Sunday, November 16, 2008
MONKEY KUNG FU 1980 aka STROKE OF DEATH
Cheng Hsiao Tung (Wei Chung), Hau Chiu Sing aka Hou Chao Sheng (Zhou), Chiang Cheng (Ma Siu Tien/one of Tung's thugs), Kuan Feng (Tung Hei Fung/Tung Jin Man)
Directed by Lo Mar
Wei Chung arrives in prison and immediately stirs up trouble with Ma Siu Tien, a one eyed old man sharing the cell. The old man defeats him easily several times. On the eve of his execution, Ma gives Wei half of a medal and instructs him to find the other half. When both halves are brought together, a secret will be revealed. Wei is then chained to a new inmate, Zhou. Not long after, the two break out of prison and eventually free themselves of the chain. Wei wants to go in the opposite direction of Zhou, but he follows close behind him. Tung Hei Fung, a supreme martial artist, visits the prison searching for the old man named Ma.
Looking to retrieve the medal from Ma's corpse, he learns that it was given to another inmate, Wei, who escaped. Tung and his gang of kung fu fighters seek out Wei to snatch his half of the medal. Zhou intercepts the gang, helping Wei to escape. Wei learns after stubbornly avoiding him, that Zhou possesses the other half. By putting the two pieces together, reveals a location atop a mountain. When the two escaped convicts reach the cave, they find a manual detailing the secrets of Monkey Boxing. However, the formidable Tung and his men are not far behind.
Exploitation and kung fu quickie extraordinaire, Johnny Lo Mar delivers what I think is his best movie. Possibly the best example of the Shaw's attempts to emulate the indy style of kung fu movie. There's near nonstop fighting all intricately choreographed by the films star, Tony Cheng Hsiao Tung (Ching Siu Tung). Aiding him in designing the extremely high number of kung fu fights are Leung Siu Hung (he plays one of Tung's gang in the film) and co-star, Hau Chiu Sing.
Director Lo Mar had previously directed a series of comedies for Shaw's, the first being THE CRAZY BUMPKINS (1974) followed by RETURN OF THE CRAZY BUMPKINS (1975), THE CRAZY BUMPKINS IN SINGAPORE (1976) and finally, BIG TIMES FOR THE CRAZY BUMPKINS (1976). He then directed the notorious Bruceploitation movie, BRUCE LEE & I (1976) starring Danny Lee as the famed, yet ill fated martial arts superstar. Lo Mar then tackled another exploitation flick, the sleazy drama, THE GIRLIE BAR (aka THE FINGER BAR) dealing with prostitution in Hong Kong.
Lo then found a brief niche in the kung fu genre delivering a minor masterpiece here with MONKEY KUNG FU. An ADD kung fu fans dream movie, the average person is likely to overdose on the plethora of martial arts sequences found herein. The action is almost nonstop and incredibly varied. It's quite possibly the Shaw Brothers most successful attempt at capturing the independent kung fu movie style that had recently taken center stage in Hong Kong. Lo Mar also directed the fan favorite, THE FIVE SUPERFIGHTERS the same year. He then tried his hand at a more character based kung fu film with THE BOXER FROM THE TEMPLE (1980) before retiring from filmmaking.
The only minor annoyance in MONKEY KUNG FU (1979) is Ching Siu Tung's character, Wei Chung. He's arrogant, selfish, over confident and quite the portentous jerk. Everywhere he goes he finds himself in some form of trouble. One of the best scenes has Wei frequent a brothel. Actually, the women come out into the street and take him inside. He beds down a girl with a high price but then reneges on payment stating she wasn't worth the price decided beforehand.
The girl then proceeds to beat him up never allowing him to leave the bed! This scene is an excellent piece of choreography. The actress playing the prostitute is incredibly flexible although I don't recall seeing her in any other films. For refusing to pay, Wei must walk out of the brothel crawling between the other girls legs. An amusing bit cut from the English television prints has Wei wishing to go through their legs in the bridge position.
As Wei crawls to the end of the "tunnel", the obese prostitute crashes her plump form down on top of him before finally throwing him out prompting Wei to state (in the dubbed version) "Rotten bitches!" Wei then gets into more trouble when the Black Tiger Clan leader, Tung Hei Fung, shows up and demands he hand over the medal. This of course, leads to another fight scene. Zhou (Hau Chiu Sing) comes to Wei's aid for the second time (having done so earlier only to have Wei leave him to fight alone against three villains!) and the two barely manage to escape.
Once it's revealed that the complete medal reveals the location of a secret kung fu manual, Wei and Zhou train in the art of the Monkey Fist. They then take on Tung and his gang in one of the most beautifully and excitingly orchestrated old school fight scenes I've ever seen. What's a bit funny about this fight is that it takes the combined efforts of Wei and Zhou to tackle Tung whom was also after the Monkey Fist manual.
If the style was so powerful, why then does it take two men to defeat Tung? Even still, this makes the finale that much more enjoyable and aids in amplifying the skill level of the main villain. It's not clear what Tung plans to do with the manual once he obtains it.
Considering his master, Tung Jin Man (also played by Kuan Feng in a flashback sequence) was killed by Monkey Fist master, Ma Siu Tien, possibly Tung simply wanted to destroy the manual. During the flashback where you see the fight that lead to the whole plot of the movie, it's apparent Kuan Feng is also playing the Black Tiger clan leader. Even though it's not stated, I would assume Tung Jin Man was Tung Hei Fung's father and his journey to locate the manual was one of revenge. Again, Lo Mar's movie is only interested in delivering action and lots of it.
Going back to comparing this film to the indy style, Lo's movie contains all the set pieces found in nearly every one of the dozens of fist and kick kung fu comedy flicks that were the flavor of the week in Hong Kong for a time. There's a restaurant fight, a fight inside a martial arts school which comes late in the film. Just when it looks like the stage is set for the final battle, Wei takes off to test his Monkey skills on a nearby kung fu school.
In the beginning, right after Wei is put into prison, there are two fights between him and Ma (the condemned man that entrusts Wei with the medal), one in the jail cell and the other in the mess hall. There's the aforementioned brothel fight, fights in the city streets, fields, back alleys and also a rather humorous fight with Lee Chun Wah, a blacksmith who refuses to remove the chain from Wei and Zhou.
Star, Cheng Siu Tung is most well known for his many later swordplay action films both as a director and action choreographer. Some of his most well known efforts are the CHINESE GHOST STORY (1987-'91) trilogy, THE HEROIC TRIO (1993), BUTTERFLY & SWORD (1993), SHAOLIN SOCCER (2001), HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (2004) and CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER (2006) to name a small few of the films Cheng has designed action sequences for.
He sometimes directed the movies he did choreographing duties on and possibly the most well known to kung fu fans would be the Golden Harvest film, DUEL TO THE DEATH (1983). Cheng is also the son of famous Shaw Brothers director, Cheng Kang. Cheng Siu Tung worked as an action choreographer on a couple of his father's pictures, one of them was the epic spectacular, THE 14 AMAZONS (1972).
Co-star Hau Chiu Sing also featured in Lo Mar's FIVE SUPERFIGHTERS (1979), a lesser effort with even less of a storyline. Hau was apparently a practitioner of the Monkey Fist as he uses it in all the films I've seen him in. Aside from this movie, he also appeared in SNAKE IN THE MONKEY'S SHADOW (1979) and one of the better Billy Chong movies, CRYSTAL FIST (1979) as well as a couple of forgettable kung fu quickies.
A friend of Yuen Woo Ping's, his career was very brief. He had an odd face, but was nonetheless a skilled fighter and displays some great technique here. During the opening credits sequence, Hau can be seen along with bad guy, Kuan Feng, demonstrating the Monkey Fist style on one of the ornately stagy Shaw sets.
Kuan Feng plays the fearsome Tung Hei Fung, the leader of the Black Tiger Clan. Throughout his 7 year career at Shaw Brothers, Kuan played a variety of lead and supporting antagonist roles. He occasionally played a good guy but these roles were mainly as wisened old teachers. Probably his most famous role as a hero would be the master of the Alliance in Chang Cheh's FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (1982). Of his lead roles as the head villain, MONKEY KUNG FU (1979) is his best portrayal.
He often reminded me of Hwang Jang Lee in his looks and build. His impressive fighting skills were often showcased with the use of the pole or a spear. He essayed the lead villain in the lackluster FIVE SUPERFIGHTERS (1979) and the same years likewise disappointing, THE FIGHTING FOOL (1979). He shows off his bare handed skills (mostly) in these two throwaway productions. The fights are good in both, but there's little else to recommend them aside from the dependable Shaw Brothers sets.
MONKEY KUNG FU (1979) is an incredible action packed buffet of near endless action set pieces that succeeds on those levels alone getting by on a decent enough story that bears some semblance to a western. The soundtrack is very memorable and can be heard on numerous other kung fu and swordplay films. The main theme can also be heard in Shaw's epic, THE HEROIC ONES (1970). Despite some minor annoyances, the films pace is very good.
If you're looking for a compelling story and characters, you might want to look elsewhere. However, if you want to see some awesome action scenes including one of the best final fights in kung fu history, then look no further than MONKEY KUNG FU (1979), Johnny Lo Mar's best kung fu movie for Shaw Brothers studio.
This review is representative of the IVL DVD (R3). In addition to English subtitles, there are both Cantonese and Mandarin audio tracks.
BIG STARS, BIGGER BUDGETS, CLONES OF BRUCE & CHAN VS. HWANG
Around the same time, actors like Chen Kuan Tai had become a star in the classic BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972), a hugely influential action film. The film dealt with a poor man coming to a new town and discovering gangster activities. After displaying his superior skills to survive, Ma Yung Chen (a real life individual) eventually becomes a gangster himself, albeit an honorable one, obtaining the comforts he desired upon first arriving in Shanghai. However, no incursion comes without its consequences and in one of the most violent and gory finales in cinema history, Ma must fight an increasing army of knife wielding gangsters whilst his own men attempt to fight their way inside.
The film was very successful and instigated a genre of Republican Era Triad movies. Chang Cheh would take this story of a man that climbs the ladder of success only to eventually fall a long way down, and film it another two times with slight variation. MAN OF IRON (1972) was the sequel, which also doubled as a pseudo remake. BLOOD BROTHERS (1973) went on to become one of director Chang Cheh's greatest works. The Iron Triangle was "broken" with the addition of Chen Kuan Tai to the cast.
Alexander Fu Sheng was another ambitious and bright star from Shaw Brothers. His first break was in Cheh's POLICE FORCE (1973), a film which earned him an award for Most Promising Newcomer. HEROES TWO (1973) was the film that put him on the map. Chen Kuan Tai starred alongside him in this influential breakthrough.
The film introduced traditional kung fu styles on the silver screen for the first time. HEROES TWO (1973) begat a slew of similar films that featured Chinese patriots battling against Manchu (Qing) invaders. Many other films also followed HEROES TWO's formula by using historical figures in there plotlines. By 1976, two films would alter the Ming versus Qing recipe further-- Chang Cheh's massive, episodic epic, SHAOLIN TEMPLE and Liu Chia Liang's groundbreaking EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN.
Both films were instrumental in two ways. Chang's movie ushered in hundreds of like-minded movies that featured stories about the famed temple and the monks that trained therein. Liu's movie created a sensation of white haired villains with Lo Lieh's relentless portrayal of Priest White Brows, Pai Mei.
With Golden Harvest having bested the mighty Shaw's at the box office with the Bruce Lee movies, independent studios would now have a better chance at making some dollars now than ever before. A number of these smaller films would be filmed at, or distributed by Shaw's, as many of these smaller companies didn't have the funds to make it on there own with many only lasting for a few films or less. Many times stars from Shaw's stable would appear in indy productions to make some extra money. These productions were subsequently distributed by Shaw Brothers who allowed their actors to freelance if they could make a profit from the picture.
The Shaw's grip on their talent was both good and bad. By paying everyone the same and prohibiting any egotistical behavior, a family atmosphere was created whereas everyone worked together for the betterment of the production. However, constricting progress and creativity creates a stagnant environment. This can cause product to grow stale and cease to grow and, in turn, halt innovation. Of the countless independent films made after the mid 1970's, one of the most successful indy companies was Seasonal Films. Two movies (both starring Jackie Chan) from this ambitious, yet minor player in the Hong Kong film industry would change the landscape of Asian cinema forever.
By 1975, the Bruceploitation flicks were erupting with rapidity in cineplexes and would strangely, enjoy a brief popularity. Actors popped up sporting names like Bruce Le, Bruce Li, Bruce Thai, Dragon Lee, Conan Lee, Bronson Lee, etc. Such a concept would be met with scorn and deemed insulting in the American market, but the genre chugged along undaunted regardless of how tasteless the idea was. Most of these were forgettable programmers that contributed to the genres demise (along with an influx of Taiwanese and Korean made kung fu cheapies) from US theater chains. Some of them simply had the 'Bruce Lee' name affixed to the title in some fashion with no semblance to Bruce Lee, the man.
A number of these imitator movies are downright tasteless and defamatory to the man's name and persona. These exploitation kung fu flicks, surprisingly, have a minor following among fans of the genre. Even the 'big two' of Asia, Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest got in on the act of producing Bruceploitation movies. Shaw Brothers even went so far as to mount a production starring the last woman to see Lee alive, Betty Ting Pei. The film was BRUCE LEE & I (1975). It told Lee's story from the perspective of Betty Ting Pei.
The Shaw's were aware that a big budget didn't always equate to big box office, or even a good movie. They were known to flaunt a good deal of money (as much as HK$2-5 million) on many of their lavish productions. One of the biggest was the HK2 million budgeted THE 14 AMAZONS (1972) directed by the meticulous Cheng Kang.
Director Chang Cheh had his lions share of big budgeted movies with THE WATER MARGIN (1972), BOXER REBELLION (1975) and 7 MAN ARMY (1976; the first film to feature co-operation by the Chinese military and mixes guns, tanks, planes, cannons and kung fu). Several of Chang's extravagant productions were met with serious (and sometimes political) problems resulting in lackluster returns.
Towards the end of the of the 1970's, Shaw's ceased the big budget epic films upon realizing the money spent didn't always correlate to big box office numbers. Not only that, but they were steadily losing their grip on the HK film industry due in large part to a young man who, by 1982, was soon to be the biggest box office draw in Asia.
Back to 1976, director Lo Wei, who had laid the dubious claim of discovering Bruce Lee, had recently been trying to turn a man named Jackie Chan into a star but was failing miserably. After a promising supporting role in the John Woo Golden Harvest film, HAND OF DEATH (1976), Lo proved incapable of utilizing Chan's talents. Lo tried to make him the new Bruce Lee with NEW FIST OF FURY in 1976.
He then tried turning Chan into a Shaw Brothers imitation with SHAOLIN WOODEN MEN (1976) and SNAKE & CRANE ARTS OF SHAOLIN (1977). In KILLER METEORS (1977), Chan tried out as a villain opposite protagonist, Jimmy Wang Yu. This didn't work either. TO KILL WITH INTRIGUE (1977) was another Lo Wei directed misfire starring Jackie Chan.
An independent producer named Ng See Yuen, the founder of Seasonal Films, saw something in the young Chan and wanted him for his new film but was begged by others that he was box office poison as his movies had made little money. Originally having his eye on the young actor, Cliff Lok, Ng was persuaded by Yuen Woo Ping to give Chan the opportunity. Ng took a chance on him and Lo Wei, frustrated, lent him out for the film SNAKE IN THE EAGLE'S SHADOW (1978).
Appearing to have been made with very little money, the film was a big hit and made both Jackie Chan and Yuen Siu Tin huge stars. Yuen had been in films for a number of years already having appeared in a handful of key Shaw Brothers films. His role as the master beggar resonated with audiences and old Yuen's career had a short burst of popularity before his death in 1980.
SNAKE IN THE EAGLE'S SHADOW (1978) is credited as the first kung fu comedy. However, Shaw's did it first with SPIRITUAL BOXER in 1975 but the Chan film is the one that endured. One aspect of SNAKE that aided in its popularity was that the teacher/student dynamic was visualized more as a father/son relationship, something that hadn't been seen before. After years of serious tales of heroism from Shaw's, this simple film with its groundbreaking, but crude formula was a breath of fresh air to the HK audience. Even so, if it had not been for Chang Cheh's SHAOLIN MARTIAL ARTS (1974), which planted the seed for the teacher/student relationship, there may never have been a SNAKE IN THE EAGLE'S SHADOW.
For the role of antagonist, Ng wanted Korean super kicker Hwang Jang Lee (an actor that does kicks others would need wires to pull off) who had built up some steam after appearing in Ng's kickfest, THE SECRET RIVALS (1976), a Taiwanese quickie that also featured the talents of stars Wong Tao and newcomer, John Liu.
Reportedly, Chan didn't get on well with Hwang and the two bickered throughout the shoot. During the final fight, Hwang got a little too excited and kicked Chan's front teeth out. A similar situation would occur while shooting DRUNKEN MASTER (1979) when Hwang would allegedly kick Chan a bit too hard in the head sending him to the hospital. Over the years rumors persisted that Chan was going to make sure Hwang's career would be finished.
That would come true somewhat as Hwang would toil in low budget kung fu pictures in Taiwan and Korea before Sammo Hung brought him out of the pit of obscurity with the release of WHERE'S OFFICER TUBA? (1986). Hwang Jang Lee made a career out of playing a formidable bad guy and excelled at it. A problem with so many of his movies is that Hwang is so intimidating and powerful, the protagonists have to resort to cheap methods to defeat him.
Hwang did play a good guy on a few occasions. He also tried his hand at directing with the 1980 movie, HITMAN IN THE HAND OF BUDDHA. Never released in Hong Kong, Hwang not only acted (playing the hero) but also produced in addition to directing. Hwang was a Tae Kwon Do expert who also trained in boxing to enhance his martial arts training. He was rewarded with teaching martial arts to the Korean troops in Vietnam where he, according to several sources, had killed a man with one kick after he was challenged by another with a knife.
CONTINUED IN PART 4...