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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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.

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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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Flight Man (1973)

flightman_1Flight Man [馬蘭飛人] (1973)
AKA The Ma Lan Flying Man, The Daredevil

Starring Wong Yung, Ivy Ling Po, Shan Mao, Yee Yuen, Tien Yeh, Ling Yin, Sit Hon, Yuen Sam, Tong Chi-Wai, Wu Fei-Song, Yu Lung, Tsai Hung, Tien Shun, Cheng Fu-Hung

Directed by Ting Shan-Hsi

Expectations: None, but I like Ivy Ling Po and look forward to her.

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On one hand, Flight Man is pure fantasy. As the title suggests, there is a man who can fly (in the traditional wuxia sense), but on the other hand, Flight Man presents itself like it’s telling a true story, complete with extensive title cards detailing the back story and the exact locations of the events. I suppose this makes Flight Man something of a realistic fiction tale with mild fantasy overtones. This seems relatively simple, but the fantasy elements (which are basically limited to the flying) don’t really come up much or even matter to the overall story. It would have been a more effective movie played straight, although I definitely wouldn’t have been as intrigued by it had it stayed realistic. I guess I just have a hard time coming to terms with not being able to understand why the film is the way it is.

Flight Man opens in Wu Lung Village, where an old, traveling medicine seller has come to the dojo to peddle his wares. For some reason, a kid plays a trick on him by drugging his tea with a dead frog. Everyone laughs at the old man, but the joke’s on them! The old man spits out the tea they thought he drank, retrieves the frog, eviscerates it and eats it raw. Then our hero, Yang Ah-Bao (Wong Yung), and a bunch of martial arts students come to kick him out of the dojo, but the old dude flies out of their reach onto the rooftop. Yang Ah-Bao is so taken with the feat that he demands to be taught or else he’ll “smash his brain” (after which he bashes his head into a tree trunk). Cut to: Main titles where the old man trains Yang Ah-Bao and his buddies.

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Mission Impossible (1971)

missionimpossible_5Mission Impossible [劍女幽魂] (1971)

Starring Ching Li, Chen Hung-Lieh, Chiang Nan, O Yau-Man, Su Chen-Ping, Ma Kei, Yee Yuen, Ngai So, Tsai Hung, Yuen Sam, Law Bun, Lui Jun

Directed by Joseph Kuo Nan-Hong

Expectations: Moderate.

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Mission Impossible is a rare Shaw Brothers film. When Celestial Pictures acquired the rights to the Shaw catalog and they undertook the massive project of remastering and re-releasing the films to DVD, there were a number of movies that somehow slipped through the cracks. Perhaps prints were lost or some such unavoidable circumstances occurred. Some films were remastered but never transitioned to DVD for unexplained reasons, only appearing on the Singapore-only Zii Eagle set-top box that contains hundreds of Shaw films. Mission Impossible is one of those slip-through-the-cracks, unremastered movies, so the print is pretty bad. Not the worst I’ve seen, but still a huge step down from what I’ve become accustomed to while making my way through the catalog. I’ve definitely become spoiled.

But sometimes it’s good to revisit your roots, so I actually kind of enjoyed watching Mission Impossible in its damaged form that reminded me of how most Shaw films used to look before Celestial took over. They were neglected, dingy prints that were incredibly hard to come by in the US (exacerbated by the fact that the Internet was in its infancy and I was still a teenager with limited resources). But there is a special charm to watching old, faded prints. Are the dark, shadowy visuals just the print, or was the cinematography specifically designed to achieve this look? The fun of a bad print is that it is up to you to deduce the filmmaker’s intent from the context clues. Definitely not a task that everyone will get a kick out of, though. 🙂

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The Mighty One (1971)

mightyone_1The Mighty One [童子功] (1971)

Starring Ivy Ling Po, Liu Ping, Ling Yun, Go Ming, Lung Fei, Hsieh Hsing, Cheung Yee-Kwai, Shaw Luo-Hui, Yuen Sam, Chan Yau-San, So Gam-Lung, Wa Luen

Directed by Joseph Kuo Nan-Hong

Expectations: Moderate.

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The Mighty One kicks off with a bang as a group of devious villains stride up to a pleasant, peaceful homestead. They are the Notorious Five of the Dragon Valley, led by the red-faced Brother Fang, and they seek the missing pages of The Mighty Creed (AKA The Mighty Power of Five Masters). But the aged, retired swordsman who lives at the home refuses to give up the manual’s location, so Brother Fang kills him while the Notorious Five playfully beat up the old man’s children, throwing one into a tree and pinning another to the floor with a dagger.

The basic framework of this scene continues on through the rest of The Mighty One, as the Notorious Five go around the countryside asking about the manual and kicking ass when no one has any answers. Enter Water Knight Hsiang Kuei (Ling Yun) and Hsiao Chu (Ivy Ling Po), the only two to give the Notorious Five and Brother Fang a challenging fight. No one knows who these two are or where they came from, which means they’ve never seen a Shaw Brothers film, as anyone who has will immediately know exactly who these two are. While their identities are obscured throughout most of the movie, I don’t think it was the filmmaker’s intent for it to be a big twist, as it’s not revealed as such.

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