Friends [朋友] (1974)
Starring David Chiang, Alexander Fu Sheng, Lily Li Li-Li, Lee Yung-Git, Lo Dik, Matsuoka Minoru, Wai Wang, Helen Ko, Danny Chow Yuen-Kin, Chen Wo-Fu, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan, Wang Kuang-Yu
Directed by Chang Cheh
Expectations: I’m really excited for this one. I’ve really come to love these deliquent youth movies of Chang Cheh’s.
From a quick glance over Chang Cheh’s filmography, Friends seems to be his final modern-day delinquent youth action drama. And wouldn’t you know it… it feels like it! There is a positive energy running through Friends that isn’t in the other films. Friends notably starts with a scene set years after the main section of the film, when the titular friends are gathered together and reminiscing over their wild, youthful days gone by. They are all successful in their various fields, and can now look back on their earlier struggles and laugh at their absurdity. Chang’s previous youth films were all steeped in angst and an inability to fit in with society in one way or another, so to open Friends showing that these characters have already achieved this goal of assimilating successfully into society (and seemingly doing so without compromising their dreams) immediately announces a different type of film than his other films in the genre.
The film then cuts back in time an indiscriminate number of years, to when the group was just a bunch of unmotivated friends stuck in entry-level jobs. Hua Heng (David Chiang) dreams of being an artist, but for now he has a job painting a mural on the side of the Seiko building. Hua’s girlfriend, Gao Xin (Lily Li Li-Li), is a bar girl deep in debt to her employer, and at risk for turning to prostitution to pay him back. The others work as delivery boys, mechanics, and other similar jobs, but there is one outlier.
Du Jia-Ji AKA Young Master (Alexander Fu Sheng) has been sheltered his whole life, given everything he’s ever wanted or needed. He’s become bored with this life, so he sets out on the town to spark up his life (with a caretaker following a few feet behind him in a fancy car). Du finds excitement when he comes upon Hua holding one of his paintings and fighting off a group of thugs. Hua throws the painting to Du for safekeeping, but because of his upbringing Du isn’t one to respect or see the value in things like this. He is instead much more excited about joining the fight, so the painting is destroyed over the head of a thug as Du jumps in. Hua recognizes the impermanence of material goods, so he doesn’t mind the painting’s destruction, instead focusing on Du’s formidable martial abilities. The two quickly become close, but Du conceals his identity and background so as not to alienate his new friend.
The film’s themes take root and grow within this initial deception of Du’s. He is a bored rich kid seeking the “excitement” of living poor, but just as he hasn’t had the chance to experience life, he doesn’t really understand what his desires entail. Later in the film he attempts to help Hua and Gao, but he does so in the only way he knows how: lying to serve his desires in the moment. Du knows nothing of consequences; he is a free spirit wide open for knowledge and experience, but he’s also naive of the dangers that the world possesses (similar in many ways to the girls of Well of Doom).
Du’s naivety and his flippant relationship with money influences one of his poor friends, Lin Si-Bao (Lee Yung-Git), into something of an opposite situation. Du involves Lin in his attempt to help Hua and Gao, and the brief taste of Du’s access to wild amounts of money taints him. Like Du, Lin tries to see how the other half lives, but also like Du, he doesn’t understand or respect the social rules of this unknown class, leading to serious trouble for everyone involved. I have to wonder how these kids would’ve fared with better, more reasonable parenting. We never see anyone’s parents except for Du’s dad, but the lessons learned from the parents in The Generation Gap can equally apply here.
Friends clearly shows the youths transcending their delinquency and becoming successful members of society, and I took that to mean that behind every person there is a life. Struggles, heartache, trauma, teenage delinquency… you never know what any person has gone through by looking at them, or even interacting with them. But here, through the magic of movies, we are able to see the upstanding characters of the intro in their youth. Chang’s previous films were tragic, cautionary tales of lives gone wrong, but Friends is the opposite side to that coin. Chang reminds us to allow the young to be young, as it is part of the growing process that everyone must experience in their own way.
Life is an ever-evolving journey of survival, and I imagine Chang also wished the older generation to look back on their own past, remembering whatever mischief they were up to. Challenges are what defines our character, and those who grow up without struggle sometimes, as in the case of Du, seek out the challenges their upbringing robbed them of. Not everyone fits into one of these two broad groups, but I feel in general it does encompass the majority of the human experience. It is human to struggle against our upbringing in some way or another.
If you couldn’t tell, I really enjoyed Friends. I want to say that The Generation Gap and Friends are the best films of Chang’s delinquent youth films, but I should probably re-watch the others that I haven’t seen in years before I make those kinds of claims. Regardless of ranking, I consider Chang Cheh’s youth-focused modern films to be essential, artistic works of an underrated, important director. They aren’t all films that I’d recommend to the traditional martial arts fan, but I think Friends is probably the most accessible of the films, if that counts for anything.
I wrote all that and only after finishing did I realize that I never talked about the choreography. Well, that’s because the fights aren’t much to speak of. There’s a good amount of them, but none except for the final battle are all that consequential, and the choreography is never anything truly special. Lau Kar-Leung and Tang Chia are credited so I expected more, but in Friends the fights themselves were never meant to stand out. Chang Cheh wisely focuses on the thematic content and the drama, while including a number of fights to keep the pace peppy. It works well, even if the film does feel a little long in spots. Don’t let that stop you, though. I feel like these films of Chang Cheh’s are some of the most underseen films in the Shaw catalog, and I hope Celestial will make them available digitally so that they are more widely available for examination.
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is the Shaw/Hammer Films co-production Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires! I reviewed the film back in 2010, but that was before the chrono Shaw series was even a twinkle in my eye so a re-review is in order! See ya then!