Flight 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.
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.
But it is not until the credits have finished that the film’s main driving story begins. Flight Man takes place in Taiwan in 1933, when the country was under Japanese occupation after the First Sino-Japanese War. The Taiwanese people have signed a petition to have the Japanese establish a Taiwan council, but instead this merely provokes the Japanese police to hunt down and round up everyone who signed the petition. To explain exactly why the police end up hunting Yang Ah-Bao (who didn’t sign the petition) would take much too long, but that’s what happens and that’s the bulk of the film. I wouldn’t call Flight Man a wuxia, but it definitely takes some cues from the genre with its dense script.
The story is not the only odd feature of the film, though. The action is unlike pretty much any other Shaw film I’ve seen. There are multiple action sequences in the film, and while they are entertaining, the focus is more on editing together a fight instead of choreographing one. A good portion of the fights are captured in quick, almost abstract cuts that form an exciting sequence, but they leave a lot to be desired in terms of what you’d traditionally expect from a Hong Kong film. For instance, Yang Ah-Bao killed an important character in one scene, but until they talked about it in the next scene I wasn’t sure what actually happened. There’s some more traditional stuff mixed in with the abstract, but anyone expecting anything similar to other martial arts films will be disappointed.
Rarely does director Ting Shan-Hsi allow the audience to see more than a couple of blows in a single shot, and when this does happen, it is often shot from a far distance to give the impression of being a bystander across the way. There are exceptions to this, but this is the general rule for the film. The finale ups the ante by cutting between fights occurring on three different levels of a tower. This sounds fantastic on paper, but in this specific style it’s somewhat jarring. I should also note that the flying of the characters is achieved solely through editing, as well; there is no wirework. Makes for a quicker, cheaper shoot, but you do feel its absence (even if the editing works to create the illusion).
Flight Man also had my expectations working against it, as the DVD case prominently features Ivy Ling Po, even though she’s just a supporting character that doesn’t even appear until almost an hour into the movie. Her section is perhaps the most interesting, as Yang Ah-Bao seeks refuge in a remote part of Taiwan where the people live a more primitive lifestyle. Ivy Ling Po’s charisma helps the film considerably, and she even sings a couple of songs, recalling the ’60s Shaw Brothers output. Her appearance takes some of the weight of carrying the film off Wong Yung’s shoulders, and it is very welcome. I don’t generally criticize acting, but man, Wong often goes into exceptionally over-the-top melodramatic mode. It’s nearly impossible not to laugh when he reaches that far out.
Despite my issues, I can’t deny that I was intrigued by the unusual style of Flight Man. Ting Shan-Hsi definitely has an eye for quality framing, so at least the film looks beautiful while it haphazardly lumbers along. My research revealed that Ting was quite a well-respected director, too. Besides serving as King Hu’s assistant director on Come Drink With Me, Ting earned himself many Golden Horse and Asian Film Festival awards for films such as The Ammunition Hunter, The Everlasting Glory and Magnificent 72 (among others). I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and guess that Flight Man was more of an experiment for him than a representative work, and I guess I’ll get to prove that theory in a couple of months when I get to his other Shaw film, 1974’s Well of Doom.
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is a non-Shaw movie for broader context: King Hu’s The Fate of Lee Khan! See ya then!