Bruce Lee and I (1976)

Bruce Lee and I [李小龍與我] (1976)
AKA Bruce Lee: His Last Days, His Last Nights, Bruce Lee: His Last Days, I Love You, Bruce Lee

Starring Betty Ting Pei, Danny Lee, Wang Sha, Tony Liu Chun-Ku, James Nam Gung-Fan, Wong Man, Ku Wen-Chung, Lee Pang-Fei, Lee Sau-Kei, Wong San, Gam Dai, Pang Pang, Ling Hon, Kong San

Directed by John Law Ma

Expectations: Low.


The Bruceploitation genre is one that consistently surprises, offering as many unique ideas as it does scenes of “Bruce picking his successor” or footage from his funeral. I had heard that Bruce Lee and I was an especially exploitative look at Bruce Lee’s final days through the eyes of his mistress Betty Ting Pei (who plays herself here). In part, this is true; the film opens with a wild sex scene between Bruce and Betty, with Bruce taking regular breaks to smoke pot or take pills from the bedside table. It’s a whirlwind of bodies and drugs, and in the movie it directly leads to his death. Later the film contradicts this — and perhaps that’s the point — but it’s by far the most memorable thing about the movie, so viewers are likely to come away remembering the very thing the film was trying to dispute.

Bruce Lee’s death was sudden and the exact cause of death has always been up for debate. It was officially ruled a “death by misadventure,” which only led to further speculation on the part of his adoring and growing fan base. Bruce died at the home of Betty Ting Pei, which was initially covered up by Lee’s family who wanted to preserve Bruce’s image in the media. Did Bruce and Betty have an affair or were they just good friends? Who knows, and more importantly does it even matter? Despite the salacious opening that basically fuels the legend, Betty Ting Pei’s participation in this film suggests that it’s an attempt to tell her side of the story so we might understand the bond and friendship that she shared with Bruce Lee.

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The Golden Lion (1975)

The Golden Lion [金毛獅王] (1975)

Starring Chiu Hung, Li Ching, James Nam Gung-Fan, Fang Mian, Wang Hsieh, Lee Man-Chow, Pang Pang, Chan Shen, Wong Ching-Ho, Law Hon, Chai No, Goo Chim-Hung

Directed by Ho Meng-Hua

Expectations: Low.


In the United States, when we hear that a movie has been held unreleased for any extended length of time — in this case, four years — the natural assumption is that irreparable artistic or financial issues exist with the movie preventing its release. Some of these concerns might carry over to the 1970s Hong Kong industry, but with the Shaw Brothers studio I feel like their continuous production methods led to lower priority films being abandoned, regardless of any fault in the film itself. The changing landscape of the Hong Kong industry from wuxia to hand-to-hand kung fu is the most likely culprit, causing the once flourishing wuxia genre on to the back burner for both studios and audiences.

Looking into the box office records of Ho Meng-Hua’s previous films also sheds some light on the issue. Neither of his two 1971-released wuxias, The Lady Hermit and The Long Chase, did very well, with The Lady Hermit specifically underperforming at 75th place out of 83 films released that year. Ambush was filmed in 1971 like The Golden Lion, and when it eventually released in 1973 it also did poorly, ranking 77th out of 87 films. Both Ambush and The Golden Lion star Chiu Hung & Li Ching, and while Li Ching was a great part of many Chang Cheh films, neither Li or Chiu were big enough stars to carry films on their own. In 1975, The Golden Lion also performed poorly, coming in at 84th of 92 films. Ouch. Poor wuxia. 🙁 Thanks to Celestial Pictures and the passage of time, though, we are allowed to find the hidden gems that failed to resonate in their day. The Golden Lion is one such film… in fact, I’d say it’s one of Ho Meng-Hua’s best and most satisfying wuxias.
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The Tea House (1974)

teahouse_1The Tea House [成記茶樓] (1974)
AKA The Teahouse

Starring Chen Kuan-Tai, Karen Yip Leng-Chi, Yeung Chi-Hing, Wong Yu, Fung Ging-Man, Lee Pang-Fei, Chung Chan-Chi, Lam Wai-Tiu, Lam Siu, Lee Sau-Kei, Cheung Chok-Chow, Liu Wu-Chi, Pang Pang, Shum Lo, Tung Lam, Wong Ching-Ho, Cheng Kang, Fan Mei-Sheng, Bruce Le

Directed by Kuei Chih-Hung

Expectations: High!

threestar


Chen Kuan-Tai was a firmly established martial arts star when The Tea House was released, but it was his calm, powerful performance as Big Brother Cheng that cemented his status as a well-respected actor. The film was so popular — it reached #9 at the 1974 Hong Kong Box Office — that a sequel was made the following year titled after Chen’s character. Given the ending of The Tea House, I’m really excited to see where the sequel takes Big Brother Cheng. But to get back to The Tea House: it’s an interesting film, unlike really anything I’ve seen from the Shaw Studio.

The Tea House opens with a long tracking shot through the titular Cheng Chi Tea House, showing us what “normal” looks like at the establishment before unleashing the drama that will continually disrupt business throughout the film. But it’s not so much a movie that depends on its plot; it’s more concerned with commenting on the then-current state of juvenile delinquency and the justice system’s inability to properly deal with the problem. I’ve seen many Shaw films deal with delinquency, but The Tea House engages the problem in a complete unique and fresh manner. The film has a tendency to be episodic and not completely cohesive, but what holds it together is this thematic focus on how the film’s various groups handle punishment.

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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 every 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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