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14 Blades (2010) September 13, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Wuxia, 2010s films , add a comment

Director: Daniel Lee  Starring: Donnie Yen; Vicky Zhao Wei; Kate Tsui  Territory: Hong Kong

I often think Donnie Yen must have made a deal with the devil – there he was making a small but respectable name for himself churning out decent movies in the Hong Kong action movie industry in the 80s before slipping off the radar in the mid-90s (Circus Kids, anyone?) and drifting into obscurity.  However, the noughties proved to be a stellar decade with the Don coming back looking exactly the same as he did in his heyday and with the moves to match.

14 Blades is a Wuxia Pian starring Yen as troubled warrior guard Qinglong, one of the few still loyal to an Emperor usurped by an evil eunuch.  Qinglong is betrayed by his own men and has to employ the help of an Escort service (meaning fighters who protect him from harm, not professional ladies of the night) to help him escape his enemies, forging a bond with the leader’s daughter Qiao Hua (Vicky Zhao Wei). 

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It turns out that Qinglong killed his brother as a youngster (on purpose, surprisingly) and has been troubled about it ever since.  Cue lots of navel-gazing moodiness from Yen and lots of emotion-wrenching scenes as he falls for the lovely Qiao Hua.  However, the main emotion likely to be experienced by the viewer is total befuddlement, because unfortunately 14 Blades is almost entirely incomprehensible.  It’s not exactly complex, but it has a habit of introducing characters out of nowhere with little or no explanation and expecting us to care about them.

Admittedly, the sword fights are nicely diverting, but the indifferent CGI special effects let the side the down.  And although the supporting cast is a heaven for Hong Kong movie geeks, featuring many stars that I’d assumed had retired or died years ago (and a legless Sammo Hung), the film never settles down into any kind of rhythm, and the muddled narrative means that 14 Blades never rises above mediocrity.

Red Cliff (2008/2009) April 12, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Blogroll, War, Wuxia, 2000s films , add a comment

Director: John Woo  Starring: Takeshi Kaneshiro; Tony Leung Chiu-Wai; Zhang Fengyi; Vicki Zhao  Territory: China

red-cliff.jpgJohn Woo’s return to Chinese language film after an age of Hollywood films of diminishing returns was awaited with considerable excitement.  A favourite director of mine, I watched his Hollywood debut Hard Target with great interest – and then decided I wouldn’t bother with any of his others.  Having said that, there was never going to be any fear of me missing out on this sprawling epic split over two parts and promising battle scenes on an awesome scale.

The story of Red Cliff is simple and based on an actual event: in 208AD, warmonger Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) manipulates a child Emperor to invade two territories in the south, under the spurious excuse that they are going to renegade against the state.  The leaders of the two accused territories, Liu Bei and Sun Quan, form an alliance and attempt to battle off Cao Cao and his army, despite a lack of supplies and being severely outnumbered.  Liu Bei’s Chief Strategist Zhu-Ge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Sun Quan’s General Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) step up to organise the resistance against Cao Cao. 

Released to great acclaim and phenomenal box office returns, I was nevertheless unmoved by Red Cliff.  I never fully engaged with the characters, who I found universally weak.  The majority of the dialogue is about battle formations, tactics and politics – which I felt was quite cold and showed very little of the emotional or human element of war. 

The much lauded battle scenes are indeed impressive, with some excellent CGI to add great scale and invoke a genuine feeling of awe.  However, the battle scenes go on too long.  And it’s really as simple as that – you really can have too much of a good thing.  Furthermore, John Woo’s style and his habit of overusing the zoom on close-quarter skirmishes feels a tad out of place in a third century setting. 

If it feels like the first part of Red Cliff has an over reliance on these epic battles, it comes as a small relief when things calm down a little in Red Cliff: Part Two.  John Woo has never been known as creating great female characters, and that is still the case for a large part here, but Vicki Zhao’s Sun Shangxiang is a small exception.  She takes it on herself to spy in Cao Cao’s camp, learn the strength of the enemy, and report back and I did quite enjoy this break in all the solemn political wrangling.

But as well as finding the characters uninteresting and the battlefield scenes too long, I could also tell where it was all going far too often.  And even the conclusion of Sun Shangxiang’s sub-story pays off in an extremely predictable and contrived way.  The much-anticipated naval battle, teasingly hinted at in the first film, is saved as a climax and is just as impressive and grand as you could want – and yes, it too overstays its welcome and gets dull.

I’ve yet to hear anyone say a bad word about Red Cliff, so it comes as a great surprise to me that I didn’t like it very much.  I mean, it’s almost heresy criticising John Woo, who, let’s face it, is an almost God-like figure in Hong Kong cinema.  But then I didn’t like The Killer either. 

The Sentimental Swordsman (1977) January 10, 2010

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

Director: Chor Yuen  Main cast: Ti Lung; Derek Yee; Fan Mei-Shang; Ching Li; Norman Chu  Territory: Hong Kong

This Chor Yuen film is quite hard to come by these days – I had to pay over the odds for a Thai DVD on eBay.  It’s quite a shock hearing Ti Lung dubbed in Thai, but luckily the original Mandarin audio is also included on the disc.  I can’t quite remember why I was chasing this down so arduously, but I assume I read a favourable review of it somewhere, bought it and then forgot about it for about a year.

Based on a Gu Long novel, The Sentimental Swordsman is typical fare, full of intrigue, mystery and conspiracy.  Stylistically, it’s virtually identical to Clans of Intrigue and it’s hard not to compare the two.  It’s head-spinningly complex and fast-paced, with a general plot of the hero Li Xunhuan (Ti Lung) in a feud with a shadowy assassin known only as the Plum Blossom Bandit.  Occasionally aiding him is the mysterious Ah Fei (Derek Yee), who looks to be imitating David Chiang a lot of the time (and who would almost certainly have had the role had he still been in Shaw Brothers’ employ when this was made).  Also involved is Li’s sidekick Chuan-Jia (Fan Mei-Shang), Lin Xianer (Ching Li) and a cast of dozens of bizarrely-monikered characters who weave in and out of the convoluted plot.

Chor Yuen was a director with a keen eye for the dramatic, and some of the external shots for this film are pretty impressive, with lots of atmospheric footage across frozen rivers and snowy landscapes.  The action scenes (of which there are many) are variable but generally pretty good, although Ti Lung is doubled quite a lot for some of the more agile scenes.  I would have liked to have seen more of Derek Lee’s character, though, and the same can be said about Fan Mei-Shing, who seems to have only been included as Li’s companion and manservant when convenient to the plot. 

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The problem with The Sentimental Swordsman is the break-neck pacing that Chor used so frequently.  It is so hard to actually settle down and enjoy this film when no one will stand still for more than a few seconds.  The exposition scenes begin well, providing the viewer with essential information, but then degenerate into confusing directionless rambles.  I suspect this film condenses the source material down and instead of cutting plot threads and characters, Chor decided to throw everything in and hope for the best.

Even though the film is too haphazard and messy, it is not without its entertainment, although it is largely unintentional.  The Plum Blossom Bandit is the most obvious example.  He’s the evil villain of the piece, but you can’t take him seriously at all.  The reason?  He wears a bright pink costume, that’s why, and throws darts with little plum blossom designs on them.  And that’s not to mention a character who goes by the name of Mr Iron Flute.  And you have to laugh when an inebriated poison expert says to a fatally dosed hero: “why should trivial matters get in the way of drinking?”

So while The Sentimental Swordsman can never be considered a classic, it is worth watching if you’re in the mood for something that looks like it was written by someone on a fatal caffeine kick.  That’s of course if you can track it down…

Ashes of Time (1994) & Ashes of Time Redux (1994/2008) February 18, 2009

Posted by Cal in : Wuxia, 1990s films, 2000s films , 6 comments

Director: Wong Kar-Wai  Main cast: Leslie Cheung; Tony Leung Ka-Fai; Jacky Cheung; Tony Leung Chiu-Wai; Brigitte Lin; Charlie Yeung  Territory: Hong Kong/China

Ashes of Time ReduxAshes of Time seems to have gone through a fair bit of rehabilitation since it was made.  I remember the reviews at the time were quite negative to downright scathing.  However, it has always had its hard core of followers, and as this sort of thing is quite fashionable these days, it was perhaps inevitable that the film would be “rediscovered”.

It soon became apparent upon watching the redux that to write about this film properly, I had to see the original too.  Therefore, both versions are discussed here, having spent most of the weekend watching both versions, the extras on the new Artificial Eye Blu-ray and reading up on it.  This has resulted in a longer review than normal, so try to stay awake at the back, please!

The film is based on the characters from Jin Yong’s novel Legend of the Condor Heroes and focuses on cynical, self-centred assassin Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung) as he goes through a year of his life in a remote desert lair.  The other characters who weave in and out of his life include swordsman/woman with a gender-split personality (Brigitte Lin), old friend Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Ka-Fai), young, idealistic swordsman Hong Qi (Jacky Cheung), a fellow swordsman losing his sight (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and a love he lost to his elder brother (Maggie Cheung).  There are mistaken identities, love triangles and the usual Wong Kar-Wai themes of love and longing are all very much present and correct.

There is an overall plot involving horse thieves terrorising a small village, which Ouyang Feng is occasionally paid to protect.  However, this point is largely lost in the redux version.  It does, however, set the scene for the battles that do occur in the film.  But this is not an action film as such – one magazine reviewer I read back in the day described it as “an action film about inaction”, and that sums it up nicely, if a little too dismissively.  To be honest, you’d be better off forgetting it’s a wuxia movie altogether, as it really doesn’t play by the usual rules. 

There are several different threads in Ashes of Time, and some work better than others.  Despite the jumbled chronology at times, most of the threads tend to resolve themselves before moving to the next one, and for this reason the movie feels quite episodic, although all of the tales involve Ouyang Feng.  So while I enjoyed Jacky Cheung’s idealistic swordsman sub-story (complete with wife in tow) and the tragic story of Tony Leung Chiu-Wai’s blind swordsman, I cared less for the Brigitte Lin section, which I thought was a bit melodramatic and Wong Kar-Wai handled it in a heavy-handed fashion.  Furthermore, I felt that she overacted quite badly in a couple of scenes, which I thought was most unlike her.

In the end, Ashes of Time is always going to split fans down the middle.  It has so little action (especially in the redux version) that it can’t be considered an action movie (despite Sammo Hung spending months on set choreographing the swordplay) and contains far too much action to be considered a typical Wong Kar-Wai film.  It is perhaps best to overlook the wuxia elements (which aren’t too impressive anyway, relying too much on camera effects and quick editing) and see the film as a tale of lost love and whether or not it’s best to remember or forget.

Even though I hate to say something so passé, the movie was well ahead of its time, and I get the distinct impression that if King Hu had lived to see it he would have loved it to bits, despite Ashes of Time only spending one paltry year in production!  Personally, although I admire the ambition and scope of the film, I find the overall effect is not as satisfactory as I’d like.  Having said that, the denouement has considerable impact and the film’s final message is worth the journey.  It’s just that the journey grinds to a halt a couple of times.

When discussing the differences in the available versions, I’ve decided not to do a comprehensive list of the changes in the redux (these can be found on the net without too much trouble) but simply give my opinions on them.  The most startling omissions occur early in the film, with the removal of some swordplay footage, including an entire fight scene.  Although only a short section, this removal has effectively changed the tone of the entire film, almost making the film shift away from the wuxia genre entirely.  Instead, we get a couple of new cutaway shots of some sphere-shaped object that frankly baffled me.  There are other cuts all over the place, but they’re all pretty minor.  The only new footage (apart from some better blood effects) is brief cutaway shots, which means the film’s running time is reduced by a couple of minutes.  Apart from the opening scene with Ouyang Feng fighting the bandits, I honestly didn’t miss any of the omissions.  The colour has been tweaked throughout, giving the film a bolder, more visually striking appearance, although sometimes the colour correction can be detected.

It’s more than just the visuals that have been tweaked though.  The soundtrack has been overhauled too, with Frankie Chan’s music being rerecorded, somewhat inevitably, with cellist Yo Yo Ma.  Blasphemous as it sounds, I don’t find the reworked soundtrack to be sacrilege, but if I was more familiar with the original soundtrack I may have had a different opinion.  Watching the original, the synth soundtrack does date the film right in the middle of the 90s, while the new recordings seem a little more timeless.

The one change in the redux that helps the viewer is the inclusion of titles indicating the change of seasons.  This separates the film into sections where different sub-stories end and start.  I found this change probably the one main improvement over the original, personally.  In any case, there’s nothing in the redux I found to be heresy, although again, if I knew the film as well as some fans, I may have had a different opinion.

The Artificial Eye BD has a great anamorphic transfer, although the film itself suffers from a high level of grain (see below).  One very noticeable difference between this disc and their release of Chungking Express is that this film has quite a lot of extras.  These are mostly interviews shot during the film’s showing at Cannes.  Here are a few notes on each (timings very approximate):

Interview with Wong Kar-Wai 1 (5 mins): Wong discusses the appalling state the film was in when he retrieved the negative [sadly a common occurrence in Hong Kong cinema] and claimed a full restoration would be impossible.  The redux was therefore an attempt to make a definitive version of the film with what was left.  Talked about shooting new cutaway shots to insert into the footage and confirmed that this was the only new footage shot.  Admitted it was his most complex film he’s ever made.

Interview with Wong Kar-Wai 2 (18 mins): Wong goes into more detail in this lengthier interview, discussing everything from the shooting schedule, the reasons behind shooting in the desert in China (he wanted to do a film on location after seeing so many studio-locked Shaw Brothers films from yesteryear) to the practicalities of shooting a film over an entire year through the changing seasons.  He discussed his reasons for wanting Sammo Hung on board, and claimed to defer to him when it came to the action scenes, which surprised me a little.  He also addressed the “grain” issue, and admitted it was not intentional but explained that they had to shoot in poor light sometimes and this had the result of creating a very grainy image at times.  He says that in the end, he thought it suited the desert setting quite well.  Finally, he talks about the remade music track and says the original was sounding quite dated.

Interview with Christopher Doyle (16 mins): Doyle gives a lot of insight in this interview.  Starting with how he met Wong, he talks about how the directors and crew he works with are primarily friends, so he can occasionally say “fuck you” without the fear of losing his job [I wish this was true with my job].  He talks about Wong’s way of pushing him to be better by saying “Chris, is that all you can do?”  He talks about Ashes of Time being an ecological film about climate change [can’t see much evidence of that, personally] and discussed the trials of shooting in the desert.  Claims not to understand how martial arts films are shot and so said Sammo had a lot of influence in that area.

Making of (14 mins): A clip-heavy featurette that reuses a lot of footage from the other interviews on the disc; this extra is a total let-down.  However, there are short (and I mean short) contributions by Sammo and Yo Yo Ma that you don’t get elsewhere. 

Interview with Leung Chiu-Wai (8 mins):  A very insightful Little Tony talks (in almost perfect English) about how he did all his own stunts for the film and how Wong wanted to make this a two-part film.  As it bombed at the box-office, Tony was disappointed that they never got to make Ashes of Time Part II.  Talked about listening to Dire Straits’ “Private Investigations” a lot during this time and the alienation of the song seemed to suit the film.  Tony discussed his working relationship with Wong and revealed that they don’t talk to each other all that much.  He then goes on to say that Wong asked him a lot of questions early on in their relationship and so Wong knows everything about him but he knows virtually nothing about Wong [which sounds downright weird to me, but Tony seemed to find the situation humorous].  He then talked about making this back-to-back with Chungking Express even though he could only spare ten days on the set due to commitments with his singing career.

Interview with Charlie Yeung (9 mins): not the most insightful interview on the disc, Yeung mainly talks about how she got the job, the fact that it was her first film and her hitherto undiscovered ability to burst into tears on demand.  Was surprised that she only had to do a few takes of her scenes.

Interview with Carina Lau (4 mins): This short interview gives a little more information on Wong’s working methods, saying he mainly just lets the actors play the scene the way they want [which doesn’t seem likely to me, but who am I to say?].  Interestingly, she talks about how many takes she had to do for each scene, as opposed to Charlie Yeung’s account [maybe playing the scene how she wanted wasn’t working out so well after all?]. 

The disc is rounded off with the obligatory trailer (which I didn’t bother with) and is refreshingly free of Tarantino, for which we should all give thanks.  On the whole, a rather good little disc.  Although it’ll probably be a while before I’ll want to watch it again.

Now if you’ll excuse me, my fingers are bleeding and I’ve lost quite a lot of sight in the one eye thanks to this review.  I think I’ll do a nice little Bruceploitation pic next.  Phew!

The Storm Riders (1998) December 6, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Action, Wuxia, 1990s films , 12 comments

Director: Andrew Lau  Cast: Ekin Cheng; Aaron Kwok, Sonny Chiba, Wayne Lai, Kristy Yeung  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Golden Harvest

Rarely, if ever, will you find a Hong Kong movie that divides opinion as much as Andrew Lau’s 1998 adaptation of Ma Wing-Sing’s comic book of the same name.  It was the first Hong Kong CGI bonanza, and it probably wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that if you have a beef with any aspect of modern day movie making in Hong Kong, you can trace it back to this movie.

The film’s detractors cite many faults with the film, but one universal gripe is the plot - or the lack of one.  What it boils down to is a pair of orphans (Ekin Cheng as Wind and Aaron Kwok as Cloud) who are “groomed” by Conqueror (Japanese legend Sonny Chiba) because the soothsayer Mud Buddha (Wayne Lai) decrees that with these two disciples will bring him great power for a full decade.  The kids fall in love with the same woman and it all ends badly (for all concerned) and Conqueror finally challenges Sword Saint (Anthony Wong) from the unchallenged City to a duel.  Mud Buddha then drops a bombshell about the other half of the prophesy about Wind and Cloud.

Wind - looking moody 

Which is a workable, if basic, plot.  But then the film’s origin starts to get in the way.  I’ve never read the comic book – I bought loads of issues to help with my Chinese reading and eventually discovered I was way out of my depth (I bought a couple of the far inferior US translations and discovered, to my surprise, that they were no easier!) so mainly just looked at the fantastic pictures.  But I’m guessing that there are a lot of characters and events here from the comic book that get crammed in just to satisfy fans.  What then happens is the film becomes episodic and confusing, with minor characters popping up, doing something (presumably) important and then disappearing forever.

One thing that is sure to date a movie is making it so bang-up-to-date as possible, and Storm Riders suffers from this more than you’d think.  Although less than a decade old, it looks too much like a product of its time, and nowhere is this more evident than in the opening title sequence, which now looks like a graphical cut scene from a PlayStation One game.  All of the CGI tends to be a little ropey, which is a major problem as the production relies so heavily on it.

Cloud - looking moody 

However, Storm Riders tries damn hard to be entertaining, and was a necessary step in the evolution of Hong Kong movies, which had been suffering from dwindling cinema audiences for years prior to this film.  Although the film looks dated now, it certainly did the trick in getting people back watching local fare over the latest glossy Hollywood blockbusters.  

I remember seeing this for the first time and thinking it was just totally incomprehensible, and this seems to be a common reaction.  What this film insists upon is a second (and maybe a third) viewing, and things definitely make a hell of a lot more sense.  There is an interesting relationship between the two main characters and their beloved Charity (an early appearance by Kristy Yeung) and the two are evidently intended to be two sides of the same coin with the emotional, romantic Wind and the sensual, lustful Cloud.

Wind and Cloud dualling - moodily. 

Over at the Hong Kong Movie Database, which is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in Hong Kong films, there are many reviews for this film but one review sums up the depth of feeling that this film can engender.  It was written by a user called MilesC, and he gives the film a very poor review before appending this:

 Post-script: It’s been six months since I wrote the above review, and well over a year since I saw the film. It’s six o’clock in the morning, and I can’t sleep because I CAN’T STOP THINKING ABOUT HOW MUCH I HATE THIS MOVIE. The fact that a 130 minute movie could contain so little plot, action, or character development and ACTUALLY BE FINANCIALLY SUCCESSFUL makes me want to destroy the entire planet. I HATE THIS MOVIE! Andrew Lau, one day I’ll come for you. 

I’m guessing he steered well clear of the film after writing that, but I can’t help wondering if he watched it again whether he’d feel quite so strongly about it.  Likewise, I’m guessing a lot of people who loved it upon release now find Storm Riders a little creaky and rough around the edges.  I’d say I’ve grown to love it over the years, but there are plenty of better examples of this type of film nowadays.

The Magnificent Swordsman (1968) July 26, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Wuxia, 1960s films , 1 comment so far

Director: Cheng Kang, Yueh Feng  Cast: Wong Chung-Shun, Shu Pei-Pei, Tien Feng  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Shaw Brothers

Lone swordsman Jiang Dan-Feng (Wong Chung-Shun) is ambushed by a pair of bandits and quickly despatches them.  One of them, as he is dying, asks Jiang to take his personal effects to his sister.  This being a Wuxia film, our hero is bound by a strict code of honour, and he agrees.  The bandit’s sister, Xiu Xiu (Shu Pei-Pei), is surprisingly forgiving and tells him that he got mixed up in a bad crowd of robbers before he died.  As it happens, these self-same bandits are threatening to tear up the village at any moment, and Jiang prepares to defend it despite being despised by the town folk for killing Xiu Xiu’s brother.

Wong Chung-Shun’s place in cinematic history is secured.  Although you might not know the name, even the most casual of Hong Kong movie fans has seen him and he will forever be remembered as the guy who betrays Bruce Lee – not once, but twice!

But before he had relatively small roles in Fist of Fury and Way of the Dragon, Wong Chung-Shun was a stage actor who also appeared in many films, and I couldn’t resist seeing him play the lead in this Wuxia film from the 60’s.

Wong steers his magic Gondola through the forest.

Magnificent Swordsman tries very hard on every level.  There’s a definite attempt to copy the cinematic style of King Hu in almost every outdoor shot, with tonnes of mist and smoke flying about and some wide-shots that would have made the Master proud.  It’s also strikingly like a Japanese film at times particularly the way the lead dresses, acts and the style of the combat scenes.  There are also some good sets to look at, with the bandits’ lair being particularly noteworthy.  Strangely, though, some of the camera work is pretty dodgy, with shaky shots here and there that occasionally hamper the atmosphere. 

One definite highlight is the musical score, which is so “influenced” by Morricone that you’ve got to smile.  If you take a sample from any part of the score and play it to anybody and ask what genre film it came from, they will undoubtedly say it was from a Spaghetti Western.  Even the theme song evokes comparisons to the genre despite being sung in Mandarin.

The story is the spanner in the works, though.  There is a tendency towards melodramatics and overacting, particularly by Xiu Xiu’s finance (played by Yau Lung).  Even without this, there’s nothing terribly compelling about the story, which often promises to go down the Seven Samurai route but frustratingly never does. 

The Magnificent Swordsman is an A Grade Shaw Brothers production with oodles of atmosphere, style and some nice touches to the action sequences.  But the dull storyline ensures this never rises above mediocrity, unfortunately.

Brothers Five (1970) July 4, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Wuxia, 1970s films , 5 comments

Director: Lo Wei  Cast: Cheng Pei-Pei, Lo Lieh  Action Director: Sammo Hung, Simon Chui  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Shaw Brothers

In one of the episodes of the British TV series Extras, Andy Millman (played by Ricky Gervais) is talking about films, and utters the following gem: “I love all the ‘number’ films, really: Seven Samurai, Ocean’s 11…the Dirty Dozen…”

It got me thinking about Hong Kong films, and the abundance of titles with numbers in them that are classics: Warriors Two, 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Heroes Two, 18 BronzemenHeroic Trio.  And one of my personal faves, the Savage Five.  All good stuff, so I was quite looking forward to this old Lo Wei film and wondered if the theory could be proved once more.

When you think about Lo Wei (if you think about him at all), you probably think of a director too easily distracted by horseracing commentaries on the radio, unnecessary cameo roles, or no-budget chop-socky dramas starring a young Jackie Chan.  You probably do not think of lavish high-budget productions where the term “visual splendour” would not be out of place.

And yet you definitely get this in Brothers Five, a film that must have been one of his last efforts at Shaw Brothers before going to Golden Harvest.  If this was his last, it would certainly look good on his résumé – at times, this looks as good as a King Hu film.  I’m guessing the exteriors were filmed in Taiwan, as this has a very “open”, foresty look to it, with long rolling hills in the background.  The interiors are also splendid, with some of the nicest interior sets made up to look like exteriors.

I'm not coming down until I get a better script!

Unfortunately, the film itself is a bit of a drag.  I’m not going to go into the plot here as I’ll probably end up wanting to commit suicide from continually explaining the same situations the heroes find themselves in before realising the bleeding obvious and teaming up together, but what it amounts to is a “united we stand, divided we fall” motif that gets bloody thin even before we reach the twenty minute mark.  There is nothing at all that is not deeply predictable every step of the way.  I know I must make allowances as the film is 37 years old, and this kind of story hadn’t been done to death at that point, but the fact is that so many films have done it better and you can’t help but feel bored to tears over the whole thing.  Cheng Pei-Pei isn’t really the star of this, she just kind of glides in and out when the plot(?) needs moving forwards or if one of the brothers has done something particularly dumb and needs a nudge in the right direction.

On to the action sequences.  Frankly, this was the only reason I kept watching.  The fights are co-choreographed by Sammo Hung, and even this early in his career it’s evident he was streets ahead of his time.  It’s scary to think that this film was a full fifteen years before he reached his prime as an action choreographer! 

Sadly, however, there’s a problem with the fights, too – there are too many of them and they just go on so damned long!  This could sound like heresy to a lot of fans, but I swear it’s true.  I just lost interest and my eyes glazed over.  At one point I was sure it was all finally coming to a close, only to look at the display on the DVD player to find that just over an hour had passed.  The total running time’s about 100 minutes, so I was a bit gutted.  I stuck it out to the bitter end, but sadly there is no great redemption at the end.  In fact, I can’t really remember what happened at the end – and I’m pretty sure I was relatively sober.

Sober enough to remember halfway through that 5 Shoalin Masters was a bit of a stinker, and I never cared much for Ocean’s 11 in the first place.  Bang goes that theory, then.

Have Sword, Will Travel (1969) April 22, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Wuxia, 1960s films , 6 comments

Diretor: Chang Cheh  Starring: David Chiang, Ti Lung, Li Ching  Action Diretor: Yuen Cheung-Yan, Tong Gai  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Shaw Brothers 

Engaged couple Siang and Yun Piao Piao (Ti Lung and Li Ching) help an aging and decrepit Kung Fu master transport some silver.  However, lone swordsman Yo Li (David Chiang) inadvertently gets involved.

Have Sword, Will Travel is a typical Chang Cheh movie – buckets of blood, honour and nihilism going hand in hand. And like many Shaw Brothers films from the time, the first hour or so is pretty actionless – a deliberate attempt to give the final reel more emotional impact.  While most of the early part of the film is preamble, it does set up the love triangle that is created when Piao Piao takes a shine to Yo Li - much to Siang’s annoyance.  Also, the scene where Yo Li is forced to sell his horse is surprisingly moving.

The final half an hour is a brilliant showcase set in a magnificent old tower.  The setting imposes some great atmosphere, although it has to be said that the frequent switches between exterior and studio shots is not particularly effective and are quite obvious.  The swordplay here is extremely impressive for its day, and the usual buckets of blood are employed to great use.  I’m sure Freud would have had something to say about all the ejaculations of blood on show here!  Add to that the obvious needle between Siang and Yo Li, and it makes for quite an intriguing finale.  Will Siang relent and let Yo Li help him when faced with insurmountable odds in the tower?  Who will finally walk off with Yun Piao Piao?

A Disney remake seems unlikely.

This was clearly a major influence on the new wave of HK Wuxia films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers et al.  But with all the fancy CGI and high production values, the new crop of HK swordplay films aren’t particularly better than the originals.  Those that look down all HK films (except those embraced by Hollywood as being “not just a chop-socky but with an actual STORY”) would do well to check this out, providing they can stomach the intensely graphic (and still quite convincing) violence.

Come Drink With Me (1966)

Posted by Cal in : Wuxia, 1960s films , add a comment

Diretor: King Hu  Starring: Cheng Pei-Pei, Yueh Wah  Action Diretor: Han Ying-Chieh  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Shaw Brothers  

A general’s son is taken hostage as leverage to free a bandit leader.  The general’s other offspring, Golden Swallow, is sent to retake the son.  When the bandit gang encounter the Golden Swallow (Cheng Pie Pei) in a local inn, they are taken aback by his martial arts ability and are swiftly defeated.  With the help of local beggar Fan Da-Pei (Yueh Hua), the Golden Swallow keeps the bandits at bay.  But everyone has a trick or two up “his” sleeve…

It’s been mentioned before, but it does seem to be true that King Hu was Hong Kong’s answer to Akira Kurosawa and Come Drink With Me is one of the seminal Hong Kong Wuxia movies (only his own A Touch of Zen and Dragon Gate Inn are in the same league).  Although by today’s standard the action scenes appear more stylised and less natural, there is still plenty of things to admire.  Besides, it’s the drama, splendour, character and story that is memorable and I’m sure Ang Lee, Zhang Yimou et al would give a major body part to be able to achieve what this film achieves – and with no CGI and relatively few trick shots.  I’m talking about genuine mood and feeling, which Come Drink With Me has by the bucketful.

Those who still aren’t convinced that Shaw Brothers films went down the pan production-wise during the mid seventies should take a look at this 1966 movie.  In fact, the first ten minutes should be enough to convince.  The outdoor scenes are fantastically filmed and the interior sets are breathtaking – all standard for a King Hu movie.  A lot of credit should also go to the lighting department who never fail in keep everything looking top-notch with lots of great mood lighting.

The film is a series of stand out scenes and set pieces.  In Golden Swallow’s introduction scene, we see “him” surreptitiously humiliate a whole clan of bandits.  Forget Bruce Lee, THIS is the art of fighting without fighting!  Incidentally, a bald Yuen Siu-Tien (who later became famous as Jackie Chan’s Sifu in Drunken Master) can be seen in this scene.  The only leap of faith required really is the fact that anyone could take the Golden Swallow for a man.  Seldom have I seen such a pretty man…!

Cheng Pei-Pei catching some spare change in an iconic moment from Come Drink With Me.

We also have some real sexual tension between Golden Swallow and Fan Da-Pei.  When she (for her secret has been revealed!) gets into a fight at the temple (another cracking location, by the way), her vest briefly becomes visible – leading to a short burst of giggles from the bad guys and Golden Swallow’s acute embarrassment.  This sets up the scene later where Fan Da-Pei is forced to suck the poison from her chest wound.  It may seem tame by today’s standard, but this is really intimate stuff here, and should be taken in context of the era in which this film is set.  To have a man see, let alone touch, such an intimate part of a woman’s body was not to be taken lightly in those days.

Surprisingly, subsequent viewing reveal more than the odd instance of intentional humour – and in particular a sense of irony.  This is not quite as straight-laced as it first appears, and not as doom-laden as films by, say, Chang Cheh, who would pretty much dominate Shaws during the early 70’s.

If you really wanted to poke holes in the film, you could do – it’s not perfect.  The bandits are a bit of a weak spot, admittedly, as you never do know what it is they stand for.  They’re certainly nasty enough (they kill a small child, leading one monk to bemoan: “You’re too ruthless!”). However, on the whole, it has stood up remarkably well.

There are quite a few groundbreaking films from Hong Kong that shaped the industry.  In the sixties and early seventies, you have a veritable bucket load (including The One Armed Swordsman, The Chinese Boxer, Vengeance, The Big Boss, and King Boxer).  But Come Drink With Me is one of the more entertaining, and definitely the best looking, of the lot.

As a footnote, the sequel (which was helmed by Chang Cheh) was extremely disappointing but seems equally influential.  Chang’s drenched-in-blood style does not sit well with its elegant antecedent, and the whole mood of the film is vastly different.  Alas, King Hu had left Shaws by this time and had gone on to make his masterpieces in Taiwan.  More of which later…

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