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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Mini-Review: The Cave of Silken Web (1967)

The Cave of Silken Web [盤絲洞] (1967)

Starring Chow Lung-Cheung, Ho Fan, Pang Pang, Tin Sam, Angela Yu Chien, Lau Leung Wa, Shen Yi, Helen Ma Hoi-Lun, Shirley Wong Qui-Lee, Tin Mung, Yau Ching, Shum Lo, Tang Ti

Directed by Ho Meng-Hua

Expectations: Moderate. The last one wasn’t as good as the first.


Third in the Shaw Brother’s series of four films based upon the classical Chinese novel Journey to the West, The Cave of Silken Web is a definite step up from the previous sequel Princess Iron Fan. The focus is tightened here to one story for the entire film and it serves the arc of the story and the film better than the episodic format that the earlier films had. With only one story to focus on, director Ho Meng-Hua and his wonderful group of actors can really settle into their roles and have a great time. Not to mention that the villains here have real weight and pursue our heroes relentlessly. Chow Lung-Cheung takes over the role of the Monkey King for this film, and while he’s not quite as emotive or charismatic as Yuen Hua was, it’s pretty seamless and most viewers probably won’t even notice the difference.

The Cave of Silken Web starts off like any other story from the series, with the monk Tang and his band of protectors riding West in search of Buddhist scriptures. While looking for a place to stay for the night, they are tricked into the evil plans of the seven spider-demon sisters of the Cave of the Silken Web! They are quite devious and before you know it, Tang is turned into mist and captured in a vase and all seems to be lost. Of course nothing is yet written in stone, as the Monkey King, Pigsy and Sandy are all diligent followers of Tang and fight tirelessly to free their master.

The first half of the film is something of a rehash of most of the previous stories, but the film really hits its stride come the second half. The action moves completely within the cave and it’s a non-stop ride to the finale with all kinds of mistaken identity and hijinks that only the Monkey King can provide. Everything else takes a backseat to the last couple of minutes though when Sandy’s acquisition of the deadly Seven Flames is unleashed. The Seven Flames is the only thing capable of counteracting the seven sisters’ spider webs and it’s basically just a flamethrower disguised as a large jug. Watch as Sandy and the Monkey King lay waste to all kinds of shit with a flamethrower! I defy you to not be entertained by that! This is the first flamethrower I’ve seen in a Shaw Brothers film, and I sure hope it isn’t the last. This isn’t the type of movie I’d expect a flamethrower to pop up, but I ain’t complaining!

And if nothing else, The Cave of Silken Web teaches one very important lesson. No matter how powerful or supernatural you are (or think you are), a big rock to the back of the head is always capable of knocking you out. So watch your backs and give this one a shot. It’s not necessary to see the preceding films first, but it will help quite a bit and I recommend it.

Mini-Review: Princess Iron Fan (1966)

Princess Iron Fan [鐵扇公主] (1966)

Starring Ho Fan, Yueh Hua, Pang Pang, Tin Sam, Cheng Pei Pei, Pat Ting Hung, Lily Ho Li Li, Cheng Miu, Shen Yi, Ng Wai, Lily Li Li-Li, Ku Feng, Man Sau

Directed by Ho Meng-Hua

Expectations: High, I really enjoyed the first film.


Princess Iron Fan is the second in the Shaw Brother’s four film series of Journey to the West films. It’s not nearly as episodic as the first film, this time only containing two stories, with most of the runtime dedicated to the second one. It’s interesting to me that this got titled after Princess Iron Fan, the subject of the first and much shorter tale, instead of after the film’s main villain and trickster the White Bone Demon (or the Lady White Skeleton depending on the translation) played wonderfully by Cheng Pei-Pei. No matter though, let’s get to what matters… is it a competent sequel?

The answer is a resounding yes. Princess Iron Fan doesn’t deal out anywhere near the amount of amazing FX and crazy visuals as The Monkey Goes West, but it does remain enjoyable throughout. Don’t worry though, you get your fair share of crazy shenanigans going on too. One of my favorite of these moments is when Monkey has to infiltrate Princess Iron Fan’s home to retrieve the only thing that can quell the flames impeding their journey, her iron fan. First he transforms into a three-inch tall version of himself and tickles his way through the serving girls to create a distraction. Then as the princess receives her scrumptious ginseng soup, he transforms into a fly and jumps in the bowl. He travels inside her stomach and then announces his presence. When the princess refuses to relinquish the fan, he hits her tender stomach walls with the end of his staff and performs ulcer-inducing somersaults. Her only recourse is to give in and my only option is to enjoy the shit out of this scene. I’ve seen tons of amazing and inventive sets from the Shaw Brothers, but the interior stomach is something completely fresh and very enjoyable.

Princess Iron Fan is a strong enough film on its own to win anyone over, but taken as a sequel it builds on The Monkey Goes West very well. It doesn’t flesh out the character of Sha Wujing (Sandy) at all though, but there’s still a couple of sequels to do that. I don’t need anything deep, but some explanation of him or a show of his powers would be nice. As of now he’s only the dude with the beard and the crescent moon staff. In any case, it’s clear that Monkey is and always will be the main character of these films. Even though he’s only a disciple to the Monk Tang on his quest for the Buddhist scriptures, it is Monkey’s journey that is the most interesting and easily relatable.

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