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Friday, July 2, 2021

The Awaken Punch (1973) review

Henry Yu Yung (Cheung Da Gang), Susanna Au-Yueng (Jun San), Tien Feng (Mr. Wong), Nancy Siu (Cheung's Sister), Ko Hsiang Ting (Cheung's Father), Fang Yeh (White Fan), San Kwai (Black Fan), Meng Li (Brothel Madam), Kenneth Tsang Kong (Ying Ho), Feng Ko An (Mr. Chow), Li Chao (Han Chu)
Directed by Fong Lung Seung
The Short Version: One of literally hundreds of empty-hand fight flicks that proliferated in the early 1970s; and one of the better shot of that bunch. Headlining as hero is newcomer Henry Yu Yang; and as villain it's perennial bad guy Tien Feng, late of ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967) and FIST OF FURY (1972) to name two. It's quite good for its genre to the point even non-fans may find it mildly entertaining. KF fans, though, should definitely not sleep on THE AWAKEN PUNCH.

A crime syndicate controls a small coastal town in Hebei Province, forcing the residents to pay protection money. A young fighter named Cheung rises up to thwart the villains and becomes a hero to the people. Out of gratitude, the local business owners give Cheung money from legitimately protecting them and also from local fights. At one point, Cheung saves a young lady who falls in love with him. He has no time for romance as his father is dying back home so he hops a train back to his hometown. His father's last wish is that his son keeps their land in the family and that he gives up fighting for good. 

Cheung agrees; and upon doing so, a new criminal element appears in the form of Mr. Wong, an expert knife-thrower and wealthy land owner with a small army of Kung Fu fighters who oppress the people even worse than before. Wong's goons attempt to buy Cheung's family property, but he refuses to sell. Elsewhere, the lady he rescued goes to fin him and ends up kidnapped by Wong's men and forced into prostitution. The violence escalates out of control till Cheung has once more had enough. Breaking his promise to his father, Cheung's fists awaken and dole out justice to the criminals.

In the 1970s, Kung Fu movies were a dime a dozen. Scores of them were made every year. Mostly interchangeable, the plots had little variance. The Swordplay pictures that dominated screens before them were more complex in plot while the empty-hand versions born from their bladed brethren simplified narrative to a primal level. 
THE AWAKEN PUNCH is one of hundreds in the 'Revenge' and 'You Killed My Master' sweepstakes. There's nothing overly spectacular about it, but it's shot well and better directed than many others of this time period. It's quite good and does something relatively few others in the genre did during this era, and that's focus largely on characterization. It doesn't lack action, but the bulk of it comes in the last 40 minutes.

A Kung Fu movie doesn't need lots of exposition to be enjoyable, but it's definitely a bonus when a film from a much-maligned genre goes beyond the stigma of being little more than 90+ minutes of monotonous, mindless fighting. The man responsible for the script is also the director, Fong Lung Seung.
Primarily a writer, his association is mostly in the drama and thriller style of cinema. Fong's expertise in those other genres makes his sole Kung Fu movie a more satisfying viewing experience than it otherwise would have been. Among his writing credits, you'll find some Hong Kong James Bond clones like SUMMONS TO DEATH (1967) and THE ANGEL STRIKES AGAIN (1968); both produced by the Shaw Brothers. 

On the fighting front, fist and kick fans will be pleased with the early work of the prolific Yuen Woo Ping and Yuen Chueng Yan. The choreography is what you'd expect from empty-hand action of the early 1970s, but the brothers mix it up with some spear work during the finale. The fighting is the type of brutal Karate-style choreo that was the dominant form till trends changed in 1974; when Chinese martial arts styles like Hung Gar were showcased. From there the action design would evolve even further over the next two years. 

Participating in lots of bit parts prior, newcomer Henry Yu Yung is the lead. He isn't as imposing as either Bruce Lee or Chen Kuan Tai--two men who were influential on the martial arts movie in the early 1970s. THE AWAKEN PUNCH strongly resembles then recent box office smashes THE BIG BOSS (1971); and to a lesser degree, BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972), in how it unfolds. Regardless of his slight physique, he's a good actor whose emotions shine through; and he looks believable in the fight scenes. He never became a major star, but had a handful of important roles throughout his career.

A treat for fans of these movies, and particularly the early 70s films, is seeing future big names--whether in front of or behind the camera--in small roles. Among them is a young Jackie Chan as a thug. He has no lines, he's just there to beat up a young girl who is attempting to escape a brothel. 
Chan had been signed to the Great Earth Film Company in 1972 by the facility's founder, actor-turned-director Chu Mu. Fans will remember Chu as the rebel General in ALL MEN ARE BROTHERS (1973) and the main villain in HEROES TWO (1974). Chan did two movies for Chu, NOT SCARED TO DIE and POLICE WOMAN (both 1973).
Actor and director Tien Feng is the main villain here, and the film's biggest marquee name. He's the wealthy businessman who moves in and takes over the town that had previously been freed of mob ownership by the film's hero. An expert knife-thrower, he is like most other KF heavies, bringing in a small army of specialists to assist in the rampant criminal activities. Curiously, Tien isn't in the movie all that much; likely due to his appearing in over 20 other movies between 1972-1973. 

At Shaw Brothers, Tien essayed some of the most despicable bad guys to ever grace the Silver Screen. Some of his characters were easy candidates for the Evil Bastard Hall of Fame in such films as Pao Hsueh Li's splatter-fest OATH OF DEATH (1971) and Ho Meng Hua's  THE BLACK ENFORCER (1972). One of Tien's most jaw-dropping roles in the annals of screen villainy came in Cheng Kang's THE SWORD OF SWORDS (1968) starring Jimmy Wang Yu.

A frequent villain in a few dozen independent fist and kickers, Fang Yeh has more presence than Tien Feng's lead bad guy for the reasons specified above. For roughly the entire middle portion of the movie, Fang and San Kwai (as White Hat and Black Hat, respectively) have near exclusive exclusive screen time as antagonists. Some of Fang's other work is THE BLOODY FISTS (1972), CHINESE HERCULES (1973), BROKEN OATH (1973), and the cult favorite THE DRAGON LIVES AGAIN (1977).

Something else THE AWAKEN PUNCH does differently is its ending. Instead of the usual freeze-frame ending or a final shot of the hero walking off into the sunset, this one shows what would happen after that--to a person who had just taken the law into their own hands. It's a morality play finish that says Cheung would have been fine if only he'd heeded his father's dying wishes and went to the law like he originally was going to do. Still, the way the film plays out he would likely have ended up dead with everyone else. So the takeaway is another real life dictum, that life isn't always fair.

Good direction or an interest in surpassing standard material is something a lot of these movies aren't afforded; especially on the independent front. Many are only interested in cramming as many fights into 90 minutes as possible. When one of these pictures puts in extra effort with its script and visuals, you have a film that stands out; and THE AWAKEN PUNCH is one such production.

This review is representative of the Pearl River Collection: The Basher Box blu-ray. Specs and Extras: 4K transfer from35mm inter-positive, 1080p 2.35:1 for THE AWAKEN PUNCH; 4K transfer from 35mm negative, 1080p 2.35:1 for THE PRODIGAL BOXER; commentary (PB only); interviews with Michael Worth & John Kreng (PB only); original theatrical trailers for both films; running time: 01:41:04.


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