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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Dragon On Shaolin Tower (1977) review


Lung Tien Sheng (Lin Ke Chang), Tung Li (Master Ching Yu Shan), Wu Fong (Master Hsu Tao Mu), Yun Chung Yue (Kao Chin), Li Chiang (Pan Tien), Chai Kai (cameo during opening fight)

Directed by Chang Jen Chieh

The short version: A highly entertaining indy kung fu feature that benefits from a good, if standard storyline. Some excellent choreography is found here with some familiar faces and an intriguing set piece in the vast battle tower. Thankfully, there's no comedy to disrupt the proceedings in this recommended China vs. Japan kung fu flick.

Every year the 'Ghost Festival' is celebrated in Taiwan. Offerings are given as consolation to the lost spirits that have not made it into heaven. Over the years, this tradition turned into a competition as various martial artists tried to climb to the top of the enormous tower to claim a red flag. When the Japanese occupied China, this Festival underwent another change. The Japanese decided to use the festival/competition as a means of eradicating patriots sympathetic to restoring China to its former glory.

Tung Li (center)

Master Shan attempts to abolish the mangling of the tradition by training a new group of disciples led by his top pupil, Kao Chin. When Kao is shamed after losing a fight and later bribed by Master Hsu and the Japanese, it's up to the younger brother, Lin Ke Chang, to train and defeat the Japanese fighters and stop the senseless killings that have transformed a revered festival into a bloodbath.

There have been literally thousands of kung fu and swordplay movies made between the late 1960's up to the mid 1980's when the genre morphed into its new wave style. So many of them are relatively interchangeable with the major difference being how intricate, or exciting the choreography happens to be. DRAGON ON SHAOLIN TOWER is one of those movies, but has enough plot contrivances to be more interesting than most.

Bearing some similarities to Lee Tso Nam's EAGLE'S CLAW (1977) released the same year, Chang Jen Chieh's (not the Shaw's Chang Cheh) kung fu epic utilizes the tried and true Japanese against Chinese motif which has been the 'go to' plot device ever since THE CHINESE BOXER in 1970. What sets this picture apart from so many others is its attention to character. Despite the English dubbed voices, the character traits still manage to shine through. No doubt had this movie been made after '77, it wouldn't be as engrossing as there would be a massive onslaught of comedy as that was all the rage the following year.

Even without the pathos and the dramatic elements, DOST would be great entertainment for some choice choreography and an intricate setting in reference to the tower itself. This construct contains lots of weapons such as sharp knives aligning a walkway and ladders leading up to the next level. If one's kung fu is good enough, they can stave off being cut. The style of Hard Chi Kung (Qigong) is a major style on display here. It focuses on the concentration of blood flow to certain parts of the body to avoid cuts from bladed weapons. Real Chi Kung practitioners are used in the film.

During his training, Lung Tien Sheng is called upon to slice a vegetable on his stomach with a razor sharp implement, the camera quickly cuts to a close up of a real practitioner performing the action. Ditto for the shot of the actor walking atop the very sharp and very large knives.

The fight sequences are very well done especially those that take place atop the dangerous tower. There's an assortment of fight scenes, but none of them are padding as is the case in so many kung fu comedies that came later. Choreographer, Chim Lung does a grand job of creating exciting battles whether it be one on one, or two against many. The Shaw's choreographers were experts at featuring a multitude of attackers against one, two, or more adversaries. Lung handles these sequences expertly with special mention of the finale. The editing is also quite good with special mention during the final moments when a certain bone crushing maneuver comes into play.

Ng See Yuen attempted a similar movie with the inferior RING OF DEATH in 1980. Even the participation of Hwang Jang Lee (who is underused in that film) wasn't enough to make that one interesting for me aside from a bright spot here and there. The fighting platform seen in that one is underwhelming compared with what is seen here.

Yun Chung Yue

Lung Tien Sheng has an early lead role here as the young, but astute Lin Ke Chang. His character is only mildly interesting when compared to his older kung fu brother, Kao Chin played by Yun Chung Yue. He gets blackmailed into leaving his school after a supposed liason with a woman requires he remain with her. He eventually becomes a drunk, shaming his teacher. But at the end, he appears at the competition claiming it was all a ruse! This abrupt plot point seems all the world like a last second addition to give the last battle atop the tower some extra punch and kind of hurts the flow a bit. But still, it does lend this sequence some added tension in that Kao Chin's skill level isn't up to the others who must traverse the bladed obstacles. Yun Chung Yue also played the leader of men's island in the wild and woolly COUNTRY OF BEAUTIES (1981).

Lung Tien Sheng

Lung Tien Sheng soon found himself in Chang Cheh's company in 1979 when he was brought over from Taiwan to co-star in TEN TIGERS OF KWANG TUNG, a movie that had been shut down for various reasons. He brought his family with him and made a decent career at Shaw's. He was used best by Chang Cheh who brought out the actors best attributes in films like FLAG OF IRON (1980) and THE SWORD STAINED WITH ROYAL BLOOD (1982).

Tung Li was in some early Shaw Brothers swordplay movies such as hero turns in unusual men and women on a mission movie, THE IMPERIAL SWORDSMAN (1971) and the gruesome delights of THE BLACK TAVERN (1972). He also played a villain opposing Tang Ching in THE BLACK ENFORCER (1972). The director, Chang Jen Chieh, also helmed the Taiwanese horror BLACK MAGIC clone, THE DEVILS (1981). DRAGON ON SHAOLIN TOWER (1977) is the best independent kung fu movie I've seen in a long time. It doesn't seem to get a lot of mention anywhere, but it definitely is a highly recommended action film for fans of the genre.

This DVD can be purchased here-- FAR EAST FLIX

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