The Iron-Fisted Monk (1977)

The Iron-Fisted Monk [三德和尚與舂米六] (1977)
AKA Iron Fisted Monk, San Te & Chong Mi-Liu

Starring Sammo Hung, Chan Sing, James Tin Jun, Lo Hoi-Pang, Chu Ching, Wang Hsieh, Fung Hak-On, Yeung Wai, Dean Shek Tin, Yen Shi-Kwan, Wu Ma, Casanova Wong, Eric Tsang, Chin Yuet-Sang, Chung Fat, Chiu Hung, Fung Fung, Lam Ching-Ying

Directed by Sammo Hung

Expectations: Interested to see this again.


Sammo Hung left the Shaw Brothers studio in the early 1970s to help kick-start Golden Harvest as an actor, stuntman, and action choreographer. Golden Harvest kept him very busy in the years leading to The Iron-Fisted Monk, giving him ample opportunity to hone his new skills and develop new ones simultaneously. I don’t know if Sammo finally felt he was up to the task of directing his own film in 1977, or if Golden Harvest finally relented to his requests, but the finished film demonstrates that Sammo was definitely ready to add a new feather to his cap. I first saw this film a few years ago when I watched my way through Sammo’s entire directorial filmography; at the time I thought it was a pretty good debut, but not especially great. At some level, I still agree with myself, but watching the film within the context of its Shaw contemporaries reveals it to be a more impressive movie than it initially appeared.

Chong Mi-Liu (Sammo Hung) is a mischievous student at the Shaolin Temple. He began studying there after Manchu thugs bullied his uncle and killed him. Chong was unable to fight them off, but thankfully the revered Shaolin monk San Te (Chan Sing) — the same character that Gordon Liu plays in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin — takes control of the situation and shows the thugs the power of Shaolin training. Chong is like many heroes out for revenge, though, and waiting for the completion of his training is just not an option. Chong remembers how Hu Hui-Chien — the folk hero Chi Kuan-Chun plays in Chang Cheh’s Shaolin Cycle films — left Shaolin early, so he decides to do the same. For those keeping track of Shaolin lore, according to The 36th Chamber of Shaolin San Te was the monk who trained Hung Hsi-Kuan, so this and Chong’s knowledge of Hu would place this film sometime after the majority of the Shaw Brothers Shaolin films. The Chinese title of The Iron-Fisted Monk is a lot like those Shaw films, as well, simply stating the characters names: San Te & Chong Mi-Liu. Any disappointment about there not being an iron-fisted monk can be attributed to yet another misleading English title. Apparently, both characters are Chinese folk heroes (the original trailer states as much), but I couldn’t find any specific info on Chong.

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The Golden Lion (1975)

The Golden Lion [金毛獅王] (1975)

Starring Chiu Hung, Li Ching, James Nam Gung-Fan, Fang Mian, Wang Hsieh, Lee Man-Chow, Pang Pang, Chan Shen, Wong Ching-Ho, Law Hon, Chai No, Goo Chim-Hung

Directed by Ho Meng-Hua

Expectations: Low.


In the United States, when we hear that a movie has been held unreleased for any extended length of time — in this case, four years — the natural assumption is that irreparable artistic or financial issues exist with the movie preventing its release. Some of these concerns might carry over to the 1970s Hong Kong industry, but with the Shaw Brothers studio I feel like their continuous production methods led to lower priority films being abandoned, regardless of any fault in the film itself. The changing landscape of the Hong Kong industry from wuxia to hand-to-hand kung fu is the most likely culprit, causing the once flourishing wuxia genre on to the back burner for both studios and audiences.

Looking into the box office records of Ho Meng-Hua’s previous films also sheds some light on the issue. Neither of his two 1971-released wuxias, The Lady Hermit and The Long Chase, did very well, with The Lady Hermit specifically underperforming at 75th place out of 83 films released that year. Ambush was filmed in 1971 like The Golden Lion, and when it eventually released in 1973 it also did poorly, ranking 77th out of 87 films. Both Ambush and The Golden Lion star Chiu Hung & Li Ching, and while Li Ching was a great part of many Chang Cheh films, neither Li or Chiu were big enough stars to carry films on their own. In 1975, The Golden Lion also performed poorly, coming in at 84th of 92 films. Ouch. Poor wuxia. 🙁 Thanks to Celestial Pictures and the passage of time, though, we are allowed to find the hidden gems that failed to resonate in their day. The Golden Lion is one such film… in fact, I’d say it’s one of Ho Meng-Hua’s best and most satisfying wuxias.
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Ambush (1973)

Ambush+1973-1-bAmbush [埋伏] (1973)

Starring Li Ching, Chiu Hung, Yeung Chi-Hing, Wang Hsieh, Dean Shek Tin, Kong Ling, Tung Lam, Lee Pang-Fei, Chan Shen, Pang Pang, Unicorn Chan, Lee Man-Chow, Sa Au

Directed by Ho Meng-Hua

Expectations: Moderate.

threestar


Ambush is like a lot of the other martial arts films I’ve seen from director Ho Meng-Hua. It is a capable film, and it tells a good story, but it just doesn’t feel all that original or special. When you’re cranking out as many martial arts films as the Shaw Brothers were at this time, it makes sense that many of them might be like this, but a couple of things about Ambush help to differentiate it from previous mid-level Shaw films.

First, this was their first martial arts film of 1973, and by this point in their history the fight choreography is well beyond what you’d generally expect in something labeled “mid-range.” By modern standards it’s a little wonky, but regardless the fights of Ambush are plentiful and fun. Shaw veteran Simon Chui Yee-Ang handled the choreography himself this time and he does a great job of crafting quick-moving fights that showcase everything from fantastical wuxia feats, to basic swordplay, to the up-and-coming genre standard hand-to-hand work.

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Pursuit (1972)

pursuit_4Pursuit [林沖夜奔] (1972)

Starring Yueh Hua, Wong Gam-Fung, Fan Mei-Sheng, Paul Chun Pui, Go Ming, Yeung Chi-Hing, Wong Chung-Shun, Chiu Hung, Lee Siu-Chung, Tong Jing, Shum Lo, Mang Hoi

Directed by Cheng Kang

Expectations: High.

fourstar


Pursuit is a prequel of sorts to Chang Cheh’s The Water Margin, focused specifically on telling the story of Yueh Hua’s character, Lin Chong AKA Panther Head. Connecting your film to one of the greatest Chinese films of all-time is a tall order, but thankfully we have the talented, resolute hands of Cheng Kang guiding Pursuit. The film is supreme entertainment from start to finish, although the focus is more on heartbreaking drama than traditional Shaw Brothers action (though there is a good amount of that too).

Like many martial arts stories, a strong thread of brotherhood runs through Pursuit, but the main theme here is trust. The film opens many years before the events of The Water Margin, as Lin Chong returns home and happily greets his wife. He is a respected instructor for the Imperial guard, and everything in his life is seemingly perfect. Lin Chong accompanies his wife to the temple and runs into an old friend, Lu Zhishen AKA Flowery Monk (Fan Mei-Sheng). At this moment, Lin Chong decides that brotherhood is more important than escorting his wife, so he trusts that she will be fine while he shares a few drinks and stories with Lu Zhishen (who also appears in The Water Margin, portrayed by Pang Pang). Lin Chong’s trust in the good of man is misplaced, though, as he returns to the temple to find the son of the Imperial Commander, Gao Yanei, attempting to rape his wife. He stops Gao, but this also sets into motion the ruination of Lin Chong’s life as he knows it.

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King Boxer (1972)

KingBoxer_1King Boxer [天下第一拳] (1972)
AKA Five Fingers of Death

Starring Lo Lieh, Wang Ping, Wong Gam-Fung, Tien Feng, Tung Lam, Fang Mian, Goo Man-Chung, James Nam Gung-Fan, Yau Lung, Chen Feng-Chen, Chan Shen, Gam Kei-Chu, Chiu Hung, Someno Yukio, Yeung Chak-Lam, Hung Sing-Chung, Bolo Yeung, Tsang Choh-Lam, Wong Ching-Ho

Directed by Cheng Chang Ho

Expectations: High.

fourstar


Opening with the sound of an alarm, King Boxer lets you know straight away that it is a film to take notice of. As an advancement of the budding hand-to-hand genre, King Boxer is exactly the film the genre needed at this point in time. It builds on the foundation set by previous films — specifically The Chinese Boxer and Fist of Fury — and takes the genre closer to what it would later become. There’s no secret why this is the film that broke through to America and created a kung fu sensation; it’s an amazingly entertaining and well-made piece of work.

At the heart of the tale is the oft-told story of battling martial arts clans, but in King Boxer it’s the way the story is told that sets it apart. It is both rooted in martial arts traditions and something unique. It takes facets of the traditional kung fu film and orders them in a non-traditional way, resulting in a film that feels familiar, yet is never boring or predictable. It also explores its themes of jealousy, courage and cowardice much more fully than the traditional ’70s martial arts film, making King Boxer fulfilling on multiple levels.

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The Black Enforcer (1972)

blackenforcer_7The Black Enforcer [黑靈官] (1972)

Starring Tang Ching, Tien Feng, Fong Yan-Ji, Wang Ping, Chiu Hung, Cliff Lok, Yee Kwan, Tung Li, Wong Ching-Wan, Choi Sung, Ng Ming-Choi, Chai No, Choe Gwang-ho

Directed by Ho Meng-Hua

Expectations: Moderate.

threehalfstar


The Black Enforcer is probably the best film that I’ve seen yet from director Ho Meng-Hua. It’s rather unfortunate then that this one is rather hard to get ahold of, although intrepid Shaw Brothers fans should be able to track it down if you’re resilient enough. You shouldn’t have to stay in a darkened jail cell for 15 years while you think about the wrongs done to you like the title character of the film, but it will definitely take a bit of digging. 🙂

Before that jail cell comes into play, though, the Black Enforcer (Tang Ching) is bringing a couple of criminals in to see the yamen after they were caught looting a mansion and murdering an entire family of 13. What makes this something of a tortuous affair for the Black Enforcer is that one of the criminals is Guan Yun-Fei (Tien Feng), one of his martial arts brothers from their days under the same kung fu instructor. The Black Enforcer must put aside his feelings for the man and follow the law; there’s no excuse for his villainous behavior.

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The Long Chase (1971)

thelongchase_7The Long Chase [俠士行] (1971)

Starring Yueh Hua, Lo Lieh, Li Ching, Pang Pang, Wang Hsieh, Chiu Hung, Tong Tin-Hei, Law Hon, Chuen Yuen, Lee Siu-Chung, Wong Ching-Ho, Cliff Lok Kam Tung, Someno Yukio, Man Lei

Directed by Ho Meng-Hua

Expectations: Low.

threehalfstar


The Long Chase offers a different take on the heroic brotherhood stories that populate many other Shaw Brothers films, and it comes as a welcome variation. I don’t know that everyone would be as enthusiastic about this one as I am, but it must have hit me on the right day, as it was start-to-finish entertainment. The film opens at night, as the Prime Minister and his envoy are about to travel through town. Unbeknownst to the guards and their leader (Lo Lieh), a sneaky swordsman dressed all in black sneaks around the town in order to assassinate the Prime Minister. He crawls through ditches in seemingly plain sight of the guards, but I guess his movements were so good that they were imperceptible to the guards. That, or guards are just woefully incompetent in films. Probably that.

As a side note, these ditches that the assassin (Yueh Hua) crawls through are most likely the ditches dug in the sets for the cameras to capture low angles of the streets and whatever action is occurring on them. After so many of these films, the sets become fairly familiar and it seems as if I’ve seen every angle and viewpoint, so it’s always nice to see a new piece, especially one with a technical background such as this.

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