Showdown at the Cotton Mill [胡惠乾怒打機房] (1978)
AKA The Canton Challenge; Cold Face, Heart & Blood 

Starring Chi Kuan-Chun, Dorian Tan Tao-Liang, Chang Peng, Ching Kuo-Chung, Li Chiang, Shan Mao, Fai Wan, Chang Chi-Ping, Tai Ping-Kang, Cheng Sai-Gang, Tan Tao-Kung, Tang Hsiao-Wen

Directed by Wu Ma

Expectations: I am very optimistic about this one.

Showdown at the Cotton Mill was an independent production, but it carries a fine Shaw Brothers pedigree. It fits right in with Chang Cheh’s Shaolin Cycle films, and if I’m to believe his screenwriting credit on HKMDB (there’s no on-screen writer credit), then maybe that was its origin. If this was the case, any number of reasons exist for why it wasn’t produced through Shaw. The dissolution of Chang’s Film Co. in Taiwan and Chang’s return to Hong Kong was most likely a major factor, as his films were over-budget and under-performing at the time. In an interview on the Cotton Mill DVD, Chi Kuan-Chun notes that his Shaw contract was up, and Sammo Hung was pursuing him for Warriors Two. He remained in Taiwan instead of signing any deal, leaving both Shaw and Golden Harvest without his wonderful talents.

The exact truth of the film’s production I do not know, but what matters is that Wu Ma and Chi Kuan-Chun essentially made another film in the Shaolin Cycle, with Chi reprising his role as Shaolin hero Hu Hui-Chien! Hu was one of three heroes in Men from the Monastery, then one of two heroes in The Shaolin Avengers, so it’s only natural that he’s the sole hero of Showdown at the Cotton Mill. This premise is intriguing in theory, but the execution leaves something to be desired. The film opens with Hu’s father already murdered, and Hu out for revenge after leaving behind his Shaolin training with San Te (here played by Tai Ping-Kang). You probably remember Chi Kuan-Chun smashing fabric looms in Men from the Monastery, and I do believe that would be the “cotton mill” of this film’s title. Shockingly, he doesn’t do anything of the sort here, instead taking his revenge at the home of whom I’m presuming were the bosses of said cotton mill.

So with these defining moments in Hu’s life in the past, the film centers itself on a generic “Shaolin hero hides from Manchu government officials” plot, without much story to keep your mind engaged. Regardless, it is worthwhile for fans of the Shaolin Cycle simply because it features Chi Kuan-Chun fighting the good Shaolin fight once again. I guess if you didn’t like him that wouldn’t be the case, but who could like the Shaolin Cycle and not like him? His martial background shines on-screen in all his performances, and that, along with the increasingly better fighters hired by the Manchu to fight him, kept me entertained through the flaws. To rephrase a Prince lyric, even Ray Charles could have seen that one coming (Stevie Wonder could, too!).

The choreography by Chang Peng is solid and on par with mid-tier films of the day. I would’ve preferred something more innovative and memorable, but learning to accept that life won’t give you everything you want is something we must all come around to. You can also see some rough edges in the choreography where fists/feet are clearly far from their “impact point,” something you just don’t see in the top-line 1978 films. I’m OK with it, I just mean to point to it as evidence of the commitment to precision and excellence that directors like Lau Kar-Leung or Sammo Hung brought to their films. But these are all ultimately minor concerns when you’re watching Chi Kuan-Chun mow through Manchu goons, and the finale fight against the kick-tastic Dorian Tan is great.

Still, all that said, the film surprised me dramatically with Hu’s familial struggles. I never expected to wish Hu would abandon his righteous quest to settle down with his wife and kid. She tries to talk sense into him, but, as Shaolin Cycle fans know, his fate is already sealed. I doubt the Manchus would’ve ever let him rest, but I felt for the plight of his wife and son, who helplessly watched their beloved launch himself headlong into a hopeless struggle with a powerful government. Were they in the previous films? I don’t remember them at all, but I don’t know that I’ll forget them now. Perhaps the story had more charge then I gave it credit for.

A special note must be given to the RareScope DVD of Showdown at the Cotton Mill. It’s amazing to see this rare and previously thought lost film, but it’s also in desperate need of a new edition. The film print is missing lots of frames (especially at the beginning) and is damaged and scratched throughout. That’s all fine — I’m actually pretty fond of a weathered film print — but the film transfer/DVD authoring causes many digital artifacts and interlacing issues. Even if it were only a re-scan of the same faded print, a new DVD or Blu-ray would be a major leap forward and I would love to see the film rescued from its current fate.

Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is a couple of previously lost Shaw films that I need to mop up before I hit 1979! First up is Ting Shan-Hsi’s Imperial Tomb Raiders! See ya then (hopefully soon)!