Friday, May 27, 2016

The Chinese Boxer (1970) review


 
THE CHINESE BOXER 1970 aka HAMMER OF GOD

Wang Yu (Lei Ming), Wang Ping (Li Hsiao-hung), Chao Hsiung (Tiao Erh), Lo Lieh (Kitashima), Chen Sing (Ishihara), Wang Chung (Tanaka), Fang Mien (Li Chun-Hai), Cheng Lei (Cheung Da Leung), Kang Hua (Lemura), Wong Ching (Kume)

Directed by Jimmy Wang Yu

The Short Version: Cult icon Wang Yu lays down the Hammer of God (the film's US title) on Okinawan Karate experts led by Lo Lieh, Mr. Five Fingers of Death, in this fist and kick fan favorite set in the 1930s. For the first time, Wang Yu, famous for THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967), writes and directs himself chopping down the opposition; but not with swords, but with his hands--both of them--turned into lethal slabs of granite after arduously painful training. One blow means instant death to countless extras before a final, blood-soaked duel in the snow. The Wuxia connection is visible via some modest wirework; only this time, when people are seen flying through the air it's not of their own volition. At one point wearing a surgical mask and gloves to hide both his identity and burn scars on his hands, Wang Yu is essentially Dr. Kung Fu--making house calls and performing open heart surgery on scores of bad guys. The first pure martial arts movie where combatants bloody each other up with their fists and feet.


Tiao Erh returns to his hometown for revenge after being kicked out by Master Li of the Chung Yi School of Martial Arts. Despite his impressive Judo skills, he's easily defeated by old man Li. Tiao leaves angrier than ever, promising to return with Japanese specialists to level the school. He keeps his vow and brings three ruthless killers back to wipe out the Chung Yi students and their master. After a bloody massacre, one man survives, Lei Ming. Training intensely to counter the ferocious Japanese arts, Lei Ming toughens his fists like iron before taking revenge for his classmates and teacher. Donning a surgical mask to hide his identity and white gloves to conceal the scars of his training, Lei Ming cuts down the aggressors till he gets to the Japanese thugs that slaughtered his master and classmates.


After becoming a superstar under the guidance of Chang Cheh, Jimmy Wang Yu (Wong Yu) wanted to direct a movie of his own. At that time, it wasn't a regular occurrence for an actor to direct himself on camera; especially since Shaw's ran his company like the old Hollywood system--strictly controlling his stable of stars (for a two part article about Sir Run Run Shaw click HERE). In comparison, Tien Feng, famous for his villain roles, directed a movie, THE GOLDEN SEAL (1971), around the same time only he didn't take a lead role. 

This reluctant gamble payed off in a big way... THE CHINESE BOXER was a huge hit upon its release in November of 1970 and was among the first wave of Kung Fu movies to hit US shores in 1973 when it was retitled THE HAMMER OF GOD. Cited as the first bare-handed fight flick, Wang Yu's directorial debut was a genre trendsetter--ensuring more bone-cracking, chest-crushing violence would come. 

 
There had been hand-to-hand action in past pictures, but this was the first time the 'student revenges for master and school' template had been utilized. The Wuxia movies before it had revenge scenarios, yet the training process had yet to be visualized--not to mention that fists and feet could now do lethal damage akin to any bladed implement. The evolution of the Kung Fu film was in full swing.

Another film made at the same time, but released in May of 1970, Chang Cheh's award winning VENGEANCE! (1970), was of a similar aesthetic, and likewise a departure from the swordplay features that had been clogging up theater screens for years prior. Unlike VENGEANCE!, THE CHINESE BOXER was strictly, and purely, about martial arts. Chang's movie was highly dramatic, performance driven, and no particular fighting styles are specified.

Additionally, a Cathay picture shot and released earlier in 1970 titled FROM THE HIGHWAY features slivers of where the genre was heading. Something of a bridge between Wuxia trappings and the impending fist and kick style, its box office success further paid off when the picture won a Best Director Award at the 1971 Golden Horse Awards and was director Chang Tseng Chai's ticket into Shaw Brothers Studio.


A former athlete and swimming champion, Wang Yu wasn't much of a martial artist; yet the actor showed great skill behind the camera, differentiating his work from many of the formula Wuxia movies being made at Shaw's and elsewhere. The quality of his later directing gigs fluctuate, but the man showed an unmistakable prowess behind the camera. He clearly learned a great deal from the master of macho bloodshed, Chang Cheh; much of THE CHINESE BOXER has that raw power evident in Chang's works although Wang Yu creates his own style in the process. Curiously, once Wang broke away from Shaw Brothers, the meticulous care he exhibited here goes flying off the rails.


Tang Chia (who often collaborated with Liu Chia Liang during this time) handled the action design. While there's discernment in some of the styles on display, the fighting is very Japanese looking in execution--and remained so till 1973 when Chang Cheh's Shaolin Cycle showcased traditional Chinese Kung Fu. Till then, action was based on closed or open palm strikes; high or low kicks and sweeps; their movements enhanced with wirework. The fighters, mainly Wang Yu and the actors playing the Japanese killers, pose and growl viciously before each attack, helping the audience feel the blows as they pound their targets into bloody pulp. Eyes are gouged out a multitude of times and fists pierce chest cavities--allowing that famous Shaw Brothers blood to spray mightily from open wounds. Tang Chia was well versed in arranging battles with many extras onscreen at once; the sort of blood-caked duel you'd see in one of Chang Cheh's one-against-many movies. There are a couple sequences like that in THE CHINESE BOXER. 


Writing the screenplay himself, director Wang's characters are straight out of a comic book; and pseudo super-powered like those of the Wuxia (swordplay) genre. Some modest wirework enhances the action; like when Lo Lieh, after chopping a table in half, leaps into the air and smashes through the roof, landing back on his feet like a cat. Wang would go overboard with this sort of thing--his aforementioned derailment--in his later, independent pictures where he'd depict himself walking around on his fingertips, up walls and upside down on ceilings!


He doesn't spend quite as much time creating a brooding character for himself as Chang Cheh and I Kuang did in the classic ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967), although we get enough characterization to remain curious as to how and when Wang Yu will pulverize his opponents. When he does, he wears a surgical mask(!) and gloves; the mask so his enemies won't recognize him and the gloves to conceal the training scars that have turned his fists into deadly weapons. Wearing the mask, he looks like a doctor going around making unscheduled house calls--giving pain as opposed to relieving it. 

With a touch of romanticism, the non-fighting moments are mere trivialities while Wang focuses more on the action and the training, creating a blueprint that would be copied thousands of times over.


Wang Yu uses an intriguing editing style over the course of his movie. Certain scenes will go on without any cuts, only to ratchet up the tension with a few rapid edits before a scene pays off. Evidence of his love of Japanese samurai movies is seen during a duel in the snow towards the end. Squaring off against two Nipponese specialists, Wang Yu takes two daggers and places them in his shirt pockets. Meanwhile, Kang Hua's (alias Tung Li) character has a holster filled with throwing darts. Unfolding like a gun duel, the type found in any of your finer westerns, Wang Yu enhances this scene with the editing technique mentioned above. It's one of the best moments in his movie.

Filmed mostly at Shaw Studios, the snowy exteriors seen in the finale were shot in Korea in March of 1969. You'll notice Wang's hairstyle changes between shots during the climax (see insert pic). He exits the snow-bound Shaw set, the camera panning alongside him as he sets out to battle Kitashima and his goons one last time. When the setting switches to the Korean locale, Wang's hair is now cut and combed differently. It's like he walked all the way from HK to Korea.


Lo Lieh had already worked with Wang Yu six times before getting the role of the main villain, Kitashima, in THE CHINESE BOXER. Lo fluctuated between playing heroes and villains his entire career. Kitashima is among his most memorable bad guys just as his dedicated constable in Chang Cheh's THE INVINCIBLE FIST (1969) was among his best heroic turns. Lo had recently gotten married for the first time in February of 1969, but got less than two weeks to enjoy his honeymoon since he had to return to filming VALLEY OF THE FANGS (1970) and the aforementioned INVINCIBLE FIST before signing on to Wang's movie. There were other pictures the prolific Lo Lieh was attached to--some films where he was replaced (THE DEVIL'S MIRROR) and some that were never finished (THE GOLDEN MACE). As for BOXER, Lo's intense as the vicious Japanese fighter, making one helluva entrance before the big massacre at the Kung Fu school near the beginning.


One of Hong Kong cinema's most beautiful starlets, Wang Ping, an 18 year old Taiwanese actress of the Central Motion Picture Company, had just signed with Shaw Brothers in August of 1969 along with six other ladies from Taiwan--one of which was Cheng Pei-pei's successor, Shih Szu. Wang Ping's first Shaw Brothers picture was THE 5 BILLION DOLLAR LEGACY (1969) for director Inoue Umetsugu. THE CHINESE BOXER (1970) was her second role. Her role in Wang's film mirrors the one she essayed in Cheng Chang Ho's huge international hit, KING BOXER (1972), released around the world in 1973, and most famously as FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH in America. For her third job as an actress, Wang Ping would replace popular swordplay starlet Chin Ping on Ho Meng Hua's THE BLACK ENFORCER--a film that began shooting in 1969, but didn't see release till 1972. Wang Ping replaced another popular actress, Chiao Chiao, in the aborted production, The Drinking Knight--a film that was scrapped and started over with a new cast and director, only to be scrapped again.

Barrel-chested Chao Hsiung played villains most of his career, only headlining two movies as the lead hero in the exciting AMBUSH (1973) as a righteous, and framed, constable; and in THE GOLDEN LION (1975) he was the title strongman in Ho Meng Hua's swordplay film that began production in 1971, but didn't see release till '75. While Chao and Lo Lieh are on the same side in THE CHINESE BOXER, the two were enemies in the classic KING BOXER (1972)--Lo was the hero and Chao was the deadly Japanese samurai. Oddly enough, despite Wang Yu's movie being the first bare-knuckle martial brawler, it was KING BOXER (re-christened FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH for export) that started the Kung Fu craze around the world--with CHINESE BOXER unleashed on America after its success. Ironically, KING BOXER was not a huge success in Hong Kong.


You'll notice a flurry of familiar faces in the background playing both thugs and good guys. One in particular is martial arts champion Chen Kuan Tai (see insert at left; character actor Chan Lau directly behind him). He signed with Shaw's in 1970 and was little more than a background player at this point. However, two years later, after Wang had left and Bruce had burst onto the scene, Chen Kuan Tai surprised everybody with his influential star turn in Chang Cheh's THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972). A massive hit, Chen was suddenly big business; and competition for both Wang Yu and Bruce Lee--the former on a slow decline and the latter dead by mid-1973.


Additionally, Pai Piao (above in middle with closed fist), another future star, is seen in background action. Approximately two years later he was vying for the role of the Tattooed Dragon in Chang Cheh's THE WATER MARGIN movies but was beat out by the sudden success of Chen Kuan Tai. Pai would leave the studio but return by the close of the decade.

A cinematographer before he became a director of crime and fantasy films, Hua Shan (THE SUPER INFRAMAN) keeps the camera moving with lots of tracking shots allowing the viewer to get a wider view of the action as well as connect emotionally with it. Wang Yu's love of low angles is seen a few times as well.


One of Wang's two ADs on this movie was Ng See Yuen, a man who later found fame upon founding the hugely successful independent outfit, Seasonal Films Corporation; and directing the Kung Fu film that would both change the industry and make a star of Jackie Chan, SNAKE IN THE EAGLE'S SHADOW (1978). He also introduced HK cinema to one its greatest icons, Hwang Jang Lee. 

An auspicious debut for Jimmy Wang Yu, he starred in one other Shaw Brothers movie that year, MY SON (1970), a modern day drama for director Lo Chen that he made prior to BOXER. Unfortunately, Wang Yu was gone from the company before that film or his directing debut hit screens. The year 1970 was particularly chaotic for Shaw Studios. They lost one of their biggest stars and key personnel all of whom were desiring a different approach to filmmaking. In Wang Yu's case, it wasn't a genial exit.


The hot-tempered, street-fighting actor broke his contract and left the studio in March of 1970 for Golden Harvest, a new film production company started by former Shaw Brothers Assistant General Manager, Raymond Chow (who also left Shaw around March of that year with GH co-founder Leonard Ho). Wang Yu ended up in Taiwan (and even Japan) where he made around two dozen movies for an assortment of companies,  mimicking some of his Shaw successes. He was rightly sued by Shaw's for breach of contract; and, after unsuccessful attempts to stop him filming elsewhere, Shaw's won an injunction in July of 1971 that the superstar couldn't make films in Hong Kong till his contract with Shaw Brothers expired in January of 1973. Ironically enough, Wang's career went slowly downhill after he left the famous movie moguls for the more unrestricted climes at Golden Harvest and independents like First Films and Cheng Ming Film Company. He did many entertaining movies, but few as memorable, or possessing the staying power, as his earlier works.

Wang Yu's last directing gig was a reunion of sorts; sequelizing his first smash he authored with RETURN OF THE CHINESE BOXER in 1977. An in-name-only sequel, it was a tour de force of Wang Yu craziness that was about as lavish as what the Shaw's afforded him back in late 1969 when he began making the first one.


As for THE CHINESE BOXER (1970), it yields a lot of promise from the controversial actor turned director. There's a controlled, professional quality present in his directorial launch that reflects less of Wang's fiery personality than his later directed efforts such as the wild, unrestrained ONE ARMED BOXER (1972). Arguably the best of his behind the camera resume, THE CHINESE BOXER is a unique entry in Kung Fu cinema. Containing the usual high standards that only Shaw Studio could provide at that time, it's a high-water mark in this genres history.

This review is representative of the Japanese bluray. Specs and Extras: 1080p widescreen 2.35:1; original trailer; new trailer; vintage textless trailer; running time: 1:29:56.

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Devil's Mirror (1972) review

 
THE DEVIL'S MIRROR 1972 風雷魔鏡

Shu Pei Pei (Bai Hsiao Feng), Liu Tan (Wen Jian Feng), Li Chia Chien (Jiu Shuan Witch), Wang Hsieh (Chief Bai Tien Hsiung), Tung Lin (Leng Yun), Cheng Miao (Chief Wen), Yang Tse Lin (Tu Yuan)

Directed by Sun Chung

The Short Version: Taking over from another director, Sun Chung's first for the mighty Shaw Brothers looks nothing like his later classics bearing his unmistakable style, but is a fitfully fun, fight-filled sword clanger packed with betrayals and spurting blood. It's a simplistic plot moderately sabotaged by a messy script; but you won't notice much confusion what with the three-eyed, sex-obsessed witch woman leading an army of mindless disciples in fright wigs to obtain two powerful weapons--the only means of busting into a mountain tomb of gold to lay her hands on two other weapons that promise even more ultimate power. Secret passageways, fire pits, and Corpse Worm Pills that turn your face into a huge scab are among the elaborate concoctions you'll find in this movie from the director of the classic AVENGING EAGLE (1978).


The Golden Lions Clan calls a conference with all the martial arts factions in Taishan to discuss the disappearance of various reputable swordsmen and the emergence of the evil Jiu Shuan Witch, head of the Bloody Ghoul Clan. She devises a plot to set two righteous factions against the other in an effort to get her hands on two powerful weapons--the Wind and Thunder Magic Mirrors. By bringing them together, she will be able to enter the tomb of Emperor Wu, a mountainous vault made of gold. Housing the fabled Fish Intestine sword and the Thousand Year Ganoderma, the three-eyed, nymphomaniacal Witch Woman will gain both invincibility and immortality once the two items are in her devilish hands. After the fighting clans are decimated, it comes down to a young swordsman and swordswoman to stop the Witch from taking control of the Martial World.


With the advent of CGI Wuxia movies have been the perfect sub-genre in HK action cinema to take advantage of its use. Back in the 70s, there was no computer technology to eliminate pesky wires (ironically, they were more visible in the later flying films of the 90s) and enhanced special effects. Everything was done live on set or with simple in-camera trickery and opticals. 1972 was a big year for the Shaw Brothers with such big budget and classy projects like THE 14 AMAZONS and WATER MARGIN in production. Among the some 40 odd movies they had on their slate that year, one of the more uniquely ingenious was Sun Chung's THE DEVIL'S MIRROR--a low budget movie with big ideas. 


Sun Chung entered the renowned halls of the Shaw Brothers Studio in 1970. He toiled on various projects like the sex comedy THE SUGAR DADDIES (1973); THE CHEEKY LITTLE ANGELS (1974), a Chinese version of THE PARENT TRAP (1961); and formula action pictures like THE DEVIL'S MIRROR (1972), his first movie for the company. While it was the typical 'clan vs. clan' scenario, Sun's Shaw debut had some things in its ambitious script that set it apart from most others....


Marketed as a "swordplay with a difference", it was truly that with its sex-crazed female villain bearing a third eye in her forehead commanding an army of automatons in red and white fright wigs. Delighting in capturing various martial artists, the Witch force-feeds them 'Corpse Worm Pills' that eats away their faces; she promises them antidote so long as they do her bidding--which often involves slaughtering their own clan members for her insidious purposes. This comes into play when the tri-eyed sexpot sets her sights on obtaining two magic mirror weapons--the Thunder and Wind Mirrors. One is in the hands of Golden Lion Chief Wen; the other with the one-legged Chief Bai. Using them together creates massive cosmic rays that will allow access into Emperor Wu's tomb where lies two more instruments of power--a sword and herb that grant invincibility and immortality respectively. Unfortunately, one of the areas where the film falters is in its title weapon(s).


A lot of emphasis is placed on the magic mirrors although they don't come into play till the end; and their use is short-lived. With the substantial buildup to see them in action it's a bit disappointing they're disposed of so quickly. Further, the script is a bit of a mess in places (possibly due to the change in cast and crew shortly after the filming was stopped--more on that later); including an implausible plot device for a crippled character that serves mainly as an excuse for another shot of gore. Still, there's so much garishly over the top entertainment value it's difficult to hold the fast-paced film accountable for its missteps. 


Aside from the wanton nuttiness and veritable Tsunami of creative ideas kung fu-ing the screen at any given minute, there's an enormous amount of red being splashed around; and in some cases, erupting all over the cast and intricate sets. Dozens of extras are felled in a single shot, heads roll and torsos are run through with abandon... and hundreds of condoms filled with Shaw's trademark blood are exploded at regular intervals. 


This being a Wuxia movie, the characters possess superhuman abilities; the prerequisite being flying and leaping over tall buildings in a single bound. The wirework is plentiful and varied as is the creatively gruesome action choreographed by Tsu Sung Ho and Hsu Erh Niu. Outside of their independent work, both men worked together on a few other Shaw Brothers pictures like the Grand Guignol splatter sword-fest THE BLACK TAVERN (1972), a quasi-sequel to THE LADY HERMIT (1971).


Comparing this early effort with popular entries on Sun's resume like AVENGING EAGLE (1978), THE DEADLY BREAKING SWORD (1979), and HUMAN LANTERNS (1982), you'll notice a difference in style. With the exception of guys like Chang Cheh and Liu Chia Liang, most directors working at Shaw Brothers had to do formula flicks before being allowed more flexibility. It would be several more years before Sun solidified his signature style--two examples being his use of editing and slow motion; glimpses of it can be seen in THE DEVIL'S MIRROR--such as his predilection for putting his cast within the wide expanse of the locations. However, Sun Chung wasn't the initial director on this motion picture....


The problematic production began as early as October of 1970 with director Shen Chiang at the helm and I Kuang as scriptwriter. Director Shen was fairly new at Shaw's having directed SWORDSWOMEN THREE (1970) and THE WINGED TIGER (1970) for them. For THE DEVIL'S MIRROR, Shen went through several casting choices for the lead actress before settling on Shih Szu. Pairing her with Lo Lieh, Shen was, at that time, directing them on another picture--the light-hearted, but excessively gory swordplay, THE RESCUE (1971). Before Shih Szu came aboard, Helen Ma (THE SILVER FOX [1968]) was cast, but she was swapped out with Karen Yip (THE 14 AMAZONS [1972]), who was then replaced by Chin Ling (THE SECRET OF THE DIRK [1970]).


Shen Chiang had already done location scouting in Korea when the project was ultimately put on hold and Shen was forced to reshoot most of his footage on CALL TO ARMS (1973), another picture he was working on at that time. Originally starring Chang Yi, the actor abruptly left the studio in late October for Golden Harvest. The female co-star, Hsia Fan, left for Taiwan, but Shaw's was able to get her to return to finish the movie. Shaw newcomer, former Cathay actor, Chang Pin (Chang Chen-wu), was to replace Chang Yi.


When Sun Chung joined Shaw Brothers he was given the assignment of taking over THE DEVIL'S MIRROR (1972) in the early months of 1971. He recast the entire production save for Tung Lin. Both Shih Szu and Lo Lieh were out, as was other cast members like Chin Chi Chu (KING BOXER [1972]); who, judging by his costume in photos from the time, might have played a role similar to either Wang Hsieh or Cheng Miao. Both Shih Szu and Lo Lieh worked with Shen Chiang (who would leave Shaw's in 1973) on 1973s HEROES OF SUNG (then called 'The Dragon & Tiger Meet') and LADY OF THE LAW (1975) at this time, as well as their own solo efforts in THE BLACK TAVERN (1972) and KING BOXER (1972) respectively. 


Replacing those two superstars was Silver Screen swordswoman Shu Pei Pei and a new Shaw Brothers actor from Cathay, Liu Tan (both pictured above). A new writer was brought aboard, too--Chiang Yang, the scribe on the massive international hit, KING BOXER, alias FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH; as well as the rare Kuei Chi Hung Fantasy THE GOURD FAIRY (1972); and B level bloodletters like AMBUSH (1973) and THE GOLDEN LION (1975) by Ho Meng Hua.


Like everybody in HK at that time, Shu Pei Pei was a multi-tasker, working on other movies when she was assigned to THE DEVIL'S MIRROR; films like the unusual THE IMPERIAL SWORDSMAN (1972), the star-studded THE 14 AMAZONS (1972), and VILLAGE OF TIGERS (1974). A dancer, her graceful movements were ideal for swordplay pictures. She did nearly two dozen films, most of them action pictures, between 1966 and 1973 before she left the industry. 


Liu Tan was a bit more prolific, appearing in some of Chang Cheh's big epics of the day like THE WATER MARGIN (1972) and its direct sequel, ALL MEN ARE BROTHERS (1975). Some of his modern day affairs included Kuei Chi Hung's incredible PAYMENT IN BLOOD (1973), Cheng Kang's box office smash KIDNAP (1974), Chang Tseng Chai's decent time-waster QUEEN HUSTLER (1975), and a minor role in the Chang Cheh-Sun Chung co-directed THE BLOODY ESCAPE (1975).


This was Li Chia Chien's first of three films for Shaw Brothers studio--the others being the amazing Eastern Western THE FUGITIVE (1972) and Shen Chiang's HEROES OF SUNG (1973). As The Witch, she's appropriately excessive for the material. Caked in makeup and constantly cackling when she isn't trying to bed down men she wants and killing those she doesn't, the supernatural Witch Bitch is one of the film's memorably over the top aspects. Later in her career, Ms. Li found fame on the small screen with cooking shows and other business endeavors.


For an inaugural work, Sun Chung shows an incredible amount of energy, employing some innovative shots and little nuances that, despite the familiar plot, is a refreshing 90 minutes of blood-spattered swordplay. The efforts of he and his crew went unnoticed in Hong Kong this time out, but since the pictures release on DVD in 2006 all its colorful gaudiness, scripting snafus and delightful absurdities can be appreciated by a new audience.

This review is representative of the R3 IVL HK DVD. Specs and Extras: anamorphic 2.35: widescreen; color stills; biography-selected filmographies; running time: 01:26:14
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