Well of Doom (1974)

WellofDoom_1Well of Doom [吃人井] (1974)

Starring Wang Ping, Chang Chi-Yu, Sally Chen Sha-Li, Sit Hon, Wong Yung, Pao Chin, Wong Yu, Shan Mao, Kong Yeung, Yuen Sam, Richard Tung Chin-Hu

Directed by Ting Shan-Hsi

Expectations: High. The title is very intriguing.

threestar


Well of Doom has all the ingredients for a tense thriller, but it actively avoids fully engaging them in the ways that other films have accustomed viewers to. This could have easily been a Shaw Brothers, period-set version of Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, and for a time I thought it was headed in that direction. Instead, Well of Doom is something far more varied and interesting, especially in how it has its characters play so much against expectations. The premise of the film is one we’ve seen before, but director Ting Shan-Hsi handles it in a unique way for Well of Doom.

The film opens by introducing us to a poor family living in the mountains of Taiwan. None of them particularly enjoy their hard life away from civilization, but they make do. An old monk, the previous owner of the home, told the father that he would one day return and give the father a large sum of money. That was about six years ago, with no sign of the monk. The father refuses to move away because of this, even though Da-Niu (Sally Chen Sha-Li), one of his three adult daughters, needs ongoing medical attention to deal with her childlike mental capacity. The eldest, Er-Niu (Chang Chi-Yu), is levelheaded and resigned to her life of seclusion and solitude, but her sister San-Niu (Wang Ping) longs for a husband above everything else. One day the father goes to town to buy some supplies, and unbeknownst to him the bandits Copper Head Eight (Sit Hon) and Iron Gun Six (Wong Yung) are traveling through the mountains with their apprentice, One Hundred (Pao Chin).

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The 14 Amazons (1972)

14amazons_1The 14 Amazons [十四女英豪] (1972)

Starring Ivy Ling Po, Lisa Lu, Lily Ho Li-Li, Yueh Hua, Fan Mei-Sheng, Wong Chung-Shun, Lo Lieh, Tien Feng, Wang Hsieh, Shu Pei-Pei, Wang Ping, Lau Ng-Kei, Karen Yip Leng-Chi, Li Ching, Tina Chin Fei, Ou-Yang Sha-Fei, Wong Gam-Fung, Betty Ting Pei, Teresa Ha Ping, Chen Yan-Yan, Lin Jing, Bolo Yeung, Goo Man-Chung, James Nam Gung-Fan, Tin Ching, Paul Chun Pui, Yeung Chi-Hing, Cheng Miu, Chung Wa

Directed by Cheng Kang

Expectations: Very high. This is one of the greats, right?

fourstar


The 14 Amazons is a true Shaw epic, bringing together a large ensemble cast and a well-known, classic Chinese tale just like The Water Margin had done a few months earlier in 1972. The two films are epics of different proportions, though, and feel almost nothing alike. Where The Water Margin is a small slice of a larger tale (and it feels it), The 14 Amazons feels meatier and more contained (even though it is also part of a larger story). But to compare the two films is wrongheaded, as they complement each other instead of being in competition.

The 14 Amazons is based on the Generals of the Yang family group of stories that have been passed down through Chinese culture since as early as the 11th century. The film specifically tells the story of how the Yang family defended the western Song borders from the invading barbarians from Western Xia. We open on the battlefield as Commander Yang Tsung Pao (Chung Wa) is wounded and cornered without many options. Understanding his fate, he sends two of his generals, Chiao Ting Kuai (Fan Mei-Sheng) & Meng Huai Yuan (Wong Chung-Shun), to travel home to inform his family of his death and to ask for more troops to be sent to the border. They comply against their wishes to stay and help him, and here the film introduces us to the titular female characters.

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Trilogy of Swordsmanship (1972)

trilogyofswordsmanship_5Trilogy of Swordsmanship [群英會] (1972)

Starring Shih Szu, Yueh Hua, Tin Ching, Meng Yuen-Man, Kao Pao-Shu, Bolo Yeung, Cheung Ging-Boh, Lily Ho Li-Li, Lo Lieh, Chung Wa, Chin Han, Wang Ping, Kong Ling, Ku Chiu-Chin, Lau Ng-Kei, Chen Yan-Yan, Lee Wan-Chung, Ti Lung, David Chiang, Li Ching, Ku Feng, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan, Wong Chung, Wu Chi-Chin, Cheng Lui, Chan Sing, Wang Kuang-Yu, Wong Ching-Ho

Directed by Griffin Yueh Feng, Cheng Kang & Chang Cheh

Expectations: High.

threehalfstar


On more than one occasion I’ve said that anthology movies just aren’t my thing. But a Shaw Brothers anthology film? My interest was piqued, although the mere idea of a wuxia anthology film seems like something of a ludicrous idea. Even at a full 90 or 120 minutes, a wuxia story is compressed and hard to understand, so cutting three of them to fit into a total of 107 minutes just doesn’t seem like a good idea. But it is. Totally.

Each film brings something unique to the screen. The first tale, directed by Griffin Yueh Feng (even if the screen credit says otherwise), is called The Iron Bow. It’s a lighthearted tale of love and unwanted attention, and it’s a perfect example of how to stage a martial arts short story. Master Shi (Tin Ching) is infatuated with the young Ying Ying (Shih Szu), but she doesn’t care for him at all. He is a rich official who comes with a procession of men to ask for her hand in marriage, but Ying Ying’s father thought ahead. When he died he left an iron bow in the family’s restaurant, and said that any man who could draw the bow was worthy of his daughter’s hand. This leads to many comical situations to balance the wuxia violence, and it results in a very pleasing bite-sized film. Yueh Hua and Shih Szu also have a fantastic spear battle, and Bolo Yueng pops up at the end with a rare full head of hair. Pure entertainment, if a bit light.

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King Boxer (1972)

KingBoxer_1King Boxer [天下第一拳] (1972)
AKA Five Fingers of Death

Starring Lo Lieh, Wang Ping, Wong Gam-Fung, Tien Feng, Tung Lam, Fang Mian, Goo Man-Chung, James Nam Gung-Fan, Yau Lung, Chen Feng-Chen, Chan Shen, Gam Kei-Chu, Chiu Hung, Someno Yukio, Yeung Chak-Lam, Hung Sing-Chung, Bolo Yeung, Tsang Choh-Lam, Wong Ching-Ho

Directed by Cheng Chang Ho

Expectations: High.

fourstar


Opening with the sound of an alarm, King Boxer lets you know straight away that it is a film to take notice of. As an advancement of the budding hand-to-hand genre, King Boxer is exactly the film the genre needed at this point in time. It builds on the foundation set by previous films — specifically The Chinese Boxer and Fist of Fury — and takes the genre closer to what it would later become. There’s no secret why this is the film that broke through to America and created a kung fu sensation; it’s an amazingly entertaining and well-made piece of work.

At the heart of the tale is the oft-told story of battling martial arts clans, but in King Boxer it’s the way the story is told that sets it apart. It is both rooted in martial arts traditions and something unique. It takes facets of the traditional kung fu film and orders them in a non-traditional way, resulting in a film that feels familiar, yet is never boring or predictable. It also explores its themes of jealousy, courage and cowardice much more fully than the traditional ’70s martial arts film, making King Boxer fulfilling on multiple levels.

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The Black Enforcer (1972)

blackenforcer_7The Black Enforcer [黑靈官] (1972)

Starring Tang Ching, Tien Feng, Fong Yan-Ji, Wang Ping, Chiu Hung, Cliff Lok, Yee Kwan, Tung Li, Wong Ching-Wan, Choi Sung, Ng Ming-Choi, Chai No, Choe Gwang-ho

Directed by Ho Meng-Hua

Expectations: Moderate.

threehalfstar


The Black Enforcer is probably the best film that I’ve seen yet from director Ho Meng-Hua. It’s rather unfortunate then that this one is rather hard to get ahold of, although intrepid Shaw Brothers fans should be able to track it down if you’re resilient enough. You shouldn’t have to stay in a darkened jail cell for 15 years while you think about the wrongs done to you like the title character of the film, but it will definitely take a bit of digging. 🙂

Before that jail cell comes into play, though, the Black Enforcer (Tang Ching) is bringing a couple of criminals in to see the yamen after they were caught looting a mansion and murdering an entire family of 13. What makes this something of a tortuous affair for the Black Enforcer is that one of the criminals is Guan Yun-Fei (Tien Feng), one of his martial arts brothers from their days under the same kung fu instructor. The Black Enforcer must put aside his feelings for the man and follow the law; there’s no excuse for his villainous behavior.

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The Killer (1972)

thekiller_1The Killer [大殺手] (1972)
AKA Sacred Knives of Vengeance

Starring Chin Han, Chung Wa, Wang Ping, Chiang Nan, Cheng Miu, Yeung Chi-Hing, Ku Feng, Cheng Kang-Yeh, Cheng Lui, Wang Kuang-Yu

Directed by Chor Yuen

Expectations: High.

threehalfstar


The Killer didn’t exactly light up the Hong Kong box office when it was released, but it offers a great take on a simple and classic martial arts storyline. Hsiao Hu (Chung Wa) returns to his hometown after an absence of many years, only to find that it has been overrun by drug smugglers! Hsiao is told that it’s the work of a large martial arts school in town, so he roughs up the students and breaks their sign. But the school is actually innocent of all wrongdoing; Hsiao is being played! To protect themselves, the school calls in Inspector Ma (Chin Han) to bring Hsiao to justice. The only thing is that Hsiao and Ma are old friends from their youth in the circus, and they both love Xiao Mei (Wang Ping), who’s now a famous singer in town. Ah shucks, how’re they gonna get outta this one? Sounds like the kind of story that Chang Cheh (or Three’s Company) could’ve had a field day with, but director Chor Yuen handles it with a slightly softer touch than Chang would have used.

Chor Yuen tells the main story very directly as you’d expect in a genre film, but the character’s back stories are handled with quick flashbacks that inform us in short order who these people are and how their lives are — or were — intertwined. This deft economy of storytelling adds an artistic flair to The Killer which sets it apart a lot from similarly themed brotherhood films. The audience is also in on the deception right from the beginning, so we’re watching both how the dominoes are set up and how they gloriously fall down.

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Oath of Death (1971)

OathofDeath_1Oath of Death [萬箭穿心] (1971)

Starring Lo Lieh, Tien Feng, Wai Wang, Ling Ling, Cheung Pooi-Saan, Yeung Oi-Wa, Bolo Yeung, Gam Kei-Chu, Lee Siu-Chung, Wang Ping, Liu Wai, Law Hon, Chiang Nan, Lee Wan-Chung

Directed by Pao Hsueh-Li

Expectations: Moderately high.

threehalfstar


Oath of Death doesn’t waste any time getting to the action. It begins immediately following the familiar Shaw fanfare, but this explosive opening is somewhat misleading. After the first act of the film sets up the characters and their struggle for righteousness, just about the entire second act is completely devoid of action. It was during this section that I became somewhat bored (despite enjoying a lot of the tension at work between the characters), but then a magical thing occurred. The final 20 minutes of this movie are incredible. The stuff contained in these 20 minutes are the epitome of what I want out of a Shaw Brothers film. This raises my estimation of Oath of Death quite a bit, and I doubt that any fan of gore could contain themselves as the final moments play out. I may not remember the story beats one-by-one, but I will never forget how this movie ends.

Oath of Death tells the story of three sworn brothers. They are valiant Song supporters fighting a rebellion against the ruthless invaders, the Tartars. Together, the blood brothers build a fortress to gather an army, because, as Tien Feng tells his brothers, in unity there is strength. When the fortress is complete, the three leaders (played by Tien Feng, Lo Lieh and Wai Wang) swear an oath to each other to do everything in their power to thwart the Tartar rulers, and whoever doesn’t hold up their end of the bargain will be killed without mercy. The story expands from here, involving lots of tests of their brotherly bonds and grand bloodshed. The plot is somewhere in between a wuxia and a martial arts film, forming a great bridge for the two genres to get to know each other.

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