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Pedicab Driver (1989) June 18, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, Action, 1980s films , 2 comments

Director: Sammo Hung  Main Cast: Sammo Hung; Nina Li Chi; Mang Hoi; Max Mok; Fennie Yuen; John Shum; Suen Yuet  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Bojon Films

Pedicab Driver marks the end of Sammo Hung’s greatest period as both star and director with a mighty bang.  Although it seems at times to be a little over-ambitious in its storytelling, with several seemingly unrelated threads working parallel with each other, it does actually work most of the time.

The movie’s opening is definitely one of the finest pieces of Hong Kong cinema, and I defy anyone to disagree.  The setting is Macau in the 1930s; two rival gangs of pedicab (passenger-carrying tricycles similar to rickshaws) drivers meet in a teahouse for negotiations, divvying up passengers.  The discussion is bitter and hostile, but the two parties eventually reach a cordial agreement.  Just as they are able to shake hands on their new deal, the teashop owner, chasing a cat not visible to the gangs, leaps into view brandishing a deadly meat cleaver.  Both gangs mistake this for an ambush and a fight ensues.  The clash is reminiscent of the barroom brawl from Jackie Chan’s Project A, and features breathtaking action and fantastic inventiveness (there’s even a “lightsaber” duel with two fluorescent lighting strips!).  This scene, as well as being incredibly exciting, also underlines Sammo’s generosity behind the camera – instead of hogging the limelight, he lets the others take the lion’s share of screen time for the duration. 

 

Your powers are weak, old man...

After such an adrenaline rush, what follows immediately after could seem a huge let-down: baker Fong (Suen Yuet) tries to court his employee Ah Bing (Nina Li Chi) even though he’s old enough to be her father, while Tung (Sammo Hung) has much the same intention.  Well, it’s Nina Li Chi - that’s pretty much every man’s intention. 

Anyway, there’s also Master Ng (John Shum playing very much against type), a man so thoroughly evil he would make Hitler look reasonable.  Seriously, he’s the most snarlingly evil pantomime villain in Hong Kong cinema, and there have been quite a few over the years.  He is a pimp, and in one scene one of his workers is giving birth.  He and his men kill the girl’s father (Dick Wei – so you know there are going to be a few fireworks before the end) in front of her as the baby’s being born, then tells them to throw the offspring in the river if it’s a boy and to take it back to the brothel if it’s a girl.  He then tells the woman to get back to work. 

Last but not least, we have fellow pedicab driver Malted Candy (Max Mok) and his romance with Hsiu Tsui (Fennie Yuen).  It’s a somewhat melodramatic affair, this relationship, and is your typical Chinese tragic love story, complete with Cantopop song sung over a montage of the couple falling in love.  I don’t know what Malted Candy was expecting of the poor girl.  After all, he was initially attracted to her because she reminded him of a character from a pornographic novel he was reading. 

While these story threads are certainly only diversions from the main spectacle (the fights), they do seem to enhance the film, and I hold this opinion despite my cynical and jaded nature.  Actually, the love story between the star-crossed lovers only seems bearable while you’re watching the film – when you think about it before and after viewing the film it all seems so tackily contrived.

The action scenes are scattered sparingly throughout the film, but the one that stands out has no relevance to the plot whatsoever.  Sammo crashes a gambling den and is challenged to fight the boss.  Big deal, you might think, except the boss turns out to be Lau Kar-Leung and the fight is stunning.  The time that passed between this and his Shaw Brothers heyday seems to have been kind to Lau, and no doubt out of respect for the elder, Hung lets Lau’s character win the bout.

 Erm, OK, I'll take your word for it.

The dramatic events that unfold near the end of the film pay off when Sammo and Rice Pudding (Mang Hoi) take revenge on Master Ng.  I argue that the reliance on melodrama gives the film the right tone for this climax as Sammo goes apeshit at Ng’s mansion, taking on pretty much his entire gang (including Billy Chow – always worth watching in a Hung directed film) in a way that only Sammo knows how.

Pedicab Driver is one of the finest examples of 80s action in a Hong Kong film, and as many people cite that decade as the most impressive in turns of action choreography, that’s quite a recommendation.  It’s frustrating that the movie isn’t out on DVD yet (legitimately, anyway) as it deserves a much higher profile.  No doubt it’ll turn up one day, and those action scenes will blow away a whole new generation of fans.

People’s Hero (1987) April 25, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Drama, 1980s films , add a comment

Director: Derek Yee  Cast: Ti Lung; Tony Leung (Chiu-Wai); Ronald Wong; Tony Leung (Ka-Fai)  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Long Shong Pictures Ltd

A pair of youths (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Ronald Wong) plan to hold up a bank but lose their nerve at the last moment – only to have their hand forced by circumstance and have to carry their plan through after all.  Their botched effort to steal the money begins a siege that career criminal Koo (Ti Lung) cannot afford.  Koo intervenes and juggles the hostages, the would-be robbers, the police and his former girlfriend - who is imprisoned for a crime he himself is responsible for.

Right from the start, you know this is a little different from the usual Hong Kong action movie with its stark titles and dark, foreboding music.  The reason only becomes clear quite late in the movie – this is not an action movie at all; rather People’s Hero is a taut dramatic piece that survives without ever having to throw in a few kung fu moves (even though, of course, Ti Lung is more than capable of such antics).  It also avoids many pitfalls of Hong Kong movie plotting and pacing, and the story genuinely moves along at an excellent pace by introducing new elements and problems at precisely the right moment.  By that, I mean that the story actually evolves in a remarkably realistic way (some logistical anomalies aside) and what you expect to happen invariably doesn’t happen.

Ti Lung 

The characters, aside from Ti Lung’s Koo, are introduced at the start, and they do seem horribly clichéd.  Basically, the bank’s staff and customers are given a minute or two’s spotlight to give a slight insight to their character – there’s a bankrupt shopkeeper, a spoilt schoolgirl and her vacant mother, an obnoxious, arrogant young man, a rich businessman, etc.  These tired old stereotypes (hardly a likeable one in the whole bunch) threaten to drag the film down a level or two but are not given the opportunity because the focus stays quite solidly on the two young robbers and Koo.

The theme of the film is that everyone is a victim, and this is nowhere more evident than in the two youths who are forced to steal to live.  Ah Sai (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) is the older, more responsible of the two, while Boney (Ronald Wong – Hong Kong’s Peter Lorre!) is a hopeless liability prone to fits of epilepsy.  Both are sympathetic characters, but pale when compared to Koo, who was hoping to skip the country before the robbers decided to rob the bank.  Koo is plagued by demons from his cop-killing past and is heartbroken over his girlfriend’s imprisonment (we learn she was jailed for carrying his gun).  His interaction with the hostages sets up the character as a practical, reasonable man to whom the hostages quickly like and cooperate with. 

Ronald Wong; Tony Leung Chiu-Wai 

Obviously, the police are aware of what’s going on inside the bank, and Captain Chan (Tony Leung Ka-Fai – that’s right, both Tony Leungs for the price of one!) tries to foil the robbery.  He has a personal grudge against Koo, and will stop at nothing to get him – dead or alive.  This does make the moral message of the film (cops bad, robbers good) a little obvious, but things get more complicated when Koo is forced (once more, through practical necessity) to show why he’s such a wanted criminal, and, without going into too much detail as to spoil the film, the line becomes blurred again.

There’s a lot of talk about this being the Hong Kong Dog Day Afternoon (the IMDB has just one plot keyword for this film – “remake”), but let me tell you right now the similarities are superficial.  People’s Hero stands quite nicely on its own merits, thank you very much.  I’ve always like the kind of dramatic film that takes place over a relatively short space of time or has one location, and this is a little of both.  The characters are memorable, the plot taut and lean (the film runs like a panther for its 82 minutes’ running time) and the whole thing bristles with freshness – even 21 years after it was made.

Unfortunately, the recent DVD edition from Mei-Ah ports the original subtitles – and they are pretty bad.  I remember some of them from the first time I watched the movie over ten years ago, and it’s a terrible shame that someone couldn’t have cleaned them up for this release.  Unintentionally funny subtitles are usually great, but in a dramatic piece like this, they are glaringly out of place and hampers the tension.

It’s unlikely we’ll see a proper release in the West, as there’s no real action to speak of and it probably isn’t “serious” enough to be classed as World Cinema (whatever that is) and that’s quite a loss.  People’s Hero is a great little film with a fantastic performance by Ti Lung, who was really hitting his stride at this point in his career, and an early standout performance by “Little Tony”.

See it.

Masked Avengers (1981) April 19, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Kung Fu, 1980s films , 3 comments

Director: Chang Cheh  Cast: Phillip Kwok; Chiang Sheng; Lu Feng  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Shaw Brothers

A band of masked bandits are causing trouble until a small group of heroes decide to stop them for reasons that seem to have passed me by.

I realised quite early on in this film a startling fact – I’ve seen more films by this director than any other.  Forty-four films, to be exact.  By now, I’m very familiar with his style and have drawn a couple of conclusions.  One: by the late 70’s, he really didn’t give a rat’s backside about plot, consistency or plausibility.  Two: Chang Cheh seems really uncomfortable with women.

Phillip Kwok as Gao Yao 

It isn’t really necessary for the viewer to be aware of these facts, and it will certainly not affect the viewing experience, but it’s a shame that the carefully plotted historical epic went out of the window so completely, and a little odd that his world consists entirely of men.  Sure, there are a couple of little girls, but as soon as they hit puberty they seem to disappear out of existence.  An adult woman does appear in this film and hogs the screen for about 7 seconds - she does a little swoony, fainty dance, opens her mouth to deliver a line of dialogue and is promptly killed before speaking.  There is no explanation of why she’s there (other than being a sister of one of the characters) or why she acts in such a peculiar manner.  Unlike most, I don’t take Chang Cheh’s evident discomfort of the feminine form as “proof” of his homosexuality – just the opposite, in fact.  However, it is quite hard not to notice certain “tendencies” in his films that can be construed as homoerotic, and Masked Avengers has more than its fair share of these tendencies, with bare-chested, muscle-bound men in nearly every frame.

Speaking of Masked Avengers, I think it’s probably about time I got around to reviewing it, rather than musing on whether or not Chang Cheh was gay.  My expectations were high – same director as Crippled Avengers, some of the same Venom cast return (sadly, Sun Chien and Lo Meng, my favourite Venoms, do not appear) and the word “Avengers” in the title.  Sounds like a sure-fire hit. 

It’s evident early on that this is not quite as good as earlier Venom movies.  The plot really is non-existent and it doesn’t have the kooky charm of Crippled Avengers.  Worse still, there’s a pretty despicable and gratuitous case of animal cruelty near the start that nearly made me switch off.  Oh, and the title is somewhat misleading – the Avengers are actually unmasked, it’s the bandits who wear them.

However, animal snuff and minor gripes aside, Masked Avengers has its moments of greatness.  It suffers from the exact same problem as the earlier Venom movie Daredevils in that it tries to add intrigue where it’s not wanted or needed, but at least it does not try to be too many things – a major downfall of the latter film.  This time, it’s Phillip Kwok who takes centre stage as the cook-with-a-dark-past Gao Yao, and he’s the only character who has more than one dimension.  Actually, his story, when he eventually tells it, is quite interesting. 

Be honest with me.  Is it...bad?

And naturally, the action scenes are outstanding.  The bad guys use tridents, which is pretty original.  I don’t usually find weapon-work as interesting as unarmed combat, but I have to admit that the displays here are quite exciting.  I won’t go and spoil the surprise by revealing who the culprit(s) are, but the showdown is well worth watching and recalls Chang’s glory days.  It’s also apparent that some money went into the set design, although it’s possible that they were re-using some sets from earlier films.

So while there’s much to be indifferent or appalled about in Masked Avengers, it can’t be ignored that it’s a pretty impressive action movie.  If only there had been some thought given to the plot and characters, it might very well have become a genre classic.  My favourite part, though, was when on of our heroes gets slain after buying a glove puppet for a little girl after she fell over on the street (a complete sequence of events that takes as much time to transpire as it takes to read that sentence!).  He is killed by a Masked Avenger and the camera zooms in on the forlorn glove puppet on his hand to show the inhumanity of the bandits, which I thought was really funny.  It loses something in the telling though, so go and see it for yourself.

Mercenaries From Hong Kong (1982) March 29, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Action, War, 1980s films , add a comment

Director: Wong Jing  Cast: Ti Lung; Chan Wai-Man; Chan Pak-Cheung; Lo Leih; Johnny Wang; Wong Yu  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Shaw Brothers

A businessman’s daughter contacts mercenary-for-hire Luo Li (Ti Lung) to avenge her father’s murder by an assassin who has fled to Cambodia.  Luo assembles his crack team for the journey into war-torn Cambodia: a knife expert, a deadly sniper, a bare-fist fighting expert, a thief and a bomb specialist and heads into the danger zone.  But once there, their plan alters when it becomes evident that things aren’t as straightforward as they seem…

Mercenaries From Hong Kong opens with a shot of Ti Lung pumping iron to an anonymous instrumental band’s rendition of Blue Oyster Cult’s Teen Archer, and you immediately know this isn’t going to be a run-of-the-mill Shaw Brothers Kung Fu flick.  Indeed, if it wasn’t for the use of so many Shaw players, you may be forgiven for thinking you were watching a Golden Harvest film.  For a company that never really moved with the times, Mercenaries From Hong Kong looks amazingly “contemporary” for a late-period Shaw flick, and unlike virtually all other productions from the era, hardly any of it is shot on a claustrophobic sound stage, and outdoor sets and locations are used extensively.

Wheeling about on office chairs at high speeds has its risks. 

The story is hardly original, and pretty much rips off every war movie where an ensemble cast goes off behind enemy lines.  Small band of commandoes against insurmountable odds?  Check.  Soldier hoping to pay for life-saving operation for sick daughter?  Check.  Two members of team hating each other’s guts until their backs are against the wall?  Check.  Backstabbing traitor masquerading as everyone’s friend?  Big fat check.  And when one of the team asks Luo to look after his child “in case anything happens to me”, you just know he isn’t going to make it.  You might as well just shoot him in the face there and then, get it over with and recalculate everyone’s paycheck.  Especially when he stupidly forgets his lucky necklace before engaging the enemy. 

The team hears one too many jokes about their matching outfits. 

As well as the hackneyed plot devices and clichés, the direction isn’t terribly good.  Wong Jing became infamous for his screwball comedies and exploitation movies, and both genres impose on Mercenaries From Hong Kong to a certain degree.  We have a scene of Ti Lung being The Exterminator, while the inclusion of Nat Chan Pak-Cheung brings a little too much light relief for my taste.  In fact, humour crops up a number of times and it just impedes the film’s progress and atmosphere.

'It's OK - there are six of us so this isn't 7-MAN ARMY' 

However, one thing can’t be denied: Mercenaries From Hong Kong is extremely good fun despite (or maybe because of) its cornier elements.  There’s a mass brawl in a shopping centre that is really exciting to watch, and features dozens of improvised weapon-wielding stuntmen and extras.  The action scenes in general are another aspect that looks decidedly un-Shaw-like and again look more like they came from Golden Harvest’s fight choreographers.  The cast includes some of Shaw’s top players as well as their perennial action-man Ti Lung, and it’s fantastic seeing Johnny Wang and Lo Leih given good-guy roles for a change.  Immortal bad guys Lei Hoi-Sang and Yuen Wah also turn up to add some weight to the heavies on the other side.

It’s surprising (and a little disappointing) how little of this film is actually set in the jungles of Cambodia, as primarily the action takes place in and around Hong Kong, but Mercenaries From Hong Kong probably exceeded its remit by coming up with a film that still entertains some 26 years after it was made.

The Dead and the Deadly (1983) January 30, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Horror, Comedy, Supernatural, 1980s films , add a comment

Director: Wu Ma  Cast: Sammo Hung; Wu Ma; Lam Ching-Ying; Cherie Chung  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Golden Harvest

A funeral director’s assistant (Sammo Hung) becomes convinced that his recently deceased friend Lu Cho (Wu Ma) has been murdered and takes steps to prove it.  However, it turns out that Lu Cho, along with his accomplices, is faking his death in order to get his hands on a fortune.  When Sammo starts getting too suspicious, Lu Cho “appears” to Sammo as a ghost, insisting that his death was by natural causes so that his friend will stop digging for the truth.  When Lu Cho is then murdered by his co-conspirators, and the real ghost of Lu Cho appears to Sammo telling him this time that he met with foul play, Sammo doesn’t want to know.  So the spirit of the dead man haunts Sammo until he agrees to help him bring the murderers to justice.

What sets Sammo Hung apart from all of his contemporaries is his work in the horror/comedy genre, a little sub-niche that he pretty much made his own and returned to regularly during the eighties and early nineties.  While Jackie Chan was busy being the happy-go-lucky everyman hero, Sammo was messing about with chicken’s blood, body painting and Taoist priests.  This Wu Ma vehicle is one of the odder entries in the genre, but it does have its moments.

The humour in the first hour of the film is extremely lowbrow and juvenile, something I’ve noticed in other Wu Ma films.  There’s a scene where Sammo goes to a brothel and munches on some Qing equivalent of Viagra which is painfully unfunny.  The only plus points are a couple of good gags involving an artificially aged Lam Ching-Ying, who needs others to help him with his dynamic showmanship.  The scene with the apparent corpse of Lu Cho having his gold teeth removed is funny on first viewing but gets a little tired upon repeats.

KISS were huge in Qing dynasty China 

Just when things start getting really desperate, a strange thing happens – The Dead and the Deadly actually becomes quite entertaining.  Things kick off when Lu Cho gets killed for real and starts haunting Sammo in a scene that feels like a dry run for the film that would be its spiritual successor – 1986’s Where’s Officer Tuba?  Things get more frantic when Sammo gets possessed and the robbers are revealed and all manor of spooky goings-on start occurring. 

As with other films in this genre, some knowledge of Chinese folklore is a definite advantage to getting the most out of the film.  Although the special effects are very crude by today’s standard (and even by the west’s standard for 1983, to be honest) enjoyment isn’t hampered too much.  While The Dead and the Deadly isn’t anywhere near the top of my list of spooky comedies, it does have a few neat touches and, taken as a piece of superficial entertainment may give some enjoyment.  Personally, though, I’d say you can’t beat the sublime Encounters of the Spooky Kind and the Sammo Hung produced Mr Vampire.

Where’s Officer Tuba? (1986) January 14, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, Supernatural, 1980s films , add a comment

Director: Phillip Chan; Ricky Lau  Cast: Sammo Hung; Jacky Cheung; David Chiang, Joey Wong  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: D & B Films

Cowardly cop Tuba (Sammo Hung) is content to play in the police orchestra for a living and leave the real police work to others.  Unfortunately, his unconventional looks and manner make him an ideal candidate for an undercover mission headed by “Rambo” Chow (David Chiang) to bring down an extortion ring.   Chow is promptly killed in action, but not before harassing a promise out of Tuba that he will avenge his death and bring the gang to justice.  Tuba reneges on the promise, which makes Chow’s mischievous spirit manifest itself to Tuba, and the ghost (which only Tuba can see or hear) makes a thorough nuisance of itself until he and his over-ambitious rookie roommate Cheung (Jacky Cheung) swing into action.  Tuba also tries to woo supermarket manager Joanne (Joey Wong), who thinks he’s a pervert, and whose parents think he’s a deranged idiot.

Where’s Officer Tuba? is Hong Kong Cinema’s best-kept secret.  Generally overlooked by Sammo’s fans in favour of more obviously action-packed fare like Eastern Condors or Pedicab Driver, it’s also overlooked by comedy fans put off by the thought of watching a “kung fu” movie.  It is a comedy first and foremost, and despite the inclusion of some awesome action stars from both the 70’s and 80’s (Sammo Hung, Hwang Jang Lee, David Chiang, Yuen Wah and Chang Yi all in the same movie?!) it’s the humour that wins the day.

Police work's a drag - Jacky dresses up.

The film’s greatest strength is the excellent script from the late Barry Wong, who certainly could knock together something simple but enjoyable.  Here, he comes up something that packs more into its 92-minute running time than you can credit on first viewing, and the humour is very well written.  Take the pier scene, for example: Sammo is picked to meet the extortionists and drop off their ransom money.  There follows a string of gags that all hit their target as Sammo deadpans through misunderstandings and knowing references to espionage thrillers.  And this is all before any of the ghostly shenanigans kick off.

It’s surprising that the main event – David Chiang appearing only to Sammo and ruining his life by manipulating his actions and making him look like an idiot – doesn’t really start until about an hour into the movie, but when it does, it’s hilarious.  Sammo refuses to help the ghost of Chow seek revenge, so he runs amok when Sammo visits his prospective parents-in-law.  It’s a scene that should write itself, and it does to a large degree, but even on the umpteenth viewing I still find myself laughing out loud at it.

The climax, where Sammo and Jacky Cheung (in his first movie appearance, I believe) take down the bad guys (this time with the help of Chow’s spirit) is as good as any action movie from the 80’s, and the inclusion of Hwang Jang Lee means there’s some mean legwork on display.  But there’s not enough of it to really make this a contender as an action movie, and it’s the laughs that are the most memorable.

God told me to do it

There are a surprising amount of puns and Cantonese wordplay in this film which obviously don’t translate, but even a passing knowledge of the dialect will be enough for you to get a couple of the more childish jokes.  I wish someone would do a proper release of this film with remastered subtitles as, if memory serves, the subtitles on the Universe DVD are identical to the original VHS “Chinese and English” release and are particularly poor.  Along with the usual spelling mistakes, typos and grammatical problems, there are some strange translations - such as when two characters talk about someone being “successfully raped”, which is just plain odd.  It also helps to have some knowledge of Chinese superstitions, as on first viewing I thought the ending was very Deus Ex Machina, only to find a particular method for dispelling ghosts is all part of Chinese folklore.

Where’s Officer Tuba? was remade in 1990 as Look Out, Officer with Stephen Chow, which seems a mouth-watering prospect but sadly it didn’t realise its potential.  And it has to be mentioned that Where’s Officer Tuba? at times bears an uncanny resemblance to Wu Ma’s The Dead and the Deadly, which also starred Hung as a man possessed by the spirit of a dead man only he can see.  But for my money, Where’s Officer Tuba? is by far the funniest and most enjoyable of Hong Kong’s “invisible man” comedies.

Martial Club (1981) January 1, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Kung Fu, 1980s films , add a comment

Director: Lau Kar-Leung  Cast: Lau Ka-Fai; Mak Tak-Law; Hui Ying-Hung; Johnny Wang  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Shaw Brothers

Martial Club opens with a piece to camera by Lau Kar-Leung explaining the etiquette and traditions of the Lion Dance, and then launches into a sequence similar in theme to the previous year’s Jackie Chan feature Young Master.  The Lion Dance shown here differs drastically in execution and both scenes really display the differences between Golden Harvest’s and Shaw Brothers’ house styles, with the latter being very labour-intensive and studio-bound but more intricate and showy.  Another similarity to Young Master comes when another Lion Dance team from a rival school turns up on the scene and shows disrespect.  The school, and its Master, Luk, start to harass Wong Kei-Ying’s school.

Lau Kar-Fai stars as Wong Fei-Hung and portrays him in a similar style to that shown in Yuen Woo-Ping’s Drunken Master.  He is friends with Wang Yinlin (Mak Tak-Law) and together they get into various scrapes trying to outdo each other in martial arts displays – often resorting to bribing opponents to lose to show their superiority.  But when a northerner by the name of Shan Xiong (Johnny Wang) shows up into town and is given money by Yinlin’s sister (Hui Ying-Hung) to throw a fight, he misinterprets the situation and beats Yinlin badly, leading to more misunderstandings and friction with the Luk school.

Hui Ying-Hung and Lau Kar-Fai

This is another Lau-Kar-Leung film about martial arts, tradition and politeness.  In a stroke of genius, Johnny Wang, who might as well have the words “bad guy” stencilled across his forehead, is cast as a Master who is on the side of fairness and chivalry, much to the chagrin of Master Luk, who was banking on him to beat Wong’s school so he can claim untimate superiority.  Wang strolls into town from the north speaking no Cantonese and trying to communicate in Mandarin (so bear in mind that the Mandarin audio track on the IVL DVD makes all this very confusing), leading to many mix-ups.

Martial Club, like virtually every other martial arts movie made at this time, has many comic moments, and while the comedy isn’t too bad, it isn’t too great either.  There are a few smiles to be had at the scene where a fight breaks out at a theatre and the Opera stars remain in character while it’s going on.  Hui Ying-Hung is more in the background than other Lau Kar-Leung films of the period, but she moves better in this than in her starring features and is on top form.  In fact, the action sequences can’t be faulted at all, and most of the last hour is a fight-fest leading to the inevitable showdown. 

Johnny Wang enthuses on the benefits of quality footwear 

As is the case with so many Shaw Brothers films, the ending is a travesty and this ending seems more premature than normal.  But Martial Club holds its own with Lau Kar-Leung’s other great works from the period such as Heroes of the East, Dirty Ho, My Young Auntie, et al.

Seeding of a Ghost (1983) December 29, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Horror, Supernatural, 1980s films , 7 comments

Director: Richard Yeung  Cast: Phillip Ko; Norman Chu; Maria Yuen; Tin Mat  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Shaw Brothers

Chow (Phillip Ko) is a taxi driver whose wife Irene (Maria Yuen) is having an affair with a casino gambler named Fong (Norman Chu).  When Irene is raped by a pair of youths and dies in an attempt to escape, Chow summons her spirit with the aid of a mono-brow Black Magic priest to exact revenge on all guilty parties.  But the ultimate revenge is hinted at by a prophesy of a son carrying out the final justice, and as no one involved has offspring, the warning is not heeded.  But they had reckoned without the seeding of a ghost…

Reported to be the third and final film in the Black Magic series (although it shares no cast and has a different director, leading me to think it might be a spurious claim), it cannot be denied that Seeding of a Ghost is a pile of utter trash.  But it can also be an entertaining pile of utter trash. 

The film starts out hinting at trouble ahead when Chow knocks over a priest in his taxi, only to find the old guy is safe and well in his back seat and eager for a ride home.  We then forget all about that and the focus shifts to soft-core pornography for a while.  Quite a while, in fact.  Irene gets her kit off at the drop of a hat in some of the most gratuitous nude scenes I’ve ever seen.  For example, she’s shown playing about with Norman Chu on the beach (I think it was him and not Phillip Ko, but to be honest I wasn’t paying too much attention) when her top gets ripped off and she playfully runs after him in slow motion.  And just so you get the message, we zoom in on her bouncing breasts for a few seconds.  Now that scene could possibly be defended (except for the boob-zoom shot) as showing the blossoming of her illicit relationship with Fong but a little while later we see her starkers in the shower.  Accompanied by sleazy sax muzak, we watch her wash and zoom in yet again on her boobs and…well, there’s a fair bit of full-frontal nudity in the film.  This kind of thing elicits many reactions in people, but to be honest I thought it was just funny.  Not the actual nudity itself, but the way in which it is so desperately and cynically used – a hallmark of late-era Shaw Brothers productions, sadly.

One of the film's better effects - I really can't work out how it was done!

With this in mind, it is somewhat surprising that the rape scene that follows is not as exploitative as it could have been.  True, her assailants do smack her around considerably (and would probably prevent the film getting an uncut release in the UK, I suspect) but this is not in the same ballpark as Sammo Hung’s Iron Fisted Monk, whose rape scene was purely meant to titillate viewers.  This sets up the revenge plot for the second half of the movie when Chow seeks out the priest he knocked over at the start of the film to get revenge on the killers.

All manner of nastiness follows, such as people vomiting worms and unwittingly eating brains and drinking blood.  Fong’s wife becomes possessed and needs the help of a Taoist priest (while she’s naked, obviously).  The effects are obviously low budget, but as with most things of this nature, there are one or two cool effects in with all the cheap make-up and puppetry.  The “creature” effects (inspired, no doubt, by John Carpenter’s The Thing) are particularly poor and I suspect that the DVD age hasn’t helped matters very much by showing all the limitations so clearly.  The animation sequence for the “seeding” is quite good, however, and is similar to the effects in Wu Ma’s Dead and the Deadly from the same year.

There's something you don't see every day! 

From all the buzz surrounding the DVD release of Seeding of a Ghost, it is evidently a much-loved piece of eighties Asian horror.  I have no doubt at all that in its day it would held its own with many other similar films from the lower end of the genre, and it is certainly still watchable if you can turn a blind eye to its faults.  One final note: I would recommend watching this film with the Cantonese audio track, as the Mandarin track seemed dull and lifeless.

Police Story 2 (1988) December 26, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, Action, 1980s films , 8 comments

Director: Jackie Chan  Cast: Jackie Chan; Maggie Cheung; Bill Tung; Benny Lai  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Golden Harvest; Golden Way

Following the events of Police Story, Chan Ka-Kui (Jackie Chan) is demoted and hauled over the coals by his superiors.  The crime lord Chu Tao (Chor Yuen) has been released due to failing health and is once again making Ka-Kui’s life a misery by getting his lackeys to constantly harass his long-standing (and long-suffering) girlfriend May (Maggie Cheung).  However, Ka-Kui faces a new threat in the form of a gang of blackmailers intent on blowing up most of Hong Kong.

Police Story 2 is probably my least favourite of Jackie Chan’s starring features from the eighties.  The tone always seemed too dark for a Jackie Chan film and it had a tendency to be overly dramatic and not a little melodramatic.  Certain scenes always bugged me – such as the scene in a shopping mall under threat from a bomb attack, which I’ve always thought seemed heavy-handed and the people’s reactions unrealistic (and that attempt at tension with the bouncing ball is horrible passé).  What I’ve always liked in Jackie’s films is the lightness and good-natured humour as well as all the physical stuff, which is why I’ve given it a miss for a few years.  Watching it again reveals that the film does have some great comedy moments which I’d completely forgotten about, and I was surprises how much I enjoyed it.

Like the first film, a lot of the comedy is provided by Maggie Cheung in the role of May, and she still bears the scars of Police Story 2 to this day thanks to a gag with some toppling metal frames going wrong.  It’s hard to imagine her taking such a role now, either from a comedic or physical angle, but she did have quite a flair and watching something like this does remind you of the fact.  You’ve got to love the scene where she furiously shouts at Ka-Kui into the showers at the Police Station following their aborted holiday to Bali.  She is oblivious to the embarrassed nakedness of the cops (and Bill Tung having a private moment in the toilet stalls) to rip into Ka-Kui, and then has another unfortunate incident with her scooter outside.  Other comic moments involve Jackie going undercover wearing a fake moustache and glasses to get a lead on the explosives and the usual misunderstandings with his superiors Raymond (Lam Gwok-Hung) and the fantastic Bill Tung.  Sadly, Mars, though present, has a much reduced role in this, which is a shame as he always had good comic scenes when sharing the screen with Jackie.

That huge fake nose fools no one.  Oh, wait...

Regular member of Jackie’s stunt-team, Benny Lai comes out of the shadows to play the role of a deaf-mute explosives expert.  Although he took one of the pirate roles in Project A Part II, he was usually only a background player in Jackie’s films and usually heavily in disguise.  In this he really gets a chance to shine and his physical feats are great.  He also apparently spent an inordinate amount of time preparing for the role and consulted a specialist to learn to use sign language, and I have to admit I thought he was for real until I saw him in other roles.

Police Story II does have a tendency towards incoherence and lack of direction, but no more than other films from the era.  For example, the return of veteran director Chor Yuen in the role of Chu Tao turns out to be more a red herring than a genuine plot point.  It’s as if the filmmakers originally intended to have him being the main bad guy again but changed their minds about a third of the way through.  More of a presence is Charlie Cho as Chu Tao’s sleazy PA, John Koo.  If you remember, at the end of the first film Ka-Kui punches him in the face and breaks his glasses.  This gag obviously proved popular, as in every scene in which he appears in this sequel results in the same result.  As a running joke, I suppose it works but on repeated viewings it gets a little tiresome.

However, nothing leaves such a bad taste in the mouth as the disgraceful product placement that goes on.  You can’t go ten minutes without some blatant plug for Canon, Citizen and (inevitably) Mitsubishi.  The worst offence occurs when a shopping mall is destroyed by an explosion – a Mitsubishi 4X4 (which I’m sure, if memory serves correctly, has adverts for Citizen emblazoned on its side therefore killing two birds with one stone) rolls away from the devastation without the aid of a driver and stops safely outside having smashed a plate glass window in its escape.  I’m not sure what they were trying to say – that Mitsubishi cars are sentient?  That they can smash windows without losing tyre pressure?  It may even be a sly reference to some jokey TV advert at the time or something that I’m not aware of, but otherwise it’s terribly distracting and ruins the illusion of the movie.

Blowing shit up long before Chris Tucker got on the scene. 

On a lighter note, Jackie’s action sequences are as phenomenal as ever from the eighties.  He takes on the bad guys single-handedly and comes away a winner as is demanded from the audience.  I’ll always remember the first time I watched the stunt with the refuse chute exploding with Jackie still inside it.  I literally gasped in shocked surprise, and how many times can you say that about a scene in a movie?  I’d say it’s one of his most underrated of stunts and deserves to be seen by all.  Also noteworthy are the film’s explosion effects.  A shopping mall gets a spectacular bang and a fireworks factory gets blown to smithereens.  There was obviously a higher budget following the success of the original film and it looks like it all went on the pyrotechnics.

So while Police Story II does have some major flaws it is still a film very much from his golden age and has much to recommend it.

Five Element Ninjas (1982) November 28, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Kung Fu, 1980s films , 4 comments

Director: Chang Cheh  Cast: Ricky Cheng, Lo Meng, Chen Pei-Hsi  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Shaw Brothers

It’s quite hard to write a great deal about this film, as it’s so brazenly shallow.  The plot is the most simplistic excuse for joining a bunch of action scenes together: a clan of martial arts heroes known as the Alliance (who strut about wearing virginal white and not-very-macho little capes), challenge a local bandit gang.  If the Alliance win, the bandits must go straight.  In amongst the gang is a ringer in the form of a Samurai swordsman.  He is defeated, and upon his death by Seppuku, gives the bandit king a note to send to a Ninja master to avenge his supposed disgrace.  The Ninja master (Chan Wai-Man) arrives with his troops to finish of the Alliance, incorporating five clans named after the elements gold, earth, fire, water and wood.

Five Element Ninjas is one of those kung fu films that obtained a large fan base in the US, which has kind of blown its reputation out of proportion a little.  Seen in context, it’s actually quite a desperate film.  The studio was in trouble and this is a pretty cynical attempt to get bums on seats by painting the screen red and throwing action scene after action scene at the viewer.  Oh, and a pseudo-naked ninja girl in a fishnet body stocking.  Sounds like a winner on paper, obviously, and if anyone could have pulled it off, Chang Cheh could.

What do you mean, 'camp'? 

The film is outrageous in every respect.  The Alliance’s outfits are highly questionable and there’s an air of campness quite unparalleled in films from this era.  In many ways, it has the look and feel of a mid-70’s film rather than one from 1982.  As with all Shaw movies from this period, it’s entirely shot indoors on the soundstage, and the artificial colours and landscapes add to the comic-book appearance of the film. 

However, it’s in the violence that Five Element Ninjas comes into its own, and this is by far the most outrageous aspect.  The fight with the “earth element” Ninja clan is too gruesome for words, but the guy tripping on his own entrails was hilarious (OK, so I’m a sick bastard).  Mind you, that’s nothing compared to what happens later, but you’ll have to see it yourself to find out…

 

Death by gold lamé – the ultimate humiliation. 

The only depth aimed for is with Junko (Chen Pei-Hsi), a ninja girl sent to infiltrate the Alliance and ends up on a killing spree.  There are hints that she’s a more complicated person, and capable of loving.  But then someone kills her.  Oh well, easy come, easy go.

It’s a shame that there aren’t more big names on show.  The hero by default is Ricky Cheng Tien-Chi, and you’d be forgiven for scratching your head trying to remember where you’d seen him before.  It seems he didn’t have such a stellar career in the movies, but he certainly puts on a decent show here.  Venom Lo Meng appears as the heroic Liang Zhi-Sheng and has a few great action scenes, but is definitely not the star of the film.  It could be said that the star of the film is the Ninja weaponry, which the film takes great pains to explain has been extensively researched for the production.  This is one of those films (like Legendary Weapons of China) which puts a caption on screen whenever a new weapon is shown, and I do find it distracting and a little annoying.  Nevertheless, the weapons are shown in all their gruesome glory and the fight scenes (of which there are many) are usually quite inventive, albeit somewhat implausible!

Oddly for a film made in 1982, the soundtrack on the IVL DVD is in Mandarin and does not feature a Cantonese track, which, if it was released in this way, would have been another very unfashionable choice for the era.  If you’re after something about as challenging as a Peter and Jane book, this could be for you.  But it’s nothing to get too excited about.

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