Boxer Rebellion (1976)

Boxer Rebellion [八國聯軍] (1976)
AKA Spiritual Fists, Bloody Avengers

Starring Alexander Fu Sheng, Chi Kuan-Chun, Leung Kar-Yan, Jenny Tseng, Woo Gam, Johnny Wang Lung-Wei, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan, Li Li-Hua, Sun Yueh, Tsui Fu-Sheng, Liu Wei-Bin, Richard Harrison, Henry Bolanas, Wong Cheong-Chi, Han Chiang, Someno Yukio, Yeung Fui-Yuk, Lam Fai, Chiang Tao

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: High.


Of all the films that Chang Cheh directed over his career, Boxer Rebellion was one that the director thought was among his most successful (in artistic terms). The film’s depiction of the Boxer Rebellion and its anti-foreigner sentiment did not agree with the British censors in Hong Kong, so the film was only released in a heavily truncated version (with something like 30–45 minutes edited out) and with the title changed to Spiritual Fists. The film failed miserably under these conditions and this angered Chang Cheh, because as the editor of his memoir notes, “he really poured his heart into Boxer Rebellion.” Later in the book, Chang expresses the wish that someone would rescue the film from a “musty closet” so that it may be seen as intended, if for no other reason than to pay tribute to the work of Fu Sheng held unseen within. Chang died in 2002, but if he had lived just another few years he’d have seen his dream realized when Celestial restored and finally released the full version of Chang’s epic film in 2005.

I have not seen the edited version of the film, but this restored, original vision is without a doubt one of Chang’s finest efforts as a director. He had previously made epic films that brought together large casts and told big, sprawling stories, but not a single one of them is anywhere close to the level of scale and scope seen in Boxer Rebellion. Chang talks in his memoir about tiring of making Shaolin pictures around this time, so once again he looked to craft something new for the Hong Kong market. He set his sights on the war picture, first shooting Seven Man Army (to less-than-satisfactory results, according to Chang), and then following it up with Boxer Rebellion, the highest budgeted Hong Kong film at the time. The resulting film shows a clear influence from its predecessors, with the scale of his epics like The Water Margin or The Heroic Ones, and the intimacy of his Shaolin films like Heroes Two or Disciples of Shaolin.

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The Fantastic Magic Baby (1975)

The Fantastic Magic Baby [紅孩兒] (1975)

Starring Ting Wa-Chung, Lau Chung-Chun, Chiang Tao, Cheung Chuen-Lai, Woo Gam, Tsai Hung, Fung Hak-On, Ku Kwan, Teng Jue-Jen, Chen I-Ho, Yeung Fui-Yuk, Chao Li-Chuan, Siu Wong-Lung, Lee Lung-Yam, Phillip Kwok Chun-Fung

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: High. Chang Cheh and Journey to the West!


In a career full of intriguing and entertaining films, Chang Cheh’s The Fantastic Magic Baby is one of his most interesting and unique. On the surface, it is an adaptation of a story from the Chinese classic Journey to the West, but it quickly reveals itself to be much more than that. Like Chang’s Shaolin Cycle films, The Fantastic Magic Baby honors and preserves the legacy of a Chinese tradition, showcasing the beautiful movements of the Peking Opera as only a Chang Cheh film could.

For those unfamiliar with Journey to the West, the basics are all present in the film. The Monk Tripitaka (Teng Jue-Jen) is traveling to retrieve sacred Buddhist scriptures from India with his companions Sun Wukong the Monkey King (Lau Chung-Chun), Bajie AKA Pigsy (Chen I-Ho) and Sha Seng AKA Sandy (Yeung Fui-Yuk). Demons and other devious entities catch wind of their travels and seek to imprison them in order to eat the monk’s flesh, which can supposedly prolong their lives 1,000 years. In this particular story, it is Princess Iron Fan (Woo Gam) and the Ox Demon King (Chiang Tao) who desire the monk’s flesh. They send their son Red Boy (Ting Wa-Chung) — the fantastic magic baby of the title — to capture Tripitaka for their pleasure. Red Boy is perfect for the mission because he has recently mastered the Three Types of True Fire, which are so powerful that not even the Monkey King can withstand them.
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The Big Fellow (1973)

TheBigFellow_1The Big Fellow [龍虎地頭蛇] (1973)

Starring Charles Heung, Suen Ga-Lam, Chen Ming-Li, Tsai Hung, Cliff Ching Ching, Hsu Tian-De, Leung Fung, Lam Chung, Yeung Fui-Yuk, Ching Kau-Lung, Lee Yung-Wai

Directed by Wu Min-Hsiung

Expectations: None. I guess I expect the fellow to be big, but beyond that…

twostar


1973 was a great year for Hong Kong films, but that’s no thanks to The Big Fellow. It’s not that it’s especially bad, it’s just incredibly generic. There is absolutely no attempt to develop the main character; he is merely a dude that knows kung fu who wants a job. That’s literally all we ever know about this guy! They don’t develop the other people either, but for a main character I thought it was quite a feat to go through 90 minutes and still only know the one thing you learn about the guy in the first minute. To say The Big Fellow isn’t intellectually stimulating is a major understatement. The film exists purely to guide this shapeless character through a series of fights, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing in a kung fu movie, it’s hard to sit through 90 minutes of that when the choreography is less than stellar.

There is a story here, though, it’s not much of one, but it is present. Basically, our hero gets a job on the docks and he angers the triad guys there, so they frame him for murder. Pretty standard stuff. It also rips off The Big Boss a bit by having a big boss orchestrating everything that must be defeated at the end. The major difference is that the big boss here is present throughout nearly the entire film. The film also seems to be titled after him, but when you plug the film title’s Chinese characters into the always completely accurate Google Translate it comes out as Dragon and Tiger Snakes. I’m gonna guess the English title was mistranslated/specifically changed to emulate The Big Boss.

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From the Highway (1970)

FromtheHighway+1970-6-bFrom the Highway [路客與刀客] (1970)

Starring Peter Yang Kwan, Ingrid Hu Yin-Yin, Tsui Fu-Sheng, Suen Yuet, Lee Hung, Yeung Fui-Yuk, Lee Man-Tai

Directed by Chang Tseng-Chai

Expectations: Fairly high.

threestar


From the Highway is an impressively produced film… if you can watch it without holding its legacy against it. The film is largely considered the first color hand-to-hand kung fu film, but the title is a misnomer in this case. From the Highway is only barely a martial arts film, let alone a hand-to-hand film. It’s actually a drama surrounded by some traditional martial arts traits. In this way it recalls director Chang Tseng-Chai’s later film The Casino, which is essentially a drama until the action-packed finale.

The lead character, He Tian (Peter Yang Kwan), is perhaps the genre’s first prominent unarmed character, though. If I remember right there are older Shaw Bros movies with hand-to-hand scenes, although I don’t remember other characters who only fight unarmed. I don’t know enough about martial arts film history to say definitively that he’s the first, but if nothing else he’s an unarmed fighter amidst a multitude of weapon-wielding contemporaries. But even if this character trait is notable, it only seems notable because of the film’s built-up legacy. As a viewer in 2015, I’m looking for the seeds of later films; I’m looking for the “birth” of the kung fu film. And it’s just not here. On the other hand, when I watched The Chinese Boxer under the same mindset, it lived up to the legacy of being “the first hand-to-hand kung fu film,” and was impressive for how much it actually resembled later films.

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