Tonight, the final films in the Cinematheque Summer Film Series were shown, two films by the HK director Chang Cheh, 1978's Brave Archer 2 aka Kung Fu Warlords 2
and 1979's Brave Archer 3 aka Blast of the Iron Palm
. We are talking Run Run Shaw style kung fu, the stuff they used to show on Saturday and Sunday mornings on USA Network and TBS Superstation when I was a kid. Low, low budget genre cinema, recut, rescored (I shit you not, Brave Archer 2
's score was the theme musci from Monty Python's The Holy Grail
), dubbed, and given some overemphatic English narration to smooth over some of the film's rough narrative spots (due to the recutting I guess); the films are clearly part of a series, Brave Archer 2
began with a mindboggling complex recap of Brave Archer 1
, and Brave Archer 3
began with a recut, shorter version of the climax to Brave Archer 2
. According to the blurb in The Onion
, these films are based on the famous wuxia pian serial Eagle Shooting Heroes
, which was also the inspiration for Wong Kar-wai's masterful, yet equally confusing, Ashes of Time
, though I saw no connection.
It's probably best to pay scant attention to the plots of the movies. Brave Archer 2
concerns the sectarian struggles of various kung fu clans, particularly the Nine-fingered Beggar's clan and the Iron Palm Clan, as well as Master Wong's clan, and that other guy, who I can't remember's clan, and some fighting monks; oh yeah, there is also a civil war going on between the Sung and the Ching, and each martial arts clan is allied with one faction or the other. Everyone is trying to find a manual with the secrets to combat. The main characters throughout both films are the earnest Koo Sing (played by Fu Sheng) and his girlfriend/wife/whatever Ah Yung, who becomes the master of the Nine-fingered Beggars clan during the course of the film. The plot of Brave Archer 2
is alternatingly simplistic and byzantine. Brave Archer 3
is simpler, Koo Sing and Ah Yung find the manual in the lands of the Iron Palm clan, flee with the book, Ah Yung is wounded, and they take refuge in a swamp with a woman with grey hair (who I think is an obvious inspiration for Ronnie Yu's The Bride With White Hair
) who tells them about a monk who can heal Ah Yung. The rest of the film concerns their attempts to find the monk (played by Ti Lung of A Better Tomorrow
fame), and then the monk's tragic recounting of his history, once a Prince, and his selfishness that lead to the death of the grey-haired ladies son. The story also involved Koo Sing's apparently retarded, yet acrobatic, martial arts master Uncle Chiao.
Of course, who cares about the plot, we are here for the kung fu, and while I could have gone for less plot, there was plenty of ass kickin' to go around. Chang Cheh, while hampered by a low-budget, and laughable special effects, really bridged the gap between more "realistic", earthbound kung fu movies and the wire fu of the 1980s. He also had an eye for color and widescreen composition, and there are several striking shots in both movies. The highlights of Brave Archer 2
, are when the Master of the Beggars clan teaches Ah Yung the 36 secret techniques with some chopsticks, a fight between Uncle Chiao and some mercenary Ching fighter's where he manages to switch between two masks, a frightening green jade one, and a white, wooden smiling face one, with each twirl, and the final showdown between Koo Sing and the master of the Iron Palm clan. That duel is impressive for it's usage of slow motion, wind machines (fluttering red and black capes in slow motion, very cool, it seems John Woo learned something about that from his teacher, Chang Cheh), spring boards, and wires. In one impressive move, Koo Sing is doing a straight-up in the air handstand on the upturned palms of the Iron Palm chief and continues to punch while balancing on one or none hands. But this is just a prelude.
Brave Archer 3
has less kung fu, but more wirework, especially when Koo Sing and the woodcutter guard climb trees and jump back and forth, or when Lady Ying, the grey-haired lady, enters the abbey to kill her former lover, she jumps up on roofs and over walls like something out of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
. There are several very, very low angle shots of the scholar guard, which are impressive pieces of compostion. However, Brave Archer 3
concludes with a massive 10 minute duel between the Abbot's four guards and the four students of the Iron Palm chief, and Koo Sing and the Iron Palm Chief, yet again; oh yeah, Koo Sing's retarded uncle shows up to lend some flowers to the fight, which leads to bloody results. The entire thing is a breathtaking display of coordination, balletic motion, and acrobatics, a virtual whirl-a-gig of bodies, twisting, contorting, leaping in impossible ways, the flash of steel and wood striking each other in the distinctive pause, burst, pause way of fight choreography common to HK films. No cutting away, no tricks (other than the occassional wire work or springboard), just a lot of unadulterated, pure kung fu. It doesn't get much better than that.