The Condemned (1976)

The Condemned [死囚] (1976)

Starring David Chiang, Tsai Hung, Lily Li Li-Li, Ku Feng, Woo Gam, Pai Ying, Kong Yeung, Chan Shen, Yuen Sam, Wong Ching, Shum Lo, Lee Hoi-Sang

Directed by David Chiang

Expectations: Moderate.


At first, The Condemned seems like it will be another in a long line of martial arts films where a hero comes to town and vanquishes the area’s marauding bandits. That is essentially what ends up happening, but the road there is far different than just about any other Shaw film I can think of. Ni Kuang has crafted yet another excellent script, and director David Chiang translates it to the screen quite effectively. It offers a rare starring role to one of my beloved supporting actors, Tsai Hung, and the interplay he has with David Chiang is thrilling to watch. Thanks to all of this, The Condemned is a real hidden gem of a film waiting for a new audience to rediscover it.

Feng Dagang (Tsai Hung) is a righteous martial artist who has been sent by his master to help Mr. Xue (Yuen Sam) with an especially nasty group of bandits. These guys rape, pillage and cause all sorts of mayhem at will, so it will be quite a task to defeat them. Mr. Xue is saddened that only the student has arrived to aid him, and he’s disheartened that Feng will remedy the problem sufficiently. But when the bandits attack Mr. Xue’s home, Feng proves himself to be a stalwart and capable fighter. The only problem is that when the police arrive, the situation looks as if Feng has been the perpetrator of all the death and violence in the Xue home.

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Boxer Rebellion (1976)

Boxer Rebellion [八國聯軍] (1976)
AKA Spiritual Fists, Bloody Avengers

Starring Alexander Fu Sheng, Chi Kuan-Chun, Leung Kar-Yan, Jenny Tseng, Woo Gam, Johnny Wang Lung-Wei, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan, Li Li-Hua, Sun Yueh, Tsui Fu-Sheng, Liu Wei-Bin, Richard Harrison, Henry Bolanas, Wong Cheong-Chi, Han Chiang, Someno Yukio, Yeung Fui-Yuk, Lam Fai, Chiang Tao

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: High.


Of all the films that Chang Cheh directed over his career, Boxer Rebellion was one that the director thought was among his most successful (in artistic terms). The film’s depiction of the Boxer Rebellion and its anti-foreigner sentiment did not agree with the British censors in Hong Kong, so the film was only released in a heavily truncated version (with something like 30–45 minutes edited out) and with the title changed to Spiritual Fists. The film failed miserably under these conditions and this angered Chang Cheh, because as the editor of his memoir notes, “he really poured his heart into Boxer Rebellion.” Later in the book, Chang expresses the wish that someone would rescue the film from a “musty closet” so that it may be seen as intended, if for no other reason than to pay tribute to the work of Fu Sheng held unseen within. Chang died in 2002, but if he had lived just another few years he’d have seen his dream realized when Celestial restored and finally released the full version of Chang’s epic film in 2005.

I have not seen the edited version of the film, but this restored, original vision is without a doubt one of Chang’s finest efforts as a director. He had previously made epic films that brought together large casts and told big, sprawling stories, but not a single one of them is anywhere close to the level of scale and scope seen in Boxer Rebellion. Chang talks in his memoir about tiring of making Shaolin pictures around this time, so once again he looked to craft something new for the Hong Kong market. He set his sights on the war picture, first shooting Seven Man Army (to less-than-satisfactory results, according to Chang), and then following it up with Boxer Rebellion, the highest budgeted Hong Kong film at the time. The resulting film shows a clear influence from its predecessors, with the scale of his epics like The Water Margin or The Heroic Ones, and the intimacy of his Shaolin films like Heroes Two or Disciples of Shaolin.

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The Fantastic Magic Baby (1975)

The Fantastic Magic Baby [紅孩兒] (1975)

Starring Ting Wa-Chung, Lau Chung-Chun, Chiang Tao, Cheung Chuen-Lai, Woo Gam, Tsai Hung, Fung Hak-On, Ku Kwan, Teng Jue-Jen, Chen I-Ho, Yeung Fui-Yuk, Chao Li-Chuan, Siu Wong-Lung, Lee Lung-Yam, Phillip Kwok Chun-Fung

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: High. Chang Cheh and Journey to the West!


In a career full of intriguing and entertaining films, Chang Cheh’s The Fantastic Magic Baby is one of his most interesting and unique. On the surface, it is an adaptation of a story from the Chinese classic Journey to the West, but it quickly reveals itself to be much more than that. Like Chang’s Shaolin Cycle films, The Fantastic Magic Baby honors and preserves the legacy of a Chinese tradition, showcasing the beautiful movements of the Peking Opera as only a Chang Cheh film could.

For those unfamiliar with Journey to the West, the basics are all present in the film. The Monk Tripitaka (Teng Jue-Jen) is traveling to retrieve sacred Buddhist scriptures from India with his companions Sun Wukong the Monkey King (Lau Chung-Chun), Bajie AKA Pigsy (Chen I-Ho) and Sha Seng AKA Sandy (Yeung Fui-Yuk). Demons and other devious entities catch wind of their travels and seek to imprison them in order to eat the monk’s flesh, which can supposedly prolong their lives 1,000 years. In this particular story, it is Princess Iron Fan (Woo Gam) and the Ox Demon King (Chiang Tao) who desire the monk’s flesh. They send their son Red Boy (Ting Wa-Chung) — the fantastic magic baby of the title — to capture Tripitaka for their pleasure. Red Boy is perfect for the mission because he has recently mastered the Three Types of True Fire, which are so powerful that not even the Monkey King can withstand them.
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The Gambling Syndicate (1975)

The Gambling Syndicate [惡霸] (1975)

Starring Danny Lee, Woo Gam, Ku Feng, Fan Mei-Sheng, Cheng Kang-Yeh, Lo Lieh, Chiang Nan, Wong Ching, Lee Pang-Fei

Directed by Chang Tseng-Chai

Expectations: High. I loved The Casino, so I’m eager to see what Chang Tseng-Chai has up his sleeve for this one.


Chang Tseng-Chai’s previous gambling film, The Casino, was a gambling drama with a dash of action. The Gambling Syndicate completely flips the equation and delivers an action film with a flavoring of gambling drama. Which film you prefer will be up to the type of movies you like, but each film has its own strengths and weaknesses. Regardless, they are both relentlessly entertaining and full of life.

The Gambling Syndicate begins by introducing us to the film’s casino and the villains who run it. We work through multiple levels of hierarchy in a short amount of time, and for the first 15 minutes or so it really feels like the film will live up to its title by focusing entirely on the villains. But there the film brings in the heroes, and never really returns to explore the syndicate further. This is one of the few strikes against the film, but in a film as quick-moving and fun as The Gambling Syndicate, this kind of flaw doesn’t really amount to much.

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Kidnap (1974)

kidnap_1Kidnap [天網] (1974)

Starring Lo Lieh, Fan Mei-Sheng, Woo Gam, Tung Lam, Liu Wu-Chi, Lam Wai-Tiu, Cheng Miu, Yeung Chi-Hing, Li Min-Lang, Fung Ging-Man, Chiang Tao, Wang Hsieh, Chiang Nan, Wang Lai

Directed by Cheng Kang

Expectations: Very high. Been lookin’ forward to this one for a while.

threehalfstar


Kidnap opens by stating that it is a work of fiction, and that any resemblance to real persons is purely coincidental. But this is not the case at all. The film is based on a series of crimes that occurred in Hong Kong between 1959-1962, and came to be collectively known as “The Strange Case of the Three Wolves.” The general points of this true story make up the framework of Kidnap (and its 1989 remake Sentenced to Death — one of the earliest Category III Hong Kong films), so I imagine the disclaimer is merely there to allow the filmmakers to embellish certain elements to make a complete and satisfying film tragedy.

Lo Lieh plays Lung Wei, a soldier struggling to get by as a gas station attendant. He’s sick of his place in life and the constant humiliation from his boss and others. His friends are in similar situations. Chao Hai-Chuan (Fan Mei-Sheng) is a make-up artist for the film industry, but it doesn’t pay enough to cover all of his family’s bills so he has a second job doing make-up at a strip club. He becomes known as Hair-Sticking Chao because he is often asked to glue pubic hair onto the girls. Niu Ta Keng (Tung Lam) is a truck driver, but he can’t hold down a job because of his volatile temper. Finally, Tong Hsiao-Chiang (Lam Wai-Tiu) is a gambling addict who is in deep debt, with no way out in sight. No word on what he does for a living, but I got the impression that gambling was pretty much all he did.

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The Virgin Mart (1974)

virginmart_1bThe Virgin Mart [販賣人口] (1974)
AKA When the Kung Fu Hero Strikes

Starring Wong Yuen-San, Betty Ting Pei, Sek Kin, Elaine Kam Yin-Ling, Eddy Ko Hung, Woo Gam

Directed by Kao Pao-Shu

Expectations: Pretty high, based on my previous love of Kao Pao-Shu’s Lady with a Sword.

twostar


I had one recurring thought throughout The Virgin Mart: “What a weird movie.” Hong Kong filmmakers love to mix genres and tones, and that’s something I love about the country’s films, but it just didn’t work for me in The Virgin Mart. The film blasts off with searing rock ‘n’ roll and a montage of neon lights and pretty girls. This emotional wave of fun night life imagery is quickly challenged by the introduction of Lin Ying (Woo Gam) and Mao Song (Eddy Ko Hung), a prostitute and her pimp, still within the opening montage. As we make our way into the film proper, it becomes apparent that this is also going to be an over-the-top comedy at times. Huh. OK. Perhaps something is lost in translation, but when they strap an unwilling woman onto a Qing dynasty metal sex chair called “The Joy Rider,” and play it for laughs, I just can’t go along with it.

The Virgin Mart is also largely without a distinct plotline. After the intro montage we meet a bunch of new characters, including a few that are actually important and integral to the film and its world, such as the big boss Qiang Han (Sek Kin), another prostitute Mei Ji (Betty Ting Pei), and the film’s hero Kang Tai (Wong Yuen-San). We see how the prostitution operation lures unsuspecting young girls to Hong Kong, we see the pimps battling a rival group’s men, but there’s hardly any narrative to hold these disparate bits together. Kang Tai is the man they target as a fall guy for their organization, but after he’s introduced early — stating that all he wants to do is “Just fight” — he’s absent from the film for quite a while.

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The Fate of Lee Khan (1973)

The Fate of Lee Khan [迎春閣之風波] (1973)
fateofleekhan_2

Starring Li Li-Hua, Pai Ying, Tien Feng, Han Ying-Chieh, Hsu Feng, Roy Chiao, Angela Mao, Helen Ma Hoi-Lun, Wei Pin-Ao, Wu Chia-Hsiang, Ng Ming-Choi, Lee Man-Tai, Chiang Nan, Woo Gam, Gam Dai

Directed by King Hu

Expectations: Super high. I’ve been very eager to continue exploring King Hu’s filmography for a while now.

threehalfstar


The Fate of Lee Khan is a fantastic film, hidden in the shadows of other, more well-known King Hu films. I’ve never heard anything about this movie, but yet it is an incredibly solid and effective piece of filmed martial intrigue. It’s similar in a lot of ways to Dragon Inn, but that is hardly a complaint. It is a true joy to watch as a world-class director returns to a smaller scale story after opening up the genre in ways previously unknown in A Touch of Zen. I need to re-watch Dragon Inn to confirm this, but it seems as if King Hu’s storytelling ability has matured a lot since that film, and the economy with which he delivers an intense, compelling story in The Fate of Lee Khan is a masterful achievement. The inn featured here is also a vibrant center of the region, as opposed to the desolate way station of Dragon Inn.

The film opens by setting itself in the context of history. Our story is set in the late 1300s, during the Yuan Dynasty established by the Mongolian leader Kublai Khan. The Chinese people, frustrated with political corruption and oppression, organized a revolt under the lead of Chu Yuan-Chang. But as we’re told in the intro, the war is not just fought on the battlefields, but also through the devious methods of espionage. Lee Khan is a powerful man in charge of the Yuan spy activity, and at the outset of the film his sister and trusted advisor manage to secure a war map detailing the movements of Chu’s forces. The rebel spies refuse to let the map go easily, so when word comes that Lee Khan is coming to the Spring Inn, forces from both sides gather there to decide his fate.

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