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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Shaw Brothers Spy Thrillers, Capers & Crime Pictures Part 3


Like the Italian crime pictures that exploded in the 1970s, Hong Kong eventually bred their own similarly gritty interpretations of the seedier side of life in what was once a British colony. This style of film would eventually transform into something more grim and hideous as the decade wore on and entered the 1980s and beyond. Just as the Italian variants were most often ripped straight from newspaper headlines, so too were the Chinese crime pictures. Interestingly enough, the Asian versions were more like morality plays oftentimes ending with a voice-over warning the viewer of the dangers of resorting to unlawful activities. HK crime was a mixed bag at the start of the decade. Some of these films were bloody post revolution martial arts actioners woven around a crime film template (THE DUEL) while others were modern variants with a heavy slant towards a fist and kick brutality (THE DELINQUENT, THE ANGRY GUEST). Then there were a few that heralded the decade prior with a playful sense of escapism, adventure and suspense (THE LIZARD, THE LADY PROFESSIONAL).

While many of these later detective/crime thrillers were serious affairs dealing with all too real societal problems, there was a cross pollination of styles that crept in at the dawn of the 1970s just as the previous decades sort of quaint, "old fashioned" style of picture had all but vanished. Kung Fu and Karate style martial arts had become the new rage by this point having usurped swordplay for the next few years as the dominant force at the box office. The typical crime plots were recycled to make room for some flying fists and feet and the settings were sometimes transposed to post Revolution China. Chang Cheh turned criminality into award winning, and or box office gold with such films as VENGEANCE! (1970) and THE DUEL (1971) to name two. Those latter two gangster/revenge pictures solidified 'The Iron Triangle' (director Cheh and his two biggest discoveries, David Chiang
and Ti Lung)
as a dominant force with ticket buyers in a modern setting as well as a period one. BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972) was an exceptional and massive box office success that made Chen Kuan Tai (who played the real life Ma Yung Chen) an overnight sensation and also paved the way for an onslaught of Shanghai gangster pictures. As with his swordplays, Cheh's post revolution action-crime-dramas had a heavier accent towards spectacularly gory action set pieces which were bolstered by moments of melodramatic bravado. Cheh had dabbled in slightly less violent crime pictures with the experimental fluff that was THE SINGING THIEF (1969) and the more rebellious redo that was THE SINGING KILLER in 1971. For more on Chang Cheh's Youth Rebellion-Delinquent movies, click HERE.

His double act of Chiang and Lung also tried their hand at directing modern day crime and youth rebellion in several films including YOUNG LOVERS ON FLYING WHEELS (1974) and THE DRUG ADDICTS (1974), but few of these were successful, at least in HK theaters. Cheh would also tackle the dangers of drug use in the fan favorite, THE CHINATOWN KID in 1977; a revamping of his earlier BOXER FROM SHANTUNG. If not for some clumsy sequences, this could have been a serious look at both the upper and lower class dichotomy in relation to public perception of the haves and have nots. The subject of addiction and the perils at the top of successes ladder is broached, but lost amidst a flurry of bloody confrontations between rival gangs. But early in the 1970s, the subject of crime would get deadly serious with some 'Blood & Concrete' productions that would reflect the chaos on the streets of Hong Kong. However, before the grim reality set in, there were some hybrids that offered some nice escapist entertainment in the interim.


Some of these even had a bit of comedy thrown into the mix to occasionally lighten things up. Chu Yuan's 1972 picture, THE LIZARD (which began production as THE NIGHT STALKER) was one such movie. Ostensibly an action film, the crime conventions are in abundance here ably embodied by Lo Lieh as the unscrupulous and corrupt Chief Constable Chen Kan who secretly runs gambling dens and slavery rings. Yueh Hua is the title 'Lizard', a Robin Hood/Zorro type character who steals from wealthy foreign dignitaries and fights against the oppression of his Chinese countrymen from foreign invaders including those dreaded Japanese. This film was essentially a more modern take on the 1967 movie SWEET IS REVENGE in which Yueh played basically the same character. THE LIZARD brought with it a greater pedigree, though. This was both cinema darling Connie Chen Po Chu's return and farewell to the movie world and the film attracted an enormous amount of publicity not the least of which was Bruce Lee's visit to the Shaw studio. Connie had been away in America for school studies the two years prior so her return to Hong Kong was highly publicized attracting hundreds of fans who were frantic to get a look at the popular actress. The film itself was one of Shaw's most highly touted pictures. After completing THE LIZARD, Connie returned to San Francisco to finish her studies. Watching this film alongside some of the other more grim movies that were coming down the pike, THE LIZARD seems more like a throwback to the adventurous capers that prospered during the latter part of the 1960s.

Lo Lieh could possibly be described as the John Carradine of Asian cinema. The man seemed to appear in just about anything whether in a major or a supporting role. He starred in many of Asia's biggest films during the 1960s and 70s as well as a rice factory's worth of dreck. Lo was a rare actor in that he was given the opportunity to headline a handful of international productions. Granted, some of these were pretty juvenile such as THE THREE SUPERMEN AGAINST THE ORIENT (1974) co-starring Shih Szu. Lo's most upscale of these pictures would have to be THE STRANGER AND THE GUNFIGHTER also from 1974. Shot on location in Spain, this picture had Lo sharing the screen with Lee Van Cleef. Originally, Lo was to have been among the cast in the HK-Germany co-pro VIRGINS OF THE SEVEN SEAS (1974), but for whatever reason, he was replaced along with some other performers including Chen Ping. From Indonesia, Lo Lieh joined Shaw's in the early 60s and was steadily groomed for leading man status. Arguably his biggest break came in 1972 with the film KING BOXER, a movie that, ironically, broke records everywhere but in Hong Kong. From here on out, Lo's career was dotted with far more villain roles than Heroic Ones.

His turn as the evil Priest White Brows in EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN (1976) reinvigorated his career as well as jump-started a legion of movies featuring white haired villains. He did relatively few crime pictures, but he starred in one of the most financially successful ones of the 1970s--KIDNAP (1974) from director Cheng Kang. Lo also featured in one of the better segments of the anthology hit THE CRIMINALS (1976) and also as a guileful gambler in Sun Chung's THE NOTORIOUS EIGHT (1981). In early 1976, Lo married Grace Tang, his second wife. By this point in his career, Lo Lieh had come a long way and was living a comfortable life. He was also allowed to freelance for other companies as well as satisfy his desire to direct. His most accomplished effort would arguably be CLAN OF THE WHITE LOTUS from 1979. He also directed the ridiculously insane Hong Kong horror that is BLACK MAGIC WITH BUDDHA (1983) starring a seemingly embarrassed Chen Kuan Tai.

While some may label THE LIZARD as a kung fu movie, it has a bit more going on in its storyline devoid of the typical revenge scenario that would be the most oft used plot device for literally hundreds of those movies a few years down the road. It's a fairly light-hearted romp, but is slightly uncomfortable with a bit of gratuitous nudity and a modestly bloody and decidedly serious finale. It also carries with it some political subtext; not quite as blatantly in your face as many of the far left wing extremism found in numerous Italian westerns and crime films, but it's there hidden beneath the action sequences. Yueh Hua tackles one of his best roles as a stuttering policeman by day and the erudite Lizard thief by night. Connie Chen puts her dancing skills to good use here and looks surprisingly adept in her action scenes. Chu Yuan would soon find himself as the eminent filmmaker of wuxia productions towards the end of the decade, but some of his early Shaw work is of interest in how different it is from what he would be doing a few years later. One of these earlier pictures was yet another post revolution dramatic feature. This one is a little more blatant with its socio-political machinations and western influences. It's also distinguished by being extremely rare as it was never made available on DVD nor on the ZiiEagle Movie Box. It's about a reputable family that crumbles under the weight of wealth and power leading to violence, banditry and tragedy.


This other cross over production from Chu Yuan that melded action, crime and drama was the extremely rare and brutal THE VILLAINS (1973). The plot revolves around two brothers, one played by Yueh Hua and the other played by Chen Hung Lieh. This picture leans more heavily towards the drama and westernized conventions with its strong familial turmoil and political underpinnings involving the upper class and the calamity that ensues from blind faith and monetary power. It has the feeling of an Eastern Western in some respects such as the inclusion of some bank robberies and shoot outs. Like Cheh's IRON BODYGUARD (1973) from the same year, THE VILLAINS is a tense drama accentuated by scenes of action. Fang Zheng (Yueh Hua) awaits the arrival of his cousin Lin Hsiao Hong (Shih Szu) by train. Fang's father takes an immediate dislike to Lin since she is the daughter of his enemy. It is quickly revealed that Fang Zheng's brother, Fang Feng is a rabid gambler and ruffian who uses his family's stature as a means to run roughshod over anyone he so chooses. The elder Fang even favors his youngest over the more mature older son because a fortuneteller let it be known that Fang Feng would become established in the future. The stubborn patriarch also has a high position in the province that even supersedes the magistrate, so this young wild card has free reign to wreak havoc. Both the older Fang and Lin start to fall in love, but he's forced to leave home when his father becomes convinced he is out for his money. With Fang gone, his brother rapes Lin and she becomes pregnant. Lin is viciously beaten by Fang's father upon this news and refuses to believe his son is responsible.

Chu Yuan goes over a scene with Chen Hung Lieh

After a series of mounting crimes that culminates in murder, Fang Feng is unable to avoid being branded a bandit. He gathers his friends and they embark on a crime spree. Meanwhile, Fang Zheng has become a police commissioner and is assigned to bring his brother in dead or alive. This leads to an exciting gun battle with Fang's gang trapped inside a raggedy shack while hundreds of armed soldiers surround them. It should be noted that Chen Hung Lieh plays possibly the most despicable character on his long resume of villains and Yueh Hua is exceptional as the lead hero. There's no kung fu fight between either brother during the closing moments, but their final confrontation is incredibly poignant bringing this 81 minute feature to a satisfying end. Easily one of Chu Yuan's best and most unusual movies, the western sensibilities are hammered home with very good usage of Morricone themes particularly 'Jill's Theme' from the classic ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968) and even the main theme music for the American soap opera AS THE WORLD TURNS! It's a true shame this film remains unavailable on DVD.

Yueh Hua (Liang Le-hua) was quite the leading man at Shaw Brothers studio accruing a substantial list of fine performances during his time there. A graduate of Shaw's Southern Film Training School, he was schoolmates with colleagues Lo Lieh and baby queen Li Ching. Gifted with charisma and true thespian skills, he has acted in some of the company's most prestigious movies. He appeared quite often with Cheng Pei Pei first in LOVERS' ROCK in 1964 prior to garnering a co-starring credit in COME DRINK WITH ME in 1966 which put him on the road to stardom in swordplay cinema. During this time he also starred in Ho Meng Hua's classic fantasy THE MONKEY GOES WEST also in 1966. From there, Yueh began appearing in a steady stream of swordplay epics such as the hugely successful THE TWELVE GOLD MEDALLIONS (1970) from Cheng Kang, THE LONG CHASE (1971) by Ho Meng Hua and PURSUIT (1972) again from Cheng Kang. Yueh Hua also was among the massive cast in Chang Cheh's THE WATER MARGIN and again for Cheng Kang in the equally enormous THE 14 AMAZONS (both 1972). Among his numerous wuxia epics was at least one unfinished production. That aborted film was THE DRINKING KNIGHT, a movie that went through two directors and a recasting. For more information on this films troubled production, click HERE.

As the 70s wore on, Yueh appeared in movies of a more gritty and exploitational vintage including crime pictures such as the elusive PAYMENT IN BLOOD (1973) from Kuei Chi Hung and the melodramatic crime film THE BIG HOLD-UP (1975) from Chu Yuan. He also co-starred in the trashy revenge thriller THE SEXY KILLER (1976) and its more action packed sequel, THE LADY EXTERMINATOR (1977) both helmed by Sun Chung. He was supposed to have made his debut as a villain in the latter movie, but apparently a last minute script change did away with that decision. Despite his debonaire disposition, Yueh carried the mantle of Shaw sleaze king with such films as the co-productions VIRGINS OF THE SEVEN SEAS (1974) and the horrendous AMAZONS & SUPERMEN (1975). He also starred in a string of erotic movies including titles such as ILLICIT DESIRE (1973), THAT'S ADULTERY! (1975) and the unavailable on disc WEDDING NIGHTS (1976), all of which were for the much respected Li Han Hsiang. Like some other of Shaw's talent pool, Yueh Hua was loaned out to independent companies to do films for them. Coincidentally, many of these were eventually distributed by Shaw Brothers such as THE DREAM SWORD (1979) and SIX DIRECTIONS OF BOXING (1980). One of his funniest roles is a cameo in MONKEY FIST, FLOATING SNAKE (1979) wherein he plays this supposed supreme kung fu master. Everywhere he walks, he has his own theme music. In between all of these roles, Yueh married Shaw actress Tanny Tien Ni in 1975 and the two remain a happy couple to this day.


As already discussed in parts ONE and TWO, women played an intrinsic part in Asian cinema. Not just in martial arts pictures, but also in the spy capers and suspense movies. Sometimes projected as damsels in distress and other times as sex kittens with sharp claws, the tough girl persona was in thin supply in 70s HK crime movies. While they still headlined assorted kung fu and swordplay epics, the roles of women in gritty crime thrillers was mostly relegated to victim status. There were a few exceptions. While Chen Ping dominated the decade as the Queen of Exploitation, Shih Szu made a brief transition to tough girl status with her own DIRTY HARRY vehicle, the Shaw production of THE WARRANT (1973). The plot of this rare film is about a determined policewoman who must protect a small child from an escaped convict. The film was promoted within Shaw's movie publications such as Southern Screen (see images above), yet was among numerous titles that weren't announced as part of Celestial's restorations nor did the title show up within the ZiiEagle Movie Box which contained close to 70 additional titles not released to DVD. The film is available on VHS within fan circles, however. While this was Shih Szu's one shining moment as a tough lead in a modern setting (that we know about), she later portrayed a terrorized victim in the first segment of Shaw's seedy, and increasingly sleazy CRIMINALS series.

Shih Szu (real name Lei Chiu-shih) joined Shaw Brothers in mid 1969 at age 16. The youngest of a batch of eleven aspiring Taiwanese actors and actresses (Wang Ping was among the group), she was proficient in dancing with ballet being a specialty; just like her contemporary, Cheng Pei pei before her. Shih Szu would put these skills to good use in a steady string of swordplay extravaganzas such as THE LADY HERMIT (1971), its loose sequel THE BLACK TAVERN (1972) and the gory THE RESCUE from 1971. She also made the transition to post revolution fist and feet films like THE THUNDERBOLT FIST (1972) and THE CHAMPION (1973), which also goes by the name of SHANGHAI LIL & THE SUNLUCK KID. Shih Szu also joined both Lo Lieh and David Chiang on the international circuit with both SUPERMEN AGAINST THE ORIENT and LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES (both 1974) respectively. Curiously, she's the one major female player at Shaw's that wasn't featured in Cheng Kang's sprawling epic, THE 14 AMAZONS (1972). By 1975, her roles as a fighting tigress at Shaw Brothers were seemingly non existent, but she did obtain some martial arts parts in some independent films towards the close of her career. Her last major fighting role in a Shaw Brothers movie was the troubled production of THE FLYING GUILLOTINE 2 (1978), a film that began under the direction of Cheng Kang, and was taken over by Hua Shan among other problems. Click the link above for the complete rundown. Aside from the new to the screen Shih Szu, there was another starlet who maintained her star power during the first quarter of the 1970s.

Lily Ho, who was one of Shaw's biggest stars the previous decade, was still a viable commodity in the 1970s. The leggy actress is never spoken of in the same breadth as some of the other female action stars like her colleague Cheng Pei pei, but she was just as varied in her roles when it came to swordplay and modern action films. Her 1971 secret agent/revenge thriller THE LADY PROFESSIONAL was a curious movie that seems slightly out of place amidst the action films coming out in Hong Kong during this time. It's a co-directed effort between Matsuo Akinori (Mai Chi Ho) and up and coming director Kuei Chi Hung. Lily stars as a hitwoman who is hired for a job only for her employers to attempt to snuff her out afterward. The obligatory revenge scenario takes over in what is an occasionally stylish thriller with a few touches that are indigenous to Japanese action movies of the day. Lily Ho's striking black leather outfits recall the FEMALE CONVICT SCORPION movies that would appear the following year. Some of the villains seen here also have a Japanese flavor about them such as a knife throwing acrobat and two bodybuilding killers (one of which is played by Bolo Yeung aka Yang Tze). Lily's character has a nifty gadget with which to kill her targets and the opening roller coaster sequence and the gory, over the top construction yard scenes are highlights. There's also a car chase that's pretty intense and well photographed to boot.

Flyer advertising THE LADY PROFESSIONAL at a theater near you!

Next for this beautiful actress was a peculiar mix of swordplay, sex and sleaze with Chu Yuan's groundbreaking INTIMATE CONFESSIONS OF A CHINESE COURTESAN (1972). The lesbianism, while tame by today's standards, was taboo breaking in Hong Kong at the time. Sexual situations were a touchy area where censorship was concerned in certain Asian territories. This film, while a swordplay feature, also contained a heavy crime style backstory. A woman is abducted and sold into prostitution to a vicious, yet sex starved madam along with her numerous wealthy and wholly sadistic and perverted clientele. It's one of the earliest forms of a rape-revenge movie, but draped in wuxia trappings. After this hit, Lily Ho remained a top draw. She did appear in two more post revolution era crime-drama-combat movies--THE CASINO (1972) and RIVER OF FURY (1973) both for director Chang Tseng Chai, but these relegated her to supporting status and not quite the fighting femme fatale of her other pictures. She rather abruptly quit the film business in 1974 to concentrate on raising a family. She is undoubtedly an unsung heroine of Hong Kong cinema's vast heritage.


Directors of THE 14 AMAZONS--Cheng Kang (far right) and Tong Shao Yung (far left)

Throughout the 1970s, there were five major directors at Shaw Brothers making modern day crime thrillers--Cheng Kang, Kuei Chi Hung and award winning director Chang Tseng Chai were at the front lines. Hua Shan and Mou Tun fei were the other two, but their time wouldn't come till late in the decade. Cheng Kang was a diminutive, yet well respected writer-director who came to prominence after helming the mega hit TWELVE GOLD MEDALLIONS (1970). After that swordplay smash, Cheng took two years shooting the big budget THE 14 AMAZONS (1972). He was well known for taking an extremely long time both writing and shooting his movies which would often go over schedule and budget. The reward was worth it more times than not and Shaw's didn't seem to mind allowing him the extra time and money.

Immediately after completing the massive and expensive Amazon epic, Cheng Kang began working on his first modern day crime picture. Reportedly inspired by an incident that occurred early in the 1960s by a group of gangsters known as 'The Three Wolves', the crime involved the kidnapping and subsequent murder of a wealthy Chinese businessman. The ambitious film this was to be based on was entitled KIDNAP (1974). In it, a disgruntled gas station attendant named Lung Wei (Lo Lieh) and three greedy accomplices decide to kidnap Lung's wealthy young boss, Lo Pen-li, after he humiliates him in front of a gold-digging girl he so desperately wanted to impress. Capturing the young braggart, the nervous and bumbling criminals nearly allow Lo to escape. He's killed with a shovel to his skull and the group decide to carry on with the ransom anyway. So they cut off the corpses ear and send it to his father demanding $500,000. The young man's dad ends up getting kidnapped in the exchange and our four cretins get a little more smarter in how to carry out this new job. The ransom is upped to 3 million for the return of the old man. Eventually he's released and they get 1 million instead, but things get even more complicated for our less than honorable crooks. Their greed gets the best of them and they are ultimately all captured after one of them blabbers to the police for a lighter sentence. Condemned to death, the last half of the film is a volcanic eruption of melodrama of the highest tear-jerking order. It's a powerful coda, well shot and edited, but it piles on the gloomy repentance to such a degree, the final minutes take on this dream-like quality bordering on avant garde.

The sadness we feel for these characters--mostly their families that are left behind--is somewhat over-
whelming even though they've committed barbarous crimes and are generally seedy individuals. Lo Lieh's character is especially pitiable. Some of them do have strong, respectable familial ties and one wonders just where it all went wrong. During the last thirty minutes or so, we get to learn more about 'The Three Wolves', our intrepid and quite greedy kidnappers. Cheng Kang wrote the screenplay and showcases his penchant for creating sympathetic characters despite the misery they have wrought. Society nonetheless breeds violence and frequently spits up what we give it. Even if we are all born with our minds to think and make decisions, not everybody has the strength and power of will to do the right thing. Greed and jealousy are powerful tools that, if you're not careful, you'll easily smash your fingers, or outright lose them. Ultimately, we can't blame society, but blame the person--if they are of sound mind and body--for they are the ones responsible for their actions. It is still disheartening to see these men beg, plead and ultimately regret for all they've done and the hurt they've brought to their loved ones. This is one of the directors most accomplished and poignant works and one that was rewarded with a tidy box office profit. It's also quite possibly the best example of HK's cinematic crimewave during the 70s. Cheng Kang's movie, while opening and ending with a moralistic voice-over, essentially preaches the very simplistic and long standing message that in the end, 'Crime Doesn't Pay'. For the men in KIDNAP (1974) and in many other similar movies, the perpetrators never learn till it's too late.

While the story of KIDNAP may have been based on a much earlier crime, comparisons can be drawn to a more recent incident that occurred on October 2nd, 1971. Four criminals attempted to kidnap Run Run Shaw's son, Harold Shaw, near his home in Singapore. Like a scene from one of their movies, a struggle ensued and Shaw was shot in the hand, but managed to escape his captors and call the police. Amazingly, three days later the greedy thugs phoned Harold's older brother, Vee Meng and demanded what was referred to as a "token ransom". A meeting place was set at the Shangri La Hotel for the exchange only instead of a member of Shaw's family, it was an undercover policeman that showed up. When the stupefied crook realized it was a trap, a scuffle resulted in the criminal being shot only to die after being taken to the hospital. The dead man was identified as belonging to a local underground gang. Harold Shaw quickly left Singapore with his family for the apparent safer climate of Hong Kong. As early as the 1970s, the Triad organizations were seeping into the film industry and would reach a critical level by the 1990s. Kidnappings, death threats and murders would become alarmingly commonplace with victims nowhere near as lucky as Harold Shaw was in this attempt in 1971. From here on out, the HK silver screen would become a dark reflection of the the squalor and despondence the cold, cruel streets would spit up.



Amber said...

Thanks for spotlighting Yueh Hua, he's always been one of my favorites. I've always been really curious as to why Shih Szu wasn't in 14 Amazons.
Great post!

venoms5 said...

Thanks a lot, Squid! I rarely paid attention to Yueh Hua until I saw him in CC's IRON BODYGUARD from 1973. He oozed a stoic arrogance that rivaled CKT's equally patriotic demeanor. After that film, I saw him in a whole new light and appreciated his performances even more.

I am speculating that since Shih Szu made such an impression on the Shaw's and her dancing background made her a natural at doing martial arts sequences, that she was being groomed as a solo starlet much like Cheng Pei pei. Considering an already crowded stable of big name stars in Cheng Kang's movie, it was probably just as well.

Part 4 is gonna showcase the neglected and under appreciated director Chang Tseng Chai. I was gonna do his as a Neglected Director of Shaw article, but figured I'd weave it into this series instead.

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