The Gambling Syndicate (1975)

The Gambling Syndicate [惡霸] (1975)

Starring Danny Lee, Woo Gam, Ku Feng, Fan Mei-Sheng, Cheng Kang-Yeh, Lo Lieh, Chiang Nan, Wong Ching, Lee Pang-Fei

Directed by Chang Tseng-Chai

Expectations: High. I loved The Casino, so I’m eager to see what Chang Tseng-Chai has up his sleeve for this one.


Chang Tseng-Chai’s previous gambling film, The Casino, was a gambling drama with a dash of action. The Gambling Syndicate completely flips the equation and delivers an action film with a flavoring of gambling drama. Which film you prefer will be up to the type of movies you like, but each film has its own strengths and weaknesses. Regardless, they are both relentlessly entertaining and full of life.

The Gambling Syndicate begins by introducing us to the film’s casino and the villains who run it. We work through multiple levels of hierarchy in a short amount of time, and for the first 15 minutes or so it really feels like the film will live up to its title by focusing entirely on the villains. But there the film brings in the heroes, and never really returns to explore the syndicate further. This is one of the few strikes against the film, but in a film as quick-moving and fun as The Gambling Syndicate, this kind of flaw doesn’t really amount to much.

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River of Fury (1973)

RiverofFury_1River of Fury [江湖行] (1973)
AKA Drug Gang

Starring Lily Ho Li-Li, Danny Lee, Ku Feng, Tin Ching, Yeung Chi-Hing, Ou-Yang Sha-Fei, Fan Mei-Sheng, Yi Fung

Directed by Chang Tseng-Chai

Expectations: Low. I’ve heard this isn’t that good.

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River of Fury is one of those movies that sneaks up on you. Throughout nearly the entire film I was entertained, but I thought it was just an OK movie. 2 1/2 stars, without a doubt. But then the final 15 minutes or so come around and really elevate the movie, bringing together themes teased in the opening moments that I had forgotten about amidst all the melodrama. The 3rd act brings everything together so well that I finished the movie with an overwhelmingly positive take on the film. I’m probably overselling it, but it really worked for me.

River of Fury opens with Ye Zhuang-Zi (Danny Lee) on the precipice of the rest of his life. His father recently died and Zhuang-Zi has sold the family farm. He took the money and paid off his family’s debts, leaving him with $100. He doesn’t quite know what he wants to do with himself — farming is definitely not his thing — but he does fancy seeing the world as a helmsman, like his idol Duobo (Ku Feng). Duobo agrees to take him on as an apprentice of sorts. His boat is transporting an opera troupe from town to town, and before Zhuang-Zi even has a chance to get settled, he’s falling for the beautiful, budding actress Ge Yi-Qing (Lily Ho Li-Li).

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Redbeard (1971)

Redbeard+1971-84-bRedbeard [紅鬍子] (1971)

Starring Lee Hung, Wang Yin, Chen Chiu, Chen Hung-Lieh, Tsui Fu-Sheng, Cheng Miu, Suen Yuet, Cheung Kwong-Chiu, Siu Gwong-Po, Lo Dik, Man Man, Wong Yu, Liu Chik, Chang I-Fei

Directed by Chang Tseng-Chai

Expectations: High.

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I apologize if this review turns out a little strange; I think it’s mostly going to be me trying to make sense of what I just watched. My confusion isn’t exactly the film’s fault; it’s more to do with the film’s presentation. As an extremely rare Shaw Brothers film, I was only able to track it down as a badly discolored VHS that’s gotta be at least 4th or 5th generation. I can usually deal just fine with this kind of ugliness, but Redbeard is an incredibly talky film, so when half the subtitles are cut off it makes it kinda hard to keep up. I don’t think a beautiful remastered version with full subtitles would fix all the film’s issues, but it would definitely make for a more pleasant experience.

The film opens with a group of people on horseback, led by Little White Snake (Lee Hung), chasing down a train. They assault the moving train in order to rescue their chief, Chow Tian-Hua (Wang Yin). While making their escape, Tian-Hua is wounded, but they make it out alive and to their hideout. From what I could gather, Tian-Hua and his rescuers are the redbeards of the title, although I don’t really have a clear understanding of what a redbeard is. It seems that Tian-hua and his redbeards are some kind of outlaws in opposition of the army, but as the redbeards seem to only want to take care of their own and farm their land, I’m not entirely sure what the conflict is about.

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From the Highway (1970)

FromtheHighway+1970-6-bFrom the Highway [路客與刀客] (1970)

Starring Peter Yang Kwan, Ingrid Hu Yin-Yin, Tsui Fu-Sheng, Suen Yuet, Lee Hung, Yeung Fui-Yuk, Lee Man-Tai

Directed by Chang Tseng-Chai

Expectations: Fairly high.

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From the Highway is an impressively produced film… if you can watch it without holding its legacy against it. The film is largely considered the first color hand-to-hand kung fu film, but the title is a misnomer in this case. From the Highway is only barely a martial arts film, let alone a hand-to-hand film. It’s actually a drama surrounded by some traditional martial arts traits. In this way it recalls director Chang Tseng-Chai’s later film The Casino, which is essentially a drama until the action-packed finale.

The lead character, He Tian (Peter Yang Kwan), is perhaps the genre’s first prominent unarmed character, though. If I remember right there are older Shaw Bros movies with hand-to-hand scenes, although I don’t remember other characters who only fight unarmed. I don’t know enough about martial arts film history to say definitively that he’s the first, but if nothing else he’s an unarmed fighter amidst a multitude of weapon-wielding contemporaries. But even if this character trait is notable, it only seems notable because of the film’s built-up legacy. As a viewer in 2015, I’m looking for the seeds of later films; I’m looking for the “birth” of the kung fu film. And it’s just not here. On the other hand, when I watched The Chinese Boxer under the same mindset, it lived up to the legacy of being “the first hand-to-hand kung fu film,” and was impressive for how much it actually resembled later films.

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The Fugitive (1972)

thefugitive_3The Fugitive [亡命徒] (1972)

Starring Lo Lieh, Ku Feng, Li Ching, Lee Ga-Sai, Ding Sai, Tang Ti, Dean Shek Tin, Lee Pang-Fei, Chu Gam, Tong Tin-Hei, Sek Kin, Chan Shen

Directed by Chang Tseng-Chai

Expectations: Moderate and hopeful.

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Due to their grindhouse status in the West, Shaw Brothers films are often looked down upon as B-Movies. I firmly disagree and I try to reflect this opinion in my reviews of the films. But some of their films are definitely B-Movie material, and The Fugitive is a perfect example. While it is a great little action movie, it has a threadbare story and is so over-the-top at times that you could never take it seriously. These things matter in many films, but in a B-Movie these are the cherries on top. And The Fugitive is pretty damn cherry-tastic.

The film opens on a wanted poster depicting the feared outlaws Liao Fei Lung (Lo Lieh) and Ma Tien Piao (Ku Feng). These very same men ride into town and hold up the bank. Things don’t exactly go to plan, but these bandits are not your average bank robbers — they are experts in horseback riding and marksmanship! The bandits easily shoot their way out of town with the spoils of the robbery.

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The Casino (1972)

TheCasino+1972-60-bThe Casino [吉祥賭坊] (1972)

Starring Yueh Hua, Lily Ho Li-Li, Chin Feng, Chiang Nan, Fan Mei-Sheng, Tang Ti, Lee Pang-Fei, Chan Chan-Kong, Sek Kin, Ma Chien-Tang, Yee Kwan, Yi Fung, Wu Ma

Directed by Chang Tseng-Chai

Expectations: Optimistic.

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The Casino was one of the earliest Hong Kong gambling movies. It’s not a full-on gambling film, though, it’s more of a martial arts/gambling hybrid. But don’t despair, that mix makes for some truly exciting, tense entertainment. At only 77 minutes, The Casino is jam-packed full of intense melodrama that never lets up. It’s definitely an unsung gem of this era of Hong Kong film, as prior to researching it for this review series, I had never heard of this one.

The film opens in the titular casino, following the frustrations of a down-on-his-luck gambler (Wu Ma) as he attempts to win at the dice game. He ultimately leaves with less than he came in with, as completely strapped for cash, the man offered up his hand as collateral for his final wager. Didn’t work out so well for him. On his way out of the casino, he runs into Luo Tianguang (Yueh Hua). Luo is suave and well-dressed, but he watches the fleeing gambler with a knowing look. I initially imagined that the tale might end up with Luo succumbing to the evils of gambling and ending up like this man he encounters at the start, but it isn’t like that at all. No, Luo Tianguang definitely has other things on his mind, and this quick glance of what gambling can do to people seems to steel his resolve.

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