The Virgin Mart (1974)

virginmart_1bThe Virgin Mart [販賣人口] (1974)
AKA When the Kung Fu Hero Strikes

Starring Wong Yuen-San, Betty Ting Pei, Sek Kin, Elaine Kam Yin-Ling, Eddy Ko Hung, Woo Gam

Directed by Kao Pao-Shu

Expectations: Pretty high, based on my previous love of Kao Pao-Shu’s Lady with a Sword.

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I had one recurring thought throughout The Virgin Mart: “What a weird movie.” Hong Kong filmmakers love to mix genres and tones, and that’s something I love about the country’s films, but it just didn’t work for me in The Virgin Mart. The film blasts off with searing rock ‘n’ roll and a montage of neon lights and pretty girls. This emotional wave of fun night life imagery is quickly challenged by the introduction of Lin Ying (Woo Gam) and Mao Song (Eddy Ko Hung), a prostitute and her pimp, still within the opening montage. As we make our way into the film proper, it becomes apparent that this is also going to be an over-the-top comedy at times. Huh. OK. Perhaps something is lost in translation, but when they strap an unwilling woman onto a Qing dynasty metal sex chair called “The Joy Rider,” and play it for laughs, I just can’t go along with it.

The Virgin Mart is also largely without a distinct plotline. After the intro montage we meet a bunch of new characters, including a few that are actually important and integral to the film and its world, such as the big boss Qiang Han (Sek Kin), another prostitute Mei Ji (Betty Ting Pei), and the film’s hero Kang Tai (Wong Yuen-San). We see how the prostitution operation lures unsuspecting young girls to Hong Kong, we see the pimps battling a rival group’s men, but there’s hardly any narrative to hold these disparate bits together. Kang Tai is the man they target as a fall guy for their organization, but after he’s introduced early — stating that all he wants to do is “Just fight” — he’s absent from the film for quite a while.

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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.

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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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