7-Man Army (1976)

7-Man Army [八道樓子] (1976)
AKA Seven Man Army

Starring David Chiang, Ti Lung, Alexander Fu Sheng, Chen Kuan-Tai, Li Yi-Min, Chi Kuan-Chun, Pai Ying, Ting Wa-Chung, Leung Kar-Yan, Johnny Wang Lung-Wei, Gordon Liu Chia-Hui, Miao Tian, Fung Ngai, Chen Ming-Li, Wang Ching-Ping

Directed by Chang Cheh (with co-directors Hsiung Ting-Wu & Wu Ma)

Expectations: Moderate.


As I mentioned in my review of Boxer Rebellion, Chang Cheh had become tired of making so many Shaolin movies in a row that he sought something fresh to sink his teeth into. He decided on the war film, a genre you don’t see a lot in Hong Kong film. Boxer Rebellion was shot second but released first, and it’s an atypical war picture that focuses on the boxers who believed themselves invulnerable to the foreigners’ guns. 7-Man Army is more a traditional war film that is an opposite in ways to Boxer Rebellion. 7-Man Army is about a small group of men who know exactly how fragile their lives are, but in the defense of their country they have no choice but to continue fighting.

7-Man Army tells a true story set a couple of years after the Mukden Incident, in which the Japanese staged a bombing to facilitate an invasion of China. The events depicted in the film were during the 1933 Defense of the Great Wall, specifically around the Gubeikou area. After a battle, the Chinese took back this section of the Great Wall, but seven men were all that remained of the Chinese forces. Cut off from all communication to their reinforcements, the men dug in and withstood multiple assaults on their position. These brave men were commemorated with a monument on the site of their burial, which can be visited via the Gubeikou Great Wall Kangzhan Memorial Hall (see #3 on the on-site map). There is also a monument on Kinmen Island, off the coast of Taiwan, called the Badu Tower. It’s also worth noting that the film’s Chinese title (and Wikipedia entry) cites the location as being the Badaling region, roughly 65 miles southwest of Gubeikou. In any case, Chang Cheh is once again fictionalizing a part of Chinese history for the masses, and 7-Man Army is quite successful in this task (despite what Chang says about the film being an artistic failure in his memoir).

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A Touch of Zen (1971)

touchofzen_2A Touch of Zen [俠女] (1971)

Starring Hsu Feng, Shih Jun, Pai Ying, Tien Peng, Cho Kin, Miao Tian, Cheung Bing-Yuk, Sit Hon, Wang Shui, Roy Chiao Hung, Han Ying-Chieh, Man Chung-San, Sammo Hung

Directed by King Hu

Expectations: High.

fourstar


A Touch of Zen starts off innocently enough, but by the end of the film the viewer has journeyed through religion, the soul and the more standard martial intrigue you were probably expecting. It is a martial arts film wholly unlike any I’ve ever seen, coming years ahead of its time and eschewing nearly all the general ideas of entertainment that martial arts films are usually built upon. A Touch of Zen is a wuxia film with higher aspirations. It is a fascinating, pure example of film as art, and like any good work of art, true understanding only comes with extended thought and multiple viewings. This is the type of film that people spend their whole lives in awe of; its power to provoke thought while also engaging the more primal needs is unique and unparalleled.

A Touch of Zen is partially based on the story The Gallant Girl (or The Magnanimous Girl) from Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, and it is here that the film draws its initial characters and setting. Ku Shen-chai (Shih Jun) is a scholar living in the derelict Ching Lu Fort. He studies not for wealth or status, but for personal gain and knowledge, much to the chagrin of his mother who thinks a man over 30 should be married and on his way to a lucrative career. Ku’s stall in the nearby town, where he paints portraits and does calligraphy, just doesn’t fit the bill in her eyes. So when a young woman and her elderly mother move into the nearby general’s mansion that has stood uninhabited for many years, Ku’s mother immediately thinks of joining the two families.

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Dragon Inn (1967)

dragoninn_8Dragon Inn (1967)
AKA Dragon Gate Inn

Starring Shih Jun, Pai Ying, Polly Kuan, Miao Tian, Sit Hon, Cho Kin, Go Ming, Got Siu-Bo, Ko Fei, Tien Peng, Han Ying-Chieh, Man Chung-San

Directed by King Hu

Expectations: High, this is one of the most influential early martial arts films.

fourstar


When it comes to martial arts films, 1967 was a huge, formative year. The first mega-hit of the genre, The One-Armed Swordsman, made Jimmy Wang Yu a star and cemented director Chang Cheh as the genre’s leading visionary. Just a few months after the release of that film, director King Hu, having recently left the Shaw Brothers after creative differences on Come Drink With Me, unleashed Dragon Inn. As an independent film out of Taiwan it may not have had the budget or the clout of the Shaw Brothers studio behind it, but Dragon Inn is arguably more well-known than almost all the 1960s martial arts films from the Shaw studio. I knew all this going into Dragon Inn, and even with an incredible amount of historical hype behind it, Dragon Inn wowed me with its cinematic artistry and an ahead-of-its-time ability to craft thrilling martial arts sequences through editing.

The story of Dragon Inn is a well-known one, but that doesn’t impede the film’s ability to enthrall. The government is corrupt and controlled by devious eunuchs, and our story begins as Zhao Shao Qin, a eunuch with unparalleled power, orders the execution of General Yu, a good man who was framed. Yu’s family is sent to the remote outpost of Dragon Gate, where Zhao has plans to murder them far from the watchful eyes of civilization. He sends a delegation of his most powerful soldiers to await the family’s arrival at the inn, but thankfully there’s a few people at Dragon Gate still loyal to General Yu and his resilient spirit.

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Half a Loaf of Kung Fu (1980)

halfaloaf_4Half a Loaf of Kung Fu [點止功夫咁簡單] (1980)
AKA Karate Bomber

Starring Jackie Chan, James Tin Jun, Doris Lung Chun-Erh, Kim Jeong-Nan, Kam Kong, Lee Hoi-Lung, Ma Ju-Lung, Miao Tian, Lam Chiu-Hung, Dean Shek Tin, Julie Lee Chi-Lun, Lee Man-Tai

Directed by Chen Chi-Hwa

Expectations: Interested. I remember this one being good.

twohalfstar


Originally shot between Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin and Magnificent Bodyguards, Half a Loaf of Kung Fu was shelved by Lo Wei after screening it and deeming it unfit for public consumption. But a few years later, when Jackie Chan shot to superstardom, Lo Wei didn’t care so much about it not being up to his standards. When it was released, it was a pretty good hit, even outgrossing Jackie Chan’s far superior film from earlier in 1980, The Young Master. But while I can understand the intent of Jackie Chan and Chen Chi-Hwa with the comedy of Half a Loaf of Kung Fu, I’m honestly more on the Lo Wei side than I would’ve thought I’d be prior to re-watching this one for the first time in probably 15 years.

Half a Loaf of Kung Fu is not a traditional kung fu film, it is an active attempt to parody and make light of the stoic seriousness that the genre is generally built upon. It does a fair job of that, but at the same time it’s also fairly subtle in how it does this. The plot points are essentially the same as they are in many other similarly themed films: a highly sought-after treasure (here it’s the Evergreen Jade and the Elixir of Life) is being transported by a security bureau across the country, and every bandit on Hong Kong’s side of the Mississippi is out to claim the treasure for themselves.

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The Champion of Champions (1972)

ChampionofChampions_3The Champion of Champions [大地龍蛇] (1972)
AKA The Dragon and the Snake, The Dragon Snake, Hero of the Earth

Starring Chin Han, Lily Li Li-Li, Suen Liu, Suen Yuet, Lau Lai-Lai, Chui Fook-Sang, Hon Siu, Sek Fung, Miao Tian, Lee Yan-Wa

Directed by Lee Ga

Expectations: Low.

onestar


Shaw Brothers productions usually come with a base level of quality that is able to make even the most mundane of stories into an OK movie. The Champion of Champions is the exception to the rule and easily the worst film I’ve seen from them, proving that the Shaw studios did indeed produce at least one horrible movie during their long run in the business. And I’m a big fan, I can only imagine what a non-fan would think of this movie. I do have to give the movie the benefit of the doubt, as the print isn’t ideal and the subtitles were cut-off and especially hard to follow. But no amount of remastering and removable subtitles can fix all the problems with The Champion of Champions.

Due to that subtitle issue I mentioned, I’m not exactly 100% on the plot of the film. The opening credits play out over a couple of guys killing an entire government mansion full of people, everyone from the guards to the guys working the printing presses. But then no one mentions this ever again, and the two guys doing this weren’t even main characters. It’s possible that it’s related to another flashback we see about another character’s past and motive for revenge, but I honestly don’t know.
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Shadow Girl (1971)

ShadowGirlShadow Girl [隱身女俠] (1971)

Starring Lily Li Li-Li, An Ping, Wai Wang, Yue Fung, Cho Kin, Ding Keung, Chui Fook-Sang, Miao Tian, Tin Man-Chung, O Yau-Man, Law Bun, Gam Tiu

Directed by San Kei

Expectations: Moderate.

twostar


I’ve seen a lot of varied Shaw Brothers films, but I never expected to see their version of an invisible man tale. But that’s just what Shadow Girl is… kinda. I don’t remember the Invisible Man’s mother flying around in a circle and poking out people’s eyes, but that’s where the term “creative license” comes in. The film actually isn’t a take-off on the classic H.G. Wells story, the invisibility here is merely the hook that makes the story unique and interesting. How does Yin Chu (Lily Li) turn invisible? Is it just her kung fu training that has enabled this ability, or is it something more?

I’m building it up more than necessary, though, because this isn’t presented as a mystery in the film. The characters that come into contact with Yin assume she’s a ghost, but we’re in on the gag right from the first scene, as we see Yin undressing on a river bank and slowly turning invisible before she ventures into the water. Later flashback scenes give us more detail on why she has this ability, and why she’s roaming around the countryside with no home, but it’d be a stretch to call these aspects mysterious.

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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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