Friday, July 3, 2009

Cinema of Excess: Chang Cheh & His Films Part Two


Chen Kuan Tai became an overnight sensation after starring in the film based on the real life Shanghai hero, Ma Yung Chen in THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972).


Ma Yung Chen duels with an army of ax wielding gangsters from THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972).

For these three films, THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG, DISCIPLES OF SHAOLIN and THE CHINATOWN KID, the plots are the same with some variation. Furthermore, the time periods are different-- the 1920's for BOXER, the Qing era sometime after the battles with the remnants of the Ming Dynasty for DISCIPLES (1975) and the late 70's for CHINATOWN KID (1977). The similar storylines was probably intentional as THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972) was a huge success. Each of these three films has a central point of focus by which the entire film revolves around.

The calm before the storm...

In BOXER, the ambitious, yet dirt poor Ma Yung Chen longs for respect and a good living, but wants it by working for it as opposed to having it handed to him, or obtaining it through less than honorable means. However, once the good life comes, he changes slightly but not to the point where he loses sight of his ideals completely. There is a brilliant shot in the film where Ma is offered an upper berth by his co-workers for saving them from members of the axe gang. The camera assumes a low angle as Ma slowly climbs the ladder to his inevitable, yet tragic destiny.

An intense sequence during the ultra violent conclusion to THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972).

As the saying goes, what goes up must come down and Ma's stubborn and willful desire to eradicate the axe gang and all those who follow them brings about his downfall during the brutally violent, gory and adrenaline fueled climax. In what has to be one of the most exciting and vicious finales in cinema history, Ma's obstinate will to survive and defy insurmountable odds also enables him to bring down an army of knife wielding killers before he himself succumbs to wounds sustained in the ferocious battle. Whilst Ma engages an army of axe swinging killers, his own men fight intrepidly outside attempting to get inside the restaurant death trap to save Ma from being butchered.

Chen Kuan Tai unleashes his rage as Ma Yung Chen from the trendsetting THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972).

Chang Cheh's innovative use of the themes of honor and brotherhood shine through even in this film dealing with gangsters. Evil uses underhanded means to eliminate a threat (Ma Yung Chen) while good remains righteous and steadfast in principles. This allows the axe gangs malicious tactics to beguile Ma long enough for them to deliver the fatal blow. The resolute Ma Yung Chen, refusing to die, leaves a pile of bodies before he himself succumbs to his wounds. This style of Chang Cheh hero had been presented before in swordplay pictures but this was a first for this setting and began a popular trend of Shanghai Gangster productions.

The charming personality of Alexander Fu Sheng is the major draw in Chang Cheh's classic tragedy, DISCIPLES OF SHAOLIN (1975; aka THE HUNG FIST BOXING KID).

In DISCIPLES OF SHAOLIN (1975) this same story is recycled about a poor righteous man who ends up in a town beset by villainy. Through strife comes gain which in turn brings about the ruin of the central protagonist. Here though, Guan Feng Yi (as played by Fu Sheng) is a slight bit different from Chen Kuan Tai's Ma Yung Chen. Here, the character of Guan is fleshed out a bit more. When he first arrives in town to meet with his brother there is a hint at a possible relationship between Guan and a pretty young girl, Hsiao Ying.

Fu Sheng as Guan Feng Yi enjoying a tender moment with his lover shortly before meeting his destiny.

In BOXER FROM SHANTUNG, a similar relationship is hinted at between Ma Yung Chen and a street singer played by Ching Li, but there's very little interaction between the two. Their relationship comes off as a bit on the cold side unlike the one seen in DISCIPLES OF SHAOLIN which has more of an emotional connection in its depiction of the love triangle between Guan, the shy Hsiao Ying and the prostitute who also falls in love with him.

Guan finally getting his much sought after pair of shoes, is very appreciative of those that care about him....for now. From DISCIPLES OF SHAOLIN (1975).

Later when he is hired as a bodyguard to defend against the Qing ruffians, he is given a new female companion that better fits his new upper class lifestyle. Guan totally forgets his past and neglects those that cared about him the most. When he first arrived, he only wanted a pair of shoes to wear on his bare feet. His brother had given him a tattered and torn pair, but once he gets a taste of the good life, he can afford to buy as many shoes as he wants. In another brilliant scene, Guan kicks the old shoes away. They slide across the floor and stop in the beam of light that signals Guan's downfall is nigh. There is also another object of desire in the film-- a gold pocket watch. Guan wants one of these as much as his sought after pair of new shoes.

A sneak attack resulting in a potentially fatal stab wound seems to have no immediate effect on the powerful fists of Guan Feng Yi.

The watch is symbolic of money and power which Guan finds after ascending the ladder to success but soon learns it's an awfully long way to fall. Later he seems to totally forget about the young girl, Hsiao Ying, who was in love with him. Once Guan, a righteous but arrogant kung fu fighter, humiliates the Qing dye mill workers, his brother (ably played in a typically silent fashion by Chi Kuan Chun) warns him not to show his skills. And as the typical Chang Cheh hero, blind to the notion that they are indeed not untouchable, Guan allows himself to be fooled and ambushed by the villains. He survives but is badly wounded.

Dressed in his white garb, Fu Sheng is very powerful in this, one of the strongest sequences of the entire movie.

Then, he dresses all in white (representing death in China), carefully hiding away his wound, and enjoys the company of his woman one last time before setting off to place himself in a most precarious predicament against a horde of villains. Even in the face of death, Cheh's heroes are as stubborn and selfish as they come never thinking of those that care about them as pride always gets in the way.

With heavier censorship regulation seeping into the cinema of Hong Kong, Cheh experimented with the use of black & white film stock to obscure the bright red blood that always seemed to flow freely from the sometimes multiple stab wounds suffered by the protagonists

But then, Cheh's tenacious heroes believe even with an injury, they will overcome all obstacles, or die trying. And sometimes they even know they are going to die, but they march to their doom with the realization that regardless of what happens, one man will stand against many; a martyr against an overpowering motley clutch of adversity.

Chi Kuan Chun delivers a muted, but sporadically strong performance that suits his usual style of acting seen in his other films from Chang Cheh.

This is where the most startling aspect of this film comes into play when Guan's brother decides it's time to show his skill once more. It is he who revenges for his younger brother and it's mentioned earlier in the film that he is better skilled in kung fu. Several scenes show us why Chi's character has resigned his martial skills to autonomy, but by the end, violent retribution is the only solution. Both of these films ended up being two of Chang Cheh's biggest HK moneymakers.

Getting Tan away to America in THE CHINATOWN KID (1977).

THE CHINATOWN KID (1977) is the lesser of the three poor-boy-makes-good films. 1977 was a year filled with (mostly) disappointments in Chang Cheh's repertoire. Here, the story is changed even further from the other two films. Tan Tung, a dirt poor immigrant living and working a stall with his grandfather gets into trouble with a local gang. He is then helped to stowaway aboard a boat heading for San Francisco.

Future venom actors Sun Chien (left), Lo Mang (middle) and Alexander Fu Sheng (right)

Once there he again finds even more trouble with Triads as well as the gangster that framed him up back in Hong Kong. Aside from the usual Chang Cheh heroics, much screen time is spent on the naive, but strong Tan Tung and his gradual descent into failure. Also different from the other two films is the addition of another character played by venom actor, Sun Chien, who comes from a well to do family traveling abroad to study.

Venoms unite! Kuo Chui (left), the late Chiang Sheng (middle) and Sun Chien (right).

Thus begins the dichotomy of these two characters who come from vastly different backgrounds. Both these two protagonists are fleshed out very well in the movie. Tan is later befriended by Little White Dragon (Kuo Chui) who bewitches him into utilizing his superior kung fu skills as a means to propagate his Triad operations. Eventually, a bit of role reversal takes place with the student becoming addicted to drugs and Tan becoming an "honorable" member of a Triad gang. As with the two previous films, an object of interest drives the hero to his ultimate doom. Here, it is a watch again.

Fu cuts loose on some thugs in THE CHINATOWN KID (1977).

This being the 70's, a digital watch represents Tan's drive to become a successful man who only wants to give his grandfather a good life back in Hong Kong regardless of how he accomplishes this. The irony of this situation is that while Tan is taking part in criminal activity (rather blindingly) to make his living, the letters he sends to his family in Hong Kong suggest something else entirely. Only when Tan realizes the extent and danger of the business he is involved in after catching his student friend shooting up does he decide enough is enough. He demands that White Dragon stop all his drug operations.

Sun Chien shows off his lethal kicks in THE CHINATOWN KID (1977).

Considering his fighting prowess and his willful stance against the Little White Dragons illegal activities, the gangsters realize they must now eliminate Tan. Since all opposition against White Dragon has been dealt with, there's really no need for Tan's services. Again, Chang Cheh's hero, blind to the danger around him as well as his vulnerability, is betrayed and dealt a mortal blow which doesn't take effect until justice is meted out. His student friend leaves the drugs behind and carries on with his studies.

Fu Sheng in one of his patented playful moments enjoying his self made suit and his paper money.

CHINATOWN KID (1977) is to me just an average film and it's a shame the few fleeting moments shot on location in San Francisco weren't more plentiful. There are definitely some good moments the bulk of these involving the character interactions. Fu Sheng plays the character of Tan far more gullible than his Guan Feng Yi in DISCIPLES OF SHAOLIN (1975).

Sun Chien & Fu Sheng discuss their future over a bowl of noodles. Sun Chien never got the attention he deserved in Hong Kong cinema.

All three of these films are the same in structure, but contain slight differences mostly in the addition of the secondary protagonists. BOXER FROM SHANTUNG has Cheng Kang Yeh, who couldn't fight and was the representation of the meek, yet loyal follower who didn't belong to a life of violence. DISCIPLES OF SHAOLIN has Chi Kuan Chun who is even more skilled than the main character, but through personal experience, sees the eventual doom of using ones fighting prowess to attain greatness in both self and social status. CHINATOWN KID has Sun Chien, the opposite to Fu Sheng's destitute lead role, but later succumbs to the slums of existence he was raised to avoid.

Fu Sheng on the 'Streets of San Francisco' from THE CHINATOWN KID (1977).

Even though it delivers in characterization and action, CHINATOWN KID fails to be the achievements of the previous two similar movies. 1977 was a time when Chang Cheh was at a low ebb creatively and he was not the same director of a decade earlier. By this time, audiences were slowly beginning to lose interest in his work. Also, an increase in censorship on cinematic violence didn't bode well for this production. The brutal violence melded with drug abuse apparently was too much of a red zone for some markets and the film was mangled for its Asian theatrical release.

An alternate ending that is completely different in the export prints of THE CHINATOWN KID.

The Hong Kong DVD features a number of alternate scenes as well as a happy ending in which Tan and the remaining villains are all arrested. It could be that this version is a Malaysian print considering how strict they are with violence and scenes of a sexual nature. There's one point during the finale where you briefly see Fu Sheng's fatal stomach wound, then in the next shot, it's not there anymore.

Fu Sheng enjoys a moment of solace with his real life wife, Jenny Tseng. From THE CHINATOWN KID (1977).

In Chang Cheh's memoirs, another cut is suggested with another ending! Here, it states that Tan falls from a bridge to his death after a police raid. The international version running just under 2 hours contains all the brutal violence missing from the HK disc and hopefully, this version will see a legitimate DVD release sometime in the near future. In addition to all this extra footage, pics of the film in Shaw's own movie publications features shots not seen in any version.

Fu Sheng gets sliced & diced in Cheh's epic SEVEN MAN ARMY (1976).

Watching a Chang Cheh movie, there's one aspect that's almost always a guarantee, his heroes seldom live past the final shot. There is one constant though, if they do perish by films end, they will do so in the most dramatic fashion possible. Cheh's heroes are almost always doomed to fail. Obstinate and pigheaded in their desire to set things right, his heroes fight for the greater good of the country, revenge for family or one's master, or fight for a betrayal, or maybe a loss of face.

Tang Yen San, bloodied, but not yet beaten. from MARCO POLO (1975).

The odds are almost always overwhelming. He may spill gallons of blood or lose limbs, but he will complete the mission regardless of numbers. Sometimes the hero dies without killing ALL the bad guys, but his message has been sent. Chang's preferred method for the hero's final moments sees them dying standing up on their feet with their eyes wide open. In so many of Chang Cheh's movies, one of two things happen most often. First, the hero will suffer a somewhat "minor" stab wound. The hero will then attempt to hide their pain by covering the exposed area to carry on to the next stage of the battle. Once the villains realize their pursuer is seriously injured, they fight harder till they have overcome the lone warrior.

Independent kung fu actor turned Shaw Brothers contract player, Lung Tien Sheng in a supporting role in Cheh's seminal FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (1982).

Second, Cheh's heroes sometimes suffer a more serious stab most often into the gut. Bleeding profusely, the virtuous protagonist will rip away some of his clothes and wrap the bloodied area to halt the bleeding as much as possible to enable him to fight for a bit longer. One or both of these examples happens in almost every one of director Chang Cheh's action pictures. Although he will surprise you on occasion, it's almost always a given that if his hero suffers a stab wound of any kind, he won't be alive by the time the end credit of "Another Shaw Production" appears onscreen.

A few of the HEROIC ONES (1970): Tang Yen San, Ku Feng, Ti Lung and Cheng Lei.

This representation of the doomed hero started a firestorm of similar styled movies up until the comedy entered the mix officially in 1978 with the release of SNAKE IN THE EAGLE'S SHADOW. Regardless of what influence American cinema had on HK, Chang's ideals are strictly Chinese. That's not to say the director was not influenced by other filmmakers or genres. He was greatly influenced by Japanese cinema especially Japanese Gangster movies citing director Seijun Suzuki as a huge inspiration.

Lo Lieh is THE INVINCIBLE FIST (1969).

To a lesser extent, Chang Cheh was most probably influenced, or at least had a passing interest in the Italian westerns. Three of his films could be classified as "Eastern Westerns". This influence can be seen in three blatantly obvious nods to Italo oaters in THE INVINCIBLE FIST (1969), THE ANONYMOUS HEROES (1971) and THE SAVAGE FIVE (1974).

One of David Chiang's earliest supporting roles teaming him up with then rising star, Lo Lieh.

INVINCIBLE FIST (1969) concerns a determined constable (whose name translates to the films title), and his effort to get back a stolen consignment of gold. The numerous scenes of close ups of eyes, facial stubble and characters with sweat rolling off of them recalls the Italian western style. There is also ample violence, an interesting opening credits sequence and David Chiang in his first film role.

Li Ching as the blind girl who falls in love with Lo Lieh's persistent constable.

Amazingly, INVINCIBLE FIST (1969) has a rare happy ending with Lo Lieh having a relationship with a blind female love interest. Cheh was very fond of this production, although the box office wasn't as good as he'd hoped. This film was instrumental enough for Kuei Chi Hung, one of Cheh's many acolytes, to remake it in 1980 as KILLER CONSTABLE. Far more violent and downbeat than Chang's version, it surpasses the earlier film in sheer brutality alone. The story was also remade in the trashy indy, DEMON STRIKE (1979).

A scene that was also incorporated into the Shaw production, KILLER CONSTABLE (1980) starring Chen Kuan Tai and Ku Feng. In the late 80's John Woo would also pay homage to this film with a strikingly similar sequence.

The fact that Lo Lieh's constable character gets a girlfriend is something most people overlook in the directors filmography as it's something you rarely see in his movies. Chang's early films featured romantic subplots which many of his later films mostly lacked. Regardless of what some fans may say, Chang Cheh enjoyed incorporating romanticism in his films and this is most evident in his earlier swordplay productions especially THE ASSASSIN (1967) and also GOLDEN SWALLOW (1968) to name a few.

Ku Feng (left), Ti Lung and David Chiang fire away on their attackers in THE ANONYMOUS HEROES (1971).

Chang Cheh's 'western trilogy' is an interesting triumvirate in that all three films represent different aspects of the Italian western variety. INVINCIBLE FIST is the 'Let's get the gold' scenario led by a determined and resolute swordsman, THE ANONYMOUS HEROES is Cheh's version of a Zapata western. It's his revolutionary 'western'. That brings us to THE SAVAGE FIVE which is a takeoff of the MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960) scenario (or more accurately, THE SEVEN SAMURAI) by way of the European oaters.

The soldiers give chase to retrieve the stolen train from THE ANONYMOUS HEROES (1971).

In THE ANONYMOUS HEROES (1971), the western ambiance is most apparent during the train heist sequence. The military pursues our heroes on horseback to take back the train carrying a large shipment of weapons. Our anonymous heroes of the title have stolen the train and the weapons with the intention of handing them over to revolutionaries. The scene is exciting, but let down only by a terrible shot of a toy train plummeting into a river and the car carrying the arms leaving the tracks and crashing into a building.

David Chiang, Ching Li and Ti Lung are THE ANONYMOUS HEROES.

Other than that, the film is very enjoyable about three friends who want to do something to make a name for themselves so they help a ragtag band of Chinese resistance fighters obtain hundreds of rifles for their cause. Only no one, save for the girl whose father is a military leader, knows who they are. I consider this Cheh’s ‘Revolution’ Spaghetti Eastern akin to Leone’s DUCK YOU SUCKER (1971) and Corbucci’s THE MERCENARY (1968). The plot device from HEROES dealing with the three unknown would-be champions making a name for themselves would be re-visited by Cheh for his 1979 Venoms film SHAOLIN RESCUERS.

THE SAVAGE FIVE blow up one of their enemies with an explosive.

THE SAVAGE FIVE (1974) is the most blatant tribute to the spaghetti western. It's about a gang of cutthroats who hole up in a small, defenseless village subjecting the occupants to indignities until the gangs leader arrives after which more violence ensues. Among the villagers there are a few who stand against them--a loveable thief (David Chiang), an acrobat (Wang Chung), a woodcutter (Chi Kuan Chun), a lethargic kung fu teacher (Ti Lung) and a locksmith (Danny Lee). In another nod to the western, the bandits have brought along a large safebox. As per typical western villains, they are incapable of opening the strongbox themselves, so they need the assist of someone who can.

Villains Wang Ching & Chiang Tao harass Lu Ti in THE SAVAGE FIVE (1974).

What sets this film apart from similar productions is that there really isn't anything special about the main five heroes. They are very much normal people and are presented as less vulnerable than the usual Chang Cheh hero. They are villagers themselves and not hired "guns". They simply decide to band together in an effort to rid their village of the rowdy interlopers.

Chen Kuan Tai strikes a familiar pose from THE SAVAGE FIVE (1974).

Oddly, superstar Chen Kuan Tai is one of the stars but he exits fairly early on. Aside from the obvious similarities to THE SEVEN SAMURAI (1954; which begat the US film THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN 1960; which also gave birth to a slew of Italian copies) the look and feel of the film resembles a Spaghetti Western and musical cues from DEATH RIDES A HORSE (1968) can be heard throughout. THE SAVAGE FIVE (1974) is a favorite among fans, although I find it a bit slow going, it is a well made movie. Unusually, the film isn't all that bloody especially by the standards set down by Chang Cheh himself in years prior. As the 70's were barely getting started, Chang was continuing to be innovative and was already working on exploring new ideas and themes for his ever growing cinematic resume.

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