Superman (1980)

eUAHQ4xmmLxMyJONVQg9VKvoNtrAKA Telugu Superman

Starring N. T. Rama Rao, Jaya Prada, Jaya Malini, Kaikala Satyanarayana, Pandari Bai

Directed by V. Madhusudhana Rao

Expectations: I don’t really know what to expect.

On the general scale:
twostar

On the B-movie scale:
threehalfstar


Y’know what Superman was always missing? A lust for revenge. V. Madhusudhana Rao’s 1980 take on the character rectifies that by throwing out the story we’re all familiar with and going with one built upon the idea that three evil Indian cowboys confidently stride into Raja’s (AKA Superman’s) house and murder his parents. It’s also filled with musical numbers and a healthy dose of marital intrigue, not to mention a 10-year-old assassin, some attack elephants and a couple of sumos with painted, black skin wielding axes, all thrown in for good measure. And that’s just a few of the interesting things. Yep, this South Indian Superman is definitely unlike any other interpretation of the character you’ve ever seen.

Like any good revenge story, Superman opens with the genesis of the main character’s quest. Those murderous cowboys performed their evil deed on the eve of the prayer recitation of Sundara Kanda, a book which chronicles the adventures of the ape-like Hindu god, Hanuman. Young Raja isn’t sure what he should do, so he goes to Hanuman’s temple to sing an intense, powerful song, calling for help from the deity. When he receives no answer, he threatens to kill himself. But he receives no answer still, so Raja grabs a nearby candlestick, drives it into his stomach and slowly bleeds to death before the statue of Hanuman. Raja’s splattered blood on the statue causes the deity to awaken. He takes pity on the small boy, restores Raja’s life and imbues his body with powers comparable to Hanuman himself. Raja is no longer just Raja, he is now Superman!

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Vengeance! (1970)

Vengeance! [報仇] (1970)
AKA Kung Fu Vengeance

Starring David Chiang, Ti Lung, Wang Ping, Alice Au Yin-Ching, Ku Feng, Yeung Chi Hing, Wong Ching Ho, Chuen Yuen, Hoh Ban, Chan Sing, Wang Kuang-Yu, Cheng Lui, Hung Lau, Lau Gong, Wong Chung, Cliff Lok Kam Tung, Shum Lo, Chen Kuan-Tai

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: Super high. I’ve wanted to see this forever.


In my review for Chang Cheh’s The One-Armed Swordsman, I mentioned that Chang had thrown down the gauntlet with that film, challenging the genre to step up to the plate and create meaningful action cinema. Vengeance! is another of these pinnacle moments in the history of the genre, with Chang Cheh thoroughly tired of the status quo and looking for new inspiration. He found it in a new time period, the 1920s early Republic era, and setting the film during this tumultuous period in Chinese history makes for the perfect setting of a martial arts film. As political struggles divided China into factions and eventually led to the Chinese Civil War (1927-1950) between the Republic and the Communist forces, Vengeance! is set in an unnamed Chinese city where criminals have banded together to control the land. I don’t claim to be a history scholar, but a general knowledge of this helps to inform the setting of the film in the viewer’s mind, even if these broad struggles don’t specifically come into play during the story.

Vengeance! opens with a Peking opera, echoing (and perhaps mocking) the used and reused traditional period setting of many Shaw Brothers films. Ti Lung is the lead actor, skillfully demonstrating his martial skill in a tragic play where he is assaulted by many combatants and is eventually killed rather violently. All the while, Ku Feng is upstairs hitting on Ti Lung’s wife, and when Ti finds out, he’s pissed. He travels to Ku Feng’s martial arts school, breaks their sign (is this perhaps the first sign-breaking in martial arts history?) and proceeds to school everyone that comes near him. The criminal bosses don’t like being fucked with though, so they plot an ambush for Ti Lung and violently murder him. This is roughly the opening fifteen minutes, and already we’ve had a finale quality fight scene. Where does Chang Cheh take it from here?

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Lady of Steel (1970)

Lady of Steel [荒江女俠] (1970)

Starring Cheng Pei Pei, Yueh Hua, Wong Chung-Shun, Fang Mian, Lee Pang-Fei, Goo Man-Chung, Chiu Hung, Lee Wan Chung, Law Hon, Tung Li, Lau Gong, Ho Wan-Tai

Directed by Ho Meng-Hua

Expectations: Moderate, but Ho Meng-Hua’s due for a great one.


Maybe if this film had some out a few years earlier, I’d have had a better reaction to it. Coming out in 1970, though, Lady of Steel is clichéd, derivative and without much to set it apart from the large amount of swordswomen revenge films, most of them starring this film’s leading lady Cheng Pei Pei. The intro sets up a rather adventurous, vengeful tale, but as in many of these early films, the revenge is saved until the end of the film. They’re taking this “best served cold” part of the saying way too literally; there is definitely such a thing as too-cold revenge.

Lady of Steel opens with Cheng Pei Pei’s father and his friends stopping at an inn for the night and getting attacked by bandits. They’re transporting a million taels of silver cross-country and openly talking about it at the small town inn, one might say they were asking for it. A large fight ensues and Cheng’s father tries to whisk his daughter to safety, but not before getting a dagger thrown into his forehead. As you might expect, this is rather damaging for the young Cheng Pei Pei. Her father dies before her eyes and his buddy takes her into the forest and leaves her with an old kung fu master. For anyone who’s seen a lot of these, I’m sure you already can guess that child Cheng Pei Pei grows up and learns martial arts during the credits sequence. I really look forward to the days when these training sequences make up the bulk of the film.

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Cemetery Without Crosses (1969)

Cemetery Without Crosses [Une corde, un Colt…] (1969)
AKA The Rope and the Colt, Death Valley Gunfighters, Cimitero senza croci

Starring Michèle Mercier, Robert Hossein, Guido Lollobrigida, Daniele Vargas, Serge Marquand, Pierre Hatet, Philippe Baronnet, Pierre Collet, Ivano Staccioli, Béatrice Altariba, Michel Lemoine, Anne-Marie Balin

Directed by Robert Hossein

Expectations: Pretty high, this one’s supposed to be a genre classic.


Cemetery Without Crosses is another of these movies that I have a hard time rating. This stems from my ambiguous feelings toward the film, as it is definitely well-made and interesting, but ultimately I found the film painfully slow and not all that engaging. My mind wandered so much while watching this one because it is a film composed almost entirely of music over images without much dialogue. It’s similar to this year’s Drive in that way, and like that film, I feel that it is less than it could be if it was slightly more accessible.

In terms of its story, Cemetery Without Crosses looks to be a simple revenge tale. The film opens with a man desperately riding away from a group of men. He reaches his house and his wife Maria, only to be captured by the men following him and promptly hanged. Maria wants revenge on these rancher bastards, so she enlists the help of a depressed old friend Manuel who currently fritters away his time hanging out in the saloon of a ghost town, thinking about what might have been. Sounds like a good setup for any standard revenge tale, but Cemetery Without Crosses is anything but standard. Instead, it takes a somber, hard look at the reality and the cyclical nature of revenge and how it can never truly deliver the satisfaction and the freedom it initially promises.

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The Bells of Death (1968)

The Bells of Death [奪魂鈴] (1968)

Starring Chang Yi, Chin Ping, Chiu Sam-Yin, Lam Kau, Tin Sam, Ku Feng, Yeung Chi Hing, Lee Wan Chung, Wu Ma, Hung Lau, Nam Wai-Lit, Shum Lo

Directed by Griffin Yueh Feng

Expectations: High. I’m becoming a big fan of Griffin Yueh Feng.


It’s films like The Bells of Death that keep me at this ambitious and lengthy chronological journey through the catalog of Shaw Brothers films. Before starting, the name Griffin Yueh Feng meant nothing to me but after seeing two of his films I learned to expect great visuals and some exciting filmmaking. In Chang Cheh’s memoir he mentions Yueh as helping to raise the standards of the Chinese film industry with his 1949 films A Forgotten Woman & Blood Will Tell. Good luck seeing either of those so I’ll have to take Chang’s word for it, but from the evidence on display in the films I have seen, it makes perfect sense. The Bells of Death is not only the best Griffin Yueh Feng film I’ve seen yet, it’s also the only film I’ve reviewed in this series that strongly gives Chang Cheh’s films of the era a run for their money.

The story in The Bells of Death is a pretty standard revenge tale, but it’s told so well and with such flair that it’s easy to forgive its familiarity. And really, is a good revenge tale a fault? I don’t think so. The film opens with three ruthless bandits slaughtering a country family and taking the eldest daughter with them for their pleasures. What they didn’t know is that the woodcutter they passed on the way to the house was the eldest brother of the family and when he returns home, he finds the carnage they left. This begins his quest for revenge and oh boy is it a good one.

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Drive (2011)

Starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Oscar Isaac, Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman, Kaden Leos, Jeff Wolfe

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

Expectations: High, everyone’s hype has gotten to me.


If only Drive was able to keep up the level of awesome displayed in its opening scene. The first ten minutes of the film are pure, intense filmmaking filled with tension, suspense and fantastic editing. There’s virtually no dialogue: only wonderful sound FX, the chatter of a police radio and intensely brilliant visuals. This getaway scene is everything I could ever want out of a movie called Drive, and honestly, I would have been better served by the film if I had just gotten up upon its conclusion and taken my satisfied grin with me.

With an opening like this, and a title like Drive, one wouldn’t be wrong to expect a movie that contains lots of car action. Drive only gets more and more frustrating as it goes on if you have these expectations though, as very little actual driving takes place. Literally, the next substantial driving scene after that extended prologue is about an hour later. C’mon, WTF! If this is the case, what takes up so much of Drive‘s time then, you ask? Poor character development and clichéd romance & mafia sub-plots, that’s what!

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Rape of the Sword (1967)

Rape of the Sword [盗剑] (1967)

Starring Li Li-Hua, Li Ching, Kiu Chong, Chen Hung Lieh, Tien Feng, Tang Ti, Lee Wan Chung, Yeung Chi Hing, Ku Feng, Fan Mei-Sheng, Kok Lee Yan, Tsang Choh-Lam

Directed by Griffin Yueh Feng

Expectations: Low… I don’t expect much from the non-Chang Cheh movies now.


Rape of the Sword is the first post One-Armed Swordsman Shaw Brothers movie to take full advantage of its success. While this is still within the martial opera film genre most of these early Shaws fall under, there’s tons of inspiration torn from Chang Cheh’s playbook, resulting in a much more satisfying film overall. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s golden.

The film’s story revolves around the invincible Qing Shuang sword. The sword was stolen from its rightful owner by Tang Ti in a murderous mountain duel in order to give it to an official, thus securing himself a nice, cushy job. The murdered man’s wife doesn’t take kindly to this injustice though, going undercover and plotting to retrieve the sword at the first opportunity, beginning a fun tale of revenge and betrayal.

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