The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin [少林卅六房] (1978)
AKA Master Killer, Shaolin Master Killer

Starring Gordon Liu Chia-Hui, Lo Lieh, John Cheung Ng-Long, Wilson Tong, Wa Lun, Hon Kwok-Choi, Lau Kar-Wing, Wai Wang, Chan Sze-Kai, Wong Ching-Ho, Woo Wang-Daat, Lee Hoi-Sang, Keung Hon, Hao Li-Jen, Shum Lo, Lui Tat, Chan Shen, Chiang Nan, Aai Dung-Gwa, Simon Yuen Siu-Tin, Wang Han-Chen, Peter Chan Lung, Henry Yu Yung, Ng Hong-Sang, Norman Chu Siu-Keung, Wong Yu, Huang Pa-Ching

Directed by Lau Kar-Leung

Expectations: I love it. I expect to continue to love it. 🙂


Right from the opening moments, it’s clear that The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is a classic. Gordon Liu commands your attention, performing precise and artful kung fu as the credits appear before him. The iron rings on his arms glisten and add a sonic rhythm to his movements. I tried my best to forget the film’s legacy and watch through this review series’s chronological lens, but this was quite the challenge. It was my first Shaw film, and I’ve seen it countless times. This particular time was my first experience with the film in its original language, though, and this definitely helped to separate it from my personal history. In any case, the film starts out poppin’ on all cylinders, and as it goes it only further cements itself into the martial arts cinematic history.

Liu Yu-de (Gordon Liu) is a passionate student who is displeased with the injustices of the current tyrannical Manchu rule. A group of rebels have been recently executed, including a notable general (played by Lau Kar-Wing), and Liu finds it near impossible to stand by without action. He is told that “one must humble oneself under enemy rule,” but he wonders how long that must go on for. Surely, the fate of his people is not to simply accept their fate and live in fear. He learns that the Shaolin monastery is where the best kung fu is known, but they do not allow outside students or involve themselves in the country’s politics. Fleeing the Manchu, Liu ventures to the Shaolin temple regardless of their policies, hoping that he might appeal to their humanity and learn their fighting arts.

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Executioners from Shaolin (1977)

Executioners from Shaolin [洪熙官] (1977)
AKA Hung Hsi-Kuan, The Executioners of Death, Shaolin Executioners

Starring Chen Kuan-Tai, Lily Li Li-Li, Lo Lieh, Wong Yu, Dave Wong Kit, Cheng Kang-Yeh, Shum Lo, Gordon Liu Chia-Hui, Lee Hoi-Sang, Tin Ching, Chiang Tao, John Cheung Ng-Long, Lee Chiu

Directed by Lau Kar-Leung

Expectations: Super high.


Shaolin Temple marked the end of Chang Cheh’s Shaolin Cycle, but hot on its heels a couple of months later came the first Shaolin film from Lau Kar-Leung: Executioners from Shaolin. Lau is fundamentally a different style of director than Chang, and this film is a perfect example of this. Chen Kuan-Tai reprises the role of Hung Hsi-Kuan, but Lau builds the character in ways that Chang never did. Executioners from Shaolin begins similarly to Chang’s Heroes Two (with Hung’s escape from the burning Shaolin temple), but it is not a tale of survival and hiding out from Qing government officials. Executioners from Shaolin has a bigger goal in mind, broadening its focus out to illustrate the evolution of Hung Gar and the importance of its lineage. Lau Kar-Leung was a member of this lineage himself, so his genuine appreciation and love for it really pops off the screen. Shaolin filmmaking at the Shaw studio began with Hung Gar under the influence of Lau, so it’s fitting that he would begin there as well.

The martial lineage of Hung Gar is the overall focus of Executioners from Shaolin, but it is framed around a basic revenge-driven story that any kung fu fan has seen a million times. It’s presented differently here, but regardless it still boils down to “You killed my master, now I kill you.” Shaolin Master Zhi Shan (Lee Hoi-Sang) is defeated by Pai Mei (Lo Lieh) during the film’s opening credits, setting the stage for a quest of revenge. Hung Hsi-Kuan & his remaining Shaolin brethren would like to strike while their emotional wounds are fresh and the wood of Shaolin still smokes, but after confronting some Qing resistance it becomes clear that regrouping and strengthening their position is their only viable option. The students find refuge in the Red Boat opera troupes who travel the country by sea, leading Hung to meet the beautiful and martially adept Fang Yung Chun (Lily Li), and this is where the heart of Executioners from Shaolin can be found.

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Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold (1975)

Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold [女金剛鬥狂龍女] (1975)

Starring Tamara Dobson, Stella Stevens, Tanny Tien Ni, Norman Fell, Albert Popwell, Caro Kenyatta, Chan Shen, John Cheung Ng-Long, Christopher Hunt, Lin Chen-Chi, Lau Luk-Wah, Eddy Donno, Bobby Canavarro

Directed by Chuck Bail

Expectations: Moderate.


Like just about every American movie set in Hong Kong, Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold opens on a busy harbor full of junks and other ramshackle boats, scored with overtly “Oriental” music. The rest of the movie is also filled with all kinds of cliches and obvious story beats. Despite this, the movie rises above its trappings and manages to be quite an entertaining film. It exists in a gray area where the traditional American action film intersects with the Blaxploitation and kung fu genres, but only in the film’s incredible, lengthy finale does it ever really embrace any of those roots in a completely satisfying way. And it might just be my love of Hong Kong talking, but Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold is better than the original, which I watched last week in preparation for this review.

The film’s story is probably its weakest element. Matthew Johnson (Albert Popwell) and Melvin Johnson (Caro Kenyatta) attempt to buy some product from drug lord Soo Da Chen (Chan Shen). Chen wants to do the deal behind the back of the big, bad Dragon Lady (Stella Stevens), who controls the illicit trade in the region, in a bid to undermine her power and potentially take over. Dragon Lady is too smart to let this happen, so she assaults the boat where the deal is happening, taking Matthew and Melvin hostage. Enter Cleopatra Jones, sent to Hong Kong to rescue them, and maybe take down the drug ring in the process. I honestly don’t remember if that was part of her assignment. In any case, that’s the whole plot; the rest of the movie just continues down that path, dealing with some obstacles that arise as Cleopatra makes her way through the Hong Kong underworld.

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Police Story Part II (1988)

policestory2_1Police Story Part II [警察故事續集] (1988)

Starring Jackie Chan, Maggie Cheung, Lam Gwok-Hung, Bill Tung, Charlie Cho Cha-Lee, Benny Lai Keung-Kuen, Ben Lam Kwok-Bun, Guan Shan, Mars, Lisa Chiao Chiao, John Cheung Ng-Long, Danny Chow Yun-Gin, Johnny Cheung Wa

Directed by Jackie Chan

Expectations: High. Can’t wait to see that playground fight again.

threestar


Like Project A 2, Police Story Part II begins by re-introducing the disgruntled, revenge-seeking villains of the first film, but then sidelines them for a completely new plotline. This works well in Project A 2 — the pirates are but a single cog in a very well-constructed script — but in Police Story 2 the returning baddies don’t serve much of a purpose at all. They drive the story a bit in the early going, and they facilitate the entire playground fight, but overall they could have been excised and the film would still make complete sense. I’m ultimately glad they’re around because that playground fight is one of my favorite Jackie fights of all time, but I just wish their inclusion was more meaningful.

This disillusionment also represents my general feelings towards Police Story 2 this time around. There’s a lot to like here, and the action is incredible, but it’s in bad need of some editing. It turns out the version I watched was the Japanese cut — supposedly Jackie’s preferred version of the film — which runs about 20 minutes longer than the original HK cut. I guess I’ll have to hunt down that shorter version for next time, although I’m not entirely sure it would really change my opinion all that much. I guess it depends on where those 20 minutes are coming from.

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Winners and Sinners (1983)

WinnersandSinners+1983-255-bWinners and Sinners [奇謀妙計五福星] (1983)
AKA Five Lucky Stars

Starring Sammo Hung, Richard Ng, Stanley Fung Sui-Fan, John Shum Kin-Fun, Charlie Chin Chiang-Lin, Cherie Chung Cho-Hung, Jackie Chan, Cecilia Yip Tung, James Tin Jun, Pat Ha Man-Jik, Tai Bo, Lam Ching-Ying, John Cheung Ng-Long, Fung Hak-On, Yuen Biao

Directed by Sammo Hung

Expectations: High. Can’t remember if I ever saw this one or not.

threehalfstar


Winners and Sinners is a film that could easily be disappointing for someone expecting a true Jackie/Sammo movie like their later collaborations. This is much more of an ensemble movie, and Jackie is but a minor supporting character that happens to have a couple of outstanding action sequences. But this isn’t cause for alarm; Winners and Sinners is a clear winner of a movie.

Winners and Sinners isn’t the type of movie where each moment adheres to a strict plot, instead it’s more concerned with being as funny and engaging as possible. The film opens by introducing us to the main characters one-by-one, each one attempting some kind of thievery and getting caught by the police. In prison the five cons strike up a fast friendship and open up a cleaning company when they are released. It sounds kinda boring and uninteresting just listing the plot details, and it really doesn’t evoke the sense of raw fun that is on display in every moment of the film.

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