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Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Boxer From Shantung (1972) review


Chen Kuan Tai (Ma Yung Chen), David Chiang (Tan Si), Cheng Kang Yeh (Hsiao Chang), Ching Li (Chin Lin Chi), Ku Feng (Chang Fa), Tin Ching (Li Cai chun), Mario Milano (Russian wrestler), Yuan Man Chi (prostitute)

Directed by Chang Cheh and Pao Hsueh Li

The Short Version: Chang Cheh's gangster epic became one of the biggest hits of his career, and made its star famous in rapid succession. Chen Kuan Tai is stoic as the country bumpkin who goes to Shanghai to seek his fortune, and climb the ladder of success on his own terms. He finds it's not only lonely at the top, but rather violent when the literal backstabbing begins and that famous Shaw shade of red is splashed from one end of the set to the other. An entire sub-genre of similar movies followed in BOXER's blood-drenched wake. A true classic of Hong Kong action cinema.

Ma Yung Chen comes to the bustling city of Shanghai with his childhood friend. Encountering trouble soon after, Ma's superb kung fu abilities attracts the attention of local boss Tan Si, a gangster of the honorable sort. The two become quick friends, and Tan offers to help Ma; but he refuses any hand-outs, preferring to make it, or break it on his own. Soon, Ma's name spreads around Shanghai, attracting the attention of the dreaded Four Champions, a bloodthirsty, hatchet wielding mob syndicate run by Boss Yang. After a serious of encounters, Ma proves too much of a match for the rulers of the city, so a plan is hatched to eliminate both Tan and Ma Yung Chen permanently.

1972 was a spectacular year for Shaw Brothers. Some of their biggest hits debuted that year; and it was a year that presented many of their most polished, high profile productions; THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG was among them. It was one of director Chang's biggest hits of his prolific career, and a subject he would revisit a few other times in one form or another.

Unusual for its time, this films primary focus is on building character while placing kung fu fighting secondary to the plot. For a two hour movie, there's enough action to satisfy genre fans, it's just that these sequences are born out of the situation as opposed to filling a 'beat'em up' quota. THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG isn't your average Fist & Kick flick.

When Ma arrives in Shanghai, he immediately strikes up a friendship with local "good" gangster, Tan Si (played by David Chiang). Tan is rich and Ma is poor; so Tan makes him an offer to fight for a dollar coin, and tries to convince the noble peasant to relieve him of a fancy pocket watch if he can. Ma desires both items (money and what it can buy), but chooses to earn it, refusing any handouts. Shortly after this chance meeting, Ma runs afoul of Boss Yang and the Four Champions, the other gang in town; and a ruthless bunch who kill with hatchets and knives. Both gangs vie for supremacy in Shanghai in their respective casinos and drug deals. Ma quickly proves to be a formidable foe for Boss Yang -- outright declining to cozy up with him and his men. 

Ma Yung Chen's eventual rise isn't the typical scenario of money and power ruining a good-natured soul. He may be a gangster, but he steadfastly refuses to allow his men to push the poor for protection money, and likewise shows no interest in acquiring revenue by taking over any of Tan Si's territory. The Chun Fu Lane territory lies right between Tan's and Yang's properties, so Ma sets his sights on claiming it for his own. It's here where the turning point occurs -- Ma Yung Chen has gotten to the top, but it's a long, deadly way down to the bottom.

The friendship between Ma and Tan isn't elaborated on a great deal, but it's palpable in the handful of scenes the two men share together. From the dialog spoken, it's apparent there's a great deal of respect between them. Both are like real brothers -- both are from Shantung, and both have similar personalities. They share something else in common, but if you haven't seen the movie, I'll leave that to the viewer to discover. 

There's a stronger bond depicted between Ma and his martial artless friend, Hsiao Chang. He is extremely loyal, and like a little brother. Hsiao idolizes Ma, and even at the end when Ma decides to go meet with Boss Yang alone, Hsiao wants to remain by his side as his coachman. Ma sends him away to start a new life away from the criminal underbelly that has gripped Shanghai.

The symbolism in Chang Cheh's script (co-written with noted, and prolific writer I Kuang) is laid on as thick as the gushing blood. The director displays a preoccupation with staircases, and equating them with success; or even a downfall. This happens on a few occasions such as when Ma is poor and gets to room in an upstairs loft, and again in a whorehouse seen taking three women up to a room for a tryst! At the end during the violent free-for-all, Ma finds it difficult to get to his target at the top of the stairs, so he brings the top down to his level.

In addition to the violence and subtext, there's a pseudo romantic sub-plot involving famous actress Ching Li, but it's elaborated on about as much as the friendship between Ma and Tan. Again, it's the visuals that get the point across. Ma spies Chin (Ching Li) in a teahouse one afternoon. The two become momentarily transfixed on one another, but don't share a conversation between them. She's a low-income songstress, and Ma is still at the bottom of the totem pole. Once he gets some name value, the two meet again in the same place, but now her facial expression has changed to one of sadness in light of how Ma has changed, at least in her eyes. The striking part of this is that Ma's personality remains the same despite his chosen profession. 

Later in the film, it becomes obvious a drunken Ma Yung Chen definitely has Miss Chin on the brain. He's in a brothel with his pals, all of whom are surrounded by girls. Chin Lin Chi's name is brought up and when he looks over at the pretty face of Yuan Man Chi (co-star in Chang's SHAOLIN MARTIAL ARTS), he sees Chin in front of him. Unfortunately, the two never get close, which only adds to the depressing tone of the movie. Inside, Ma probably knows that, because of his current standing, he feels he doesn't deserve a woman like her; and like the typical Chang Cheh hero, he's too proud to let on, even though others around Ma can see it. 

Both Chen and Ching Li reunited in the sequel where they did the deed they never got around to in this one. Ching would play Chen's adulterous wife in Chang Cheh's classic BLOOD BROTHERS (1973). 

The fight scenes are fairly standard of the time period, yet the action turns up to 11 during the finale. The last 15 minutes is a no holds barred blood-fest. BOXER is a signature film in defining the directors style -- an honorable, yet stubborn man willing to walk into the fire knowing he'll get burned. Fire spreads, and a great many others get burned, and scorched spectacularly, mind you. If you're familiar with the directors work, you will have some idea as to how this movie will end. With four choreographers (Liu Chia Liang, Tang Chia, Liu Chia Yung, Chen Chung), they deliver a dazzling denouement of blood, sweat, and fists.

Chang's archetypal good gangster surfaced in the previous years THE DUEL (1971), starring David Chiang and Ti Lung. The former is a guest star here, likely to lend support considering Chen Kuan Tai was an unknown commodity at that time. 

A 1969 Singapore martial arts champion, Chen can be spotted as one of the thugs that comes to a bad end in Cheh's award winning classic VENGEANCE! from 1970. He signed on to appear in Chang's WATER MARGIN films, but is sidelined in the first one; left mainly in the background. THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972) is his introduction to the world as a lead actor, and his charisma leaps and kicks off the screen.

THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972) was highly influential, resulting in a healthy dose of clones and quasi-remakes throughout the decade; some of which would star Chen Kuan Tai, or directed by disciples of the venerable Chang Cheh. Like THE CHINESE BOXER (1970) starting a long running string of Chinese vs. Japanese motifs, popularized further with the advent of Bruce Lee, Chen's portrayal of Ma Yung Chen (sometimes listed as Ma Yung Cheng, or Ma Yong Zhen) beget dozens of shanghai gangster movies. These included Jimmy Wang Yu's rip-off FURIOUS SLAUGHTER (1972), HERO FROM SHANGHAI (1977), and BIG BOSS OF SHANGHAI (1979); the latter two starred Chen Kuan Tai in the title roles.

The Shaw's were enjoying big box office with their movies in the early 70s, and BOXER was yet another, netting over 2 million in Hong Kong alone. A sequel was assured, debuting in Chinese theaters later the same year. Titled MAN OF IRON (1972), it was a cooperative effort between Chang and his acolyte, DP Pao Hsueh Li, who'd also collaborated with the director on the first movie. In his memoirs, Chang credits Pao as the chief executive of MAN OF IRON; despite it looking and feeling more like a Chang Cheh movie than Pao's own later solo efforts.

This was such a popular movie, director Chang revisited this 'rags to riches' storyline on two more occasions with DISCIPLES OF SHAOLIN (1975) and THE CHINATOWN KID (1977); both films starred Alexander Fu Sheng, and both pictures used items symbolic of wealth and success at the center of their narratives. For BOXER, it was a cigarette holder (and fleetingly, a gold pocket watch); in DISCIPLES, it's the pocket watch our young boxer desires. The romantic sub-plot gets a lot more mileage in this one; for CHINATOWN KID, it was a modern day digital watch that Fu Sheng was attracted to.

Years later, the enduring popularity of BOXER didn't go unnoticed. In 1996, the Shaw's resurfaced with a remake entitled HERO starring Takeshi Kaneshiro in the Ma Yung Chen role. Yuen Biao was Tan Si, and Yuen Tak was memorable as the deadly main villain. The film performed poorly, but the story of Ma was remade once more in 2013 as ONCE UPON A TIME IN SHANGHAI (2014). There were TV shows based on this story, too.

Deserving of its accolades, THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972) is a highlight of Chang Cheh's career that nearly reached 100 motion pictures. The fighting sequences are dated now, but still impressive; especially during the bravura conclusion. It's not only an influential, important piece of HK cinema, but both John Woo and Godfrey Ho were assistant directors on the picture. The style of the former is evident in Chang Cheh's techniques. If you've not seen a movie by the Godfather of Hong Kong Action cinema, Chang Cheh, this is a good place to start.

This review is representative of the IVL R3 DVD.

1 comment:

AZB said...

Its a very good film

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