Four Riders (1972)

fourriders_1Four Riders [四騎士] (1972)
AKA Hellfighters of the East, Strike 4 Revenge

Starring David Chiang, Ti Lung, Chen Kuan-Tai, Wong Chung, Lily Li Li-Li, Ching Li, Yasuaki Kurata, Tina Chin Fei, Andre Marquis, Lo Dik, Lo Wai

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: High.

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On one hand, Four Riders wants to be a serious film about how G.I.s deal with the end of a war and what they do with themselves in its wake. But on the other hand, Four Riders wants to deliver all kinds of thrilling, ridiculous action that goes completely against the grain of realism. I expected the over-the-top action — how could I not when the DVD box reads: “…as a kung fu master, combat instructor, explosives expert, and missile specialist must take on a venal drug smuggling gang.” Reading that prior to watching the film really played with my expectations, as I imagined all sorts of mid-’80s action extravaganzas built on similar team-based premises. But this is all a misnomer, as Four Riders has nothing to do with what these men did while they were in the army.

The film opens in the snowy countryside of Korea. The year in 1953 and the Korean War has just come to a close. Chang Cheh spends the first few minutes of the film letting us take in the Korean landscapes, showing us the mountains, the gentle streams of snow water, and eventually the luscious green foliage of spring. This natural progression leads us to a military camp, where Ti Lung is currently stationed… but not for long. As his superior officer drives up, Ti rips off his stripes, throws them in the general’s face and proceeds to start a brawl. In the chaos he steals the boss’s jeep and heads off towards the urban fun of Seoul. The war is over, so he’s indulging his spontaneous, reckless spirit and making up for lost time.

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The Deadly Knives (1972)

deadlyknives_2The Deadly Knives [落葉飛刀] (1972)
AKA Fists of Vengeance

Starring Ching Li, Ling Yun, Lily Li Li-Li, Cheng Miu, Chen Yan-Yan, Chan Shen, Dean Shek Tin, Lau Gong, Goo Man-Chung, Chen Feng-Chen, Tang Ti, Lee Ho, Lee Wan-Chung, Lee Sau-Kei

Directed by Chang Il-Ho

Expectations: Low, but hopeful.

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The Deadly Knives is about as standard as Shaw Brothers movies come. It has very little to set itself apart, and I doubt I will remember it in a few months. It’s still entertaining and enjoyable, but it’s just another heated revenge movie featuring the Chinese vs. the Japanese in the good ol’ Bruce Lee mold. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, but The Deadly Knives is kinda lazy in this way, and at times it almost feels like it knows it and doesn’t care.

The Chinese vs. Japanese struggle in this particular film surrounds a forest and the logging operation that resides there. It is owned by the Yan family, but this particular forest is strategically useful to the Japanese Army. A Japanese businessman named Mr. Ogawa (Cheng Miu) enlists the help of Mr. Guan (Tang Ti), a Chinese man who prefers money over Yan, his Chinese neighbor. Meanwhile, Yan Zi Fei (Ling Yun) and Guan Yue Hua (Ching Li) are returning home from college on the train. They are the offspring of the two Chinese families in the midst of this struggle, but are blissfully unaware as they talk about getting married. All they need is the approval of their families… so… clearly, this isn’t going to work out for them.

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The Young Master (1980)

youngmaster_1The Young Master [師弟出馬] (1980)

Starring Jackie Chan, Wai Pak, Yuen Biao, Sek Kin, Lily Li Li-Li, Whang In-Shik, Lee Hoi-Sang, Fung Hak-On, Fung Fung, Fan Mei-Sheng, Tien Feng, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan

Directed by Jackie Chan

Expectations: Pumped. This movie is great.

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Every thing that happens in The Young Master all comes back to one simple act of deception. We all make choices in our lives every day, sometimes even unconsciously. While driving, a quick flick of the wrist could cause a massive pileup. At the least, this would ruin a few people’s day, at the worst it might take their lives and your own. The choices we make define us as people, and a choice made purely out of greed for money is usually never a good one (unless you’re in an ’80s movie like Cocktail, but that’s beside the point).

In the case of The Young Master, this deceptive choice causes lots of strife for those around this character doing the choosing, but as a movie it allows for scene after scene of great, comedic martial arts action. It all starts on a fairly serious note, though. The Young Master opens with one of the best lion dance sequences ever put to film, and the following 30 minutes or so are devoted entirely to furthering the characters and the dramatic elements of the plot. This foundation is necessary to cement the moral point of the film. Once this is in place, Jackie is let loose and The Young Master hits its stride, sailing effortlessly to its conclusion.

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Black Magic 2 (1976)

blackmagic2_3Black Magic 2 [勾魂降頭] (1976)
AKA Revenge of the Zombies

Starring Ti Lung, Tanny Tien Ni, Lo Lieh, Wai Wang, Lily Li Li-Li, Lam Wai-Tiu, Terry Lau Wai-Yue, Yeung Chi-Hing, Lam Fung

Directed by Ho Meng-Hua

Expectations: High, although they are lowered a bit after seeing the first one.

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[Note: Due to the nature of Black Magic 2, the most interesting things to talk about are how it deviates from and plays with the black magic formula, so this review could be considered to be fairly spoiler heavy. I apologize, but if you're interesting in this worm-filled, nasty little horror sub-genre, you really should just watch Black Magic 2 before reading about it.]

Usually you expect a sequel to continue the story of the original film, but director Ho Meng-Hua and prolific screenwriter Ni Kuang decided to do something different with Black Magic 2. Instead of continuing on with the same characters and telling more of their story, Black Magic 2 treats the black magic itself as the “character” worth exploring further in the sequel. Of course, the audience reaps the benefits, as this sequel is nastier, nuttier and a whole lot funner to watch. And since the twisted ways of Southeast Asian black magic are our main focus, it makes sense that the evil black magic practitioner (played wonderfully by Lo Lieh) is essentially the star of the film.

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Black Magic (1975)

BlackMagic_1Black Magic [降頭] (1975)

Starring Ti Lung, Lo Lieh, Lily Li Li-Li, Ku Feng, Tanny Tien Ni, Goo Man-Chung, Lee Sau-Kei, Yueh Hua, Chen Ping, Lam Wai-Tiu

Directed by Ho Meng-Hua

Expectations: High! I love black magic movies and this is basically where they all started!

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If only I had seen this a few years ago, I know I would have enjoyed it even more. As it is, Black Magic is a fun black magic romp, but it’s hard not to think of later films that go so far over the top that you forget just where the top was in the aftermath. But that’s no fault of Black Magic itself, and any self-respecting fan of black magic films owes it to themselves to check out the film that spawned countless imitators and an entire sub-genre of Hong Kong horror films.

Black Magic was written by notable Shaw scribe Ni Kuang, and within just the first few minutes his script sets out the basic formula for just about every black magic movie I’ve ever seen. A woman visits a black magic practitioner named Sha Jianmai (played expertly by Ku Feng), seeking revenge against her man who is cheating on her. She asks for a death curse on both her former sweetheart and his mistress, and Sha Jianmai is more than happy to oblige. Adulterous love (or as the opening text calls it “Excessive Sex”) is something that does not pay off in black magic movies. But after the spell has been wrought, a local practitioner of good magic is brought in to investigate the couple’s deaths. He looks about, says a few chants, and before you know it Sha Jianmai is slicing his tongue with a blade and pasting paper wards all over the walls of his shack, his blood smeared all over them.

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The Champion of Champions (1972)

ChampionofChampions_3The Champion of Champions [大地龍蛇] (1972)
AKA The Dragon and the Snake, The Dragon Snake, Hero of the Earth

Starring Chin Han, Lily Li Li-Li, Suen Liu, Suen Yuet, Lau Lai-Lai, Chui Fook-Sang, Hon Siu, Sek Fung, Miao Tian, Lee Yan-Wa

Directed by Lee Ga

Expectations: Low.

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Shaw Brothers productions usually come with a base level of quality that is able to make even the most mundane of stories into an OK movie. The Champion of Champions is the exception to the rule and easily the worst film I’ve seen from them, proving that the Shaw studios did indeed produce at least one horrible movie during their long run in the business. And I’m a big fan, I can only imagine what a non-fan would think of this movie. I do have to give the movie the benefit of the doubt, as the print isn’t ideal and the subtitles were cut-off and especially hard to follow. But no amount of remastering and removable subtitles can fix all the problems with The Champion of Champions.

Due to that subtitle issue I mentioned, I’m not exactly 100% on the plot of the film. The opening credits play out over a couple of guys killing an entire government mansion full of people, everyone from the guards to the guys working the printing presses. But then no one mentions this ever again, and the two guys doing this weren’t even main characters. It’s possible that it’s related to another flashback we see about another character’s past and motive for revenge, but I honestly don’t know.
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Shadow Girl (1971)

ShadowGirlShadow Girl [隱身女俠] (1971)

Starring Lily Li Li-Li, An Ping, Wai Wang, Yue Fung, Cho Kin, Ding Keung, Chui Fook-Sang, Miao Tian, Tin Man-Chung, O Yau-Man, Law Bun, Gam Tiu

Directed by San Kei

Expectations: Moderate.

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I’ve seen a lot of varied Shaw Brothers films, but I never expected to see their version of an invisible man tale. But that’s just what Shadow Girl is… kinda. I don’t remember the Invisible Man’s mother flying around in a circle and poking out people’s eyes, but that’s where the term “creative license” comes in. The film actually isn’t a take-off on the classic H.G. Wells story, the invisibility here is merely the hook that makes the story unique and interesting. How does Yin Chu (Lily Li) turn invisible? Is it just her kung fu training that has enabled this ability, or is it something more?

I’m building it up more than necessary, though, because this isn’t presented as a mystery in the film. The characters that come into contact with Yin assume she’s a ghost, but we’re in on the gag right from the first scene, as we see Yin undressing on a river bank and slowly turning invisible before she ventures into the water. Later flashback scenes give us more detail on why she has this ability, and why she’s roaming around the countryside with no home, but it’d be a stretch to call these aspects mysterious.

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