Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Devil's Treasure (Hei Ye Guai ke, 1973)

What's happening, all of you fight film fans and martial arts afficionados? Hai Karate returns like a bill collector, and we've got a regular little number for you straight from 1973 entitled The Devil's Treasure! This flick comes to you from the Golden Harvest Studios, and features O Chun Hung, Nora Miao, Sammo Hung and Whang In Sik. The direction is handled by noted auteur Cheng Chang-Ho. There's a couple of elements that kind of leave this film outside of your average martial arts flick from that era, elements that speak to where the genre was going in Hong Kong and Asia on a whole at the time. The plot alone is a major key. So without further delay, let's dive into the movie...

The Devil's Treasure begins with a professional scuba diver Wang Chun (Chun Hung) who's based in Hong Kong. He gets approached by few businessmen who have a shady look about them with a proposition. What is it exactly? They want his expertise to help them find something buried deep not too far from the harbor. To be precise, it's a chest that was lost at sea during the retreat of Japanese forces in the final days of World War II. A chest that contains a substantial amount of stolen gold bars. Nothing like wartime treasure to get things kinda interesting, right? Wang Chun agrees after they give him a large amount of cash, and they set sail towards the point where the chest was sunk. Wang dives and finds the chest, but as soon as they bring it aboard, a speedboat arrives out of nowhere. And it's trouble - in the form of Arakawa(Yi Yuen), Kao Hsiung (Sammo), Peng Wai (Yeung Wai) and Tsui Chen Tien(In Sik), decked out in 70's baddie clothes. They kill Wang's boss and force Wang to pilot the boat to shore.

Wang isn't ready for a dirt nap though. He winds up driving the speedboat, but knowing that they're trying to kill him he fights back. The struggle winds up leading the boat to crash upon the rocky shore. Arakawa and his men float to surface, but Wang is nowhere to be seen - he escapes WITH the gold. Fast forward six years, and Wang is living the high life out in the countryside of South Korea with his wife, Yen Yen(Miao) and their daughter, Shen Shen. I mean, he's got a ranch, new car...he's chilling.

But you know this isn't the end of the story. Arakawa and his thugs have tracked Wang and his family down and they're pissed. They want the gold that remains and Wang's life, and won't mind taking out his wife and daughter in the process. And so a taut battle begins for treasure that's tainted by the devil himself...

The Devil's Treasure is one of those post-Bruce Lee Golden Harvest movies where the studio was engrossed in trying to find someone who could fill that space that the iconic star left after his death. O Chun Hung was one of a few leading men Raymond Chow tabbed to see if he could fit the bill. Prior to this, he was kind of a big deal in his native Taiwan, having begun his acting career since the 1960's and winning a Best Actor Award before this movie. He handles himself well here in terms of the action scenes, and emotes enough drama to make you become interested in his character. He'd be tabbed for another Golden Harvest action flick, A Queen's Ransom three years later. For Nora Miao, this was her ninth film overall and it's a bit of a stock dramatic role for her. I gotta say though, the bad guys - especially Whang In Sik with that wild black leather trenchcoat and shades combo he sports throughout - do help drive the story along. The movie does plod a bit but their action scenes with Hung do grab you. They're quickly paced and choreographed well - another nod goes to Sammo Hung for that direction, which he was getting more and more famous for at this time. Although I gotta say, that mustache and mullet combo he rocks in this film did have me crack up at certain moments. He looked like he was gonna do some bass work for Sonny Bono on his down time. But I get that it's the "Japanese tough guy" look. And Cheng Chang-Ho's work on this film makes it a riveting drama when it gets going - but those scenes are more like bookends rather than them being distributed evenly throughout the film. (Side note: those action sequences I told you about? They were intricate enough that according to press at the time, both Hung & Miao sustained injuries and a cinematographer died during filming.)

The Devil's Treasure is one of those flicks that kind of lean more towards the thriller drama, but it's decentenough for a quick viewing when you've got time to fill and if you want to see how Asian cinema handled noir elements in the 1970's. It would also be a film that pointed the way for Golden Harvest to continue to appeal to movie audiences with more modern themes and move away from the wu xia films that used to be dominant (and were admittedly still the prime domain of their rivals in the Shaw Brothers Studios). You can check it out via DVD through Joy Sales and Fortune Star.


Tuesday, May 15, 2018

In Memoriam: Li Ching "The Baby Queen"

The martial arts movie world has lost a legend in the past few months. Here at Hai!Karate, we're paying homage to the "Baby Queen" of Shaw Brothers Studios, Li Ching. She was born as Li Guo-Ying in Shanghai, China in 1948. She moved to Hong Kong at the age of five, and when she turned 15 she entered into the acting school at Shaw. Her first five roles were minor ones, but her striking beauty made sure audiences took notice. This led to a breakthrough role in the fantasy operatic film The Mermaid in 1965 opposite established Shaw actress Ivy Ling Po. Li would wind up winning the Best Actress award at that year's Asian Film Festival in Kyoto, Japan and earned her nickname as a result. She even got the attention of Western press, seen here in this article in LOOK Magazine below. (Credit to

Of course that meant more prominent roles, and Li Ching would wind up being one of the most versatile leading actresses the studio had. That meant fantasy pictures. That meant horror flicks. And, of course, wu xia movies galore! Some of the more classic titles are staples of the genre, such as King Eagle, The 14 Amazons and The New One-Armed Swordsman.

Li Ching also found herself poised as a romantic lead on more than one occasion. Sometimes, her expressiveness stole the show in films like The Invincible Fist, where she played the blind daughter of a crafty villain. There were also times where she could display some sheer ferocity, like with her turn in Vengeance of A Snow Girl. Her career would ultimately cover 68 films in total. As the 1970's arrived, Li would find that some roles were short in coming with regards to action films, so she wound up as key player in some of the studio's more "adult" films and comedies. She ended her career in 1983.

Li Ching would retreat to a fairly private life, having lost her longtime love who was part of the family who owned the Kowloon Motor Bus Company in 1979. The sadness continued as she would pop up here and there in the news in Hong Kong due to financial issues, reportedly over bad investments in the stock market and some heavy gambling losses. Unfortunately, her story came to an end on February 23rd of this year, as police were summoned to a flat that she was renting in the Quarry Bay district after reports of a foul odor coming from the place had been sent in. Her body was found and it was determined that she passed away from natural causes. Li Ching was 69. May she always live on as one of the shining stars not only of cinema in Hong Kong, but across the world especially in the 1960's and 1970's.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Water Margin (Shui Hu Zhuan, 1972)

It's the first post of 2017 good people, and Hai!Karate returns with a flick that might very well be timely to those up on certain things. This particular martial arts movie is one of my chosen favorites, from a year that would see the Shaw Brothers Studios capture the attention of American audiences heavily. The movie in question? From 1972, The Water Margin!! Let's not delay, and dive right into the plot and the reasons why this film is one of Hong Kong cinema's powerhouses.

The origins of The Water Margin come from a highly renowned Chinese classical novel of the same name. This text was written in the 14th century, and details the exploits of a band of 108 fighters who meet at Liang Shan to fight against evil and tyranny on all fronts - including against the Sung government. The leader of these fighters? Song Jiang. They would eventually come to terms with the Sung government and gain amnesty in the 12th century which led to them being mobilized to repel foreign invaders. But not without a series of uprisings and clashes, which are laid out in some versions that swell the novel to 100 chapters. Other versions omit these narratives, and as such there is a 70-chapter version which was translated by the famed American novelist and author of The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck. Another version has 120 chapters with all accounts included. For the Shaw Studios production, the wellspring behind the plot lies in chapters 64 through 68.

The movie begins with the ambush of "Heavenly King" Chao Kai, the leader of the Liangshan Heroes by "Golden Spear" Shi Wengong. Golden Spear is requested to perform this act at the behest of the local Sung magistrate. When news of Heavenly King's death reaches Liangshan, the heroes are distraught and plan for revenge. In his stead, seniors "Welcome Rain" Song Jiang and "Clever Star" Wu Yong come up with an idea that will serve two purposes - to gain a new leader for the Outlaws of The Marsh and to defeat Golden Spear. The plan? Enlist the services of the noted pugilist - and Golden Spear's former classmate - Jade Unicorn, Lu Junyi. They also note that if successful, they will also gain the services of Junyi's servant, "The Prodigy" Yen Ching. Clever Star and "Black Whirlwind" Li Kui are tasked to go to the town where Jade Unicorn resides.

Both men arrive in the town just as Jade Unicorn is being set up to go to jail and be executed - all a plot cooked up by his treasurer, who is sleeping with Jade Unicorn's wife who felt neglected by his heavy martial arts training. They appeal to him through The Prodigy, who is making plans to free his master on his own. These men ultimately combine forces and set the stage for the showdown between Golden Spear's clan and the Liangshan Heroes.

The Water Margin bowed to cinemas in Hong Kong in 1972 as a crowning epic from the Shaw Studios. It was so much of an epic that THREE directors helmed the film, with the legend Chang Cheh at the forefront with Wu Ma and Pao Hsueh-Li. The cast assembled was a who's who of cinema in the region at that time. You had David Chiang as Yen Ching, a flashy heartthrob who could throw hands with the best of them. Yueh Hua as Leopard Spear. The Japanese action and noir actor Tetsuro Tamba as Lu Junyi. Chen Kuan Tai. Lily Ho. Ku Feng. Even Danny Lee, who you may know from the John Woo classic The Killer. When I say epic, I mean EPIC. Let's go to Tamba for a second. It's astounding that he was tapped to play the role of Jade Unicorn but not totally surprising. The Water Margin was also well regarded in Japan, and would be the basis for a television series there soon after this movie aired. Tamba had gained worldwide attention as Tiger Tanaka in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice five years prior. In addition, he also appeared in the classic film based on Lafcadio Hearn's collection of Japanese ghost tales, Kwaidan. Interestingly enough, Golden Spear is played by another prominent Japanese actor, Toshio Kurosawa. No relation to the legendary director, Kurosawa had built a solid career to this point. From this he would go on to play a pivotal role in the cult classic Lady Snowblood...

The Water Margin became a film that caught the eye of the West - and led to a re-release stateside that took a curious turn. See, I first saw this film years ago as the filler movie after a doubleheader of NBA games on TNT. There wasn't any iconic Shaw Brothers logo lead-in - and it was billed as Seven Blows Of The Dragon. This Western re-cut of the film is entertaining but has some parts that make you scratch your head. You've got your requisite voice dubbing that can verge on comical. The musical cues don't stray too much from the original version. BUT this US version runs 79 minutes. Which means that they cut out over close to an HOUR of the HK version, which I didn't peep until afterwards. Word has it that Roger Corman was part of the revamp - I haven't seen much to fully verify that. The film re-naming was essentially what studios here did in order to lure audiences into the movie houses to these films, and the trend began with King Boxer being re-titled Five Fingers Of Death.

The flick is well-paced and composed throughout. Cheh and the other directors do a great job of letting the characters flourish in relation to the plot. Now, you might be asking about other characters who show up in the movie. The Water Margin would be shot with three other films in that time period - Pursuit, The Delightful Forest and All Men Are Brothers. However, the latter film was released some time after. In terms of action, it's worth noting that David Chiang's acrobatic prowess was engaged in a totally unique way with more wresting grips and throws incorporated into Yen Ching's fighting style. Cheh and the action directors took pains to highlight this with slow-motion filming, and this probably led US studio execs to make that the core as well. Is there a good deal of bloodshed? This is a Shaw flick- that's like asking if Allen Iverson ever had a nasty dribble. People get cut down with ruthless zeal here.

The Water Margin is one of the best films that the Shaw Studios has ever made. From Black Whirlwind's cry "THE MOUNTAIN BROTHERS ARE ALL HERE!!!" to the funky musical tinges throughout, to the sense of satisfaction upon seeing the Liangshan Heroes arrive, you will find yourself wrapped up in just how the story of the people uniting to fight against injustice and evil is laid out in glorious '70's fashion. You can actually find the original version now on DVD, and I highly recommend it. It's not one of the most talked about films from the Shaw Brothers, but once you watch it you realize it should be.


Friday, October 28, 2016

Yagyu Secret Scrolls:Two Secret Scrolls aka Ninjutsu II (Yagyu Bugeicho: Soryu Hiken, 1958)

What's the good word folks?! Hai! Karate returns with a new flick, one that we promised a little while ago - Toshiro Mifune getting his ninja on in Yagyu Secret Scrolls Part 2! Directed by Hiroshi Inagaki, the film also stars Koji Tsuruta, Yoshiko Kuga, Mariko Okada and Jotaro Togami. Without further delay, let's get down to dissecting this sequel from Toho Studios.

When the first film ended, it ended with Tasaburo(Mifune) and Princess Yu(Kuga) somehow extricating themselves out of a raging river after being chased there by Yagyu forces. In their possession? Two of the three Martial Chronicles, secrets that could destroy the Yagyu family and rattle Japan. Yagyu Secret Scrolls Part 2 begins a short while after these events, and opens with the remaining Yagyu members trying to find Tasaburo and the rest of his clan - as well as the scrolls. Meanwhile, Tasaburo and Princess Yu are living a tranquil life in the woods. Both have made it a point to give up the shinobi life and be with each other happily. But of course, THAT can't happen no matter how many embraces they both share. Why? Because not only are the Yagyu nearby, Senshiro(Tsuruta) is hovering around still on mission to get the well as another set of ninja.

Added to the mix is the son of the Yagyus who left home not wanting to be part of their deception and tyranny, and in the process of seeing his journey he stumbles upon a street dancer and singer in a town in the country. The dancer(Okada) reminds him of Rika, the maiden who tended to him and who he fell in love with in the first film - who he left behind. The singer invites Matajuro to travel with them. It isn't until they get to a local inn for the night where the singer reveals that he is a powerful and villainous monk, Hogen Tondo and that he has put Rika under a spell to control her. At that point, Senshiro infiltrates the inn and confronts Tondo. Meanwhile, Jubei Yagyu(Togami) is hot on everyone's trail. These parties all find themselves on a collision course to gain the ultimate power...

Yagyu Secret Scrolls: Two Secret Scrolls on a whole does drop off a bit from the first one. One significant improvement is the level of action. The fight scenes stick out mainly because of the attention to detail. Ninjas being ninjas, yo, Fire attacks? Got 'em. Magic monk wizardry? Got it. Reversible gear? Man listen. This is an Inagaki film, so you better believe that the sword duels will be laid out in thrilling fashion. The major group battles can be a little bit helter skelter, but it does work in the overall scheme.

Toshiro Mifune as a ninja is still an odd sight. This is the same cat that is a legend in film. Here, he seems to waver between being relegated to the background and then taking a commanding presence. It could have been due to schedule(he was already signed to do another Inagaki film, The Rickshaw Man later that year) or the script. Still, he was prominent enough to be the draw for the picture. Mariko Okada does steal the show in her role - her beauty and her acting in the "damsel-in-distress" role sticks to the lane but is imbued with a bit of stoicism. If you're looking for something slightly different, I would recommend checking out both films at once since they're fairly short. As an aside: these films would lead to spinoffs being made in both movies and television series, and would further cement the ninjutsu craze in addition to the Shinobi No Mono series that was being released around the same time. Yagyu Secret Scrolls: Two Secret Scrolls is available on DVD. RATING: 3 OF 5 DRAGON PUNCHES

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Magnificent Butcher (Lam Sai-Wing, 1979)

Hello all you fans of the martial arts movie genre! Hai!Karate returns with a new film for you to check out, and this one ranks among one of the best and the most entertaining of the lot - The Magnificent Butcher starring the great Sammo Hung!!! Also making an appearance is the legendary Kwan Tak Hing, as well as Yuen Biao, Lam Ching-Ying and Fan Mei-Sheng in this Golden Harvest feature. At the director's chair is the great Yuen Woo-Ping. There's some backstory to this feature, but we'll get to that shortly...

The Magnificent Butcher opens on a market scene as these flicks often tend to do. We come upon Butcher Wing(Hung) who manages to get into some hijinks as he makes his way throughout the market. But one of those episodes lands him in hot water with Master Ko Tan Bin(Lee Hoi-Sang) and his disciples. Master Ko, who is quick to anger, decides that this will be the chance he needs to give Master Wong Fei Hung(Tak Hing) his comeuppance. And there lies one of the most renowned scenes in kung fu movie history - Ko and Fei Hung's battle through a lesson in the "gentle" art of calligraphy.

Ko informs Wong Fei Hung of Butcher Wing's error and Wing is promptly punished as the master heads out of town on a trip to buy medicinal herbs. Meanwhile, a man by the name of Lam Sai Kwong(Chiang Kam) arrives in town with his wife Cheung Yuet Mai(Tong Ching) to look for his long-lost brother. Yuet Mai catches the eye of Tai Hoi(Fung Hak-On), the scurvy son of Master Ko. He hatches a plot and kidnaps Yuet Mai. Around this same time, Beggar So rambles into town - and I do mean ramble, as he falls out of a rickshaw. He happens upon a despondent Sai Kwong and promises to help him get his wife back. This soon leads to a run-in with Wing and Tai Hoi, who had deceived So into thinking Wing was the kidnapper. They wind up fighting - So giving Wing the business - and the truth is then revealed.

The brothers are reunited, and set out to get Yuet Mai back. But in the process, they unknowingly rescue someone else who Master Ko cherishes and set about a course of events that involve blackmail, murder and a eventual showdown between Butcher Wing and Master Ko. One that promises to be jam-packed with action!

The Magnificent Butcher is striking as a movie overall but can tend to be slightly plodding in some of the scenes. It's a real comedic vehicle and one that would lead to Sammo Hung gaining superstar power in Hong Kong cinema - and also spawn a few movies centering on his weight as a selling point. You do get a good grasp of his fighting prowess in the film in a comedic sense as well as the fight scenes thanks to good collaboration between he and Yuen Woo-Ping, especially the acrobatic elements. Now, I mentioned the fight scene between Wong Fei Hung and Master Ko. That scene pops so much because you have to take into account that Kwan Tak Hing was in his 70's and performed most of this scene without a stunt double. It was one of a handful of movies he did for the Golden Harvest studios, such as The Skyhawk which was reviewed here.That's not to say Lee Hoi-San was a slouch. He brings all of his skill to the foray from a lengthy career that saw him in various supporting roles including a highly visible stint at the Shaw Brothers Studios.(Side note - he originally was set to play a minor comedic role but in the second revision of the script, he was entrusted to play Master Ko.)

You may have noticed Beggar So is played by a different actor. Sadly, the man that made the role famous, Simon Yuen passed away right before production began. That prompted a script rewrite as well as re-casting, which brought veteran Fan Mei-Sheng into the picture. It adds another bit of fun to the film even though it must've been hard for Woo-Ping to see being that this was his father's famous role. Also in The Magnificent Butcher are decent turns by Yuen Biao and Wei Pak, formerly one of the Five Deadly Venoms. They get a bit of shine but not too much. This is strictly a Sammo Hung vehicle. All in all, you'll get a kick out of seeing The Magnificent Butcher. It's not a major must-see, but it's one all fans of the genre should peep.The DVD is widely available, and it is on YouTube. Bit of advice - look for the original version if you can if you want to avoid some bad voiceover work.


Monday, August 15, 2016

Yagyu Secret Scrolls aka Ninjitsu Part 1 (Yagyu Bugeicho, 1957)

Hello to all you fans of the martial arts movie world and others!! Hai!Karate comes back with a new review for you, a flick that caught my eye about 5 years ago. That movie comes from the great Toho Studios of Japan, known as Yagyu Secret Scrolls aka Yagyu Bugeicho!! (It's also known as Ninjitsu, which leads to some slight confusion. More on that later.) Released in 1957, this film features a powerhouse cast led by none other than the iconic Toshiro Mifune. Also starring Koji Tsuruta and Mariko Okada, this film is directed by the great Hiroshi Inagaki. The movie is remarkable for a number of reasons, mainly the face that we see Toshiro Mifune AS A NINJA folks. Mind. Blown. So let's get down to the nitty gritty on this picture...

Yagyu Secret Scrolls begins out in a plain with the looming sight of Mt. Fujiyama in the background. We see a samurai striding through cautiously before being attacked by another wearing a ronin-gasa who dispatches him easily. A woman and a young boy look on and prepare to join in but are stopped by a ninja in a tree who turns out to be Tasaburo(Mifune) who is in awe of the swordsman. His awe is justified as the man is actually Jubei Yagyu of the Yagyu swordmaster clan of the Tokugawa regime. After a brief confrontation, Tasaburo escapes in a burst of purple smoke. In the next few scenes, it is revealed that the "Martial Chronicles" are in danger. These three documents, held by three separate entities hold a vast array of information that could topple the empire and the Yagyus with it. One man, Fugetsu Yamada, wants the Chronicles to expose the Yagyus and save the nation from their machinations. Enter Tasaburo and his brother, Senshiro(Tsuruta) to execute the mission on his behalf to get the scrolls by any means.

From that point on, we are treated to a flurry of activity where each ninja goes on their mission -and wind up being involved with women that pose a bit of a risk to their goals and wind up putting them into conflict with each other. In Senshiro's case, he winds up being assigned to infiltrate the Yagyus, and Tasaburo gets to contact Princess Oki(Kyoko Kagawa).The two wind up in conflict, with Senshiro being opposed to Tasaburo's growing romance with the princess, choosing to focus on duty more. By the end though, both men have their eyes squarely set on the scrolls - and Jubei Yagyu.

(photo credit: Vintage Ninja)

Like I said before, Yagyu Secret Scrolls is an intriguing film. Seeing one of the most recognizable actors in Japanese film history as a ninja is slightly surprising, but is not totally unexpected. Mifune's martial skill was quite impressive throughout his career, thanks to the training he received from Yoshio Sugino, a master of the Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō-ryū which is one of the oldest forms of Japanese martial arts dating back to 1480 by some accounts. By studying this form, Mifune had more than enough knowledge to look the part. By this time he had already become well known in Japan for portraying samurai or ronin especially in Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai and Inagaki's Samurai Trilogy where he played Miyamoto Musashi and Koji Tsuruta played his rival, Sasaki Kojiro. Mifune as Tasaburo brings all of the gruff charm you expect from the actor, with a little bit of tenderness as well. Tsuruta as Senshiro does display some cool and calculating moments here, and to see him and Mifune interact brings a stronger buttress to the film's plot. As for the ladies... well, the unfortunate part is that their characters are merely foils for the plot to move along. Princess Oki is confident but we see her being whittled down. Mariko Okada, who is highly regarded, is striking in her role but winds up taking a backseat to the action as well. I guess it was par for the course in those days with Inagaki.

A little earlier, I had touched upon the point of the film's title. The reason for that is, there's another film that was released that same year, by Toei Studios with the title of Ninjutsu Gozen-Jiai: Torawakamaru, The Koga Ninja. Toho may have wanted to avoid some confusion, hence the name of their films. That aside, Yagyu Secret Scrolls stands out because of the painstaking details with regards to the ninja. You see a great deal of their weaponry on display from the difference of shurikens to Tasaburo and Senshiro's different garb depending on the situation. Inagaki's film style also calls for a number of duels, and true to form, each is set up to provide some thrilling action. A tip of the hat goes to Jotaro Togami for his steely and ruthless portrayal of Jubei Yagyu, who comes off very Vader-like in his scenes. Overall, the film moves swiftly and packs a lot in without sacrificing too much. It's plain to see why Toho scrambled to make a sequel.(I'll get to that in the review for the next film.) For those who like their ninja action with a little less hokiness, Yagyu Secret Scrolls does the trick. You can grab a remastered DVD from the fine sites of Kurotokagi and JapaneseSamuraiDVD.