Sunday, January 9, 2022

Chinatown Kid (1977) review

Alexander Fu Sheng (Tam Tung), Sun Chien (Yang Jian Wen), Lo Mang (Green Dragon Boss, Mr. Fu), Kuo Chui (White Dragon Boss, Mr. Lung), Jenny Tseng (Li Wa Fung), Wang Lung Wei (Tsiu Ho), Yue Yung (Mr. Cheung), Wong Ching Ho (Tam Kei, Tam Tung's Grandfather), Yang Chi Ching (Mr. Chan), Lu Ti (Mr. Yang), Shirley Yu (Lena), Shaw Yin Yin (Sylvia), Tsai Hung (Mr. Wan), Wang Li (Mr. Wan's Hit Man), Chiang Sheng (Green Dragon Thug), Lu Feng (White Dragon Thug)
Directed by Chang Cheh
The Short Version: Chang Cheh revisited his BOXER FROM SHANTUNG success for a third time; and the second time with Fu Sheng. For this go-round, the story is updated to modern-day 1977. The object of the impoverished kid's desire is no longer a gold pocket watch, but a digital one. There's some genuinely impressive direction found here; but in the end, it's the work of an increasingly tired filmmaker whose greatest films of artistic merit are found in the preceding ten years. The sleazy potential of the script would've been in better hands with the king of urban decay Kuei Chi Hung at the helm; while Chang Cheh only teases the nefarious lawlessness of the modern criminal underworld in San Francisco's Chinatown in favor of his trademark 'Rise and Fall' Heroic Tragedy. A fan favorite, it's easily the best movie of Chang's 1977 output even if it's a sign of the times for the Master of Masculine Cinema and his favorite son; who was about to move on to new chapters and new directors. Cinematically, CHINATOWN KID doesn't break any laws, it just doesn't break any new ground.

Tam Tung wishes for a better life for himself and his grandfather in Hong Kong, but doesn't have an ID card. Having entered the country illegally, Tam almost immediately stirs the ire of local mobster Tsiu Ho. After the Triad sets him up, leading to pursuit by the authorities, Tung escapes to now illegally enter the United States where he seeks employment in San Francisco's Chinatown. Finding work at a restaurant, he befriends Yang Jian Wen, a young college exchange student who gets a job at the same eatery. 
Over time, Tung finds himself in the middle of a gang war and unwittingly makes his fortune as a rising Triad boss. Meanwhile, his friend and co-worker, unable to cope with the stress of work and studies, ends up addicted to the drugs Tung obliviously oversees the selling of on the streets of Chinatown. Tam Tung eventually wears out his welcome, and must settle with the gangsters that used him to attain power in one final act of bloody violence.

By 1977, Chang Cheh's output seemed tired and even mediocre in some cases. It was his worst year on his resume; where imitation supplanted innovation. However, it was another stage of experimentation for him in a failed, early attempt at Kung Fu comedy with MAGNIFICENT WANDERERS (1977). Then there was his return to Wuxia with the ambitious task of making a series of movies based on Gu Long's 'Legend of the Condor Heroes' novels. Ten years earlier he'd redefined Swordplay cinema with THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967) and many others. Now, his genre homecoming was due to Chu Yuan further redefining the style after the big box office numbers brought in by KILLER CLANS (1976) and THE MAGIC BLADE (1976). 
This brings us to Chang's CHINATOWN KID, a do-over of his own box office smash hit THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972); which he recreated in a new style with Fu Sheng a few years earlier as DISCIPLES OF SHAOLIN (1975). One thing, though, would set CK apart from his other '77 works and that's filming in America. It was an ambitious approach to the material.  Unfortunately, the filmmakers decided against taking full advantage of the prospects found in the title of their movie.

Chang Cheh did create something of an iconic look for his star in his old jeans, sneakers and denim jacket. Twelve jackets were designed before the director decided on the one seen in the movie.
As for the film itself and those performing in it, Fu Sheng had perfected his prankish characterization he began molding a few years earlier in HEROES TWO (1974). He's very good here as the brash, but virginal street tough; running the gamut of emotions from a naive bumpkin to a slightly less gullible Big Boss who partially loses his way till it's too late to turn back. It's a largely touching performance that plays well off the various others in the cast, and especially in his handful of interactions with his real-life wife, Jenny Tseng.
Fu plays Tam differently from his similar role in DISCIPLES OF SHAOLIN. There, he played the bumpkin who makes good with a greater air of confidence and more in line with Chang Cheh's trademark stoicism. His undoing in that film owes more to a misguided sense of invulnerability than to an aura of credulity. One of the KID's issues is it doesn't spend as much time crumbling Tam down as it does building him up. It's a meticulous climb watching him go from pauper to prince, but no gradual segue into tragic pseudo-hero; it's instantaneous (in its international version). It's one of the film's failures in that we don't get much about his rise in the Triad ranks. This is an area that is better explored in the drastically edited alternate cut of the film that played outside of HK in other Asian markets. In the longer version, he becomes more villainous while in the shorter edit he's simply ignorant of what he's done to achieve his success.
Elsewhere, the unceremonious dumping of Jenny's character hurts both his characterization and the potential romantic arc that never goes anywhere. She simply disappears from the movie. Considering this was the first film the couple made together after their marriage, it's a missed opportunity that could have put this one on equal footing with Chang's two previous pictures using the same narrative; possibly even surpassing them.

Still, for the largest part of the film, Fu Sheng plays the roguish bumpkin so well, and he's so likeable, you forget that he's broken border laws multiple times before ending up in the employ of criminals who use him to destroy the lives of those around him. By the time he shotguns a restaurant patron in the back (longer cut only), it's difficult to feel sympathy for the character. All the emotional impact found in Chang Cheh's previous tragic heroes is missing here.

He would become known as the kicker in the Venoms group, but in CK, this was arguably Sun Chien's best acting showcase; and in a non-Venom production to boot. It's ironic because Sun was seldom given much opportunity to shine in those later pictures; and even in ones where he was a lead, like in INVINCIBLE SHAOLIN (1978), not much was done with him. So here, as an overseas college student from a good family who ends up nearly hooked on heroin, his acting chops get a bigger workout than his TKD skills; that is till the end when he unleashes his feet on the gangsters.

Both Lo Mang and Kuo Chui (the Toad and Lizard of THE FIVE VENOMS, respectively) have substantive supporting roles as Triad leaders, although Lo's Green Dragon boss was the standard, bull-headed performance he was accustomed to. Chui, though, was rarely an antagonist, and always the traditional hero in Chang's later period pictures; so this is a unique experience seeing him play a nasty Triad boss so early in his career. The other Venoms, Lu Feng and the late Chiang Sheng, are background thugs, but get either a couple lines or a few closeups here and there.

CHINATOWN KID's sloppiness mirrors its director's own career slide by 1977. Chang was still a highly respected director in film circles, but changing audience trends and new innovations saw the once grand genre trendsetter and Godfather of HK Action Cinema reduced to imitating himself and those around him. This doesn't mean CK isn't worth your time or that Chang no longer made good movies; but the fire had dimmed from the director's thick flames of gore-drenched heroism that had revolutionized HK cinema the previous ten years.

Adding to this, censors at the time were cracking down harder on gory scenes or plot elements viewed as socially or politically offensive. All Southeast Asian markets were sensitive to strong content of varying types, and this includes Taiwan. For example, in Malaysia, lengthy, on-screen kissing was too racy; anything excessively violent, bloody, or nudity or any kind would suffer cuts as well. Naturally, multiple versions were made for the various markets in and out of Southeast Asia. The strongest cut would always be for export while HK would have the next strongest release and the rest would be altered to a degree suitable to what those countries allowed. 
In the case of CK, its depiction of gang violence and drug use was too much social realism, resulting in a watered-down version that was radically different from the international release fans of the genre are familiar with. The focus of the shorter edit is on the dramatic sequences with the bloody scenes and gang activities severely edited or cut out entirely. The Chang Cheh bloodbath of the original cut is reduced to a more upbeat finale with the message that if you stay in school you won't turn out like Tam Tung.

While the 115 minute version is the best presentation of  CHINATOWN KID from an action and entertainment perspective, the alternate, softer version for other censor-heavy Southeast Asian markets has some interesting additions despite being viscerally diminished in comparison. Even so, there are several new scenes in the 90 minute version that would have improved the longer export release had they been included. 
In the listing for this film in Chang Cheh's memoirs, it mentions an ending for another cut of the picture that's on neither the export release nor the shorter, family-friendly cut. 
Describing a finale wherein Tam Tung is chased by police onto a bridge and plummets to his death, it's possible this ending was seen in another market, or could have been on a test screening and cut pre-release. During the production, there are photos of Fu Sheng in that white suit he wears at the end with the barrel of a shotgun pointing out of the busted windshield of his car. It's possible this was from that omitted ending. 

Chang Cheh stated the road to bring CHINATOWN KID to the screen took two years; a year of planning, and another for filming. According to him, he'd filmed a bit of the HK scenes in 1976, but put the shoot on hold so he could begin work on SHAOLIN TEMPLE (1976) and NAVAL COMMANDOS (1977). The day before Chang Cheh began filming his naval war picture (the first of its kind), the director announced that CHINATOWN KID (1977) and THE BRAVE ARCHER (1977) would be his next two productions. He also announced the upcoming marriage of his star Fu Sheng and his then girlfriend, Jenny Tseng.

The film required shooting in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and America. The director's plan was he would not head for the US till he wrapped both NAVAL COMMANDOS and THE BRAVE ARCHER. So on May 1st, 1977, Chang Cheh and his crew left HK for location work in the United States. Fu Sheng and his new bride, Jenny Tseng, took off ahead of them to enjoy a late honeymoon as they'd recently married in December of '76. The newlyweds were initially going to the US for their honeymoon in March and shoot KID's location scenes then, but it would be two more months before scheduling aligned between them both. 
In those wild and woolly days of HK moviemaking, actors barely had time to breathe, much less take long breaks during the middle of filming multiple projects. 
Accompanying Chang Cheh to America was his wife Amy, cinematographer Tsao Hui Chi, and his assistant. The crew of four, along with Fu Sheng and his wife, were set for four days of location shots in San Francisco's Chinatown. Chang's other cinematographer, Kung Mu To (a Japanese named Yukio Miyaki), did not join them, and remained in Hong Kong. Having been Chang Cheh's DP since the late 60s, it was reported his Visa wouldn't clear soon enough for the trip. There was, however, another reason Tsao went instead. Initially, he wasn't among the group but Sir Run Run Shaw instructed him to go as he spoke English; and that skill would come in handy in case an interpreter may be needed.

Chang Cheh had a love/hate relationship with the press. He enjoyed the attention but was also annoyed by it; so he didn't want any publicity or reporters knowing about his trip to avoid being disturbed; and especially risk the chance of being asked about permits to shoot there. If he was approached by any reporters before exiting HK, he would tell them he was going to Taipei. Chang Cheh had actually announced at a press conference several months earlier that he would be filming in America so it wasn't an event that had been kept under wraps, just the time it would be taking place was unknown. Journalists suspected the nature of this overseas visit, but Shaw's publicity department denied it to uphold total secrecy of this mission on foreign soil. 
Upon their arrival in San Francisco, Chang Cheh was indeed spotted at the airport; not by a reporter, but by a civilian. According to the director, this happened again, but by a journalist. To get out of dealing with this member of the press, Chang finagled his way out of an interview by using deception so as to continue uninterrupted and exit the States without having to reveal anything to anyone. 

This trip was partially work-related and half vacation for all involved. Since they were shooting guerilla style, the aim was to get in and get out. They had two cars--one of which was a convertible. Fu Sheng would jump out, they'd film him, and if and when passersby recognized them they were able to move out quickly. Chang Cheh had the covert shoot all figured out ahead of time. They would hide the camera and use hand signals when filming was to start. The first filming consisted of nighttime shots; followed by footage of Fu Sheng walking around Chinatown, riding a trolley, etc. Then there were the necessary landmark shots. Some 2,000 feet of film was deemed usable for the location shoot although very little of it was used in the movie.
Upon their return to HK, Tsao Hui Chi detailed how they were sneaking around to get the shots they wanted. The interviewer lightheartedly remarked how they may have been up to no good with their stealth tactics, so Tsao responded, "There was no danger for us, it's just being over there in different surroundings is more complicated, so we had to take precautions". He continued, "We were pressed for time, but the shoot went smoothly. Before we shot anything we traveled all over Chinatown just to see everything there. We chose the places we wanted and then planned photographing the locations".

As stated in the June 1977 issue of Hong Kong Movie News: "The purpose of Chang Cheh's trip was to shoot on location and to have a better understanding of Chinatown in the United States. CHINATOWN KID is about the fates of two young Chinese men trying to make a living in Chinatown, USA. Is it easy to make money in a foreign country? How do the Chinese make money abroad? What are the arduous struggles of overseas Chinese youths? Their work experiences and living conditions? Chang Cheh has learned a lot from his trip to San Francisco".

Unfortunately, the movie would have increased its production value had they shot more of it in America as opposed to recreating the streets of San Francisco at the Shaw Brothers Studio. Director Chang succeeded in getting his point across; but the execution suffers from the grimness the subject matter offered that could have been more realistic had they secured permits to shoot larger portions of the film where it takes place. 
The recreation of the US Chinatown streets and buildings occasionally have a lived-in look to them, but mostly appear artificial--unlike the opulence of the period sets Shaw's were famous for. 
Essentially, CK is the type of film that needed to be treated with the sort of ultra-realistic approach that somebody like Kuei Chi Hung could deliver in bringing the sleazy underbelly of San Francisco's Chinatown to life. Another protege of Chang, Kuei would have dove head first into such material. Other than bloody knifings and shotgun blasts, Chang Cheh plays it safe by skimming the surface of the seedier aspects of the script he had a hand in writing. Subjects of prostitution, drug-trafficking, human smuggling and sexual deviancy are just window dressing for his preferred Heroic Tragedy narrative.
After the San Fran shoot wrapped, the group did enjoy some R&R for a few days before returning to HK. Chang Cheh, easily the hardest working filmmaker in Hong Kong at that time, spent two days in Las Vegas before flying to Hawaii. He and his wife also visited relatives during this overseas sojourn that lasted eight days. 

A few months later, though, a real-life tragedy of gang violence between the Joe Boys and the Wah Ching occurred in San Francisco's Chinatown in what came to be known as The Golden Dragon Massacre. The rivalry between two gangs left five dead on the night of September 4th, 1977 at 2:40am Pacific Time. None of those gunned down by the Joe Boys gang were part of, or even aligned with, their enemy the Wah Ching. 
Before the movie wrapped, Chang Cheh was persuaded by Boss Shaw to add a similar massacre sequence in his movie, and took advantage of the moment by adding some additional ballyhoo to promote the picture shortly before its theatrical debut. Jokingly stating in an interview he could have been a target had the gangs known he was filming there, he went on to say, "At that time, the Golden Dragon murders hadn't occurred yet. But knowing there was danger, I would not be too scared, but it is too risky to shoot there now!" He would close out his talk with another selling point: "The CHINATOWN KID reflects real life. Readers who wish to know about the Golden Dragon Massacre, and Chinese life overseas won't want to miss it!"

Reportedly filming for 40 working days, once all the Taiwan and US scenes were completed, only the remaining HK sequences were left to shoot; that being the recreation of San Fran inside the studio by set designer Johnson Tsao, and overseen by Chang Cheh.
According to him, the filming of the remainder of CK was slightly delayed due to actress Shaw Yin Yin who, unknown to director Chang at the time, was going to Cannes in May '77 to promote a movie that never got made. While she was there, she made headlines over a controversial see-through dress she allegedly had been wearing (you can read more about it in THE VENGEFUL BEAUTY section of this article HERE).

Contrary to popular belief, Fu Sheng was reportedly already popular with Western audiences before CHINATOWN KID hit the international market. In a July 1976 issue of Southern Screen, it was stated that sales in America of Fu Sheng's celebrity photographs were surging, comparing the star's rising popularity to that of the late Bruce Lee; while also noting his unique appearance allowed the actor to stand out from other stars in the eyes of foreign viewers. He had also reached a level of popularity in Japan from fans who saw his Shaolin movies in theaters there.
It's important to note the relationship between Fu Sheng and his director, Chang Cheh, at this point in both men's careers. The actor viewed Chang as both his master and as a father figure; noting in an interview at the time, "Without him, there would be no me". Fu Sheng once said in another interview there were only five people in his life he trusted fully; those were his parents, his wife, Ti Lung, and "Old Beans" Chang Cheh. Something that makes this movie special with a slight, underlying autobiographical air is that Chang Cheh spoke of how Fu Sheng only made HK$500 when he first started back at the Shaw Actors Training Academy. There was an expensive watch he wanted but couldn't afford it at the time. Independent of his well-to-do family, and determined to buy it with his own money when he became successful, Fu Sheng indeed bought that watch. 

With its haphazardly handled hero, CHINATOWN KID manages to survive more on escapism than dramatic power. The choreography from Lee Ka-Ting and Robert Tai Chi Hsien looks somewhat out of place in a modern setting, but still delivers some nicely staged action sequences. Highlights include the raid on the Green Dragon headquarters and the finale where Fu Sheng, decked out in a white suit (the color of death in Chinese culture and a nod to David Chiang's Tragic Hero in 1970s VENGEANCE!), takes on the White Dragon gang with help from Sun Chien. It's unknown which fight it was, but Fu was reported to have sprained his right ankle filming one of the martial arts sequences; hindering his ability to perform the action. He hid it well, though.

It's entertaining enough, and told with Chang Cheh's inimitable testosterone style, but misses its place among the best of his works. The alternate cut is worth seeing in how different the character of Tam Tung is handled. In some ways, it does things better than the longer version. Made during the director's transitional stage to full-fledged Kung Fu pictures with largely recycled ideas of earlier successes, CHINATOWN KID--in its export version--has remained a popular title with fans all around the world; and will possibly find some new ones for those seeing the KID for the first time.

This review is representative of the Arrow blu-ray housed inside the Shawscope Box Set. Specs and Extras: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen (both versions); English dub and subs for International version; alternate cut (English subs only); Interview with Susan Shaw Yin Yin; Elegant Trails Fu Sheng featurette; trailer gallery; image gallery; running time: 01:54:36/alternate cut running time: 01:30:14.

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