anthology movies just aren’t my thing. But a Shaw Brothers anthology film? My interest was piqued, although the mere idea of a wuxia anthology film seems like something of a ludicrous idea. Even at a full 90 or 120 minutes, a wuxia story is compressed and hard to understand, so cutting three of them to fit into a total of 107 minutes just doesn’t seem like a good idea. But it is. Totally.

Each film brings something unique to the screen. The first tale, directed by Griffin Yueh Feng (even if the screen credit says otherwise), is called The Iron Bow. It’s a lighthearted tale of love and unwanted attention, and it’s a perfect example of how to stage a martial arts short story. Master Shi (Tin Ching) is infatuated with the young Ying Ying (Shih Szu), but she doesn’t care for him at all. He is a rich official who comes with a procession of men to ask for her hand in marriage, but Ying Ying’s father thought ahead. When he died he left an iron bow in the family’s restaurant, and said that any man who could draw the bow was worthy of his daughter’s hand. This leads to many comical situations to balance the wuxia violence, and it results in a very pleasing bite-sized film. Yueh Hua and Shih Szu also have a fantastic spear battle, and Bolo Yueng pops up at the end with a rare full head of hair. Pure entertainment, if a bit light.

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The Long Chase (1971)

thelongchase_7The Long Chase [俠士行] (1971)

Starring Yueh Hua, Lo Lieh, Li Ching, Pang Pang, Wang Hsieh, Chiu Hung, Tong Tin-Hei, Law Hon, Chuen Yuen, Lee Siu-Chung, Wong Ching-Ho, Cliff Lok Kam Tung, Someno Yukio, Man Lei

Directed by Ho Meng-Hua

Expectations: Low.

threehalfstar


The Long Chase offers a different take on the heroic brotherhood stories that populate many other Shaw Brothers films, and it comes as a welcome variation. I don’t know that everyone would be as enthusiastic about this one as I am, but it must have hit me on the right day, as it was start-to-finish entertainment. The film opens at night, as the Prime Minister and his envoy are about to travel through town. Unbeknownst to the guards and their leader (Lo Lieh), a sneaky swordsman dressed all in black sneaks around the town in order to assassinate the Prime Minister. He crawls through ditches in seemingly plain sight of the guards, but I guess his movements were so good that they were imperceptible to the guards. That, or guards are just woefully incompetent in films. Probably that.

As a side note, these ditches that the assassin (Yueh Hua) crawls through are most likely the ditches dug in the sets for the cameras to capture low angles of the streets and whatever action is occurring on them. After so many of these films, the sets become fairly familiar and it seems as if I’ve seen every angle and viewpoint, so it’s always nice to see a new piece, especially one with a technical background such as this.

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