From the Highway [路客與刀客] (1970)
Starring Peter Yang Kwan, Ingrid Hu Yin-Yin, Tsui Fu-Sheng, Suen Yuet, Lee Hung, Yeung Fui-Yuk, Lee Man-Tai
Directed by Chang Tseng-Chai
Expectations: Fairly high.
From the Highway is an impressively produced film… if you can watch it without holding its legacy against it. The film is largely considered the first color hand-to-hand kung fu film, but the title is a misnomer in this case. From the Highway is only barely a martial arts film, let alone a hand-to-hand film. It’s actually a drama surrounded by some traditional martial arts traits. In this way it recalls director Chang Tseng-Chai’s later film The Casino, which is essentially a drama until the action-packed finale.
The lead character, He Tian (Peter Yang Kwan), is perhaps the genre’s first prominent unarmed character, though. If I remember right there are older Shaw Bros movies with hand-to-hand scenes, although I don’t remember other characters who only fight unarmed. I don’t know enough about martial arts film history to say definitively that he’s the first, but if nothing else he’s an unarmed fighter amidst a multitude of weapon-wielding contemporaries. But even if this character trait is notable, it only seems notable because of the film’s built-up legacy. As a viewer in 2015, I’m looking for the seeds of later films; I’m looking for the “birth” of the kung fu film. And it’s just not here. On the other hand, when I watched The Chinese Boxer under the same mindset, it lived up to the legacy of being “the first hand-to-hand kung fu film,” and was impressive for how much it actually resembled later films.
From the Highway is about a group of bandits terrorizing the countryside. They’ve sacked and pillaged every village except for one: the well-fortified village of An. The bandits want nothing more than to take what they want from the village, but they are driven away by their inability to overcome the walls and the giant spiked gate (although, events later in the film put this into question). The village’s cannons also have something to do with this retreat, as well. 🙂 So the bandits retreat to their lair to plan their attack. Notice something about that synopsis? Yep, there’s no hero. That’s because the film’s hero doesn’t blossom into the plot into well into the movie.
Even after the hero presents himself, the villains are still in the movie more than anyone else. It’s interesting to see a film so villain-focused, but it actually makes the first half of the movie fairly disjointed. Once you figure out who’s who and what’s going on, though, From the Highway is quite enjoyable. All that time with the villains allows them to be vivid, memorable characters for the good guys to clash with. On the other hand, the hero is a virtual empty slate, his only character-building coming from a flashback in which we learn that he’s on a mission to kill his master’s murderer. That motivation is about as classic a kung fu movie setup as there ever has been, but it would’ve been nice to have at least a little more info about who this guy is.
So if From the Highway isn’t all that hand-to-hand focused, what are the fights like? Well… the fights aren’t plentiful, and they are often tinged with slight wuxia elements (jumping to rooftops, throwing people 100 feet with a ponytail, etc). Our hero is also apparently so badass that single strikes take down most everybody he comes into contact with. When he does come up against a greater foe, he pretty much always has the upper hand and it never feels like he’s in any danger. But those slightly longer fights are much more enjoyable than the small bursts of martial arts seen the rest of the time.
The editing during all the fights, and especially during the longer ones, is very chaotic, resembling modern American fights (quick cuts, lots of closeups) more than anything you’d associate with Hong Kong or Taiwanese martial arts films. Most likely this was done to hide the lack of skill of the actors, or the lack of quality choreography, but for the viewer it’s just frustrating. Especially to someone in 2015 who’s well-versed in later Hong Kong films.
From the Highway may be influential and impressive for a 1970 martial arts film, but it definitely isn’t the type of movie that will stand up to modern criticism. The wealth of location shooting provides lots of nice vistas, and the walled-in An village set is also quite impressive. In purely visual terms, the film looks a lot closer to King Hu’s Dragon Inn than any of the films the Shaw Brothers were producing at this time. And in regards to the film’s reputation and legacy: I’d still cite The Chinese Boxer as the first modern hand-to-hand movie because it feels closer and more fully formed to what the hand-to-hand kung fu genre would ultimately become (and therefore more influential). At least that’s how it looks to me in 2015. From the Highway is a good movie, gaining attention for Chang Tseng-Chai and ultimately landing him a directorial spot in the Shaw lineup, but it feels like a much more transitional film than any kind of emergence of a new style.
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog: the mop-up continues with another non-Shaw: 1970’s Wrath of the Sword! It was the first film directed by notable Shaw actor/director Wu Ma! See ya then! (Hopefully sooner rather than later.)