The Casino (1972)

TheCasino+1972-60-bThe Casino [吉祥賭坊] (1972)

Starring Yueh Hua, Lily Ho Li-Li, Chin Feng, Chiang Nan, Fan Mei-Sheng, Tang Ti, Lee Pang-Fei, Chan Chan-Kong, Sek Kin, Ma Chien-Tang, Yee Kwan, Yi Fung, Wu Ma

Directed by Chang Tseng-Chai

Expectations: Optimistic.

threehalfstar


The Casino was one of the earliest Hong Kong gambling movies. It’s not a full-on gambling film, though, it’s more of a martial arts/gambling hybrid. But don’t despair, that mix makes for some truly exciting, tense entertainment. At only 77 minutes, The Casino is jam-packed full of intense melodrama that never lets up. It’s definitely an unsung gem of this era of Hong Kong film, as prior to researching it for this review series, I had never heard of this one.

The film opens in the titular casino, following the frustrations of a down-on-his-luck gambler (Wu Ma) as he attempts to win at the dice game. He ultimately leaves with less than he came in with, as completely strapped for cash, the man offered up his hand as collateral for his final wager. Didn’t work out so well for him. On his way out of the casino, he runs into Luo Tianguang (Yueh Hua). Luo is suave and well-dressed, but he watches the fleeing gambler with a knowing look. I initially imagined that the tale might end up with Luo succumbing to the evils of gambling and ending up like this man he encounters at the start, but it isn’t like that at all. No, Luo Tianguang definitely has other things on his mind, and this quick glance of what gambling can do to people seems to steel his resolve.

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The Black Enforcer (1972)

blackenforcer_7The Black Enforcer [黑靈官] (1972)

Starring Tang Ching, Tien Feng, Fong Yan-Ji, Wang Ping, Chiu Hung, Cliff Lok, Yee Kwan, Tung Li, Wong Ching-Wan, Choi Sung, Ng Ming-Choi, Chai No, Choe Gwang-ho

Directed by Ho Meng-Hua

Expectations: Moderate.

threehalfstar


The Black Enforcer is probably the best film that I’ve seen yet from director Ho Meng-Hua. It’s rather unfortunate then that this one is rather hard to get ahold of, although intrepid Shaw Brothers fans should be able to track it down if you’re resilient enough. You shouldn’t have to stay in a darkened jail cell for 15 years while you think about the wrongs done to you like the title character of the film, but it will definitely take a bit of digging. 🙂

Before that jail cell comes into play, though, the Black Enforcer (Tang Ching) is bringing a couple of criminals in to see the yamen after they were caught looting a mansion and murdering an entire family of 13. What makes this something of a tortuous affair for the Black Enforcer is that one of the criminals is Guan Yun-Fei (Tien Feng), one of his martial arts brothers from their days under the same kung fu instructor. The Black Enforcer must put aside his feelings for the man and follow the law; there’s no excuse for his villainous behavior.

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Raw Courage (1969)

Raw Courage [虎膽] (1969)
AKA Tiger’s Courage

Starring Cheng Pei Pei, Yueh Hua, Ng Fung, Lo Wei, Tien Feng, Poon Oi-Lun, Yeung Chi Hing, Ou-Yang Sha-Fei, Lee Kwan, Tong Jing, Lee Sau Kei, Go Ming, Goo Man-Chung, Hung Lau, Yee Kwan

Directed by Lo Wei

Expectations: Moderate. I have a bad feeling about this one.


My bad feelings were all for naught, as Lo Wei’s Raw Courage is a fun, rollicking little wuxia film. It’s not something that will create genre fans, nor is it anything truly substantial, but it is fantastic entertainment. Raw Courage tells the story of an emperor besieged by an army who entrusts his child to Lo Wei and his Black Dragon Clan. In virtually every other Shaw Brothers film from this period involving a baby, there’d be a twenty year jump in time and we’d pick up the story with the young martial artist out looking to find their destiny or avenge their fallen parents/master. In Raw Courage, the baby actually stays a baby as Cheng Pei-Pei and Ng Fung quickly find themselves in charge of taking the infant prince across the country to meet up with the White Dragon Clan. If trying to transport a baby through enemy checkpoints sounds like a good time, then Raw Courage is your barrel of monkeys.

There’s nothing too special about Raw Courage, other than its ability to rise above the standard wuxia storytelling and remain exciting and interesting throughout. There are loads of problems that contribute to the film being less than it should be, but honestly I only noticed after the film was over because I was having such a fun time with it. One of the major flaws is that the villains, while plentiful, aren’t nearly well-defined enough to make for compelling adversaries to our heroes. Tien Feng plays their leader, but basically sleepwalks through a role where his primary task is to walk from one place to another and say, “After them!” It’s hard to blame him. The villain introduced later in the film, a man with a blue-gray face known only as Old Monster, is awesome and really deserved more screen time too. It’s crazy villains like this that would later populate all kinds of wild and fantastic Hong Kong films, so I’m willing to forgive this one a bit just for including him.

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The Singing Thief (1969)

The Singing Thief [大盜歌王] (1969)

Starring Jimmy Lin Chung, Lily Ho Li Li, Lo Lieh, Essie Lin Chia, Mui Yan, Chu Gam, Yee Kwan, Nam Wai-Lit, Man Lei, Au-Yeung Gwong, Yip Dung-Ching

Directed by Chang Cheh

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


Well, this one certainly blew whatever expectations I had out of the water! Having taken wuxia to the highest heights he thought it could reach at the time with his previous film Golden Swallow, Chang Cheh sought to liberate himself from the standard Shaw Brothers cycle of constantly making wuxia pictures one after another. Instead he turned his attention to musicals of all things, and the resulting effort is The Singing Thief. Don’t be fooled by the title though, it’s not really a musical in the traditional sense.

The story of The Singing Thief revolves around Diamond Poon, a reformed diamond thief who’s now known for his wonderful singing voice. He works in a nightclub run by his good buddy Fu and he’s content to keep his life simple. Someone else has a different life path in mind for Poon though, as a new thief in town is accurately impersonating his trademarks and making everyone think that Poon’s up to his old tricks. He could be, and the mystery of just who is stealing everyone’s jewelry is one of the best parts of the film. In some ways it reminded me of The Big Lebowski, where an innocent dude gets mixed up in a sea of people all out to get him and play him for their own interests, but realistically that foundational story has its roots in places far older than The Big Lebowski, such as Dashiell Hammett’s groundbreaking 1929 novel Red Harvest (itself a huge influence on film, particularly on the work of Akira Kurosawa & Sergio Leone).

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