Wednesday, January 29, 2014

One Armed Swordsman (Du Bi Dao, 1967)

The next flick we've got for you here at Hai!Karate is a classic staple for all lovers of fight cinema, One Armed Swordsman!! This film stars Jimmy Wang Yu, Lisa Chiao Chiao, Tien Feng and Ku Feng among others. The legend Cheng Cheh sits in the director's chair for this film from Shaw Studios.

One Armed Swordsman opens with a group of villains entering the manor of Qi Ru Feng (Tien)with the purpose of defeating him and the Golden Sword School. His servant Fang Cheng(Feng) valiantly fights them off, and is mortally wounded. Before he passes however, Master Qi Ru Feng swears to take his son Fang Gang in. We fast forward to seeing Fang Gang(Wang Yu)all grown up, tending to the estate and learning from Teacher Qi. Teacher's daughter Qi Pai Er (Violet Pang Zi-Yi)is a spoiled little thing who alternates between dislike and liking Fang Gang. Fang Gang? He mostly remains aloof. After a good deal of being picked on, Fang Gang, rather than be the source of any unrest in the school, decides to leave one night. Pai-Er and two other classmates track him down and claim he's dishonoring the school by running away. (Seriously?)Pai-Er decides she wants to scrap, and Fang Gang deftly blocks her attacks and knocks her over as if to say, 'Silly Rabbit.' Pai-Er cries, embarrassed. So much so that when Fang Gang tries to help her up, SHE CUTS THE HOMIE'S ARM CLEAN OFF. Cue the wild dramatic music sequence. After he stumbles off into the snowy forest hinterland, Teacher comes up and just scolds everyone in the trio. That's it. He just yells at them.

Fang Gang stumbles and stumbles until he falls off a bridge...into the boat of Xiao Man(Chiao Chiao)She slowly nurses him back to health and in doing so, falls in love with him. After he heals, Fang Gang and Xiao Man are discussing the future when two rowdies start harassing Xiao. Gang tries to fight them off to no avail. They're only stopped when Master Smiling Tiger(Tong Dik) waves them off. Xiao Man, against her own dislike of martial arts, gives Gang a sword manual left to her by her father. Due to a fire, all that's left are left-handed sword techniques. Meanwhile, Smiling Tiger, the sworn enemy of the Golden Sword School, has unleashed a new weapon that can defeat the school's 64 techniques called a sword lock. With this, Smiling Tiger and his pupils go on to terrorize Qi Ru Feng's students. That is, until Fang Gang shows up. He soon realizes the fate of the Golden Sword School is in his hands. And along the way, he gets to throw some serious shade to Pai-Er who's still acting bratty.

One Armed Swordsman is a highly acclaimed martial arts film and it's a groundbreaking one on a couple of levels. First, it was the first Hong Kong film to gross one million dollars due to its popularity. The next point of appeal lies with its charismatic young star, Jimmy Wang Yu. Jimmy was just setting out on the apex of his flashy and lengthy career, a far cry from being a swimming champion. It's worthy to note that he had NO martial arts training whatsoever. Yes, that's right. None. He looked the part thanks to the action direction of the great Lau Kar Leung(who you can spot as an extra in the flick)and Runme Shaw himself. Wang Yu would go on to utilize the one-armed style effectively throughout his career, even going up against famed Japanese character Zatoichi in a 1972 flick. And lastly, the style that Chang Cheh brought to One Armed Swordsman was the beginning of a new wave taking place in Hong Kong cinema. It was a wave that borrowed from the chambara genre wildly popular in Japan. It also owed some influence to westerns by Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone. You can see it in the camera angles and precise editing jumps, whereas in previous films most shots were long drawn out set pieces and takes. Take note also on how the film backdrop by Johnson Tsao helps tell the Story of Fang Gang's development from the harshness of losing his arm in winter to his return to the Golden Sword School to face Smiling Tiger in the summer.

Of course, there are a few things that catch you off guard. For one, Pai-Er seems to have been an early ancestor to those broads you see on shows like 'Bad Girls Club'; always upset, hiding her true feelings in certain rash moves. Xiao Man doesn't fare that much better even in a sympathetic love interest role. She tends to fall over herself weeping a lot. Given the charges against Cheh's depiction of women that we've spoken of on this blog, this seems to be ground zero for it. 'Dames can't be trusted.' This also is possibly a reach back to Hollywood cinema in the days of film noir. And after Fang Gang gets his arm cut off - how did this cat not pass out right there on the road? The sword lock is another curious point, but one you can overlook for the sake of the film. It also would be the origin point for Chang Cheh's love of crazy-ass weaponry.

If you haven't seen it yet, make it a point to watch One Armed Swordsman. You get a better understanding of the beginnings of Chang Cheh and his style that would become synonymous with the Shaw Brothers Studios for the next couple of decades afterward. And it's a nicely paced action film with enough captivating drama no matter how often you watch it.

DRAGON PUNCHES: 4.5 out of 5

Saturday, January 18, 2014

In Memoriam: Sir Run Run Shaw

The new year begins on a somber note with the passing of the great man responsible for a film empire that had and still has worldwide impact, Sir Run Run Shaw. Along with his brother, Runme, Shaw created a movie studio that was the jewel of Asia and beloved by the West.

Shaw got involved in the movie business from the 1930's at the behest of his family to help out an older brother. This would see him through travels to Singapore and Hong Kong, where he eventually settled in the 1930's to the 1950's. Imagine - living through constant war and still having the temerity to help craft an empire. Singapore was the main base at first, seeing Run Run and his family turn one movie house into 139 over a few years throughout the island nation as well as in Borneo, Java and Malaya. (Side note: Shaw is given some credit during this period for helping to spur the 'Golden Age Of Malay Cinema'.)In addition to movie houses, the family also built multiple amusement parks. Run Run and Runme were key to this rapid growth. It all came to a halt once the Japanese invaded in 1941. The army confiscated all of their equipment. But, they didn't get the cash - Run Run stated that he and his brother buried cash, jewelry and other valuables in their backyard. The haul that restarted their business? $4 million dollars.

Settling down in Hong Kong in 1957, Run Run saw the great possibilities at hand. Forming Shaw Studios a year later, he would oversee the tremendous success right away. He made a power move by purchasing 46 ACRES of land from the government at Causeway Bay to create Shaw Movietown. It would prove to be the world's largest privately owned studio with 1,200 workers. His films garnered international acclaim beginning in 1962 with The Magnificent Concubine. Shaw Studios became the prominent movie company in Asia, running their own magazine, Southern Screen and holding competitions yearly to see who would be the next starlet or action hero. Many famous names from Cheng Pei Pei to Ti Lung to Linda Lin-Dai got their start with Shaw Studios. Never one to overlook any opportunity, Shaw even sent stars to the United States on tours of movie sets in Hollywood. This dominance went on well into the 1970's, seeing the studios turn out 50 flicks a year at one point. There was even collaborations with Italian studios and most notably, Britain's own Hammer Studios. That joint venture brought about the cult classic Legend Of The Seven Golden Vampires. (Side note: there's a UK documentary on Shaw done in the late 1960's as part of a travelogue series that fully explores Movietown entitled 'Fists of Fire'.Peep it below.)

The late 1970's saw a slight shift in Shaw Studios' fortunes with competition from Golden Harvest, and other outfits from Taiwan along with Japan's resurgence in the field. Run Run had anticipated this however by creating Television Broadcasts Limited(TVB) in 1967. TVB being the second television network in Hong Kong, it became a high-grossing outlet for his films and other programming. It's said that even in Guangdong there were hundreds of illegal aerials to pick up the signal not allowed under Mao Zedong's regime. During the 1980's, he began the transition of power from the movie studios to the TV side of things. In the process, those films found their way over to homes in the United States via independent TV networks showing them on weekends. TVB was responsible for launching the careers of famed stars such as Chow Yun-Fat and Maggie Cheung among others. He also had a hand in other films being made, most notably Ridley Scott's sci-fi epic, Blade Runner in 1982.

In his later years, Sir Run Run(he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1977) would work tirelessly. A devotee of qigong, he ensured his life had great balance. He also was a Rolls Royce man, owning quite a few of their cars. He worked until he was 100 YEARS OLD. Chew on that for a minute. Shaw also was a great philanthropist, creating the 'Shaw Prize' for recognition of achievement in the sciences. He even had an asteroid named after him. It's reported that he donated at least 10 BILLION dollars to charities, organizations and educational facilities. Sir Run Run Shaw passed away peacefully at the age 0f 106 this past January 7th. A giant in so many ways. Thank you, sir.