Nine months before Shaw Brothers released Jimmy Wang Yu’s groundbreaking kung fu classic THE CHINESE BOXER, rival studio Cathay unleashed the first real example of second generation kung fu moviemaking in Hong Kong and Taiwan. FROM THE HIGHWAY is a beautifully shot Taiwanese production with impressive period detail, sets and location shoots that earned director Chang Tseng-chai a Golden Horse Award. The film concerns the efforts of an isolated village in early Republican-era China to defend itself from a gang of marauding bandits led by the fierce Iron Head Xu Kuen (Tsui Fu-sheng). Several bandits manage to infiltrate the heavily fortified town by posing as herbal salesmen in a plot to kidnap and ransom the town’s leader. They’re stopped by He Tien (Peter Yeung), a traveling martial artist intent on killing Xu Kuen to avenge the death of his master. Another bandit nabs the village leader’s son and He Tien sets out to rescue him as Xu Kuen leads an assault on the village. He Tien recovers the child and races back to confront the bandit leader before the entire village is sacked. Visually, the film owes much to King Hu’s stylish treatment of the wuxia genre in DRAGON INN. Likewise, period detail and acting from lesser known Taiwanese talents are well above Shaw Brothers standards. The bandits’ siege of the village is a highlight of the film with period action bolstered by charging horsemen, cannon fire, explosions, gunplay, and vicious scenes of murderous pillaging. In contrast, limited fighting action ranges from refreshingly grounded and realistic during one particular match between two villagers to chaotically staged superheroics. The latter example dominates most of the action with frustratingly tight camera shots, excessive jump cuts, highly exaggerated abilities, and very little of the back and forth sparring that generally defines kung fu movie action. Though better staged, THE CHINESE BOXER essentially did the same thing with its action and it wasn’t until Bruce Lee came along in 1971 that Hong Kong filmmakers started taking fight choreography in kung fu movies seriously. Still, this is an interesting film that shows how the kung fu genre began its evolution beyond the old fashioned black and white Cantonese films of the 1950s and ’60s.
Cathay • Chang Tseng-chai • From the Highway (1970)