Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Prodigal Son (Bai ga jai, 1981)

Next up here on the blog is a classic from the Golden Harvest studio, "The Prodigal Son"!! This film features Seven Little Fortunes member Yuen Biao in the lead role, one of his earliest apart from his 'brothers' of the Peking Opera School, Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung Kam-Bo(who also stars and directs the picture.)The film also features Lam Chang Ying, Frankie Chan, Wei Pak & Dick Wei.

The film opens up in 19th Century Foshan following Leung Chang(Biao), the son of a wealthy merchant and a kung-fu fanatic. His father arranges to have him trained by two instructors, and as a result Chang has had 300 fights. The problem is, his dad doesn't want to see him hurt, so he pays Chang's instructors to purposely lose and has his servant Yee Tong Choi(Chan Lung)bribe all of Chang's foes to lose. Everyone in Foshan knows this EXCEPT Chang, calling him 'The Prodigal Son' in mockery.

One evening, three of Chang's friends take in an evening seeing a performance by the Lok Fung Lin Opera Troupe. One of them becomes smitten with the actress and goes backstage afterwards to make his move. She refuses, and has to fight off his harassment and then his forceful advances. Basically by beating his ass. She then reveals herself to be a man by the name of Leung Yee Tai(Ying). Chang hears this, and goes to challenge Yee Tai, who thoroughly whips him and then reveals to Chang that everyone loses to him on purpose. Shamed, Chang challenges his two instructors who beat him knowing they'll be fired. Only Choi is there to comfort him. Chang then takes it upon himself to convince Yee Tai to be his master, even having his father buy the opera troupe so he can work there.

Six months go by with a few funny encounters along the way, and Chang becomes a part of the troupe. One night, Yee Tai's co-star winds up having to flee after committing adultery. Chang steps into his role and is confronted by the angry mob and has to fight them off with Yee Tai's help. Watching all of this is Lord Ngai Fai(Chan), the son of a Manchu duke and also a rabid martial artist. He sees Yee Tai's skills and invites him to dinner as a pretext to challenging him to a duel, viewing him as a worthy opponent. They fight, but Yee Tai is stricken by a severe asthma attack. Ngai puts off the fight until Tai recovers. But his handlers, on orders from Hgai's father, set out to kill both Tai and Chang. See, Ngai is also a 'prodigal son' due to his father not wanting to see him hurt, but his solution is extreme. Both flee into the country to the home of Wong Wah-Bo(Hung). There, Chang learns Wing Chun from both Tai and Wong, in anticipation for the showdown against Ngai.

"The Prodigal Son" is a smart, snappy kung-fu comedy that really shows off Yuen Biao's exemplary acrobatic skills. Seeing him evolve and become better throughout is what makes the film so vivid. There's also enough bloody, bone breaking action in here to satisfy that crowd who seeks it, best seen in the final fight between Chang and Ngai. You're gonna find yourself flinch once or twice, trust. Sammo Hung also shines here, thrilling you with his flips and making you laugh with a training scene I can only describe as, 'hygenic'. As for Lam Ching Ying, "The Prodigal Son" was another high point for him. He had started his film career in Hong Kong as a stuntman for Shaw Studios, and wound up challenging Bruce Lee upon meeting him in his hotel room, not believing Lee was as tough as they said. Reportedly Lee sent him flying with a punch, but liked Lam enough to make him an action director and also star in The Big Boss. For this film, he was also action director and won the Best Action Direction award that year. To this day it's still regarded as the most true-to-form portrayal of Wing Chun on film. If you want rollicking comedy with enough kick to keep you in your seats, go check out 'The Prodigal Son' when possible.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Kid With The Golden Arm (Gam Bei Tung, 1979)

For this post, we are going with another all-time, yes ALL-TIME favorite kung-fu film from the Shaw Brothers, 'The Kid With The Golden Arm'! This film features the legendary group of actors known as the 'Five Deadly Venoms' (Kuo Chui, Chiang Sheng, Lu Feng, Lo Mang, Sun Chien & 'sixth' Venom Wei Pei) from their rise to fame in the movie of the same name. (There will be another post on that flick & the history of The Venoms to come, I got you covered.) This Chang Cheh-directed film stands out because the villain gets top billing, but there is of course, so much more.

The story is, there is an area stricken by famine. The government directs a large shipment of gold to be delivered there and escorted by Yang Yu Heng(Chien) and his group. Joining in this effort are renowned swordsman Li Chin Ming(Pai), his girlfriend Miss Leng(Pai Pin-Chang), the darkly comedic fighting duo of Long Axe & Short Axe(Sheng and Sun Shu-Pei) and Sheriff Hai To(Chui) who hasn't seen a wine jug he didn't like. They all have a tough adversary in the Chi Sah Gang of the Deadly Valley, led by Golden Arm (Meng), Silver Spear(Feng), Iron Robe(Wang Lung Wei) and Brass Head(Yang Hsuing). As they confront the Chi Sah gang, there are a slew of bloody conflicts, twists and turns that have everyone on edge within Heng's group. Who is loyal? Can Hai To be trusted? How does the Chi Sah gang stay one step ahead? Can Heng and the rest defeat the Chi Sah gang and deliver the gold?

'The Kid With The Golden Arm' is undoubtedly in the top tier of Chang Cheh's films for Shaw. Clocking in at a shade under 90 minutes, it's fast-paced action served up in a 'whodunit'plot format. Lo Meng plays Golden Arm in magnetic form. When he addresses opponents, the restrained sneer is withering. Kuo Chui's Hai To character is the best out of them all, mainly because it utilizes Chui's knack for both his comedic acting talents and his phenomenal acrobatic fighting skills seen at great length here. Chien doesn't get a lot of burn until later on in the film, but when he does it's noticeable and a distraction from his wooden delivery of dialogue. Wei Pai's swordsman character is bullheaded, arrogant and almost brings you to the point where you want him to catch a bad one. Lu Feng and Chiang Sheng get to show off their amazing skills. This film is a gold standard for fight scenes, and has enough bloody instances to get you riled up.

Sure, there's a couple of things even someone who's watched this film a hundred times would notice. Iron Robe makes a well known film effect goof with the flare. And as much as Brass Head figured into the credits, homeboy got the early bird exit special. You also have to ask yourself how they made suede leather vests back in the warring period of China. In addition, the last scene of Golden Arm may be over the top for some out there. That said, 'The Kid With The Golden Arm' has subtle jabs in it. For one, Cheh seems to have listened to his critics about female characters being slighted. So Miss Leng, while still a foil for the plot developments between Li Chin Ming and Hai To, still plays a role in the penultimate scene. Also, Wei Pai's ire wasn't totally an act; rumor has it that he didn't get along with his Venom mates too tough. Cheh also seems to mock the role of the noble swordsman with his character. But make no mistake, 'The Kid with The Golden Arm' is a film with lasting impact. Of course you know it had an effect on the Wu-Tang Clan, with one of its members taking the name for himself. DJ Steve Aoki, son of the iconic Benihana founder has been referred to as the movie title here and there. And of course, Quentin Tarantino...take a look at the set piece scene with Hai To in the tavern and note how it bears a bit of resemblance to the setting for the fight scene with Gogo in 'Kill Bill Vol.1'. If you haven't seen this movie, STOP SLEEPING and see it. If you have, you know you can't go wrong watching it again.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Big Boss (Táng Shān Dà Xiōng, 1971)

Next up here is the film that made the late Bruce Lee a smash motion picture icon in Asia, 'The Big Boss'! For a good deal of martial arts movie fans, this flick was their first exposure to the genre as well as another look at Asian cinema. I remember sitting in my living room afterschool watching a VHS copy, the CBS-Fox version. (More on that later.)It was a box-office triumph for Lee and Golden Harvest, becoming the biggest grossing movie in Hong Kong ever at that time until Fists of Fury a mere year later. The film also stars James Tien and Maria Yi along with Nora Miao & was directed by Lo Wei. There's a lot associated with this film and Lee itself which I'll get to...

The movie opens up with Cheng Chao An(Lee) and his uncle arriving at a town in Thailand from China so that Cheng can find work with his cousins in an ice factory. After a meal at a roadside noodle cart they meet up with Hsu Chien (Tien) who beats up some thugs harassing the noodle seller (Miao) and his little cousin selling rice cakes. Cheng promised his mother that he wouldn't fight, but soon finds himself in a battle between the workers at the ice factory and management. Things get even worse when two of his cousins disappear after making a discovery during a minor accident. Then Hsu Chien disappears, Cheng becomes the new foreman and more conflict ensues until a final showdown with The Big Boss, Hsiao Mi.

'The Big Boss' is a damn good film. It is a testament to Bruce Lee's magnetism because this picture originally was written up for James Tien. When Lee turned down a low-ball contract offer from the Shaw Studios, Golden Harvest(founded by former Shaw execs Raymond Chow & Leonard Ho)stepped forth with a two-picture deal. It's been said that Tien harbored a bit of resentment at the situation. There's a good flow here. The plot is straightforward and lends itself to some real rambunctious fight scenes. Which leads me into my next point, which is the sheer force of these scenes. Part of the appeal of 'The Big Boss' was that it emphasized and utilized kung fu on a hand-to-hand basis in a new way on film. Most audiences in Hong Kong and other parts of Asia were used to martial arts films as a mixture of weapons plus hand-to-hand style. They hadn't been thrilled like this since seeing films of the legendary Kwan Tak Hing as the hero Wong Fei-Hung. This film though was somewhat different because of the violence of the scenes and it impacted how 'The Big Boss' was first seen depending where you were. There were three cuts of the film due in part to a violence crackdown by Hong Kong film censors, the original Mandarin cut, the English dubbed prints for international release, and the Cantonese cut. Grisly scenes were cut out, such as someone's torso being cut in half by a saw, and of course the infamous moment where Cheng cuts someone to the fat meat with a handsaw. Also note the final fight with Boss Mi, and Bruce's coup de grace, full of dripping blood.

The differences in film prints also wreaked havoc with the music. The Cantonese print features a lot of stock music and unlicensed music from none other than Pink Floyd along with cues from Jospeh Koo, the studio's music director. You even have a track from King Crimson in there as well. It wasn't until 2005 that Peter Thomas was found to have done the tunes for the international print. He was brought in to do so along with the re-dubbing of new English voices.(If you check out the Media Asia release, you'll see the distinct change when Cheng is sitting by the riverside before the last battle.) The Mandarin version features the music done by Wang Fu Ling, and is similar to some sounds from Shaw films.

I can't end this without taking note of some of the wild stuff in the film we've all cracked up at. How many times have you yelled, 'Hsu Chiennnnnnnn!!!'? Also, as foul as it is, you KNOW you laughed when the little man got snuffed for the rice cakes. Also, when Cheng has dinner with the foreman? You see that they're drinking Hennessy straight with no chaser. And when he gets down with Miss Wu Man in the brothel only to bump into Chiao Mei WHO DOES HOOKER'S LAUNDRY outside?!! Man...and the fight scenes are tinged with comedy too. (Side note - the woman that played Wu Man, Malalene? It was her first ever movie. She went on to do three more films in Thailand, all 'adult' ones. Ahem.)'The Big Boss' is one of movies I'll watch anytime, and I have. And I'm sure some of you out there will be doing the same.