Monday, August 27, 2012
Cinema of Excess: Chang Cheh & His Films Part 7
OF SWORDS & GUNS IN WUXIA & THE EARLY REPUBLIC CHAPTER 3
The early 1970s, particularly 1971 and 1972, were incredibly busy for Hong Kong's biggest and bloodiest filmmaker. Having already deviated from the norm with a few experimental movies that yielded success and modest failure, Chang Cheh was back on track with a succession of big ticket bonanzas that would put him in good stead with audiences (and his employer) for several more years.
The staggering amount of movies Cheh would be working on would bewilder and befuddle the average film director. There was no one quite like Chang Cheh working in cinema at the time, and there hasn't been anyone like him since.
To have juggled as many movies of various sizes as he did between '71 and '72--not to mention doing preparatory work for soon to be mounted productions--it's nigh unbelievable that the man managed to wrangle the level of quality that he did.
Both David Chiang (then dubbed the Asian Movie King) and Ti Lung were the two powerhouse box office draws in Asia at the time. Ti Lung was the more muscular of the two with David Chiang being the wiry brains behind Ti's brawn. David's personality and his charisma clicked with Asian audiences and he often surpassed Ti Lung in popularity and in ticket sales.
Still, during the early 70s, both men worked best when they were together and their ever growing fanbase reflected that.
Ti Lung's first two solo outings, DEAD END (1969) and KING EAGLE (1971) failed to garner much notice regardless of the fact that the former was an unusual avant garde tragedy, and both featured Baby Queen Li Ching in co-starring roles.
Yet again, despite David Chiang receiving much critical drubbing for being too short, too thin and disorganized, he was still the strongest link in the Iron Triangle and the most popular of the two with fans.
But it must have been a bit disheartening to Ti Lung that his second solo feature, KING EAGLE, financially kowtowed to the film that debuted theatrically the following month in February--THE NEW ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1971); that film more than doubling the take of KING EAGLE, and featuring Ti Lung as a co-star, but in a lesser role compared with the main lead undertaken by David Chiang.
Director Chang's third film about a unilaterally challenged warrior of virtue seemed to have been born to spite the then offscreen problems the bad boy of kung fu, Jimmy Wang Yu was causing Run Run Shaw.
Desiring to do things his way without any restrictions, the trouble-making star brazenly broke his contract with Shaw Studio in March of 1970 and headed for the cheaper pastures of Taiwan (till Golden Harvest came a' knockin') where he immediately set about making movies like THE SWORD (1971) and THE BRAVE & THE EVIL (1971), two films he served as director on.
Unable to stop him making movies there, or in Japan (where Wang Yu capitalized on his famous single digit swordsman in ZATOICHI MEETS THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN), Shaw succeeded in keeping the hot-headed actor from making movies in Hong Kong till January of 1973.
For Chang Cheh to tackle a film with the words, "The New" in the title (the name of the swordsman is also different), it's almost like the studio was taunting Wang Yu; a notion that wasn't lost on Wang Yu as the actor made it his mission throughout the 1970s to attempt to undermine, or steal the thunder from whatever major production was being shot at Shaw's at the time.
He did this with his ONE ARMED BOXER (1971), a film that mimicked both Wang's directorial debut for Shaw's THE CHINESE BOXER (1969) and also Chang's ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967); FURIOUS SLAUGHTER (1972) was a cheap knock-off of Chang's huge hit THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972); ONE ARMED CHIVALRY FIGHTS AGAINST ONE ARMED CHIVALRY (1974) was again taking liberties with the single armed swordsman that made Wang Yu famous; and MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1976) which not only was a no budget carbon copy of Shaw's hit THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1975), but again with the one armed character.
THE WOMEN OF THE IRON TRIANGLE: CHING LI
This thin, yet elegant and enormously popular Lady of Shaw began acting at the age of six and joined Shaw Brothers in 1967 appearing in dramas and swordplay films. Possessing a lot of male admirers, Ching Li was often associated with men of wealth and repute. Onscreen, she co-starred in a few memorable roles opposite David Chiang and Ti Lung in Chang Cheh's DUEL OF FISTS and THE ANGRY GUEST where she played the girlfriend to Ti Lung's character. She also featured among the cast in Chang's pseudo war-kung fu film THE FOUR RIDERS (1972). But it was in THE ANONYMOUS HEROES in 1971 where Ching Li really shined in the action department out of her pentagonal set of Iron Triangle movies. She played the feisty girlfriend to David Chiang's character who aided them in covertly getting guns from her warlord father's military encampment to the Southern rebels. Her role as the promiscuous wife to Chen Kuan Tai's character in Cheh's splendid classic, THE BLOOD BROTHERS (1973) is a testament to her acting ability and cinematic legacy.
Chang Cheh's return to the brooding, tortured hero was a special production in other ways aside from supplanting the temperamental star with the more accessible David Chiang.
Shaw's purchased a plot of land for around $600,000. In addition, upwards of $400,000 was spent constructing the Tiger Mansion seen prominently throughout the film.
This stunning set and the bridge accompanying it was put to good use in numerous Shaw Brothers productions including some of the international co-productions with foreign companies.
Chang Cheh's spectacular tale of blood-letting and revenge (the film contains one of the most shockingly gruesome death scenes in Shaw Brothers history and that's saying a lot!) also scored a successful release in America in the wake of FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH (1972) and the Bruce Lee films.
National General Pictures retitled Cheh's movie with the odd moniker of TRIPLE IRONS when it was unleashed on theaters here in September of 1973. Amidst the glut of so many similar movies, the gore and bad English dubbing got more attention from critics than the actual storylines.
THE NEW ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN definitely possesses a plot as well as the underlining themes of brotherhood among men; a topic indigenous to the directors oeuvre, particularly evident in his 1967-1976 period. This particular movie is one of the best representations of that form, even if the stylistically gory excess often takes precedence.
This movie also explores the isolation and loneliness experienced by those righteous, yet stubborn heroes who strive for fame, attain it, and then suffer devastating defeat through duplicitous methods. The hero must then endure great indignities (in this case it's not just his arm, but the loss of his one true friend, swordsman Fung [Ti Lung]; a young warrior who admires Lei Li's skill, or the skill he has left behind to be a crippled tavern worker) prior to facing insurmountable odds to accomplish his vengeful goals.
The two become friends, although Lei Li proclaims Fung is more like a brother. Having experienced severe depression through his defeat at the hands of a guileful villain masquerading as a nobleman, Lei warns Fung about a meeting with the evil Lung Er Zi (played to the hilt by Ku Feng).
However, Fung is just as steadfast to confront villainy and corruption as the now crippled Lei Li once was.
THE NEW ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN is just one of many Chang Cheh movies emblematic of Jiang Hu, the dichotomy between good and evil; corruption and redemption; an honorable code of brotherhood among men. This maelstrom of masculinity would reach its apex with the release of THE WATER MARGIN in 1972, which is discussed a bit later.
That David Chiang's character has a girlfriend (played by Li Ching, who was betrothed to Ti Lung's character in HAVE SWORD WILL TRAVEL) is unimportant where the affairs of the martial world are concerned. Just like Wang Yu's Fang Gang in the previous movies, he leaves his family at home so as to realign the balance that has been upset by the antagonists. Restoring one's honor, and retribution for the death of a brother is of greater importance.
THE WOMEN OF THE IRON TRIANGLE: WANG PING
The gorgeous Sun Wang Ping joined Shaw's at the age of 19, much to her surprise; never dreaming that she would become an actress. Of the four major females starlets associated with the Iron Triangle, she is the least discussed, but arguably the most attractive. She co-starred in three films for Chang Cheh all starring David Chiang and Ti Lung. Always as the petite girlfriend to either man, she loved David Chiang in the award winningly dark VENGEANCE! in 1970 and to Ti Lung in the gruesomely violent THE DUEL in 1971. Her role in THE SINGING KILLER (1970) is also notable. She soon took on swordswoman roles in films like DUEL FOR GOLD (1971) and THE 14 AMAZONS (1972) for other directors before leaving Shaw's in 1972, but returned ten years later to much publicity appearing in the award winning Li Han Hsiang drama TIGER KILLER (1982).
THE NEW ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN is also of importance in that the theme of the lone supreme swordsman, upon attaining success, realizes the forces of jealousy strive to destroy them; or they themselves are destroyed by their own blind ambitions, oblivious to the full strength of the forces at work around them. This was a first in Cheh's filmography, or at least the first time the subject was expounded upon in this manner.
Success is gauged by how badly you desire what you want out of life. And just like Cheh's entrepreneurial swordsmen, the success stories of those in this industrialized age are equally despised, reviled and coveted for their good business sense, ie their "good kung fu".
The aesthetics of Jiang Hu flows freely through many of Cheh's movies; almost as much, if not on par with the gore and splattered blood. This brotherhood is often mistaken for homosexuality, but it is not. If anything, it's chauvinistic, an attitude that seemed reflective of the directors own personality. The primarily male dominated expressiveness of the martial world is the directors trademark and one of several elements and innovations he put in place to change Hong Kong cinema forever.
There was another film of slightly lesser repute that was released at the close of the year. THE DEADLY DUO (1971) takes its cue from history; like some other of Chang Cheh's movies (one of the most famous examples being THE ASSASSIN from 1967).
At its core, THE DEADLY DUO is little more than a gore soaked 'Men On A Mission' movie. It's also a rather breezy 80 minutes in length. One gets the impression this was filler to satisfy the rabid cinematic needs of the HK audiences of the day.
There are no fragile significant others, nor any deceptive seductive female killers. The film was touted at the time as having an all male cast.
The plot is basically the Sung remnants making various attempts to rescue their prince from an impenetrable stronghold. Not just that, but also a treacherous bridge that is near impossible to cross. The bridge that was constructed for NEW ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN was made an integral part of this pictures plot and also provides the film with one major flub.
The critical reception given THE NEW ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (or more accurately, TRIPLE IRONS) in America is duly warranted in THE DEADLY DUO. The gore is the star of the show. Liu Chia Liang's choreography, as usual, is superlative. Furthermore, the amount of blood and various bladed implements severing limbs and entering bodily cavities is matched only by the gleefully gruesome excess of Cheh's ALL MEN ARE BROTHERS (1975).
Both Chiang and Ti Lung are on equal ground here, working extremely well off of one another. It's just the film itself isn't very good aside from the action and bloodletting.
As far as the two actors are concerned here, one doesn't outshine the other, but instead compliments one another. The level of competition between the two was likely the reason they both ended up directing and starring in their own pictures under the watchful eye of their mentor, Chang Cheh.
THE WOMEN OF THE IRON TRIANGLE: LILY LI
Lily Li is one of the most popular lethal ladies in HK action cinema. She joined Shaw Brothers early in the game in 1964 and eventually amassed an impressive list of film credits to her name with many of them fighting roles. She co-starred in only two movies with both of Chang Cheh's box office draws, but she became closely associated with David's movies often playing his girlfriend in such films as the epic THE HEROIC ONES (1970), the David solo outing THE WANDERING SWORDSMAN (1970) and the modern day delinquent picture also minus Ti Lung, FRIENDS (1974). She eventually did many more movies for other major directors both inside and outside of Shaw Brothers studio. Some of these include exploitation flicks like BLACK MAGIC (1975) and THE OILY MANIAC (1976) and amazing Liu Chia Liang movies such as EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN (1977) and 8 DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER (1984).
With swordplay movies waning, it was time for yet another change. A modern setting would be explored once more, but this time with a greater degree of financial success than before.
The director had won critical accolades and a Best Director award for the modern set VENGEANCE! in 1970. April of 1971 saw the release of a gory, knife-wielding gangster picture entitled THE DUEL; a film with another modern era setting. These two films took place during the Early Republic when the last days of the Qing dynasty crumbled after close to a 300 year rule from 1644 to 1912.
THE ANONYMOUS HEROES (1971) was the third such production. This was one of a few Cheh movies that resembled traditional westerns.
The story is about a couple of brash young men (and one girl) with nothing to lose joining the resistance against a local warlord. The plot is mostly light-hearted till the blood slinging finale when the heroes and heroine are surrounded by hundreds of rifle and bayonet bearing soldiers. This films plot line would later be refurbished into Chang's SHAOLIN RESCUERS released in 1979.
The picture is right exciting at times, but is hindered by a woefully poor sequence where a train is derailed into a lake! The behind the scenes photos displaying the miniature work looks nicely detailed, but the scale in which it is shot is on par with some of the poor quality work seen in the budget slashed Godzilla films made during the 1970s.
Location shooting took place in Thailand including the chase sequence involving the train. While the crew was there, location shooting for Chang's 'The Striking Fist', another film the director was making at the time, was undertaken encompassing twelve days before returning to Hong Kong.
Heavily promoted at the time, 'The Striking Fist' was yet another departure and grand innovation from the mind of Chang Cheh. This movie was also a modern day affair; a style of picture that was becoming increasingly popular with HK audiences of the day.
This production highlighted the heretofore unseen sights of Thai kickboxing (Ti Lung studied Thai boxing during filming), a brutal art of fighting. Cast for local flavor was Thai actress Parwarna (Liu Lan Ying) and former professional Thai boxer, Canong Daech. Having retired at 26 (reportedly the age limit for the sport over there at the time) Daech assisted on the picture for the action scenes.
By the time shooting had wrapped in mid July 1971, the picture had taken on the title of DUEL OF FISTS. It was another 'Iron Triangle' movie, with both David Chiang and Ti Lung sharing the screen together again.
THE WOMEN OF THE IRON TRIANGLE: LI CHING
Hong Kong's 'Baby Queen' is possibly the most popular actress to be associated with the Iron Triangle. Signing on with Shaw's in 1964, she quickly became an international media darling and massive box office draw in a long string of musicals and dramas. She eventually gravitated to action pictures amassing four such movies with Chang's popular double team. Having been out of commission for several months while shooting Cheng Kang's KILLERS FIVE (1969), Li's heavily hyped return was on Chang's seminal sleeper DEAD END (1969), Ti Lung's big acting debut. She followed that up with a role as the sword wielding girlfriend to Ti Lung's character in HAVE SWORD WILL TRAVEL (1969). She took a passive turn in the classic THE NEW ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN in 1971, but picked up a weapon again for Cheh's segment in the anthology TRILOGY OF SWORDSMANSHIP (1972). A short time later, she made headlines upon appearing in more risque fare and eventually retired from cinema in the early 1980s.
The gamble of integrating a Thai gimmick into the film paid off handsomely as the picture grossed nearly $HK2 million upon its release in October of '71. It was also in October that Shaw Brothers went public on the HK Stock Exchange. DUEL OF FISTS was yet another box office success added to the directors plate of moneymakers from 1971.
Apparently, the Shaw's had a good feeling about this production since a sequel was mounted after DUEL OF FISTS wrapped. Titled 'The Annoyed Guest', this even more colorful sequel took the action and location shooting to Japan in August of 1971.
Chang Cheh himself was touted in promotional materials as playing the title character. In the film, he plays a Japanese crime boss heading a syndicate in Tokyo. It turns out he was pulling the strings of the Big Boss in Thailand played by Chen Sing last seen in DUEL OF FISTS.
David Chiang and Ti Lung reprise their roles, this time heading to Japan to rescue a kidnapped girlfriend.
Highlights are the frequent and elaborately bloody action scenes and the plethora of 70s fashion. Shaw Brothers 70s productions are unmistakable for their garish set design, particularly in their modern day set movies and this one is no different.
Chang Cheh's importing of foreign talent was used to a greater extent for this movie; Yasuaki Kurata being the prime example. Cheh would use him on another picture and Kurata would quickly become a familiar face in HK kung fu movies.
Korean actress, Fan Jen-tzu was also on hand here as a Japanese fighter. She also acted in Ho Meng Hua's THE BLACK ENFORCER (1972), which shot on location in Korea back in 1969.
THE DEADLY DUO was Chang Cheh's last release of 1971. 1972 promised an even greater slate of productions with a noticeable return to swordplay features.
1972 was also a banner year for the Shaw movie moguls who likewise had an impressive number of films set to go into production throughout the year.
In addition to the films discussed here, Chang Cheh, one of Hong Kong's most powerful filmmakers, also had other pictures he was working on towards the latter half of the year. Some of these were among the biggest movies of his career as well as productions of prestige that could only have been mounted by Shaw Brothers during this time period.
TO BE CONTINUED...