The Brave Archer (1977)

The Brave Archer [射鵰英雄傳] (1977)
AKA Shaolin Archers, Kung Fu Warlords

Starring Alexander Fu Sheng, Tien Niu, Phillip Kwok Chun-Fung, Ku Feng, Ku Kuan-Chung, Johnny Wang Lung-Wei, Danny Lee, Li Yi-Min, Dick Wei, Lau Wai-Ling, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan, Chu Jing, Yue Wing, Chan Shen, Fan Mei-Sheng, Suen Shu-Pau, Tsai Hung, Lam Fai-Wong, Lo Meng, Jamie Luk Kim-Ming, Lu Feng, Chiu Chung-Hing, Chow Git, Kara Hui, Yu Hoi-Lun, Wang Ching-Liang, Stephan Yip Tin-Hang, Lee Siu-Wah

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: High. I’ve wanted to see this one for a while.


Sometime during the Jin-Song wars, two heroes of the Song dynasty are living with their wives in a quiet corner of the world. They’ve sworn their newborn children to be blood brothers, and when a wandering Taoist visits, he names the boys — Yang Kang & Guo Jing — and inscribes their names onto small swords. Unfortunately, this happy opening quickly turns sour when Jin soldiers attack and kidnap Yang Kang and his mother. In the wake of the skirmish, the Weird Seven, a group of powerful martial artists, take in Guo Jing and his mother, agreeing to raise the boy as their own. The Taoist promises to monitor and train Yang Kang, and in 18 years’ time, they will all meet up to see which boy possesses the superior kung fu. It’s a great setup for the film, but don’t get too attached. It does not resolve in this film at all, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t have fun on the journey that The Brave Archer provides. This is a different sort of wuxia, unique from Chang’s previous genre-defining work or Chor Yuen’s genre-redefining films.

I’ve heard a lot about The Brave Archer over the years; everything from “It’s great” to “It’s awful,” and everything in between. I arrived to the movie with my own baggage, as well. Knowing that this was Chang Cheh’s first film back in Hong Kong after the artistic freedom he experienced in Taiwan, and that in his memoir he states, “the five years of my second spell at Shaws warrant little mention,” it’s hard not to come into The Brave Archer with the idea that Chang was frustrated with the situation and the state of the Hong Kong industry. Having been the leader of the charge in the action genre for so many years, to now be relinquishing that title to Lau Kar-Leung and Chor Yuen (and those not at Shaw like Sammo Hung, and later Yuen Woo-Ping and Jackie Chan), make it a distinct possibility that he was coerced into making a wuxia — a genre he felt was tired and had reached its pinnacle with Golden Swallow — to satisfy the fanbase revitalized by Chor Yuen’s films. I have a feeling that’s only partially true, though. Chang also talks in his memoir of his great friendship with Jin Yong, so I can imagine Chang choosing the project and feeling a personal responsibility to do the work of his friend justice.

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To Kill a Jaguar (1977)

To Kill a Jaguar [絕不低頭] (1977)

Starring Chung Wah, Lau Wing, Nora Miao, Ling Yun, Wai Wang, Fan Mei-Sheng, Chan Shen, Hao Li-Jen, Siu Yam-Yam, Johnny Wang Lung-Wei, Lam Fai-Wong, Keung Hon, Lee Hang, Jamie Luk Kim-Ming, Gam Lau, Mak Wa-Mei, Alan Chan Kwok-Kuen, Wong Ching-Ho, Ting Lai-Na, Sai Gwa-Pau

Directed by Hua Shan

Expectations: Moderate. Don’t know what to expect, really.


I had never heard of To Kill a Jaguar until I compiled my chronological list of Shaw Brothers martial arts films, so I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into. This is true of many Shaw films that I’ve reviewed, but in this particular case I feel that To Kill a Jaguar should be spotlighted as something unique and worthwhile. To Kill a Jaguar is every bit a ’70s Shaw picture, but it flirts with the multi-genre trade that would come to define Hong Kong cinema in the ’80s and ’90s, and perhaps most interestingly it is an adaptation of a non-wuxia Gu Long novel made amidst the sea of fan-favorite Gu Long adaptations from director Chor Yuen. I’m sure To Kill a Jaguar was greenlit due to the success of Chor’s films, and so then it should come as no surprise that the film is more similar to them than you might think at first glance.

Based on the 1973 Gu Long novel, Never Bow Down (絕不低頭, also the film’s Chinese title), our story begins with Bobo Kam (Nora Miao) arriving in Republic-era Shanghai in search of her father. It is a dangerous place where street gangs battle with knives and hatchets, and she stumbles into one such battle. One man stands out from the crowd with distinctive sideburns and a fistful of keys as his weapon; Jaguar (Chung Wah) is clearly not your average street thug. After the fight subsides, Bobo and Jaguar realize this isn’t their first time meeting. Jaguar was once known to Bobo as “Silly Kid,” a snot-nosed fat boy who played with Bobo and a mutual friend, He Lie, way back when in Stone Village. Things have definitely changed over the years for Bobo and Jaguar, and if you know anything about Gu Long stories, you know these characters are in for a lot more, as well.

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Lady Exterminator (1977)

Lady Exterminator [阿Sir毒后老虎槍] (1977)

Starring Chen Ping, Yueh Hua, Chung Wah, Derek Yee, Shirley Yu Sha-Li, Shut Chung-Tin, Wa Lun, Zheng Lou-Si, Jamie Luk Kim-Ming, Yeung Chi-Hing, Keung Hon, Chiang Tao, Ku Wen-Chung, Ng Hong-Sang, Stephan Yip Tin-Hang, Kong San

Directed by Sun Chung

Expectations: I enjoyed The Sexy Killer. I hope the sequel is fun, too.


Lady Exterminator is an ultra-rare Shaw Brothers film, as far as I know only surviving as a horribly degraded, full-screen bootleg of a Lebanese film print with English-dubbed dialogue and French & Arabic burned-in subtitles. Bootlegs have done a lot of harm to the kung fu DVD industry, but there are a few instances like this where bootlegs help the fan base keep an otherwise lost film alive. While this mangled print theoretically shouldn’t have any bearing on the film’s quality, it inevitably made it difficult to get into the film. I’m not usually a fan of English dubs anyway; I have a hard time connecting with characters emotionally when their dialogue doesn’t accurately reflect the emotions on-screen. Even with these factors stacked against my enjoyment of Lady Exterminator, I was still able to extract a fair amount of entertainment. The fact that it was a sequel helped, too, because I was already familiar with the characters that Chen Ping and Yueh Hua play.

A gang of criminals have discovered a police informer in their midst. They chase him through the streets and into the dank tunnels under the city, leading the pursuit to the subway system. The criminals catch the fleeing man and brutally beat him. They tie him to the subway tracks on all fours, so he is looking directly at the oncoming train as it plows into him. It’s a gripping way to open a film, and these moments of intense brutality are one of the few things helped by the horrific quality of the print. Shot in real locations around Hong Kong, filtered through multiple generations of video dubs, the brutal violence takes on the vibe of a snuff film found at the bottom of a well. Anyway, with his lead informant murdered, police detective Geng Weiping (Yueh Hua) must find a new way to get information out of the heroin-dealing drug gangs running rampant through the city. He turns to Gao Wanfei (Chen Ping), now in prison after the events of The Sexy Killer, where she took on the drug gang that killed her sister. Gao agrees, but she wants to do it right. She decides to shoot up some heroin, addicting herself so the gang believes her and easily accepts her into the fold. Now that’s commitment!

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The New Shaolin Boxers (1976)

The New Shaolin Boxers [蔡李佛小子] (1976)
AKA The Choy Lay Fat Kid, Demon Fists of Kung Fu, Grand Master of Kung Fu, Grand Master of Death, Silly Kid

Starring Alexander Fu Sheng, Jenny Tseng, Johnny Wang Lung-Wei, Lo Dik, Leung Kar-Yan, Jamie Luk Kim-Ming, Chan Wai-Lau, Shan Mao, Phillip Kwok Chun-Fung, Wong Yiu, Wu Hsiao-Hui, Stephan Yip Tin-Hang, Wong Fei, Lee Ying, Wong Cheong-Chi

Directed by Chang Cheh (with Wu Ma)

Expectations: Excited for another Shaolin Cycle movie.


The New Shaolin Boxers is something of an anomaly in Chang Cheh’s informal Shaolin Cycle. It most resembles Disciples of Shaolin, with both films featuring a resonant dramatic core about practitioners of Shaolin martial arts far down the lineage from the folk heroes who survived the burning of the Shaolin temple. The New Shaolin Boxers isn’t nearly as effective or finely crafted as Disciples of Shaolin, but I must admit that it is a film that is growing in stature the more I think about it. The key to this blossoming love is how Chang Cheh and Ni Kuang wrote the film to reflect the dual nature of its featured martial art: Choy Li Fut.

Choy Li Fut is an interesting branch of kung fu developed by Chan Heung in the 1800s. He combined two of the five main Southern styles, Choy Gar and Li Gar, with Fut Gar (also known as Buddhist Fist, itself a combination of Choy Gar and Hung Gar), resulting in a well-rounded system that enriches all aspects of the artist’s life. Philosophy and similar non-physical teachings are not unique to Choy Li Fut, but it is my understanding that it is more of a focus here than elsewhere. The film opens with Fu Sheng demonstrating Choy Li Fut, while the narrator tells us of its history and the art’s lineage to contextualizes the movie’s timeline. After this intro, though, the film seems to dive into a standard martial plot without a lot of thought or care paid to representing Choy Li Fut. In thinking this, I was quite wrong; the teachings of Choy Li Fut influence every aspect of the film and its plot.

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The Shaolin Avengers (1976)

The Shaolin Avengers [方世玉與胡惠乾] (1976)
AKA Fong Sai-Yuk and Wu Wai-Kin (literal translation), Incredible Kung Fu Brothers

Starring Alexander Fu Sheng, Chi Kuan-Chun, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan, Lung Fei, Johnny Wang Lung-Wei, Shan Mao, Leung Kar-Yan, Jamie Luk Kim-Ming, Chan Wai-Lau, Tsai Hung, Lo Dik, Ma Chi-Chun, Weng Hsiao-Hu, Ricky Cheng Tien-Chi

Directed by Chang Cheh (with Wu Ma)

Expectations: Pumped for more Shaolin.


The greatness of The Shaolin Avengers lies in its structure. The film opens with its finale, fading in and out into flashbacks that show how our heroes and villains all came to this particular battle. It could have been told in chronological order and the audience would have similarly understood the characters’ journey to the finale, but introducing us first to the final struggle colors the flashbacks in ways that chronological order could not. It may be called The Shaolin Avengers, but I found the structure to remove a lot of the tension inherent in a traditional revenge story. Instead, I pondered the nature of life, how small moments remind you of people or places, and how important preparation is to success. You don’t simply wake up bad ass, you must be dedicated and willing to endure hardship so that you can emerge a better, streamlined version of yourself.

The Shaolin Avengers re-tells the stories of Fang Shih-Yu AKA Fong Sai-Yuk (Alexander Fu Sheng) and Hu Huei-Chien AKA Wu Wai-Kin (Chi Kuan-Chun), as previously seen in Men from the Monastery. It removes Hung Shi-Kuan’s character altogether, which allows for more time devoted to the early days of Fang before he sought training at the Shaolin Temple. In Men from the Monastery, there is a slight mention of Fang’s mother bathing him in rice wine, but here in The Shaolin Avengers we see the circumstances that led to this, as well as the hardship involved with the bathing itself. Hu Huei-Chien’s story is virtually unchanged, though, and in comparing scenes — such as the death of Hu’s father in the gambling house — they might have even used the same script (or very close to the same script) for these scenes. The main difference is that now the two characters’ stories are fully intertwined and dramatically complete, instead of the disjointed, episodic quality that Men from the Monastery has. So you could say that The Shaolin Avengers is essentially a remake of Men from the Monastery, but I hesitate to write that because it seems reductive to classify The Shaolin Avengers as a mere remake.

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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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The Twin Dragons (1992)

TwinDragons_1The Twin Dragons [雙龍會] (1992)
AKA Brother vs. Brother, Double Dragon, Duel of Dragons, When Dragons Collide, Dragon Duo, When Dragons Meet

Starring Jackie Chan, Maggie Cheung, Nina Li Chi, Teddy Robin Kwan, Alfred Cheung Kin-Ting, Wang Lung-Wei, Jamie Luk Kim-Ming, David Chiang, Lau Kar-Leung, Wong Jing, Chor Yuen, Guy Lai Ying-Chau

Directed by Tsui Hark & Ringo Lam

Expectations: Moderate.

threehalfstar


I first saw The Twin Dragons as a teenager. It never really captured my attention; I think I only watched it once or twice. There were other, better Jackie films to watch over and over. Roughly 20 years later, I didn’t remember anything about it. I was able to experience the film with completely fresh eyes because of this, and I loved it. What really helped this time, too, is that now I have a more expansive knowledge of Hong Kong film, so I actually noticed that there were a TON of cameos from luminaries of the Hong Kong film industry. I’m sure I recognized Lau Kar-Leung back in the day, but now I noted the subtext of the scene in which his confident, classic style confronts the lunacy of Wong Jing. Recognizing these moments makes the film play much better and much funnier than I ever remember it being, to the point that the lack of action doesn’t even matter… especially when the film then caps itself off with such an incredible explosion of action!

Twin boys are born in a Hong Kong hospital to a Chinese couple visiting from the US. In a wonderful series of crazy Hong Kong action moments, a criminal takes one of the twins hostage and the infant finds its way into the hands of a childless, alcoholic woman who raises it as her own. Meanwhile, when the missing child was never found, the couple returned to New York and raised the other twin as an only child. The Hong Kong twin is named Die Hard (in my copy’s subtitles), and he a martial artist who works as a shady mechanic who likes to take his customers’ cars out to race with. The twin in New York, Ma Yau, is raised with a thorough education and becomes a world-class pianist and conductor. Ma Yau has recently arrived for a performance in Hong Kong, leading to mistaken identity hijinks and hilarity.

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