Thursday, August 22, 2013

Payment In Blood (1973) review


Yueh Hua (Fang Chi Kien), Liu Wu Chi (Fang Chow Yuen), Lu Tan (Lt. Chang), Chiang Tao (Deputy), Tung Lin (Hsia Ta), Chan Shen (Hsieh Tai Cheng), Li Ming (rotten toothed thug)

Directed by Kuei Chi Hung

The Short Version: This gritty revenge thriller resembles a big city version of STRAW DOGS (1971) and a bit of the later DEATH WISH (1974). Yueh Hua is on fire as the good Samaritan who puts his life and that of his family in danger upon going to the police after witnessing a brutal murder of a police informer. You'll notice themes from later 70s movies explored here; and Kuei cuts loose in ways that show a director embracing a distinctly brutish style he reveled in unlike any other Asian director from that time period. It intermittently goes off the rails during the finale, but this is definitely a breakthrough actioner for a versatile filmmaker who has been grossly over-looked for far too long.

A police informer is viciously murdered by a gangster. A young mechanic named Fang is the sole witness and puts himself in danger after identifying the killer at a police lineup. Unable to buy Fang's silence, the underworld syndicate goes after him and targets his family in the process. After numerous attempts to kill him, this everyday citizen must become ruthless himself in order to protect his life, and that of his wife and daughter.

Those who know his name associate Kuei Chi Hung with down and dirty HK movies of the crime and horror variety. Before he was unleashed on his own, Kuei worked on a variety of films featuring non-gruesome subject matter; these included a handful of dramas, comedies, musicals and fantasy pictures. After working as an AD for Chang Cheh on IRON BODYGUARD (it's debatable how much, if any of this film he worked on, but Kuei was announced as working with Cheh on the picture [1973]) and THE DELINQUENT (Kuei is billed as a co-director [1973]), he was assigned a film that allowed him to fully traverse the lascivious and loathsome landscapes he carved throughout the 1970s and the early 1980s.

Highly touted was both this film and its director at the time -- and with good reason. Shooting throughout the early part of 1973 under the title of 'Blood Witness', this was Kuei's first stab at a modern day crime thriller. He showed traces of his twisted genius in THE DELINQUENT (1973), but that wasn't all his work -- and when compared with his later films, that picture resembles Kuei's style more than Chang Cheh's as a whole.

From beginning to end, PAYMENT IN BLOOD is all Kuei Chi Hung. It's hard to fathom that the same man who assisted on, or directed movies like THE MONKEY GOES WEST (1966), HONG KONG RHAPSODY (1968) and A TIME FOR LOVE (1970) could helm such violent movies like the one being reviewed and other revolting wonders such as KILLER SNAKES (1974) and SPIRIT OF THE RAPED (1976) to name only two.

The director's signature filmmaking style is cemented here, and remained in evidence throughout his career. You knew a Kuei picture when you saw one. For PAYMENT IN BLOOD, he packs in a number of innovations that defined that style. The ones that grab your attention are his fascination with squalor, criminal elements, grimy locales, nerve-jangling editing, odd camera placement (he had a fascination with mirror or implemental reflections of actors) and a persistently oppressive aura of brutality. The opening murder for example -- Yueh Hua witnesses Chan Shen run over a man four times with his car! Once would have been enough in somebody elses movie, but for Kuei, four times was the charm. Pregnant women, children and pets aren't immune to the heartless cruelty of the villains here, either.

It would be redundant to say Yueh Hua is exceptional here playing the stoic, yet humble mechanic, Fang. He was magnetic in just about everything he ever starred in. But by 1973, he began appearing in movies outside the swordplay spectrum he was most associated with. For this movie, he channels Dustin Hoffman's David Sumner from Peckinpah's STRAW DOGS (1971). However, as Fang, Yueh Hua is a bit less resistant than his American counterpart. He willingly goes to the police to see justice is done by participating in a line-up to point out the killer. This is where his troubles begin. By the end of the picture, Fang has went insane with rage. He turns into something of a modern day Ogami Itto during one sequence where he's surrounded by thugs at a dyeing factory and he obliterates them with the sharp end of a shovel.

Kuei Chi Hung would make a more literate version of STRAW DOGS in 1976 with the rape-revenge movie KILLERS ON WHEELS. That film contains elements familiar with the Biker and Juvenile Delinquent genres of previous decades leading up to the 1970s.

The police are generally perceived as perfunctory players in these kinds of movies. In Kuei's film, the cops have a larger, more cogent presence. Oftentimes the authorities are shown to be virtually useless paving the way for the protagonist to go it alone. Here, the police are almost always close by. Fang is assigned a bodyguard in the form of Chiang Tao's apple loving agent. But it's Fang's stubbornness against being constantly watched and trailed that makes him vulnerable to the villains grasp. 

The bad guys of PAYMENT IN BLOOD are relentless, too. Whether it's sending a large cake box filled with a dozen cobras and other serpents, or rigging a car to explode, these evil people -- who have ties in high places -- will not stop till Fang and his family are lying dead in a morgue, or scraped up off of a highway. The principal characters are unusually well defined and the director gets good performances out of the entire cast.

This was Liu Wu Chi's first starring role. She'd been in a handful of films prior, but this was her first big role playing a housewife whose life is turned upside down once she, her husband and daughter are targeted for execution. She was quite a good actress and her fear displayed during the snake sequences looked and felt palpable. Another notable role for the attractive actress was as Chen Kuan Tai's wife in the classic THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1975) from director Ho Meng Hua. She had also signed on to reprise her role in THE FLYING GUILLOTINE 2; but shortly after filming began, she literally left the industry and no one knew where she was at that time.

Perennial villain of a few Chang Cheh films, Chiang Tao had officially signed with Shaw's in February of 1972. He plays a rare good guy here in Kuei's movie as an eccentric policeman. He's assigned to protect Yueh Hua's character at all costs. He gets the best fight scene in the movie when he and Fang battle two of the gangsters in Fang's home and demolish the place in the process. Chiang's character may be a supporting one, but the script carves a good persona for him -- much like everyone else. He doesn't talk much, but loves apples. In many of his scenes, he's seen indulging in a red apple or two. A couple instances of low-key humor are derived from these moments as well.

Just like in a Sergio Leone western, Kuei populates his movie with some memorably barbaric faces. He even shoots much of the film in suitably grubby locales for maximum effect. In all of his modern set productions, Kuei made sure to capture some of the grimiest, scuzziest places in Hong Kong showcasing a city that looked hazardous to your health should you decide to live there. The bad guys living in it reflected this, too. The devious looking Tung Lin (KING BOXER; pictured at top) had a face made for villainy. Ditto for Li Ming (THE BAMBOO HOUSE OF DOLLS) who is seen in the insert photo. He's one of the gangs killers who has a mouth full of rotten teeth and enjoys wielding a cleaver. 

Chan Shen is likely Shaw's ultimate slimy bad guy. He's been in dozens upon dozens of movies. He was extremely loyal to the studio and remained there till his death in 1984. Chan didn't always play villains, though. He did play good guys on occasion -- such as the South Shaolin teacher in Chang Cheh's influential INVINCIBLE SHAOLIN (1978). But it's his antagonists that are the most memorable and he essayed some of the most reprehensible examples of cinematic scumbags the movie world has ever seen.

On the technical side of things, Kuei's picture is filled with frenetic camerawork and some inventive camera placement (most likely the work of Kuei's frequent cameraman Yu Chi-- there are no credits on this German version). There are numerous close-ups and that all important 70s cinematic device -- the zoom in and zoom out. The zooms aren't nearly as excessive as they were in other HK movies of that era.

Lu Chuan's (Shikamura Ito) action choreography is typical modern style, but it's inventive and varied. Grappling, throws and Western boxing are implemented into the fight scenes that often incorporate choppers, wrenches, shovels and guns as weapons of mass bodily destruction. The action itself is spread out all over Hong Kong; from Fang's apartment (there are at least two assaults that take place there), to a back alley, a construction yard, a moving car, a dyeing mill, and a swimming pool. The final shootout takes place at a crowded stock exchange.

Speaking of shootouts, one of the best action scenes is punctuated by a riotous visualization of that classic saying about 'bringing a knife to a gunfight'. It had this reviewer laughing and clapping heartily.

PAYMENT IN BLOOD (1973) premiered in theaters around the same time as Chang Cheh's POLICE FORCE (1973) starring Wang Chung, Wang Hsieh and Alexander Fu Sheng. While Chang's movie felt more like a violent recruitment film for the HK police force, Kuei's movie was far more visceral and better. Both films performed to lukewarm business, but Cheh's picture edged out Kuei's ever so slightly.

PAYMENT IN BLOOD is among the directors best pictures of his career. If there's one area that's lacking it's two scenes where car stunts could have been utilized. But instead of seeing them, we simply hear the crashes. Aside from that, this film is representative of what the man was capable of as well as being the movie that defined his style for the remainder of the decade. It provides a sadistic segue into the wild excess of THE BAMBOO HOUSE OF DOLLS (1973) and the sickening THE KILLER SNAKES (1974); which led up to his bigger success with the CRIMINALS series and on to disgustingly imaginative black magic displays with BEWITCHED (1981) and its sequel THE BOXER'S OMEN (1983). As for his debut crime thriller, it's a shame there's not a better version of the film available.

***A NOTE ABOUT THIS REVIEW: PAYMENT IN BLOOD was not released to DVD in Hong Kong during IVL's five year license with Celestial Pictures. It wasn't announced for release, but is listed on some of the DVDs of Kuei's films as being available from Celestial Pictures. This review comes from a rare German tape in German language only in 1.85 widescreen. There are no credits save for a German main title card. This version runs 80 minutes and appears to be missing bits and pieces here and there so a proper assessment can be made if and when this movie becomes available in a better presentation. Plot details come from vintage HK magazine articles prior to the films release in 1973.***

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