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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Masked Avengers (1981) review


Kuo Chui (Kao Yao), Chiang Sheng (Chi Sanyun), Lu Feng (Ling Yunzi), Chen Su Ho (Zeng Jun), Chu Ko (Liang Rong), Wang Li (Fang Su Kuang), Yu Tai Ping (Wei Fang), Chao Kuo (Han Yanzhang), Hsiao Yu (Long Cong Yu)

Directed by Chang Cheh

A vicious masked gang of blood drinking killers commit murder for profit terrorizing the countryside. A group of valiant warriors from famous martial families band together to put an end to the cruelty of the veiled assassins. Wearing demonic masks and armed with tridents, the devilish mob hide out in a dilapidated temple. Once their location is discovered, the ever dwindling number of heroes make their way to the trap laced villains lair for a gruesome and violent showdown.

Chang Cheh, close to the end of his tenure at Shaw Brothers, directs this fitfully entertaining and hyper violent Wuxia/Kung Fu hybrid in his string of comic book venom movies. It's essentially a reworking of Cheh's earlier production of FIVE VENOMS (1978). In that film, the five main participants were (mostly) unknown to one another and everyone else. For MASKED AVENGERS, the group of heroes are desperate to learn the identities of the three chiefs of the trident bearing gang. If you've seen enough of the venom movies, it isn't difficult to figure out who at least two of the chiefs are.

Even if the audience is aware of the villains identities, the movie is peppered with tons of excellent and gory action choreographed by Kuo Chui, Lu Feng, Chiang Sheng and Chu Ko. Another aspect that's ported over from FIVE VENOMS is the ambiance of mystery. While we learn that Kuo's character of the cook was once aligned with the villains, we never know just where his true alliance lies till late in the film. This story conceit was also utilized for Cheh's FLAG OF IRON (1980), a reworking of his earlier THE DUEL (1971).

The production itself is of a high standard when compared with some of the directors other works during this time. Everything is shot on cramped sets as with all of Cheh's movies of this era. But the sets, especially the elaborate traps and the finale set within the inner sanctum of the gang is a construction wonder filled with numerous nasty snares that lay claim to a number of lives during the big fight finish.

Johnson Tsao was an integral part of the look of the Shaw Brothers movies and he truly shines here devising a predominantly gloomy atmosphere. This is accentuated by the villains propensity for turning edifices with religious symbolism into a means of torture and death for their victims.

The gang of killers is also one of the most striking assembly of rogues ever seen on film. With their red and black clothing, tridents and horned masks, they truly embody the classical representation of the Devil; and in this case, it's an army of demonic figures. What makes them even more despicable is that they drink the blood of their victims. Tying them to statues, the gang use their captives as "target practice" before letting the blood spill into a vat of wine. The malicious bunch then parade around in excitement amidst fireworks as they are paid for their hellish deeds.

The trap laced temple is quite a sight with its winding razor bladed doors and statues of Buddha that are used as torture devices for the gangs captives. Inside the temple the walls emit an array of arrows, acid and spikes. There are also some elevator platforms which bring the villains down in flamboyant fashion.

The final battle inside the temple is simply one of the wildest and most intricately choreographed sequences of the time with special mention of the final scene. The film heavily utilizes the soundtrack from MAD MAX (1979). Sadly, HK audiences continued to show their disdain for Chang Cheh's old fashioned style of movie making and MASKED AVENGERS ended up being one of the directors biggest box office disappointments of his career.

For years much has been said of the directors alleged homosexuality. I think it's pretty ridiculous myself and the director explains in his memoirs his theories on male bonding and brotherhood and the reasons why he created male dominated films in an industry that, prior to his ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967), was dominated by women movie stars. There are only two women seen in MASKED AVENGERS. One plays a sister to one of the swordsman families. She is summarily killed taking a trident to the back after appearing on screen in what appears to be a drunken state.

The other female is seen via a flashback enroute to her wedding. Her husband killed, the woman is then raped and presumably killed. In some of Cheh's earlier productions, women featured prominently alongside the male stars it just wasn't very often. A number of film directors like Sergio Leone shunned emphasis on women roles. I guess they were all gay, too.

MASKED AVENGERS (1981) was one of a handful of venom movies that only featured three of the original line up. The three main constants were Kuo Chui, Lu Feng and Chiang Sheng. Rounding out the remainder (and sometimes alternated) were Wang Li, Chen Su Ho, Lung Tien Sheng and Chu Ko.

Chiang Sheng typically played a goofy and wisecracking character, but here, he sticks with a more mature presentation. He plays his role as the leader of the chivalrous fighters in a very mannered fashion compared with his past roles. Chiang Sheng was also an assistant director on a number of Chang Cheh's movies from this time period as well as being a producer on some of Chang's independent work post Shaw Brothers.

Kuo Chui dominates the movie as the mysterious cook with a secret. Kuo is the most famous of the five actors that ultimately became far more well known in America than they ever did in Hong Kong. Out of the five, Kuo Chui and Lo Mang are the most recognized. Kuo was also a little more ambitious and successful than his two schoolmates.

He directed one film in Taiwan (NINJA IN THE DEADLY TRAP 1984) and the experience soured him on further directing jobs. Kuo is still busy today choreographing both HK and US productions. He is still in great shape and time has been good to him. One of his most memorable roles was as Mad Dog in John Woo's HARD BOILED (1992).

Lu Feng is his usual duplicitous self masquerading as a wealthy scholar (again) who in fact, uses his stature as a cover for the activities of the killer gang. Lu Feng was an ace at playing sinister characters as he did most often. On a few occasions, Lu dabbled as a protagonist like his roles in INVINCIBLE SHAOLIN (1978) and DAREDEVILS (1979). But he was so good at being evil, it was difficult to accept him any other way other than a villain who leads the heroes to their doom.

Lu Feng later took duties as a film producer and also dabbled briefly as a director. Like Chiang Sheng and Kuo Chui, Lu Feng often joined his two opera chums designing the action scenes in their movies. It came natural for the three of them since they basically grew up together and knew each others moves and styles.

Two men that show a lot of skill are Chin Su Ho and Chu Ko, the latter individual handling co-choreography duties. Chen was formerly introduced in TWO CHAMPIONS OF SHAOLIN (1980). He had previously been one of Lu Feng's spearmen in REBEL INTRUDERS the same year, but had no major dialog. Chen went on to decent career in HK cinema. He was never a huge star, but was popular enough that audiences knew who he was.

Chu Ko, a magnificent performer, seemed to fade away after his career at Shaw Brothers ended. He did a few indy movies prior to joining Shaws where he worked primarily with Chang Cheh. He was an amazingly gifted martial arts screen fighter along with his colleague, Ricky Cheng Tien Chi who took the starring role in the following years FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS.

I was lucky enough to catch the film at the drive in back in the early 80's and again on television where it got a lot of airplay. MASKED AVENGERS (1981) is a riotously good time and a great popcorn, pizza and soda flick for those who love martial arts extravaganzas such as this. The movie doesn't let you down and Chang Cheh delivers one of his most creatively violent and bloody action movies of his long and tumultuous directing career.

This review is representative of the R3 IVL DVD from Hong Kong. The US label, Media Blasters will be releasing the film on North American shores sometime in the near future so all you REAL fans avoid those Red Sun/Bonzai bootleg DVDs like the plague!


J. Astro said...

this sounds awesome.

venoms5 said...

It is, J. Are you familiar with any of the Shaw Brothers movies, or kung fu movies in general? I'm sure you've seen them on television at least.

J. Astro said...

I have a limited, cursory knowledge of some bigger names in the genre and some titles that I like for weird reasons - 5 DEADLY VENOMS I reeeally like, so your name is not lost on me. ;)

Some of the the newer Dragon Dynasty stuff like KILLZONE, a little of Jackie Chan's output like original DRUNKEN MASTER, SUPERCOP, Lee's ENTER THE DRAGON, Berry Gordy's THE LAST DRAGON, and some horror stuff like 'ROBO VAMPIRE' and HUMAN LANTERNS (a personal fave). I admire and enjoy the old-time shit, but I'm more prone these days to Tony Jaa & 'newcomers' like Jacky Wu Jing.

I just haven't had the time or $$$ to delve too deeply yet into the genre and it's sub-genres, especially with kung fu flicks' propensity for being re-titled and re-packaged all the time. :)

Aaron said...

This actually does sound really cool. Speaking of 5 Deadly Venoms which J brought up, it had a slight gothic horror feel to it especially during the beginning and with the introduction of the iron maiden... do you know of any other martial arts films like that (other than the Shaw/Hammer collaborations)? If so I'd like to check em out.

venoms5 said...

J: Well, I have a number of articles here on the genre so far which I assume you've seen in passing. There's a Shaw/Kung Fu Cinema piece that I've gotten up to part 4 and there's the Chang Cheh article which is up to part 2 and part 3 is ready to go anytime.

I'm more partial to the old school style of martial arts as so much of the new offerings are done with computers or altered in some way. Plus the look of the old films (mostly Shaws) is unmatched when compared to the films today, IMO. They have a magical quality about them you don't find anymore.

Tony Jaa I do like, however. I still haven't seen his ONG BAK 2 yet. It's been on DVD for some time now.

venoms5 said...

Hi, Aaron. If you mean martial arts with a Gothic feel, than yes, there's some others. HUMAN LANTERNS (1982), THE IMPERIAL SWORDSMAN (1971), THE FINGER OF DOOM (1972), THE BLOODY PARROT (1981), PORTRAIT IN CRYSTAL (1983), REVENGE OF THE CORPSE (1982; unreleased on legit dvd), etc...there are dozens more Shaw movies that feature a Gothic atmosphere whether a scene or two or all through the film. Pretty much everything Chu Yuan directed from the late 70's to the mid 80's is rich with atmosphere. He loved his fog and set dressings.

Jack J said...

Does REVENGE OF THE CORPSE exist on not so legit dvd?

Carl (ILHM) said...

I cant claim to have any knowledge or experience with the Shaw Bros films, but damned if this one doesnt look like a ton of fun and gory as hell! Your love and enthusiasm for the film is definitely contagious, Im going to have to give the series a go at some point!

venoms5 said...

Jack: There's bootleg tapes of it out there. I'm not sure if anyone has transferred it over to disc, but I imagine someone has. The print I saw was of poor quality and the picture was jumping around a bit. It looked pretty damn good from what little I saw of it. It's a Sun (HUMAN LANTERNS) Chung movie, too.

venoms5 said...

Carl: Media Blasters releases the film later next year. They are releasing KID WITH THE GOLDEN ARM in December. These are from their second batch of Shaw titles they licensed from Celestial. Although I don't condone the dupes, as they seriously hurt the legit releases, I'm sure there's alternate (and inferior) methods to see this film as it's one of the most popular of the venom movies if you really wanna see it with the quickness.

When you get some time, check out some of the other reviews and articles on the genre I have up so far. You might find something else of interest to you. SECRET SERVICE OF THE IMPERIAL COURT is extremely violent and gory and has a great story. A remake of that film is currently filming with Donnie Yen in the lead.

Aaron said...

Cool, thanks for the titles. I'll definitely be checking some of them out real soon! Keep up the great work, I always look forward to your stuff.

venoms5 said...

Hey, thanks, Aaron. I appreciate your kind remarks. I hope you enjoy the movies when you get around to checking them out.

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