The Fate of Lee Khan (1973)

The Fate of Lee Khan [迎春閣之風波] (1973)
fateofleekhan_2

Starring Li Li-Hua, Pai Ying, Tien Feng, Han Ying-Chieh, Hsu Feng, Roy Chiao, Angela Mao, Helen Ma Hoi-Lun, Wei Pin-Ao, Wu Chia-Hsiang, Ng Ming-Choi, Lee Man-Tai, Chiang Nan, Woo Gam, Gam Dai

Directed by King Hu

Expectations: Super high. I’ve been very eager to continue exploring King Hu’s filmography for a while now.

threehalfstar


The Fate of Lee Khan is a fantastic film, hidden in the shadows of other, more well-known King Hu films. I’ve never heard anything about this movie, but yet it is an incredibly solid and effective piece of filmed martial intrigue. It’s similar in a lot of ways to Dragon Inn, but that is hardly a complaint. It is a true joy to watch as a world-class director returns to a smaller scale story after opening up the genre in ways previously unknown in A Touch of Zen. I need to re-watch Dragon Inn to confirm this, but it seems as if King Hu’s storytelling ability has matured a lot since that film, and the economy with which he delivers an intense, compelling story in The Fate of Lee Khan is a masterful achievement. The inn featured here is also a vibrant center of the region, as opposed to the desolate way station of Dragon Inn.

The film opens by setting itself in the context of history. Our story is set in the late 1300s, during the Yuan Dynasty established by the Mongolian leader Kublai Khan. The Chinese people, frustrated with political corruption and oppression, organized a revolt under the lead of Chu Yuan-Chang. But as we’re told in the intro, the war is not just fought on the battlefields, but also through the devious methods of espionage. Lee Khan is a powerful man in charge of the Yuan spy activity, and at the outset of the film his sister and trusted advisor manage to secure a war map detailing the movements of Chu’s forces. The rebel spies refuse to let the map go easily, so when word comes that Lee Khan is coming to the Spring Inn, forces from both sides gather there to decide his fate.

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Deaf and Mute Heroine (1971)

Deaf and Mute Heroine [聾啞劍] (1971)

Starring Helen Ma Hoi-Lun, Tang Ching, Shirley Wong Sa-Lee, Wu Ma, Lee Ying, Paul Wei Ping-Ao, Yeung Wai, Tang Ti, Hao Li-Jen

Directed by Wu Ma

Expectations: Moderate.

threehalfstar


Deaf and Mute Heroine is exactly the type of movie I hope for when I delve deep into the obscure and forgotten films of the past. Not only is it an entertaining film, it delivers one of the best wuxia finales of the era. The last 15 or so minutes are non-stop, and stuffed full of incredible, impressive wuxia filmmaking. It all feels so ahead of its time too, at least in terms of the amount of wuxia fantasy that is attempted and realized on-screen.

The film opens with a fight, as the Deaf Mute Heroine defeats a set of bandits and steals their booty of 300 pearls. These pearls set in motion the villains’ desire to hunt down and kill the Deaf Mute Heroine, as well as the other components of the story. But don’t be fooled into thinking that Deaf and Mute Heroine has an actual story! We’re supposed to be content with just knowing that the Deaf Mute Heroine is a force of good in the world, working to thwart these evildoers by stealing their pearls. Anything else, including any backstory on the main character, is to be supplied by your imagination.

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Wrath of the Sword (1970)

wrathofthesword_1Wrath of the Sword [怒劍狂刀] (1970)

Starring Tang Ching, Shu Pei-Pei, Sek Kin, Chiang Nan, Paul Wei Ping-Ao, Yip Ching, Lan Wei-Lieh, Wu Ma

Directed by Wu Ma

Expectations: Fairly high.

twostar


I had high hopes that Wrath of the Sword would be some kind of unsung hidden gem of martial arts cinema. Instead, as the film went on it only became more apparent why Wrath of the Sword wasn’t well known. It’s not a horrible movie — it does entertain — but it has little in the way of originality or flair. Wrath of the Sword simply exists, and for martial arts fans these days, when hundreds upon hundreds of films are readily available, that is definitely not enough. Evidently it wasn’t enough in 1970 either, though, as the film tanked at the box office. Placed into context against the Shaw catalog, Wrath of the Sword came out in-between Vengeance! and The Twelve Gold Medallions, a place that no film would want to be, let alone a mediocre one.

As you might guess, Wrath of the Sword tells an uninspired story told better in many similar wuxia films. The film opens with the massacre of the Bai family, but one descendant remains: Bai Ying (Shu Pei-Pei), and she’s out for vengeance. For unexplained reasons a mysterious swordsman, Yu Qing-Hua (Tang Ching), seems intent on helping Bai Ying on her mission, but as he points out to her, she doesn’t even know who her enemies are. Good thing those evil bastards aren’t shy at all, ambushing Bai Ying whenever the opportunity presents itself.

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Downhill They Ride (1966)

DownhillTheyRide+1966-4-bDownhill They Ride [山賊] (1966)
AKA The Highjackers

Starring Pat Ting Hung, Paul Chang Chung, Wong Chung-Shun, Man Ling, Ou Wei, Wang Hsieh, Paul Wei Ping-Ao, Zhang De-Liang, Shum Lo, Ma Ying, Got Siu-Bo

Directed by Pan Lei

Expectations: Low.

twohalfstar


First things first: I was led to believe that Downhill They Ride was an early martial arts film from the Shaw studio, but instead it’s more of a drama with a lot of horses and guns. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does make for some twisted expectations. On top of that, it is the first film in my small effort to mop-up some early, previously unavailable martial arts titles for my “I’m never going to finish this” chronological Shaw Brothers review series, so there’s part of me that wished I knew what it was beforehand so I could have just moved on to the next film.

Downhill They Ride may boast a screenplay from martial arts maestro King Hu, but this carries none of the usual gravitas or intense drama typical of his films. Perhaps it was on the page and director Pan Lei didn’t translate it, but I’m more of the mind that King Hu was simply still honing his skills. But considering that Downhill They Ride released only two months prior to Hu’s landmark martial arts film Come Drink With Me, that probably isn’t the case either. Whatever the truth is, I’d say that fans of King Hu’s work should definitely view this film as a stepping stone instead of a lost gem.

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Mini-Review: Trail of the Broken Blade (1967)

Trail of the Broken Blade [斷腸劍] (1967)

Starring Jimmy Wang Yu, Kiu Chong, Chin Ping, Lisa Chiao Chiao, Paul Wei Ping-Ao, Fan Mei-Sheng, Tien Feng, Chen Hung Lieh, Wang Kuang-Yu, Wu Ma, Lee Wan Chung, Lam Chung, Pang Pang

Directed by Chang Cheh


I hate to do this to Chang Cheh, but damn this is one hell of a flawed, transitional film for him and for the Shaw Brothers studio. In a way, this film illustrates to me exactly why I set out to watch their martial arts film in order of release. The idea was the same as any other chronological jaunt through a catalog of work: to chart progress of style and substance of the artist (or in this case, the studio) as they go from the years of infancy to greatness. Trail of the Broken Blade is the perfect example of a film that straddles the line between what Shaw Brothers was and what Shaw Brothers was trying to become.

Prior to their commitment to the martial arts film, they mostly made opera films with female leads and lots of songs and costumes. Looking at their first martial arts film, Temple of the Red Lotus, it’s clear the film was made as an opera picture with some rudimentary fighting thrown in. Trail of the Broken Blade still exhibits elements of these musical pictures such as song montages that move the story along and ridiculous amounts of makeup on everyone’s faces, but it also features elements that would later become Chang Cheh’s trademarks. You can feel him wanting to break free of the opera framework, but as interesting as this is to martial arts film historians, it doesn’t make for a very pleasing entertainment experience.

When there is action, it’s pretty good for this era of Shaw Brothers but nothing spectacular. Both The Twin Swords and Come Drink With Me are more pleasing in their action, but as I mentioned above, the fights here signal the changing of the guard. The choreography is still slow and somewhat uninteresting, but Jimmy Wang Yu moves quicker than in previous films and without the aid of under-cranked film. Cheh uses many touches of blood to punctuate major moments of the battle, never as copious as in later films but definitely a sign of things to come. There’s also quite a few swords violently stuck into dudes, or my favorite, a henchmen skewered from three sides in a spike trap.

I tried my best to enjoy this one as much as possible, but it was a hard fight. It’s interesting to see Chang Cheh finding his style amidst the opera house bullshit Shaw Brothers had previously been known for, but it’s not something I would recommend to someone just getting into the genre. In fact, it’s a hard film to recommend under any circumstance, except to stalwart martial arts film fans that want to personally chart the hallowed director’s growth, especially since Cheh’s next film after this was the infamous and influential One Armed Swordsman!

Uncle Jasper reviews: Bruce Lee’s Deadly Kung Fu (1976)

[Author’s note: This review is intended to kick off a two-week series showcasing the highs and lows of Bruceploitation, the wild and often tasteless deluge of films that came out after the unexpected death of Bruce Lee. These films featured Bruce lookalikes in films that ranged from half-assed remakes & inaccurate bio-pics to the just plain bizarre. When a screen legend dies at the top of his game the natural tendency is to rush in and fill that void. Enter the Dragon was about to hit theaters worldwide, Bruce Lee Mania was still in full swing, and nobody was willing to accept that the Little Dragon would no longer be around to make films. The Hong Kong movie industry, who was no stranger to milking proven box office success until it was withered and dry, hired dozens of Bruce lee imitators to star in films with amusingly deceptive sounding titles like New Game of Death and Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger.

The resulting films are often quickly dismissed by kung-fu film aficionados as cheap, crass, and shameless… and well, they are. But let’s accept that and give these films a second shot. It’s time to taste our blood, thumb our noses and take a closer look at the wacky world of Bruce Lee exploitation cinema.]


Bruce Lee’s Deadly Kung Fu [詠春截拳](1976)
AKA The Story of the Dragon; Bruce Lee’s Secret; Bruce Li’s Jeet Kune Do; A Dragon Story; He’s a Legend, He’s a Hero; Master of Jeet Kun Do; Bruce Lee: A Dragon Story

Starring Bruce Li, Jimmy Lee Fong, Carter Wong, Hwang Jang Lee, Roy Horan, Paul Wei Ping-Ao

Directed By Chan Wa & William Cheung Kei


When it comes to Bruce Lee imitators, Bruce Li set the standard. He was among the very first out the gate after the Death of Bruce Lee, and with good reason. He pretty much nailed all of Lee’s mannerisms and put them on display just enough as not to overdo it. While most Lee imitator’s mimicry bordered on tactless parody, Bruce Li was actually very believable, masterful even, in his portrayals of Lee.

Li, whose real name was Ho Chung-Tao, was busy working as a stuntman in his native Taiwan, trying to break into the film industry with no success. It was only after the death of Bruce Lee, that producers in Hong Kong took notice of his resemblance and virtually launched him to superstardom overnight. Ironically, Li’s claim to fame would haunt him for most of his career. In later interviews he expressed some pretty heavy resentment towards a film industry that pigeonholed him into living in the shadow of Lee, never really allowing him to distance himself from the role. (Which is a very valid argument, Bruce Li was a pretty accomplished martial artist in his own right.) He ended up retiring from acting altogether after the death of his wife in the early ’80s.

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