Chinatown Capers (1974)

ChinatownCapers_1Chinatown Capers [小英雄大鬧唐人街] (1974)
AKA The Chinese Enforcers, Back Alley Princess in Chinatown

Starring Polly Shang-Kuan Ling-Feng, Samuel Hui Koon-Kit, Sylvia Chang Ai-Chia, Don Wong Tao, Idemura Fumio, Pamela Pak Wan-Kam, Melvin Wong, Wong Sam

Directed by Lo Wei

Expectations: Low. I didn’t like the first one.

twostar


Chinatown Capers was a big box office hit in Hong Kong when it was released. This is a little hard for me to understand, considering the strength of some of the films that didn’t do nearly as well, but that’s the way these things go. Successful mainstream fluff will often fades as time passes, while artistic work generally stays potent and powerful. And it’s hardly a stretch to call this film pure fluff. Like the first film, Back Alley Princess, it’s highly episodic and without much of a story. It works better in Chinatown Capers, perhaps because the culture clash brought on by the setting makes the film more entertaining and relatable to Western viewers such as myself.

You could easily watch Chinatown Capers without having seen Back Alley Princess. Honestly, the only benefit is already being familiar with the main duo of Chili Boy (Polly Shang-Kuan Ling-Feng) and Embroidered Pillow (Samuel Hui Koon-Kit), so you know what kind of movie you’re in for. None of the other characters return, because they’re all back in Hong Kong. Yes, Chili Boy and Embroidered Pillow have flown to San Francisco to… I don’t know… I guess they got tired of Hong Kong! The actual reason they’ve arrived in the US isn’t mentioned until much later (that’s the “story” I mentioned), but it doesn’t matter for my purposes here.

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Back Alley Princess (1973)

BackAlleyPrincess+1973-4-bBack Alley Princess [馬路小英雄] (1973)

Starring Polly Kuan, Samuel Hui Koon-Kit, Lau Wing, Angela Mao, Lee Kwan, Tien Feng, Wang Lai, Tong Ching, Carter Wong, Wu Jia-Xiang, Han Ying-Chieh, Fung Ngai, Huang Chung-Hsin

Directed by Lo Wei

Expectations: Hmm?

onehalfstar


Back Alley Princess feels like one of those movies that was popular in its day, but it’s hard for a modern viewer to see exactly why. It’s an odd mix of a light comedic tone, heavy drama involving a prostitution ring, and some martial arts action… none of which are of quality enough to stand on their own. Ordinarily a multi-genre film like this might have a story that strings it all together, but in the case of Back Alley Princess that didn’t seem to be too high of a priority (which is somewhat odd, because Lo Wei generally packs a lot of story twists and turns into his scripts).

What Back Alley Princess is full off is a whole lot of working-class strife. Chili Boy (Polly Kuan) — AKA Hot Pepper Kid in some translations — and Embroidered Pillow (Samuel Hui) are a team of con-men doing whatever they can to make a few bucks and survive on the streets of Hong Kong. This leads them to meet up with the martial arts troupe of Teacher Chiang (Tien Feng), who agrees to join up with Chili and Embroidered Pillow in the interest of making more money. But this isn’t really the foundation of a story, as the film’s main concern is seemingly to endear Chili Boy to the audience so Lo Wei can drive the point home how important family and community are to the individual.

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A Man Called Tiger (1973)

AManCalledTiger_1A Man Called Tiger [冷面虎] (1973)
AKA The Man Called Tiger

Starring Jimmy Wang Yu, Okada Kawai, Maria Yi Yi, James Tin Jun, Minakaze Yuko, Kasahara Reiko, Tien Feng, Kuro Mitsuo, Lee Kwan, Kam Shan, Han Ying-Chieh, Lo Wei

Directed by Lo Wei

Expectations: I hope have much hope for this, but I’m open to it.

twohalfstar


A Man Called Tiger is one of those old movies that you’ll either respect or hate. Its story is rather convoluted for something that should be fairly easy to convey in a martial arts picture: a man, in this case Jimmy Wang Yu, attempts to uncover the specifics of his father’s murder. But since this is a Lo Wei film, and from his Shaw Brothers wuxias I know he loved a good twisting plot, he has filled the film with other characters all searching for their daddies too. I’m not even exaggerating when I say there are no less than three fathers being searched for, and I’m not entirely sure that there wasn’t a fourth. All this crammed into a slim 76 minutes, too.

At least, that’s what I thought initially. I bought the film as part of Shout Factory’s Jimmy Wang Yu Collection, but prior to that being released I had also hunted down a VCD of the film. Completely unbeknownst to me, the VCD contained the full Hong Kong release version of the film, running 100 minutes. I queued it up in hopes that the missing 24 minutes would flesh out the missing father plots, and tie up some of those loose threads. The film definitely makes more sense at its full length, but it’s much slower, and one of the characters still appears without any explanation. Seriously, she first appears when she picks up Wang Yu as he is fleeing from a group of bad guys, and they clearly know one another. A few minutes later, she’s naked in a hotel bed declaring her love for Wang Yu. I don’t know who she is, but I think she was looking for her father.

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Fist of Fury (1972)

FistofFury_1Fist of Fury [精武門] (1972)
AKA The Chinese Connection

Starring Bruce Lee, Nora Miao, Tien Feng, James Tin Jun, Wong Chung-Shun, Han Ying-Chieh, Ngai Ping-Ngo, Riki Hashimoto, Robert Baker, Fung Ngai, Lo Wei, Jun Katsumura

Directed by Lo Wei

Expectations: I’m so excited.

fourstar


Fist of Fury is arguably the best of Bruce Lee’s films. After the building storm of The Big Boss, Fist of Fury ups the action and delivers what just about every modern, Western viewer of The Big Boss wanted: a movie where Bruce Lee basically just goes around and kicks ass. The storyline here is little more than simple revenge, but it’s the way that Lo Wei and Bruce Lee explore this theme that makes it such an iconic, influential and important Chinese film. On the surface it’s quite the “Defending China against Foreign Invaders” movie, but it’s also a cautionary tale.

The film opens with some text, informing us that Bruce’s master and the leader of the Ching Wu school, Ho Yuan Chia, was poisoned. Ho was real person, a Chinese folk hero who rose to fame for besting foreign martial artists, such as a Russian wrestler. I imagine he was the inspiration for the Russian wrestling scene in The Boxer from Shantung. Anyway, Bruce returns home to find that his master is dead. Consumed with rage and grief, he claws at the dirt covering his master’s coffin. The only thing that stops his fury is a swift hit with a shovel to the head, knocking him out. His rage is furious and unstoppable, and he will stop at nothing to get justice for his master.

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Dragon Fist (1979)

dragonfist_4Dragon Fist [龍拳] (1979)
AKA Dragon Hero, In Eagle Dragon Fist

Starring Jackie Chan, Yen Shi-Kwan, Pearl Lin Yin-Zhu, Nora Miao, Hsu Hsia, Ou-Yang Sha-Fei, James Tin Jun, Eagle Han Ying, Ko Keung, Wang Kuang-Yu, Chui Fat

Directed by Lo Wei

Expectations: Way low.

threestar


Dragon Fist opens like many kung fu films do. After a kung fu tournament to determine the greatest martial arts school in the region, the Tang San Clan is named the winner. The celebration is cut short by the villainous arrival of the leader of the Champion Clan. He wasn’t able to make it to the tournament, so he declares Tang San’s win false until he’s able to best his Snapping Kick technique. Jackie’s master puts up a valiant attempt, but the Snapping Kicks of Champion Clan prove too much, and he is mortally wounded. And if you assume that the next plot point is that Jackie Chan vows to exact revenge on Champion Clan, in the name of his master, then you’d be exactly right.

But what’s really interesting about Dragon Fist is that it after this clichéd opening, it largely diverges from and subverts the traditional martial arts plot. Wang Chung-Pin’s script (his only screenwriting credit) is exceptionally well-written, giving us a group of interesting characters all with their own desires and motives for the things they do. Don’t mistake this for some deep arthouse drama, but it’s definitely got a lot more going for it than I expected a late-game Lo Wei film to have. Dragon Fist is the last film that Jackie Chan made for Lo Wei before his two-film loan to Seasonal, and it’s easily the best film that Lo Wei directed Jackie Chan in (not counting The Killer Meteors, which features Jackie but is actually a Jimmy Wang Yu movie).

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Spiritual Kung Fu (1978)

Spiritual-Kung-Fu-001Spiritual Kung Fu [拳精] (1978)
AKA Karate Ghostbuster

Starring Jackie Chan, James Tin Jun, Mo Man-Sau, Li Tong-Chun, Lee Kwan, Dean Shek Tin, Ko Keung, Lee Hoi-Lung, Lee Man-Tai, Wang Kuang-Yu, Wong Ching

Directed by Lo Wei

Expectations: Moderate.

twostar


Lo Wei’s Spiritual Kung Fu may have been released to the public just a month and a half after Drunken Master blew up the Hong Kong box office, but it was made well-before as an answer to Half a Loaf of Kung Fu, Chen Chi-Hwa’s kung fu comedy starring Jackie Chan. After many requests from Jackie to allow him to include comedy in his films, Lo Wei finally relented and let Jackie and Chen make Half a Loaf of Kung Fu. But upon seeing the finished film, Lo was furious and he shelved the film (until 1980). He didn’t find it funny at all, and he made Spiritual Kung Fu in order to show Jackie what a real kung fu comedy should be like. Spiritual Kung Fu lucked out being released after Drunken Master, because at that point the public craved anything Jackie Chan. It gave this film box office receipts that came close to equaling those of Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, and which also bested many Shaw Brothers films destined to be memorable classics (such as The Five Venoms & Crippled Avengers).

So I suppose knowing all that, the big question about Spiritual Kung Fu hangs around its comedy. Is it funny? Do the laughs feel similar to the kung fu comedy of the two Jackie Chan/Yuen Woo-Ping collaborations? The answer is a resounding NO! There’s a reason why Lo Wei wasn’t known as a comedy director. The first half of the film goes hard into Lo’s idea of comedy, with things like Jackie stuffing random animals down his pants (including a snake that finds “a nice, dark place to call home,” if you know what I mean!), punishments that include writing calligraphy with a gigantic brush, a mischievous ghost that farts in a monk’s face, and Jackie pissing on the ghosts as they shrink and try to hide in a corner. You get the idea; the comedy is really low-brow. It’s kind of interesting to watch because you never know what’s coming next, but it’s a stretch to call it funny. That being said, I can imagine children getting more laughs out of it than I did, but there are better films to get your children laughing.

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The Big Boss (1971)

thebigboss_3The Big Boss [唐山大兄] (1971)
AKA Fists of Fury

Starring Bruce Lee, Maria Yi Yi, James Tin Jun, Nora Miao, Lee Kwan, Han Ying-Chieh, Lau Wing, Gam Saan, Chan Chue, Ma La Lene

Directed by Lo Wei

Expectations: I’m so excited.

threehalfstar


In case you’ve forgotten: Bruce Lee is badass. I’ve been eagerly awaiting re-watching this film for review, and it didn’t disappoint. It’s always been a favorite of mine, and seeing it within the context of the Shaw films released around it gave it a whole new spin. Maybe it’s not the best martial arts film if you hold it up against later genre entries, but Bruce’s charisma is more than enough to entertain and for its era this is pretty great stuff.

Like watching the later, Lo Wei-directed Jackie Chan films, watching The Big Boss after having seen Lo’s Shaw Brothers films was a new experience. I’ve always thought the film was somewhat slow, especially in its first hour, but now I know this is par for the Lo Wei course. He’s much more about metered plotting than blasting out action, and The Big Boss is a great example of this. And honestly, it’s a very well-paced film during this section if you relax a bit from your Bruce Lee bloodlust. He’s gonna kick the shit out of plenty of dudes, just hold your horses.

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