Archive for January, 2012

REVIEW: Chinatown Kid (1977)

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

In a change from the usual Shaw Brothers martial arts film, Chang Cheh directs Alexander Fu Sheng in a contemporary kung fu actioner set in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Fu Sheng plays Tan, a poor illegal immigrant from mainland China whose kung fu skill gets him in trouble with a petty gangster (Wang Lung-wei) in Hong Kong. He relocates to America to find work at a Chinatown restaurant where he befriends a fellow Chinese immigrant struggling to pay his way through college. After getting in a fight, Tan is recruited by a local gangster (Philip Kwok) to help him eliminate a rival gang led by Lo Meng. When Tan discovers that the gangster is selling the same drugs that his friend has begun using, he declares war on the dealers. His friend (played by Sun Chien) eventually puts down the drugs and lends his Taekwondo-fighting skills to Tan’s fight against the gang. The outcome of this confrontation varies as Shaw Brothers had Chang film two endings depicting alternate fates for Fu Sheng’s character to satisfy censors in different territories. While Fu Sheng turns in a solid performance alongside rising kung fu stars Sun Chien, Philip Kwok and Lo Meng, the film is still a lesser rehash of similarly-themed Chang Cheh films BOXER FROM SHANTUNG, DISCIPLES OF SHAOLIN and THE NEW SHAOLIN BOXERS. The American setting is unconvincing staged by a combination of brief set up shots of the real location and Hong Kong-based sets making up the bulk of indoor and outdoor scenes partly populated by laughably awkward-acting Caucasian extras. The fighting from action directors Lee Ka-ting and Robert Tai is adequate yet lacking the creativity, vibrancy and dramatic punch of Chang’s past films. The biggest drawback is how badly the film has aged compared with most of Chang’s period films. Coupled with Shaw Brothers’ campy production standards, Chang’s heavy-handed directing style was rarely well suited to contemporary stories as further evidenced by awkward early efforts like THE SINGING THIEF and YOUNG PEOPLE.

REVIEW: Iron-Fisted Monk, The (1977)

Monday, January 30th, 2012

Sammo Hung makes his film directing debut in this violent and impressive kung fu action/drama that also sees Sammo in one of his first starring roles as a Shaolin-trained fighter joining forces with Shaolin monk San Te (Chen Sing) to avenge the rape and murder of friends and family by evil Manchu overlords. After his uncle is killed by Manchu bullies, a humble street vendor named Husker (Hung) is aided by San Te who encourages him to enter Shaolin Temple to learn how to defend himself. Eager to get back at the Manchus, he sneaks out and finds work at a cloth dye factory that becomes the target of more Manchu bullies led by an official (played by Fung Hark-on) who also happens to be a serial rapist. Eager to control the wealth of the Han people they govern, the Manchu concoct a plan to legally take over the dye factory with a fixed contractual agreement. When it fails, they attack the factory outright in a literal hostile takeover. In response, Husker and San Te take on the Manchus responsible in a vicious fight to the death. While not discussed onscreen, the film provides an excellent showcase of specific animal forms from both classical northern and southern kung fu schools. This includes the Tiger, Crane and Snake techniques of the south as performed by Hung and Chen and northern Mantis and Eagle Claw as performed by Fung and Chiao Hsiung respectively. This shapes action is expertly combined with an array of what were at the time advanced screen fighting techniques to creatively enhance the action. In the film’s finale, Sammo makes extensive use of acrobatic doubles, undercranking to speed up the fighting, wires, breakaway props, and a pro blend of camera angles and shots that show a level of sophistication rarely seen in Hong Kong at the time. Sammo has a solid cast of screen fighters with the powerful Chen Sing standing out in his fierce fighting performance as San Te, the same character more famously portrayed by Gordon Liu in THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN. While there is a small measure of kung fu comedy, of which Sammo would become famous for in subsequent films, the general tone of this feature is dark and about as bleak as any kung fu movie has ever been. This is largely due to the unnecessarily brutal and distasteful depiction of rape in two specific instances that may be a turn off for viewers accustomed to Sammo’s more popular films. There is also brief nudity and considerable, bloody violence on par with Chang Cheh’s films.

REVIEW: New Shaolin Boxers, The (1976)

Monday, January 30th, 2012

Alexander Fu Sheng is a hot-headed young coach driver in Republican-era China, who masters the art of Choy Li Fut in order to combat a knife-wielding street gang responsible for killing his teacher, raping a childhood friend and terrorizing the general public. This title, with its relatively modern backdrop and violent gangster theme, more closely resembles Chang’s basher classics THE DUEL and BOXER FROM SHANTUNG. A significant difference is this film’s substantially improved fight choreography overseen by action directors Hsieh Hsing, Chen Hsin-yi and Leung Ka-yan. One of the strengths of Choy Li Fut as a defensive fighting system is its broad range of varied techniques allowing the user to take on multiple opponents and that’s exactly what Fu Sheng does in this film with stunning results. Although released in 1976, the film possesses advanced fighting action close in technical skill to the powerhouse screen fighting of Hong Kong’s best fighting films of the 1980s. As for Fu Sheng, it’s a tossup as to whether or not his performance in this film is better than his phenomenal fighting action in DISCIPLES OF SHAOLIN. Both represent Fu Sheng at his peak as a kung fu movie superstar. The film also benefits from an excellent performance from Wang Lung-wei as the menacing gang leader whose secret weapon is an iron claw that disembowels its victims. Other aspects of the film including modest production standards, bland training sequences and weak supporting roles are less impressive. An exception is the film’s thoughtful underlying theme of violence begetting more violence as evidenced by the unintended consequences of Fu Sheng’s aggressive efforts to play an uncompromising hero in a world that tolerates injustice for the sake of peace. This film makes an excellent companion piece to Chang’s similarly themed martial arts classics DISCIPLES OF SHAOLIN and CHINATOWN KID, both starring Fu Sheng in comparable action roles.

REVIEW: Shaolin Avengers, The (1976)

Sunday, January 29th, 2012

For the fifth entry in his Shaolin Cycle, writer-director Chang Cheh revisited the origin story of Shaolin martial arts folk hero Fong Sai-yuk, previously depicted in Chang’s MEN FROM THE MONASTERY (1974). Some of that film’s script is recycled word for word while the frequent use of flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks makes a mess of the narrative. Despite this, the semi-remake is a superior kung fu actioner possessing a more focused plot that expands substantially on the Fong Sai-yuk legend. It also has a much better cast of fighting villains and nearly non-stop, blood-soaked kung fu carnage to sate the appetite of all but the most demanding kung fu movie fanatics. The film opens with a fight pitting Shaolin men Fong Sai-yuk (Alexander Fu Sheng), his brother Hsiao-yu (Bruce Tang) and Hu Hei-chien (Chi Kuan-tung) against rival Wudang men led by Jingang Palm expert Feng Tao-te (Tsai Hung). As the battle rages on, flashbacks reveal how the three heroes wound up in their present predicament. They cover Fong Sai-yuk’s kung fu training and body conditioning under his mother’s guidance and the efforts of Sai-yuk and his brother to avenge their father’s murder at the hand of Wudang men, played by fan favorites Lung Fei, Leung Ka-yan and Wang Lung-wei. These efforts include vicious tandem dueling in front of a blood-thirsty crowd and Sai-yuk’s famous duel atop Plum Lotus piles. Interspersed are scenes depicting Hui-chien’s own struggle to avenge his father’s murder by the same Wudang villains. Infamous kung fu villain Bak Mei, better known as Pai Mei or “White Brows,” makes a brief appearance courtesy of actor Chen Hui-lou. A year later, this character would be famously played by Lo Lieh in Lau Kar-leung’s kung fu masterpiece EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN. Of note, fight scenes for this film were choreographed by incoming Taiwan-based action directors Chen Hsin-yi and Hsieh Hsing after Chang’s longtime action directing partners Lau Kar-leung and Tang Chia left to pursue other filmmaking ventures at Shaw Brothers. Chang also recruited a new stunt team for this film that included future Venoms stars Chiang Sheng and Lu Feng, both of whom make brief appearances onscreen.

REVIEW: Disciples of Shaolin (1975)

Sunday, January 29th, 2012

One of director Chang Cheh’s finest martial arts films provides Alexander Fu Sheng with arguably his greatest martial arts performance as a penniless bumpkin from the country who fights his way to quick riches in the city as an enforcer for a textile factory that’s threatened by a competitor. Upon arriving in the city, Kuan Fung-yi (Fu Sheng) gets an entry-level job at a textile factory thanks to his friend Huang Han (Chi Kuan-chun). A rival factory with inferior fabric starts harassing the skilled workers at Kuan’s job in an effort to lure them away. As fighting breaks out between the two companies, Kuan steps in with his superior kung fu skills and winds up in charge of training the workers in kung fu so they can defend themselves. When the textile factory boss is murdered, Kuan takes his place. Although Kuan’s quick rise in stature brings him wealth and easy women, he alienates his friends including a potential lady love and his old friend Huang Han who is haunted by memories of his own mistakes as a once ambitious martial artist in a corrupt and violent city. Huang Han’s warnings go unheeded and Kuan soon finds himself fighting for his life when he walks into an ambush set by the rival factory bosses. With masterful kung fu choreography from Lau Kar-leung and an enduring narrative from Chang and co-writer Ni Kuang that is reminiscent of FIST OF FURY and THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG, this film packs powerful punches and equal parts dramatic prowess. Fu Sheng is brilliant in this role which draws on his ability to ably balance comedy, drama and all-out fisticuffs, with an ever-present dose of vibrant charm. Chi Kuan-chun is also terrific in the understated supporting role of a wise elder brother whose sense of justice allows him to unleash his full fighting force as we would expect from one of Hong Kong’s great screen fighters. As one of the lead villains, Fung Hak-on steps forth from his past status as a minor player to begin establishing himself as a top-tier martial arts baddie. From cast performances to production standards, this is a rare kung fu movie that manages to find the right balance between the exceptional fighting standards that genre fans love and general purpose filmmaking that not only makes great action but great cinema. On a side note, this film is sometimes listed as being part of Chang’s Shaolin Cycle, a series of kung fu movies depicting the exploits of martial arts heroes originating from southern Shaolin folklore. However, the film’s only connection to Shaolin folklore is leading man Fu Sheng, who played a couple different folk heroes in Shaolin Cycle films, and his use of Hung Fist kung fu in this film.

DISCIPLES OF SHAOLIN is available on DVD from Image Entertainment.

REVIEW: Five Shaolin Masters (1974)

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012

Chang Cheh directs the fourth entry in his Shaolin Cycle, setting aside the exploits of folk heroes Hung Hei-gun and Fong Sai-yuk to focus on five other Ming loyalists who escaped the burning of Shaolin Temple. The heroes split up to rally Ming rebels to their cause of overthrowing the Qing Dynasty. To tell friend from foe they come up with a series of coded hand signs and tea cup arrangements. Their efforts are hampered by General Chen (Chiang Tao) and a handful of skillful Qing fighters determined to finish the job they started with the burning of Shaolin. Ma Fu-yi (Wang Lung-wei), a Qing spy who had infiltrated Shaolin, takes hero Ma Chao-hsing (Alexander Fu Sheng) hostage and Hu Te-ti (David Chiang) leads a newly recruited band of rebels to free him. Having had their own running battles with the Qing, fellow Shaolin survivors (Ti Lung, Chi Kuan-chun and Meng Fei) rejoin their two comrades. They go into seclusion to improve their fighting skills before General Chen and his men can track them down for a final showdown. With a talented ensemble cast of established and emerging genre heavyweights including Leung Ka-yan, Tsai Hung, Fung Hak-on, and Gordon Liu, this is a star-studded affair certain to please classic kung fu fans. Ample fighting action, set in a variety of interesting locales, is masterfully choreographed by brothers Lau Kar-leung and Lau Kar-wing. As is often the case, Fu Sheng stands out with a memorable comic performance. As the ruthless traitor of Shaolin, Wang Lung-wei cements his status as one of the genre’s best new fighting villains while fellow heavy Tsai Hung leaves a good impression with his handling of an axe blade swung from a rope. Ti Lung deserves mention for successfully transitioning from indistinct swordplay and swingy-armed basher action to the technically challenging shapes kung fu that he had helped usher in two years earlier in the transitional martial arts actioner DELIGHTFUL FOREST. Despite a 10-minute training montage, only minor emphasis is placed on specific techniques in the film. Likewise, with so many primary characters the film skips character development to focus exclusively on the conflict between rival martial arts factions, culminating in an impressive 20-minute match up pitting the five Shaolin heroes against seven Qing rivals in and around a shallow river and gravel quarry.

FIVE SHAOLIN MASTERS is available on DVD on the Dragon Dynasty label courtesy of Arc Entertainment.

Revised on January 25th, 2012

REVIEW: Shaolin Martial Arts (1974)

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

HEROES TWO and MEN FROM THE MONASTERY were just the warm up for this exceptional third entry in director Chang Cheh’s Shaolin Cycle that expands on the folklore surrounding southern Shaolin kung fu. Taking place years after the burning of Shaolin Temple, the martial descendents of Ming loyalist and Hung Fist master Hung Hei-gun come into conflict with Manchu martial artists at a rival school. When the skills of leading Manchu student Wu Chung-ping (Chiang Tao) prove inadequate, two martial descendents of the infamous Iron Shirt master Bak Mei are called upon. The Shaolin school is defeated and its four top students withdraw to advance skills in kung fu to counter the near-invulnerability of Iron Shirt kung fu. Following extensive body conditioning and forms training, two of the students master Eagle Claw and Rolling Eagle Claw but their new abilities still prove inadequate. That leaves Li Yao (Alexander Fu Sheng) and Chen Bao-rong (Chi Kuan-chun) to master Tiger Crane and Wing Chun respectively to avenge their brethren and restore honor to Shaolin. The film was one of the first to popularize kung fu training sequences in Hong Kong cinema with its depictions of students catching fish by hand, punching fingers through wooden boards and detailed sets of authentic forms. While lacking in characterizations, the production is substantially upgraded from previous Shaolin Cycle entries by incorporating a strong narrative and formidable villains to back up exciting, finely detailed fighting action. Returning leads Fu Sheng and Chi Kuan-chun deliver strong physical performances while newcomers Wang Lung-wei, Leung Ka-yan and Gordon Liu hold their own.

REVIEW: Men from the Monastery (1974)

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

This is director Chang Cheh’s second, lesser entry in his Shaolin Cycle of Shaw Brothers films covering the exploits of southern Shaolin’s famous folk heroes. It follows HEROES TWO with a fast-paced, scattershot tale of martial heroism taking place before and after the events depicted in the previous entry. The film is split into three acts with the first focused on kung fu prodigy Fong Sai-yuk (Alexander Fu Sheng). It follows his emergence from Shaolin Temple training before having a duel atop wooden piles with sharpened bamboo stakes set to cushion the fall of the loser. Act two sees Sai-yuk coming to the aid of Hu Hui-chien (Chi Kuan-chun), a young man out to avenge the death of his father. In order to defeat the men responsible, Hui-chien masters Weng Chun (not to be confused with Wing Chun) at Shaolin Temple and returns to break up the baddies’ criminal enterprise. Act three follows the burning of Shaolin Temple as Sai-yuk and Hui-chien join Hung Fist master Hung Hei-gun (Chen Kuan-tai) in fighting against the Manchus responsible. Led by two skilled fighters (Chiang Tao and Lu Ti), the Qing forces track down the three heroes and a small band of fellow Ming patriots for a final battle. Structurally and dramatically, the film is a mess with three separate and highly compressed plots poorly strung together by the fighting action of the film’s three main stars. There is no character development on the heroes apart from very brief and uninvolved training sequences at Shaolin Temple. Villains in the film are practically an afterthought with little personality, presence or fighting style. The film’s main selling point is its generous, if dramatically deficient fighting action. While Fu Sheng and Chen Kuan-tai are physically impressive throughout, the main highlight is newcomer Chi Kuan-chun who dominates the final 12-minute fight scene with an intense and skillful display of martial artistry against all comers. Chang Cheh later retold the same origin story of Fong Sai-yuk and Hu Hui-chien in greater detail in the superior kung fu film THE SHAOLIN AVENGERS.

REVIEW: Kid with the Golden Arm, The (1979)

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

Loaded with superheroes and villains and bloody kung fu action, this colorful wuxia actioner pits Venoms Mob stars against one another as the martial world’s most notorious bandits attempt to steal a shipment of gold that’s guarded by a band of righteous heroes. The government contracts Hu Wei Security and its leader Yang Hu-yun (Sun Chien) to escort 200,000 taels of gold bound for the relief of disaster victims. They’re aided by swordsman Li Qing-ming (Wei Pai), his fiancée Leng Feng (Helen Poon), and the fighting duo known as Short Axe Fang Shi (Chiang Sheng) and Long Axe Yan Jiu (Sun Shu-pei). Word quickly arrives that the notorious bandits of the Deadly Valley are planning to rob the shipment. Along with their use of nefarious traps and poisons, the bandits boast some of the martial world’s most deadly fighters including the Seven Deadly Hooks troupe, Silver Spear (Lu Feng), Iron Armour Wei Lin (Wang Lung-wei), Copper Head (Yang Hsiung), and their near invincible leader Golden Arm Kid (Lo Meng). Despite their combined strength, the escorts are outmatched by the treachery and fighting skills of the bandits. They only manage to hold on to the gold after a clever and skilled drunken hero known as Hai Tao (Philip Kwok), the Sheriff with a Thousand Faces steps in to aid them. As casualties mount on both sides, Hai Tao arranges a final duel with the Golden Arm Kid while a secret villain known as the Iron Feet Lad plots to take advantage of the outcome and grab the gold for himself. This film represents director Chang Cheh and his Venoms Mob in all their outrageous glory. The gaudy costumes, excessive bloodshed, manly heroics, and skillful fighting action are proof positive. The film is also a throwback to the vintage wuxia actioners of Shanghai and Hong Kong’s early Cantonese film era. What’s different, apart from the vivid violence, is the advanced fight choreography that shows off the varied skills of the Venoms Mob. While the film doesn’t represent their best fighting form which tends to give way to gimmicks, it’s still highlighted by impressive bouts setting Lu Feng against Chiang Sheng and Lo Meng against Philip Kwok.

THE KID WITH THE GOLDEN ARM is available on DVD from Media Blasters’ Tokyo Shock label.

Revised on January 23, 2012

REVIEW: Heroes Two (1974)

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

Director Chang Cheh begins his Shaolin Cycle with this solid kung fu actioner about a band of fighting Ming Dynasty loyalists branded as enemies of the state and driven underground following the burning of the Shaolin Temple by Qing Dynasty officials. Due to a misunderstanding, Shaolin kung fu prodigy Fong Sai-yuk (Alexander Fu Sheng) is duped into helping Qing agents to capture leading Shaolin rebel Hung Hei-gun (Chen Kuan-tai). Upon discovering his mistake, Sai-yuk teams up with the remaining rebels to free Hei-gun before his planned execution. Plotting to stop them is General Che Kang (Zhu Mu), a formidable Tibetan kung fu master who commands an army of fighters including four deadly Tibetan llamas. This is the first production of Chang’s Film Company, a production house Chang set up in Taiwan. Shaw Brothers brought it to theaters alongside Chang’s short film THREE WAYS OF HUNG FIST which features the same leads in a martial arts demonstration. While not as epic, gruesome or outlandish as many of Chang’s other martial arts offerings, the film possesses high-grade fight choreography courtesy of Hong Kong’s leading action directors of the day, Lau Kar-leung and Tang Chia. Of note, the film (and its companion short) introduced audiences to the Hung Fist style of kung fu and directly led to the explosive popularity of “shapes” fighting that dominated martial arts movies in Hong Kong for the next decade. Leads Chen Kuan-tai and Fu Sheng stand out with precise and powerful screen fighting execution adapted from real Hung Fist forms. Fu Sheng, in his debut, dominates the screen with a killer combination of rascally charm, boundless energy and dynamic fighting ability. Bruce Tang and Wong Ching provide quality supporting roles as fighters on opposite sides of the conflict. On the downside, the film is hampered by lackluster venues, a slow-moving plot, a forgettable lead villain, and too much repetition in the film’s overlong, yet well-arranged final fight.

HEROES TWO is available on DVD from Crash Cinema’s Tokyo Shock label.

Revised on January 23, 2012.

REVIEW: Shaolin Rescuers (1979)

Sunday, January 22nd, 2012

Writer-director Chang Cheh revisits southern Shaolin folklore in this Qing-era kung fu comedy featuring the Venoms Mob, Shaw Brothers leading man Jason Pai Piao as folk hero Hung Hei-gun and in a guest cameo, Cantonese martial arts film legend Walter Tso. Taking cue from the success of Jackie Chan’s DRUNKEN MASTER, Chang puts a light-hearted spin on the Ming vs. Qing theme with Philip Kwok and Lo Meng starring as mischievous pals languishing in thankless, low-paying jobs while dreaming of making a name for themselves as patriotic martial heroes. After clowning with each other while causing their employers constant grief, they get their chance when Shaolin rebel Hung Hei-gun shows up wounded and on the run from Qing General Gao Jinzhong (Lu Feng). Joined by a high-kicking master of the Plum Lotus pile (played by Sun Chien) and another Shaolin rebel (Chiang Sheng), the two would-be heroes find themselves cornered by Qing forces and forced to fight Gao and four of his deadliest fighting men in order to save Hung and the Ming resistance. This is a lesser film for Chang and the Venoms Mob that lacks the engaging storytelling and quantity of high-grade fight work that superior films like THE FIVE VENOMS and CRIPPLED AVENGERS do. Efforts to tie the film in to Chang’s earlier Shaolin Cycle epics are hindered by the film’s lower budget, a shoddy script and the presence of several little-known actors of modest fighting skill in high-profile supporting and throwaway roles. What should make the film enjoyable for Venoms Mob and avid genre fans is the enjoyable onscreen chemistry between Kwok and Lo Meng, as well as their frequent sparring. Fight work throughout is solid but too conventional at times, especially in scenes that attempt to kindle the comical magic that Jackie Chan had already mastered in his films. The exception is the second half of the final fight where co-action director Lu Feng gets his hands on a guan dao and unleashes a jaw-dropping display of weapons handling mastery while taking on Kwok, Lo Meng, Chiang Sheng, and Pai Piao all at the same time.

SHAOLIN RESCUERS is available on DVD from FUNimation with English (stereo) and Mandarin (mono) language tracks and optional English subtitles.

Revised on January 22, 2012

Donnie Yen, Vincent Zhao in ‘Special Identity’

Friday, January 20th, 2012

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Chinese media reports that a press conference was held yesterday in Beijing to announce Donnie Yen’s next film project, SPECIAL IDENTITY (特殊身份), a contemporary action film to be directed by Clarence Fok Yiu-leung (NAKED KILLER, 1992). Yen will handle the action choreography. The great news for fans is that he’ll be going up against Vincent Zhao Wenzhuo, star of TRUE LEGEND (2010) and a former Chinese wushu champion. At the press events, Yen promised, “Vincent and I will do some great action scenes,” with Zhao adding, ”Also expect lots of breathtaking car-racing scenes.”

According to DonnieYen.us, SPECIAL IDENTITY may be the same project as the rumored ULTIMATE CODEBREAK, which was to be produced by Jackie Chan and feature a small cameo by Chan. In any case, it will be exciting to see Yen back in a modern-day actioner.

Watch the press conference (in Chinese) here.

 

REVIEW: Sanshiro Sugata, Part 2 (1945)

Wednesday, January 18th, 2012

Akira Kurosawa returns to the martial arts stage with this sequel to his 1943 film with elements that can be said to be an influence on some of today’s martial arts films.

In 1887 Yokohama, a young rickshaw driver is assaulted by an American sailor. Coming to the rescue is legendary judoka Sanshiro Sugata (Susumu Fujita). Since he has defeated his archrival two years ago, Sanshiro has been a popular name all over Japan. His actions towards the sailor have attracted the attention of the U.S. Embassy. The Embassy wishes to introduce Western boxing to Japan. Boxing champion William Lister (Roy James) wishes to compete in a fight against Sugata. Sugata, however, refuses, mainly due to the rules of the Shudokan. He is even more shocked to learn that jujitsu expert Kahei Sekine (Kazu Hikari) will fight Lister for both money and to bring the glory of jujitsu back.

Sekine’s action brings Sugata back to the Shudokan, where he meets his master Shogoro Yano (Denjiro Okochi). Sugata thinks he fights to bring the spirit of judo and realizes he crushes his opponents’ dreams. Yano, on the other hand, has different thoughts. He feels that fighting is not for seeing which style is better, but to ensure the survival of the Japanese martial arts.

However, as if the Western influence in Japan wasn’t bad enough for Sugata, things are about to get worse. At the Shudokan, two mysterious men appear. They turn to be Tesshin (Ryunosuke Tsukigata) and Genzaburo Higaki (Akitake Kono), the younger brothers of Sugata’s arch-nemesis Gennosuke Higaki. The Higaki brothers have mastered the art of karate and plan to seek revenge for their brother’s defeat. However, at first Sugata refuses to fight. That is, until the Higaki brothers begin to assault and injure various members of the Shudokan, Sugata decides he must end it once and for all.

Legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa had a hit film with his original SANSHIRO SUGATA (1943). The film despite having wartime censorship contained no pro-Japanese propaganda and turned out to be a classic film about the spiritual path of a judoka. When he was approached to do this sequel, he was unsure until Toho pushed for it. The end result is a pretty good film that has themes that can influence some of the current martial arts films of today.

The typical theme of revenge plays out for most of the film. While the Higaki brothers seek revenge against the titular Sugata for their brother’s upsetting loss, it is Sugata who ultimately must seek revenge when his students become victims of the karateka brothers. However, a plot twist arrives in the film as Ryunosuke Tsugikata plays both the hot-headed Tesshin and the defeated Gennosuke, who has found it in his heart to forgive Sugata and understand why he defeated him two years ago. Gennosuke even goes as far as giving Sugata the secret to his family’s form of karate. However, old wounds almost open when Gennosuke sees Miss Sayo, whom he fell for but lost her heart to Sugata.

Sugata’s conflict in life not only pertains to the revenge-seeking karatekas, but that of Western influence making its way to Japan. With the U.S. Embassy planning to introduce Western boxing to Japan, Kurosawa wrote the screenplay to bring forth perhaps a message for the survival of Japanese martial arts and goes as far as displaying Americans as “lovers of violence” as they constantly cheer for the boxing champion of the film. In a bold scene, Sugata walks towards a double door with two U.S. flags as he sees jujitsu expert Sekine beaten at the hands of the American boxer. The use of Western influence as an adversary in Asia can be later seen in films like ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA (1991), FEARLESS (2006), and more recently, IP MAN 2 (2010).

The action sequences are well done for its era once again. Lead actor Susumu Fujita is truly at the top of his game as the titular judoka. Playing a jujitsu expert in the original, Ryunosuke Tsukigata returns as a karateka and once again, their climatic battle is top notch. Instead of a wind-filled field, Fujita and Tsukigata duke it out in the snow filled mountainous area of a forest. The two contrasting styles are well planned by a group of four martial artists who served as the film’s action instructors. There is even Western boxing, courtesy of Middle Eastern-born actor Roy James, who plays boxing champion Lister. Unlike films like ROCKY (1976) and RAGING BULL (1980), James resorts to using fast repetitive body shots rather than hit the head as much.

SANSHIRO SUGATA, PART 2 is truly a wonderful sequel to a classic martial arts film. It could be said to be a prototype due to its depiction of Western influence as more of a negative rather than a positive. With the addition of some shocking twists, it truly ranks as good as its predecessor.

REVIEW: Woman Knight of Mirror Lake, The (2011)

Thursday, January 12th, 2012

With the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of China has come a slew of historical films celebrating the event. Martial arts filmmakers, quick to jump on every trend, have weighed in as well, from Donnie Yen in the fictional tale of a thwarted assassination attempt on Dr. Sun Yat-sen (BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS) to Jackie Chan’s recent (non-kung fu) epic 1911, based on the life of revolutionary Huang Ying. Now comes THE WOMAN KNIGHT OF MIRROR LAKE, Herman Yau’s retelling of the story of Qiu Jin, one of China’s first feminists and a martyr to the anti-Qing cause.

Qiu was born to a wealthy family in 1875 and grew up in Shaoxing, where she received an education both literary and martial – definitely not the norm for girls of her era and class. Despite an unhappy marriage, she made a name for herself as a poet and patriot.  In 1904, she left her family and went to Japan to obtain the Western-style education that was more readily available there. While in Japan, she became ever more outspoken in her support of women’s rights and democracy. Upon her return to China in 1906, she founded a feminist magazine and joined forces with her cousin Xu Xilin, who was active in the movement to overthrow the Qing dynasty. She became the head of the Datung military school (and was instrumental in recruiting many young women to the school, which supported the revolution’s ideals). On July 6 1907, Xu and his followers assassinated the governor of Anhui province, and he was tortured and executed after a four hour battle with government troops. On July 12, the Qing army showed up at the Datung school and arrested Qiu Jin. (Evidently she had been warned of their arrival, but stayed behind to destroy records of rebel activity.) She was arrested and executed on July 15, 1907, at the age of 32.

While feminism and kung fu may seem an uneasy mix, Yau mostly pulls it off. WOMAN KNIGHT is a gorgeous film, with an exceptional cast. Huang Yi plays Qiu Jin, and Dennis To Yu-hang, who has become one of my favorite new kung fu artists, is Xu. Xiong Xin-xin (aka Hung Yan-yan) once again plays an outstanding villain – why isn’t this guy getting more love? – and Anthony Wong and Lam Suet are the Qing officials charged with investigating Qiu’s case. Tony Leung Siu-hung, another longtime veteran of the Hong Kong kung fu scene – he played one of the Foshan masters in IP MAN and also assisted Sammo Hung with the choreography of that film – is the action director of WOMAN KNIGHT, and his work is crisp and grounded, especially in the explosive one-on-one battles that erupt within the crowd scenes. And did you know that he is Bruce Leung’s younger brother? I did not, until I researched this post. Leung, Yau, and To collaborated previously on the Ip Man prequel THE LEGEND IS BORN, another relatively low-profile but highly rewarding action film of recent years.

My biggest complaint about this film is that the structure can make the story a bit hard to follow, especially for those with no prior knowledge of Qiu Jin’s life. After a brief intro of grieving women, we see flashes of Xu’s capture during the credits, followed by his interrogation. Next comes the attack on Datung school, with an impressively staged fight between Huang and Xiong, as she tries to burn the school records. She’s obviously no match for him on a physical level, which works in the context of the story, but she’s smart and persistent. Then the flashbacks to her childhood, marriage, and Japanese sojourn come interspersed with scenes of her torture and interrogation, overseen by the secretly sympathetic Wong. It would all come across as a typically reverential history lesson about a revolutionary icon, except for the kung fu battles that punctuate certain scenes. See Qiu Jin battle soldiers in the road when her husband’s career takes him to Beijing, and watch her take down the Japanese police who dare to interrupt a student protest! But the hands-down overall best fight scene is the seven minute long assassination-and-aftermath in Anhui, with Dennis To going up against Xiong Xin-xin with fist, sword, and bayonet (check it out, double bayonets!).

Yau has really stepped up his game here, in terms of production values. THE WOMAN KNIGHT OF MIRROR LAKE is sumptuous-looking, with fluid camera work that takes us into the thick of the battles. I particularly liked a crane shot during the first fight scene, that begins high above the courtyard of the Datung school, swoops down among the knots of brawling students and soldiers, and finally back through an open doorway into the study where Qiu and the official played by Xiong are engaged in an increasingly desperate struggle. Feminism and kung fu – who would have thought that a Hong Kong filmmaker could bring it off with sensitivity and flair? I recommend  THE WOMAN KNIGHT OF MIRROR LAKE if you like a little substance with your ‘fu.

 

 

REVIEW: Scorpion King 3, The: Battle for Redemption (2012)

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

Actor and martial artist Victor Webster (MUTANT X) takes on the role immortalized by former pro wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in this third installment of the MUMMY spin-off series. This installment features perhaps the most martial arts action of the trilogy thanks in part to protégés of legendary Thai stuntmaster Panna Rittikrai.

Ever since defeating the evil Memnon, the Scorpion King Mathayus had lived a peaceful existence. However, a battle ensued and Mathayus has lost both the kingdom he once protected as well as lost his wife, the sorceress Cassandra. Kidnapped by a group of plunderers, Mathayus manages to escape. However, he has felt regret and sorrow for the actions that cost him practically his entire life. His one hope is to die well as a mercenary.

King Horus (Ron Perlman), one of greatest rulers of the world, asks for Mathayus’ assistance for a threat that can destroy the kingdom. Horus’ brother Talus (Billy Zane) wants possession of the Book of the Dead, an ancient artifact that can conjure up warriors from the past, in an effort to claim what he feels belongs to him. Mathayus must team up with a lowly Viking warrior, Olaf (Bostin Christopher) to head to King Ramusan (Temeura Morrison), who holds possession of the Book of the Dead for safekeeping.

When Mathayus and Olaf successfully and discreetly assist Ramusan’s army in a battle against Talus’ army, Mathayus is shocked to learn that Ramusan no longer has gold, but makes a proposition. Ramusan’s daughter Silda (Krystal Vee) has been kidnapped by Talus in hopes of making her his bride. If Mathayus rescues Silda, he will be allowed to marry her in hopes to unite the kingdoms and make the world safe again. Mathayus agrees and thus, begins a new quest which may bring Mathayus a sense of redemption that he will need due to his feeling guilty about his past.

Originally thought to be another prequel like its predecessor, RISE OF A WARRIOR (2006), this is actually a sequel to the 2002 film that starred Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in the role he reprised in the sequel THE MUMMY RETURNS (2001). As Johnson went on to bigger and better things, a new replacement was needed to carry the mantle of Mathayus, the Akkadian warrior who became the Scorpion King. After former Power Ranger actor Michael Copon played a young Mathayus in RISE OF A WARRIOR, Victor Webster was chosen to play the elder Mathayus in this film.

Webster handles the role pretty well to be quite honest. Now sporting a massive beard, Webster combines Johnson’s comic taunts with a sense of guiltiness in the character of Mathayus. This is due to the fact that he had lost everything dear to him. His on-screen chemistry with sidekick Olaf, played by Bostin Christopher, is exactly the type of buddy relation expected in this genre of action film. Ron Perlman makes the most of his limited screen time as King Horus as does Temuera Morrison (who worked with this film’s director Roel Reine previously on THE MARINE 2 (2009)), who plays King Ramusan.

When it comes to Billy Zane’s performance as the villain Talus, one can only love or hate him. Talus tends to be a smart aleck at times and plays more like a laughable villain as opposed to Memnon (the original film’s antagonist) or Sargon (the prequel’s antagonist). While Memnon and Sargon tend to be more seriously-minded villains, Talus brings more sarcasm and one of the greatest corny lines of all time.

Filmed in Thailand, this installment is perhaps the most martial arts heavy of the trilogy. The stunts and fights were coordinated by Kawee “Seng” Sirikanerut and Supoj “Jim” Khaowwong. Some great highlights come from the ninja group known as the Cobra Gang, who take it upon themselves to be at first possible rivals of Mathayus only to become their allies. They even act as mentors as sorts to Mathayus and Olaf. Members of the Cobra Gang themselves are portrayed by stars of the 2010 Thai action thriller BANGKOK KNOCKOUT as they kick and flip their way in their action scenes. Reine even did his own cinematography and did a great steadicam angle of Mathayus taking on various members of the Cobra Gang.

Aside from Zane’s laughable villain, two main antagonists were wasted in the film. When Talus does find the book and summon three ghostly warriors, they include MMA champion Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson as an African ghost named Zulu Kondo. He was pretty much wasted much like Bob Sapp was in ELEKTRA (2005). The other is Agromael, a Shao-Kahn lookalike played by former pro wrestler Dave Bautista. Bautista, who proves he is quick with his hands, only engages in one good short fight and then resorts to being Olaf’s avdersary and uses an axe-like weapon.

Despite its flaws, THE SCORPION KING 3: BATTLE FOR REDEMPTION, is not a bad installment. Victor Webster makes a suitable replacement as Mathayus and the action is not too bad. If you can get past Billy Zane’s laughable villain, then it is pretty decent for a straight to DVD release. Worth at least a rental, but only if you liked the other installments.

Gary Daniels Interview

Monday, January 9th, 2012

To celebrate the release of THE LEGEND OF BRUCE LEE on DVD this week, I had the chance to speak with one of its guest stars – Gary Daniels.  Being a massive Gary Daniels fan and liking pretty much every film he’s ever been in, I jumped at the chance to interview one of my film heroes. We spoke for a good 45 minutes and it felt less like a formal interview and more an informal chat – he was clearly very dedicated to and enthusiastic about his craft, and it’s only made me like him more.  Read all about it below…

Unfortunately, due to the bad telephone line (England to Thailand!) the recording was a dreadful mess of crackles and white-noise, so as a result, I regrettably won’t be able to give you an exact transcript of the whole interview.

The interview didn’t get off to a good start – I called the number, waited for the rings, and prepared myself for the interview;

“Hello?”

“Hi, is that Gary Daniels?”

“Mr Daniels?”

“Yes, hi, I’m Gary from Kungfucinema.”

“Mr Daniels?”

“Yes, I’ve called for the interview.”

“You need a car to the airport?”

“Sorry, no, I’m here to speak to Gary Daniels for the interview – we scheduled it for this morning.”

“We can get Mr Daniels from the airport?  Or do you need to go to the airport?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t need to go to the airport.  Is Mr Daniels at the airport?”

“We can take you to the airport.”

“Are you Mr Daniel’s assistant?”

“Do you need a taxi or not?”

“No I don’t, I want to speak to Gary Daniels.”

“I don’t understand, you can call us back and leave a message with what you want, bye.”

“Erm, bye.”

(It dawns on me)

WELL THAT WAS CLEARLY A THAI TAXI COMPANY AND NOTHING TO DO WITH GARY DANIELS. BRILLIANT.

So we scheduled it for another date.  The other date went much better…

This time, (Mr) Gary Daniels picked up, and he wasn’t at the airport.  He greeted me warmly, and we began the interview – I asked him what he was up to at that exact moment.

“I’m in Bangkok, I’ve just wrapped on a film called A STRANGER IN PARADISE – it’s an action thriller with a really great script”.  It seems he’s got a fair few films on at the moment, what with the imdb listing no less than seven films coming up in 2012.  But seeing as THE LEGEND OF BRUCE LEE is being released this week, I felt I’d find out a bit more about that one.

The film is actually an edited-down version of the 2008 Chinese 50-part television series, here chopped and cut-up to form a 3-hour epic that follows numerous events in Bruce Lee’s life.  Although as Gary Daniels goes on to mention regarding his role – it’s not entirely based on fact;

“It’s a small part, and also not a real-life person” he recalls, he plays a rival Western fighter with a different fighting style to Bruce Lee – he sums it up with a laugh, “Basically, I get to beat up Bruce Lee!”

The film (and television series) also plays host to a number of other famous martial arts actors, including Michael Jai White, Mark Dacascos, Ray Park and Kwok-Kwan Chan (the Lee-alike goalie in SHAOLIN SOCCER) as Bruce himself.  I asked Gary what it was like working with so many other great martial artists;

“I didn’t actually meet them while filming” he goes on to say, pointing out that he was only on set for his scenes, although he did mention that he had been great friends with Mark Dacascos for years.  It’s great to imagine two of your film heroes hanging out together isn’t it?

Aside from this film, Gary Daniels has worked with an impressively vast amount of martial arts stars throughout his career – I asked him who had made the biggest impact and who he enjoyed working with the most.  His answer was perhaps a given; “Jackie Chan was fantastic.”  Daniels and Jackie appeared together in a goofy fight scene from 1993’s CITY HUNTER – with Daniels playing an unofficial version of Ken from the STREETFIGHTER video games.  It’s an under cranked (and quite silly) fantasy bout, but it gained Daniels a widespread recognition.

I was also pleased to hear Daniels single out Isaac Florentine as a director he enjoyed working with – on the film COLD HARVEST, a movie which contains in my opinion, some of Daniels’ best fight sequences.  I enjoyed hearing this praise as it’s always refreshing to discover that some of the under-appreciated bastions of your favourite genres respect each other.  On the mainstream end of the appreciation spectrum, talk (inevitably) soon turned to Sylvester Stallone and Daniel’s role in THE EXPENDABLES – surely a career highlight for the British bruiser?

“It was only meant to be a small part – they wanted someone to play a bad guy without the need for stunt doubles,” but it soon progressed into a larger part, “I met with Stallone and he gave me more scenes.”  It seems the Daniels charisma made its mark and thus, ‘The Brit’ was born, and his many fans rejoiced.

However, it was a minor part, and not one which was particularly nuanced or complex – something which Gary recognises.  He is wary of typecasting, and talks of an experience where he was cast in a non-martial arts role, but when he turned up to film, things changed; “They said ‘Gary Daniels is here and he’s not fighting?’  So they added rushed fight scenes for the sake of it.”

It was interesting to find that he chooses films more for their scripts, and isn’t necessarily a fan of fighting for no reason, something that was proved when he revealed his personal favourite film of his – “It’s a film called SPOILER – it was a great script and there’s not much action…I’m very proud of it.”  I haven’t yet seen it but the way Daniels talks about it, it’s moved onto my must-see list (shame it’s not available on region 2 DVD).

Then came the big bombshell.  I asked Gary who his favourite up-and-coming martial artists were (I mentioned Scott Adkins as an example);

“You’re probably not going to believe this, but I don’t really like watching martial arts films!…I haven’t seen any of his [Adkins] films – I’ve spoken to him, I gave him advice when he sent me his showreel, but I’m not so much a fan of modern martial arts films.”  He spoke of how he’d rather watch a Tom Cruise film – or a film with an emphasis on script and character, rather than one about people getting punched in the head. This is where we differ, clearly.

He also talked of today’s move away from classic (and real) martial arts to the current trend of flashy flips and kicks, “A lot of these modern guys are just ‘tricking’, I understand the skill involved and appreciate what they do, but it’s not for me.”

Another thing not for him is the shaky-cam, over-zealous editing style that is absolutely everywhere at the moment. I AGREE GARY.  I also agreed with his thoughts on his 2010 flick with Wesley Snipes – GAME OF DEATH – “I was disappointed in that film – the fight scenes didn’t look like I wanted them to.”

I can see why he felt that way, for the fight sequences, choreographed by Simon Rhee (BEST OF THE BEST, SHOWDOWN IN LITTLE TOKYO) were ruined by needless cuts and epileptic flashing lights.  This seemed to be a problem that Daniels had encountered before; his anecdotes regarding his own choreography being ruined just emphasised his stance on this infuriating trend.

Finally, Daniels hinted at a possible big project on the horizon, but unfortunately wouldn’t give away too many details.  NOT FAIR.  Regardless of that tease, it was an absolute pleasure to speak to Gary Daniels, who is genuinely one of my favourite actors – I’ll give anything he’s in a go (and I’ll usually like it).  Just need to get SPOILER watched now.

I’d like to personally thank Gary Daniels for taking time out of his schedule to talk to me – it was great fun.

THE LEGEND OF BRUCE LEE is out now on Region 2 DVD from Revolver Entertainment.

Bob Anderson, Sword Master Extraordinaire, Has Passed Away

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

Former Olympic fencer and fight choreographer Bob Anderson died on Jan. 1 in West Sussex, England, at the age of 89. Mr. Anderson was one of the unsung giants of action film, with a career spanning MASTER OF BALLANTRAE (1953), where he stunt-doubled for Errol Flynn, to Viggo Mortensen’s ALATRISTE (2006), with stops in between for everything from FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963), Stanley Kubrick’s BARRY LYNDON (1975), and HIGHLANDER (1986), to the STAR WARS and LORD OF THE RINGS movies. It was actor Mark Hamill who revealed in an interview in 1983 that Anderson had stepped in to play Darth Vader during swordfighting scenes in the STAR WAR series. “Bob worked so bloody hard that he deserves some recognition,” Hamill explained. Upon hearing of Anderson’s death, director Peter Jackson paid tribute to his frequent collaborator by saying, “Bob was a brilliant swordsman and a gifted teacher; I will remember him as a wonderfully patient man, possessed of a terrific sense of humor. It was a privilege to have known him.”

Bob Anderson began fencing while serving in the British Royal Marines during World War II, and he was a member of the British team in the 1952 Olympics. He went on to coach the British fencing team for many years. After making his mark in the 1953 film with Errol Flynn (literally – he was briefly notorious for stabbing Flynn in the leg during a fencing scene), he became the go-to guy for world-class filmmakers looking for elegantly lethal swordplay. THE PRINCESS BRIDE (1987), THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1993), THE MASK OF ZORRO (1998), PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL (2003) - it’s difficult to come up with a high profile Western film that features terrific sword fights, and not find Bob Anderson involved in some way. He trained eager young fencers and some of Hollywood’s top stars, and he treated everyone the same, holding every one of his students to the same high standards he upheld himself. He will be missed.

Watch Viggo Mortensen and Bob Anderson in this clip from RECLAIMING THE BLADE:

 

Last Shaw Brother Retires at Age 104!

Sunday, January 1st, 2012

Sir Run Run Shaw has announced his retirement from Television Broadcasts Ltd (TVB), the Hong Kong-based entertainment conglomerate he founded over forty years ago. The 104 year old tycoon is one of the few remaining links to the first generation filmmakers of China. The Shaw brothers, including Runje, Runme, and Runde as well as Run Run, have been running production studios pretty much continuously since the mid-1920s, originally in Shanghai and then establishing themselves in the British colony of Hong Kong.  The Shaw Brothers studio in Clearwater Bay supplied an international film market in the 1960s and 70s, and, along with Golden Harvest, is credited with sparking the first wave of worldwide interest in kung fu movies.

My introduction to kung fu films came courtesy of the old Shaw Brothers studio, when I worked as a projectionist in the late 1970s at a theater in Boston’s Chinatown. The Star Cinema was dedicated to Shaw movies, two features each week. It was a true Golden Age, a period that saw the release of classic kung fu epics with stars like Gordon Liu, Alexander Fu Sheng, and the Five Venoms. The older Chang Cheh and Lo Wei films starring Ti Lung, David Chiang, Cheng Pei-pei, Jimmy Wong Yu, and Lo Lieh were still in circulation too, booked as co-features with newer releases by Lau Kar Leung and Sun Chung. The Shaw product of that era was a class act for the most part, but the studio never completely renounced its roots in exploitation film. The amazing longevity of the Shaw dynasty is due in no small part to an uncanny ability to stay on top of trends and give the public what it wants.

For more information about the early years of the Shaw brothers and their films, check out my blog post on the origins of kung fu cinema here.

And as we go into the new year…

Bey Logan reminds me that his kung fu memorabilia site is up and running at REEL EAST where you can pick up posters, T shirts, and more.