Heroes of the Underground (1976)

Heroes of the Underground [丁一山] (1976)

Starring Ling Yun, Ching Li, Meng Yuen-Man, Cheng Kang-Yeh, Wai Wang, Kong Yeung, Liu Wai, Tin Ching, Yeung Chak-Lam, Yeung Chi-Hing, James Ma Chim-Si, Shum Lo

Directed by Pao Hsueh-Li

Expectations: Low, but hopeful.


I knew going into Heroes of the Underground that it wasn’t a martial arts movie, but it was still quite a disappointment. I often schedule contextually interesting movies into my chronological series and I penciled this one in based on a couple of factors. For one, it was written by the same team responsible for Come Drink With Me: King Hu and Ting Shan-Hsi (presumably from the late ’60s when they worked at Shaw together). Secondly, I’ve previously reviewed every Pao Hsueh-Li film up to this point in his career, so I might as well hit this one in order while I can. Thirdly, there were a lot of movies released in 1975 that were finished earlier and held back from release, so when I learned Heroes of the Underground was completed in 1973, I thought it might be worth watching along with the others. And finally, it just looked fun; Ching Li on the poster with a machine gun was quite persuasive! Unfortunately, on every one of those points the film is a disappointment.

Heroes of the Underground tells a story of rebellion during the Second Sino-Japanese War when Japan occupied China and oppressed the people. It is a time regularly depicted on film, from dramas to classic kung fu films to modern films like Ip Man. The film’s Chinese title is merely the main character’s name, though, Ding Yi-Shan, and usually this is an indication that the movie is centered around a renowned hero from history or folk legends. I couldn’t find anything that indicated the character was drawn from fact, but I did find a 1943 Lao She novel, Cremation, which shares a few character names, a setting, and a general plotline of resistance to the Japanese occupation.

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The Spiritual Boxer (1975)

The Spiritual Boxer [神打] (1975)
AKA Naked Fists of Terror, Fists from the Spirit World

Starring Wong Yu, Lin Chen-Chi, Kong Yeung, Shut Chung-Tin, Fung Hak-On, Lee Hoi-Sang, Ng Hong-Sang, Ngaai Fei, Chan Shen, Teresa Ha Ping, Chan Mei-Hua, Wong Ching-Ho, Keung Hon, Lee Sau-Kei, Shum Lo, Tin Ching, Chen Kuan-Tai, Ti Lung, Wilson Tong, Ho Kei-Cheong

Directed by Lau Kar-Leung

Expectations: High.


The Spiritual Boxer marks the directorial debut of one of the most influential figures in all of martial arts movie history: Lau Kar-Leung. Along with frequent partner Tang Chia, Lau began work at the Shaw studio choreographing Shaw’s first color martial arts film: Temple of the Red Lotus — a job they secured after pioneering Hong Kong’s first wirework in the Great Wall film The Jade Bow. Over the next 10 years, Lau’s collaborations with Chang Cheh resulted in a slew of iconic and lasting martial arts films that defined the genre. Lau’s goal throughout his film work was to bring more true-to-life representations of martial arts to the screen, and this ambition eventually led to Chang Cheh’s Shaolin Cycle of films. These films represented the closest Lau had come to realizing his dreams, and his strong, definite ideas led to a falling out with Chang Cheh during the filming of Disciples of Shaolin (though I’ve also seen it cited as being during Marco Polo, which Lau is not credited on). Producer Mona Fong then invited Lau Kar-Leung to return from Chang’s Film Co. in Taiwan to direct a movie of his own at the Shaw Brothers Studio in Hong Kong. Obviously, he took the offer and The Spiritual Boxer was the result.

The film begins near the end of the Qing dynasty with an intro showcasing the history of the “spiritual boxer,” a martial artist who could become invincible to all weapons after being infused with spirits of legend. Chen Kuan-Tai and Ti Lung make wonderful cameos as the spiritual boxers showing off their skills to the Empress Dowager Cixi, but the film isn’t about them, or this time, or even a spiritual boxer of the same ilk; it’s actually about a young apprentice, Hsiao Chien (Wong Yu), who travels the land with Master Chi Keung (Kong Yeung) performing spiritual boxing rituals. What their audiences don’t know is that they are just performers trying to earn a living from the reputation of the spiritual boxers, and when this trickery doesn’t go as planned it leads to much of the film’s conflict & comedy.

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The Taxi Driver (1975)

The Taxi Driver [的士大佬] (1975)

Starring David Chiang, Wong Chung, Lin Chen-Chi, Shut Chung-Tin, Yeung Chak-Lam, Wu Chi-Chin, Terry Lau Wai-Yue, Tung Lam, Shum Lo, Wong Ching-Ho, Lai Man, Helen Ko, Dana, Lee Pang-Fei

Directed by Pao Hsueh-Li

Expectations: Moderate.


Pao Hsueh-Li was a protege of Chang Cheh, but his films often just feel like lesser versions of something Chang Cheh would’ve made. The Taxi Driver is different. It’s the first of Pao’s films to really get under my skin, and it gives me hope that his films going forward might carry a similar style and artistic slant. The film’s focus on then-modern social problems does make it feel somewhat related to Chang’s delinquent youth pictures, but since the characters in The Taxi Driver are adults it’s more evolved. It’s actually a lot closer in tone to Kuei Chih-Hung’s The Tea House and Big Brother Cheng, and it also includes a few dangerous real-life stunts, heralding the coming waves of Hong Kong stars that would define themselves with their insane stunts.

The Taxi Driver is Chen Guang (David Chiang), a good man working hard to stay afloat in modern Hong Kong. He rents a room in a house owned by an older woman, and he’s saving up to marry Heung Lai Ching (Lin Chen-Chi). His job dictates that he’s out a lot of the time, though, ferrying various types of people in all manner of situations around the town. The film does a great job of setting up the struggle of the taxi driver’s job, illustrating how the driving is the easy part and that it’s more about dealing with the odd personalities in need of a ride.

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Big Brother Cheng (1975)

Big Brother Cheng [大哥成] (1975)

Starring Chen Kuan-Tai, Karen Yip Leng-Chi, Tung Lam, Wai Wang, Chung Chan-Chi, Lam Wai-Tiu, Lau Luk-Wah, Wong Yu, Fung Ging-Man, Chan Lap-Ban, Chan Mei-Hua, Shum Lo, Yeung Chak-Lam, Bruce Le

Directed by Kuei Chih-Hung

Expectations: High.


Big Brother Cheng is the smash-hit sequel to The Tea House (it was the Shaw Brothers’ 2nd biggest film of 1975!), but it’s far different than I expected it to be. At the end of the first film, Big Brother Cheng (Chen Kuan-Tai) and his family are set up to have an all-together new type of story told about them. I was excited to see this promised new direction unfold, so when it was summarily dispatched within the first minutes of Big Brother Cheng I was completely taken off guard. Instead of venturing forward into a new life, Big Brother Cheng is immediately pulled back into his role at the tea house.

As we learned in the first film, managing the tea house is more of a secondary concern of Cheng’s. His real passion lies in protecting and strengthening his community, dispensing justice where he feels that the laws have failed the honest people of the area. The first film explores this through various stories involving different levels of law enforcement and how they handle the crimes that come to them, with Cheng trying his best to keep crime at bay through diplomatic means as well as physical. Big Brother Cheng is similarly structured, but here Cheng is more fed up and ready to go on the offensive against the crime in his area. For instance, when a rape occurs Cheng and his loyal staff capture the men and ruthlessly humiliate them by making them strip and run around the room with an assortment of bottles, cans and bricks tied directly to their penises. They may not have served jail time, but there is something to be said for the deterring nature of this kind of rogue justice.

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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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Haunted Tales (1980)

hauntedtales_2Haunted Tales [碟仙] (1980)

Starring Ching Li, Ling Yun, Lin Chen-Chi, Lau Luk-Wah, Yeung Chi-Hing, Ku Kuan-Chung, Chan Shen, Shum Lo, Liu Lai-Ling, Sa Sa, Lau Nga-Ying

Directed by Chor Yuen (The Ghost, Story #1) & Mou Tun-Fei (The Prize Winner, Story #2)

Expectations: The poster is great, so I have high hopes.

threestar


Haunted Tales is a two-film horror anthology from the Shaw Studio, but those expecting a common theme between the tales should seek such synchronicity elsewhere. The first story is a reserved, classically styled ghost story, and the second is a debaucherous, exploitative morality play that’s closer to something Kuei Chih-Hung would have made. But while the tales do not complement one another, they are both engaging and quite entertaining in their differing ways, so Haunted Tales comes out as a great Shaw Brothers take on the horror anthology.

My research on the film led me to this post on the wonderful and always informative Cool Ass Cinema website. I encourage you to read the post if you’re interested in this film, or just some behind-the-scenes ideas of how the Shaw studio was run, and while you’re there explore the site a bit. It’s full of great stuff! Anyway, the gist is that the first story (The Ghost) began life with Chor Yuen as Hellish Soul in 1975, but production shut down and a few years later Ho Meng-Hua was brought in to complete some re-shoots (which also resulted in an unfinished feature). The Prize Winner, Mou Tun-Fei’s short that closes the film, also began shooting as a feature. Instead of completing the features, they were salvaged and combined into Haunted Tales. That explains the differences in tone!

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Night of the Devil Bride (1975)

nightofthedevilbride_2Night of the Devil Bride [攝青鬼] (1975)
AKA Night of the Devil’s Bride, Devil Bride

Starring Lo Lieh, Chen Ping, Ku Feng, Ai Ti, Lam Wai-Tiu, Lau Wai-Ling, Chan Shen, Terry Lau Wai-Yue, Yeung Chi-Hing, Helen Ko, Kong Yeung, Teresa Ha Ping, Shum Lo, Wong Ching-Ho

Directed by Chang Il-Ho

Expectations: Moderate, but hopeful. I love Hong Kong horror.

twohalfstar


It’s hard not to be intrigued by a film called Night of the Devil Bride, but I should know by now that a great title does not always equal a great film. In this particular case, it equals an OK movie with untapped potential. Night of the Devil Bride was directed by Korean filmmaker Chang Il-Ho, who also made a couple of mediocre kung fu movies at the Shaw Studio (The Deadly Knives and The Thunderbolt Fist), so maybe I should’ve known better from the start. The film was originally to have been a co-directed affair between Chang Il-Ho and Shin Sang-Ok (the director behind A Thousand Year Old Fox and the lost Shaw film The Bandits), and what remains bears the marks of this. Night of the Devil Bride is not the most cohesive movie, and anytime a movie is only 75 minutes long it’s logical to suspect problems, either budgetary or otherwise.

Night of the Devil Bride begins with moments of tenderness between Shui Lien (Chen Ping) and Kao (Lo Lieh), a married couple living in a modest home outside of town. Shui Lien is afflicted with a bad case of tuberculosis, regularly losing her hair and coughing up blood. The town doctor is treating her, but she’s having a hard time recovering. Since she’s homebound, the film follows Kao as he ventures around town trying to raise funds to support them. But it’s quickly apparent that Kao is not the tender husband he first appears to be, and that in fact he’s willing to do most anything — good or evil — to better his place in life.

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