Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Avenging Eagle (Long xie shi san ying, 1978)

Next up here on Hai! Karate is the dramatic brawling flick, The Avenging Eagle! This Shaw Brothers joint features two of the studio's top male leads, the venerable Ti Lung and the late Alexander Fu Sheng. Also rounding out the cast are veteran Shaw stars Shih Szu, Ku Feng, Johnny Wang Lung-Wei and Dick Wei among others. The film is directed by Sun Chung and Ni Kuang provides the flick's screenplay.

The film opens with Black Eagle Chik Ming Sung(Lung)wandering through a desert patch, parched and exhausted. He falls off his steed and is soon rescued by another stranger, Double Sword Sleeve Cheuk Yi Fan(Sheng). Sung is uneasy at first, but Fan's wit and easy-going nature makes Sung drop his guard a bit. Well, that and the three killers who drop into the abandoned villa they're resting in. Fan observes that Sung not only knows them, but they know him too. After dispatching all three, they ride off and Sung spills the beans. He's one of the Thirteen Eagles, the assassins of the notorious Iron Boat Gang. The gang, led by Yoh Xi Hung(Feng) was formed to be ruthless killers for Hung from childhood onward. Hung spared no rod and certainly showed no love. Sung was one of his prized men. But after he and other Eagles went after a royal treasure protected by a great hero who laid a beatdown on him before his demise, Sung passed out in a forest glade. He's rescued from death by a kind man and taken into his house in a secluded valley. There, Sung is able to heal, and see the merits of kindness and honor. And he also falls in love with the man's sister, Miss Fung(Szu) who is more than willing to reciprocate. But, Sung returns to the gang and instead of quitting, is forced to go on another job. A job that entails the murder of Devil's Plight Wang An - the same man who rescued Sung. He tries to stop his brother assassins to no avail, and Miss Fung is murdered, dying in Sung's arms. This shatters him and when Yoh Xi Hung sees this, he goes ballistic. Sung then fights off the clan and flees. Fan hears this and then reveals that his family was the one slaughtered by the Thirteen Eagles. Both men become tenuous allies with one goal: smash the Iron Boat Gang and kill Yoh Xi Hung!

The Avenging Eagle is a compelling kung-fu movie for a number of reasons. For one, it's a very good story that Ni Kuang puts forth here. Savagery and justice and finding redemption are juggled as themes here. Sun Chung in the director's chair keeps things going at a great pace, even with one or two slow moments. This film marks a period where he was really in his zone with regards to action flicks, and it also was a film where he got to finally push the envelope with shooting on Steadicam. Chung was regarded as Shaw Studios' pioneer in this, and it shows up here in the crisp wide angle views as well as the multiple fluid action scenes. As for the leads, this film was the third film they had done together to that point. But it's a treat to see Ti Lung and Fu Sheng really stand out in this film as true equals. Fu Sheng by this time was a fast rising star; young and handsome, he was a prize for Shaw. Lung was, by this time, already a well-respected veteran actor with several stellar roles. He fit the role of the wandering swordsman very well. The chemistry between them is gripping. Ku Feng as the villainous Yoh Xi Hung is real GREASY. And when he busts out the golden claws for the final battle? You can't tell me Ghostface Killah didn't get the idea for the eagle gauntlet he used to rock from this film. I admit, Shih Szu as Miss Fung deserved a little bit more fleshing out in my opinion. But she did her job as the doomed romantic foil. Her role leads me to another key point about The Avenging Eagle; Chung packed a LOT into a flick just under 90 minutes. You won't be wanting for good fight scenes here. Some scenes will have you locked in, like the scene where Fan and Sung face off against Vulture(Lung-Wei) to turn the tables on the gang. (By the way, I wonder how much laughter ensued with his makeup job. You'll see what I mean.) Chung adds to the fight's energy with a few freeze frames and slo-mo shots. Not enough to be overkill, and just a tad to add some spice.

The Avenging Eagle is without a doubt a really good martial arts film. And recently even more validity to that statement came in July of this year when there was an announcement by both The Weinstein Company and Celestial Pictures was made. They are joining forces to remake two classic Shaw Brothers films from the 1960's and 1970's and one of them will be The Avenging Eagle. It really isn't hard to see why; the flick is a must see for all true fans of the genre. It has great fight scenes. Enough drama to tie everything together. And the outfits are really funky. I can say that you can't go wrong watching this flick.

RATING: 4 Dragon Punches out of 5

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Chinese Hercules(Ma tou da jue dou, 1973)

Next up for you kung fu movie fanatics here on Hai! Karate is a little number from 1973 that packs a wallop!! The film is called Chinese Hercules, starring Michael Chan Wai-Man, Yang Tze - better known as Bolo Yeung, Kong Faan, Kong Do and Gam Dai among others. Huang Ta is the director for this picture. I Kuang is the man behind the screenplay. Now, you might be a tad confused by the above images. Part of that is that this film actually has THREE different names. I'll get into that later on, though.

The movie opens with our hero Lee Hsi(Wai Man)training hard one night. He's interrupted by a young woman who he likes(Faan)who is a bit concerned about his excessive training. He tells her it's because he can't stand being trash-talked by her brother(Do) who studies in the same school for being an orphan and for associating with her. They leave the school together and are confronted by her drunk brother, who decides to pick a fight with Hsi. Hsi fights him off - well, he beats the daylights out of him. Dude then pulls out a knife and Hsi finishes him off, killing him. Frightened and dismayed, Wei runs off to the seaside, and smashes his hand with a large rock vowing never to fight again. Of course these vows have as much life span as a Kardashian marriage. Hsi takes a fake name and finds work on the docks. He deals with an abusive boss, but earns the respect of his fellow workers. He's sorely tested to use his fighting prowess but resists, even when beaten by the ruthless syndicate that runs the docks. Soon dock workers who resist are found dead, and the boss calls in the 'Chinese Hercules', Bolo himself to smash them. Hsi finds himself facing an uncertain future unless he summons his vast strength to fight the killer and face his past, which comes back in a surprising way.

Chinese Herculeswalks that fine line between being very compelling and not even worth it. But it does so ably. Give credit to Ta Huang for keeping the film moving at a neat pace, enough so that the film doesn't drag on. Also, he did have a decent enough eye to work in a couple of different angles that make some scenes pop better. Corey Yuen is the action director here, and he makes the fight scenes here slightly jarring because of how violent they are. Cats catch BAD ones here. Case in point? One of the workers decides to go up against the syndicate boss in his own home. After fighting the boss, he winds up being flat out beaten to death without any ceremony. You even have a random trollop smoking a cigarette with a look on her face like, 'he aint dead YET?' Overall Yuen does infuse a fluid and rhythmic element throughout . Wai-Man as the hero here is solid. He gives off a measured amount of emotion without being melodramatic. And his fighting skills are swift and strong. You can see his Hung Gar skills put to good use in this flick. As for Bolo, he gets to be the killer movie baddie, bulging muscles and all. Now, he's not in this movie for more than MAYBE 20 minutes. But you get all of the Bolo sneers and flexes that he's known for in that span of time.

So, as far as the name of the flick itself. Well the movie was made by Hong Kong Kai Fa Pictures, a smallish studio. They put this film out first under the title of A Duel In Harbor. There were a couple of alternate titles, the most common one being Freedom Strikes A Blow. But soon after this flick was released, Enter The Dragoncame out worldwide sparking the West's kung fu craze. Bolo was one of the memorable villains, and when National General Pictures got the film rights to distribute this picture, he was the most recognizable. So they marketed the film playing on another B-movie trope of the 'Hercules' variety that was popularized by those movies of the 1960's. Hence, Chinese Hercules complete with the cheesy tag line. If you want a decent martial arts flick with some crisp action that won't put you to sleep, Chinese Hercules is worth a go.

RATING: 3 Dragon Punches out of 5

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Black Butterfly (Nüxia Hei Hu die, 1968)

This go-round on Hai!Karate, we cover a Shaw Brothers joint from 1968, "The Black Butterfly'! This swordplay epic stars Lisa Chiao Chiao, Yueh Hua, and Ku Feng among a full cast. Lo Wei directs and also stars in this picture.

The Black Butterfly, played by Chiao Chiao, is actually less of a terrorizing figure than the initial appearance of her caharacter portrays. She's actually a Robin Hood type of character, robbing oppressive fat cats to give money to the poor disaster victims. By day, she's Kwan Bao Zhu, daughter of well known swordsman Gold Sword Kwan Yee(Tien Feng). Matters get a bit complicated because of the appearance of Liu Xi Xang(Hua), out to find a band of robbers in the town. The robbers are after the Butterfly after she got them for their gold a while before. The local magistrate is also after the Black Butterfly, and thinks that Drunken Beggar Loong San Fong(Yeung Ching Hing) is the culprit. San Fong is Bao Zhu's kung fu master, on account of Kwan Yee's unwillingness to teach his daughter any of his own skills because, she's a woman. (hrm.)San Fong is also an expert who poses as a drunk for a very good reason, explained later in the film. And Xi Xang, who Bao Zhu likes, is then coerced to hunt the Butterfly down by her dad. All of this intrigue leads the Black Butterfly into a face-off to clear her father's name and restore order to the town.

The Black Butterfly should be a real good film. But, truth be told, it can bore you. Part of it may do with the fact that being a wuxia film, that style focused more on having an operatic feel to scenes. Another element may be that it shares similarities to a film by Chor Yuen, The Black Rose, three years earlier, and that there may have been another flick done in 1960 under the same name with Lo Wei as director, although there's no real body of facts to confirm the latter. Chiao Chiao does well here, her fighting scenes conducted with flair and a good amount of force. She was one of the up and coming actresses Shaw was looking to make a star in the same vein as Ivy Ling Po and the late Linda Lin Dai. Yueh Hua plays to the vest as the strong, young hero Xi Xiang. A little too much. And that seems to bring up another thing - this film was laid out in cookie-cutter fashion. Lo Wei does have to be commended for making this picture more enjoyable. His work with the cinematography lends some thrill to the film, like when Black Butterfly skips over a lake like it was nothing. It makes the one or two instances where the wire work wasn't up to snuff easily overlooked. (Side note: look out for Sammo Hung in a low-tier role in this picture.) The Black Butterfly is one flick that might just be reserved for the real buffs of martial arts epics and not for the casual viewers out there; fair but not too great.

Rating: 2.5 Dragon Punches out of 5

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Executioner (Chokugeki! Jigoku-ken!, 1974)

Hai!Karate roars back again with another flick for your viewing pleasure. This time we take it to Tokyo, Japan with a flick from 1974, The Executioner! This film from Toei stars the brawling legend himself, Sonny Chiba! Also in the cast are Eiji Go, Yutaka Nakajima, Makoto Sato and Yasuaki Kurata. Teruo Ishii is in the director's chair.

The Executionerstarts out with the former police commissioner of Tokyo, Mr. Arashiyama(Ryo Ikebe) and his niece, Emi (Nakajima)set out to create a team to fight crime. A team of highly skilled criminals. The trio is comprised of Ryuichi Koga(Chiba),a ninja turned private eye and enforcer for hire, Takeshi Hayabusa(Sato), a former police detective turned assassin and Ichiro Sakura(Go), a karate expert and top-notch pervert supreme. These three are then tasked to take down a Yakuza big by the name of Mario Mizuhara who is set to enlarge his drug empire outside of Japan. Pretty simple, yes? But that's the only simple thing about this flick. As the three meet after Koga breaks Sakura out of a prison death row, it turns out Arashiyama resigned due to a botched bust of a drug mule for Mizuhara that left six cops dead. And their supervisor, Hayabusa, fired. All together, the three are in this job until the end, with a little help from Kurata.

The entire picture is a barrel of utter batshit comedy, violence and action. I'll say it again: BATSHIT. Because in some instances that just fits. The first time I saw this flick I was thrown for a loop 10 minutes in. To start with, Ryuichi's ninja training and then his rebellion against his grandfather over joint dislocation? An ill sequence due in no small part to Chiba's excellent skill, being a 4th dan master of ninjutsu. It gets into the violent very quickly with Hayabusa's first appearance though. First off, dude enters a bedroom and interrupts a crime boss basically deep in a game of hide-the-salami with a young lady. After the boss pays him six million yen NOT to kill him, three more than his original contract, Hayabusa murders him anyway. And then proceeds to smash the dead guy's woman RIGHT NEXT TO HIS BODY. He's also got this crazy, Richard Widmark laugh that makes you laugh with him and then stop because you realize how wild he really is. As for Sakura, he's basically the perverted comedy relief. His facial expressions alone make him look like he'd be the type to get thrown out of a women's dressing room with a mirror in his hand. The chemistry is a solid one, and that's what keeps you interested in the midst of all the violence. And it wouldn't be a Sonny Chiba flick without it. There are a couple of moments where it is not for the squeamish. And one or two moments where it just gets out of control. (Look at how the trio go after the Yakuza henchmen IN THEIR BEDROOMS.) There's also a great deal of sex and nudity. This is the time where Japanese cinema wasn't just crossing the line as far as that went, but literally tearing it to shreds. The "pinky' era was firmly built from the mid 1970's.

Teruo Ishii played a hand in this matter. It's been said that Ishii hated working on martial arts movies, preferring to work on films with dark themes and a bit of erotica involved as well. Some refer to him as the father of the ero-guro style, or 'erotic-grotesque' in Japanese cinema during this time period. There are flashes of that in The Executioner but nothing on par with his other films. The action is frantic but magnetic. It's a plus to see ninjutsu and karate at work on the same side in this film. A lot of the fight scene choreography is due in part to Chiba and the Japan Action Club which he founded in 1970 for stunt actors. (A lil bit of trivia for you - the younger Ryuichi Koga we see in the beginning of the flick? None other than Hiroyuki Sanada. This was his first motion picture role.) Yasuaki Kurata also got to do some of the choreography, which made for another good change of pace as far as style was involved; he involved more of a back and forth whereas with Chiba there was sheer force and brutal conclusions. All in all, the film makes for some good entertainment even if there's moments that make you go 'WTF'??(Like the one scene with the lone brother and his lady - they didn't have to do him like that.)It got enough success to have a sequel quickly filmed and released so that says something. If you want some real knockdown drag out martial arts action Chiba style one afternoon, check out The Executioner. And mind the splatter.

Rating: 4 Dragon Punches out of 5