Tuesday, July 14, 2020

The Champion (1973) review


Chin Han (Lu Fu), Shih Szu (Ah Chu), Lung Fei (Lu Te Piao), Hsieh Hsing (Fang Kang), Yi Yuan (Yung Tien), Shih Chung Tien (Shen Yung Chung Nan), Li Hui (Chien Wei Chih), Cheng Fu Hsiung (Ku Lin), Chi Chun Chiang (Tu Shang), Chen Hsin I (One-eyed Li), Chang Feng (Mr. Li)

Directed by Chu Ku Ching Yu and Yang Ching Chen

The Short Version: Lensed in Taiwan on some of the same locations where Wang Yu shot ONE-ARMED BOXER (1972) and its sequel, former drama lead actor Chin Han does his best impersonation of the temperamental film star in this serviceable offshoot of THE CHINESE BOXER (1970). The lack of buckets of blood flying everywhere is unusual for a Shaw Brothers production of the day. There's a good story to be told but it loses its place amid wall-to-wall action choreographed by Chang Cheh's future action designer replacement for Liu Chia Liang. It's not a genre winner, but THE CHAMPION gives fans of early 70s Karate-style action what they came for in this rare, chivalrous fight-fest.

Lu Fu spent two years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. Upon getting out, he returns to his coal-mining hometown to discover his brother has taken over and imprisoned their sister, Ah Chu. Backed by the Russians, no one will oppose him. The village elder, Mr. Li, tries to convince Lu to meet with the Japanese who offer to help restore order in exchange for 10% of the coal profits. Lu refuses their help but they move in anyway, ultimately taking control of the town themselves, and crushing Lu's hands. His sister, equally adept at Kung Fu, rescues her brother and together they take on the Japanese invaders to free their town.

Tentatively titled 'The Chivalrous Guest', this lesser known Shaw Brothers fist and kicker began filming in Taiwan in August of 1972. Novelist Chu Ku Ching Yu was directing for the first time with Yang Ching Chen co-directing alongside him. Yang was new to directing as well, having spent the last few years as an AD to Chang Cheh and Jimmy Wang Yu.

Speaking of Jimmy Wang Yu, his self-directing and starring in THE CHINESE BOXER (1970) started a trend of martial arts movies where training in a style contributed to, if not the entire focus of, character development. It also began the popular plot device of having the Japanese as the chief antagonists. 1973 was a huge year for this style of empty-handed combat pictures and THE CHAMPION was one of dozens released that year. It wasn't one of the studios high-profile releases, receiving very little promotion.

As far as these types of MA films go, THE CHAMPION comes equipped with a very good story and near endless scenes of fighting that doesn't propel it in any meaningful way. That isn't to say this dime-a-dozen KF flick isn't worth your time, only that had the story been allowed to breath, then THE CHAMPION would have incentive over the competition. The action itself is your standard Karate-style kicks and chops of the time period.

Taiwan-based action choreographer Hsieh Hsing (above second from left) designed the fights for some of Wang Yu's movies like CHOW-KEN (1972), RETURN OF THE CHINESE BOXER (1977) and THE LANTERN STREET (1977); and acted in many more of them. In 1975, he joined Chang Cheh's camp at Long Bow as chief choreographer on seven films when Liu Chia Liang became disagreeable and returned to Shaw's in HK to direct his own features. He plays Lung Fei's main subordinate till the Japanese supplant them as the stronger antagonists.

Chin Han was primarily an actor in dramatic roles. It was only in 1970 that he began taking parts in action pictures; most famously as the more reasonable brother of THE HEROIC ONES (1970). He later played the lead in the 1972 empty-hand blood-gusher THE KILLER; released internationally as THE SACRED KNIVES OF VENGEANCE in 1973. THE CHAMPION (not to be confused with 1971s THE CHAMPION OF CHAMPIONS also starring Chin Han) belongs to the same school as the latter title. Where action films are concerned, Chin was better suited to the swordplay genre than one requiring him to display Karate or Kung Fu skills. He's a far better actor than Jimmy Wang Yu, but looks less intimidating in the fight scenes.

Chin married Shaw super-starlet Ivy Ling Po in 1970. She was originally engaged to another, much more popular Chinese actor, Paul Chang Chung. The pursuit of Ling Po by the two men was a hot media topic back then. A shock to many, she abruptly broke off her engagement and, according to Ling Po, was the one who suggested marriage to Chin Han. Reportedly, Chin wasn't in a good place mentally, having contemplated suicide; possibly due to media derision over his trying to win the affection of an enormously popular actress outside of his film circle status. He left the company in 1974 and opened his own production facility as many actors desired to do in those days. He and Ling Po are still together today.

Shih Szu's dancing skills (she'd won several dancing competitions in Taiwan) ensure her scenes are the better showcase. She's the co-star and, incidentally, has the best fight scene(s) in the picture. The highlight is when she takes on the female Japanese Kendo expert.

Shih Szu joined the Shaw Organization in May of 1969. At just 16 years of age, she was the youngest of a batch of other actors and actresses that signed with the company. Her first role was in the Ivy Ling Po swordplay THE CRIMSON CHARM (1971); and co-starring with Cheng Pei Pei in her final martial arts picture for Shaw's, THE LADY HERMIT (1971). With many within the film circles noting the similarities between the two actresses, Shih Szu was to assume the role of HK cinema's 'Queen of Swordswomen' as Cheng had been christened in early 1969 by readers of some of Hong Kong's then biggest-selling newspapers.

Shih Szu went on to star in a healthy series of sword and fist actioners that include THE RESCUE (1971), THE BLACK TAVERN (1972), THE THUNDERBOLT FIST (1972) and THE SHADOW BOXER (1974). She was blessed with international exposure on the Shaw-Italy co-pro SUPERMEN AGAINST THE ORIENT (1974) and the Shaw-Hammer co-pro THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974).

Prior to starting THE CHAMPION, she'd just wrapped filming on Chu Yuan's dramatic, western-style actioner THE VILLAINS (1973). It's superior to THE CHAMPION, although Shih Szu doesn't have a fighting role in the film. There's a prevalence of exposition that makes the action sequences more powerful. With Chu Ku Ching Yu being a novelist, he possibly would've preferred his first time directing to have explored the characters in the script written by his co-director and writer/AD Chang Hsin Yi.

The villains--both sets of them--aren't quite as despicable as they are in many other Kung Fu movies. The quotient of bloodletting is likewise very low when compared to Shaw Brothers pictures of the day.

Star of dozens of Taiwanese Kung Fu pictures, and a favorite of Jimmy Wang Yu, Lung Fei initially begins the picture as the primary malefactor. Then the movie throws you a curve ball (although if you've seen enough of these by now you already know it's coming) towards the end. Before then, the plot is intriguing in its deadly family triangle. Unfortunately, this angle isn't explored much outside of the basics to move the story along to the next fight scene. Moreover, the film was seemingly made more as one of Shaw's lesser features; a product for audience consumption to hold them over till 'Another Shaw Production' was served up.

Billed as a 'Guest Star', Lung Fei gets a lot of mileage out of his role before exiting the picture towards the end. He imprisons his sister; has Russian killers (well, Chinese actors pretending to be Russians) try to snuff out his brother; and repeatedly tries to wipe out both his siblings by various other means.

Yi Yuan (above in middle;at right in insert), who frequently played Japanese bad guys in these movies, is the leader of the sneaky Japanese who pretend to wield good intentions, but brandish cold steel instead. Curiously, Yi's character doesn't fight, preferring to use a gun. He's mostly ineffectual with his two subordinates making the best impression.

Shih Chung Tien, who was a new hire at Shaw Studio at the time, was a real martial artist, proficient in assorted Japanese styles such as Judo and Karate; so his character suits him very well. Shih seems more comfortable here than he does in some of his other fighting roles, and he has the intensity Yi Yuan lacks.

Released in America as SHANGHAI LIL AND THE SUN LUCK KID, the film played theaters in various cities between 1974-1975. It's one of the rarer titles in the Shaw catalog and was not released during the five year schedule of Shaw DVD/VCD through IVL; nor was it part of the ZiiEagle box that included a few dozen Shaw movies unreleased on home video. It must've made good money in Germany for them to release it on blu-ray. There are three versions on the blu-ray; one of which contains a minute and twenty-five seconds of footage taken from a VHS source to make the most complete version (see insert).

Regardless of its minor status among the thousands of Kung Fu pictures, its rarity warrants a purchase for fans. Those with a fondness for the early 70s-style fist and kick flicks will be the most appreciative audience. THE CHAMPION (1973) won't win any competitions, but it's not a loser in its class, either.

This review is representative of the Koch Media-Black Hill blu-ray. Specs and extras: 1080p 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; Chinese w/English subtitles; original German theatrical trailer; English trailer; other Shaw Brothers trailers; running time: 01:31:11 (complete version including insert footage from VHS source)/01:29:46 (version without inserts)/01:26:51 (German version)

Thursday, July 9, 2020

The Leg Fighters (1980) review


Tan Tao Liang (Tan Hai Chieh), Hsia Kwan Li (Phoenix Ho), Peng Kang (Peng Fei/Peng Pa), Sun Jung Chi (Master Mo Ku Feng), Chin Lung (Chin Fa), Wang Hsieh (Phoenix's Father), Tsai Hung (Divine Fist Master Niu)

Directed by Lee Tso Nam

The Short Version: Tan's kicks are about all that's worth watching in THE LEG FIGHTERS, a middle-of-the-road indy Kung Fu picture from one of the independent circuits best directors, Lee Tso Nam. In keeping with trends at the time, Lee's movie throws away its potential for being a top-class kick flick for the sake of unfunny comedy; the sort that exploded in popularity in 1978 thanks to Jackie Chan and the hundreds of Rib-tickle Fu movies that imitated him. It's neither Tan's nor director Lee's best work, but KF fans will especially want it in their collection since it's been restored on blu-ray by genuine fans of the genre.

Northern Kick King Tan Hai Chieh is challenged by Peng Fei of the Foot of Earth school to see who has the best kicking technique. Tan wins the fight, but Peng tries to kill him in a sneak attack with a hidden knife. Tan is forced to kill Peng; this leads his brother, the far better skilled Peng Pa, to seek revenge. Meanwhile, Tan is entrusted to teach a feisty young lady of the Mo Family Kicking style while her elder master is away taking care of his wife. Peng Pa traces Tan to the Mo estate, leaving a trail of bodies along the way.

After years of heroic swordplay and historic fist and kick bloodshedders, Yuen Woo Ping and Jackie Chan changed the look of the Kung Fu landscape with 1978s influential comedy SNAKE IN THE EAGLE'S SHADOW. Between 1978 and 1981, most genre fare veered away from the downbeat and gloomy atmosphere of the more expensive and mannered Shaw Brothers style once producers saw the box office numbers of the low budget JC flick.

Ironically, it was in a Shaw Brothers production where Comedy Kung Fu first left its mark in Liu Chia Liang's directing debut THE SPIRITUAL BOXER (1975). Bloodshed master Chang Cheh took it even further with a failed attempt at Kung Fu slapstick in the star-studded dud THE MAGNIFICENT WANDERERS (1977).

However, it was the Jackie Chan cheapie from Seasonal Films where the formula took off--resulting in dozens upon dozens of imitations--many of which were good, but also many that were not. THE LEG FIGHTERS falls somewhere in the middle. The KF comedy is simplicity in nature, with little variance in the template established by Chan's SNAKE IN THE EAGLE'S SHADOW and the even bigger success of Chan's followup, DRUNKEN MASTER (1978). For KF comedies, virtually the entire enterprise could be filmed out in a field somewhere with the barest minimum of sets. With minor deviation, many of them go like this:

KF comedies often begin with a mid-level good guy being challenged and easily killed by the main villain--who all but disappears till the last 30 minutes. We're then introduced to the naive, foolish, and young, soon-to-be Kung Fu master. For approximately 30-40 minutes, a variety of comical scenarios unfold with little to nothing to do with the actual plot. At approximately an hour in, the main villain surfaces again and does something drastic to make the young hero get serious about training to defeat him. Sets are limited, always featuring one or two outdoor KF school sets and a restaurant. The old master almost always lives in a hut out in a field somewhere; generally the location of all the major fight sequences.

THE LEG FIGHTERS (1980) is one of countless others to follow this blueprint; although Chang Hsin Yi's script does play around with the formula--the biggest difference being it's the younger master who is ultimately tasked with training the younger student instead of the elder teacher. In this case, the hero Tan Tao Liang already knows Kung Fu so the learner is Hsia Kwan Li's Phoenix character. Sadly, Tan disappears for a chunk of the movie's running time leaving you with the annoying high-jinks of lady Hsia and the indy KF village idiot character played by Chin Lung. As often is the case in the indy Fu movies, and as described above, things finally take a serious turn in the last 30 minutes. 

At the time, Chinese audiences didn't mind as seeing a comical scenario was like a breath of fresh air after years of serious stories of undaunted, blood-soaked heroism. Still, with a title that promises kicking techniques, you have to wait till the major showcase in the last 30 minutes to appreciate the actors displaying them in a serious fashion before the camera. 

Lee Tso Nam is among the best of the indy filmmakers with some of the genres memorable titles adorning his resume. 1976s THE HOT, THE COOL, AND THE VICIOUS is possibly Tan Tao Liang's best work; while SHAOLIN VS. LAMA (1983) has one of the genres finest final fights; and LIFE OF A NINJA (1983) is a top tier actioner in the Chinese-made, ninja subgenre that seemed to have been inspired more by Chang Cheh's wild, gore-soaked FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (1982) than Cannon's ENTER THE NINJA (1981).

Korean born Tan Tao Liang became a famous TKD instructor, displaying his skills in a few dozen motion pictures for approximately a decade between 1975-1985. His kicking skills are as unique as fellow kicker colleagues like John Liu and Hwang Jang Lee. Tan's feet maneuver in specific patterns that quickly fluctuate between mid and high-levels that are dazzling to watch. Some of Tan's prime kick flicks include THE HOT, THE COOL, AND THE VICIOUS (1976), the 3D Kung Fu of DYNASTY (1977), SHOWDOWN AT THE COTTON MILL (where he played the main villain), BLOODY TREASURY FIGHT (1979), and THE HEROES (1980). 

Lee's movie might not be the last word on Kung Foot flicks, but in this reviewers eyes, the ultimate old-school 'Leg Fighter' movie would star Tan, Liu, Hwang, and Korean kicking sensation, Kwan Young Moon going at it literally toe to toe. 

Sun Jung Chi (above at left) as Master Mo is a welcome cast addition. He was a young guy occasionally playing elder Kung Fu teacher characters. When Yuen Siu Tien passed away (the Yuen Clan patriarch and father of Yuen Woo Ping) in January of 1979, Sun was among the class that assumed the wig and facial hair pieces of the old Kung Fu Master in a handful of films like 1980s MONKEY FIST, FLOATING SNAKE (aka MONKEY KUNG FU) and the superb SHAOLIN VS. LAMA in 1983. Aside from his acting role, this was one of his action director credits, sharing the work load with Peng Kang (above at right; who plays lead antagonist Peng Pa and his brother Peng Fei) and Wang Yao (see insert at left in red; who plays Ding Dong, one half of an annoying duo of comedic wrongdoers).

Another welcome addition is a guest appearance by one of the genres busiest actors and greatest villains, Tsai Hung. His participation gives the audience a nicely choreographed fight that bridges the monotonous comedic elements of the first hour with the change in tone when Peng Kang's lead antagonist re-enters the picture. Tsai Hung is likely best remembered for his appearances in Chang Cheh's Shaolin series entries including FIVE SHAOLIN MASTERS (1974) as Flying Axe Pao; and the Qigong expert Feng Dao De in SHAOLIN AVENGERS (1976). As good as he was playing a bad guy, Tsai was just as memorable playing characters on the right side of the law; one of the best examples as David Chiang's cellmate in THE CONDEMNED, directed by David Chiang. 

As the premiere title of the Pearl River collection, THE LEG FIGHTERS isn't that strong of a title to launch a Kung Fu movie line with. It's a recognizable title, though, previously on VHS through Ocean Shores and later on DVD using that same OS tape source for their DVD release. The interesting Bruce Li feature, DYNAMO (1978) is also available, with the much better DUEL OF THE 7 TIGERS (1979) soon to come. Others this author would like to see surface on this label are SHAOLIN KING BOXER (1979), THE REBELLIOUS REIGN (1980), THE THUNDERING MANTIS (1980), THE HEROES (1980), THE COUNTRY OF BEAUTIES (1981), SHAOLIN VS. LAMA (1983), and LIFE OF A NINJA (1983).

THE LEG FIGHTERS (1980) isn't indicative of Lee Tso Nam's best work. These LEGS are weak in the knees compared to something like Lee's THE HOT, THE COOL, AND THE VICIOUS (also starring Tan Tao Liang). It does, however, look great in widescreen compared to its prior fullscreen presentations; where the proper framing allows viewers to fully appreciate the action. Tan fans and indy enthusiasts will get the biggest kick out of these LEG FIGHTERS. 

This review is representative of the Pearl River Blu-ray/DVD combo (Blu-ray screen-caps). Specs and extras: new 2K restoration from the original Chinese 35mm print in 1080p 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; Chinese language w/burned in English subtitles; English dubbed version; introduction by Michael Worth; audio commentary by Michael Worth; interview with director Lee Tso Nam; Dan Halsted's Portland Kung Fu Night; photo gallery; trailer for THE HOT, THE COOL, AND THE VICIOUS; running time: 01:30:55

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