Supermen Against the Orient (1974)

supermenagainsttheorient_1Supermen Against the Orient [Crash! Che botte… strippo strappo stroppio, 四王一后] (1974)
AKA Three Supermen Vs The Orient, Three Fantastic Supermen in the Orient

Starring Robert Malcolm, Antonio Cantafora, Salvatore Borghese, Lo Lieh, Shih Szu, Tung Lam, Alberto Farnese, Jacques Dufilho, Isabella Biagini, Kong Ling, Lau Wai-Ling, Yeung Chi-Hing, Chan Ho

Directed by Bitto Albertini (with an uncredited assist from Kuei Chi-Hung)

Expectations: Super low.

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No one expects to like every movie they watch, but I generally enjoy most Shaw Brothers films, even the ones that don’t really capture me. I have enough affection for the studio, its stars, and its production style to get me through a boring film. For better or worse, that’s how it is. So it’s surprising when I run into one that I pretty much hate. To be fair, there are some things that I liked about this co-production with Italy’s INDIEF, but overall Supermen Against the Orient has to be one of the worst Shaw films I’ve seen. At least it’s only barely a Shaw Brothers movie, which is partly why it didn’t play well for me.

In 1967, Gianfranco Parolini directed The Three Fantastic Supermen, and it was so popular that it spawned an entire franchise. I’ve heard of them, but this is the first I’ve seen. From what I can tell, it’s a loose series, swapping out characters and actors regularly, but there is a core framework that remains constant. Similar to James Bond, our main character is an FBI Agent who is sent to far-off exotic locales to thwart some kind of devious behavior. Along the way he teams up with a pair of well-meaning thieves who possess bulletproof super suits, and together they all save the day from the bad guys. This vague description of the formula can also serve as a plot description for Supermen Against the Orient, since none of the specifics about the villains or what they’re doing actually matter. There’s a drug deal and some kidnapped people, but I couldn’t tell you much else about why everything was happening.

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Rivals of Kung Fu (1974)

RivalsofKungFu_1Rivals of Kung Fu [黃飛鴻義取丁財炮] (1974)

Starring Shut Chung-Tin, Sek Kin, Lily Li Li-Li, James Ma Chim-Si, Bruce Le, Ricky Hui Koon-Ying, Sharon Yeung Pan-Pan, Cheng Miu, Kam Kwok-Leung, Kong Ling, Chan Shen, Lin Wen-Wei, Tong Chung-San, Keung Hon

Directed by Wong Fung

Expectations: Low. The title sounds good, but I’m wary.

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Rivals of Kung Fu feels like a film that could have been made a few years earlier, especially in terms of how it focuses on story over action. Not that Shaw films of 1974 don’t have good stories, but Rivals of Kung Fu exhibits a unique quality that sets itself apart from just about every Shaw film I’ve seen. It is a cause-and-effect story that slowly moves forward on small details and slight misunderstandings, telling of a rivalry between your favorite Chinese folk hero Wong Fei Hung (Shut Chung-Tin) and nearby school leader Master Shen Chiu Kung (Sek Kin). It’s very deliberate and purposeful, and I don’t think it’s something that will appeal to everyone. There’s no action whatsoever until a little over 30 minutes in, and after that extended sequence, there’s not a lot that would fall under the traditional umbrella of what we think of when we think “action movie.”

The key to understanding this difference lies in the film’s writer/director, Wong Fung. By this point in his career, Wong had been active in the Hong Kong film industry for nearly 25 years. Many of those years were spent as a screenwriter on over 100 films, with around 40 of these scripts for the original Wong Fei-Hung film series starring Kwan Tak-Hing. Wong Fung directed a few of the later films in that series, as well! I haven’t seen any of those films, but it’s probably not a dangerous stretch to say that Rivals of Kung Fu is probably a stylistic continuation of the series. Also of note: Sek Kin seems to have been the villain in most, if not all, of those Wong Fei-Hung films, so his presence as the villain in Rivals of Kung Fu here is significant.

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The Generation Gap (1973)

GenerationGap_1The Generation Gap [叛逆] (1973)
AKA The Traitor

Starring David Chiang, Agnes Chan Mei-Ling, Ti Lung, Lo Dik, Yeung Chi-Hing, Lin Jing, Kong Ling, Johnston Wong Chan-Sin, Ricky Hui Koon-Ying, Shum Lo, Lee Pang-Fei, Dean Shek Tin, Lee Sau-Kei, Chiang Tao, Wong Pau-Gei, Helen Ko, Alexander Fu Sheng

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: Moderate. I never know what to expect with Chang Cheh’s modern films.

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The Generation Gap is another entry into Chang Cheh’s collection of films about the troubled youth of Hong Kong, but this is perhaps his most successful at a dramatic level (at least up to this point chronologically). Does that mean it’s one to watch if you’re interested in dipping your toes into the modern films of Chang Cheh? I guess, although I think your enjoyment of it will directly relate to how much you love you already have for early ’70s Hong Kong film. But whatever, I can’t guess how and why someone else will like this movie, I can only speak for myself. And I liked it quite a lot.

The Generation Gap is about the romance between 21-year-old Ling Xi (David Chiang) and 16-year-old Cindy (Agnes Chan). Their parents both disapprove of the coupling for many reasons, but like all young lovers, they feel like they’ve found the best thing on Earth and their parents are being needlessly protective. The film charts the relationship as it grows and attempts to mature, and as you can imagine there are aspects of it that don’t go as planned (or dreamed) by the two lovebirds.

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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.

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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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The Black Tavern (1972)

TheBlackTavern_1The Black Tavern [黑店] (1972)

Starring Shih Szu, Tung Li, Ku Feng, Kong Ling, Kwok Chuk-Hing, Barry Chan, Yeung Chi-Hing, Dean Shek Tin, Wang Hsieh, Yue Fung, Situ Lin, Law Hon, Lee Ho, Wu Ma, Yau Ming

Directed by Teddy Yip Wing-Cho

Expectations: Fairly high.

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I can’t say that I’ve seen any other martial arts film with a structure quite like The Black Tavern, and that’s exactly why you should see the film as clueless as possible if you want to get the maximum amount of enjoyment out of it. Even knowing that the structure is something unique is probably tipping the film’s hand too much, but it would be hard to write a review without mentioning the very thing that makes it such a notable film. So if you’re a martial arts fan looking for a great under-the-radar gem, stop reading, track down The Black Tavern, and enjoy!

The film begins with its credits over shots of patrons sitting at tables in a small tavern. There’s no sound other than the music, so the diners’ calls for pots of wine or plates of beef noodles are left for us to imagine. Sound enters the picture via a song sung by a beggar monk who ambles around the room, presumably hoping for the charity of others. The tavern’s patrons don’t look too hospitable, though, and largely ignore him. But when the song’s lyrics begin to weave a tale of how the monk happened to see a traveling official’s trunk full of amazing treasures, and how easy it would be to rob this man, the unsavory characters in the restaurant begin to take notice. A pair of bandits leave to find this easy mark, and thus begins one of the great martial arts films of the era.

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The Delightful Forest (1972)

DelightfulForest_1The Delightful Forest [快活林] (1972)

Starring Ti Lung, Chu Mu, Chiang Nan, Lan Wei-Lieh, Tin Ching, Wong Ching-Ho, Lee Man-Tai, Wang Kuang-Yu, Yue Fung, Kwok Chuk-Hing, Lau Kar-Wing, Wang Han-Chen, Hoh Gong, Li Min-Lang, Kong Ling

Directed by Chang Cheh & Pao Hsueh-Li

Expectations: High.

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The Delightful Forest is another Shaw Brothers film based on the classic Chinese novel Outlaws of the Marsh (AKA The Water Margin). This time they’re focusing on Ti Lung’s Water Margin character Wu Song. The Delightful Forest adapts Chapters 27–31, the story of Wu Song’s imprisonment after killing his devious sister-in-law and her lover after they had fatally poisoned Wu Song’s brother. I also just found out that the tale of Wu Song’s brother was told by the Shaw Brothers many years earlier in the 1963 Huangmei opera film, The Amorous Lotus Pan (and again a few years later in 1982’s Tiger Killer). In any case… The Delightful Forest!

The film opens with Wu Song (Ti Lung) confronting his sister-in-law’s lover in a restaurant… you can’t argue with a film that opens with a restaurant fight. Wu Song exacts his revenge and is quickly captured without incident for this murder. Now wearing a cangue, he is escorted by two guards to the nearby prison. The prison chief’s son, Shi En, recognizes Wu Song as the martial hero he is, so he begins giving Wu Song preferential treatment. When confronted about it, Shi reveals that he wishes for Wu Song to help him in a sticky matter.

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Trilogy of Swordsmanship (1972)

trilogyofswordsmanship_5Trilogy of Swordsmanship [群英會] (1972)

Starring Shih Szu, Yueh Hua, Tin Ching, Meng Yuen-Man, Kao Pao-Shu, Bolo Yeung, Cheung Ging-Boh, Lily Ho Li-Li, Lo Lieh, Chung Wa, Chin Han, Wang Ping, Kong Ling, Ku Chiu-Chin, Lau Ng-Kei, Chen Yan-Yan, Lee Wan-Chung, Ti Lung, David Chiang, Li Ching, Ku Feng, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan, Wong Chung, Wu Chi-Chin, Cheng Lui, Chan Sing, Wang Kuang-Yu, Wong Ching-Ho

Directed by Griffin Yueh Feng, Cheng Kang & Chang Cheh

Expectations: High.

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On more than one occasion I’ve said that anthology movies just aren’t my thing. But a Shaw Brothers anthology film? My interest was piqued, although the mere idea of a wuxia anthology film seems like something of a ludicrous idea. Even at a full 90 or 120 minutes, a wuxia story is compressed and hard to understand, so cutting three of them to fit into a total of 107 minutes just doesn’t seem like a good idea. But it is. Totally.

Each film brings something unique to the screen. The first tale, directed by Griffin Yueh Feng (even if the screen credit says otherwise), is called The Iron Bow. It’s a lighthearted tale of love and unwanted attention, and it’s a perfect example of how to stage a martial arts short story. Master Shi (Tin Ching) is infatuated with the young Ying Ying (Shih Szu), but she doesn’t care for him at all. He is a rich official who comes with a procession of men to ask for her hand in marriage, but Ying Ying’s father thought ahead. When he died he left an iron bow in the family’s restaurant, and said that any man who could draw the bow was worthy of his daughter’s hand. This leads to many comical situations to balance the wuxia violence, and it results in a very pleasing bite-sized film. Yueh Hua and Shih Szu also have a fantastic spear battle, and Bolo Yueng pops up at the end with a rare full head of hair. Pure entertainment, if a bit light.

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