Brotherhood (1976)

Brotherhood [江湖子弟] (1976)

Starring Lau Wing, Woo Gam, Lily Li Li-Li, Wang Hsieh, Shut Chung-Tin, Chiang Tao, Cheng Miu, Chan Shen, Leung Seung-Wan, Fung Ging-Man, Yeung Chak-Lam, Keung Hon, Ngaai Fei, Shum Lo, Liu Wai, Lee Sau-Kei, San Kuai, Hao Li-Jen, Wong Ching-Ho, Ku Kuan-Chung, Bobby Canavarro, Yuen Biao

Directed by Hua Shan

Expectations: Excited to finally see a Hua Shan movie that isn’t Super Inframan.


Brotherhood is a great piece of entertainment, but as a cohesive film it’s a little less successful. It tells a story of Liao (Lau Wing), a man who becomes part of a powerful Hong Kong triad, but long stretches of the movie leave this character by the wayside to focus on the triad itself and the politics within. It shifts its focus so seamlessly that I honestly didn’t notice until it had been at least 15 minutes, but once the realization hit it was hard to ignore. The movie works its way back around to Liao, but the two stories aren’t intertwined well enough. When we rejoin Liao, he’s also evolved into a different type of person. I would have preferred to see the evolution, although with tons of movies that already do this, perhaps I should just enjoy Brotherhood for cutting out the middleman. In any case, I had some troubles with the film (that might be resolved with a re-watch), but none of them really hinder the film’s constant, high-value entertainment.

Liao Da-Jiang is a petty criminal pulling robberies with a group of three other guys. We enter the movie mid-jewelry heist, and unbeknownst to the criminals it is to be a pivotal moment in their lives. Liao is older than your typical juvenile delinquent, so Brotherhood felt like it could be the next step from that sub-genre of Hong Kong crime films. We can assume that Liao’s poor choices as a teenager led him to this moment, but as an adult the consequences are more lasting and serious. The twists and double crosses come fast and brutal in Brotherhood, and they eventually lead Liao to join the San He Tang triad. The triad is also experiencing a time of huge change, with its own share of brutal double crosses. The plot follows these two threads in fairly obvious ways, but as I mentioned, Brotherhood is always highly entertaining thanks to a couple of factors (namely the well-rounded cast, the harsh brutality of the violence, and the action choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping and Yuen Cheung-Yan).

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Heroes of the Underground (1976)

Heroes of the Underground [丁一山] (1976)

Starring Ling Yun, Ching Li, Meng Yuen-Man, Cheng Kang-Yeh, Wai Wang, Kong Yeung, Liu Wai, Tin Ching, Yeung Chak-Lam, Yeung Chi-Hing, James Ma Chim-Si, Shum Lo

Directed by Pao Hsueh-Li

Expectations: Low, but hopeful.


I knew going into Heroes of the Underground that it wasn’t a martial arts movie, but it was still quite a disappointment. I often schedule contextually interesting movies into my chronological series and I penciled this one in based on a couple of factors. For one, it was written by the same team responsible for Come Drink With Me: King Hu and Ting Shan-Hsi (presumably from the late ’60s when they worked at Shaw together). Secondly, I’ve previously reviewed every Pao Hsueh-Li film up to this point in his career, so I might as well hit this one in order while I can. Thirdly, there were a lot of movies released in 1975 that were finished earlier and held back from release, so when I learned Heroes of the Underground was completed in 1973, I thought it might be worth watching along with the others. And finally, it just looked fun; Ching Li on the poster with a machine gun was quite persuasive! Unfortunately, on every one of those points the film is a disappointment.

Heroes of the Underground tells a story of rebellion during the Second Sino-Japanese War when Japan occupied China and oppressed the people. It is a time regularly depicted on film, from dramas to classic kung fu films to modern films like Ip Man. The film’s Chinese title is merely the main character’s name, though, Ding Yi-Shan, and usually this is an indication that the movie is centered around a renowned hero from history or folk legends. I couldn’t find anything that indicated the character was drawn from fact, but I did find a 1943 Lao She novel, Cremation, which shares a few character names, a setting, and a general plotline of resistance to the Japanese occupation.

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The Flying Guillotine (1975)

The Flying Guillotine [血滴子] (1975)

Starring Chen Kuan-Tai, Ku Feng, Wai Wang, Kong Yeung, Liu Wu-Chi, Ai Ti, Wong Yu, Lam Wai-Tiu, Norman Chu Siu-Keung, Ricky Hui Koon-Ying, Liu Wai, Lee Sau-Kei, Lee Pang-Fei, Man Man, Wu Chi-Chin, Lei Lung, Lin Wen-Wei, Wai Pak

Directed by Ho Meng-Hua

Expectations: High. Flying Guillotines!


Every one is familiar with the Jimmy Wang Yu classic Master of the Flying Guillotine, but before that film cemented itself into kung fu history, there was Ho Meng-Hua’s The Flying Guillotine. It was Ho’s film that introduced the weapon to the modern martial arts film, and by nature of its story, it also serves as an origin story for the weapon. The flying guillotine was a real weapon used during the Qing Dynasty under the rule of the Yongzheng Emperor (1722–1735). This is roughly the same timeframe that Chang Cheh’s Shaolin Cycle films inhabit, although no one knows exactly when the burning of the Shaolin Temple occurred (and there are multiple conflicting stories of various Shaolin temples burning, too!). Anyway, the flying guillotine was apparently a real thing, as crazy as that sounds.

The Flying Guillotine begins in the chamber of the emperor (Kong Yeung), who finds himself desiring a pair of advisors killed off without a lot of hullabaloo. He gives this task to Chief Xin Kang (Ku Feng), who sets about devising a way to assassinate the men quickly and accurately from such a range that no one can identify the killer. While walking down the street and contemplating the job, Xin Kang takes special interest in a man performing with a Diabolo (a Chinese Yo-Yo consisting of a wooden object spun and thrown with a rope). Inspiration strikes and the flying guillotine is born! The emperor loves the weapon so much that he then asks Xin Kang to form a 12-person strike team proficient in the usage of the flying guillotine.

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Call to Arms (1973)

CalltoArms+1973-47-bCall to Arms [盜兵符] (1973)

Starring Chung Wa, Ha Faan, Cheung Ban, Wang Hsieh, Chan Shen, Yeung Chi-Hing, Ku Wen-Chung, Teresa Ha Ping, Tung Li, Bolo Yeung, Cheng Miu, Lee Wan-Chung, Shum Lo, Wang Kuang-Yu, Yau Ming, Ho Wan-Tai, Tong Tin-Hei, Liu Wai

Directed by Shen Chiang

Expectations: Moderately high. Shen Chiang usually delivers something entertaining.

twohalfstar


Right before I started Call to Arms, I pulled up its page on the HKMDB. I often do this with these mid-tier Shaw Brothers films, as it helps me keep more accurate notes about the characters and actors. Anyway, when I did this I caught a glimpse of the film’s poster, which is about as exciting as a page of text from a history textbook. It’s not exactly the type of marketing I expect a martial arts film to have, and it was my first clue that Call to Arms would be a different type of Shaw film.

It’s a good thing that I had this clue going into the film, otherwise I might have been quite disappointed with what I got. Call to Arms is much more of a historical epic than it is a martial arts action picture, and it’s within this distinction that the film ends up being sorta mediocre. The story, while dense and filled with intrigue, isn’t the most interesting and it’s also fairly hard to follow. Thankfully, the fights are fun and exciting, but they aren’t fun or exciting enough to make up for the story. I would like to note that fans of Chinese history, who come to the film with a better understanding of the country’s warring states period, will more than likely get more out of the story than I did.

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The Imperial Swordsman (1972)

imperialswordsman_1The Imperial Swordsman [大內高手] (1972)

Starring Shu Pei-Pei, Chuen Yuen, Yue Wai, Cheng Miu, Tung Li, Lee Wan-Chung, Tang Ti, Wong Chung-Shun, Liu Wai, Lee Pang-Fei, Chan Shen, Kam Kong, Woo Wai, Siu Wa, Ma Ying, Tong Tin-Hei

Directed by Lin Fu-Ti

Expectations: High.

threestar


The Imperial Swordsman is a seriously ambitious film, one that reaches so high that it would be almost impossible to achieve what it sets out to do. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Shaws saw this film as something of a test run for more ambitious FX-filled films that would follow in its wake. As such, it showcases some excellent and beautiful model work that helps to broaden the scale of the film immensely, setting the scene with grand fortresses built atop mountain cliffs that tower above deep, flowing rivers.

Set during the Ming Dynasty, the emperor has learned that one of his own is working with the Mongolians in an attempt to invade China and take over the country. To stop this devious plot, the four imperial swordsmen (played by Shu Pei-Pei, Yue Wai, Lee Wan-Chung & Liu Wai) are deployed to recover evidence of the traitor and bring him to justice while he’s traveling. The Chief Imperial Inspector Yin Shu-Tang (Chuen Yuen) has already been working in the area, so they are to join up with him and thwart the traitor (who is hoping to hideout with his bandit buddies in their mountain fortress).

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The Boxer from Shantung (1972)

boxerfromshantung_6The Boxer from Shantung [馬永貞] (1972)
AKA Ma Yong Zhen, The Shantung Boxer, The Killer from Shantung

Starring Chen Kuan-Tai, Ching Li, Cheng Kang-Yeh, David Chiang, Chiang Nan, Fung Ngai, Ku Feng, Tin Ching, Wong Ching, Mario Milano, Chan Ho, Lee Man-Tai, Liu Wai, Shum Lo

Directed by Chang Cheh & Pao Hsueh-Li

Expectations: High.

threehalfstar


Ma Yong Zhen (Chen Kuan-Tai) has recently moved to Shanghai from the country with his best friend, and he’s sure that the good days will come. A chance meeting with local crime boss Master Tan Si (David Chiang in a fantastic small role) introduces Ma to a different way of life, one that he’d like to live for himself. Yes, The Boxer from Shantung is a Shaw Brothers version of the Scarface story (11 years prior to Brian De Palma’s famous remake), but honestly, the crime story — while skillfully told and engaging — is also one of the film’s weaknesses for modern viewers. We’ve just seen this kind of film far too many times to truly lose ourselves in all the characters’ struggles, although with all the fun martial arts battles, you could definitely do a lot worse than The Boxer from Shantung.

The film is notable for introducing the world to Chen Kuan-Tai, and there couldn’t have been a better story for him to debut with. By showing his character’s rise, we are able to watch Chen Kuan-Tai flex his acting skill along with his martial abilities. He is skilled in both regards, and almost single-handedly makes The Boxer from Shantung a remarkable film to watch. Chen exhibits no nervousness or shaky acting. He is a force of resolute, badass charm throughout the film, exuding star power and raw energy. Throughout the film he always retains his decency, so the character never falls so deep into self-destruction that he becomes unlikeable. This role could have easily gone to Ti Lung to make this yet another Ti Lung/David Chiang/Chang Cheh film, but Chang Cheh wisely cast the newcomer in the role of the fresh-faced guy looking for his big break. With an actual fresh face in the role, we’re sucked into the story all the more and the film feels distinct and different from the previous films of Chang Cheh.

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Oath of Death (1971)

OathofDeath_1Oath of Death [萬箭穿心] (1971)

Starring Lo Lieh, Tien Feng, Wai Wang, Ling Ling, Cheung Pooi-Saan, Yeung Oi-Wa, Bolo Yeung, Gam Kei-Chu, Lee Siu-Chung, Wang Ping, Liu Wai, Law Hon, Chiang Nan, Lee Wan-Chung

Directed by Pao Hsueh-Li

Expectations: Moderately high.

threehalfstar


Oath of Death doesn’t waste any time getting to the action. It begins immediately following the familiar Shaw fanfare, but this explosive opening is somewhat misleading. After the first act of the film sets up the characters and their struggle for righteousness, just about the entire second act is completely devoid of action. It was during this section that I became somewhat bored (despite enjoying a lot of the tension at work between the characters), but then a magical thing occurred. The final 20 minutes of this movie are incredible. The stuff contained in these 20 minutes are the epitome of what I want out of a Shaw Brothers film. This raises my estimation of Oath of Death quite a bit, and I doubt that any fan of gore could contain themselves as the final moments play out. I may not remember the story beats one-by-one, but I will never forget how this movie ends.

Oath of Death tells the story of three sworn brothers. They are valiant Song supporters fighting a rebellion against the ruthless invaders, the Tartars. Together, the blood brothers build a fortress to gather an army, because, as Tien Feng tells his brothers, in unity there is strength. When the fortress is complete, the three leaders (played by Tien Feng, Lo Lieh and Wai Wang) swear an oath to each other to do everything in their power to thwart the Tartar rulers, and whoever doesn’t hold up their end of the bargain will be killed without mercy. The story expands from here, involving lots of tests of their brotherly bonds and grand bloodshed. The plot is somewhere in between a wuxia and a martial arts film, forming a great bridge for the two genres to get to know each other.

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