The Way of the Dragon (1972)

wayofthedragon_1The Way of the Dragon [猛龍過江] (1972)
AKA Return of the Dragon, Revenge of the Dragon, Fury of the Dragon

Starring Bruce Lee, Nora Miao, Ngai Ping-Ngo, Wong Chung-Shun, Gam Dai, Unicorn Chan, Lau Wing, Jon T. Benn, Chuck Norris, Whang In-Shik, Robert Wall, Malisa Longo, Robert Chan Law-Bat, Chen Fu-Ching

Directed by Bruce Lee

Expectations: High, it’s Bruce Lee!

threestar


With The Way of the Dragon, Bruce Lee stepped into the role of writer/director along with the acting and choreography roles he had inhabited on his previous two Hong Kong films. As a result, The Way of the Dragon is much more reflective of Bruce Lee’s personality than his films under Lo Wei. Depending on your viewpoint, this could be a good or bad thing. For me (someone who enjoys the work of Lo Wei far more than other kung fu fans seem to), it was somewhere in the middle. I have always thought this was the least of Bruce’s films, and today’s viewing only solidified that for me. But this time, I think I understood why I’ve always been somewhat disinterested with the film.

Taking this film as evidence, it would seem that Bruce Lee’s relationship with Lo Wei was somewhat similar to Lo’s later relationship with Jackie Chan. Both stars wished to express themselves through more than just the traditional notes of what a martial arts film was at the time. Both stars immediately integrated comedy and martial arts in their films away from Lo. Jackie was obviously the more successful in doing so — does anyone know Bruce for his comedy? — but both stars clearly wanted to push the genre beyond what their initial director wanted to let them.

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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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Valley of the Fangs (1970)

Valley of the Fangs [餓狼谷] (1970)

Starring Li Ching, Lo Lieh, Chan Leung, Wang Kuang-Yu, Cheng Lui, Fan Mei-Sheng, Ngai Ping-Ngo, Wang Hsieh, Chen Yan-Yan, Tung Li, Lee Pang-Fei, Shi Xiu, Kim Chil-Seong

Directed by Cheng Chang Ho

Expectations: Moderate. Hopefully I like it better than Heads for Sale.


Another week, another moderately enjoyable Shaw Brothers wuxia film! The light at the end of the tunnel is brighter than it ever has been before, but these old school wuxia films are still really sapping my energies. Valley of the Fangs isn’t so much a bad film as it is one that’s not all that unique. As all of these Shaw Brothers films are essentially shot in the same locations and on the same sets, they have the tendency to run together. And when the direction isn’t all that interesting, they really run together, so in a few days I will have a hard time distinguishing my memories of Valley of the Fangs from the sea of films that came before it.

But I don’t want to be too harsh. Valley of the Fangs is better than I’m giving it credit for, and while it’s not pure fun like The Winged Tiger, it does have enough to keep you entertained. There’s a world of difference between keeping you entertained and actually exciting, though, so I can’t help but be a little disappointed with this spectacularly titled film. And — spoiler alert — there’s not really any fangs to be found in the valley.

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The Winged Tiger (1970)

The Winged Tiger [插翅虎] (1970)

Starring Chen Hung Lieh, Tien Feng, Angela Yu Chien, Annette Sam Yuet-Ming, Fang Mian, Ngai Ping-Ngo, David Chiang, Law Hon, Tong Tin-Hei, Cheng Lui, Wong Tat-Wah, Cheng Miu, Yip Bo-Kam, Yeung Chak-Lam

Directed by Shen Chiang

Expectations: Moderate. I’m interested to see Chen Hung Lieh in a good guy role.


If you told me that five years after the genesis of the traditional martial arts genre with Temple of the Red Lotus that film’s screenwriter would finally get a chance at both writing and directing, I would have guessed it would be something of a train wreck. Looking at Shen Chiang’s previous scripts, they range from OK (The Thundering Sword) to a little better than OK (The Silver Fox). So imagine my surprise when I sat down with The Winged Tiger and found myself fully immersed in a world of martial intrigue and wuxia heroics. The Winged Tiger is a great film, and one that is sure to excite genre fans.

There are two martial arts manuals that together contain the power to create an unstoppable martial artist. The chiefs of the major clans have gotten together and decided that they must be stolen and destroyed, as one of them is in the hands of the King of Hades (Tien Feng), while the other resides with the Winged Tiger. As you might guess from his name, he dresses in bright orange and black clothes and can fly because his costume has underarm wings that recall visions of flying squirrels. Anyway, the clan chiefs ask the Flying Hero (Chen Hung Lieh in his first hero role) to get the manuals back at all costs (including tricking the King of Hades into thinking he’s the true Winged Tiger) to avert a major martial crisis.

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Vengeance is a Golden Blade (1969)

Vengeance is a Golden Blade [飛燕金刀] (1969)

Starring Chin Ping, Yueh Hua, Tang Ching, Kao Pao Shu, Goo Man-Chung, Pang Pang, Lee Pang-Fei, Chiu Hung, Law Hon, Ngai Ping-Ngo, Wong Ching Ho, Hao Li-Jen, Tsang Choh-Lam

Directed by Ho Meng-Hua

Expectations: High. You can’t go wrong with that title, right?


The reason I made it a point to go through the Shaw Brothers films chronologically is because I knew that there was no way that one week I could review some early misstep like King Cat, followed by something akin to heaven like Five Element Ninjas, only to return to the slow-paced, melodrama of the late 60s. Sometimes I do venture outside of the era though, and this time specifically I had seen Merantau, Flash Point and The Raid all in between the last Shaw Brothers picture and this. I’m a professional though, so I didn’t let it undermine the experience of watching Vengeance is a Golden Blade, but it did shine a brilliant spotlight on just how underwhelming an experience it was.

Vengeance is a Golden Blade starts out as another in the long tradition of “the most badass sword” movies, such as The Sword of Swords, The Thundering Sword, etc. The masterpiece sword here is the Golden Dragon Sword, and it is pretty badass, slicing clean through every bit of metal swung its way. The intrigue involves the sword being stolen by a grave enemy, the hero being crippled and eighteen years passing before anyone gets down to any real vengeance. This is where the film gains its true star in Chin Ping, and, to a lesser extent, her childhood friend Yueh Hua. While this might sound like a great setup for a classic swordplay film, Vengeance is a Golden Blade is only merely average. It does tell an interesting story filled with twisty turns and devious betrayals, but for the most part it’s all pretty standard fare.

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Killer Darts (1968)

Killer Darts [追魂鏢] (1968)

Starring Chin Ping, Yueh Hua, Fang Mian, Shen Yi, Pang Pang, Cheung Pooi-Saan, Ma Ying, Tang Ti, Ngai Ping-Ngo, Cheung Yuk-Kam, Woo Tung, Ku Feng

Directed by Ho Meng-Hua

Expectations: Pretty high, I watched the intro to this a few months back and loved it.


Killer Darts sees veteran Shaw Brothers director Ho Meng-Hua finally come into the traditional martial arts genre. While Hsu Cheng Hung was making the Red Lotus trilogy and Chang Cheh was busy redefining the genre to be male-centric, Ho Meng-Hua had been focused on films in other genres (Historical Drama, Ghost Story, Romance) and his series of four Monkey King films which I reviewed a few months back. Those were quite enjoyable so I come into Killer Darts with a lot of expectations that Ho will take the techniques on display in the Monkey King films and apply them to the more straight-ahead martial arts films Shaw Brothers were becoming known for.

Killer Darts opens incredibly well, as a devious group of bandits perform a nighttime raid on a small village, burning it to the ground and indiscriminately killing women and children. One of the women they kill is the wife of hero Liu Wen-Lung (Fang Mian). He sets out on a quest to avenge his wife’s death, and while on that quest one of his disciples has a giant lapse in judgment when a farm girl refuses his advances. This leads to an orphaned little girl who is taken in by Liu Wen-Lung and raised into Shaw Bros. star Chin Ping, now a swordswoman to be reckoned with. Her mother was killed with the killer dart and in her dying breath she gave it to Chin Ping and told her to avenge her. So we’ve got a multi-layered revenge picture on our hands and for the most part, it succeeds really well at bringing all the necessary elements together.

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The Magnificent Swordsman (1968)

The Magnificent Swordsman [怪侠] (1968)
AKA Vagabond Swordsman

Starring Wong Chung-Shun, Shu Pei-Pei, Tien Feng, Cheng Miu, Ngai Ping-Ngo, Fan Mei-Sheng, Ma Ying, Chiu Hung, Shum Lo, Chai No, Ng Wai, Lee Ka-Ting, Cheng Kang-Yeh, Yau Lung

Directed by Griffin Yueh Feng & Cheng Kang

Expectations: Fairly high. Griffin Yueh Feng delivered a pretty good looking film before in Rape of the Sword.


While many martial arts films are influenced by Sergio Leone’s westerns, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one as deeply indebted to the genre like The Magnificent Swordsman is. The film is a mash-up of the stories from Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars and Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, resulting in a more Western-leaning Chinese version of Kurosawa’s Fistful of Dollars remake Yojimbo. Jesus, I need to take a moment after deciphering that one. For the most part it works, but because everything has been done before (and better), The Magnificent Swordsman isn’t as good or exciting as it should be. Don’t get me wrong, the film is entertaining and fun to watch, but the lack of originality really hurts this one from being the film it could have been for viewers that have seen the films mentioned. On the other hand, if you haven’t seen those (and why the hell haven’t you?), then you’re likely to get a lot more out of The Magnificent Swordsman than I did.

The direction from Griffin Yueh Feng and Cheng Kang is very good, filling the frame in interesting ways and with intriguing angles. Like Yueh Feng’s previous film Rape of the Sword, it exhibits a very defined style with all the snap zooms and whip pans you’d expect from a Shaw Bros. film. The difference is that I feel Yueh Feng was one of the influential guys in creating what would become that “standard Shaw Bros shooting style” as his films feature it throughout with confidence and passion, while other Shaw films of the era merely flirt with the techniques.

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