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Monday, March 23, 2009

Shaolin Iron Claws (1978) review


Wong Tao (as Wang Tao;commander Hou), Li Yi Min (Ping Lung), Chen Sing (Chang Sun), Chang Yi (White haired villain), Hua Ling (Miss Poon), Li Kuo Chung (Long haired villain), Chang Chi Ping (Knife throwing villain), Shih Ting Ken (Bald villain), Chen I Ho (Poon Shao Chi), Yen Hsiao I (Poon Ta Pa), Chu Lai (Yen Cheung Chueng)

Directed by Ko Shih Hao; Fu Tu Film Company (HK); Fighting directors: Ko Pao & Chang Chi Lung

Detesting the newly established Republic, warlords seized local power oppressing innocent civilians. The despotic Chang Sun plotted restoring the monarchy to its former statute of malevolence and persecution. Using his guile, he tricks the heirs to the crumbling Manchu empire into signing a document giving him total control and threatening the rise of the new democratic government. Not long after, two young pickpockets decide to steal a satchel from two seedy looking individuals inside a restaurant. Believing it to be money, the two boys discover it's the document. The righteous Commander Hou hears the commotion and beats up the two men.

Learning that the document is the list of names accrued by the evil Chang Sun, Commander Hou sends a message to the capital alerting the government of Chang's plan. However, the couriers never make it there. Soon, an emissary of Chang Sun is paid off by another power hungry official (Chang Yi) to spy on his own boss and relent any information regarding the list of conspirators. Not long after, a masked man begins killing off district officials that had seen the stolen list pinning the blame on Commander Hou. Together with Ping Lung, the two battle to the death with the villains. During the struggle, one last revelation is unveiled bringing the conspiracy out into the open.

Wong Tao headlines this disjointed kung fu flick which has an interesting storyline similar to the one in the superior dramatic action film from Chang Cheh, IRON BODYGUARD (1973). Where that film dealt with the reformists, the last crumbling days of the Qing dynasty and the birth of the People's Republic, SHAOLIN IRON CLAWS (1978) treads similar ground, but in a much more confusing way. While there is a story here, the accent is on the fight scenes. This may account for why the plot is so damn fragmented. Even the title makes no sense (there's nothing to do with Shaolin lest the Chinese version makes a reference) and has no bearing on the events that unfold in the movie.

Either this dubbed export edition is missing some scenes, or the makers had neither the time, money nor the interest in making a cohesive story. Considering so many of the indy kung fu movies have little to no plot, this film is definitely a contender in the 'making it up as we go along' category. Characters are introduced and never heard from again, or character development is hinted at, but never explored. Blame that on the screenplay by Liu Sung Pe.

Bad guy personified, Chen Sing, is introduced at the outset as the one who sets the whole storyline into action. He has a burned left hand which he submerges into hot, burning coals giving him a powerful punch that ensures death from one blow. Yet, after the opening 20 minutes, you never see him again! His name is mentioned once or twice, but that's it. Also, once Commander Hou has the list in his possession (why were two thugs carrying it around anyways?), he sends two of his men to the capital with news of Chang's plan, but they are killed before they leave the city. How the villains knew what they were carrying is anyones guess.

Later on, Chang Yi is introduced as another white haired villain, yet the dubbed version never bothers to give him a name aside from being referred to as "your excellency". Presumed to be one of the other warlords vying for control mentioned in the opening narration, his place in the film isn't really explained, at least not in the dubbed edition. Is he supposed to be the Qing Emperor? If so, it is never stated. He appears around the thirty minute mark and isn't seen again till the end when he duels with both Wang Tao and Li Yi Min. Another perplexing plot device is the reveal at the end that Ping Lung is working for Chang Yi's character. It turns out Ping is the masked man killing anyone who has seen the list. Just why he is working for the bad guys is never explained, either. I suppose the scriptwriter thought it would be a novel idea to have the angelic Li Yi Min as a villain as he always played a hero in his star vehicles.

Also, at the end when Ping Lung is revealed to be an antagonist, Commander Hou says he knew it all along. His evidence is pretty limp at best and when he gives his reason, it just comes off as a lazy cop out to move the film on to its finale. Another fumbled attempt at characterization comes in the form of a love triangle between Commander Hou and two women. Apparently Commander Hou is involved in some way with Yen Cheung Cheung and another female, Miss Poon, who also vies for Hou's affection. It's never explained just what this relationship is nor is it explored in any depth. Miss Poon makes a reference that Hou is "having an affair" with Yen, but again, it's very confusing as the dubbing makes no mention that the police Captain is married to, or engaged to either of these women.

The dubbing is some of the most aggravatingly awful ever heard in one of these movies and the voices will either equate to laughs or fingernails on a chalk board depending on your tolerance. Especially annoying are the two young boys, the Poon brothers. The obese one doesn't look all that young, yet the guy dubbing his voice thought it would be ingenious to deliver all his lines as if he were in tears through the whole movie. The delivery is really quite hilarious and this is one time I will say that the dubbing makes the film more bearable considering the incoherent nature of the plot.

The one place the film does deliver is where it counts the most; the fight choreography. What with the fast and furious nature by which these independent kung fu movies are cranked out, with little resources available, you at least expect the fight scenes to be hold your interest. Every fight scene is good and Wang Tao is really good here. Li Yi Min is underused, but then, he shows off a bit at the end. Chang Yi also shines during the finale with the three participants delivering the best fight of the whole movie. Wang Tao, though, is the centerpiece of all the action.

Wang (or Wong) Tao was a popular kung fu star for a number of years throughout the 1970's and into the 1980's. He starred predominantly in independent features and starred as the hero in the Golden Harvest movie, SLAUGHTER IN SAN FRANCISCO (1974) which co-starred Chuck Norris as the villain. The film bombed terribly and Wang was blamed for its failure. He later came to prominence in films such as THE SECRET RIVALS (1976) for Seasonal Films, a fledgling indy movie company struggling for a place amidst the cavalcade of competition.

Other films starring Wang Tao are THE HOT, THE COOL & THE VICIOUS, STRUGGLE WITH DEATH (both 1976), EAGLE'S CLAW, the awful, but hilarious FIGHT FOR SURVIVAL (both 1977), 18 SWIRLING RIDERS (1980), BATTLE FOR THE REPUBLIC OF CHINA (1981; a co-production between Shaw Brothers and Central Motion Picture Company), NINJA AVENGER (1983) and ISLAND WARRIORS (1983), one of the most unusual Asian action films.

Li Yi Min was a Taiwanese opera trained martial artist who got his first big break in Shaw Brothers productions for Chang Cheh while the venerable director was in Taiwan making pictures under his Chang's Company banner. After appearing in SHAOLIN TEMPLE and SEVEN MAN ARMY (both 1976), Li also did THE BRAVE ARCHER (1977) and LIFE GAMBLE (1979) at Shaw's. The last two films did nothing to promote the mans skills and likely was the reasoning for his departure from the company. Li Yi Min then went on to showcase some masterful acrobatic skills in such notable fan favorites as SEVEN GRANDMASTERS (1978) and MYSTERY OF CHESSBOXING (1979). He also showcased his talents in SECRETS OF SHAOLIN KUNG FU, CRAZY GUY WITH SUPER KUNG FU (both 1979) and ROVING HEROES (1980).

Chang Yi got his career going in some top notch Shaw Brothers Wuxia movies where he essayed the role of the hero. One of the most violent and most acclaimed of these is Yueh Feng's BELLS OF DEATH (1968). Other swordplay pictures starring, or co-starring Chang Yi are THE SILENT SWORDSMAN (1967), SWORDSWOMEN THREE, SECRET OF THE DIRK and the sequel to RAPE OF THE SWORD (1967), A TASTE OF COLD STEEL (1968;released in 1970). In later years, Chang would assume the role of antagonist in a series of kung fu actioners such as EAGLE'S CLAW (1977), CHALLENGE OF DEATH (1978), SEVEN COMMANDMENTS OF KUNG FU (1979) and most memorably in Sammo Hung's THE VICTIM (1980).

This film could have been something really special had more attention been paid to the script what with the potential for multiple villains and all. Kung fu fans looking for a fight flick with a good story to go along with the action best look elsewhere as you won't find it here. However, if you just want to see some good fights with some familiar faces, than you will likely get something out of SHAOLIN IRON CLAWS (1978).

This review is representative of the Far East Flix DVD. It can be purchased here...

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