Friday, August 23, 2019

Downhill They Ride (1966) review


Pat Ting Hung (Cui Ying), Paul Chang Chung (Hsiao Kai), Huang Chung Shun (Zhu Jing Xu), Wang Hsieh (Hei Hu), Wen Ling (Sha Li Bai), Wei Ping Ao (Ding Si Bao), Ma Ying (Big Brother Hong), Shen Lao (He Lian Long)

Directed by Pan Lei

The Short Version: The first Eastern Western is a modestly entertaining romp written by King Hu (COME DRINK WITH ME) and directed by drama specialist and popular lyricist Pan Lei. Basically, it's a Magnificent Two helping out a town in need of rescue from a gang of burly bandits. There are better examples of Chinese-style western shoot'em ups, but, this being the first, both writer and director create a serviceable, if forgettable, start for what is essentially a sub-genre of Chinese curios.

Two wanderers meet after encountering horse thieves and decide to travel along together. Just passing through the town of Lao Long Gou, they learn the village is oppressed by a gang of mountain bandits led by the burly Big Brother Hong. After a tense run-in with some of the bandits, the two gunfighters decide to stay and help fortify the town and the surrounding grounds with traps for when the desperadoes return.

European westerns enjoyed several years of international popularity due in large part to Sergio Leone's DOLLARS trilogy. The genre eventually faded due to market saturation and its replacement by the burgeoning Kung Fu genre out of Hong Kong. But prior to that, Hong Kong filmmakers--primarily at Shaw Brothers Studio--produced several movies that blended the western with a Chinese sensibility. The first of these was Pan Lei's DOWNHILL THEY RIDE, released in February of 1966. Unlike some of the other examples of this peculiar mix, Pan's movie owes more to the American west than the Italian interpretation of it.

More fanciful than frigid, you won't find the anti-heroes of the Euro version of the old west; nor any John Wayne stoicism. Pan Lei's Eastern simply has the feel of an old fashioned Hollywood western. There's some violence and even a few bloody scenes in the usual Shaw Brothers tradition, but a jovial atmosphere dominates. The exact year is vague, but the time period is sometime in the late 1930s. The town the film centers around is basically one big happy family; as penned by writer King Hu.

Essentially 'The Magnificent Two', King Hu packs his script with plenty of characters but little characterization. The feeling of the genre is there, but not its heart. Curiously, a couple of the secondary characters have an air of mystery about them that would've been better suited for the two leads whom, sadly, are out of their element for this type of movie; otherwise, it's a standard gunplay drama with some humor thrown in.

King Hu found great fame as a director with his iconic swordplay drama COME DRINK WITH ME (1966); released a few months after DOWNHILL THEY RIDE. His second directorial effort after SONS OF THE GOOD EARTH (1965), he would go on to even greater success with DRAGON INN (1967); and especially A TOUCH OF ZEN in 1971, a swordplay picture that received great acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival in 1975. A revered filmmaker, he seemed to go downhill, in a manner of speaking, once he went out on his own--escaping the confines of the studio system. His body of work was eclipsed by his colleagues like Li Han Hsiang and Chang Cheh, and is often overlooked in favor of those two aforementioned filmmakers. Hu's work is more appealing to the art house crowd than the commercial one.

Shot during the winter months in Taiwan, the crew filmed on Mount Snow, the second highest mountain in Taiwan, some 3,000 feet above sea level. While the film itself is an average, mildly entertaining diversion, the photography is staggeringly attractive in the many wide shots caught in Hung Ching Yun's camera. Of particular note are the shots high atop the mountain with the clouds below the actors.

Director Pan Lei was quite successful with romantic movies and as a novelist and song writer. He would never be viewed as an action director, but he could hold his own in that genre when assigned to it; THE FASTEST SWORD (1968) being an astonishingly adept, dramatic sword picture despite its relative obscurity even among HK action film fans. Still, action was not Pan's strong suit, and he possibly wasn't all that interested in it. DOWNHILL THEY RIDE falls somewhere in between his dramas like SONG OF ORCHID ISLAND (1965) and LOVE WITHOUT END (1970); and something like PURPLE DARTS (1969), one of the few Wuxia pictures he helmed. Possibly due to the director's indifference to the material, the gun battles of DOWNHILL barely pass muster with everyone's aiming abilities consisting of throwing their arms outward whenever they fire a shot.

Paul Chang Chung was a very popular lead actor at the time but he's not right for this type of role. He did a fine spy in THE GOLDEN BUDDHA (1966); with romances and certain parts in swordplay dramas suiting him well, but playing a gunfighter was not a great fit. Like many popular actors, Paul Chang eventually branched out into directing. With swordplay epics saturating the markets in the early 70s, Paul had the desire to do a modern day action picture. Planning to shoot in September of 1971, it wasn't till 1973 that his directing debut appeared in the form of DEATH COMES IN THREE, a thriller about a Chinese man seeking revenge on the Japanese who murdered his parents in WWII. Among his many other credits, Paul had a small role as Inspector Koo in the international co-production, THE MILLION EYES OF SUMURU (1967), shot at Shaw Studios. 

Around the time he made DOWNHILL THEY RIDE, Paul Chang was romantically connected to Ivy Ling Po. He would later marry erotica starlet Hu Chin in 1975. Paul's brother, Chang Sum, was a filmmaker and sometimes actor. Some of his works include the exploitation flick BALD-HEADED BETTY (1975); and Kung Fu pictures like KUNG FU MASTER NAMED DRUNK CAT (1978), SNAKE IN THE MONKEY'S SHADOW (1979), the rare Shaw Brothers comic KF caper EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF (1980), and DAGGERS 8 (1980).

Huang Chung Shun co-stars as Paul Chang's friend he meets on the road. Possessing a visage put to better use as villains in movies like A TASTE OF COLD STEEL (1970) and PURSUIT (1972), Huang fails as a protagonist in Pan Lei's Eastern. He's afforded even less of a presence than Paul Chang; the latter of which is given a romantic interest with Pat Ting Hung that, like the rest of the ensemble, goes nowhere. However, celebrated filmmaker Cheng Kang did co-direct Huang in a believable heroic capacity in the Shaw ZATOICHI clone, THE WANDERING SWORDSMAN (1968).

Chinese westerns is something that doesn't really roll off the tongue, but some examples are quite good, and even better action-wise than their Anglo counterparts. Other Eastern Westerns include the rare Shaw-Korean co-production THE BANDITS (1967/1971); Chang Tseng Chai's bandit epic REDBEARD (1971) and his action-packed revenger THE FUGITIVE (1972); Chu Yuan's exceptionally dramatic THE VILLAINS (1973); and Chang Cheh's revolution Eastern THE ANONYMOUS HEROES (1971) and fan favorite THE SAVAGE FIVE (1974). One of the more popular titles was another Shaw co-pro with Italy and the US titled THE STRANGER AND THE GUNFIGHTER (1975), starring Lee Van Cleef and Lo Lieh. KUNG FU BROTHERS IN THE WILD WEST (1973) is an independently made, and inferior mix of East and Europe that satisfies neither audience.

There's benefits to seeing the first Chinese western, but these will be best appreciated by Shaw Brothers fanatics, HK film history buffs and western enthusiasts curious of an Asian take on the material. Casual fans or even curiosity seekers will find nothing to interest them here. If you're expecting visceral thrills, DOWNHILL THEY RIDE will be an uphill battle for many viewers.

You can purchase a copy HERE. Running time: 01:45:26

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