Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Shaw Brothers

A movie mogul is not a profession restricted merely to Hollywood. A case in point are the Shaw brothers, Runme Shaw (1901-1985) and Run Run Shaw (1907-), who ran a film distribution and movie theatre company from 1924 onwards, and later expanded to producing the films themselves. They released nearly 1000 films during their career, of which many are considered to be classics among Asian cinema. Most of the films were made in Hongkong, but there were some that were made in mainland China and Singapore as well.

During the summer, I watched a complete series which showcased some of the brothers' most well-known works. This is a brief overview of most of the films in that series.

Come Drink With Me (Da zui xia, 1966) 
Director: King Hu

When I visited The Love & Anarchy film festival for the first time ever way back when, they used to still have different retrospectives to different sorts of movies each year. In that magical year the retrospective concerned the back catalogue of the Shaw brothers, and I went to see this. And my mind was blown. The film in question is a clear classic and a pioneer of the Chinese sword and sorcery genre – wu xia. And it wipes the unholy floor with Crouching Tiger and such later manifestations of the genre.

A female warrior who goes by the name Golden Swallow (Cheng Pei-pei) is set to rescue her brother from bandits who have kidnapped him. She defeats a number of thugs from the gang at a darkened bar, which an old kung fu master, known as Drunken Cat (Yueh Hua) observes. He has hidden in the inn posing as a drunkard, but becomes an admirerer and protector of Swallow. The pair sets to defeat the evil priest Liao Kung (Chang Hung-lit) who's keeping Swallow's brother as a prisoner in his temple.

The action comes fast and stedily, and is quite showy by nature. Later on in the film, supernatural powers also come into play, but they seem to fit the universe which the film's characters are inhabiting. Some effects look quite silly nowadays, but there's enough character deepness in our leading duo to keep the viewer interested. The villain is truly hissable, and like in many Asian films, dubiously feminine/androgynous. The film can thus be seen shunning homosexuality, but for such an old piece, such a subtext is forgivable. After all, it's rare that we see such a great ass-kicking female heroine as Golden Swallow here, and not even such a big deal is made of her sexuality.


The Magnificent Trio (Bian cheng san xia, 1966)
Director: Chang Cheh

The soldier Lu Fang (Wang Yu) escapes the battlefield and travels to a countryside village, where the corrupt magistarte Wei Huai-yuan rules the peasants with an iron hand. Lu helps the villagers to rise up against their oppressor by helping them kidnap the magistrate's daughter. Wei retaliates by forming a private army from pardoned criminals. To survive, Lu must form an uneasy alliance with his old army buddy Liang Huang (Cheng Lei) and the former criminal Tzu-ching Yen (Lo Lieh).

The colorful adventure isn't quite the bromance I hoped it would be, but it delivers sufficiently good fight sequences and solid humour. The adventure is colorful enough, but it does drag in places and would benefit from a swifter rhythm. The ending is memorable and a clear predecessor to the kind of Heroic Bloodshed films, which directors like John Woo specialize in.


Shaolin Temple (Shaolin Si, 1976)
Director: Chang Cheh

There's a sub-genre in Martial Arts films, that, unlike the Bruce Lee school of movies, delves into the philosphy and mythology of the real fighting style. They are not merely beat 'em up films, but rather something akin to a sports film (like Karate Kid), where a nobody becomes a master by training hard.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is the most masterful of these, and I'll get around to it in a moment. The Shaolin Temple is an earlier example of the genre. It also shows that these sorts of films are pretty easy to get wrong, as the audience probably knows the basics of the plot beforehand. If it is not inventive and entertaining enough in its training scenes, the movie fails, because these scenes are what most of the film consists of.

That's not to say that The Shaolin Temple doesn't have it's share of some good training scenes. For one the idea of someone spending time standing in a well with weights around his feet make him a leapfrog-like jumper, is silly enough to work. Too bad the characters are too bland to symphatize with. But the main problem here is that it was overdone so many times after this, that it seems too modest by comparison. And it wasn't even among the first of its kind in these Kung Fu Training -films.

Fang Shih Yu (Fu Sheng) and Ma Chao-hsing (Tony Liu) are accepted to become students in the Shaolin Temple among dozens. Ma is a model student, but Fang is frustrated by the obscurity and the mysterious mysticism in the various tasks they assign for him. Meanwhile, the leading monks in the temple grow concerned by the aggressive Quing clan. The monks reason that the sacred temple must be protected from such a strong enemy. Thus, they accept several Ming soldiers to study to have them as the protectors of the temple. But this move sets up a chain reaction that lead for the Quing to battle the Monks for the destiny of the Temple itself.

★★ 1/2

The Oily Maniac (You gui zi, 1976) 
Director: Meng Hua Ho

The truly odd diamond among these is this sort-of superhero epic, which sees a dweeb accidentally become a toxic superhero years before The Toxic Avenger. This nerd in question, Shen Yuan (Danny Lee) is working at a corrupt prosecutor's office in a deadend job. When his friend becomes accused from murder, Shen seeks a way to rescue him from execution. He turns to a shaman, who reveals he has a tattoo with a spell on it. After Shen has completed some dark magic, when read aloud, the spell turns him into an invincible creature. He then decides to protect the innocent from the scum and become the vengeance, become the night, become... A Clumsy Oil Monster, Which Looks Like the Shit Monster From Dogma. He is truly the hero to strike fear into the hearts of criminals.

Seen here in a bathroom

The Oily Maniac is such silly stuff, that one can't really know whether the people making it have been completely serious. There's a good amount of intentional comedy in it as well. Actually it really doesn't matter as long as the giggles come as often as in this. The Oil Monster's screech every time he appears is stupid enough by itself to bring tears of laughter to my eyes. His theme is ripped from the theme of Jaws. In addition he also seems to have a never-ending supply of silly superpowers. He can appear from a tiny drop of oil, or survive his limbs getting hacked off, or even his head. And there's also a never-ending supply of henchmen for him to kill. The film also has a very exploitative view on women. As it happens, most of them get killed pretty soon after they've revealed their breasts.

I wonder if anyone has ever done a comic where The Oily Maniac faces off against The Swamp Thing. And if not, why the hell not?!

★ or ★★★★★

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (Shao Lin san shi liu fang, 1978)
Director: Liu Chia-Liang

From a great turkey we move on to another bona fide classic. The 36th Chamber is such a big deal in kung fu movies, I think without it, all of Wu Tang Clan would probably be plumbers or something. It has a huge cult following, and its success lead the way to two sequels and to almost every Martial Arts film made since that.

Once again, a corrupt goverment gives thugs the means to terrorize small villagers. And our hero rises against these wrongs. This time he becomes in the form of San Te (Liu Chia-Hui). But alone he only gets hurt in a fight against evildoers. He flees to the Shao Lin temple, where they teach the famed fighting styles of kung fu. As a young hothead, he doesn't first understand the philosphy of the fighting taught at the uppermost chambers of the temple. But as he starts working his way from the down, he starts to understand that there's more to fighting kung fu than just beating people really really fast and hard.

Knowing is half the battle.
For an action film, the 36th Chamber is quite a slow one, but the film's pace is perfectly realized in its message. Actually, I could watch the training sequences even longer when they're as creativelly realized and beautifully cinematographed as here. In fact, the end sequence where San Te returns to take over his village, feels a bit of a let down. He is simply to overwhelmingly strong against the poor thugs. But that's the power of kung fu for you. It creates respect as well.


Five Deadly Venoms (Wu du, 1978)
Director: Chang Cheh

Perhaps the most fun of all Martial Arts movies, certainly one of the craziest, FDV's is another old Wu Tang favorite. Usually the styles of kung fu are named after cuddly creatures such as tiger, or monkey. Here, they have five students of wholly unique kung fu styles that are inspired by the most venomous animals alive – and are thus a lot more deadly in combat. The Scorpion, The Lizard, The Toad, The Centipede and The Snake. Not just Spider-Man villains, but kick-ass fighters, taught by one master (Dick Wei) to ensure that his legacy will go on.

When the master learns he's dying, he grows concerned that the Venom gang would use their powers for evil. So, he teaches one last disciple, Yang Tieh (Chiang Seng), a bit of all the styles, and sends him to warn his old friend that the Venoms might come after his vast fortune. Yang must also find out, which of the Venoms has gone corrupt, and which he can trust to help him vanquish the evil ones.

With fine fight scenes, frantic camera work and colorful cinematography, the film has stood the test of time proudly. However, it is the wonderful story, filled with interesting characters, that make this such a beloved cult classic.


The Heroic Ones (Shi san tai bao, 1980) 
Director: Chang Cheh

Clearly something happened to the quality control at the Shaw Brothers Studios at the turn of the 80's, since the films after that are noticeably worse. The Heroic Ones is drastically boring for the most of its running time. The viewer is left to wait for a kick-ass final scrap, which is delivered, and is as good as one hoped. But it still doesn't make up for the time spent on melodrama and uninteresting antics of nine quarreling warlords.

These nine have been picked by a wealthy Mogul to overpower one of his rivals. As their mission progresses, the nine start to disagree on some principles. One of the worst offences is of course jealousy over a woman, which drives a wedge among old friends. By the end, several have switched sides just to get even. It all ends on a giant free-for-all battle in a muddy battlefield. There's been a number of better films dealing with similar subjects. The Chinese Seven Samurai this ain't.

★★ 1/2

Human Lanterns (Ren pi deng long, 1982)
Director: Sun Chung

Sometimes, The Shaws pushed the borders of what was expected from them. But not always was this  a good thing. The Human Lanterns is a horror story, and as Chinese as they come. It is a story of two rival fat cats, Mr. Tan and Mr. Lung (Tony Liu and Chen Kuan Tai). As they hate each other, they begin an arms race for the most magnificent of lanterns. To win, Mr. Lung hires a seedy lantern maker Mr. Chao (Lo Lieh), who promises that he can create the most beautiful lantern the city has ever seen. He only asks that no one can see the result before it is completed. As you can guess from the title, the material comes from people. It is human skin to be precise, coming from kidnapped women. So far, so Ted Bundy.

But unfortunately, the film is not outrageous enough to work as a crazy gore film, nor exciting or suspensful enough to work as a proper horror film. Altough the acting and the effects are bad, they are not overtly so, so this is no camp or cult classic either. Mostly it's just boring quarrelling again. The film does have a moral about greed, as the would-be Croesuses get to feel the affects of Chao's nihilism and hatred against man kind at their own home.


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