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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Shanghai 13 (1984) review


Chiang Ming (Mr. Gao), Jimmy Wang Yu (Black Hat), Chen Kuan Tai (Big Brother Shen Gun Fu), Danny Li Hsueh Sin (Black Sniper), Chiang Sheng (Fong Jin Ban, the Smoker), Wang Chung (The Monocle), Lu Feng (The Tiger), Liang Chia Jen (Tao Ti Yeh), Liu Tak Hwa (The Student), Chi Kuan Chun (The Leopard), David Chiang (Nomad), Ti Lung (Head Coach), Cheng Tien Chi (The Butcher, Shao Foon), Wong Ching (Shun Lee), Chen Sing (The Black Eagle), Li Chung I (Lai Ta Chun), Sonny Yue (The Young Leopard)

Directed by Chang Cheh

"13 rascals--rich & poor, scholars & beggars, bears & tigers, leopards & deer and a sniper with a gun. "

Some time after the Japanese occupation of Nanking, a treaty is agreed upon by a new government set up in the city between the two factions. In spite of this, the truce is false. Instead, China is to be handed over without a fight by the traitorous new regime to become a colony of Japan. Mr. Gao, a junior minister, learns of this plan and with the aid of Black Hat, steals the papers naming the defectors subservient to the Japanese invaders. Mr. Gao seeks the help of Big Brother Shen, an honorable boss who controls all of Shanghai. The plan is to get Mr. Gao to Hong Kong within two days to expose the conspirators. But Chinese gangsters loyal to the Japanese intend on stopping him before he reaches his destination. The mysterious Shanghai 13 are entrusted with his protection. Nonetheless, a number of the thirteen are under the employ of the traitors.

Chang Cheh directs this interesting hodgepodge of his past cinematic output. It's an ambitious, if terribly under-budgeted action picture that is bolstered by a dream cast of kung fu favorites and several exciting fight sequences. With that said, the direction is light years away from Chang Cheh's early works for Shaw Brothers studios. Had the film been done by Shaw's, it's no doubt it would have been a more polished product although Shaw's themselves at the time had ceased being the dominant force in Hong Kong. Not long after, they would shut down their filmmaking enterprise to focus on television productions.

When Chang Cheh left the company, he started up his own production facility christened Chang Ho Company. Between 1983 and 1993 Cheh would direct over 10 films. Like SHANGHAI 13 (1984), a number of the Chang Ho pictures would be released theatrically in Taiwan but not in Hong Kong. Fans will also notice musical cues lifted from a variety of sources, most notably DEATH WISH 2 (1982) and CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982).

The sometimes confusing and incoherent dubbed dialog names Boss Shen (Chen Kuan Tai) as the leader of the 13 Rascals. But later, Ti Lung's character is also called the gangs leader. There is also another confusing moment in the dubbing later on just after the fight scene involving Tao Ti Yeh (Liang Chia Jen) and The Tiger (Lu Feng). Taken strictly as an action film, it delivers lots of excitement, but the sheer number of characters leaves lots of unanswered questions especially for a 90 minute movie. Chang directs the picture as a string of vignettes akin to the way a video game progresses.

Mr. Gao is taken from one location to the next (always a different place) where he meets one of the 13 Rascals and every time the villains are nearby or a traitor is present. A big fight ensues and Mr. Gao is carted away to the next location with the same outcome till he reaches his destination where the biggest fight of all takes place. Speaking of the fights, they get loftier as the film develops. Starting off with a sniper attempting to take Gao out from afar, the action then goes from one on one duels, to one against many, to all out melee's.

Any attempt at character development is stripped down in favor of the almost nonstop barrage of action. All the big names simply show up for one scene (usually a fight) and then exit the picture moments before another familiar face is revealed. Some characters simply enter onto the scene and are recognized as if the viewer has already seen them at some point. One such persona is 'The Student' played by future famous singer and actor, Andy Lau Tak-wah (listed here as Liu Tak Wah). Immediately following Liang Chia Jen's fight, Andy Lau breaks through the door and begins fighting The Tiger and his men to protect a girl that is briefly said to be his girlfriend.

Once Lau kills The Tiger he succumbs to wounds from the fight. Chang Cheh then tosses in a transitory attempt at pathos as 'The Student' and the girl share a flashback (in slow motion) of happier moments. Perhaps the script contained more character detail than what made it into the finished product?

Chang Cheh's script is peppered with unusual characters all played by familiar faces, some famous in Hong Kong and others less so. Other performers were promising up and comers that seemed to vanish off the radar by the close of the 1980's. Cheh's Shaw works after 1977 were amalgamations of his more famous films from the late 60's and first half of the 1970's. SHANGHAI 13 (1984) is no different taking its biggest cue from his 1978 film, THE FIVE VENOMS (1978). In that film, the five venoms were either good, bad or out for themselves. Some of them knew each other and some were in the dark as to the others identities. SHANGHAI 13 operates with this same template only instead of five, there's thirteen. Chen Kuan Tai is on hand briefly during the first ten minutes playing a character not dissimilar from the one he played in Cheh's 1972 blockbuster, THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG.

Two of the popular venom crew are on hand here. Chiang Sheng plays Fong Jin Ban, alias 'The Smoker'. He's one of the good guys. Lu Feng, a villain in most all of the movies he featured in, plays one of the bad guys here, too. He's The Tiger, a gang leader who swings an over sized pair of butterfly swords. Both these men were assistant directors on the film as well as having a hand in the choreography along with fellow actor, Cheng Tien Chi. Chiang Sheng got some experience as an AD on several of the Chang Cheh films he acted in for Shaw Brothers and this carried over onto the few pictures he did for the Chang Ho company. Liu Chia Yung, filmmaker and brother to famed and respected martial artist and director Liu Chia Liang, acts as a consultant.

A couple of promising up and coming martial arts performers seen in the film are Sonny Yue and Li Chung I. Both only did a few pictures before dropping from the film industry entirely. Li featured in some of Cheh's other Chang Ho movies like ATTACK OF THE JOYFUL GODDESS (1983) and THE NINE DEMONS (1983). His scene in the club followed by the subsequent chase to the docks is one of the best fights in the movie. He displays a lot of fluidity in his movements and he could possibly have been a star had he continued his career.

Sonny Yue was also a gifted performer despite his stature. He doesn't show up till the end to participate in the last fight. A needless, last minute plot point emerges involving Yue's character that adds nothing to the film other than to have one more conspirator thrown into the mix.

Ti Lung pops up at the end looking like an old salt of the sea complete with a pipe. His fight scene is one of the best in the whole movie. Ti uses his bare hands and a pole to combat against Chen Sing and Cheng Tien Chi respectively. Cheng Tien Chi is another talent that had been in the business since the mid 1970's but didn't get a chance to headline till SEVEN STEPS OF KUNG FU (1979). He never caught on as a lead actor but was nonetheless an incredible acrobat. He was also friends with Jackie Chan and he had a memorable fight with him in THE FEARLESS HYENA (1979). He was very faithful to Chang Cheh and appeared in many of Cheh's Chang Ho productions.

Wang Chung, who plays 'The Monocle', had a good run as an actor and made a fairly successful transition to the directors chair. He directed a handful of Hong Kong crime pictures with THE MOBFIX PATROL and THE MURDERER PURSUES (both 1981) being of special interest. After playing supporting roles in numerous Chang Cheh swordplay and fist fighting films, he got POLICE FORCE (1973) all to himself. He also got the lead in the Chang Cheh & Kuei Chi Hung sleaze drama classic, THE DELINQUENT (1973). It was a modern day interpretation of Cheh's BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972) told in a more grim and gritty fashion.

David Chiang was extremely popular in Chang Cheh's swordplay actioners but seemed a bit out of place in martial dramas that took place in a more modern setting. He seemed totally comfortable in kung fu pictures. However, choreographer extraordinaire Liu Chia Liang made him look good in SHAOLIN MANTIS (1978). Chiang (he now goes by his given English name, John) also performed kung fu well in a couple other films like THE CHALLENGER (1979) and THE LOOT (1980). Chiang also had a good career as a director. One of his best efforts being the 1976 martial arts drama, THE CONDEMNED which featured a very good performance by Tsai Hung as a good guy! Chiang also stars in the film in a non fighting role.

Chi Kuan Chun never seemed to be much of an actor but he had a great, imposing presence when he was onscreen. He starred alongside Fu Sheng in a number of pictures before starting his own production company in the late 70's when his Shaw contract expired. He appeared in a fair number of fist & kick features throughout the 80's. He dropped off the radar during the 90's and re-emerged in the new millennium for DRUNKEN MONKEY (2003) and SEVEN SWORDS (2005).

Wong Ching has the role of Shun Lee, a smiling assassin who laughs repetitively and uses a fan as a weapon. He is distinguished by a very wide mouth with a prominent set of teeth. He immediately gets your attention when he grins. Wong played a hulking thug in a number of Chang Cheh's Shaolin films such as HEROES TWO (1973) and SHAOLIN TEMPLE (1976). Always a villain, he had a face perfectly suited to such portrayals.

Liang Chia Jen got his start in Cheh's SHAOLIN MARTIAL ARTS (1974) and his career snowballed from there. He floated between Shaw Brothers, indy production companies, Golden Harvest and (briefly) back to Shaw's again where he appeared in some of the Shaw's quality pictures of the time like SECRET SERVICE OF THE IMPERIAL COURT (1984) and DANGER HAS TWO FACES (1985).

Chen Kuan Tai shot to stardom literally overnight with his starring role in Cheh's BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972). Chen's career had nowhere to go but up after that. He also experimented with directing with the films IRON MONKEY (1977) and BIG BOSS OF SHANGHAI (1979), a film that was similar to the one that made him famous. Chen was a real monkey stylist in real life and his IRON MONKEY gave him a chance to showcase that skill.

Chen Sing had one of the longest careers in Hong Kong cinema and like everyone else listed here, got his big break in Chang Cheh movies. However, Chen Sing didn't get major lead roles till he broke from the Shaw mold. In those films, he either had a supporting role, or occasionally was the main villain and sometimes didn't fight at all.

Jimmy Wang Yu will forever be one of the most famous and most popular (especially outside of Asia) of the martial arts film actors. Possessing a persona that mirrored his onscreen characters, Jimmy had no real martial arts skills, but had a short fuse and was a swimming champion prior to landing lead roles in Chang Cheh swordplay films. After leaving Shaw's on sour terms, Jimmy proceeded to replicate Shaw successes either in theaters or in production at the time in what would seem like an effort to steal some of their thunder. Some of his best movies will of course be THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967), THE ASSASSIN (1967), THE SWORD OF SWORDS (1968) and GOLDEN SWALLOW (1968).

Danny Li Hsiu Hsien was a regular face seen in countless Shaw Brothers movies and starred in some of their most unusual pictures like SUPER INFRA MAN (1975), THE OILY MANIAC (1976) and THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN (1977). He never quite hit the big time as a major player till his turn in the John Woo classic, THE KILLER (1989). From there, Li's (now listed as Danny Lee) career took off, and like many of his contemporaries, he became a producer and director with the amazingly violent THE UNTOLD STORY (1993) and the nasty DR. LAMB (1994) respectively.

SHANGHAI 13 (1984) is an interesting, yet seriously flawed kung fu flick. Equal parts thrilling and deadeningly cheesy (many of the character refuse to die on their stomachs, flipping themselves over just before they expire not to mention the abundance of anachronisms), being an action film, it delivers solely on that level and does so very well. With such a high class and capable cast, it would be hard to derail such a production. A veritable who's who of oldschool kung fu flicks, it comes highly recommended from the master director of the genre. While it's miles away from being a masterpiece, it's hard not to like the film based strictly on its cast of cinematic heavyweights and the plethora of brainless action sequences.

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