Saturday, June 27, 2009

Cinema of Excess: Chang Cheh & His Films Part One

Ti Lung & David Chiang in NEW ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1971)


Chao Kuo, even with his intestines spilling out below his left leg, has enough guts to continue fighting the leader of the ninjas played by Chen Hui Min in FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (1982), Chang Cheh's most wild and comic book enhanced action film.

One can't quite discuss the subject of Asian cinema without bringing up the Godfather of Hong Kong Action movies, the revered and groundbreaking director of nearly a hundred action films, Chang Cheh. He reinvented the Hong Kong action film turning it into a male dominated world of sudden death and valiantly bloody last stands. Chang's heroes were bereft of cowardice instead welcoming a gruesome demise standing up with open arms, closed fists and eyes wide open.

Tang Yen San, mortally wounded by arrows and spears, uses his Samson like strength to bring the house down atop the Mongol hordes in Chang Cheh's historical fantasy epic, MARCO POLO (1975).

His was a cinema of blood & thunder sagas of chivalrous swordsmen fighting against cruel oppressors or invading hordes of near insurmountable numbers. His was a cinema of experimentation--an exploration of new and sometimes bizarre avenues that were often topical of the times. His was a cinema of change, of modern violence as well as bloodshed in a period setting depicting historical events told in a spectacularly violent and visceral manner.

Lo Mang might be dead, but before being pinned to his masters chamber door, he lost a gallon of blood and still managed to eliminate about 30 nasty ninjas in the process. From FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (1982).

His was a cinema of brutally raw power blazing with energy and veracity populated by heroes who bled righteousness to their last breath. His was a cinema of bloody comic book kung fu artistry that remains popular with a legion of martial arts film fans to this day. This is the Cinema of Excess; this is the cinema of vengeance; this is the cinema of Chang Cheh.

Wang Yu in a classic swordplay pose from Chang Cheh's genre defining film, ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967) just prior to losing an appendage.

Chang Cheh was a critic and screenwriter before becoming the hottest director in HK during the late 1960's. He directed a handful of films before defining his signature style with 1967's groundbreaking swordplay feature, THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN. One of Cheh's earlier pictures was the musical drama, THE BUTTERFLY CHALICE (1965) and his first stab at a wuxia pian, TIGER BOY (1966). The latter was an experiment to see how well Cheh could handle an action film. TIGER BOY starred Jimmy Wang Yu, an up and coming young actor who would later make a huge name for himself in ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967) as well as in the media and his links to the Triads.

The swashbuckling Chinese Knighthood tale, THE MAGNIFICENT TRIO (1966), Chang's first color chivalrous swordsman movie.

TIGER BOY (1966) was a B/W film and it was successful enough for Shaw's to gamble on Cheh to direct more films for the company in the same vein. Sadly, TIGER BOY (1966) was never released again and was not set to be released on DVD by Celestial through Intercontinental Video Limited. However, a print of the film lies within the HK Movie Archives for posterity. Also in 1966, Cheh would direct THE MAGNIFICENT TRIO, a remake of a Japanese film, THREE OUTLAW SAMURAI (1964) from famous director Hedeo Gosha. Here, Cheh casts Jimmy Wang Yu (again) along with another up and coming star, Lo Lieh and also the short, but stocky character actor, Cheng Lei. This was one of many in a long line of new style Chivalrous Swordsman movies that were popular in the 1960's lasting into the early 1970's.

Tang Yen San gets fatally slashed by Fan Mei Sheng as the Black Whirlwind, Li Kuei from Chang Cheh's monumental epic, THE WATER MARGIN (1972).

Basically, Sir Run Run Shaw took the formula of the Wu Xia Pian, movies that featured flying swordsmen (and sometimes swordswomen) with superpowers and made them more realistic while still retaining an air of mysticism that was synonymous with the hundreds of these folktales passed down throughout Chinese history as well as Chinese literature. Gone were the characters emitting laser beams or other fantastical elements (although they would not abandon these mainstays entirely) and were replaced by more feasible flourishes that would be more acceptable to Western sensibilities (Shaw's always had their sights not just on HK, but outside it as well).

Ti Lung clears a path in blood from the gruesome and gore drenched NEW ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1971). This film contains one of the most shocking and gruesome death sequences in Chang Cheh's oeuvre.

There were still the occasional huge leaps or immense strength from either one of the protagonist or antagonist, but this was often limited to the main characters. Hong Kong could not totally abandon their fantasy heritage entirely as some phantasmagorical elements were to be expected as it is commonplace for this genre. Cheh would direct one more swashbuckling Chivalrous Swordsman film, 1967's TRAIL OF THE BROKEN BLADE before re-defining the genre with the brutal ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN the same year.

Cheng Tien Chi & Lo Mang battle the ninjas in Chang's most flamboyant and over the top action epic, FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (1982).

However, he would return to the Wuxia Pian during his later years with violent martial world pictures such as THE BRAVE ARCHER series (1977-1982), LEGEND OF THE FOX (1979), MASKED AVENGERS (1981) and FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (1982). Some of these films co-mingled both the swordplay genre and the kung fu film, but they nonetheless deal with heroic, or tragic figures within the martial world.

Lo Mang, the righteous shining knight is tricked by the duplicitous female played by Chen Pei Hsi from FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (1982).

One of Chang Cheh's many innovations during this time was that he totally changed the way moviegoers perceived film stars. Before he came on the scene as the new hotshot director, HK cinema was dominated by female performers. Sometimes, women would even play the male roles. Chang Cheh refined all that and focused the attention on male dominated performances and more times than not, portrayed women as secondary characters or made them helpless or evil, only being there to help bring the hero to his doom.

Chiao Chiao & Jimmy Wang Yu share a tender moment from THE ASSASSIN (1967), one of Chang Cheh's crowning achievements.

A bit of a chauvinist, Chang Cheh felt women had their place and he was giving the cinematic limelight to macho bravado, an endeavor that eventually relieved female performances as what the public wanted to see. That's not to say there weren't movies centered around female leads, only that now male roles became the norm by which many others followed. Even still, it took some time for the films themselves to give notice to the male stars as far as the credits were concerned.

Lo Lieh & his lover, played by Fanny Fan Hiu Juan from THE MAGNIFICENT TRIO (1966)

Case in point, Chang Cheh's 1966 film THE MAGNIFICENT TRIO. Aside from the stunning opening sequence you will notice that the credits list the women first-- Margaret Tu Chuan, Chin Ping and Fanny Fan. Right after the credits read co-starring-- Wang Yu, Lo Lieh and Cheng Lei. Who exactly is the Magnificent Trio of the films title? Obviously the male characters are the focal point of the film but since performances by women still had a firm grip on the HK audience of the time, they are listed first even though they have far less an impact on the proceedings than the three swordsmen, the real Magnificent Trio of director Cheh's first color swordplay epic.

A bloodied and disgraced Wang Yu in Chang Cheh's seminal ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967).

By the time ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967) came along, Wang Yu was top billed. In contrast, on the credits of films for other directors films well after ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN's release, women were still often top billed over the male star regardless of how much screen time they had. This, too, changed soon after.

A rare event of romanticism in a Chang Cheh film between Wang Yu & Chiao Chiao from Chang's classic historical action drama, THE ASSASSIN (1967).

With the success of Chang's films, the transition of female dominated cinema was slowly losing its footing at the Hong Kong movie houses. Thus began Chang Cheh's ascendancy to the top further cementing Shaw Brothers as a dominant force in cinemas across Asia.

An instance of male friendship from Chang Cheh's graphically violent THE NEW ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1971).

This advancement wasn't without its downside, however. Because the spotlight was now on the men, this change in cinematic acceptance led to much debate over Chang Cheh's sexual preference as his continued filmography contained more and more proposed homo-erotic tendencies. I think this had more to do with the directors fascination with his ideals and his oft filmed subjects of honor, loyalty, truth and brotherhood among men than overt attraction between two male fighters.

Fu Sheng, Richard Harrison and Chi Kuan Chun prepare for the big and bloody denouement in Chang's epic, MARCO POLO (1975).

Chang Cheh says this in his memoirs, "In my films there are depictions of homosexual characters, and I have expressed interest in topics that touch on homosexuality, but these have absolutely nothing to do with male friendship!"

Richard Harrison & Chi Kuan Chun share a moment of brotherhood prior to the fatally skewered Chinese hero expiring from massive blood loss from MARCO POLO (1975).

The theme of blood brotherhood among men runs through most all of his films, some more prominently than others. This expression dominates his work from 1967 thru 1977 and is very blatant as nearly every scene is brimming with fighters proclaiming their patriotism through acts of chest pounding, blood gushing, jingoistic violence on an often outrageous, yet adrenaline pumped level never seen before, or since. The closest film in recent memory to come closest to Chang Cheh's style of over the top "never say die" attitude would be Zack Snyder's 300 (2006).

Kuo Chui & Lo Mang get their three kicks and punches on the near invincible body of Yang Hsiung from Chang Cheh's classic comic Wuxia/kung fu hybrid, CRIPPLED AVENGERS (1978).

However, after 1977, his films became more compact and comic book in approach no doubt in lieu of the unexpected success of SNAKE IN THE EAGLE'S SHADOW (1978), an independent kung fu film that proved to be the savior for Jackie Chan as the proverbial final nail was about to be placed into the coffin his career had been placed in. During Chang Cheh's last five years at Shaw Brothers, his earlier themes were mostly lost amongst extended and meticulously choreographed sequences of acrobatic brilliance. The masculinity and male friendship is still there, only it's not nearly as profound as a decade earlier.

Wang Yu readies his blade in ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967).

ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967) is an extremely important film in HK cinema history. It is a landmark in many ways. First and foremost, it was the first HK film to showcase graphic bloodshed. No film before it had ever went so far in showcasing massive blood-letting and dismemberments. These sequences were shot in a way that revealed an almost documentary approach lending the action scenes an incredibly brutal flair the likes of which had not been seen before by the HK movie-going public.


Granted, after seeing some of Cheh's later spectacularly violent martial arts films before this one, ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967) is slightly more disciplined but putting it into perspective from the audience of the time, it must have shocked filmgoers completely.


The film features all of Chang's ingredients mixed together for the first time. There's the sacrificing hero, the conniving and deceiving female, the submissive yet level headed and wise female and the blood. Also on hand is Chang's innovative approach of taking the camera off the tripod instilling the above mentioned documentary feel to the proceedings. This gives the impression that you are there witnessing these altercations.

Wang Yu & Pan Ying Tzu discuss their problematic relationship. Note Chiao Chiao hiding behind the reeds to the left.

ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967) was also the first action film to make over 1 million dollars at the HK box office. This made Chang the talk of the town. His new film which featured a male lead trounced the competition and made Chang Cheh, as well as Jimmy Wang Yu mega stars and through its success, director Chang became known as "The Million Dollar Director". Even though his career took a slow dive after 1977, he never lost respect within the industry he helped mold into something both very violent, and also very special. The vision of Chang Cheh was not only influential in Asia, but it was felt in America as well.

Tien Feng (middle) chastises Pan Ying Tzu and his two other brash students

Fang Gang as played by Jimmy Wang Yu in ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN, is the preferred disciple of his teacher. Adopted from a poor family, he is despised by his teachers three other well-to-do students who try to undermine Fang at every turn. This leads up to the scene where he loses his arm in a hauntingly beautiful sequence emboldened by the gorgeous and meticulously constructed Shaw sets; this one taking place at night amidst the snowfall.

Wang Yu struggles to find shelter from the weather from ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967).

Some have criticized this scene for being a bit of a stretch considering Fang's skill level; that a pouty, self conscious female would be able to do such a thing as chop off the hero's arm is unfathomable. I see this a bit differently. Fang's arrogance prevented him from believing this woman capable, or even having the temerity to even attempt such a thing. By his own stubborn ego, he inadvertently lets his guard down for just such a grisly occurrence.

A very Japanese styled altercation in ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967).

Fang exemplifies Chang's views of the common man and his feelings towards honor and truth. Many times one must suffer for believing what is right and following a path towards righteousness. Many of Cheh's characters are the poor and downtrodden, these being the righteous, while the wealthy, or comfortable characters are often perceived as devious and only interested in personal gain putting their own materialistic needs ahead of everything else.

Chen Kuan Tai tries to coerce Cheng Kang Yeh into living a good life free of crime and violence from Chang Cheh's classic gangster epic, THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972).

Sometimes Cheh's characters would intermingle both of these dichotomies--a poor, honest soul is seduced by money and comforts whose character gradually changes although some remnants of their former self remain, they slowly begin a steady decline until the inevitable conclusion where their arrogance and greed has caused their downfall. Examples of this are found in THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972), DISCIPLES OF SHAOLIN (1975) and THE CHINATOWN KID (1977). The first two ended up being the biggest HK hits of Chang Cheh's illustrious career.


Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Manitou (1978) review


Susan Strasberg (Karen Tandy), Tony Curtis (Harry Erskine), Michael Ansara (John Singing Rock), Stella Stevens (Amelia Crusoe), Burgess Meredith (Dr. Snow), Jon Cedar (Dr. Hughes), Paul Mantee (Dr. McEvoy)

Directed by William Girdler

John Singing Rock: It's...Misquamacus...the greatest medicine man of all. He turned rivers, made storms...mountains rose at his spirit ignored demon denied him.

Dr. Hughes: My God...

John Singing Rock: Your God won't help you. Nothing in your Christian world will help...not prayers, not holy water...not the weight of a thousand of your churches.

Karen Tandy discovers one day that she has a bizarre growth on the back of her neck. At first believing it to be a tumor of some kind, it is soon revealed that it is actually a fetus that is growing inside the lump. With the aid of an Indian shaman, John Singing Rock, he unveils to Karen and her friend, Harry Erskine, that the fetus is actually the evil Indian medicine man, Misquamacus. Threatening to rip himself from her back, John Singing Rock engages the wicked and demonic Misquamacus in a magical duel to the death.

The ambitious and economically creative director, William Girdler helms this, his last picture before his untimely death in a freak helicopter accident while scouting locations for his next film. THE MANITOU (1978) is easily Girdler's most accomplished work. With each succeeding film, Girdler seemed to hone his craft and enjoyed doing the type of films he loved. Based on the novel by Graham Masterson, Girdler's movie is very faithful to the source novel and the script is quite good, even though it has its fair share of goofy dialog and unintentional hilarity.

As with many of Girdler's other movies, THE MANITOU is filled with big Hollywood stars. His most star studded effort, seeing the film now, it would be interesting to hear what such luminaries as Tony Curtis and Susan Strasberg had to say about appearing in this peculiar horror/science fiction motion picture.

Although it's a low budget production (estimated at 3 million; the biggest Girdler had to work with up to that time), the makers manage to give the film a polish and sheen that belies its shortcomings. For 3 million, Girdler and his team deliver a lot of bang for the buck creating some wildly creative set pieces most of which occur during the final 30 minutes. Obviously STAR WARS (1977) was on the scriptwriters minds as one scene inside a hospital has a laser beam go haywire destroying an operating room and then there's the incredible finale that takes place in outer space(!) when Karen confronts Misquamacus with everything from laser blasts to meteors. Oh, and I forgot to mention that Strasberg is half naked while emitting lasers from her palms. The film is worth a viewing just for these outrageous final moments alone.

The last ten minutes is sure to get a giggle out of even the most grumpy individual. Going completely over the top, there's no way you can view the last minutes without laughing out loud. Coming totally out of left field, this incredible sequence relies on "white mans magic" to send Misquamacus back where he came. Harry Erskine gets the idea to turn on all the computers in the hospital (since according to John Singing Rock, all things have their own Manitou's even objects) to fight back against the demon. This is alluded to earlier in the film however when Karen, still possessed by the evil Indian, causes the laser beam in the operating room to go haywire as the light emanating from it scared the devilish spirit.

Of course, outside of the STAR WARS connection, the most obvious comparisons will be made with THE EXORCIST (1973). THE MANITOU (1978) follows the same template basically. Karen Tandy is discovered to have a growth on the back of her neck and strange behavior soon follows just as Regan did in the Friedkin film. Also, there's the extended sequence at the end wherein the good Indian medicine man combats the demonic Misquamacus in an attempt to save Karen's life just as Father Merrin and Father Karris did against Pazuzu who had possession of Regan's body. The one difference is that the ending of THE MANITOU is far more extravagant and outlandish.

There's another scene earlier in the film that's pretty hilarious. It involves the psychic charlatan, Harry Erksine and one of his clients, Mrs. Herz. The spirit of Misquamacus takes control of Mrs. Herzs' body while Harry reads from his Tarot cards. He ends up with the 'death' card and attempts to play it off. At this point, he begins to notice the woman is having an attack of some kind. She then begins spouting some strange dialect and exits the room and literally floats down the hallway! Harry runs after her as the woman then plummets down the long flight of stairs taking out the entire railing as she painfully bumps and rolls down to the floor below.

Tony Curtis, nominated for an Oscar for his performance alongside Sidney Poitier in THE DEFIANT ONES (1958; sort of remade in 1972 as BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA), plays the sham shaman, Harry Erskine. Curtis was the father of Jamie Lee Curtis. He appeared in starring roles in such Hollywood movies like the big budget MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD clone, THE GREAT RACE (1965), DON'T MAKE WAVES (1967) where he featured alongside of Claudia Cardinale, THE BOSTON STRANGLER (1968) and YOU CAN'T WIN'EM ALL (1970) where he co-starred with Charles Bronson.

Erskine belongs to a circle of mystics including Stella Stevens (whose almost unrecognizable in her gypsy makeup). Some of these characters are mysteriously dropped once Erskine and his friends have a meeting with the kooky Dr. Snow (played by Burgess Meredith), the only "white man" who seems to know anything about Indian magic.

Michael Ansara, who had been in Girdler's DAY OF THE ANIMALS from 1977 (a lot of the actors in THE MANITOU were in Girdler's prior films) where he played another Indian character, plays it to the hilt this time out. Possessing one of the most commanding voices in Hollywood, Ansara can be easily spotted in just about any television program. One of his most memorable roles on the small screen was as the determined and vengeful Klingon, Kang, on the season three episode, 'Day of the Dove' of the original STAR TREK series. He also played the gorgeous Princess Ardala's right hand man on several episodes of BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY (1979-1980). Ansara also played the villainous Colonel Diego in GUNS OF THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1969), the third entry in the popular film series.

One of the best scenes in the movie concerns the first meeting between Harry and John Singing Rock. Not only does it explain just what a Manitou is and what it will take to fight one, but the script also contains some subtle themes of racism between the Indians and Whites. The dialog between the two is detailed below...

John: Well, what you're dealing with is the Manitou, or spirit of a great medicine man...possibly in his fourth or fifth reincarnation.

Harry: Is that bad?

John: For you, yes. Each time a Manitou lives...he gains in strength. By the eighth reincarnation, he can join Gitchy Manitou as a permanent spirit. Until then, the more lives lived...the more powerful.

Harry: Well, do you stop it?

John: You don't. You don't hold it, you don't slow it down. each Manitou has its own momentum. All you can do is divert the spell and send it back from whence it came. But, that would take lots of power to force a Manitou to make a 180 degree turn. With so powerful a medicine man you might have to wait until he leaves the woman's body.

Harry: That would kill her!

John: It would kill her body...but her spirit would live in the medicine man.

Harry: The spirit would live...great.

John: There's only one thing I know that might stop him.

Harry: What's that?

John: Evoke the power of other spirits.

Harry: How would I do that?

John: A mountain is good...try wind. It's one of my favorites. Tell them John Singing Rock sent you.

Harry: Why won't you help me?!

John: Mr. see this valley? From where we stand, there's over a half million acres of land. Some of the richest farm land in the world. 200 hundred years ago my ancestors owned all of this it's under title to the Missouri Holding Company. I don't want your pleas for help Mr. White Man. I don't need your money!

This piece of added subtext also rears its head during the crazy denouement. In it, it becomes apparent that John's powers are no match for Misquamacus, yet it is soon discovered that modern devices such as machines and computers (which also have their own Manitou's) are enough to stop him. Even John states at one point that the spirits won't help because it's "white man's magic". During the "Everything but the kitchen sink" conclusion, there's also a bit of gore thrown into the mix. There's a hospital orderly who has his skin removed (not shown), a decapitation of a nurse and a man who explodes when he gets caught in the crossfire of the machine Manitou's.

Dale Tate and Frank Van Der Veer were the photographic optical effects supervisors. Van Der Veer had a nice career working on some big movies including KING KONG (1976), STAR WARS (1977), CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981) and CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982). Tom Burman had a hand in the make up effects. Some of his credits include THE EXTERMINATOR (1980), MY BLOODY VALENTINE (1981), HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME (1981) and HALLOWEEN 3: SEASON OF THE WITCH (1982). On another note, Charles Kissinger, who had played one of the leads in Girdler's Ed Gein inspired, THREE ON A MEATHOOK (1972) has a small role as a hospital attendant.

THE MANITOU (1978) is the last and best of one of cinemas finest then up and coming young filmmakers. His films may be classified as 'B' movies by the mainstream cognoscenti, but they had an energy and creative drive about them through the performances of the main participants and the ingenuity conceived by the director and his crew that dispels many of Hollywood's soulless big budget extravaganzas. Girdler was a talent taken far too soon and no doubt had he lived, the cinema of horror, science fiction and fantasy would be an even better place to enjoy your popcorn inside that darkened theater.

This review is representative of the Anchor Bay DVD.
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