CHANG CHEH'S BEST FILMS PART 2
The first time around it was 'Chang's Cheh's 13 Best Action Films'. Considering the man directed several movies shy of a hundred, it's difficult to narrow it down to just 13. So, by year of release (unless otherwise noted), here's 15 more from the Gore Godfather of Hong Kong Action cinema. To see the article on films 1-13, click here.
14. GOLDEN SWALLOW (1968 aka THE GIRL WITH THE THUNDERBOLT KICK)
Chang Cheh's sort of sequel to King Hu's COME DRINK WITH ME (1966) features Cheng Pei Pei as the title character in a bloody love triangle involving two other male swordsmen, Silver Roc (Jimmy Wang Yu) and Golden Whip (Lo Lieh replacing Yueh Hua). While the role played by hot head leading man, Wang Yu gets the bulk of the screen time here, Golden Swallow is nonetheless the core of the film. Wang Yu was a major league bankable star at the time and Chang Cheh made good use of his (limited) abilities.
Riddled with all manner of gory violence, the action scenes come on fast and thick as Silver Roc cuts a bloody swath through wave after wave of automatons to find Golden Swallow. Destined to fight, both Roc and Golden Whip meet up during the doom laden finale. A signature work amongst the directors slew of Wuxia movies. Wang Yu would later go on to make a handful of other swordplay pictures dressed in white attire (BLOOD OF THE DRAGON, DEADLY SILVER SPEAR). While a souless affair, this film racked up a lot of box office receipts. Location shooting in Japan benefits this Shaw Brothers production. Cheh also shot THE FLYING DAGGER at the same time with Lo Lieh in the lead and Cheng Pei Pei top billed. Although a good film and overly gory, it failed to make a dent in Hong Kong.
15. THE INVINCIBLE FIST (1969)
This was an effort Chang Cheh was most proud of, but again, with Lo Lieh in the leading role, it didn't have much audience interest amazingly enough. It wasn't long after that Lo Lieh would be cast predominantly as villains. He had already played the lead Japanese heavy in Wang Yu's THE CHINESE BOXER shot the same year. THE INVINCIBLE FIST is a swordplay outing told in spaghetti western trappings with its close ups of sweaty, dirty faces and unshaved facial hair. David Chiang has an early role here as Lo Lieh's brother. It would be mere months and Chiang would explode onto the scene along with his frequent co-star, Ti Lung.
Lo Lieh is the 'Invincible Fist' of the title out to capture a group of bandits who have stolen a fortune in gold. The film itself is very well made and contains exceptional action sequences courtesy of Liu Chia Liang and Tang Chia. Lo Lieh is also formidable as the determined hero. It's a shame he didn't maintain his ground as a leading man after breaking away from ensemble pictures such as THE MAGNIFICENT TRIO (1966) and GOLDEN SWALLOW (1968). This is one of the few Chang Cheh movies that ends on an upbeat note. A decade later, Kuei Chi Hung directed a far more brutal remake entitled KILLER CONSTABLE with Chen Kuan Tai in the Lo Lieh role.
16. THE DUEL (1971 aka DUEL OF THE IRON FIST)
One of the directors most violent gangster movies, it predates his seminal THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG by a year. While both were successes, the latter was more of a trendsetter. Still, THE DUEL brings a detailed story to the table along with a strong helping of bloody action. Lots of betrayals, double crosses and wildly splatterific knife battles are the menu items. Ti Lung plays the lead while David Chiang takes the more interesting role of 'The Rambler', a mysterious killer who may, or may not be a villain. Both Chiang and Ti Lung did over 20 movies together so this was the first opportunity to see the two stars pitted (albeit briefly) against each other.
The directors propensity for showcasing brotherhood among men is transposed from the Wuxia universe to Republican Era China. Cheh would later remake this picture almost a decade later under the title, FLAG OF IRON (1980). In that film, Lung Tien Sheng was 'The Rambler' character and Kuo Chui was the lead. While the later film is good in its own right, THE DUEL has the better story arc, performances and spectacularly violent and bloody basher style action scenes featuring several against many. There's also a scene where a man gets his face burned off with a blow torch. Eagle eyed spotters will spy Chen Kuan Tai getting his throat cut by Ti Lung near the end.
17. THE DELIGHTFUL FOREST (1972 aka OUTLAWS OF THE MARSH)
Another hugely enjoyable Chang Cheh production shot amidst a furious filming schedule that included films such as THE WATER MARGIN (1972) and ALL MEN ARE BROTHERS (1973). Like those two pictures, FOREST also deals with the famous tales of the 'Outlaws of the Marsh'. Ti Lung plays Wu Song (the same character he plays in the two above mentioned movies as well as TIGER KILLER in 1982), a character who enjoys his alcohol. This was one of a few Chang Cheh films where Ti Lung had the limelight all to himself.
At the outset, Ti Lung engages two men that murdered his brother in a duel. Defeating them in a very impressive fight sequence (one of the fighters is famous choreographer, Liu Chia Yung, brother to the even more famous Liu Chia Liang), Wu turns himself in to the police, but is later released if he will free a town (the films title) from an oppressive ruler played by Chu Mu (HEROES TWO, ALL MEN ARE BROTHERS). In so doing, the villain eventually returns with a score to settle culminating in a gruesome final battle. Other films that feature characters from the 'Water Margin' series are PURSUIT (1972) and TRILOGY OF SWORDSMANSHIP (1972). THE DELIGHTFUL FOREST has gained in popularity over the years becoming one of the directors most fondly remembered works.
18. THE FOUR RIDERS (1972 aka STRIKE 4: REVENGE)
Having dabbled successfully in swordplay, modern style action movies and even troubled youth movies, Chang Cheh turned his attention to war pictures. Not an overt war film like his later SEVEN MAN ARMY, but set immediately after the Korean War, FOUR RIDERS is about four soldiers who get wrongfully accused of murdering an American soldier and spend the rest of the movie trying to clear their names. French actor, Andre Marquis plays the leader of the drug cartel that frames the four friends. Yasuaki Kurata, who also has a big role in Cheh's lively THE ANGRY GUEST from the same year, plays one of the main thugs.
The modern style fights are well staged and there's more than enough macho bravado to fill several movies. It all comes to a head for the spectacularly violent finale inside a gymnasium where the equipment becomes weapons of death. Chang Cheh was a master at devising ingenious methods by which to kill off his cast and he doesn't slack here. There's also some gunplay action during this sequence when the the gym is surrounded by the police. The title refers to the 'Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse', mentioned by Chen Kuan Tai whose character reads the bible. In a nice change of pace, both Korean and English are spoken on the soundtrack as opposed to simply mandarin Chinese.
19. MAN OF IRON (1972 aka WARRIOR OF STEEL)
This is the furious follow up to Cheh's hugely successful THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG. Chen Kuan Tai encores from the previous movie, which begins some 20 years after the events of the first one. The plot is almost identical, but Chen Kuan Tai is more of a swaggering cool cat adorned in black leather as opposed to the honorable peasant from before. The fights are some of the most brutal basher style confrontations whether bare handed, or with wooden implements, or large bladed weaponry. Chen plays another gang leader wishing to lay claim to his own territory while impressing an aging godfather whose subordinate has devious ambitions of his own.
Chang Cheh co-directs with his acolyte Pao Hsueh Li. Despite Pao's subsequent solo directing gigs and Cheh himself claiming the bulk of the directing duties were Pao's, Cheh's stamp is all over this movie. If Pao indeed helmed all, or most of this film, Chang Cheh clearly guided him through to the end. While not as spectacularly bloody as the earlier film, MAN OF IRON lives up to its title. A highly listenable funkadelic score adds immeasurably to the proceedings. Curiously, some additional funk cues are heard on the English dubbed version that aren't on the HK edit.
20. HEROES TWO (1973/released 1974 aka KUNG FU INVADERS)
Another of Chang's innovations was a series of kung fu movies built around the famed Shaolin temple. Beginning with FIVE SHAOLIN MASTERS (1974), weather problems hindered that production so HEROES TWO (1973) and MEN FROM THE MONASTERY (1974) were sent into production. Shot predominantly in Taiwan, these movies were part of Cheh's "independent" output with distribution handled by Shaw Brothers. The stories are interchangeable with one another for the most part. Ming vs. Qing, the plot here has Fang Hsi Yu unknowingly aid the Manchu fighters arrest Hung Si Kwan after the destruction of Shaolin. He spends a good part of the films running time trying to rescue him.
Probably the turning point for kung fu styles portrayed on screen, there were no martial world shenanigans here, just characters utilizing Shaolin kung fu styles. They're all intricately choreographed by Liu Chia Liang and his team. No doubt an integral part of Chang Cheh's crew, it wouldn't be long before Liu would branch out on his own with his first directorial effort, THE SPIRITUAL BOXER (1975). The venerable Chen Kuan Tai plays the main lead and newcomer, Fu Sheng likewise shot to stardom from here on out. This was followed by the vastly inferior MEN FROM THE MONASTERY (1974), a movie that had a few fleetingly good moments.
21. IRON BODYGUARD (1973)
Now here's an interesting Chang Cheh picture. Until the DVD release in HK a few years ago, it was one of the most rare Shaw Brothers productions. This film divides the fans for the reason that it has a weak lead villain. Personally, aside from having martial arts sequences, I don't really see this as a kung fu movie. It's more of a political picture during the dying days of the Manchu regime and the burgeoning era of the People's Republic. Devout reformists attempt to bring an end to imperialism and corruption, but are arrested for their actions. Chen Kuan Tai is "Big Blade" Wang Wu, the honorable owner of a much respected security bureau. Impressed by his character, Tan, the leader of the reformists requests a meeting. They become fast friends and align to bring reform to the country. But remnants of the Qing aren't about to let that happen.
Prior to seeing this movie, I was never a big fan of Yueh Hua. I really came to appreciate him after seeing his arrogantly righteous portrayal of Tan. Chen Kuan Tai is as good as he ever was here as Wang Wu. There are some truly captivating fight scenes here. At one point, Tan is captured and condemned to be executed. Wang Wu and his men attempt to rescue him, but are ambushed. This marvelously edited sequence is the highlight of the movie. The ending features Wang Wu against palace riflemen as well as his nemesis known as "Iron Fist". Chang Cheh was already noted for his extravagant action films and this was a slight change of pace for him. It's definitely worth reevaluation.
22. ALL MEN ARE BROTHERS (1973/released 1975 aka SEVEN SOLDIERS OF KUNG FU)
This is Cheh's monster sequel to his own enormous epic, THE WATER MARGIN (1972). Production began while WATER MARGIN was still shooting, to add even more to the genre workhorse's slate, the director was also filming THE DELIGHTFUL FOREST (1972) as well, another rather ambitious movie. Beginning life as 'The Story of Punishment', this mega violent Jiang Hu spectacular utilized the Shaw's facilities to the extent of their capabilities of the time. The massive cast of actors return to reprise their previous roles. However, the sultry Yue Fung replaces Lily Ho's fighting female character. As in the first movie, the burly Fan Mei Sheng as the hot tempered, easily excitable Black Whirlwind steals the movie at every turn.
The plot is simplicity as seven of the 108 Outlaws of the Marsh are promised amnesty by the Emperor if they can infiltrate the stronghold of a renegade general and destroy his forces from within allowing the Liang Shan forces easy access to enter the fortress. Once inside, the seven soldiers manage to elude capture for a time before the massive battle royal at the end. No doubt this is Chang Cheh's goriest movie as the red flows generously from start to finish. As with other Chang Cheh productions, the film ran into censorship problems (DEAD END and RETURN OF THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN are two other examples). It wasn't released until 1975.
23. THE BLOOD BROTHERS (1972/released 1973 aka DYNASTY OF BLOOD)
This was an addendum in Part One of Cheh's best, so I thought it should have its own entry for this installment. Long considered one of his greatest works, it's not really a kung fu movie, but often gets lumped in with them. There's fight sequences, but the film could operate just fine without them. In America, it was marketed with the lurid title of DYNASTY OF BLOOD. The film is based upon a famous tragedy that occurred during the Manchu dynasty regarding the assassination of general Ma Hsing I.
The story is told in flashback as the killer is brought before the court to detail his account of his actions. Three friends, Chang Wen Hsiang (David Chiang), Huang Chung (Chen Kuan Tai) and Ma Hsing I (Ti Lung) form a bond becoming blood brothers. From there they decide to join forces in a bid to rid the territory of malicious bandits with Ma's sole intention to gain a military title. In so doing, the three brothers get a name for themselves and attract the attention of the Qing army. Meanwhile, the young Ma is attracted to Huang's wife and the two have an affair which leads to betrayal and ultimately, a tragic end to the friendship.
Cheh's movie is exceptionally well made. Ti Lung, an actor who had been in his frequent co-star, David Chiang's shadow, snagged a Best Actor Award for his performance as the ambitious and cunning general-to-be. Two years prior to Chang's movie, one of his acolytes, Pao Hsueh Li, directed his own version of the story. Titled OATH OF DEATH (1971), it was a sleazy, outlandishly gory action film as opposed to Cheh's more mature offering. Chang Cheh's version of the story would garner a remake in 2007. Entitled WARLORDS, the film had mega stars Jet Li, Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro in the lead roles.
24. SEVEN MAN ARMY (1975/released 1976)
This is one of the directors biggest and most spectacular epics. The film was based on an actual Chinese battle at Pa Tou Lao Tzu, a Chinese military fort. The Taiwanese army helped in getting the film made with a number of soldiers, artillery and military hardware. It was one of the directors 'Chang's Company' productions shot in Taiwan with funds the Shaw's couldn't take out of the country. Cheh managed to either direct, or oversee production on nearly 20 movies under his self named banner between the years of 1973 to 1977.
Some of these films were directed by his name stars (David Chiang and Ti Lung got to show what they could do behind the camera), but SEVEN MAN ARMY is likely the biggest, most extravagant of the productions helmed by the revered director. It was an award winning feature, but Hong Kong audiences had little interest in it. Along with Cheh's sprawling THE BOXER REBELLION, this was the end of the line for the directors epics of enormity.
The plot is pretty much nonexistent. Seven soldiers from different backgrounds attempt to hold down a fort from oppressive Japanese and Mongolian forces during World War 2. They managed to survive for five days and nights before exhaustion and near constant battle take their toll. SEVEN MAN ARMY is probably the directors most extreme example of jingoistic bravado with its permeating level of patriotism. The battle sequences are breathtakingly captured and the mixture of guns, bayonets, swords and kung fu makes for an incredible showcase. The final scene features a touching farewell to each of the heroes which was later copied in a more somber fashion for Liu Chia Liang's THE EIGHT DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER (1984). Cheh would do one more war picture, the meandering and weak, THE NAVAL COMMANDOS (1977). It wouldn't be long before his career would take a new direction to reflect changing audience trends.
25. SHAOLIN AVENGERS (1976 aka THE INVINCIBLE KUNG FU BROTHERS)
Chang Cheh remakes his own MEN FROM THE MONASTERY (1974) and vastly improves on it with a novel approach to the storytelling. The entire film takes place via a flashback during a raging battle in an open field between Fang Hsi Yu, his brother and Hou Wei Chin versus an army of Manchu soldiers and a small contingent of lethal kung fu experts. The film details how, trained by his mother, Fang got his Iron Skin training. Alexander Fu Sheng once more plays the famous historical hero, Fang Hsi Yu, a role he made his own over the course of four films for Shaw Brothers.
Although MEN FROM THE MONASTERY is a much bloodier movie, AVENGERS is the better structured and edited. It does have its fair share of gore, though. Liang Chia Jen was one of the directors stock villains at the time (save for BOXER REBELLION) along with Tsai Hung (FIVE SHAOLIN MASTERS, SHAOLIN TEMPLE) and both feature in the same capacity here. The English title, THE INVINCIBLE KUNG FU BROTHERS is misleading as only Fu Sheng becomes "invincible" via the skin burning wine he is forced to endure as part of his training. Watch for a brief scene with venoms, Lu Feng and Chiang Sheng.
26. NEW SHAOLIN BOXERS (1976 aka GRANDMASTER OF DEATH/DEMON FISTS OF KUNG FU)
It was a rare occurrence that anyone in Chang Cheh's stable of actors that only one got an entire film all to themselves. He made an exception with Fu Sheng. Although Cheh's biggest HK hit, DISCIPLES OF SHAOLIN was predominantly Fu's showcase, his frequent co-star, Chi Kuan Chun was also on hand. For NEW SHAOLIN BOXERS, it's Fu Sheng from start to finish. The movie is also a showcase for the Choy Li Fut kung fu techniques, a style that utilized various Northern kicking maneuvers with Southern fist techniques.
The film deals with a brash youngster who tries to protect his village from a crime boss and his lackey's. When he nearly gets killed in a fight, he's sent away to learn Choy Li Fut from an old master atop a mountain. Upon his return, he finds that his original teacher has been killed and the town has been overtaken. He challenges and kills the entire gang leaving the cruel big boss for last. Cheh manages to imbue this minor offering with some much needed pathos resulting in a satisfying kung fu movie experience. Not quite as good as DISCIPLES OF SHAOLIN (Fu Sheng's best movie), but close. The ending is very well done. You'll spot future venom villain, Wang Li as a thug killed by Fu Sheng during the finale as well as Cheng Tien Chi, Lu Feng, Chiang Sheng as thugs and also Kuo Chui as one of Fu Sheng's colleagues.
27. THE MAGNIFICENT RUFFIANS (1979 aka THE DESTROYERS)
Even though Cheh and his later movies were never taken seriously by the Hong Kong critics and audiences, they nonetheless yielded some well done comic book styled action pictures. This is one of them. The group known in fan circles as The Venoms were far more popular outside of Asia than they were on their home turf. Their movies did seem to be a bit more popular in Malaysia and Taiwan. At the time, comedy was the order of the day and while these venom films were (mostly) consistent in their box office takings, they are barely remembered today in Hong Kong.
For this spirited entry, Lu Feng plays Yuen, a cruel aristocratic kung fu expert living off of his late fathers fame. With times becoming more industrialized, there is little outlet for him to attain similar success with his skills. He monopolizes a small town and uses various businesses to entrap peasants that possess a modicum of kung fu ability. There is one plot of land whose owners refuse to sell. Yuen uses several starving homeless men, fighters of once reputable families, to unknowingly aid him in taking over the entire town. Cheh's movie benefits from an intriguing plot and even better choreography. This picture provides a rare good guy role for the underrated Wang Li, who got his first substantial, but small role in the classic SHAOLIN RESCUERS (1979).
28. THE REBEL INTRUDERS (1980 aka KILLER ARMY)
Chiang Sheng (middle) tries to keep Kuo Chui (left) and Lo Mang (right) from fighting each other long enough to become blood brothers in REBEL INTRUDERS
Yet another lively and fun entry in the Chang Cheh venom series of kung fu excellence. The plot is somewhat similar to the above movie. It's about a Southern Chinese army leader, Assistant Chief Chen (played with insidious glee by Lu Feng), who uses a city flooded with refugees as a military headquarters. He has several factions under his regime and secretly plots against his commanding officer, Huang. He manages to buy off some of the other military units save for one group. Three refugees proficient in kung fu learn of the generals plan and eventually get framed for murdering the division commander, Mr. Zeng. Circumventing the town, the three men have no escape and must fight through the traitorous forces in a bid to join the Southern rebels while Chen awaits their arrival at the docks.
This rather exciting and fun film benefits from some wonderful characterizations especially the three refugees played by Kuo Chui, Lo Mang and Chiang Sheng. While there's action throughout, the last third is a non stop barrage of subterfuge and furious fights using every weapon imaginable. The final fight is an incredible display slightly marred by a laughable editing mistake. The film was heavily censored for its television airings. Sadly, the movie performed poorly in Hong Kong, but was very popular on the 'Kung Fu Theater' television show under its more widely known title, KILLER ARMY. There was also a rap group (Killarmy) named after this movie. In addition, this film contains one of the best bar fights ever concocted for the screen. It's one of the directors more colorful kung fu films.