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Dirty Ho (1979) November 17, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, 1970s films, Kung Fu , 1 comment so far

Director: Lau Kar-Leung  Starring: Wong Yu; Lau Kar-Fai; Lo Lieh; Johnny Wang; Wilson Tong  Territory: Hong Kong

I’m astounded to discover that in all the years I’ve been writing about East Asian films that I’ve never done a review for this film.  This is even stranger considering the fact that I watch it fairly regularly and the film’s relative high-profile status as a bit of a kung-fu classic. 

Dirty Ho pairs a Manchu prince as the main protagonist (yes, you read that right) with a jewellery thief with a good heart.  The former plays a game of one-uppmanship with the young scoundrel at a brothel, both using their monetary muscle to woo the ladies.  From there, the two form an unlikely friendship after Ho mistakenly believes he’s been poisoned by one of Wong’s courtesans and must rely on the Manchu’s rare medicine to save his life.  In fact, Wong poisoned the youngster himself, and needs the help of a good-hearted man to thwart a plot by one of his brothers to assassinate him.

Dirty Ho
In 1979, after the success of Yuen Woo-Ping’s Drunken Master, everyone was churning out kung fu comedies with varying degrees of success.  Personally, I’ve never been very taken with the type of comedy used in Shaw Brothers films, and there are more than a few moments during Dirty Ho where you wonder what the hell is supposed to be so funny.  But there are a few laughs to be had along the way, including a scene parodying the One-Armed Swordsman character.  But it’s the scenes in which Wong is invited to high-society meetings that provide the most laughs.  Disguised as art collectors and antique dealers, these assassins attempt to kill off Wong while observing social etiquette, and Wong reciprocates by keeping up the illusion of cordial civility while counterattacking. 

I have to admit that the sheen of greatness has worn off this classic a little for me, but I still enjoy some parts.  The ambush scene that takes place in a wind-strewn deserted town bowled me over the first time I saw it on VHS and it still impresses me now.  You are guaranteed a certain level of competence with Lau Kar-Leung’s fight choreography, and he doesn’t let down for the most part.  I still feel that the ending, after a climactic fight that I feel goes on too long, is a disappointment.  On one hand, I like the fact that the “bigger picture” is left unresolved, but on the other, I am left disappointed that the whole thing gets wrapped up so abruptly.  Having said all that, there’s no denying Dirty Ho’s status as a kung fu classic, and it is still one of the more memorable films from the period.

Secret Rivals (1976) June 30, 2010

Posted by Cal in : 1970s films, Kung Fu , add a comment

Director: Ng See-Yuen  Starring: Wong Tao; John Liu; Hwang Jang-Lee  Territory: Hong Kong

Two Chinese fighters (Wong Tao and John Liu) separately converge on a small town in Korea where they set up residence in a local inn.  Sheng Ying-Wei (Wong Tao) is attending a martial arts competition held by the corrupt prince to find himself a new bodyguard.  Shao Yi-Fei (John Liu) watches proceedings from a distance.  Both men are drawn to the innkeeper’s daughter, sparking rivalry when Shao sends her a brooch and Sheng unwittingly takes the credit.  The prince, meanwhile, has a visit from the Silver Fox (Hwang Jang Lee); a bad sort indeed.  Our two heroes’ interest is then piqued and we find the real reason they’re in town.

There are times when only old-school martial arts movies will do.  For me, illness is one such time; a nasty bout of ‘flu and all I wanted was the healing power of cheap 70s kung fu.  I first stumbled, somewhat reluctantly, upon this film about eighteen years ago and wasn’t terribly impressed.  However, you have to remember that all we had were grainy, cropped, dubbed and censored (there is some nunchaku use) prints to deal with.  Although the “Digitally Remastered” tag Soulblade put on their edition seems a trifle misleading (it is hardly in a spotless condition), at least you can now see everything that’s going on.

Hwang Jang Lee gets a kicking

And what’s going on is a lot of legwork from John Liu and (of course) Hwang Jang-Lee and some moody training shots of Wong Tao and a good display of his fistwork.  While the backstory won’t win any awards for depth, it does try to introduce a bit of intrigue with the two central characters both after the same woman (hence the “secret rivals” of the title). 

But it’s the action that wins over the fans, and there’s a lot of it in Secret Rivals.  It’s easy to see why this cheap and cheerful flick from Seasonal films has become such an all-time classic, and if you’re hankering for some old-school fun, you should find plenty here.

Hapkido (1972) March 10, 2010

Posted by Cal in : 1970s films, Kung Fu , 4 comments

Director: Wong Fung  Main cast: Angela Mao; Carter Wong; Sammo Hung; Wong In-Sik  Territory: Hong Kong

Three Hapkido students (Mao Ying, Carter Wong and Sammo Hung) travel back to China from Korea to start a new school to fight the oppression of the Japanese controllers.  Mun Wei (Sammo Hung) is a young hotheaded fellow though, and soon attracts too much attention to himself by fighting with the brash, thuggish students from the Black Bear school (which is owned by the occupying Japanese).  Violence escalates, and Yu Ying (Angela Mao Ying) takes matters into her own hands.

The plot of Hapkido is obviously the weakest link as it is an almost direct copy of Fist of Fury.  Even Ngai Ping-Ngo shows up as virtually the same slimy collaborator character he played in Bruce Lee’s classic, making me wonder briefly if this was intended to be a prequel to Fist of Fury.  The one thread of originality is in the use of a foreign fighting style (Hapkido, obviously) as the basis for the film.  So instead of the Chinese versus the Japanese, we have the Chinese and the Koreans versus the Japanese.  And how do the Japanese fare in all of this?  Well, pretty badly, obviously.  Mind you, it should be remembered that World War II films from the west from the era depict the enemy in similarly simplistic ways.

hapkido.jpgAngela Mao prepares to dish out the Iron Rod of Death 

What makes Hapkido a standout essential classic is (surprise, surprise!) the fight scenes.  Considering that this film was made in 1972, the choreography (provided by Sammo Hung) is fast moving and exciting – especially the finale, which sees Whang In-Shik and Angela Mao dismantle the rival school (and its personnel) in an unforgettable manner.  If for no other reason, this film is essential for seeing Whang In-Shik on the side of the heroes for once!

Star Angela Mao Ying gets to show her stuff quite well.  Seeing as how this film was made in the same year as Lady Whirlwind, it’s surprising that there’s so much difference between the choreography for the two films, and Mao herself seems so much more dynamic in this movie.  It’s so clear that a lot more time and effort went into making this, and the effort pays off. 

I don’t know what it is with Angela Mao films, but like The Himalayan, there are many stars-in-waiting playing bit parts in this.  Most will already know that Jackie Chan appears (and provides at least one of the more painful-looking stunts), but there are others.  See how many you can spot!

While Hapkido is definitely derivative, it has to be remembered that it is also extremely good fun, and contains some of the best moves on celluloid from the period.  At the risk of being controversial, I’d say the action in Hapkido equals, if not surpasses, that shown in some of the movies by the Little Dragon.  That’s quite some recommendation.

The Himalayan (1976) March 5, 2010

Posted by Cal in : 1970s films, Kung Fu , add a comment

Director: Wong Fung  Main cast: Angela Mao; Dorian Tan; Chan Sing  Territory: Hong Kong

A scheming murderer employs a look-alike to marry into the Chang family so that he can steal their wealth and govern their provinces.  But the bride is also a formidable fighter, and when teamed up a newly outcast member of the clan becomes a force to be reckoned with.

The Himalayan looks unlike any other Hong Kong film, thanks solely to the exterior shots.  The film claims to be showing a lost Tibetan martial art and was filmed in Tibet and Nepal, although I’m not entirely sure a Hong Kong crew would have been permitted in Tibet at this time.  The film sets out at the beginning to add as much local colour and custom, and this does the film credit to some degree.

However, at heart The Himalayan is a stock kung fu flick from the 70s, and the tale of revenge, greed, lost honour and redemption will not surprise anyone but the most casual viewer of the genre.  One the one side, we have the evil Kao (Chan Sing), who kills his brother to install a more malleable double in the Chang family.  He’s your usual pantomime villain who laughs arrogantly at every single thing that comes out of his enemies’ mouths and kills without mercy.  On the other side, we have the lovely Chang Ching Lan (Angela Mao) and the wronged Hsu Chin Kang (Dorian Tan), who inadvertently got caught up in a sex scandal and got chucked out of the clan.

the-himalayan.jpg Angela Mao has a bit of a bad day 

Although the story may be slightly uninspired, the action scenes in The Himalayan are pretty damn excellent.  Angela Mao is almost nowhere to be seen in the first forty-five minutes of the movie, while we are shown the depths of Kao’s villainy and some exposition scenes.  We do, however, have a splendid flashback that shows a young Chang showing her stuff, and believe you me, these kids are great to watch.  She does take more of a starring role in the second half of the movie to justify her billing, though, and thanks to superior choreography, convinces in the action heroine role.

But it’s Dorian Tan who steals the show with an awesome display of legwork.  I have to admit I’m not terribly familiar with his work, only having seen one of his starring roles before (there’s no prize for guessing which one, sadly), but on the strength of this, I just can’t believe he wasn’t a massive star.  True, he is being directed by Sammo Hung, and Sammo can make a star of even the most limited of action hero hopefuls, but even so Dorian Tan is nothing short of superb in this. 

I’m not sure who the titular Himalayan is in this movie, but if I had to guess, I’d say it is the “Eagle” monk who takes in the two wayward heroes and teaches them how to defeat the evil Kao late in the film.  There’s a prologue that claims that a school of kung fu originated far from Shaolin called Mi, and this was displayed here, but I doubt very much if this is the case.  The training scenes that were becoming popular at this time take up the last third of this movie, and while they are not terribly exciting, the varied backdrops tend to add atmosphere. 

The film runs at nearly two hours in length, and while it doesn’t really justify the running time, there are enough distractions if your mind starts to wander.  There is a massive cast of extras that would one day go on to be huge Hong Kong and international stars, and it’s always fun spotting the likes of Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao and Yuen Wah standing around in the background. 

I’ve made The Himalayan sound like a bit of a mixed bag, but while it does have some mundane points (and a rather obvious and gratuitous sex scene), the good far outweighs the bad.  I’ll say it again: Dorian Tan really is exciting to watch in this film, and that’s all the recommendation you should need.

Lady Whirlwind (1972) February 28, 2010

Posted by Cal in : 1970s films, Kung Fu , 2 comments

Director: Wong Fung  Main cast: Angela Mao Ying; Chang Yi; Pai Ying  Territory: Hong Kong

In 1972, the Golden Harvest studio was producing an abundance of cheap kung fu quickies, and Lady Whirlwind is a prime example of their typical output from the era.  Starring Angela Mao as an avenging spirit whose sister was wronged by the apparent carelessness of Ling Shih-Hao (Chang Yi) towards her sister.  However, Ling himself is after revenge on a gang of villains, and the two find themselves fighting on the same side despite past grudges.

Mao fighting Sammo.  A Young Wilson Tong is behind

Lady Whirlwind is undeniably cheap, but appears not to have been filmed in Hong Kong due to the obviously cold weather on the set.  It features a young Sammo Hung as a mid-level henchman with rather humorous muttonchop sideburns.  He directed the action scenes, and although the choreography is rather uninspired and basic, it is clear to see where he was heading.  The fight scenes are ambitious but don’t really have the ‘bang’ to excite the viewer, despite Mao’s evident enthusiasm and intensity.  Like the rest of the production, it appears that the fight scenes were shot in something of a hurry.

Another problem, for me at least, is that there was not nearly enough ambient noise in the sound mix.  I’ve no idea if this was present in the original print or is a product of the Fortune Star release, but the absence of almost all background noise is a real distraction.

However, Lady Whirlwind is not a complete write-off.  In fact, I thought it was quite enjoyable.  Don’t ask me why Chang Yi’s character (does anyone else think he looks remarkably like a young Wong In-Sik?) is being hunted by the villains of the piece, but there is some definite tension when Mao is added to the mix.  Maybe it was the bottle of wine I drank as I watched this, but the film got better and better as it went on.  And it’s a testament to the lasting appeal of Angela Mao (who, let’s face it, didn’t have that much of a stellar career, despite her potential) that this film has even seen the light of day in the digital age.

Creaky as it is, Lady Whirlwind is nevertheless fun to watch (and doubly so when under the influence), and has a couple of rather neat touches to it.  If you’re a fan of Mao, it’s likely you’ve already seen it, and if you’re not there are so many better films to recommend.  But if you catch it in the right mood, you might find yourself enjoying it.

Dreadnaught (1981) November 3, 2009

Posted by Cal in : Uncategorized, Comedy, Kung Fu, 1980s films , 7 comments

Director: Yuen Woo-Ping  Main cast: Yuen Biao; Leung Kar-Yan; Yuen Shun-Yi; Kwan Tak-Hing  Territory: Hong Kong

Cowardly laundry boy Mousy (Yuen Biao) unwittingly draws the interest of twisted serial killer White Tiger (Yuen Shun-Yi) while an elderly Wong Fei-Hung (Kwan Tak-Hing) finds himself facing jealous rival Tam (Phillip Ko-Fai) and his hired help.

By 1981, the Kung Fu comedy cycle started by Yuen Woo-Ping’s twin hits Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master was clearly running out of steam.  Nevertheless, Golden Harvest’s Dreadnaught is still better than most of the dire comedies that came out of the Shaw studio around this time, even if it falls somewhat short of being an all-out classic in its own right.

By my reckoning, this was the very last time Kwan Tak-Hing played Wong Fei-Hung after appearing as the legendary doctor in many, many, many films.  Despite being doubled in a lot of scenes and with the remainder being fairly stationary affairs with just upper body movement, he still looks fairly convincing.

I hope that's your belt buckle, mister!

The story is pretty perfunctory (and littered with Lion Dance scenes, which were popular at the time), with a strange killer with the name of White Tiger being introduced at the beginning as the film’s obvious villain.  Played by Yuen Shun-Yi (every Kung Fu film fan’s favourite nutter), the character is enraged by the sound of small decorative bells since his wife was killed in an ambush at a restaurant.  Apart from this scene, there’s not a lot of explanation of his character, and all we know is he’s severely screwed up over his wife’s death.

Mousy, as played by Yuen Biao, is not exactly the most memorable character in the genre.  Like in the 1982 movie Dragon Lord, the hero can’t actually fight, but rather bumbles along and wins the day through sheer spirit.  This is a shame as we never really see Yuen’s considerable agility.  Leung Kar-Yan puts in a rare beardless performance as Ah Foon (who was previously played by Yuen Biao in another Yuen Woo-Ping film, Magnificent Butcher), and actually gets to show off his stuff more than the film’s star.  The rest of the supporting cast appears to be filled out by Yuen Woo-Ping’s entire family, and you can’t go very long without spotting one of the director’s relatives.

Sadly, this was the only time Yuen Biao had top billing in one of the legendary director’s films and Dreadnaught always strikes me in as a film that doesn’t really live up to its potential, despite being quite enjoyable.  But then, I feel that way about a lot of Yuen Woo-Ping’s films.  As far as I’m concerned, if you want to see Yuen Biao on top form, check out Knockabout instead, and if you want to see the director at his best, see the aforementioned Drunken Master.

Heroes of the East (1978) June 7, 2009

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, 1970s films, Kung Fu , 12 comments

Director: Lau Kar-Leung  Main cast: Lau Ka-Fai (Gordon Liu); Mizuno Yuko; Kurata Yasuaki  Territory: Hong Kong

Following an arranged marriage to Japanese beauty Kung Zi (Mizuno Yuko), Chinese kung fu expert Ho To (Lau Ka-Fai) finds his new wife to be quite a destructive practitioner of Karate.  Their relationship flounders when neither will yield as to which is the superior form of martial arts, and Kung Zi heads back to Japan.  In a clumsy attempt to win her back, Ah To issues a martial arts challenge to Kung Zi which is intercepted by her old friend Takeno (Kurata Yasuaki).  Takeno then assembles a team of highly trained and disgruntled karateka to head back to China to win the challenge.

Right, it’s high time I actually reviewed the movie this blog’s named after!  Heroes of the East is the first film in what I call Lau’s “light” trilogy of films, situation comedies that deal with tradition, propriety and nationalistic, cultural and/or gender attitudes.  Although not connected in any way, I nevertheless consider this, My Young Auntie and The Lady is the Boss to be close relatives – if only for the unusual and noteworthy tone of the movies.  Rather than a seething revenge plot, these films are refreshingly void of melodrama and violence, and if memory serves there isn’t a single fatality in the whole lot of them.  There certainly aren’t many kung fu pictures that can make the same claim.

Heroes of the East seems to be set in an alternative reality where martial arts is all that people talk about or do.  There’s only the briefest hint that the newlywed couple even know that sex exists.  In this world, eating is just another way to perform martial arts and the garden ornamentation is only there to be demolished during a karate practice session.  The comedy comes from the stubbornness of both lovers to accept the other’s national martial art, even going as far as to dismiss or belittle it.  And obviously their pride will not allow for both systems to coexist, so they are constantly at war.

Heroes of the East 

Often guilty of portraying the Japanese as ignorant, evil and inhuman, Heroes of the East is one of the earliest movies I’ve seen that pokes gentle fun at Chinese attitudes while having a more open view of the Japanese.  Having said that, although the ignorance and stubbornness cuts both ways, I think Kung Zi is shown to be excessively unreasonable at times.  Still, small steps and all that. 

Although touching on social issues, Heroes of the East is a kung fu comedy through and through, and a very good one at that.  The film’s premise allows for a pretty good look at the differences between kung fu and karate, along with an impressive selection of weapons.  Throw in some judo, ninjitsu and even some drunken boxing (courtesy of a cameo by Lau Kar-Leung himself) and you’ve got a film that covers quite a lot of ground.

The Japanese fighters that assemble under Kurata Yasuaki were real experts in their field, which apparently led to some difficulties in filming.  More used to competitive fighting than screen fighting, they would often go flat out once Lau called action.  This is often evident during the film, particularly during the armed combat scenes. 

The only criticism I have of the film is the rather hokey ninjitsu effects towards the end, but even this doesn’t bother me much any more.  Heroes of the East is a fun, light film with no bad guys, no revenge plot and no huge gouts of fake blood.  It’s one of the most watchable kung fu films of the 70s, and is definitely one of the few that you can watch in polite company! 

Fist of Legend (1994) December 13, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Kung Fu, 1990s films , 15 comments

Director: Gordon Chan  Main cast: Jet Li; Chin Siu-Ho; Billy Chow; Kurata Yasuaki  Territory: Hong Kong 

Chen Zhen (Jet Li), student of the Jin Woo school, hears that his master Huo Yuan-Jia has been killed in a challenge match.  Leaving his studies in Japan, he heads back to Shanghai to investigate the circumstances behind his master’s death.  Suspecting foul play, Chen Zhen’s suspicions fall on a Japanese rival school and their brutish students.  However, there’s also the matter of the Japanese military’s Chief Officer Fujita (Billy Chow), who also gets involved.

Directed by Gordon Chan (who would go on to direct the less than stellar Thunderbolt) and a remake of Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury, it is quite a surprise how well Fist of Legend turned out.   By no means the only remake of what many fans consider to be Lee’s best film, Fist of Legend is probably the best as there is no attempt made to emulate Lee and can be viewed with no prior knowledge of the original.  

Jet Li in Fist of Legend

Made in 1994, in more “enlightened” times, the first thing that hits the viewer is the more balanced view of the Japanese/Chinese conflict of the late 30s (incidentally, the real Huo Yuen-Jia had been dead several years by the time this war broke out).  Indeed it may go too far in this regard, as by all accounts the Japanese really did ravage China and its inhabitants during this period.  But historical inaccuracies aside, the portrayal of both sides as being flawed (the Chinese are occasionally shown to be ignorant and stupid – a far cry from the jingoistic tone of the original) does make for a more palatable experience.

The only truly black and white character is Fujita, a mad Officer for the Japanese military played by bad guy par excellence Billy Chow.  In another example of the film’s tightrope walking, though, he’s often just as psychotic to the Japanese as he is to the Chinese.  Chin Siu-Ho is Huo Ting-An, Chen Zhen’s brother and fellow martial artist, who provides the film’s subplot involving the leadership of the Jin Woo school and the uncertainties that follow when an established order falls.  Also of note is the inclusion of Hong Kong’s favourite Japanese martial artist, Kurata Yasuaki, who of course also featured in Legend of a Fighter, another take on the Fist of Fury story.  As ever, he improves the film just by being in it, but also provides one of the more memorable fight scenes in an honour match with Chen Zhen where both combatants end up fighting blindfolded.

Fist of Legend is a very enjoyable film that never tries to be deeper than it is.  It’s also quite well put together, and has a reasonably high budget to it.  Like Drunken Master 2, this is also a film that seems to have a reputation that has, in my opinion, been blown out of proportion a little.  But the fights are good, the story is more compelling than a lot of similar fare, and doesn’t require any great effort of concentration to keep up with.  It’s a fun, action packed entry in the filmography of Jet Li and definitely one of his better ones. 

Fist of Legend

This film has recently been released in the USA by Dragon Dynasty after being unavailable in its original language with English subtitles for far too long.  They’ve done a good job in remastering it, but they’ve included the opening titles sequence from the Dimension release and it just sucks.  Honestly, it looks like something out of a cheap made-for-TV movie, and I’m pretty sure the music that accompanies it is also a new addition as it sucks just as equally.  It’s been too long since I’ve seen this film in its original language, but the sound effects seem a little odd to me as well.  One problem in the audio (which is not the fault of this release) is the very obvious dubbing of Kurata by different voice actors whenever he switches from Japanese to Cantonese.  However, on the whole the release is a good one and it’s nice to finally see the film in its original format with remastered subs after so many years having to put up with a rickety old VHS tape.

One final word: I don’t know if anyone else has noticed this, but I just love the really squeamish western doctor that gets roped into performing an autopsy on Huo.  Maybe his doctorate is in something other than medicine, because he all but shouts: “Eww!  Icky!” at every stage of the process and provided some comic relief – for me if no one else!

The Boxer From Shantung (1972) November 16, 2008

Posted by Cal in : 1970s films, Kung Fu , 1 comment so far

Director: Chang Cheh; Pao Hsueh-Li  Main cast: Chen Kuan-Tai; Cheng Kang-Yeh; Ching Li; Ku Feng; David Chiang  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Shaw Brothers

Ma Wing-Jing (Chen Kuan-Tai) is a penniless (but principled) worker from Shantung trying desperately to make a living in Shanghai.  He dreams of wealth and influence, and his dreams start to come true when he defeats a Russian wrestler in a prize bout.  He is also watched over by benevolent gang boss Tan Si (David Chiang), who starts Ma on the road to organised crime, albeit a kinder, gentler form of extortion hitherto unseen in Shanghai.  But not everyone is happy when Ma extends his empire and impinges on the territory of the Four Champions, who have at their disposal a lethal gang of hatchet wielding killers.

The Boxer From Shantung is a biopic-cum-kung fu movie, and I have to hold my hands up and say I know nothing about the real Ma Wing-Jing, despite his story being told more than once in popular Hong Kong cinema.  Even a search on the Internet fails to reveal much.  Apart from winning a bout against a Russian wrestler, I’m assuming everything else was made up until someone can tell me otherwise.

Although a bona-fide kung fu classic, The Boxer From Shantung falls down in several places.  The main problem is the editing of the non-action scenes, which is pretty dire.  There are great pauses between lines of dialogue, making for some very stilted exchanges that are quite uncomfortable to watch.  As we’re on the subject of dialogue, it has to be said that the script is pretty awful most of the time and about on the same level of a school play.  What really gets my goat is Ma’s continual gazing off into the distance saying something to himself along the lines of: “one day I will be somebody,” every few minutes.  Although this is nothing compared with when things finally start falling into place and Cheng Kang-Yeh watches Ma ascend the ladder of the dosshouse and proudly hammers the point home in case you had a head injury earlier in life and miss subtlety: “brother Ma is going up the ladder!”

The Boxer From Shantung

Childish scripting and bad dialogue aside – I’m really not sure how much involvement Chang Cheh had in this film – there are a couple of neat touches and fight scenes early on.  David Chiang’s Tan Si is a mentor/father-figure for Ma and is sadly underused (he was probably shooting fourteen other movies with Ti Lung at the time, so can’t be blamed personally).  His character is probably the most likeable of the lot, although I don’t buy the whole “kindly gang boss” thing as a rule.  Ma himself is not the most memorable character Chen Kuan-Tai has played.  The only attempt at depth is to give him a device – a cigarette holder – as a symbol of his success, much the same as the shoes in the Shaw Brothers-esque film Barefoot Kid twenty years later. 

The Boxer From Shantung 

What really makes this film is the final reel.  And by that, I mean that everything is forgiven the moment Ma steps into the Green Lotus Teahouse for a friendly chat with his rivals.  It’s here that Chang Cheh’s presence is felt as things turn into a bloodbath.  It’s worth mentioning that this was Chen Kuan-Tai’s first starring role, and this ending became a bit of a template for a lot of his Shaw films.  The action-packed finale is criticised by some as being unrealistic, a fault that seems redundant considering the flights of fancy that the genre usually takes.  Chen takes the Teahouse apart and paints the screen red with the blood of his victims in one of the genre’s defining moments.  One can only imagine what we would have seen if Bruce Lee had accepted the offer to work at Shaw and made a film under Chang Cheh.  As it happens, Chen Kuan-Tai was up to the task and it’s a shame his name isn’t known to a wider audience.

The Boxer From Shantung is an unbalanced film that really hasn’t stood the test of time when there isn’t a fight on the screen.  But when the action scenes start up, it becomes truly amazing. 

Magnificent Bodyguards (1977) October 19, 2008

Posted by Cal in : 1970s films, Kung Fu, Wacko , 6 comments

Director: Lo Wei  Main cast: Jackie Chan; James Tien; Bruce Leung  Territory: Taiwan  Production Company: Lo Wei Motion Picture Co.

A mysterious woman hires kung fu master Ting Chung (Jackie Chan) to escort her gravely ill brother through the notoriously dangerous, bandit-infested Stormy Mountains.  The unseen brother is carried in a sedan chair by Ting Chung and fellow pugilists Tsang (a face-flaying, arm-severing James Tien) and Chang (a deaf super-kicking Bruce Leung).  On the way, they encounter increasingly unusual foes and hazards, culminating in a meeting with the ruler of the Stormy Mountains himself, Chu.  But is he really who he says he is?

Magnificent Bodyguards is another bonkers tale from Jackie’s early days with legendary director and horseracing fan Lo Wei.  It was shot in 3-D, a fact that is impossible to ignore even if you try really hard, what with things coming out of the screen every few minutes.  It’s a bit disappointing, then, that the film is still being released on home formats in the usual two dimensions.

The film itself has a nice premise, and is like a kung fu road movie of sorts.  The characters are distinctly barmy except for Jackie’s character, oddly enough.  He plays it straight, of course, and it has to be said that his character is probably the least memorable of pretty much everyone present.  James Tien’s character threatens to skin everyone alive at the faintest provocation, and believe it or not, he’s one of the good guys.  I kept expecting him to turn traitor, even though I know he doesn’t, but I’m sure that one of these days when I watch it he will.  Sometime Bruce Lee impersonator (even though he looks nothing like him) Bruce Leung plays a deaf leather repairman (?) and is actually a fine kicker and a great addition to the cast.  I can’t say I’m that familiar with his work, but he’s great in this. 

Jackie Chan co-choreographed the fights and it’s immediately clear which moves are his.  There’s a scene where the gang end up in a chamber being attacked by a bunch of fake monks (don’t ask me why, almost nothing makes sense in this film) and the fight that follows is pretty damn exciting, and bares all the hallmarks of Jackie’s style.  While all of the other sequences in the film are rather hit-or-miss (and the penultimate battle where Lord Chu fights his impostor is downright dull) the film is worth seeing for this one scene alone.

 Magnificent Bodyguards

The production values are typical of Lo Wei – which is to say everything looks pretty cheap and fragile and the considerable wirework is letdown by constantly visible wires.  However, the film does have its own rousing theme tune, which struck me as a classy touch.  But while we’re on the subject of music, I couldn’t help but give an involuntary giggle when part of the Star Wars score suddenly blasts out.  Maybe Lo Wei didn’t think this new-fangled space opera would catch on, but the inclusion of one of the most well-known film scores in a cheap kung fu flick is pretty funny.

I recently criticised Dragon Fist for its Scooby Do-style ending, but if I had remembered the ending to this one, I would have saved the comment for this film.  All that is missing is the “I would have gotten away with it as well if it wasn’t for those meddling kids!” line and this really would have felt like a job for Scooby and the gang.  Although it does taper off a little, Magnificent Bodyguards is still an interesting little nugget of wackiness, with its Chinese Native Americans, bizarre restaurateurs, sci-fi-stealing theme tunes and face-flaying heroes.  I’m quite surprised it wasn’t more of a hit, as I believe this was the first kung fu film in 3-D and the novelty value alone should have put bums on seats.  It genuinely tries to be suspenseful, and I’ve seen a lot worse from the period.

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