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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Cinema of Excess: Chang Cheh & His Films Part 4

'Baby Queen', Li Ching and Ti Lung in a happier moment from DEAD END (1969)


***WARNING! This article contains a few images of nudity***

Very little has been written about this period in Chang Cheh's filmography. These productions, while unlike the usual martial arts and swordplay features he was most famous for, retain many aspects that made those films worthwhile. These movies were extensions of some of Chang Cheh's influences regarding topics of societal outcasts and rebellion. Whereas his martial heroes fought against the government, Cheh's pursuit for modernity had his teenage pariah's generally fighting against both family and the establishment as well as each other. These are films made with a Chinese sensibility, but certain facets extend internationally. Products of the time in which they were made, Cheh's juvenile delinquent pictures, including his few ventures in crime cinema, deserve recognition and further exploration.

Ti Lung (middle) in a familiar pose. Here, he's practicing for a martial arts competition in an effort to win a motorcycle from YOUNG LOVERS ON FLYING WHEELS (1974)

Director Chang Cheh was said to be a difficult director to work with; prone to throwing tantrums and displaying arrogance onset. He would admit to losing control over minor details, but never over a big issue. As his movies were filled with rebellion and violence, it could be said that this merely reflected the directors personality. Furthermore he did have some famous rows with both Li Han Hsiang (at one time the most respected and distinguished director at Shaws) and Liu Chia Liang at various points in his career. With his admiration for actors such as James Dean and directors like Seijun Suzuki, Cheh's own outlaw directing style is easily understood. This was further acclimated in a series of 'Juvenile Delinquent' films the versatile director dabbled in during the late 1960's and into the 1970's.

David Chiang is insulted over his innocent relationship with his underage girlfriend from THE GENERATION GAP (1973)

These movies featured a slew of troubled teens and social deviants trying to fit in with a society unwilling to accept them. There's also tales of immature youngsters coping with values both familial and with friends. Some of these end in triumph and others end in tragedy, but all of them are peculiar presentations that deserve at least one viewing as they are so unlike the directors far more well known output. Cheh was involved in about a dozen of these movies either as a director, or a producer leaving the reigns to one of his popular young stars in some cases.

Ti Lung (left) and David Chiang (right) in DEAD END (1969)

These films varied in terms of box office clout, but by 1974, HK audiences were tired of these youth oriented, social deviant/outcast productions. Along the way, some of these productions yielded awards for some of the stars involved. The one thing they all share in common are groovy 70's clothes, dated scenarios and alternative roles for performers that fans are more accustomed to seeing in martial arts films.

Then popular singer, Jimmy Lin Chung from Chang Cheh's THE SINGING THIEF (1969)

As already mentioned, Cheh was a director not afraid to experiment with different styles and genres. Not all of his experiments were a success, though, but he was not afraid to try new themes and ideas. His first foray outside of the Wuxia universe he helped usher in was a comedy-musical-action picture. Entitled THE SINGING THIEF (1969), this particular film saw a then popular singer named Jimmy Lin Chung making his acting debut as a night club singer named Diamond Poon.

Jimmy Lin Chung during the strange opening credits sequence from THE SINGING THIEF

Having led a previous life as a diamond thief, a red carnation was his calling card until he was finally captured by the police. After diamond robberies begin anew upon his release from jail, the now prosperous singer finds himself a prime suspect with the police. Poon then looks up an old friend of his named Wang, the owner of one of the largest jewelry companies in Hong Kong. Wang is played by the up and coming superstar, Lo Lieh.

Lin Chung and the beautiful Lily Ho

Director Chang also wrote the lyrics for the songs heard in the film. They're silly, but good and the opening song is somewhat catchy. It's also shot in a creative style utilizing a lot of split screen as Jimmy Lin is seen both on stage in front of a crowd and on a blank stage dressed in pirate attire with a ships mast adorning the stage with him. Considering some of the foreign actors Cheh was enamored with, it's not surprising he would be curious about transposing his swordplay epics of righteousness and rebellion to a modern setting. As with the box office reception for THE SINGING THIEF would attest, Hong Kong audiences weren't quite ready for such films just yet. Still, the movie isn't a total loss.

Lo Lieh

It's arguably Cheh's "Black Sheep" movie of his entire career in that there's relatively few familiar faces, not to mention the whole tone of the movie was totally unlike anything the director had done up to that time. Even Cheh wasn't all that pleased with the finished product and that extended to his leading man's lack of acting skills and even his singing was dubbed by another performer. The film was a huge failure in Hong Kong, prompting Chang Cheh to try something else.

The SINGING THIEF enters a ladies bedroom to snatch some jewels

The film itself is really not all that bad. There's a good cast of beauties including Lily Ho (as Darling) and Essie Lin Chi (as Tien Shin). It's a fairly light hearted romp (up until the last thirty minutes) that follows Poon on a journey to clear his name and discover who is the one pulling off the robberies as well as the mysterious snipers out to kill him. There are also a couple of good action sequences (including one in a crematorium) by ace choreographers, Tang Chia and Liu Chia Liang. Watching this occasionally goofy fluff, one can gather that Cheh was fascinated with a modern setting and that this production, despite its shortcomings, was the precursor to the numerous modern dramas Cheh would produce through Shaw Brothers.

The gorgeous Angela Yu Chien (left), David Chiang (middle) and Ti Lung (right) in DEAD END

The next time the director attempted a modern style feature was with the curious and satisfyingly bizarre DEAD END (1969). Shooting in an avant garde style, this picture was the debut feature of the soon to be mega superstar, Ti Lung. Previously featuring in a small role in Cheh's RETURN OF THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1969) as a fighter brought to his doom by a conniving swordswoman, Ti Lung got a huge chance to shine and makes an impressive, yet rebellious debut. An actor possessing an enormous amount of charisma, critics kept him in David Chiang's shadow for the better part of the decade. DEAD END was the beginning of a series of 'Juvenile Delinquent' movies Chang Cheh and some of his enterprising cadre of actors would spearhead over the next few years.

The late Chen Hung Lieh (left) meets his sisters boyfriend for the first time in DEAD END

DEAD END (1969) was a drama-gedy about a doomed relationship between a belligerent, yet ambitious young man named Zhang Chun (Ti Lung) and Wen Rou, the daughter of a wealthy family. Played by the famed 'Baby Queen', Li Ching, her brother, Qiang (played with villainous glee by Chen Hung Lieh) disapproves of the relationship and eventually resorts to violence to keep Zhang Chun away from his sister. It isn't long before the already disgruntled Zhang has had enough and goes after his girlfriends brother. The film then turns into full on tragedy after Qiang and his group of likewise rich associates kill Zhang's best friend, Liao (played by David Chiang). With both shooting deaths now laid squarely to blame on Chang Chun, he's cornered by police in a salvage yard after an attempt to run away with Wen.

Ti Lung

One of the most interesting facets of this production was that it was to be the auspicious introduction of Ti Lung to the masses. Ironically, despite the best efforts of Ti Lung in the complex James Dean inspired lead role, David Chiang's supporting performance was the one that got noticed. Almost immediately, David Chiang was thrust into the spotlight whilst Ti Lung shared the screen with him in a long series of successful features. Rumors of an apparent rift between the two actors sprang up in tabloids at the time. Director Chang Cheh was adamant that both should be given opportunities to showcase their abilities in solo ventures as well as behind the camera directing themselves, or others.

Ti Lung plans to avenge his best friends wrongful death which ultimately leads him to a DEAD END

Both actors were a perfect double act of screen heroism. David Chiang was the lithe, mischievous adventurer of the two while Ti Lung was the masculinity, the brawn of the two. Chiang would use cunning while Ti would most often use force to get things done. Whereas Chiang was relegated to support status for DEAD END, he was given the lead for VENGEANCE!, which was shot in 1969 and released early the following year. In that film, Ti took the supporting role. Since David Chiang had attracted so much attention from his gas station attendant role in Ti Lung's acting debut, he was given the lead in what amounts to a more serious reimagining of Cheh's THE SINGING THIEF from the year prior.

David Chiang and the innocent beauty of Wang Ping from THE SINGING KILLER

That picture was called THE SINGING KILLER (1970). Johnny is a former jewel thief who has put his life of crime behind him and has become a successful nightclub singer. When his former gangster associates come calling, they blackmail him into assisting them in a big robbery. Unfortunately for Johnny, his old girlfriend whom he still loves works in the store he is to rob. Everything goes wrong and Johnny ends up injured from a gunshot wound. Now reunited with the woman he loves, Johnny plans to go to the police, but not before settling things with his former employers.

This time, as opposed to THE SINGING THIEF (1969), the story is serious from the start. There is no comedy or playful atmosphere at all. The movie is actually a better production in that it benefits from a much more confident leading man. However, one aspect of the film where David Chiang is blatantly uncomfortable are the sequences where he is required to "sing", or more accurately, lip sync the lyrics. The dancers around him are far more lively.

David Chiang goes to town on his drum kit during the opening of THE SINGING KILLER (1970)

Chiang looks very awkward and robotic, his lips barely moving. The dubbed in singing is far too exuberant to match Chiang's stone cold visage. The movie is much more successful when there's brutal fighting onscreen. It is this picture where the influence of Seijun Suzuki shines through. Two of Shaw's biggest female stars are in this film. The gorgeous Wang Ping plays Johnny's girlfriend, Lily, and Tina Chin Fei, the 'Temptress of a Thousand Faces' herself, has a role here as well. Unlike THE SINGING THIEF, Chang Cheh's reworking of that films screenplay was a hit.

The finale of THE SINGING KILLER (1970)

David Chiang pretending to sing during the closing moments of THE SINGING KILLER

In between these modern day dramatic actioners, the motion picture work horse was busy with a number of classy period Wuxia movies such as HAVE SWORD WILL TRAVEL (1969), THE WANDERING SWORDSMAN (1970) and KING EAGLE (1971). These are some of the pictures Cheh was putting together at this time. The last two were also notable for being solo efforts for David Chiang and Ti Lung respectively. And like their modern day youth movies where they had the screen all to themselves, their solo swordplay adventures were less successful than when they were featured together.

Chen Kuan Tai (left) fights Wong Ching (right) during a martial arts tournament in YOUNG PEOPLE (1972)

Prior to their triple threat team up in Chang Cheh's major classic, BLOOD BROTHERS (1973), David Chiang, Ti Lung and powerhouse Chen Kuan Tai starred together in another Chang Cheh 'West Side Story' styled drama-comedy-action film. Entitled YOUNG PEOPLE (1972), this one is more innocent than some of the directors other 'Rebel Without A Cause' problem child movies. There's still martial arts action, but this one is more akin to an extended after school special. There's lots of dancing, flower child songs (including covers of American 70's hits sang in English no less!) and high school machismo between competing friends and a vain young girl who vies for the affections of whoever is the most popular boy.

Bolo Yueng (aka Yang Tze) is one of the many stars in YOUNG PEOPLE (1972)

Chen Kuan Tai (left), David Chiang (middle) and Ti Lung (right) prepare for their go kart race in YOUNG PEOPLE

There's a basketball competition (The Shaw stars often participated in sporting events of friendly competition for charity benefit with the TVB stars of the day) and a concluding go kart race as well as smokin' in the boys room in this goofy, but curious Shaw Brothers production.

The friends all come together during the finale of YOUNG PEOPLE (1972)

The big song and dance closing number led by Agnes Chen from YOUNG PEOPLE

This particular picture concerns two friends that are split by the affections of a very fickle young girl who loves attention and is attracted to whichever boy is the most popular at that moment. David Chiang stars as Hung Wei who also attracts the attention of the hollow young girl. Showing absolutely no interest in her at all, Hung shows the two competing high schoolers that a vain young beauty isn't worth throwing away a good friendship over. Crooner and pop idol, Agnes Chen is the guitarist singing all the songs in what was one of Cheh's more ambitious of his troubled youth period.

David Chiang and song bird, Agnes Chen have dinner with a little music in their new apartment from THE GENERATION GAP (1973)

THE GENERATION GAP (1973) treads similar waters crossed in Cheh's DEAD END (1969), but changes the structure a bit. David Chiang is Ling Xi, a young 21 year old college student from a wealthy family in a relationship with Cindy (Pop sensation, Agnes Chen), who happens to be underage (she's 16).

Agnes Chen (left) is scolded by her abusive father played by Yang Chi Ching (right)

Of course, Cindy's parents have little patience for the ideals and activities of the youth of the time. Even though Ling Xi is respectable towards Cindy because of her age, her father vehemently opposes the relationship so the two end up running away together in an attempt to escape their parents. Cindy's father is abusive and Ling's dad pushes his son to continue his college education, but shows more interest in working on cars. They both drop out of school and get an apartment. Things end up badly for the couple as tensions rise between the parents and their children. Ling ends up in prison and upon getting out, falls in with a bad crowd.

The finale of THE YOUNG REBEL (1975) directed by Ti Lung

In keeping with the tone set down by DEAD END, the finale is not a happy one. Ti Lung plays Ling Zhong, Ling Xi's successful brother who tries to talk some sense into his sibling, but to no avail. The film kind of loses sight of its goal towards the end when the fight scenes take precedence over the drama. Ti Lung won an award for his subdued performance at the 19th Annual Asian Film Festival. Both actors got a number of awards over the course of their careers whether working together, or alone. Ti Lung and David Chiang both desired to direct their own films. Both got the chance to do so and Chang Cheh was there to guide them.

David Chiang as narrator and Li Hai Sheng as his "swami" in A MAD WORLD OF FOOLS (1974)

Not all of these troubled youth films were directed by Chang Cheh. For a few occasions, he acted as a producer overseeing his then top actors, David Chiang and Ti Lung in the directors chair. Helming two a piece, David Chiang guided both the well acted and gloomy drama-gedy, THE DRUG ADDICT (1974) and A MAD WORLD OF FOOLS (1974), a humorous, yet totally bizarre film that dealt with many unusual characters with even more unusual behaviors. One of the funniest moments involved a man who married a European woman named Amy. Hilarity ensues when Amy upsets the mother with her liberated customs. Another comedic bit that's right funny is David Chiang daydreaming he is proficient in kung fu taking on a group of thugs. Unfortunately for him, things don't translate that well to real life.

A humorous scene from A MAD WORLD OF FOOLS (1974)

This picture contains a multitude of vignettes and an all star cast. It's easily the most experimental of the two actors four films. From the very beginning, the self-depracating and tongue in cheek humor lets you in on the joke. Chiang was much more successful at melding characterization with action. Both actors did two non action films and two dramatic action pictures a piece.

David Chiang's directorial debut, THE DRUG ADDICTS (1974)

THE DRUG ADDICTS is an interesting production in that it is David Chiang's directing debut and a modern day action drama about the dangers of drug abuse. This picture would be reworked as a period kung fu picture again starring Ti Lung in OPIUM & THE KUNG FU MASTER in 1984. David Chiang's movies showed him to be a much better director than his more masculine foil. What is fascinating about the two performers is that their directorial efforts mirror their onscreen personas. Chiang is a more meticulous, careful director building to an outcome while Ti Lung occasionally goes more for the highly stylized direction laying emphasis on the action, or the exaggerated emotion of the characters. Chiang allows the audience to think about the characters motives and why they do what they do. Ti Lung lays it all on the table forcefully.

Ti Lung trying to keep control of his free spirited and materialistic girlfriend from his directorial debut, YOUNG LOVERS ON FLYING WHEELS (1974)

Ti Lung directed YOUNG LOVERS ON FLYING WHEELS (1974), a film about a boy, his girl and his motorbike. Ti took the lead role here in a reworking of his earlier DEAD END from 1969. In fact, so many of Chang's youth movies, including those of his two main stars, recycle elements from one film to the next. This was Ti Lung's directorial debut and in interviews he seemed rather proud of it.

It again dealt with a fiery, yet ambitious young man named Song Da (Ti Lung) who badly wanted a motorbike, yet struggled to maintain a relationship with his high maintenance girlfriend (played by sleaze starlet, Ko Ti Hua). The girl eventually leaves him, but Song has a true admirer in the less pretty, but far more admirable, Yuan Yu Mei. In a twist on events in DEAD END, Yuan's father is disapproving, but later warms to Song after the young and confused upstart saves his life by giving him an emergency blood transfusion.

The famous martial arts patriarch, Yuen Siu Tien tells student, David Chiang he's no longer welcome at his school in THE YOUNG REBEL (1975)

Ti Lung next took on the film, THE YOUNG REBEL (1975), a movie that contains elements that would later be transposed to THE CHINATOWN KID in 1977. Sammo Hung also has a small part as a gambler whose friends rough up David Chiang in an alley. This is possibly Ti Lung's better of his two movies due to the star turn of David Chiang in a role that would have been tailor made for its director. Whatever competitiveness these two actors felt for themselves Ti Lung puts it aside allowing Chiang to take center stage.

For this film, Chiang takes the role of Xiang Rong, the misunderstood, rebellious youth whose friend, Gen Lai (Ti Lung) tries to steer him onto the right path. Xiang tries to maintain a filial life taking care of his mother and sister after their father has died. But outside forces combine with his already recalcitrant behavior prevent him from being anything but hot tempered and prone to trouble. Even his martial arts master (Yuen Siu Tien) disowns him as a student. Soon, Xiang gets mixed up with gangsters and it's up to his friend, Gen Lai, now a policeman, to save him even though Xiang is going to end up behind bars.

David Chiang becomes infatuated with a pretty patron of the grocery store in which he works

By this point, it would seem Hong Kong audiences had grown tired of these kinds of movies and the increasingly low box office returns reflected this. Despite some of them being well made (particularly David Chiang's efforts), interest by moviegoers had waned considerably. Even Chang Cheh's return to the subgenre, FRIENDS (1974), while attracting attention and awards, failed to garner much attendance from Hong Kong moviegoers. All four of both Chiang and Ti Lung's directorial efforts were productions of Chang's Company, Cheh's filmmaking venture in Taiwan utilizing Shaw capital that couldn't be taken out of the country.

Wang Chung attempts to stop criminal, Wang Hsia before he can escape on his yacht in POLICE FORCE (1973)

After creating new styles of action cinema in Hong Kong with such motion pictures as VENGEANCE! (1970) and THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972), the innovative director attempted a modern day crime drama with the average production, POLICE FORCE (1973). A solo effort for supporting player, Wang Chung, this actor delivered a double dose of seedy crime thrillers accompanied by the alarmingly potent, THE DELINQUENT (1973), co-directed by Chang Cheh and Kuei Chi Hung. Wang Chung had previously been a bit player (usually as a thug) and supporting actor in such big productions as THE WATER MARGIN and THE FOUR RIDERS (both 1972). His two crime pictures were his big chances to shine alone with the company of Chiang, Lung, or even Chen Kuan Tai.

Wang Hsia (left) held at gun point by Wang Chung in POLICE FORCE (1973)

POLICE FORCE wasn't much of a success. It's an average film that had the cooperation of the Hong Kong police force. It was also the debut of Alexander Fu Sheng. He plays Huang Gao Tung's (Wang Chung) brother who is killed. Huang then joins the police force for the sole purpose of arresting the criminals responsible for his death. Wang Chung must have been enamored with the crime genre because at the dawn of the 1980's he embarked on his own directorial efforts with a string of successful crime films at Shaw Brothers.

Wang Chung about enjoy some of the finer things in life from THE DELINQUENT (1973)

THE DELINQUENT is a superior movie all around. Although it's a collaborative effort between "teacher" and "student", Kuei Chi Hung's dark and doom stamp is all over this picture. A dank and depraved world where violence is prevalent, THE DELINQUENT is a retelling of Cheh's seminal THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972). Refurbishing elements from that classic, Shen Chang (Wang Chung) is a poor young man who wants to make a better life for himself and his father after his mother left them. He gets mixed up with gangsters after they court him with a good life. This ultimately spells his doom when his father is killed in a failed robbery. This prompts Shen to take his revenge culminating in a wildly brutal finale that closes out with a brilliant finish.

Wang Chung and Lily Li (right), his potential love interest in THE DELINQUENT

A truly great, nasty little number, it does have one hilarious film flub moment--During a scene where Shen is being attacked by some thugs, he runs towards the camera in slow motion. You can clearly see the shadow of the cameraman in the water as Shen approaches. With its depressing tone, you'll feel like taking a shower afterward.

FRIENDS (1974)

A bit of split screen as Lu Ti (left) bargains with Frankie Wei Hung (middle) for his son's life in Chang Cheh's FRIENDS (1974)

FRIENDS (1974) would be Cheh's last go at a revisionist dramatic feature dealing with the social practices and problems of the youth of the day. Ti Lung was not a part of this production. David Chiang and Fu Sheng took center stage along with Lily Li and Frankie Wei Hung. David Chiang is Hua Hung, a struggling painter and leader of a minor level street gang. He meets up with Du Jia Ji, the son of a wealthy family who longs to be free of the constrictions of his homelife. Both newfound friends admire the other for different reasons. While trying to aid Hua's girlfriend (played by Lily Li), Du is kidnapped and when it's learned his family is rich, he's held for ransom. Hua learns where his friend is being held and goes off to rescue him.

Screen idol, Alexander Fu Sheng (left) alongside another movie icon, David Chiang (right) as two FRIENDS (1974)

This movie also contains elements that explores the line between the rich and poor and how oftentimes those with everything sometimes are very lonely and prone to partaking in questionable activities. FRIENDS marked the end of Chang Cheh's string of 'troubled youth' pictures. He then concentrated mostly on action movies, but did stray a few more times experimenting with more themes and ideas. It was at this point in Chang's career, he began working in Taiwan on a series of some dozen different movies under his Chang's company banner.



Fazeo said...

Another awesome article!

Though Ti Lung looks awfully feminine in that first pic from Dead End, creepy.

venoms5 said...

Thanks, Fazeo! Regarding Ti Lung, I think it's the lighting in that shot. He was definitely bedding down the women in this movie, though.

At the very beginning he gets it on with some woman on a table at his job, then you learn that he's on 'friends with benefits' status with the drop dead gorgeous Angela Yu Chien, then Li Ching after that!

Skeme Richards said...

Definitely a quality read. There was a slew of those modern films that I always wanted to check out but was really iffy on them but now I'll give a few of them a chance.


dfordoom said...

Golden Swallow is the only movie of his that I've seen. But I loved that one so I definitely want to see more of his work.

venoms5 said...

Thanks, Skeme. Glad you enjoyed it! Some of these are definitely worth checking out for their curiosity value alone. They all have action in them some more than others. THE YOUNG REBEL and THE DRUG ADDICTS are both bashers masquerading as message movies.

venoms5 said...

D, I agree. GOLDEN SWALLOW is a great movie! I've got a second part to Cheh's 'Best Of' and it's on there. It was also the directors own personal favorite of his films. If that's the only one you've seen, you're in for a treat. He has more than enough great movies out of his near 100 directorial efforts.

Carl (ILHM) said...

What an incredible wealth of knowledge V! I cant even begin to contribute here, this is another niche that I will have to leave up to you for now =D

venoms5 said...

Thanks a bunch, Carl, for commenting and reading! There's a small number of his best movies out on DVD over here which I would recommend first before seeing any of his 'troubled youth' movies. Most people just skip them anyways since they're not kung fu films. For a serious fan of Cheh, they're an important part of his repertoire.

Fang Shih-yu said...

As for The Delinqunent, do you think Chang Cheh co-directed with Kuei Chi Hing, or did he allow his name to be added to the movie to help build up KCH's reputation? A few accounts I've recently read suggest this may be the case.

venoms5 said...

Magazines I have from the time state it was a collaborative effort between the two. Still, more of Kuei's cinematic stamp shines through in what I consider a more modernistic retelling of BOXER FROM SHANTUNG.

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