Friday, June 5, 2020

Chinese Hercules (1973) review


Chen Hui Min (Sun Wei Tan), Chiang Fan (Sun Wei Tan's Girlfriend), Bolo Yeung (Chang Tai), Chiang Tao (Ah Hung), Lee Tin Ying (Chu Han), Fong Yei (Big Boss Lee Yueng), Leung Tin (Boss Chan Ho), Huang Chung Shun (Foreman Lo)

Directed by Huang Ta

The Short Version: Cheap, independently made Kung Fu flick of the fist and kick variety is typical of the time period. There's a plethora of suitably brutal beat-downs fans of the genre look for, but where FREEDOM stands out is in the storytelling surrounding the fights. Real life bad boy Chen Hui Min (Michael Chan Wai Man) delivers one of his best hero roles when he was almost always at his best playing villains. The US title is misleading, though. Sold here in the 1970s with Bolo as the headliner, he's only in it for roughly 40 minutes playing the co-lead heavy.

Wei Tan is the best student in his girlfriend's father's martial arts school. Unfortunately, her brother Ah Hung disapproves of Wei because he's an orphan. Hung bullies him into a fight in the hopes he'll leave his sister alone. Instead, Wei easily overpowers Hung till he pulls a knife out of desperation. After he's slashed, Wei loses his cool and accidentally beats Hung to death. His girlfriend distraught, Wei realizes he's now a murderer. He goes on the run, assumes a new name, and becomes an employee of a pier company, unloading sacks of rice. However, he draws suspicion as well as jealousy from his co-workers for working harder than the rest.

Things take a turn for the worse when Big Boss Lee meets with Boss Chen, politely telling him his syndicate wants use of their pier for the import and export of drugs. He then asks him to fire all his workers so he can replace them with his own men. More harassment ensues including the deaths of a valiant dockworker and the elder foreman. Wei still resists taking action. His girlfriend suddenly shows up having searched for him for months to tell him a secret. She's beaten as well. Wei finally decides to fight once again, to rid the pier of the gangsters.

Director Huang Ta only helmed two movies. This is unfortunate as he had a knack for them (at least in this instance). This may have been just another cheap Kung Fu flick, but there's some unique use of the camera and a stronger than usual protagonist. There's thousands of these movies so it's refreshing when one does something different instead of just standard filming practices to get the flick done and on to the next one.

When Chang Cheh's THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972) became a smash hit, there were dozens of imitations and similar style action pictures. CHINESE HERCULES is cast from the same mold, but different enough to set itself apart. Instead of an arrogant, if righteous, and stubborn peasant who wants to climb the ladder to success in the form of Chen Kuan Tai, we have a man who is also poor and abandoned, but a strong fighter with a deep emotional response to an inadvertent (apparent) murder that keeps him from defending himself.

Chen Hui Min is strikingly good as Sun Wei Tan, a heavily conflicted man whose life is absorbed in both the martial arts and his girlfriend. All that goes by the wayside once he is goaded into a fight with his girlfriend's brother who despises him because of his peasant status. Easily besting the brother, Wei ends up killing the man after he pulls a knife; he thinks he kills him, anyway. Wei smashes his hand with a rock DJANGO (1966) style; gets beaten to a pulp for speaking up for some starving youngsters; and suffers ridicule for refusing to fight some real mean bastards that aren't playing around.

Towards the end, Wei's girlfriend tracks him down with the intention of telling her long-lost love that he did not kill her brother, just beat him senseless; and he fled the area before she could tell him the news. She never actually tells Wei when she does finds him, though; holding back this information, giving him a 'tough love' talk so he can give the gangsters a proper smashing to end the film on after they've relentlessly terrorized the entire cast.

If you're familiar with Chen Hui Min's movies, you'll notice he never takes his shirt off in this film. This was likely to cover up the tattoos he had on his chest. Back then, tattoos denoted gang membership. It was rare for men without Triad connections to have them. It's likely since Chen was playing such an emotionally wrecked hero character, it wouldn't make sense to see the tattoos he had at that time (he would add to them later in the decade)

Chen (you can read our two-part career overview of Chen HERE) was one of HK's busiest actors in the 70s and 80s; and still found time to be a bodyguard for high profile figures and compete in kickboxing matches. Chen still works in the industry today. His Triad connections kept him busy as well. It wasn't unusual for there to be attempts on his life in the wild and woolly era of 70s HK cinema. 

He was briefly seen during the opening battle of Chang Cheh's goriest Shaw Brothers epic ALL MEN ARE BROTHERS (1975). He returned to the company in late 1976 to star in Li Han Hsiang's first action picture, 'Gambling For Heads'. Intended to film entirely in Europe for 2 1/2 months, the crew wasn't in the Netherlands long before they had to leave due to problems with the Chinese gangsters there. Chen had received a deposit from Shaw, so upon his return to HK, he took the lead antagonist in Sun Chung's 'Decision To Kill'; later to be known in English as JUDGEMENT OF AN ASSASSIN (1977), to repay the debt. He enjoyed working with director Sun Chung so much, he decided to work for him again on THE PROUD YOUTH (Chinese title: SWORDSMAN, remade from the same source material a decade later); then on GODFATHER'S FURY (1978), and again in their best collaboration, THE DEADLY BREAKING SWORD (1979). 

In the late 70s and 80s, Chen became synonymous with modern day crime and gangster cinema; his star turn in Kirk Wong's THE CLUB (1981) was allegedly autobiographical. Hands down, one of his best known and most incredible roles was as the lead antagonist in Chang Cheh's spectacularly gory FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (1982).

For its US release, Yang Tze (best known on these shores as Bolo Yeung) was marketed as the main attraction. He doesn't appear till around the 40 minute mark and doesn't do much till the last 30 minutes and then it's mostly him steamrolling over lackeys and the poor pier workers. Director Huang Ta gets a lot of mileage out of Bolo's physique in showing him crushing tables, smashing logs, and pummeling anyone that fights him.

A HK bodybuilding champion, there weren't many Chinese built like him so a film career was a natural fit for the musclebound martial artist. 

Bolo's movie career began at Shaw Brothers Studio in 1970 where he did over a dozen movies for the company. Curiously, they rarely utilized him to maximum effectiveness. Chang Cheh used him in seven of his films, the best of those with the most dialog, action, and screen time being ALL MEN ARE BROTHERS (1975). His supporting role as a good guy in the blood-spattered THE RESCUE (1971) showed what he could do with a character that starts off as a bad guy, but eventually turns good. His role as Hercules Ba To Er in KING BOXER (1972) got him international notice; that film began the West's fascination with the genre when it was released in the US as FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH. Bolo would also let a real python be placed around his neck in Kuei Chi Hung's rare fantasy THE GOURD FAIRY (1972).

After a supporting role as the muscular thug in the Warner-Golden Harvest co-pro, ENTER THE DRAGON (1973), Bolo appeared in numerous Bruce clone movies among many others. This wasn't the last time he and Chen fought onscreen, either. Bolo was very popular in Japan and worked on television programs like G-MEN and FIGHT! DRAGON; and on a movie financed by Sonny Chiba and Tadashi Yamashita released here as SOUL OF CHIBA (1977). In later years, he would come to America to play villains in American action pictures--most famously in BLOODSPORT (1987) and DOUBLE IMPACT (1991).

Huang Chung Shun (above and insert at right) has one of the best roles in the movie. As Foreman Lo, we learn he's had a similar past to Chen's troubled character; explaining how he'd once killed a man and that it changed him. At least in the English dubbed version, this opportunity for a 'father and son' dynamic between these two is glossed over. Some of the actor's best include his hero turn in the Japanese samurai-styled THE WANDERING SWORDSMAN (1968); villains in A TASTE OF COLD STEEL (1970) and THE IMPERIAL SWORDSMAN (1972); and roles in two of Bruce Lee's movies, FIST OF FURY and WAY OF THE DRAGON (both 1972).

Huang's career was coming to a close by this time; not just because he'd been making movies since 1951, but he was sidelined by a motorcycle accident. A lover of fast cars and drinking, on October 28th, 1976, a car accident would take his life; reportedly due to driving while intoxicated. He was transported to hospital where his heart reportedly stopped beating five different times before he died. Like many HK actors of the day, Huang wanted to direct. At the time of his death, he was in Taiwan realizing that dream, but the film went unfinished.

As with many of these early 70s features, there's numerous background performers (some of whom you'll spot playing both good and bad guys) that would go on to fruitful careers as stuntmen and lead actors. Jackie Chan, the film's action choreographer, can be seen a couple times pre-plastic surgery. Future director of acclaimed action movies and a choreographer in his own right, Corey Yuen Kwai (insert at left) plays a particularly nasty thug. 

Future superstar Yuen Biao (shirtless guy in insert pic) is spotted a time or two; John Chang is one of the main bodyguards (you can read our interview with Chang HERE); Chien Yueh Sheng (later to direct LION VS LION in 1981) and many of the Yuen clan are bit players. Chiang Tao (as Ah Hung), who signed with Shaw Brothers in February of 1972, already had some 50 credits to his resume prior. One of his best was as no-nonsense Tough Guy cop in Kuei Chi Hung's incredible crime flick, PAYMENT IN BLOOD (1973).

Jackie Chan's choreo is brutal compared to what he would do later in the decade (Chan in the above pic). This Karate-like style was popular at the time and is definitely ferocious in its application here. This style is perfectly suited to Chen's kickboxing and roughhousing style of fighting. Chen and Bolo have a satisfying battle at the climax, even though Fang Yeh is the final boss.

Fang had a varied career in front and behind the camera. This was one of his biggest roles, but he can be seen in Chang Cheh's RETURN OF THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN (1968) and several Bruce clone flicks including the wackiest of the lot, THE DRAGON LIVES AGAIN (1977) wherein he plays The Exorcist. Fang had a unique face that lent him to no shortage of bad guy appearances. 

CHINESE HERCULES maintains a serious tone, but has a funny moment just before it ends. Throughout the picture, Bolo has a running theme with some of his dialog. His boss asks him "What should we do with him/her?" and his response is something like "We kill them...", and always followed by "and then we dump'em." At the end, two of the oppressed dockworkers, eyeing the badly wounded Big Boss Lee begging for them not to kill him have this exchange: "What do you do with shit?" And the other responds, "We pick it up and dump it."

Most of these movies are just about the fights with the barest minimum of plot to connect them. That is largely not the case here. It's obvious the director wanted to do something more than showcase non-stop fists and feet beating people's brains in. If you're expecting the title strongman as the lead, you're going to be disappointed. It's a good showcase for Bolo fans, just know that he is the co-main villain and doesn't make his presence known till roughly halfway through. However, for Michael Chan fans, it's certainly worth seeing for such a varied role. 

This review is representative of the Dark Force Entertainment blu-ray paired with BRUCE'S NINJA SECRET (read our 2011 DVD review HERE). Specs and Extras: New HD master from the only known 35mm print in America; 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; trailers, intermission spots; running time: 01:34:48

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