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.

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