The king prepares to make a wager with the sly ambassador over the attacking general Ming; which of his 13 sons to send out to take the job of killing the general.
'THIRTEEN SONS OF THE YELLOW DRAGON':
THE 13 BEST CHANG CHEH ACTION FILMS
This is simply my Thirteen Best Chang Cheh films and what I feel are his best movies. Considering the man directed close to a hundred pictures, narrowing it down to thirteen is a very difficult task. These 13 are in no particular order, by the way, but according to their year of production. This list is strictly for his action movies and none of his dramatic features are included such as the avante garde dramatic classic, DEAD END (1969). Considering its place in the pantheon of Asian cinema, I included THE BLOOD BROTHERS (1973) as an addendum and not in this list. It is possibly his most revered picture, but it's not a favorite of mine, but I respect its place in his long career of classic movies.
1. THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967)
A vitally important film in the annals of martial arts cinema and action cinema period. It ushered in a new style of cinematic violence that hadn't been seen before and would soon morph into something far more extreme than what is seen here. Chang Cheh found ways to continuously outdo himself in the ways in which he would have his heroes perish, or be injured. ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN was a benchmark by which hundreds more followed. The filmmaking is of a caliber that recalls a western style, but mixed with an Eastern flavor, both of China and Japan. Jimmy Wang Yu became a huge star after the release of this film.
2. THE ASSASSIN (1967)
Chang Cheh takes a slightly different route this time out focusing more attention on character development and even giving lots of screen time to the female character played by Chiao Chiao. Many have criticized Cheh over his lack of women roles, or focus on the fairer sex, but here, he gives the ladies a rare chance to shine in a non action format, but no less dramatic way. Possibly Chang Cheh's best achievement, the film is loosely based on a real historical occurrence found in the 'Biography of Assassins'. Unexpectedly, despite being on the talky side, the film was a huge hit. Most fans craving non stop blood and gore will be disappointed, but those who are attracted to storyline and characterization will find a lot to chew on here.
3. VENGEANCE! (1969/released 1970)
Cheh's bloody tale of revenge earned himself a Best Director award at the 16th Asian Film Festival in 1970. David Chiang also too the Best Actor award. This picture is told with a Western sensibility and is a basic plot of a younger brother taking revenge for the unjust murder of his elder sibling at the hands of some gangsters working within an Opera troupe. This was Chang's attempt at transposing the period swordplay genre into a more modern setting. He would revisit the modern setting a handful of times. Famed HK director, John Woo was an assistant director here and it's obvious after watching this film, that Chang was extremely influential on John Woo. The film, strangely enough, wasn't that huge of a success in HK.
4. THE HEROIC ONES (1970)
One of several 'Cast of Thousands' films Chang Cheh spearheaded between 1970 and 1975. Shakespearean in execution and ambitious in scope, this bombastic Wuxia tragedy is bolstered by some highly impressive and massive battle sequences from ace choreographers, Liu Chia Liang, his brother, Liu Chia Yung and the Liu's longtime associate, Tang Chia. Chang's barbarian epic is told in true 'Triumph & Tragedy' style relating inner turmoil within a family of near invincible proportions. Jealousy, greed and eventual murder lead to a typically somber, yet bloodily heroic finish in one of Cheh's most famous swordplay films. One of the films aka's, 13 SONS OF THE YELLOW DRAGON, perfectly encapsulates the main thrust of the plot.
5. THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972)
This hugely successful and extremely violent gangster epic started a whirlwind of similar movies involving Triad organizations and the bloody conflicts that ensue. Chen Kuan Tai became a household name overnight and a sequel was quickly put into production. Based on the exploits of real life hero, Ma Yung Chen. It's one of the most unusual martial arts actioners in that characterization is paramount over the action. But when the action comes, the blood flies freely and the gore drenched finale rewards the viewer with one of the most brutally violent action sequences you are ever likely to see. John Woo again performs assistant director duties on this picture. A remake followed in 1996 directed by Cory Yuen Kwei. It was the first Shaw Brothers picture in over a decade.
6. SHAOLIN MARTIAL ARTS (1974)
One of Chang Cheh's Shaolin Cycle of movies began in 1973 with the production of FIVE SHAOLIN MASTERS. The first of these movies to see release, however, was HEROES TWO (1973). SHAOLIN MARTIAL ARTS is possibly the most focused of all the films in the cycle. The characters are all very well drawn and all possess their own quirks and mannerisms, there are abundant training sequences and both protagonists get love interests. The choreography by Liu Chia Liang is stunning and the musical cues used fit the film pefectly. This was the first film to feature the teacher/student dynamic that would blossom with the release of SNAKE IN THE EAGLE'S SHADOW in 1978.
7. DISCIPLES OF SHAOLIN (1975)
Alexander Fu Sheng's finest performance, the plot line of BOXER FROM SHANTUNG is recycled with some minor changes resulting in Cheh's biggest HK hit ever. This film contains some choice fighting scenes perfectly capturing the raw power of Cheh's adrenaline charged heroes. One of the directors most poignant and emotional productions, the film also marks one of the last movies in which Liu Chia Liang handled the action design before leaving Chang's group and embarking on his own directorial career. Although it's part of Cheh's Shaolin Cycle, it isn't about Shaolin at all aside from the styles used and the ongoing battle between Ming and Qing. Fu Sheng was always good, but he was seldom this great.
8. FIVE VENOMS (1978)
The inaugural film that introduced the world to the acrobatic and weapons laden combat style of the group that came to be known in fan circles as the Venoms. This first film is curious in that it is mostly a suspense thriller with fighting thrown in amongst scenes of torture and agonizing death. Even though the fight choreography is cumbersome and unoriginal, the films plotline more than makes up for this. The idea behind the Poison Clan is a novel one and this definitely lends itself one of the most comic book appearances of the directors later film work. A hugely influential movie, it was a success in Hong Kong, and one of the most fondly remembered kung fu movies of all time.
9. INVINCIBLE SHAOLIN (1978)
All six of the original actors from the classic FIVE VENOMS (1978) take part in this great film featuring lots of training and top class choreography. One of the most unusual kung fu films in that all of the participants are good guys and the predicament that leads to their confrontation is all a set up by a Manchu General. It's also a rare lead role for Sun Chien, the kicker of the group. The ending battle is a classic example of Chang Cheh machismo featuring the usual creatively bloody violence.
Tou Tin Toh (Chen Kuan Tai) inspects his crippled (Lu Feng) sons new iron hands. These metal appendages conceal hidden weapons.
10. CRIPPLED AVENGERS (1978)
Another comic book come to brutal life. The director along with mega prolific scriptwriter, Ni Kuang (I Kuang) fashion a grand guinol kung fu spectacle where hapless individuals get their eyes gouged out, limbs strewn from their bodies and a swordsman is turned into a mental midget while the villainous audience enjoys a meal with their entertainment. Certainly one of the best and most beloved kung fu pictures. Characterization is on point as both hero and villain are designed meticulously creating memorable protagonists and antagonists. The end fight gets a little too Barnum & Baily at times (during the Kuo Chui, Chiang Sheng & Lu Feng fight), but it's still a sight to behold and the film contains many extraordinary characters and inventive fights.
11. SHAOLIN RESCUERS (1979)
While many of Chang Cheh's later output was done on a much smaller scale and imbued with a totally comic book approach, these later movies have an extreme following with kung fu fans. Whereas many of the Venom movies were recycled ideas of his past glories, this film contains themes present in Cheh's lively 'Revolution Era Spaghetti Eastern', THE ANONYMOUS HEROES (1971). The Venoms get plenty of screen time and show lots of charisma especially Lu Feng as historical Chinese traitor, Kao Chin Chuen. Feng is like a Terminator here showing no emotion mowing down various Shaolin fighters along with his crew in an attempt to eradicate one of the most famous historical heroes, Hung Si Kwan. With all the great rapport with the principle actors, the final 20 minute battle is one of the best ever captured on screen featuring all manner of hand to hand and weapons combat.
12. MASKED AVENGERS (1981)
The directors revamping of his own seminal FIVE VENOMS (1978) sees a brutally dark superhero murder mystery dealing with a vicious blood drinking gang of masked killers that slay for profit. A showcase for Kuo Chui, the fight scenes, most particularly the finale, are incredibly innovative. One of Cheh's best of his later efforts, the film was ignored during its initial release. The set design is suitably dark and imaginative particularly the desecrated and booby trapped temple that unveils numerous deadly snares with which to bloodily do in the heroes. This was near the end of the directors tenure with Shaw Brothers, but it was one of a few underrated bright spots before he and the studio parted ways.
13. FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (1982)
Chang Cheh's next to last Shaw production is his most lavishly outrageous, creatively gruesome martial world epic he would ever helm. Pushing the envelope in terms of comic book nihilism, this picture totally defies you to take it seriously and therein lies the fun of it all. As close to a bonafide superhero movie as the director would ever get, it contains some of the wildest and ingenious weaponry you are ever likely to see. Much of these are based on historical Japanese armaments. It's pure R rated cartoonish brilliance loaded down with bloody violence. The choreography is incredible and the work of two of the best underrated martial arts performers, Ricky Cheng Tien Chi and Chu Ko. Sadly, neither actor ever garnered much success despite being superb acrobats and showcasing a lot of power on screen.
THE BLOOD BROTHERS (1973)
It would be difficult to compile a 'best of' list without the inclusion of this film. It nonetheless deserves mention. It's not technically an action film, but it has a bit of action in it. It's more of a dramatic piece concerning a circle of friends (David Chiang, Ti Lung and Chen Kuan Tai) who slowly crumble because of the wiles and charms of a woman and the tragedy that results from this relationship. Based on a true case from the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty, it is widely considered one of Chang Cheh's greatest pictures. The film was adapted to the screen in a far more exploitation fashion by director, Pao Hsiueh Li, another acolyte of Chang's, in the gruesome and salacious action production of OATH OF DEATH (aka THE ARROW & THE HEART). Ti Lung won the Best Actor award at both the 19th Asian Film Awards and the 11th Golden Horse awards for his performance as the ambitious ruler to be in THE BLOOD BROTHERS.
CONTINUED IN PART TWO