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Monday, February 12, 2024

The Shadow Fist Hunter (1973) review


Yeh Tai Kang (Tah Kong), Pearl Cheung Ling (Chui Lian), Liang Bin (Wu Han), Yi Yuan (Ma Wen), Tien Yue (Fan Shung), Wu Kuan (Ma Sum), Kwan Hung (Chao Bah)

Directed by Wu Fei Chien

The Short Version: SHADOW FIST HUNTER, alias THE SHADOW CHASER, is a peculiar retelling of the typical revenge narrative of countless Kung Fu movies. Normally, there's a reason a Kung Fu flick is a little seen obscurity, but not this time; it's a genuinely entertaining movie. The filmmakers populate their run of the mill script with a bevy of bizarre characters and shoot it using an unusually high amount of low camera angles. Along with influences ranging from Bond villains to Samurai cinema, THE SHADOW CHASER deserves to be out in the light--receiving wider viewership by its target audience. 

Tah Kong, the son of an alchemist, searches for his missing father. His journey leads him to Ma Wen, the owner of a soap factory in a small town who was a close friend and collaborator with the mystic healer. They go to the missing man's laboratory nestled within a cave and find Tah Kong's father dead and all his medical equipment destroyed. Now seeking revenge, Tah Kong soon discovers a bigger plot behind his father's death involving a hidden cache of gold.
One of the genuinely obscure and hard to find titles in the vast expanse of the Hong Kong Kung Fu genre is (for the time being) no longer obscure and difficult to see. Even with the stunning restoration presented on this blu-ray from Dark Force Entertainment, much of the film's main personnel both behind and in front of the camera remain a mystery. There's already a shortage of information regarding the behind the scenes happenings within HK and Taiwan film industry's Golden Age; although CAC is among the few places rectifying this, and from the Oriental perspective. 

So this review for THE SHADOW CHASER will be a discussion of the film itself, and the independent film scene in Chinese-speaking territories of the time. 1973 was an important year for martial arts cinema; and this particular title was little more than a standard Fist n' Kicker, but, to his credit, director Wu Fei Chien does some interesting things with the run-of-the-mill material.
The Independent film scene in Hong Kong and Taiwan was in full bloom in 1973; so much so that a flood of empty-hand action pictures pummeled audiences to the point where a new trend was required. Bruce Lee, the man who had the biggest cut of the Kung Fu box office pie till Jackie Chan came along, would only be alive till July of that year. Taiwan had already been imitating the Little Dragon since 1972, and this would snowball after his death (you can read our in-depth 2-part article on the Bruce Clone phenomenon HERE and HERE)

Other integral figures in shaping the look of Kung Fu action in the early 70s (and throughout the decade) in Chinese-speaking territories were director Chang Cheh and actor-turned-director Jimmy Wang Yu. With the former, it was his Early Republic Era actioners; while the latter pioneered weaponless combat that supplanted Swordplay cinema for half the decade.

At that time, a million grosser was the most coveted prize of many a Chinese film producer. After the founding of Golden Harvest in 1970 by Shaw Brothers rebels Raymond Chow, Leonard Ho and director Huang Feng, more indy companies began sprouting all over the place. There had already been an indy scene, but Golden Harvest lit the fuse that led to a vast explosion of fledgling companies, many of which didn't last beyond a movie or two, or three. A lot of these companies were desperate to strike it rich and in some cases, cut as many corners as possible, or used shady business practices to make it so. 

Going back to Wang Yu, he inspired dozens of actors to not only direct but found their own film companies in efforts to forge their own paths--succeeding or failing by their own hands. So you had an island--then a British colony--producing 100-130 movies a year. There were so many movies vying for theatrical play many were bound to fall through the cracks of time.
On top of that, you had imports from Taiwan and other Asian territories; in addition to foreign pictures vying for patrons' pocket money. With so many movies being made, not all of them got advertising space in magazines. The cheapest method for these low budget, independently made motion pictures to be promoted was by paper flyers bicycled around and handed out by someone affiliated with the production company.

Shaw Brothers made deals with the smaller companies like Goldig, owned and operated by two brothers from Indonesia; as did Golden Harvest (which was just a glorified indy company till the latter part of the 1970s) with companies like First Films. But most of these money-hungry producers were on their own.

Director Wu Fei Chien delivers a surprisingly good movie with the typical revenge plot. He was clearly more interested in making an entertaining film than basic camera placement to shoot a scene. One of the film's most unusual qualities is the numerous low-angle camera shots. In many of these films--particularly the cheaper pictures--the filmmakers would simply keep the camera on the tripod at eye level and shoot.

Under this virtually unknown director's guidance, he has captured some striking moments on camera. One example is a lengthy two-on-one fight between the hero and two masked villains in a lab built inside a cave with gas seeping in. The hero is unarmed but the bad guys are not--one brandishing a broadsword and the other a Fei Cha (Flying Fork), a weapon rarely seen on-camera. Lu Feng used one in TWO CHAMPIONS OF SHAOLIN (1980) and an entire film was built around the weapon in the gruesome MASKED AVENGERS (1981).

This sequence is further enhanced by some brief bench boxing which was rare for the time; and a moment when our hero leaps onto the ceiling of the cave in what was likely a nod to the popularity of "Gecko Kung Fu" exhibited by Tan Tao Liang in 1973s THE HERO OF CHIU CHOW (aka HERO OF THE WATERFRONT), the film that jump-started his career.

Another striking sequence is a battle in a wind-swept, desert-like setting wherein Tah Kong fights a mystical assassin with Iron Spiked Fingers, a deadly pigtail, and a shield (an unknown actor who is likely the film's martial arts choreographer). What makes this character bizarre is that when his shield is lost we see he has only one arm! This character seems to emerge out of nowhere, but he was briefly introduced earlier in the movie.
The film's uniqueness and plentiful oddities don't end there. Liang Bin was only in the business for approximately one year, but he had a great physique and moved on-camera like he had a much longer career ahead of him. In THE SHADOW CHASER, he's apparently playing a black man in 1930s China judging by the shoe polish on his face (and in a lighter shade on his chest when it's exposed). The reasoning behind this curious plot device was possibly due to Bruce Lee hiring famous basketball star Kareem Abdul Jabbar for GAME OF DEATH when it began filming in the latter half of 1972.

Another Taiwanese Kung Fu picture that had a legitimate black martial arts character in it was 1974s THE GROWLING TIGER starring Tong Lung, the older brother to Alexander Lou Rei. He was the first of the aforementioned Bruce Lee imitators; a phenomenon that would evolve into an absurd sub-genre by 1976. If you want to read about an American martial artist in Taiwan making Kung Fu movies, you can read our interview with Thomas Trammell HERE.

Then there's a deformed mute character who, during the finale, reveals he knows how to fight. Then there's the actual main villain (who isn't intimidating at all)  wearing a razor-brimmed hat that can be thrown like Odd Job in GOLDFINGER (1964).

The lead in THE SHADOW CHASER, Yeh Tai Kang, is as much a mystery as this film's production history. He seemingly only appeared in one other film and nothing else. He didn't have leading man looks, but was built well and moved like a martial artist in the choreography designed by the equally elusive Chung Ching Wing.

We don't learn much about Yeh's character beyond his search for his missing father. When we first see him, the visuals tell the story. Tah Kong is a nomad. He has little money judging by his destitute appearance and consumption of an enormous pancake. The passage of time is something else Chinese-language movies of the era seldom explained. Things like that were left up to the viewer to figure out. 

Actor Tien Yue was a more recognizable face but was eternally condemned to supporting status. He plays Fan Shung, the mustachioed, bald-headed bad guy who gets plenty of screen time for the first half of the movie. He appeared in dozens of Taiwanese lensed action films, although he took roles in non-genre work too. He had the perfect face for villainy and that's typically what he received. 
In 1973, he lamented in an interview that if ever there were a Golden Horse Award for 'Best Guest Star'  he would surely get it. If you've seen any of Jimmy Wang Yu's early 70s features like THE DESPERATE CHASE (1971), THE SWORD (1971), or FURIOUS SLAUGHTER (1972), you've seen Tien Yue in there among the supporting or background players. 

The money for minor roles wasn't very good, and sometimes an actor wouldn't be paid till after a film's completion. In some cases, the company's films would perform terribly, or the operation would be so slipshod, the money wouldn't come at all. On one unnamed picture, Tien Yue stated he had agreed on money before filming began. The director later showed up at his home and asked if he could forego their agreement and be paid after the film was finished instead. Already frustrated at the treatment afforded him on the indy scene, Tien Yue refused to do the movie if the original agreement wasn't adhered to.
Tien may have been occasionally short of patience, but money was something Tien wasn't lacking. He was reportedly known for helping friends in the business by occasionally loaning them money. His wife, Fan Ling, was also an actress. The difference between the two was that Fan Ling was getting leading and or major roles in movies like FIVE BROTHERS FROM TANGSHAN (1972), ALL IN THE DIM COLD NIGHT (1974), and Joseph Kuo's THE SHAOLIN BROTHERS (1977). They worked on some films together but Tien was further down the cast list.

One issue Tien Yue endured was confusion and fatigue. This was a common problem with so many actors and actresses employed in 1970s HK and Taiwan cinema. He remarked that he was working on films every day of the week, sometimes three films at the same time while planning appearances in two more titles. He said filming multiple pictures at once--especially driving back and forth from one film set to another--would get so chaotic, he would forget the names of the film's he was working on and the names of the companies producing them.

Neither Tien nor his wife became famous, but they had steady work throughout the 1970s and into the early 1980s. You had dozens upon dozens of actors and actresses appearing in hundreds of movies and all were trying to get noticed. Most would have limited appeal and be forgotten. THE SHADOW CHASER was one such production.

However, one of the film's stars would attain a reasonable amount of stardom, that being Pearl Cheung Ling, or Pearl Chang. Her career as an actress began in 1972. She would branch out into writing, producing and directing by the early 1980s before eventually settling on working largely behind the camera producing television programs in Taiwan and on the Mainland.

In the beginning, Pearl Cheung did a few Fist and Kick flicks before switching to Wuxia action in 1976. This was after the genre style become popular again due to the major big screen success of Chu Yuan's KILLER CLANS (1976). These early parts were non-fighting roles; so it's ironic that the one cast member in THE SHADOW CHASER to enjoy a degree of success is the individual who did no action at all.

By 1978, Pearl Cheung was being spoken of in the same breath as Cheng Pei Pei, Mao Ying, and Taiwanese colleagues Polly Shang Kuan Ling Feng and Chia Ling. Something HK critics pointed out about her work was that she wasn't a good actress but strong in the action department. In 1974 she garnered attention due to the popularity of a television program titled THE BODYGUARD, a Wuxia adventure series that ran for 9 months, managing a staggering 256 episodes at 90 minutes each. When the show ended, the show's producer Chen Ming Hua, mounted a movie version, CHINA ARMED ESCORT (1976), which he directed and Pearl was the leading star. 
Mostly a swordplay actress, she is best known in America for a trilogy of films she starred in and worked in various capacities behind the scenes; those films being WOLF DEVIL WOMAN (WOLFEN NINJA), MATCHING ESCORT (VENUS THE NINJA), and MIRACULOUS FLOWER (PHOENIX THE NINJA).

Chu Han King’s script gets wobbly a few times, but that's to be expected in this fast and furious genre, and particularly in the indy movies when you didn't know if your picture would be finished or not. There's so many aspects of this movie that are unknowns and obscurities; it's one of the peculiarities that makes it attractive. If you're a Kung Fu movie fan, then you're in for a treat. THE SHADOW CHASER is marketed directly at you.
This review is representative of the Dark Force Entertainment blu-ray. Specs and Extras: New 4K scan from 35mm camera negative; 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; English dubbed version; audio commentary with 'These Fists Break Bricks' co-author Chris Poggiali and John Charles; running time: 01:30:08

1 comment:

Degan said...

Where i can watch and download this film?

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