Chinatown Capers [小英雄大鬧唐人街] (1974)
AKA The Chinese Enforcers, Back Alley Princess in Chinatown
Starring Polly Shang-Kuan Ling-Feng, Samuel Hui Koon-Kit, Sylvia Chang Ai-Chia, Don Wong Tao, Idemura Fumio, Pamela Pak Wan-Kam, Melvin Wong, Wong Sam
Directed by Lo Wei
Expectations: Low. I didn’t like the first one.
Chinatown Capers was a big box office hit in Hong Kong when it was released. This is a little hard for me to understand, considering the strength of some of the films that didn’t do nearly as well, but that’s the way these things go. Successful mainstream fluff will often fades as time passes, while artistic work generally stays potent and powerful. And it’s hardly a stretch to call this film pure fluff. Like the first film, Back Alley Princess, it’s highly episodic and without much of a story. It works better in Chinatown Capers, perhaps because the culture clash brought on by the setting makes the film more entertaining and relatable to Western viewers such as myself.
You could easily watch Chinatown Capers without having seen Back Alley Princess. Honestly, the only benefit is already being familiar with the main duo of Chili Boy (Polly Shang-Kuan Ling-Feng) and Embroidered Pillow (Samuel Hui Koon-Kit), so you know what kind of movie you’re in for. None of the other characters return, because they’re all back in Hong Kong. Yes, Chili Boy and Embroidered Pillow have flown to San Francisco to… I don’t know… I guess they got tired of Hong Kong! The actual reason they’ve arrived in the US isn’t mentioned until much later (that’s the “story” I mentioned), but it doesn’t matter for my purposes here.
The fight choreography was handled by Chin Yuet-Sang and Lam Ching-Ying, and this seems to have been their first credit as choreographers. Both men went on to much better things: Chin working with the Yuen clan and others on lots of classic kung fu films such as Hitman in the Hand of Buddha and Dance of the Drunk Mantis, and Lam joining the Sammo Hung Stunt Team and achieving great success as an actor in such films as The Prodigal Son and the Mr. Vampire series. Looking at their work together in Chinatown Capers, though, these two great choreographers had very humble beginnings. This isn’t specifically an action movie, so the wonky choreography isn’t a huge detriment to the film, but it definitely isn’t helping much either.
There is little to make their work stand out, other than its mediocrity. Many of the strikes are clearly pulled well before they have a chance to be convincing, and Lo Wei’s camera generally does little to help this problem. The choreography is also much too simple to be compelling, or even entertaining. In almost every encounter there are maybe 10 fighters on-screen most of the time, but the majority of them just stand around in the background trying to look busy while they wait for their cue to make an attack on the hero. In one of the fights there are literally guys in the background just shimmying back and forth across the frame! Polly Shang-Kuan Ling-Feng performs admirably as always, exhibiting passion and her relentless charm, but no amount of talent can distract from those doofuses in the back. I don’t want to just bag on it, though, as there are some moments that work well enough. I probably couldn’t do any better myself on my first shot either, and I’m sure the fights were mapped out in a very limited amount of time.
Chinatown Capers is a middle-of-the-road movie that’s way longer than it needs to be, but it has a bit of everything: fights, songs, laughs, suspense, drama, chases… even uncomfortable and unnecessary blackface! I thought the gender of Chili Boy might come up more in this one, but it’s barely mentioned so I guess I’ll never know why she is masquerading as a man. Oh well, some mysteries of the universe are not meant for us to know. The film’s score is good if you like things on the funky side, featuring tracks from Isaac Hayes’ Shaft score and a cover version of The Meters’ classic Cissy Strut. But I can’t really recommend this one, even if it is something of a curiosity.
Also of note: During the finale, a cop known as the Yellow-Faced Tiger (Don Wong Tao) comes in to save the day. This character would appear a few months later as the lead in Lo Wei’s next action film, Yellow Faced Tiger (better known as Slaughter in San Francisco), featuring Chuck Norris as the villain. So I guess it’s a side-sequel to this series. Who knew?
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is David Chiang’s directorial debut, The Drug Addict! See ya then!