Thursday, March 27, 2014

Shaolin Mantis (Tang Long, 1978)

What's happening, all you fighting films lovers out there? Hai! Karate returns with the next post covering a Shaw Brothers flick not widely spoken of but still dope as hell, Shaolin Mantis!!! This film from 1978 stars Shaw action heartthrob David Chiang, Cecilia Wong, Lily Li Li-Li and Lau Kar Wing at the forefront of a real solid cast! Directorial duties here are by the late master Lau Kar Leung himself.

Shaolin Mantis begins in the courtyard of the Qing emperor Ping Xi (Frankie Wei-Hung) who has summoned Scholar Wei and his son, Wei Fung(Chiang). On the surface, all seems innocent. Emperor Xi asks Wei Fung to show off his kung fu, first against a Mongol fighter, and then against a Shaolin priest. (Side note: the priest is played by none other than Gordon Liu. more on that later.) After dispatching both of them, Emperor Xi decrees that Wei Fung leave his studies and go to infiltrate the Tien clan's house in order to obtain proof that they are planning to rebel. These orders come with a serious consequence; if Wei Fung doesn't return in 3 months, his family's royal standing will be stripped. 6 months, they will all be jailed. And in a year, they will all be beheaded.

Wei Fung comes to the Tien's home shortly after and winds up in a slight confrontation with Tien Gi Gi(Wong), Tien's granddaughter after she threw her elderly teacher out. Gi Gi takes a liking to Wei Fung and asks him to be her teacher. She takes him into the clan home, and Wei Fung meets all of the family including Master Tien(Kar-Wing). Master Tien gives permission for Wei Fung to stay over the protests of Gi Gi's uncles. Time passes, and Gi Gi and Wei Fung fall in love. A dangerous fact, and one Gi Gi has to reveal after Wei Fung tries to flee and is caught. The suspense builds as Wei Fung realizes time is running out for his family. He intends to leave, and take Gi Gi with him. But Master Tien and Gi Gi's family have sworn that he would not leave and are dead set against him doing so. Wei Fung manages to flee after a series of harsh fights against the clan, but loses the list. Wounded, tired and looking for vengeance, he stumbles upon a praying mantis in a thicket of bamboo, and begins to craft a new style in order to triumph. But will he succeed?

Shaolin Mantis is an underrated dramatic saga in my opinion, vastly so. It is a bit interesting to note that this film may have not been expected to do too well. One reason being that it was Lau Kar Leung's fifth film directing. He had crafted great films prior to this, Challenge Of The Masters and The Spiritual Boxer among them. They may have wondered if he could keep the magic going. Of course, having Gordon Liu do a cameo didn't hurt. This film was done shortly before the masterpiece that would launch both Leung and Liu into international stardom, The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin. Liu features prominently on the poster and the subsequent cover art on the Celestial DVD release when he's only in the film for less than FIVE minutes! That aside, Leung put together a great film. David Chiang is superb as Wei Fung, the conflicted Qing spy. This film was done as he was in the later years of a long career with Shaw. His rakishly handsome looks still worked for him, although in some shots you can see his age more prominently. His fighting talents are in full display here. especially his acrobatics which Leung made sure would be put to the max. Cecilia Wong as Gi Gi shines, deftly making you feel sympathy and warmth as she becomes less of a brat and more of a tragic figure, loving her husband but trapped against her clan. Lau Kar Wing as Master Tien does well enough to not just be a stock villain. Lily Li as Gi Gi's mother gives another great role justice; she would prove to have a knack for these roles throughout her career. Add Wilson Tong and Norman Chu as Gi Gi's uncles and you've got a cast that solidifies the film. As far as the fighting, while it is less than you might expect from a Shaw film, what is there balances the film's dramatic plot out well. One would have like to see more of the mantis style training scenes later in the film, but it is good enough without that. And the plot twist at the end is 'WTF' enough to seal the deal. There may be one or two moments where you'll find your focus wavers but Shaolin Mantis is strikingly good. Check it out when you can, it's out on DVD and online.


Saturday, March 22, 2014

Shorinji Kenpo (The Killing Machine, 1976)

Next up for all you martial arts film lovers out there thanks to Hai! Karate is a Shinichi 'Sonny' Chiba joint that doesn't get quite the accolades it deserves, Shorinji Kenpo, from 1976!

Shorinji Kenpois essentially a biography of the art's founder, Doshin So. So is, like other founding masters of martial arts, a figure stepped in legend and legacy. So was born in Okayama, Japan in 1911 and at the age of 17 he went to live in China. Why? He was working for the government as a secret agent. While there, So fit in well enough to be involved with several Chinese secret societies. This would then put him in contact with martial artists who had been in hiding since the Boxer Rebellion years earlier. He began to learn from them, specifically training with a Shaolin master by the name of Wen Laoshi. He would succeed Laoshi as master of the Northern Shaolin Giwamonken School. Using this style and other techniques, he gave birth to shorinji kempo, which translated means 'Shaolin Temple Fist Method'. He returned to Japan in 1946 and saw that the country was in ruin and moral disrepair after their defeat in World War II. He then committed himself to helping to boost morale and pride by reaching out to the youth in talks, then by establishing a dojo via the formation of a temple, getting around the Allied forces' decree that no martial arts be taught in post-war times.

With a story like that, it's no wonder Toei wanted to do a film on So. And they had the man to do it, Sonny Chiba. Chiba was riding high as Japan's #1 action star. The film essentially has him playing Soh during this period as he returned to Japan to find his way. The film begins with Soh escaping a gang of Chinese fighters only to get to base and find that Japan has surrendered to the U.S. He reacts by shooting up the entire office in rage.

So returns to Japan, and along the way dispenses justice against some soldiers looking to rape a young girl named Kiku(Yutaku Nakajima)and to stop Korean bandits on a train in rough fashion. So's whole persona is that of dispensing justice and living with honor even in the worst of times. He eventually finds a home in the slums of Osaka amid orphans and prostitutes underneath a railway. There he's charitable and helps to settle disputes, one of which has him reunite with Kiku and her brother. Kiku had become a prostitute, forced by the Russians. But with So and the the orphans, she runs a food stand. The happiness doesn't last long as her brother gets hit by an American jeep and So proceeds to bust heads.

While in prison, he befriends a man named Otaki(Makoto Sato) who he had beaten up before in a melee with black market smugglers. Of course, this is after he sends Otaki RIGHT THROUGH THE WALL with one kick. So winds up getting freed by the prison warden on the condition he leave Osaka. He does and hits a seaside town, Tadotsu. There he solidifies his rep as 'Crazy Dog', but also gains enough support to build up his dojo while waging war on the local yakuza. It all comes to a head once one of his prize students, Tomoda(Naoya Makato) and his sister (Etsuko Shiomi) are set upon by yakuza thugs who slice off Tomoda's arm. The battle is now on in earnest as So begins to define not only his purpose, but that of Shorinji Kempo.

Shorinji Kenpo is a surprisingly compelling film. It is a shame that Western markets chose to dub it 'The Killing Machine' because it gets away from the heart shown in the picture. For starters, it's a sobering look at Japan's disrepair after World War II in all forms. It's not hokey in the least. The storyline may have its highly cinematic parts but it also has tear-jerker moments. Otaki's storyline is painful in the picture. Kiku is also a tragic figure. But there is triumph of the will here, evidenced by So and Tomoda, who despite losing an arm, finds the courage to still fight and train. Shorinji Kenpo benefits from this, as well as its many well-done and thrilling fight scenes. So himself was the primary film fight instructor, thus keeping the integrity in the action. And there is a lot of it. Be warned though - there is visible blood-letting in the flick, including one scene that... well for the fellas, I'd advise you to really cringe in one scene where So dispenses justice in a crude way. That ends with a stray dog. Yeah. Shorinji Kenpo is probably one of Chiba's best flicks in that it is one of his most balanced. And Chiba's acting doesn't go over the top here, befitting the man who he portrays. Go peep Shorinji Kenpo as soon as possible.