The Mighty One (1971)

mightyone_1The Mighty One [童子功] (1971)

Starring Ivy Ling Po, Liu Ping, Ling Yun, Go Ming, Lung Fei, Hsieh Hsing, Cheung Yee-Kwai, Shaw Luo-Hui, Yuen Sam, Chan Yau-San, So Gam-Lung, Wa Luen

Directed by Joseph Kuo Nan-Hong

Expectations: Moderate.

threestar


The Mighty One kicks off with a bang as a group of devious villains stride up to a pleasant, peaceful homestead. They are the Notorious Five of the Dragon Valley, led by the red-faced Brother Fang, and they seek the missing pages of The Mighty Creed (AKA The Mighty Power of Five Masters). But the aged, retired swordsman who lives at the home refuses to give up the manual’s location, so Brother Fang kills him while the Notorious Five playfully beat up the old man’s children, throwing one into a tree and pinning another to the floor with a dagger.

The basic framework of this scene continues on through the rest of The Mighty One, as the Notorious Five go around the countryside asking about the manual and kicking ass when no one has any answers. Enter Water Knight Hsiang Kuei (Ling Yun) and Hsiao Chu (Ivy Ling Po), the only two to give the Notorious Five and Brother Fang a challenging fight. No one knows who these two are or where they came from, which means they’ve never seen a Shaw Brothers film, as anyone who has will immediately know exactly who these two are. While their identities are obscured throughout most of the movie, I don’t think it was the filmmaker’s intent for it to be a big twist, as it’s not revealed as such.

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Swordsman at Large (1971)

SwordsmanatLarge+1971-66-bSwordsman at Large [蕭十一郎] (1971)

Starring Wai Wang, Tina Chin Fei, Margaret Hsing Hui, Chow Sam, Got Siu-Bo, Liu Ping, O Yau-Man, Pak Lam, Yue Fung, Chu Jing, Chang Yi, Chen Hung-Lieh

Directed by Hsu Cheng-Hung

Expectations: Pretty low, based on it being a Hsu Cheng-Hung movie.

twostar


As much as I’d like every movie to be made specifically for me, that just isn’t the case. Swordsman at Large is a great example of this, as it’s a handsome production of a rich, character-driven wuxia film in the old tradition of the genre’s roots, but as someone who highly values the changes and the advancements that Chang Cheh (and to a lesser extent Lo Wei) brought to the genre, I don’t care how handsome the production is, this is one movie that I just could not get into.

It must have been something of a big deal at its time, though, as it featured big name guest stars in glorified cameos. The stars in question are Chang Yi and Chen Hung Lieh, who basically come on-screen and promptly get killed. They mean absolutely nothing to the story of the film, but this is not the only moment in screenwriter Ku Lung’s script that is convoluted and meaningless in unnecessary ways. But this was Ku’s first credited script, so I can cut him some slack. He later went on to work with Lo Wei during the “Lo Wei Motion Picture Co., Ltd.” era, otherwise known as “the years Jackie Chan would rather forget” (and that I also just so happen be reviewing my way through currently!).

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Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin (1978)

Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin-2Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin [蛇鶴八步] (1978)
AKA Arts of the Snake & Crane, Shaolin Kung Fu

Starring Jackie Chan, Nora Miao, Kam Kong, Kim Jeong-Nan, Lee Wing-Kwok, Lau Nga-Ying, Miao Tian, Lee Man-Tai, Miu Tak-San, Tung Lam, Wong Gwan, Liu Ping

Directed by Chen Chi-Hwa

Expectations: Moderately high.

On the general scale:
threestar

Just in terms of action:
threehalfstar


Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin opens with an incredible martial arts display by Jackie Chan, first showing off his solo staff work and then battling two staff wielders while armed with a sword and baton. This five-minute intro alone is better than To Kill With Intrigue, but let’s do our best to forget that film and focus on the greatness before us. Jackie’s staff work is incredible, and the mock fight offers up a great way to whet your appetite for the film at hand. These kinds of pure martial arts displays didn’t survive into the modern era of kung fu film (unfortunately), so it’s a real treat to see Jackie strut his stuff so cleanly and without distraction. Even if the film offered up nothing more than this intro, it would still be a notable early Jackie release. I’m not saying anything bad about the overall quality of the Lo Wei period in Jackie’s career (OK, maybe I am), I’m just trying to illustrate just how much I loved the intro.

The film kicks off proper as we fade into the story of eight masters coming together to pool their talents and create the hybrid kung fu style, The Eight Steps of the Snake and the Crane. They entrusted the book of this style and the Badge of the Nine Dragons (an emblem denoting the leader of the entire martial arts community) to their appointed leader, who, after a quick martial arts display and fight, vanishes along with the rest of the eight masters. Dun dun duhhhhh! The martial world is in frenzy mode, and we are introduced to Jackie’s character on the bank of a snowy river, attacked by some ruffians who believe he holds the precious book. Turns out he does have the book, but he quickly dispatches with these petty villains. 10 minutes in, and already two martial arts displays and two fights (and they’re all good). If you’re sensing a pattern emerging, you’re correct… and the hits just keep on comin’.

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Shaolin Wooden Men (1976)

Shaolin-Wooden-Men_bcfa0519Shaolin Wooden Men [少林木人巷] (1976)
AKA 36 Wooden Men, Shaolin Wooden Men …Young Tiger’s Revenge, Shaolin Chamber of Death, Wooden Man

Starring Jackie Chan, Kam Kong, Doris Lung Chun-Erh, Chiang Kam, Cheung Bing-Yuk, Miu Tak San, Liu Ping, Li Min-Lang, Weng Hsiao-Hu, Miao Tian, To Wai-Wo

Directed by Lo Wei (per the credits)
Actually directed by Chen Chi-Hwa

Expectations: Moderately high.

threehalfstar


I’ve always enjoyed Shaolin Wooden Men. I generally stayed away from most of the early Jackie films during my youth, because I had grown tired of wasting money on sub-standard prints of sub-standard movies. But Shaolin Wooden Men was always one of the good ones to me, and going back to re-watch it was a great experience. I liked it more than ever, and it’s baffling to me that this one doesn’t have a better reputation. But people’s perceptions are what they are, and I won’t try to break down why they didn’t like it, I can only comment on why I did. And really, there’s so much here to like.

Shaolin Wooden Men opens in thrilling fashion featuring five masters of Shaolin sparring with Jackie Chan in a darkened room, lit only by candles. They spar for a good long while, showcasing different animal-style kung fus (and no, that doesn’t mean a messy kung fu with grilled onions, In-N-Out fans), and when Jackie defeats them all he tries his luck with the chamber of the wooden men. There’s just something about these wooden men that makes me smile, but they have the opposite effect on Jackie in this scene. He tries his best, but his best barely gets him past the first couple of wooden men. He is defeated… but then he wakes up! He is but a lowly, mute student of Shaolin, still early in his training. He has far to go before he will reach the chamber of the wooden men.

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New Fist of Fury (1976)

NewFistOfFury_GoldenSwallow_SC36New Fist of Fury [新精武門] (1976)
AKA Fists to Fight

Starring Jackie Chan, Nora Miao, Chan Sing, Henry Luk Yat-Lung, Yi Ming, Suen Lam, Lau Ming, Cheng Siu-Siu, Hon Siu, Han Ying Chieh, Chiang Kam, Liu Ping

Directed by Lo Wei

Expectations: Moderate.

twohalfstar


New Fist of Fury opens with Lo Wei helping Nora Miao and the remnants of the Ching Wu school to flee Japanese-occupied Shanghai, by way of a boat to the also Japanese-occupied Taiwan. That might seem like it’s not the best place to find refuge, but Nora Miao specifically wants to go there to show the Japanese what for. There they meet a delinquent thief (Jackie Chan) who mistakenly steals Bruce’s nunchaku, thus getting himself wrapped up in the middle of a Chinese vs. Japanese martial arts struggle.

During my super passionate Jackie Chan years, I always did my best to avoid his early films. I got burned a couple of times and there’s nothing worse for a budding, teenage JC fan than wanting to kick back and watch Jackie kick ass only to kick back and watch Jackie in a two-minute cameo. So I mostly stuck to what I knew was great and left it at that. I do remember seeing New Fist of Fury before, but that’s about all I remember about it. Clearly it didn’t scratch that undying Jackie itch back then. But now I am a different person, and I realize much better what to expect out of different directors and martial arts periods, so I’m able to appreciate these early films for what they are instead of what they aren’t. New Fist of Fury is never going to be Armour of God, so there’s no reason to be disappointed when it’s not.

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The Fastest Sword (1968)

The Fastest Sword [天下第一劍] (1968)

Starring Liu Ping, Chu Jing, Go Ming, Han Chiang, Liu Wai, Chiu Keung, Lee Goon-Cheung, Law Hon, Man Gau, Chuen Yuen, Gam Lee-Sang, Man Man, Tai Leung, Ling Siu, Cheung Ching-Fung

Directed by Pan Lei

Expectations: Low.


Going into The Fastest Sword I had little to no expectations. It featured no one that I recognized from a quick look at the cast list and I had never heard of director Pan Lei either. The Fastest Sword took me by surprise though, as it’s actually a very good martial drama that revolves around the classic story trope of the cursed warrior who wants nothing more than to leave his past life behind him. It surprisingly brings together nearly all the necessary elements for a fun film: great directing, quality acting & martial performance, and a well-written screenplay.

The film opens with a badass swordsman from the South (Liu Ping) taking on three combatants who have come to avenge their brother’s murder. He quickly takes them out and an old man steps up and challenges the swordsman to a duel. If the old man wins, the famous Southern Sword must stay with him and train for three years. The cocky young man agrees and within the space of a few seconds he’s bested by the bearded elderly master. The film then moves into what is the first real extended master/pupil sequence I’ve seen while doing this review series, and I welcome the scene with open arms. It isn’t the training sequences martial arts fans are accustomed though (so don’t envision Challenge of the Masters), but it features some of the best moments of the film, specifically when the master tasks his student with carving a statue out of a giant rock. The master gives his student his task and then says, “I’ll be back in six months.” It’s a fantastic scene and one that eventually leads our hero to seek a new life as a mason in a small town.

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