Saturday, 30 June 2007

Vengeance (1970)

This is a departure of Chang Cheh's main stable genre of wuxia for his previous 20 years of film making except for only 2 (and none of the 2 are in the same genre as this film).

This is an action flick that's characterised as neither a wuxia nor a kungfu flick that were popularised since Bruce Lee 1st movie in 1971, where martial artists are bare-knuckled boxers rather than sword wielding swordsmen. Most of the fighting in this flick are accomplished with knives and daggers. This film is often viewed as film noir with its bleak situations. But then, most of his previous wuxia flicks are pretty fatalistic, and with a stark ending.

As 1 of the villain is a generalissimo, along with the costume, pins this movie to the Warlords Era (1916 to 1928). Chang Cheh's fave duo David Chiang and Ti Lung are in this, and most of his movies in the late 1960s, and early 1970s.

This can be considered a classic for Chang Cheh as it's being recycled by Chang himself in Boxer from Shantung (1972) the final fighting scene where the heroes in both movies are being ambushed in a restaurant with large number of goons, and the heroes have to fight themslves out of the jam in their white attires, designed to give the drenching blood a good contrast. The ending of both are the same (as films noir demand).

Heads for Sale (1970)

English title: Heads for Sale.
Chinese title: Nuxia Sells Heads.

Heads for Sale (1970)
Another nuxia flick, and its number could only be matched by the inordinate amount of qing-gong (light or leaping) skills and roof hopping appeared in this picture. Qing-gong that were done by wires, as well as trampolines were fully exploited here to keep the audience's eyeballs rolling like watching tennis matches (in tennis, your eyes moves across left and right, while in this movie, your eyes move up and down. In both cases, good exercises for your eyes).

You know this wire-fu, trampoline-fu is new because of the frequent uses. It's like the 1st feature of the 3-D movie where they keep getting their onscreen characters to point their poles (or guns, or any pointy thingy) towards the audience. Why? Because they could do it now.

There were also dismembered body parts, not the least, heads. As you would see in this movie, severed head is very handy as trap to frame some1.

There's also a nice sword fighting scene on a very wobbly wooden suspension bridge that's hung over a chasm with gorgeous landscape. Our heroine falls through and hangs onto the underside of the bridge like gecko. People suffer from vertigo look away now. No, it doesn't look like this was done on a blue screen (may not have invented yet). It looks like a location shoot. Yipe!

Yes, there're a fair share of swordplay in this nuxia flick as well. In terms of actual swordplay, this movies is considerably more substantial than Chang Cheh's wuxia, which tend to very theatrical to look at with its 1-sweep-of-the-blade-to-kill-5-people action that he borrowed from the Japanese Samurai cinema. Nothing wrong with that. Just not the same style as the more 'realistic' sword fights that appear in this film. It's certainly harder and much busier to choreograph.

In terms of pushing technicals in wuxia, this 1 takes the cake.

This film is included in my IMDB movie list.

Lady of Steel (1970)

Lady of Steel (1970)By now, Cheng Pei-pei apparently had a loyal following judging from the number of wuxia flicks she appeared since the seminal Come Drink with Me (1966).

Had no fear, fans of nuxia, even with Chang Cheh's brand of 'big man' wuxia, he didn't replace nuxia, but simply created another style of wuxia - 1 that characterised by such enjoyable thing as cruelty, blood lust, and gore. You could say Chang Cheh's movies are leaned towards the side of exploitative genre.

In this flick, Cheng Pei-pei once again teamed up with Yueh Hua, who played the head of the Beggar's Clan (we all know they're the good guys, right?) . And once again Yueh Hua comes to her help. But this time, they're peers.

Wire-fu had developed further in this film, albeit still in the nascent stage. I believe it started sometimes in the late 1960s (probably 1968-69). Such technical innovations like running on water, leaping onto the roof using qing gong, sticking onto a ceiling like gecko, and standing on a tree branch (à la Crouching Tiger) were eagerly showcased here. This should wow the audience back then.

Audience today shouldn't unrealistically expecting any of the technical effects or stunts in this wuxia to match the same level as any wuxia of today. They should be judged accordingly.
This film is included in my IMDB movie list.

Saturday, 9 June 2007

The Flying Dagger (1969)

The Flying Dagger (1969)The movie started with a rape scene. When I watched this picture the 1st time in the early 1990s, my 1st reaction is that this opening scene reminded me of Japanese samurai movie. It wasn't until later that I realised that this director was heavily influenced by Japanese cinema, which was technically better at the time. He was 1 of the SB director to close the gap between the 2 countries.

This Japanese influence explains the bloody violence in his movies as well as the masculinity, both literally and figuratively speaking.

Comparing to Come Drink with Me (1966) just made a few years back, there was considerable improvements in the fluidity of movements. With the very limited showing of qing-gong to get our martial artists to the rooftops in one leap, it signals the end of the old school wuxia, and that the fly-fu, or wire-fu is about to take off, so to speak.

If you're fans of SB sword play like Come Drink with Me, you would like this more if you don't mind some violence (for this period of time). This one also featured our rising swashbuckling diva Cheng Pei-Pei and Lo Lieh.

Friday, 8 June 2007

Golden Swallow (1968)

金燕子 (1968)

Golden Swallow 1968I mentioned in Come Drink with Me that it was the 1st wuxia with a nuxia. That's only partly true. Although Cheng Pei-pei was indeed played the swashbuckling heroine in that movie, she wasn't completely on her own.

1st, she was in a kind of Hannibal Lector - Agent Starling relationship with Yueh Hua in Come Drink with Me (1966).
2nd, more importantly, the Chinese title for Come Drink with Me is The Great Drunken Swordsman, which is obviously referred to Yueh Hua character.

In short, it wasn't a fully fledged swordswoman's role with Yueh Hua looms over her. This is to be expected. This was SB's way of testing the water for a leading heroine's role in wuxia and to see how the audience responded.

The character she was played in Come Drink with Me is in fact called Golden Swallow. Judging from the title of this movie, the audience obviously wanted to see more of Cheng Pei-pei on her own.

So this was the plan, that this 'sequel' to King Hu would keep the tradition of nuxia going. Well, you must NOT forget that this is a Chang Cheh movie, not King Hu's. Chang's wuxia are about males acting like real men or big men (大丈夫). They don't afraid of death, they're tough, they're more concerned about things like a big ego, being the best, the most invincible. They die standing up. If they get any tougher, their nuts would rust. So move aside Golden Swallow. Let the men take care of business, let the men take care of you. Run along now, little girl.

Chang's movies also about pushing the boundary of respectable gore, ruthlessness, and steely resolve. People are being guillotined in neat, delicious halves like sushi rolls dipped in tomato sauce, and their hearts are carved out in this movie as well. This sets the tone of Chang Cheh, and the audience who has a taste for violence, and some gore (respectable gore, mind you. Nothing as graphic as the theatre lecture on human anatomy for medical students. His wuxia flicks are aimed at the mainstream audience, not gorehounds).

Somebody may say this movie should be called Silver Roc, the role played by Jimmy Wang Yu who overshadows the Golden Swallow with his swooping kill move. Well, as far as the rest of jianghu is concerned, Silver Roc is Golden Swallow.

Everything I said about Chang Cheh isn't a criticism, I enjoy watching his movies, especially the somewhat cheesy background music that he put into his films. I loik it, I loike it a loit.

Any way you look at it, this is an important early film for Chang Cheh to establish his groundwork, his style.

This film is included in my IMDB movie list.

Thursday, 7 June 2007

The One-Armed Swordsman (1967)

獨臂刀 (1967)

This movie is the 1st among many that earned Chang Cheh many wuxia fans, worldwide.

As a kid, I thought Wang Yu ONLY played one role in his acting career - that of one armed swordsman. Kids think the darndest thing.

The One-Armed Swordsman (1967)This wuxia would give rise to numerous incarnations of the One-Armed Swordsman, and Wang Yu played a number of them. In other words, he created the One-Armed Swordsman/Boxer cult single handedly (if you know what I mean).

This story has too many similarities to the central character of 2nd part of the Condors Trilogy, Return of the Condor Heroes, to be coincidental. The Return of the Condor Heroes was serialised in Ming Pao newspaper between 1959 to 1961. Draw your own conclusion.

This is 1 of Chang Cheh's early work, and right off the bat, he had established his style of wuxia to be brutal, and realistic in the sense that he was very generous with blood (had a very close business relationship with the tomato importer) .

His wuxia flicks were very macho. It's about the tough guys. And so the grisly and lurid scenes reinforce that strength of a rock-hard, indestructible heroism. In fact, the swordplay genre got darker from this point onwards. This is what Chang Cheh called  yang gang (剛), or “steely masculinity” ('Yang' as in Taoist Yin Yang).

One can't really accuse SB for not giving women enough leading roles to play or give them low profiles, or indeed not giving the feminist cause a shot in the arm. In fact, since the founding of SB, especially movies in the 1950s and 60s, many high profiled movies had female leading roles from historical dramas like The Magnificent Concubine, Empress Wu, 14 Amazons, etc, to Huangmeixi like Diau Charn, General Hua Mulan, The Female Prince, The Last Woman of Shang, etc, to nuxia (of course, all of these are in this list, and many many aren't). It's not wrong to say that SB actresses are more well known than its male counterparts, at least before the 1970s.

One could say that SB was getting too 'sissy'. Well, Chang Cheh was going to bring that bias of too much Yin, and too little Yang to the balance. To this end, Chang was going to add more Yang, more manliness, more blood and gore, etc to the screen. No more nice female played male scholars who talk softly, but more topless muscular swordsmen who cuts off people body parts.

It's no secret that Quentin Tarantino is a great admirer of Asian cinema, and is greatly influenced by it till this day. And it's likely that Chang Cheh is 1 of the Asian directors in his list of admired directors (maybe he has such a list in IMDB?). I remembered while watching Reservoir Dogs in an art-house cinema in Sydney Australia, audience left the cinema after the bloody scenes. Western audience wasn't accustomed to such blood dripping delights, especially those going to art-house cinemas. Tarantino obviously like the Asian tomato-riched recipe and brought it to the Hollywood for the West to sample. Clearly, that rich tomato sauce isn't for everyone.

This is a milestone swordplay flick.

This film is included in my IMDB movie list.

Dragon Inn (1967)

Chinese title: Dragon Gate Inn (龍門客棧).

This is the next King Hu masterpiece that followed on the success of his seminal work, Come Drink with Me (1966) that he made in SB the year earlier. This one, however, was made in his native Taiwan. This is the 2nd of the 3 impressive wuxia flicks that were delivered by King Hu during this period between 1965 and 1972 that I would like to call the Golden Age of Wuxia Films. And King Hu was big part of the reason, and Chang Cheh was the other.

Bai YingThis was the 1st time - as far as I know - the Chinese audience was introduced to the infamous Eastern Depot ('東廠'. Sometimes it was translated by some historians more literally as 'East Factory'). And certainly not the last. What started as nothing but domestic helpers in the imperial palaces in the previous dynasties, and by the Ming Dynasty, it created a situation where these 'half men' could hold high official positions.

One such good example is Admiral Zheng He, and a bad example is our villain the Head of the Eastern Depot (pronounced 'Dongchang'). The powerful eunuchs led to the eventual downfall of the Ming Dynasty. The Ming's imperial court had only themselves to blame as they brought this on themselves. Ironically, the eunuchs were able to gain such powers precisely because this was the 1st Ming emperor's grand strategy to prevent the loss of his imperial power. I agree that eunuchs weren't the primary cause of Ming's demise, they were the catalysts.

Dragon Inn (1967)Would such castrates whom often portrayed on the screens as effeminate men could achieve great martial arts skills that requires great muscular strength? I dunno. Nobody had done scientific research on them, which should be fascinating.

Who says wuxia flicks aren't informative or educational?

King Hu had developed his strong signatures in this and all his subsequent movies - the frequent uses of low camera angles (to make act(ors/resses) look imposing), the breathtaking natural panorama, suspense, the use of traditional operatic music in the background during fight scenes, especially the wooden clappers.

The qinggong had just leaped into this movie, which wasn't seen in his previous movie Come Drink with Me just a year earlier. This must be 1 of the 1st, if not the 1st wuxia with qinggong being shown in Chollywood (Shanghai wuxia in the 1930s and 40s is an entirely different story). I suspect King Hu is the 1st to introduce qinggong into Chollywood. Although its use was still quite limited here (and pleases the audience who prefers the more realistic, old schooled, down-to-earth action sequences). There were a lot of swords through to the sides to pretend it went through the guts.

Minus the nascent martial arts technical skills, the visuals of this movie is typically impressive, and indeed quite unrivalled by most of today's wuxia films. It wouldn't spawn a remake in 1992 if it wasn't considered a classic worthy of it.

Any which way you want to slice it (with a sword or a dagger), this is a classic with pioneering innovations on par with his previous wuxia masterpiece Come Drink with Me.

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Come Drink with Me (1966)

Chinese title: The Great Drunken Xia (大醉俠).

Not a bad wuxia movie in itself. But what I find interesting because it marks the 4 SB's artistic developments.

Come Drink with Me (1964)1. Sadly, or gladly, the last SB film based in olden days that involved traditional singing - as far as I know. There're only 3 brief singing in this movie. Yueh Hua would have to bury his singing talents after this film. And Huangmexi was on its way out by now.

2. The end of the old school wuxia where swordsmen remain grounded. This may not the the very last movie for old school martial arts, but wire-fu or fly-fu took off not long after this movie in late 1960s.

3. The fight scenes, which used to emulate that of the stage opra, tend to be theatrical rather than realistic. This was the 1st such attempt of realism was applied to wuxia. Of course, it looks clumsy by today's standard after nearly half a century of improvements and refinements. The demise in singing also matched the rise in realism. People sings in opera, but not in real life. And in this movie, The Great Drunken Swordsman sings professionally (our hero's job would be best described as a travelling minstrel or troubadour), rather than as part of the art form like Huangmei Opera films.

4. Most importantly, this is the 1st SB's, therefore HK's, nuxia flick. Nuxia is wuxia featuring a swordswoman as a lead, played by Cheng Pei-pei. It's true that nuxia film existed before this, but this is the most well known and blazed a new path for the HK actresses in wuxia. It started the nuxia trend that lasted for 5 or 6 years.

Come Drink with Me (1964)
Ballet background was 1 of the factors why Cheng Pei-pei got the part, which made her action sequences appeared more like dacing. After all they don't call choreography for martial arts direction for no reason. Since performers don't actually hit one another, they're by definition dancing. Some dances - like break dance, and capoeira - looks more like martial arts than your traditional dances. They blur the line between dancing and martial arts.

Yueh Hua played the role to Cheng Pei-pei in this movie reminiscent of the relationship between Hannibal Lector and Agent Starling in Silence of the Lamb (of course, the Yueh Hua character never eats human liver in this movie no matter how drunk he gets. Chicken liver is another matter). It's the way a master, poses as a mysterious figure, guides a female student from a distance and behind the scene. It isn't a formal mentor-student relationship.

It's no secret that Ang Lee asked her to play the role of Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger as it's a movie that has a feminist message.

This is a landmark picture in more ways than 1. And made King Hu known to the international audience.

This film is included in my IMDB movie list.

Monday, 4 June 2007

The Story of Sue San (1964)

Betty Loh Ti and Zhao LeiAs this is the early 1960s, nobody, not even King Hu could escape from making Huangmei Opera for SB. To be fair, this is his 2nd film, and the 1st 4 films he made (are all SB productions) were all in different genres as he still tried to find out what suited him best, I imagine. And probably he hadn't the power or the confidence to decide what kind of films he wanted to make, anyway.

But after his 4th feature, his seminal work Come drink with Me, all his subsequent works were costume/period pieces, with wuxia being the genre he is best remembered for, Come Drink With Me (1966), Dragon Inn (1967), A Touch Of Zen (1971).

Actually, both The Love Eterne (1964) and this film were directed by Li Han-Hsiang (the pioneer of Huangmeixi) with King Hu worked as deputy director (you could say Li was King's mentor). At the end, The Love Eterne (1964) was credited to Li while this film was credited to King.

Also King had an keen interest in Chinese opera, so this Huangmei opera shouldn't come as a surprise. Indeed many of his later wuxia has roots in Chinese opera. The Drunken Beggar or Minstrel story  in Come Drink with Me sourced from his childhood opera that he remembered. And in many sword fighting scene, Beijing opera musics that plays during their fight scenes are usually heard in King Hu's movies.

This movie has an atypical ending for Chinese movies at this period, especially Huangmeixi - an unbelievable happy ending !!!

Sunday, 3 June 2007

The Love Eterne (1963)

 Chinese title: Liang Shanbo & Zhu Yingtai or Liang Shan Bo and Zhu Ying Tai.

The Love Eterne (1963)
This is another Huangmexi directed by Li Han Hsiang. When people heard this name, they may say, "Isn't he the director who made a few erotica in his day?" Not really. He directed A LOT of erotica or Fengyue  genre films for SB in the mid 1960s thru to 1980s, and some were quite classy. He's thus the innovator of  2 unique Chinese cultural art forms in SB. Not to mentioned that through his many films, he had created more legends and award winning stars of its days than any directors in SB. These include Asian Movie Queen Linda Lin Dai, to the multi-awarded Ivy Ling Po, and last but not least, the screen legend Li Li-Hua.

This association is unfortunate because he directed many fine Huangmeixi in the 1950s thru to mid 1960s. Some of the best Huangmeixi were his handy works. In fact, he pioneered putting Huangmei opera in SB (or indeed in cinema). He also made quite a number of memorable period costume dramas as well. This movie is in fact considered by many the best Huangmeixi ever produced by SB. Huangmeixi declined from here in term of number made. By late 1960s, it was all over as the popularity of wuxia had superseded it.

Well, when Huangmeixi was fell out of favours, and its number dropped significantly, I guess SB studio handed him productions of skin flick to keep his talents occupied.

The Love Eterne (1963)
Betty Loh Ti and Ivy Ling Po
Most people called this story the Chinese Romeo and Juliet because of it's a tragedy about the star-crossed lovers. I think it's 2 stories rolled into 1. The 1st is Yentl (1983) and the 2nd is Romeo and Juliet.

Yentl is a Jewish girl who disguises herself as a boy to enter religious training. And Zhu Yingtai is a Chinese girl disguises herself as a boy to enter school.

Plots in Huangmeixi tends to be simpler so to have our focus on the singing rather than on the story. The singing are done by the actors as well as by background chorus to provide background info. The English subs I got is quite good. Most SB's English subs are quite good in general.

There's very light make-up as well, unlike the painted masks as seen on Beijing Opera. Everything is light-weight from costume, singing and make-up, which makes it easy to access. This is the idea as Huangmei was evolved for the poor rural folks in mind.

There's some interesting notes about gender bending. We have an actress who played a female (Zhu Yingtai) who disguises as a male. And then we also have another actress who played a male (Liang Shanbo) in this Huangmei Opera. While in Beijing Opera, both female and male roles were played by males (at least in the olden days).

I don't know if this tradition of actress playing a (male) scholar starting from this movie. But it's often a tradition of same sex performers playing dual sex in various forms of Chinese operas. This movie propelled Ivy Ling into stardom of cross gender artist. She had since played quite a number of male (scholar or not) parts since. The most notable ones are Lady General Hua Mulan (1964), Grand Constitution (1965) and Three Smiles (1969). Regardless, she was the most celebrated cross-sex performer in SB. No, in HK. No, in the world (at least in terms of number of movies she played in).

Lang Shanbo and Zhu Zingtai

In The Enchanting Ghost (1970), a fantasy flick produced by SB, the (male) scholar was also played by an actress other than Ivy Ling. I kept expecting that they would suddenly burst into Huangmei song, but they never did as SB had stopped making Huangmeixi by then.

Ivy Ling won an award for her acting in this movie. The only problem was - should she receive a Best Actor or Best Actress Award? They had to invent a “Best Acting Award in a Special Category” awards at the 2nd Golden Horse Film Festival in Taiwan, 1963 to get them out of that jam. She also walked away with the Best Actress award as well.

This tragedy play has a strong feminist stance. As strong as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon that was made some nearly 38 years later. And using actresses only to play roles of both genders reinforces that message. Because of this, it came as no surprise that this is the movie Ang Lee chose to watch for the preparation for the making of Crouching Tiger.

The image of students swirling their heads while studying the Confucian classics stayed with me for life since I watched it some 30 odds years ago. The debate between Liang and Zhu about female roles throughout history reinforces the feminist slant in this movie.

I also discovered that Ivy Ling could really know how to twirl her fan around her nimble fingers, keep your eyes peel for the evidence at 1:04:55 into the movie. The 1st 1.5 hours is delightful. The last 0.5 hour delivers the tragic end.

This is a milestone picture in gender bending, and feminist stance.

This film is included in my IMDB movie list.

Fun Facts:
Jackie Chan played an (uncredited) extra in this film. See if you can spot him.

Empress Wu (1963)

Empress Wu (1963)There's absolutely no doubt that this film rode on the success of The Magnificent Concubine (1962) . Same 2 main leads(Li Li-Hua, Zhao Lei), same director (Li Han-Hsiang), same genre (historical epic costume drama with female lead) nad same cinematographer (Tadashi Nishimoto). Not to mention Li lihua's husband in real life, Yen Chun, an actor-director, also appeared in both films. And like its predecessor, it should be point out that this film isn't a Huangmeixi as this genre would typically be during this period.

Empress Wu of the Tang Dynasty was the ONLY Empress regnant in Chinese history while Cixi of the Qing Dynasty was only an Empress Dowager. In other words, Empress Wu ruled under her own Zhou Dynasty. In that time when only men could rule, you could imagine the number of powerful officials and aristocrats who proclaimed her illegitimacy because she was a woman or at least used it as a (t)reason to overthrow her. She was pretty busy fending off one usurper after another. And this movie shows those attempts, and they toppled like dominos. Both well known actor-directors Lo Wei and King Hu played the usurpers.

Li Li-Hua was also unique as the only actress went to Hollywood to make The China Doll (1958) in that period.

A woman with such power and status was unquestionably unheard of during the Tang Dynasty in China, or indeed the world. But women with high authority making movies about women of high status in the SB Empire was quite common . During the 1950s and 1960s, it was actresses, not actors, who ruled SB. Mona Fong or Lady Shaw is a 2nd wife of Run Run Shaw, and considered his right hand woman. She produced hundred of movies in SB, and  is currently the Deputy Chairman and General Manager of SB and TVB.

Saturday, 2 June 2007

Madam White Snake (1962)

English title: Madam White Snake.
Chinese title: Legend of the White Snake.

This one, like many SB's costume dramas in the 1950s, were done in the Huangmei Opera (or Huangmeixi).

SB had link - in various configurations - as far back as 1955 when SB co-produced with Japan's Daiei Studios.

The Magnificent Concubine (1962)

Chinese title: Yang Kwei Fei.

This is historical costune drama based on the life of Yang Kwei-Fei (Yang Guifei). She's 1 of 4 Chinese Beauty (Diau Charn is the other, which wa made by SB in 1958).

This is NOT a huangmeixi. I mention this because at this time, there were many Huangmei Operas made, especially in the historical drama genre, and were usually directed by Li Han-Hsian. This 1 is spot on both counts.
Magnificent Concubine (1962)There're some singing in this film, only 3 songs in fact, and they were done as Lady Yang to entertain the Emperor (you can't really completely escape singing in SB films before mid 1960s).

Just about every Chinese would have heard of Lady Yang. Any foreigner who had been to Xi'an would likely to have heard of her. And may even had watched the stage performance of the Song of Everlasting Sorrow (長恨歌) that depicted the Emperor's love and grief for Lady Yang. Song of Everlasting Sorrow is a long poem memorised by Chinese school children (my father-in-law is able to recite this very long poem that he learnt in his school days from some 60 odd years ago from start to finish. I manage to retain only 4 lines having learned it 30 years ago).

The other non-Chinese who are very familiar with her is Japanese. So much so that it was the Japanese who beat the Chinese to immortalise her on the silver screen in the production of Princess Yang Kwei-Fei, which was made in 1955. Japanese has long a love affair with Lady Yang, and many noh plays had been based on her story. It was actually a co-production between SB and Daiei.  But it was essentially a Japanese project.

As this film was made by Li Han-Hsian, audience can expect an impressive production. Li also directed Diau Charn 4 years earlier. I could see great improvements on the verisimilitude of the backdrop, and set design.

I'm guessing here, but judging from what I had seen, Shawscope had not been introduced in this film.

This is 1 of the few early SB films that won an award at the Cannes.