Friday, January 30, 2009
The Casino (1972) review
THE CASINO 1972
Yueh Hua (Luo Tian Guang), Lily Ho (Miss Cui), Chin Feng (Lun Liu), Shek Kin (Hao Li Shan), Chiang Nan (Zhao Fu), Fan Mei Sheng (Captain Fan Shu Hu), Ma Jian Tang (Ju Hsiao San), Tang Di (Superintendent Ma Bao), Wu Ma (Hsiao Wang), Bruce Liang (Thug)
Directed by Tsang Tseng Chai
***WARNING! This review contains pics of nudity & graphic violence***
Luo Tian Guang, betrothed from childhood to the beautiful Miss Cui, finds her running a casino and introduces himself in a rather brazen fashion by nearly bankrupting the house. The two soon marry and Luo learns from longtime friend, Lun Liu that there are other gamblers in town and that he should try his luck with them. After humiliating the conman, Hao Li Shan, as well as one of his cronies, a plan is initiated by the devious gambling crooks and the corrupt authorities in town to get rid of Luo and his wife.
Director Tsang fashions an interesting film about a young man who is poor, but is promised to the daughter of a military General. Both of their families ran casinos and when he finds his lovely bride-to-be, she is still running the family business. What follows is a kung fu film with a gambling hall backdrop. This sets up the story and ultimately foreshadows the typical Shaw Brothers tragic ending that is closely associated with their style of cinema.
Tsang Tseng Chai must have enjoyed the gambling action scenario, because he revisited it in at least two other Shaw films, QUEEN HUSTLER and THE GAMBLING SYNDICATE both 1975, both starring Danny Lee in the lead and both unreleased on DVD at this time.
Tsang also directed the action packed and bloody Spaghetti Eastern THE FUGITIVE (1972) which had an extremely high body count for a 76 minute film. THE CASINO (1972) is also 76 minutes and judging by the gory and hyper violent finale, you'd swear it was directed by Chang Cheh. Tsang Tseng Chai also employs some very nice, sweeping camera shots intermixed with extreme zoom ins and zoom outs that were also showcased in the lean and bloody THE FUGITIVE (1972). But unlike that film, the cinematographer here is future director, Hua Shan who would later go on to a career in action and exploitation movies himself.
Yueh Hua stars in this interesting basher mixing gambling and brutal martial arts sequences. Hua is crafty and sly as the righteous and smooth gambler, Luo Tian Guang. He's so clever and self assured that you know he's bound to end up badly at some point or other. After he's framed, tortured and just barely saved from execution, he heals his wounds, and in the finale, goes after the nasty thugs instigating a vicious slaughter that sees Luo take an extreme amount of punishment. He's beaten, stabbed with bayonets and shot around a dozen times and still manages to take out a handful of guys before collapsing from his massive wounds.
Yueh Hua quickly became one of my favorite Shaw stars after seeing him as the arrogant, but patriotic scholar in the violent Chang Cheh Republican Era martial drama, THE IRON BODYGUARD (1973). From thereafter I looked forward to anything else the man featured in. His prolific and varied resume includes such classics as COME DRINK WITH ME (1966), DRAGON SWAMP (1969), THE WATER MARGIN (1972), PURSUIT (1972), THE 14 AMAZONS (1972), THE BIG HOLDUP (1975), KILLER CLANS (1976) and LEGEND OF THE BAT (1977).
He also appeared in a fair number of exploitation movies such as THE SEXY KILLER (1976) and its sequel THE LADY EXTERMINATOR (1977), THE VENGEFUL BEAUTY (1978) and HELL HAS NO BOUNDARY (1982). Hua is also quite memorable as the kung fu master seen throughout MONKEY FIST, FLOATING SNAKE (1979). He parades around a town accompanied by boisterous musical cues professing to be the greatest fighter around. During the final scene of the film, his true character is revealed in what is one of the funniest scenes in that film.
Hua was proficient at tackling any genre and was one of the Shaw's most dramatic and reliable actors. He may not have been as nimble and flexible as some of Shaw's other performers, but like David Chiang, swordplay films suited his stature more so than kung fu actioners. But even here, Hua handles himself ably letting his acting and ferocious enthusiasm mask any deficiencies his screen fighting skill may have.
Hua's character is so self-assertive, his doom is foreshadowed early on. This is really hammered home when Luo duels in a gambling match with Hao Li Shan who has cheated Luo's friend, Lun Liu as well as a number of other individuals. When Hao is unsuccessful in besting Luo, he sends one of his top conmen, Ju Hsiao San to beat him, but he, too, is easily revealed at being a cheat. Ju attacks Luo with a small knife but Luo takes it from him and slashes his wrist as well as breaking his other arm to make sure he doesn't cheat anyone again.
At that time, Captain Fan raids Luo's home and incarcerates him. Luo is able to escape the grasp of the corrupt police this time in a rather humorous fashion guilefully utilizing a play on words. Another plan is devised to get rid of Luo. This time the villains pay off Mrs. Cui's long time servant, Zhao Fu, who has secretly lusted after her for years. He also covets the casino for himself in addition to Luo's wife. This is where the violence escalates resulting in the shocking murder of Mrs. Cui. This incident causes Superintendent Ma and his crooked followers to frame Luo for his wife's murder. It is here that Luo no longer remains a cool and suave individual.
It is here the director fumbles the ball a bit. There are numerous occasions where characters could have been built a little more, but Tsang is more content with focusing more attention on the scheming, conniving villains. While not necessarily a bad thing for an action film, THE CASINO (1972) has potential for so much more and seems content for minimal characterization in favor of building to its creatively gory climax.
Tsang allows the blood to flow freely throughout, but by the end, the film turns into a bloodbath of Chang Cheh proportions. The manic violence by which the hero takes out the bad guys, as well as the amount of punishment he absorbs before finally succumbing to blood loss and bullet wounds, is an attempt to surpass the level of gore in Chang Cheh's actioners of the time. Lily Ho doesn't escape the film unscathed, either.
Even though this beautiful actress is given very little to do aside from looking pretty, she handles her small number of scenes admirably. Lily Ho especially shines in the suspenseful opener in which it seems a brawl will break out after Luo manages to beat the dealer of the table every time as well as improving the courage of other table participants to lay their money down. Miss Cui steps in determined to stop Luo's lucky streak, but she, too, is beaten. Only upon revealing who he is does the scene settle down to room temperature.
Lily Ho (ANGEL WITH THE IRON FISTS) gets to brawl in one sequence and it's quite shocking. She's wiping the floor with the villains when she suddenly takes a knife in the back. Another guy rushes up behind her and breaks a huge jar over her head! Director Tsang more or less uses the shocking scenes of violence to propel his story, as opposed to letting his characters do it.
While it's still a good, compelling production, the film has potential to be far more than a bloody revenge thriller. Director Tsang even indulges in some exploitation shenanigans just before the big finish as a scene cuts away to a close up shot of a busty Chinese hooker having her top removed by the shady Superintendent. The camera lingers on the woman's bountiful assets just before Luo arrives to spoil the scene.
Actor Shek Kin will always be remembered most famously for featuring as Bruce Lee's nemesis in ENTER THE DRAGON (1973), but he is also memorable as the devilish looking Hao Li Shan who is the catalyst by which the all the tragic events fall onto the hero, Luo Tian Guang. Although he exits the film a bit quickly during the bloody free-for-all finale, his villainous looks provide a striking contrast to the other performers and his rough features ensured him a long career as a heavy. He also appeared as one of the bad guys in Tsang Tseng Chai's violent spaghetti Eastern, THE FUGITIVE (1972).
In addition to Hua Shan as one of the two cinematographers, there's also Wu Yu Shen (John Woo) as an assistant director. Liang Shao Sung handles the choreography and he also created the action for the ambitious blockbuster, THE 14 AMAZONS (1972) as well as the gun-fu action of THE FUGITIVE (1972) and the KING BOXER (1972) clone, THE THUNDERBOLT FIST (1972).
In addition to these, Liang also spearheaded the action of the Wu Xia films LADY OF STEEL (1970), THE LADY HERMIT (1971), THE LONG CHASE (1972) and the somewhat bland TRILOGY OF SWORDSMANSHIP (1972). He is also the father of future indy star Bruce Liang Siu Lung who has a brief role here as a thug that gets killed by Yueh Hua during the finale. He appeared as the main villain in KUNG FU HUSTLE (2005).
An interesting cast as well as an enticing pedigree behind the camera enlightens this unexpectedly violent gambling/kung fu hybrid; surely one of the first of its kind that would pave the way for the gambling dramas, comedies and action films that followed. THE CASINO (1972) just barely misses classic status and has enough surprising moments and good performances to warrant a view. It will be of particular interest to those who like their action films done in a tragic fashion which more often than not exemplified the Shaw House Style.
Those that like there bashers with a lot of blood and gore will surely get a kick out of the finale as well as several other gruesome moments. If you lean more towards the later, more stylistically choreographed films post '76, you probably will find little of interest here aside from the few bloody outbursts mentioned above. For all others, it's an obscure film that is well worth seeking out and one I'm glad I added to my collection.
This review is representative of the HK region 3 DVD from IVL.