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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Disciples of Shaolin (1975)

Disciples of Shaolin [洪拳小子] (1975)
AKA The Invincible One, The Hung Boxing Kid

Starring Alexander Fu Sheng, Chi Kuan-Chun, Chen Ming-Li, Wang Ching-Ping, Lo Dik, Chiang Tao, Fung Hak-On, Han Chiang, Fan Sau-Yee, Hui Lap, Cheung Siu-Kwan

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: High.


Chang Cheh’s Shaolin Cycle films are among my favorite productions in the entire Shaw Brothers catalog, so whenever I see a new one I get extraordinarily excited about it. Disciples of Shaolin did not disappoint, although it is far more subtle in its greatness than I expected. It’s a great martial arts picture, but more importantly it is primarily a character-driven drama. As such, it’s one of Chang Cheh’s most nuanced and focused films. Especially at this time in his career, Chang made a lot of films that were large-scale and wide-reaching. Even his explorations into modern romance and delinquency never felt quite as tightly focused on a single character as Disciples of Shaolin focuses on Fu Sheng’s character, Guan Feng Yi.

Guan arrives in town in search of his brother, Wang Hon (Chi Kuan-Chun). Wang works at the local textile mill, dutifully operating one of the weaving machines. Guan is a poor man, but he’s a happy-go-lucky guy regardless (as you’d expect with Alexander Fu Sheng). Wang is his polar opposite, living life with a strict sense of duty and responsibility. On the way in to see Wang, Guan couldn’t help but notice the poor quality of kung fu being taught to the employees, so when he asks Wang to get him a job at the mill, his first suggestion is to take over teaching kung fu. To this notion Wang flatly refuses, advising Guan that it would be prudent to hide his abilities. Wang does not elaborate on his reasoning, but his stern face communicates the grave nature of his request.

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The Young Rebel (1975)

The Young Rebel [後生] (1975)
AKA The Rebel Youth

Starring David Chiang, Ti Lung, Chiang Nan, Lin Jing, Simon Yuen Siu-Tin, Lo Dik, Lee Hoi-Sang, Eddy Ko Hung, Chiang Tao, Fung Ngai, Wan Man, Ming Ming, Tino Wong Cheung, Cheung Chok-Chow

Directed by Ti Lung

Expectations: Moderate. Ti Lung’s other film was pretty enjoyable.


The Young Rebel is yet another film within the delinquent youth sub-genre popular with Chang Cheh. Here it is Ti Lung behind the camera, though, and while the results aren’t up to Chang levels, The Young Rebel is without a doubt a more successful and sophisticated film than Young Lovers on Flying Wheels (Ti Lung’s directorial debut). It shows a lot of artistic promise and ingenuity, and it makes me a bit sad to think that Ti didn’t continue this line of his career. I suppose if he had that also means he might have stepped back from acting some, and since he still had so many iconic films to come, it probably all worked out for the best. In any case, I enjoyed The Young Rebel a lot, and I think it’s definitely worth the time of any Shaw fan.

The film begins on a curious, dour note with Xiang Rong (David Chiang) and Gen Lai (Ti Lung) riding in the back of a car. Xiang asks Gen if he remembers the time when his father was run over by the truck and Xiang didn’t cry. That’s not the kind of thing someone forgets, and this sends us back in time to that fateful moment. With Xiang’s father dead, Xiang is now the man of the house and responsible for the care of his aging mother and young sister. Xiang is still a young man himself, hardly ready for this level of responsibility. His good friend Gen Lai helps him to get a job as a bicycle delivery man at a local market.

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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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Na Cha the Great (1974)

nachathegreat_1Na Cha the Great [哪吒] (1974)

Starring Alexander Fu Sheng, Lo Dik, Chiang Tao, Fung Hak-On, Lin Jing, Jamie Luk Kim-Ming, Li Chen-Piao, Yuan Man-Tzu, Sze-Ma Wah-Lung, Lee Wan-Chung, Fung Ngai

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: Pretty high. I enjoyed Na Cha and the Seven Devils and I hope this is equally fun.

twohalfstar


When I think of words to describe the films of Chang Cheh, “fantasy” is not even remotely within the brainstorm. Elements of the fantastic enter many of his films, but Chang rarely handles them in a way that inspires the imagination like typical fantasy. The idea that a man could cut off his own arm and then become a fearsome one-armed swordsman (The New One-Armed Swordsman) is definitely within the fantasy genre, but Chang grounds the idea to the point that it’s not about suspending disbelief. So when I watched Na Cha and the Seven Devils a few months ago, knowing that I had Chang Cheh’s take on the character in my future, it was hard to imagine how Chang would handle the incredible fantasy of an adaptation of the Chinese classic novel Investiture of the Gods.

Turns out that he ambitiously reaches in both directions, bisecting the film into a largely grounded first half and a wildly fantastic second half. I’d love to tell you that my favorite Shaw Brothers director handles both halves well, but unfortunately I can’t even say that he does so with either half. The whole movie feels half-baked and without the usual thematic sharpness that is evident in his other films around this time. The groundwork is there, but there’s little artistry pulling it all together into a pleasing, emotional package. My feeling is that the abundance of special effects hindered Chang’s abilities somewhat. A separate special FX director, Lam Kwok-Cheung, is credited, and according to Chang Cheh’s memoir, Lam led a team from Japan to achieve the film’s many photographic effects.

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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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Friends (1974)

Friends_1Friends [朋友] (1974)

Starring David Chiang, Alexander Fu Sheng, Lily Li Li-Li, Lee Yung-Git, Lo Dik, Matsuoka Minoru, Wai Wang, Helen Ko, Danny Chow Yuen-Kin, Chen Wo-Fu, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan, Wang Kuang-Yu

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: I’m really excited for this one. I’ve really come to love these deliquent youth movies of Chang Cheh’s.

threestar


From a quick glance over Chang Cheh’s filmography, Friends seems to be his final modern-day delinquent youth action drama. And wouldn’t you know it… it feels like it! There is a positive energy running through Friends that isn’t in the other films. Friends notably starts with a scene set years after the main section of the film, when the titular friends are gathered together and reminiscing over their wild, youthful days gone by. They are all successful in their various fields, and can now look back on their earlier struggles and laugh at their absurdity. Chang’s previous youth films were all steeped in angst and an inability to fit in with society in one way or another, so to open Friends showing that these characters have already achieved this goal of assimilating successfully into society (and seemingly doing so without compromising their dreams) immediately announces a different type of film than his other films in the genre.

The film then cuts back in time an indiscriminate number of years, to when the group was just a bunch of unmotivated friends stuck in entry-level jobs. Hua Heng (David Chiang) dreams of being an artist, but for now he has a job painting a mural on the side of the Seiko building. Hua’s girlfriend, Gao Xin (Lily Li Li-Li), is a bar girl deep in debt to her employer, and at risk for turning to prostitution to pay him back. The others work as delivery boys, mechanics, and other similar jobs, but there is one outlier.

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