Ambush (1973)

Ambush+1973-1-bAmbush [埋伏] (1973)

Starring Li Ching, Chiu Hung, Yeung Chi-Hing, Wang Hsieh, Dean Shek Tin, Kong Ling, Tung Lam, Lee Pang-Fei, Chan Shen, Pang Pang, Unicorn Chan, Lee Man-Chow, Sa Au

Directed by Ho Meng-Hua

Expectations: Moderate.

threestar


Ambush is like a lot of the other martial arts films I’ve seen from director Ho Meng-Hua. It is a capable film, and it tells a good story, but it just doesn’t feel all that original or special. When you’re cranking out as many martial arts films as the Shaw Brothers were at this time, it makes sense that many of them might be like this, but a couple of things about Ambush help to differentiate it from previous mid-level Shaw films.

First, this was their first martial arts film of 1973, and by this point in their history the fight choreography is well beyond what you’d generally expect in something labeled “mid-range.” By modern standards it’s a little wonky, but regardless the fights of Ambush are plentiful and fun. Shaw veteran Simon Chui Yee-Ang handled the choreography himself this time and he does a great job of crafting quick-moving fights that showcase everything from fantastical wuxia feats, to basic swordplay, to the up-and-coming genre standard hand-to-hand work.

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The Enchanted Chamber (1968)

EnchantedChamber+1968-1-bThe Enchanted Chamber [狐俠] (1968)

Starring Margaret Hsing Hui, Chin Feng, Lily Li Li-Li, Lee Kwan, Goo Man-Chung, Pang Pang, Tung Li, Chiu Sam-Yin, Fang Mian

Directed by Hsih Chun

Expectations: High, for some reason. Probably because I couldn’t see this one for a long time and now its mystique is all built up.

threehalfstar


Wuxia films always contain some supernatural elements, but The Enchanted Chamber is a true supernatural wuxia. Powers and the spirit world inform nearly every scene in the film, creating a fantastically entertaining film that is a hybrid of wuxia, spooky horror and a tale of star-crossed lovers. Thinking about the other Shaw films from 1968, The Enchanted Chamber also feels quite unique in this regard, flawlessly blending genres together where other films of this era have a rough time presenting one genre as well.

Based on a tale from the classic Chinese collection Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, The Enchanted Chamber opens by introducing us to Chiang Wen-Tsui (Margaret Hsing Hui), a trickster fox fairy. We watch as she thwarts an adulterous couple mid-coitus, and a few minutes later she sings a wonderful song while providing pears for some hungry children in town. It would appear that she is to be our main character, but about 20 minutes in, the film takes a hard turn away from her story. While she does return to play a very important role in the film, her introduction also serves double duty by introducing us to the type of world we’re dealing with. This is a world where mischievous fairies are very much a real thing, and if someone says their house is haunted, you better not stick around.

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The Water Margin (1972)

watermargin_10aThe Water Margin [水滸傳] (1972)
AKA Seven Blows of the Dragon, Outlaws of the Marsh

Starring David Chiang, Tetsuro Tamba, Toshio Kurosawa, Ku Feng, Chin Feng, Fan Mei-Sheng, Yueh Hua, Wong Chung, Ti Lung, Lily Ho Li-Li, Pang Pang, Tung Lam, Wu Ma, Cheng Lui, Paul Chun Pui, Chen Kuan-Tai, Danny Lee, Wu Chi-Chin, Lee Hang, Lau Dan, Lei Lung, Zhang Yang, Leung Seung-Wan, Lo Wai, Lee Wan-Chung, Shum Lo, Wong Ching-Ho, James Nam Gung-Fan, Lau Gong, Cheng Miu

Directed by Chang Cheh, Wu Ma & Pao Hsueh Li

Expectations: High.

fourstar


The Water Margin is a classic of Chinese literature, a novel written in the 14th century that has inspired and entertained the Chinese people ever since. That’s quite the run for a novel, and judging by the amount of quality storytelling in Chang Cheh’s The Water Margin, it’s with good reason. The novel, also known as Outlaws of the Marsh, is about a group of 108 men and women who came together at Liang Shan Mountain in an effort to fight the corrupt Imperial ruler. Chang Cheh’s adaptation attempts to bring a small slice of the overall story — chapters 64-68 — to the silver screen, focusing on the tale of how Lu Junyi the Jade Unicorn (Tetsuro Tamba) and his protégé Yen Qing (David Chiang) came to join the group. At the same time, Chang casts virtually ever actor employed by the Shaw studio, resulting in a true martial arts epic that feels huge and sprawling. Certain characters might not get much screen-time or development — Chen Kuan-Tai is on-screen for less than 10 seconds, drinking a bowl of wine — but it is made very clear that this is a teeming world full of rich characters. We may not be privy to all the details, but you can rest assured that every character has a motive and a rich backstory.

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The Long Chase (1971)

thelongchase_7The Long Chase [俠士行] (1971)

Starring Yueh Hua, Lo Lieh, Li Ching, Pang Pang, Wang Hsieh, Chiu Hung, Tong Tin-Hei, Law Hon, Chuen Yuen, Lee Siu-Chung, Wong Ching-Ho, Cliff Lok Kam Tung, Someno Yukio, Man Lei

Directed by Ho Meng-Hua

Expectations: Low.

threehalfstar


The Long Chase offers a different take on the heroic brotherhood stories that populate many other Shaw Brothers films, and it comes as a welcome variation. I don’t know that everyone would be as enthusiastic about this one as I am, but it must have hit me on the right day, as it was start-to-finish entertainment. The film opens at night, as the Prime Minister and his envoy are about to travel through town. Unbeknownst to the guards and their leader (Lo Lieh), a sneaky swordsman dressed all in black sneaks around the town in order to assassinate the Prime Minister. He crawls through ditches in seemingly plain sight of the guards, but I guess his movements were so good that they were imperceptible to the guards. That, or guards are just woefully incompetent in films. Probably that.

As a side note, these ditches that the assassin (Yueh Hua) crawls through are most likely the ditches dug in the sets for the cameras to capture low angles of the streets and whatever action is occurring on them. After so many of these films, the sets become fairly familiar and it seems as if I’ve seen every angle and viewpoint, so it’s always nice to see a new piece, especially one with a technical background such as this.

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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 Land of Many Perfumes (1968)

The Land of Many Perfumes [女兒國] (1968)

Starring Chow Lung-Cheung, Ho Fan, Pang Pang, Tin Sam, Fang Ying, Lee Heung-Gwan, Lau Leung Wa, Irene Chen Yi-Ling, Wong Ching-Wan, Cheung Yuk-Kam, Kong Dan, Yip Bo-Kam, Lee Hung-Chu, Gloria Wang Xiao-Ing, Tsang Choh-Lam

Directed by Ho Meng-Hua

Expectations: Moderate. I’m getting somewhat bored of these because they’re all pretty similar.


What’s to say about this series that I haven’t already said? The Land of Many Perfumes is the fourth and final entry into the Shaw Brothers Journey to the West series of films, and unfortunately it’s the most minor of them all. Like the previous films, The Land of Many Perfumes opens with the monk Tang and his followers looking for a place to sleep at night. It’s a long, hard road to the West in search of Buddhist scriptures and beds are hard to come by.

The many perfumes of the title do not refer to thousands of little bottles of “eau du toilette” as you might expect. Nope, they’re talking about all the ladies in the region. Our heroes venture into a realm where only women dwell, reproducing via the river, but this method only allows them to produce female offspring. When the men arrive on the scene, it creates a frenzy among the women as many of them have never seen a man. They all wish to marry Tang, but it is the Empress and her daughter that scuffle the most about it. They don’t want to eat his flesh as the villains in the previous films all did, but they do lust for his flesh in other ways.

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