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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Chang's Dirty Dozen: The Goriest, Most Spectacular Death Scenes in Chang Cheh's Cinema

When it comes to testosterone-fueled macho movies, the Godfather of Hong Kong Cinema has left an influential mark on the industry of action all around the world. Spearheading a trend of increasing violence, and or downbeat endings, Chang Cheh was seemingly attempting to outdo himself with each new film bearing his name. Many other filmmakers competed in this bloody big screen battle; but in the end, it was Chang Cheh's stylized violence that stood the test of time with his signature bare-chested and bloodied hero who dies standing up, and eyes wide open. Below are twelve examples (plus some honorable mentions) of Chang's sense of gory heroism and shock value used to heighten his fight sequences. 

***If you haven't seen any Chang Cheh movies and are curious, you may want to skip this article.***

"You should reach the limits of virtue before you cross the border to death."--Spartan poet, Tyrtaeus

1. THE ASSASSIN (1967)

One of Chang Cheh's best movies is this, his second film following the groundbreaking success of THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967). While that film showed violence on a scale unseen at that time, THE ASSASSIN gave viewers a hero who literally spilled his guts to the world. During the finale, Wang Yu, knowing full well he will not survive, walks brazenly into the enemy's stronghold and lays waste to everyone like blades of grass cut with a lawnmower. He even slices his own belly open, preferring to die by his own hand while mutilating his face(!) to keep harm from coming to those he loves. This innovative style of 'One Against Many' would reach outrageous levels in other Chang Cheh bloodbaths like GOLDEN SWALLOW (1968) and THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972); but THE ASSASSIN, hot on the heels of macho spectacle THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967), cultivated Chang's garden of gore that would produce a bountiful crop of carnage for years to come.


One of the best, most lavish HK productions ever is this 2.5 million tale of treachery and greed among warlords and a family literally torn apart. Chang Cheh was in full-bore battle mode staging large scale epicness that dwarfed everything that had come before it. Blood flies freely and frequently, but nothing quite prepares you for one of HK cinemas greatest shock moments near the films climax. David Chiang had risen to popularity relatively quickly, so his fans were in for a big surprise seeing him drawn and quartered in stylistically gruesome fashion. Tricked by two of his duplicitous brothers, the young General Li has his arms, legs, and head torn off and dragged while buckets of that famous Shaw shade of red trails horses and strewn viscera. THE HEROIC ONES contains another famous sequence--Ti Lung's last stand; an extended sequence that ranks among the best that vintage HK martial arts cinema has to offer.


Speaking of Ti Lung, one half of the Iron Triangle with David Chiang and Director Chang Cheh, he was rewarded with a magnificently splattery demise of his own in this movie. In some ways, Ti Lung's death scene is more of a shocker than David's in THO. You expect him to bloodily bow out, but not quite in this fashion, nor as sudden. Injured and outnumbered, Ti Lung is strung up by his arms and legs and viciously cut in half! The sequence is extremely well done and edited; and is more powerful for not being too overly graphic in execution. Just as disturbing is how non-chalantly the villains' subordinates step over his bisected corpse seemingly oblivious to the gruesome mess on the floor. Another aspect of this scene that stands out is how utterly barbaric it is. Ti Lung's swordsman character is the typical chivalrous knight indigenous to the directors celluloid lands, so for him to die in such an ignoble way is doubly shocking.

Honorary Mention #1: MEN FROM THE MONASTERY (1974)

Chang Cheh's worst of his Shaolin cycle is filled with action, but suffers from lethargy despite its innovative, three part story arc that comes together during the last half. Thankfully, the director doesn't slack during the climax--a conclusion so damn bloody, nearly the entire sequence is in B/W. There's blood all over the place as Shaolin heroes and heroines are sliced, diced, and run through left, right, and center. Very mediocre, but more than enough blood and sweat to make it worth seeing at least once.

Honorary Mention #2: BOXER REBELLION (1975)

Chang Cheh's 137 minute super-epic fluctuates between sweeping grandeur, dramatic resonance, and large scale action sequences. Unfortunately, it fails at these as often as it succeeds. To use the oft-heard English dubbed phrase... But still, during the conclusion, Fu Sheng goes out with a bang trying to protect his girlfriend, taking on a small army of Japanese soldiers armed with rifles and bayonets. You can guess the rest.


Chang Cheh's award winning VENGEANCE! (1970) took the 'One Against Many' device of THE ASSASSIN and modified it in an even more brutally artistic way; taking it to an entirely new level of onscreen Fist & Kick sadism. Chen Kuan Tai became another star attraction of the venerable director once audiences witnessed the bloody carnage of historical hero Ma Yung Chen relieving dozens of gangsters of their plasma while his own sangria pours from a hatchet wound! This being Chang Cheh cinema, his heroes are destined to go out in style. An influential, and genre defining production that was remade and ripped off a number of times with lesser results. A sequel, MAN OF IRON, was already in the planning stages before BOXER ever debuted, and it features Chen Kuan Tai playing essentially in the same role, but took place some years later.

5. ALL MEN ARE BROTHERS (1973/released in 1975)

It was a monumental event when Shaw's brought the famous novel 'The Water Margin' to the screen in 1972. Chang Cheh directed while simultaneously working on other movies that were side stories, or sequels. The latter applies to ALL MEN ARE BROTHERS, not only the sequel to Chang's THE WATER MARGIN, but also the bloodiest movie of Chang Cheh's career--and that's saying something. Beginning under the working title of 'Story of Punishment', that moniker suited the proceedings perfectly. A Men (and one woman) On A Mission movie, it's essentially a string of vignettes showcasing each of the heroes dying in the most noble, and gruesome ways imaginable. Heavily censored upon its release, the current DVD and Blu versions are a revelation, yet bits of brutality remain missing.

Yu Pi (Wang Lung Wei) had no idea Pa Chung (Chi Kuan Chun) was going to rip his intestines out during the finale of SHAOLIN MARTIAL ARTS. When you're virtually invulnerable, why should you expect this particular fight will be your last? Having learned Wing Chun style in secret, Pa Chung puts Yu out of his misery with bloody ease while Yu writhes around in agony longer than it took him to have his insides shown to him. Even with this being a Chang Cheh movie, you're not quite prepared for a large intestine to come rolling out. Draped in a red-tinted screen to ensure the shot isn't lost to the censor, Chang Cheh knew how to turn your stomach and be an artist all at the same time. Balancing action, drama, and characterization, this film is a highlight in the directors career.

Honorary Mention #3: 7 MAN ARMY (1976)

Chang Cheh's 'One Against Many' template is taken to absurd extremes in this jaw-dropping story of blood, blades, and bullets. And it's based on a true story! Seven Chinese soldiers are besieged by thousands of Japanese and Mongolian troops while trying to hold down an abandoned fortress. An epic war movie in every sense of the word. Starring all of Shaw's biggest male stars of the day, everybody dies, and everybody dies gloriously.

Honorary Mention #4: KID WITH THE GOLDEN ARM (1978)

One of Chang Cheh's least enthralling films (yet it's a favorite of many fans), it often looks and feels like a stage play. Its comic book flavor, colorful costumes, and even more colorful gore save it from pure mediocrity. Severely cut for television, highlights include Wei Pai's intestines twisted out of his body with his own sword; a double impalement homicide ending in both combatants ripping their weapons from out the other side of each other; and Lo Mang punches clean through kicker Sun Chien with his Golden Arm!


This reworking of Chang's own box office smash THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972) ended up being his biggest theatrical hit in HK. It surpasses its source in a few ways; mainly in that it humanizes its central character unlike the near Iron Man of the earlier work starring Chen Kuan Tai. DISCIPLES isn't particularly gory, but one major set piece is--succeeding in drumming up an incredible amount of pathos in the process. That scene is the death of the hero--ironically, coming before the actual finale. Injured after being ambushed and stabbed, Guan Feng Yi (Alexander Fu Sheng) heads off to settle the score, anyways. Dressed all in white (symbolic of death, not to mention the blood shows up better), Guan's wound is discovered after laying waste to most of Boss Ha's (Chiang Tao) men. From there, Guan begins to bleed profusely and wear down. From here the film switches to B/W, only changing back to color once Guan is dead. Quite possibly the directors finest hour, he milks the drama and the shocks for all it's worth.

8. MARCO POLO (1975)

Less about the Italian traveler than oppressed Chinese fighting Mongol conquerors, MARCO POLO (known more suitably as 4 ASSASSINS overseas) sits proudly among Chang's manliest outings, and the closest he came to directing a Sword and Sandal style epic. Tang Yen San is turned into a literal Hercules through training in Tai Chi. He literally brings the house down during the no-holds-barred finale, using stone blocks from the walls he tore asunder with his bare hands to deliver instant death to scores of spear-wielding automatons. Naturally he doesn't come away unscathed, ultimately bearing the sort of bloody battle scars (stab wounds and massive blood loss) of all your finer Chang Cheh heroes. 


The Venom Era of Chang's career isn't the spectacle of his earlier days, but there's more than enough raw, heroically powerful moments to go around. INVINCIBLE SHAOLIN, aka UNBEATABLE DRAGON is one such picture. The unique storyline acts as the impetus to make the finale all the more forceful. Once the heroes (yes, they're all good guys set up to kill each other) realize who the real villains are, it's too late. After a lengthy, and varied set of duels, the finality of these fights comes swiftly, yet packed with ferocity as our six men take on a slew of Manchu soldiers who ambush them. Naturally most die a heroes death--each different from the other, but two manage to escape to fight another day. Chang's film was marketed as SHAOLIN BLOODSHED in Hong Kong.

Honorary Mention #5: TWO CHAMPIONS OF SHAOLIN (1980)

It starts off great, has a fiercely exciting finale, but a weak middle. This soap-opera reworking of the far superior THE SHAOLIN AVENGERS (1976) has some wacky death scenes. Two of the best involve Chiang Sheng ripping Chiu Shing Chan's testicles off in mid-air, and Chiang Sheng again, literally bashing Chan Shu Kei's brains out. He hits him so hard in the back of the head, his brains spray(!) out of the back of his head!

Honorary Mention #6: TEN TIGERS OF KWANG TUNG (1980)

Considering all the troubles incurred during this films production, it's a wonder it wasn't shelved. It's still one of the directors worst movies. It's rescued somewhat by ridiculously over the top violence. Liang Yao Wen is stabbed square in the head with a dagger concealed in a jug; Lung Tien Sheng is impaled on the spear that has pinned both him and Wang Li to a gambling table--he simply grabs the end and removes himself! The showstopper is Kuo Chui drop-kicking Kuan Feng's head off!

10. FLAG OF IRON (1980)

Articulation in fight choreography replaced the more raw, unrefined choreo of the pre '75 era. The flow of blood wasn't as exaggerated, but its creativity was. Chang's clout in the company wasn't what it used to be in the 80s, but that didn't stop the director from coming up with new methods of death for his heroes and their foes. FLAG is a remake of Chang's THE DUEL (1971). Lung Tien Sheng is the mysterious anti-hero, the Spearman of Death (the films English title), and his weapon of choice is a modified spear that he uses like a hunter would use a rifle. Spearheads can be fired from the weapon, and it has some other hidden features as well. One of the films highlights is the Spearman's demise wherein he's run through by that sneaky bastard Lu Feng. The Spearman rectifies this by pulling himself away from the spear, the flag unraveling drenched in his blood. Naturally, with this being a Chang Cheh film the Spearman doesn't let a hole in his stomach stop him from killing about 50 guys before he dies--and dies standing up, at that.


Chang's penchant for impalement akin to the stagey violence of Peking Opera reached its zenith with this martial world mystery movie about a vicious gang of trident bearing masked savages who rape women and drink human blood in their spare time. The action is plentiful, but brief. The suspense builds (if you've seen any of the Venom movies it's not that big a mystery as to the identity of at least two of the masked chiefs) to a fabulously fast-paced final battle in a booby-trap laden, dilapidated temple. Choreographers (and stars) Kuo Chui, Lu Feng, Chiang Sheng, and Chu Ko have devised one of the wildest end fights of 80s HK cinema; and paired with a generous amount of Chang's patented blend of blood and heroism, you've got a powerful combination. It's everything Chang's HOUSE OF TRAPS (1982) should have been.


Chang Cheh's next to last movie for Shaw Brothers before moving on to the independent Netherlands is a veritable cornucopia of carnage. There's so many amazing sequences, naming a single one of them as the best is a difficult, if impossible task. For this list, the chosen scene is generally the one that most people always talk about upon witnessing the garishly colored greatness that is FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS. During the first encounter with the Earth Element, Chao Kuo is ambushed by Earth ninjas; only he isn't ambushed head-on, but from beneath the Earth. These nasty ninjas hide below ground and stab upwards with their spears, piercing the mighty warrior right between the legs. The average man would call it a day after just one stab wound, but this is Chang Cheh's world, after all. Not only does Chao Kuo continue dueling ninjas, but he takes seven stabs to the groin till his guts begin dragging along the ground behind him. Charging the main villain, his guts get in the way, and upon accidentally stepping on them, the main villain (Chen Hui Min in a genre defining role) slices his chest open, putting an end to this hero's quest--a hero with a lot of guts.


Franco Macabro said...

Oh yeah, that death in the Five Element Ninjas...that one was so painful looking!

venoms5 said...

I remember being in Borders Books & Music once and this guy was looking around in the foreign section. He asked me had I seen this movie called SUPER NINJAS and immediately mentioned the first Earth ninjas sequence. This was several years before the DVDs came out and the VHS was hard to come by at that time. I bought a used VHS of it in the early 90s for I think $6 or $7? They sold their used tapes by how many times they'd been rented. Judging by all the cards listing all the renters, it looked like that thing had been rented some several hundred times.

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