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Sunday, December 2, 2012

Remakes: Redux, Or Ridiculous -- Legends of 14 Amazons

In 1972, the Shaw Brothers commissioned the making of one of their biggest budgeted epic spectaculars -- THE 14 AMAZONS. Nearly 40 years later, Jackie Chan (acting as producer) and director Frankie Chan joined forces for a modern remake of that classic Hong Kong historical saga about a clan of widowed warrior women battling the oppressive, invading forces of the Western Xia.


During the Sung Dynasty, the valiant Yang matriarch and her numerous women warriors are tasked into battle to wage war against the invading Western Xia armies after all but one of the Yang males have been killed in battle.

The above synopsis roughly describes both films, although the newer version adds some things and also removes others that the Shaw Brothers production had, so the modified description fits for both.

What doesn't fit is that this new movie, for all the state of the art technology at its disposal, pales by comparison with the 1972 production in a variety of ways. Chan's film has the edge with a modern budget, but judging by the finished picture, it's befuddling just exactly where in the hell the $20 million went. For all its gloss and sheen, LEGENDARY AMAZONS looks like it was made somewhere between the late 80s and early 90s.

THE 14 AMAZONS (1972) on the other hand, was arguably a bit more opulent in some departments. Unlike other studios in HK at that time, the Shaw's were fully capable of sprawling epics like those produced today, only there was no CGI at their fingertips to enhance the action. If you did a 'Cast of Thousands' epic, you had a literal cast of thousands, or utilized whatever crude tricks in your arsenal to make it so.

But while THE 14 AMAZONS relies on miniatures (see above) and live special effects (including wires) to accomplish its spectacle, LEGENDARY AMAZONS CGI's the hell out of everything and pretty badly considering all that was spent on it. What's most amazing about the film is that it alternates wildly between exciting moments of creativity and outright kitsch. It's one of the most incredible examples of a big budget train wreck to ever reach a movie screen. The jaw-dropping finale is worth special mention for its atrocious green screen work (see insert) that rivals the $50.00 grandeur of that 13 minute political red herring -- the youtube sensation, INNOCENCE OF MUSLIMS.

That's not to say THE 14 AMAZONS isn't without its faults and limitations; but those older films were from a different time, utilizing methods that would be deemed primitive today. Also, filmmakers (and the actors) in Hong Kong back then frequently worked on multiple movies at once. Cheng Kang, the director of THE 14 AMAZONS, was also working on PURSUIT (1972) and his segment of the Wuxia anthology, TRILOGY OF SWORDSMANSHIP (1972) at the same time.

To put both films into perspective by way of their budgets, Shaw's THE 14 AMAZONS was slotted at HK3 million (roughly 1 million US dollars back then), although it may have ended up being more by the time it was completed and ready for release in various Asian territories in August of 1972. One million dollars was a decent amount even by US standards at that time. It was unheard of for a Chinese picture to be graced with this sort of expenditure then, and Shaw's was tossing around the green on a few other movies during this period such as the HK2.5 million lavished on Chang Cheh's THE HEROIC ONES in 1970.

THE 14 AMAZONS was considered quite the landmark in Mandarin movies. It was referred to as the GONE WITH THE WIND of Chinese cinema of the day. I don't see the same majesty bestowed upon this bloated, inferior remake with its 20 million budget US that fails to consistently show onscreen. The new film (see insert) has moments where it wears its opulence proudly on the garishly fake looking armor worn by the cast members. But again, this is where the quality quagmire clashes on Frankie Chan's remake.

The costumes are outrageous and look like they'd fit nicely in a DYNASTY WARRIORS video game. They also look like plastic regardless of what the sound effects would have you believe. The weapons don't fare much better. Heavy weapons like the Kwan Dao for instance; the thick, big blades can be seen bending as their bearers shake them with only the slightest motion.

The sets (not counting the CGI forts and whatnot) are not nearly as meticulous as those constructed for the Shaw production. The main hall of the Yang fortress in the '72 version (as seen above) for instance, is expansive and ornate in its design. There's depth to it. 

The same set in the 2012 film is much smaller by comparison and nowhere near as elaborate as seen above.

Choreographer and former Shaw star Feng Ko An about to expire in LEGENDARY AMAZONS (2011)
The acting between the two films is also on opposite ends of the spectrum for the most part. In spite of being violent and occasionally dotted with CGI gore, the performers in LEGENDARY AMAZONS don't seem to be taking things too seriously, and when they do, it's so overwrought, it borders on parody.

Take Cecilia Cheung as an example; she goes through the entire film with her eyes threatening to fall out of her head and yelling nearly all her lines. She even has snot rolling out of her nose during a key scene. Virtually no one is convincing at all, or makes the slightest impression as to be indiscernible from the rest of the cast.

Unlike the '72 film, the title characters are interchangeable and so vapidly underwritten, that any attempt to tell who is who is an exercise in futility. When some of the characters die, the music swells and the others cry out in shock and despair, yet the audience feels nothing as we scarcely, or do not know who they are. 

The picture has a novel, Shaw Brothers style intro to all the amazons, but it's essentially for nothing because there's no sustainable recognition for these women after that.

Even former Shaw Brothers superstar, the revered Cheng Pei-pei, fails to stand out. It's easy to tell who she is, though, as she's the oldest of the cast members. Unfortunately, her character is given far less to do than the equally vaunted Lisa Lu Yen (who appeared in major Hollywood productions and television programs), the Chinese actress who essayed the same role in Cheng Kang's version. With what she's given to work with, Pei-pei doesn't even look all that interested.

Lisa Lu delivers this bombastic, grandiose speech as the 'Grand Dame' She Taijun after discovering Yang Tsung Pao and the male Yang forces have all perished. 

Cheng Pei-pei doesn't have such a scene. The other women all take turns saying their piece while she mostly just nods in approval. In the original movie, there was never a question that Lisa Lu Yen's character was not in charge. There's no such assurance in the remake. Cheng Pei-pei's version of the character is just one among many that comes off as mere cardboard akin to the costumes they're wearing.

Shi Fanxi, who plays the Western Xia main villain, Yin Qi, is like a cartoon next to the combined might of Tien Feng, Lo Lieh and Bolo Yeung of the 1972 original picture. This is due in large part because we never see the bad guys unless it's an action scene; and there's many of them. 

Cheng Kang's film spends a good deal of time with the antagonists showing us just how barbaric they are with their penchant for torture, drinking blood and other unpleasantness. They have no qualms about killing women (necrophilia is hinted at one point) and they treat murdering people as if it's a sport. One sequence has one of the five Xia princes decapitating a few captured Yang sending their heads into the air while Lo Lieh pins the noggins by firing arrows into the bloody, moving targets. The villains as depicted in LEGENDARY AMAZONS are too cartoonish and serve as little more than typical cardboard bad guys.

The new film, outside of well known faces like Cecilia Cheung, Cheng Pei-pei and Yukari Oshima (pictured above), has virtually little in the way of major star power when compared with the mighty cast of '72s multi award winning THE 14 AMAZONS. You had award winning actresses like Lisa Lu Yen, Ivy Ling Po and Li Ching (see insert). Others included Lily Ho (who won an award for her role here), Shu Pei-pei, Tina Chin Fei, Wang Ping, Betty Ting Pei, Yueh Hua, Lo Lieh, Tien Feng and others.

The choreography is a mixed bag. There are times where it's momentarily eye-opening, but then the breathless quality is undone by general sloppiness and what appears to be frames removed to give the impression the actors are moving faster than they are. This process was used in a number of independently produced kung fu movies back in the day. It was a poorly accomplished effect then, and it's a poorly accomplished effect now.

14 AMAZONS (1972) -- Note the late Alexander Fu Sheng at far left
The action design of the original movie is a product of its day. It's much slower, but still effective. Granted, many of the women in the cast weren't martial artists, or even came off as such in their battle scenes, but there was a variety to the action and its environment that's missing in the new version. The bulk of the battles in the 2012 movie occur in the desert. Yes, there's added accouterments like catapults and giant crossbows, but these attractions do little to spice up the bland, sandy surroundings.

The older picture also had mass battles (see above). The action would sometimes focus on one or two of the protagonists being overwhelmed by scores of attackers, but the camera would often pull back to show hundreds of swords and spears clashing and ripping into flesh. 

The newer film (pictured above) rarely, if ever does this. The fights are segmented to focus on a single character at a time fighting one or more attackers at once. There's no moment where we see a wide shot displaying an enormous battle unfolding before our eyes. It's worth noting that there were only two credited choreographers on THE 14 AMAZONS (Tony Ching Siu Tung [Cheng Kang's son] and Liang Shao Sung [Bruce Liang's father]), while the remake has five credited, including director Frankie Chan, Feng Ko An and Meng Hoi.

Tsung Hua during the opening of THE 14 AMAZONS(1972); insert: Bolo and Nan Kung Sun
An interesting side note about director Frankie Chan is that he worked at Shaw Brothers as a composer for nearly the entirety of the 1970s. While he didn't work on the score for THE 14 AMAZONS, he did participate on Chang Cheh's equally expensive and sprawling THE WATER MARGIN (1972). Being a composer in HK at that time meant that while there'd be some original music depending on the production, there'd be a plethora of cues lifted, rearranged, or redone from other movies of American and European origin.

This may be why Chan's film is incredibly faithful to Cheng Kang's interpretation of the story. Even though it fails on multiple levels, it's among a cadre of remakes that pay a great deal of respect to their source, yet manage to bring some new things to the table as well. Below are a list of 14 comparisons and differences between the two films.

1. The opening of the 1972 movie both sets the story in motion and also shows just how despicable the villains truly are as they impale the remaining Yang soldiers, dragging them through the dirt as soldiers slash and stab them with their spears. Yang Tsung Pao, seriously injured and unable to fight, watches helplessly. He, too is killed; his body riddled with arrows.

The fate reserved for Tsung Hua's Yang Tsung Pao is recreated in the new movie, but his character is one of the few drastic alterations. In Frankie Chan's version, his demise, ergo his death pose, is swapped out for one of the Yang women, Wu Niang. She dies in a near identical position and also from multiple arrow wounds during the climax of the picture.

2. At the beginning of THE 14 AMAZONS, it's clearly apparent that Yang Tsung Pao has been killed in battle defending the border regions. In the remake, the film begins much the same way, but with Yang's fate not seen. It's assumed he's been killed. He later turns up alive and leading attacks against the Xia by a band of rebels.

Fan Mei Sheng (middle)  and Huang Chung Shun (right)
3. Prior to being killed, Yang sends two of his generals back to their fortress to relay the news of their defeat (see above). In the new movie, it's one of the women that reports the casualties of the border battle. 

4. Ivy Ling Po plays Mu Kuei Ying in THE 14 AMAZONS. Cecilia Cheung (at left) plays the role in the new film. Ivy does far more fighting in her interpretation while Cecilia does more with her eyes, which threaten to pop out of their sockets. The new movie adds a lengthy backstory revolving around Mu and Yang's relationship, which goes unexplored in the original and is never even hinted at.

5. In Cheng Kang's original, the Yang women are ordered to stand down and avoid conflict with the Xia by the Emperor's top minister in what amounts to little more than a political move to negotiate with the invaders. There's no actual decree, just the minister gives the order on his accord. They defy this decree and go on their mission anyways vowing to take things up with the minister once they return victorious. 

In the new movie, the minister (played by former Shaw alum Wu Ma) delivers a legitimate edict sending them into battle, but gives them relatively few soldiers when compared with the opposition. They have 10,000 against 100,000 versus the few hundred Yang loyalists of the original (although 800,000 in reserves are mentioned, but denied).

6. Lily Ho (above) plays Yang Wen Kuang in the '72 film. Yang Wen Kuang is the last male in the family line. Years earlier, it was a regular occurrence to see women essaying the roles of men in HK movies. However, it was unusual to have a female playing a male in 1972. Nonetheless, this could have been Cheng Kang paying tribute to past traditions. In the new movie, the character is played by an actor named Xiao Mingyu (see insert).

7. Shortly before embarking on their mission to eradicate the Xia, Yang Wen Kuang makes it known he wishes to join the fight. Taijun proclaims that he can do so if he beats his mother in a duel (see pic above). The first one to drop their weapon is the loser. In the new movie, the young man doesn't fight his mother, but one of the other Yang women. 

8. Both films feature battle scenes involving fire. In the original film, the Yang are trapped on both sides of a valley after the Xia block their passage with flames on both ends. They then plan to release a flood of boulders on top of them, but the Yang are ready for them. In the new film, the scene plays out differently. This time the Yang are headed towards some caverns when the Xia send gigantic balls of straw set aflame at them.

9. The Human Bridge sequence is a major highlight of the original production. The Yang and their remaining forces find a bridge that leads to the Xia encampment. Before they can cross, some of the soldiers set it on fire. The Yang try to put it out, but it causes the bridge to fall apart sending a number of the Yang soldiers to their deaths down in the valley below. With a number of their forces now on both sides of the chasm, they decide to form a human bridge to allow the others to cross. This involves some harrowing circus style acrobatics to allow them to make it to the other side. 

Meanwhile, some of the Yang fight valiantly, martyring themselves to keep the Xia at bay. This sequence is very well edited creates a good deal of suspense that is lacking in the the same segment found in the newer movie.

The Human Bridge plays differently in the remake. Here, it's book-ended onto one of the battles. The remaining Yang exit a cave and find themselves trapped. There's no treacherous bridge that causes more deaths this time, just a deep chasm. Some of the other Yang stay behind to hold the Xia at bay like in the original, but the new film fails to create any suspense by switching back and forth between scenes. One of the Yang fires two arrows tied to chains to the other side of the cliff. A number of soldiers crawl along the chains forming a "bridge" by which the others can get to the other side.

10. Both films have a plot point where the young boy, Yang Wen Kuang disappears. In the original movie, there's a hint that he is either dead, or captured, but this is never elaborated on. The Yang talk of averting their plan and searching for him, but he shows up not long after and the film carries on like normal. 


In the new movie, the young Yang (seen at right in above pic) is seen to have seemingly fallen off of a cliff to his death. This is one of the major differences between the two films. During this lengthy script addition, Yang finds that his father is alive and training a ragtag band of rebels fighting against the invaders.

11. In Cheng Kang's film, there's a minor subplot of an escaped slave named Lu Chao (played by Yueh Hua). After defeating a champion Xia fighter (Bolo Yeung) in battle, he's pushed to escape by his sister to warn the Yang of an impending ambush. This character is not in the new version.

12.There are five Xia princes in the 1972 movie; sons of the Hsia (Xia) king played by Tien Feng. Lo Lieh is the fifth prince and gets the bulk of the dialog between them. The remake only has the one leader, Yin Qi played by Shi Fanxi (see insert). Interestingly enough, the character of Shi shares the expert archer ability Lo Lieh's character possessed in the original.

13. The battle sequences in the Shaw Brothers production are much more intricate both in design and execution. For instance, the Yang have their food carts destroyed during one of the Xia attacks. They then are forced to eat cooked tree bark(!) till they decide to raid a Xia depot, covertly making off with lots of food.

The remake simply has one skirmish after another with barely a change in scenery. The multitude of battles all occur in desert locales and all look the same for the most part. These empty calorie scenes do not contain the little details the original film had that personalizes these moments with the viewer; giving them poignancy they wouldn't have had otherwise.

14. During the climax of THE 14 AMAZONS, a mass attack on the Xia fortress is mounted in two phases. One involves the destruction of a dam to flood the valley keeping reinforcements from sandwiching the Yang inside the fort. Again the Yang are faced with insurmountable odds not only by them being outnumbered, but the Xia soldiers now have these near impenetrable golden shields to fight with. The blood really flies during the climactic last battle. The dam destruction is also beautifully edited. The effects are modestly effective.

The remake has the Yang inside their own fort being attacked by the Xia from the outside. There's some CGI gore here including a head crushed by two maces and some Chang Cheh style impalements. Those shields are also here, but the Yang have their own as well. However, Frankie Chan's picture scuppers any attempt at creating mood, or even keeping audiences on the edge of their seat. The finale instead derives laughter as the Yang use absolutely ridiculous methods to combat the enemy; these include extra large brooms to create hurricane winds; balloons filled with pepper; ants and pogo sticks(?!) all figure into the finale.

Being produced by Jackie Chan and armed with a 20 million budget, the cards were definitely on the table to make LEGENDARY AMAZONS something truly spectacular. In some ways, it is, but in others, it's a spectacular failure. called it "a genre breakthrough." called it "impressive." I'm curious as to what movie they saw because LEGENDARY AMAZONS is neither a breakthrough, nor all that impressive.

THE 14 AMAZONS (1972)
There's really no area where it surpasses the iconic Shaw Brothers original. For every one of the earlier films shortcomings, the new one has one also, which is perplexing considering the way the technology has advanced to this point. There are some (most likely mainstream viewers and those unfamiliar with the older picture) who may find the remake more enjoyable simply because it's a newer production. There's a level of craftsmanship in the 1972 original that LEGENDARY AMAZONS (2011) can't duplicate no matter how many millions it splashes across the screen.



nectarsis said...

"Breakthru"?? Even discounting the original nothing about this hasn't been done before.....odd choice of words they used

Michael said...

Do not forget Yukari Oshima on stilts Brian that was the worst point .

Next up we have another take Ronnie Yu's "Saving General Yang ".

Best version i have seen of this story is the 2004 Drama "Warriors Of The Yang Clan "which focused on the 4th son Yang Si Yang who turned traitor after falling in love with a Mongol (Xia) princess .

venoms5 said...

@ nectarsis: Yeah, not sure why they said that. I figured I was missing something since I haven't been keeping up with all the new HK wuxia movies of late.

@ Michael: Oh, I didn't forget. I mentioned the pogo sticks attached to their legs they were hoppin' around on at the end.

I think there's been a few TV shows on the subject too. None of which I have seen.

Phalayasa said...

Nice review and a thorough comparison. If there's one thing that seems to elude me is the budget comparison. I have no idea how much a Hollywood production costs today. So I can't quite picture the original budget compare to the remake's.

venoms5 said...

Hi, Phalayasa. Thank you for the comments. If I'm not too off the mark, Hollywood budgets on average are between $60 million and $100 million. With big names attached, it's usually more than that ($120-150 million) since big names tend to command a hefty price for their services; so that has to be figured into the equation.

Today, $20 million in US dollars is a huge sum for a Chinese movie. For an American movie, it's a respectable amount as well, but again, this depends on the star power. For example, there are a great many US stars that are paid $20 million for their appearance; some even more, whether the film succeeds or not.

Back in the 70s, $1 million was unheard of for a Chinese picture. Especially considering there were dozens upon dozens of other movies being made that were competing for audiences money.

To compare further, JAWS (1975) had a budget of $4 million allotted, although it grew to approximately $9-10 million for all its production problems.

Franco Macabro said...

I want to watch both of these, they look awesome, as always, thanks for pointing in the right direction when it comes to Kung Fu movies!

venoms5 said...

Thanks, Fran! I'd be curious to read your opinions on them!

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