Five Tough Guys (1974)

fivetoughguys_1Five Tough Guys [五大漢] (1974)
AKA Kung Fu Hellcats

Starring Chen Kuan-Tai, Wai Wang, Shut Chung-Tin, Fan Mei-Sheng, Wong Chung, Ku Feng, Lily Ho Li-Li, Ling Yun, Omae Hitoshi, Tung Lam, Cheng Miu, Wong Ching, Yeung Chi-Hing, Kong Yeung, Yeung Chak-Lam, Cheng Kang-Yeh

Directed by Pao Hsueh-Li

Expectations: Low, but the title is fun.

twohalfstar


There is an abundance of promise in Five Tough Guys. A dense, unique script from the illustrious Ni Kuang deals with the changing times when guns supplanted the years of training and expertise of kung fu masters. A group of excellent actors fill the roles, with superstar Chen Kuan-Tai heading up the cast, Ku Feng as the main antagonist, and Fan Mei-Sheng’s best role since The Water Margin. And the fights are choreographed by the experienced and notable pair of Lau Kar-Wing (brother of Lau Kar-Leung) and Huang Pei-Chih (brother of Tang Chia). The elements for a great film are clearly here, but unfortunately director Pao Hsueh-Li fails to bring them together into a cohesive package.

Like many of Ni Kuang’s scripts from this era, Five Tough Guys is based in part on Chinese history. The story is set during the early days of the Republic of China (around 1915), centered around General Tsai Song-Po (Ling Yun) and his rebellion against General Yuan Shikai. Yuan was the first formal president of the Republic of China, but at the time depicted in the film he was also attempting to restore monarchy to China by naming himself Emperor. He would eventually do this, which led to the National Protection War, but these events don’t occur during the course of Five Tough Guys. The film is just focused on the flight of General Tsai through enemy territory so that he can forward the rebellion’s cause.

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Jackie Chan: My Story (1998)

jackiechanmystory_1Starring Jackie Chan, Willie Chan, Charles Chan, Stanley Tong, Sylvester Stallone, Michelle Yeoh, Sammo Hung, Joe Eszterhas, Arthur Hiller, Martin Lawrence, Michael Warrington, David Wu

Directed by Jackie Chan

Expectations: I don’t know, honestly. Curious.


Whether you’re an old fan or someone just discovering the work of Jackie Chan, Jackie Chan: My Story is a great overview of his career up to the point just before Rush Hour was made. It’s pretty “fluffy,” but this light tone reflects the jovial spirit of its subject and thus works well to convey the specific charm of Jackie (especially to newcomers). Even though I’ve seen so many Jackie films, I never feel like I know the real man underneath the characters. Jackie Chan: My Story cracks that shell a bit, allowing the audience to gain an understanding of his methodology for filmmaking, as well as how his dedication to his craft has impacted other areas of his life.

Jackie Chan: My Story also does a good job of communicating what makes Jackie’s style of action stand out from others (notably American films and the work of Bruce Lee). Besides showing a bevy of wonderful clips from his Hong Kong films, a direct comparison between the two versions of the fight with Bill “Superfoot” Wallace for the end of The Protector perfectly encapsulates the key difference in style. One of the best moments comes when Jackie walks us through the creation of his on-screen snake style seen in Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, showing that each movement has purpose and thought behind it. I wish I could show this doc to everyone who ever questioned my intense love and fascination with martial arts films (because according to them: “they’re all the same”).

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The Tea House (1974)

teahouse_1The Tea House [成記茶樓] (1974)
AKA The Teahouse

Starring Chen Kuan-Tai, Karen Yip Leng-Chi, Yeung Chi-Hing, Wong Yu, Fung Ging-Man, Lee Pang-Fei, Chung Chan-Chi, Lam Wai-Tiu, Lam Siu, Lee Sau-Kei, Cheung Chok-Chow, Liu Wu-Chi, Pang Pang, Shum Lo, Tung Lam, Wong Ching-Ho, Cheng Kang, Fan Mei-Sheng, Bruce Le

Directed by Kuei Chih-Hung

Expectations: High!

threestar


Chen Kuan-Tai was a firmly established martial arts star when The Tea House was released, but it was his calm, powerful performance as Big Brother Cheng that cemented his status as a well-respected actor. The film was so popular — it reached #9 at the 1974 Hong Kong Box Office — that a sequel was made the following year titled after Chen’s character. Given the ending of The Tea House, I’m really excited to see where the sequel takes Big Brother Cheng. But to get back to The Tea House: it’s an interesting film, unlike really anything I’ve seen from the Shaw Studio.

The Tea House opens with a long tracking shot through the titular Cheng Chi Tea House, showing us what “normal” looks like at the establishment before unleashing the drama that will continually disrupt business throughout the film. But it’s not so much a movie that depends on its plot; it’s more concerned with commenting on the then-current state of juvenile delinquency and the justice system’s inability to properly deal with the problem. I’ve seen many Shaw films deal with delinquency, but The Tea House engages the problem in a complete unique and fresh manner. The film has a tendency to be episodic and not completely cohesive, but what holds it together is this thematic focus on how the film’s various groups handle punishment.

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Arcade (1994)

arcade_1AKA Cyber World

Starring Megan Ward, Peter Billingsley, John de Lancie, Sharon Farrell, Seth Green, A.J. Langer, Bryan Dattilo, Brandon Rane, B.J. Barie, Humberto Ortiz, Jonathan Fuller

Directed by Albert Pyun

Expectations: Pretty high.

On the general scale:
onestar

On the B-movie scale:
twostar


Arcade is supposedly one of Full Moon’s most popular films, but after seeing it I have little understanding why that is. Video games were pretty popular in 1993, so maybe it’s just that an overwhelming amount of kids convinced their parents to rent this “video game movie” for them (wonder what they thought of the bloody suicide aftermath seen in the first couple of minutes!). But if Arcade actually did so well, Charles Band would’ve cranked out a sequel (or four). Hmmm, all I know is that people seem to harbor a nostalgic love for Arcade that is not in line with the film’s actual quality. That’s no crime, but it did come as a surprise.

Alex (Megan Ward) is having trouble coping with her mother’s recent suicide. She seeks solace with her group of friends: her boyfriend Greg (Bryan Dattilo), Nick (Peter Billingsley) and Stilts (Seth Green). Together they head down to their local arcade (Dante’s Inferno) where a new virtual reality game called Arcade is being test marketed. It’s no ordinary game, though, and after Greg tries it out he is nowhere to be found. Now it’s up to Alex and Nick to uncover the secrets of Arcade and find Greg!

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Na Cha the Great (1974)

nachathegreat_1Na Cha the Great [哪吒] (1974)

Starring Alexander Fu Sheng, Lo Dik, Chiang Tao, Fung Hak-On, Lin Jing, Jamie Luk Kim-Ming, Li Chen-Piao, Yuan Man-Tzu, Sze-Ma Wah-Lung, Lee Wan-Chung, Fung Ngai

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: Pretty high. I enjoyed Na Cha and the Seven Devils and I hope this is equally fun.

twohalfstar


When I think of words to describe the films of Chang Cheh, “fantasy” is not even remotely within the brainstorm. Elements of the fantastic enter many of his films, but Chang rarely handles them in a way that inspires the imagination like typical fantasy. The idea that a man could cut off his own arm and then become a fearsome one-armed swordsman (The New One-Armed Swordsman) is definitely within the fantasy genre, but Chang grounds the idea to the point that it’s not about suspending disbelief. So when I watched Na Cha and the Seven Devils a few months ago, knowing that I had Chang Cheh’s take on the character in my future, it was hard to imagine how Chang would handle the incredible fantasy of an adaptation of the Chinese classic novel Investiture of the Gods.

Turns out that he ambitiously reaches in both directions, bisecting the film into a largely grounded first half and a wildly fantastic second half. I’d love to tell you that my favorite Shaw Brothers director handles both halves well, but unfortunately I can’t even say that he does so with either half. The whole movie feels half-baked and without the usual thematic sharpness that is evident in his other films around this time. The groundwork is there, but there’s little artistry pulling it all together into a pleasing, emotional package. My feeling is that the abundance of special effects hindered Chang’s abilities somewhat. A separate special FX director, Lam Kwok-Cheung, is credited, and according to Chang Cheh’s memoir, Lam led a team from Japan to achieve the film’s many photographic effects.

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Rush Hour (1998)

rushhour_1Starring Jackie Chan, Chris Tucker, Tom Wilkinson, Tzi Ma, Ken Leung, Elizabeth Peña, Mark Rolston, Rex Linn, Julia Hsu, Chris Penn, Philip Baker Hall, John Hawkes

Directed by Brett Ratner

Expectations: Interested to revisit it.

threestar


And so begins my descent into madness — I mean, the American films of Jackie Chan. While I have always been happy that Jackie achieved global success, his transition to Hollywood definitely leaves a lot to be desired in terms of quality filmmaking. For newcomers to his work, I suppose the flashes of fearless stunts and athleticism are welcome and shocking additions to the American action film, but to anyone who’s seen one of his Hong Kong films, it’s hard not to be somewhat disappointed with the watered-down Jackie Chan present in Rush Hour. That being said, Rush Hour is just about exactly what a “Jackie Chan comes to Hollywood” movie should be, providing the audience with an ample amount of action and lighthearted comedy.

Jackie Chan has often said that Hong Kong directors know action and American directors know story. Rush Hour isn’t the best showcase of this “knowledge of story” that Jackie speaks of, but there is a fundamental difference in the way Hollywood films are structured that is in evidence. If you look at a movie like Mr. Nice Guy, it’s easy to see how the story was built up around the action set-pieces in a way to string them together as seamlessly as possible. Lots of Hong Kong films feel similarly (but Jackie is wrong, there are plenty of Hong Kong directors who understand story!), whereas Rush Hour is clearly set up with the story as its foundation and the action arising where it can. It’s kind of a subtle distinction in Rush Hour, as the story is pretty thin. It’s a key difference, though, and consequently there aren’t any huge, extended action scenes in Rush Hour.

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Curse of Evil (1982)

curseofevil_1Curse of Evil [邪咒] (1982)

Starring Tai Liang-Chun, Ngaai Fei, Lily Li Li-Li, Lau Nga-Lai, Yau Chui-Ling, Eric Chan Ga-Kei, Wang Lai, Leung Tin, Angelina Lo Yuen-Yen, Wong Ching-Ho, Lau Siu-Kwan, Jason Pai Piao

Directed by Kuei Chih-Hung

Expectations: The poster is great and I love Kuei Chih-Hung, so I have high hopes.

twostar


There is a lot to like about Curse of Evil and its twisted family dynamic and ultra-gooey FX work. Unfortunately, the film is pretty hard to penetrate as the story is muddled and the characters are hard to keep track of. For instance there are a couple of pairs of siblings, but they both dress in the same clothes. I wasn’t really familiar with most of the actresses either, so as much as I feel dumb to say it, they all kinda ran together. But honestly, the writing of the individual characters isn’t strong enough to distinguish them from one another, so that’s really the main concern.

The story is one that requires an in-depth explanation of the past to make sense, and since this one’s only 78 minutes long, that means Curse of Evil opens with a big ol’ info dump. There was once a wealthy family, the House of Shi, but tragedy struck and bandits killed 13 members of the family. Their bodies were thrown into the mansion’s dry well and ever since then the remaining family members (only a mother and her infant son) have been cursed by the angered Dragon King. We pick up the film 20 years later, as Madam Shi is celebrating her 50th birthday. But, y’know there’s that Dragon King curse, so her son, now 20 years old, dies, along with his wife. This leaves their two daughters to be raised by Madam Shi. At this point the film jumps another 15 years, when the daughters are about 20-ish. Phew.

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