The cinephile fetish of the year is, of course, the re-issue of the (mostly long unavailable) catalog of Shaw Bros. movies by Celestial Pictures. If I read correctly, over 700 (beautifully, judging from what I’ve seen) restored films will be unleashed on DVD in the next 4 years, which means I’ll have to catch at least 4 a month to keep up. So far I’m behind schedule (mainly because of work), but as a new 21-disc-shipment is on the way I thought I’d write something on the 12 I’ve seen so far before it spins out of control.
A quick orientation: In the 60s and 70s (and a bit of the 50s and 80s), the reawakaned Shaw Bros. Studio – led by Runme and Run Run Shaw - was the most important Asian film factory. Notorious for their meager contracts, they nevertheless introduced the frenetic HK production tempo (working in 3 8-hour shifts), a star system comparable to the golden Hollywood age and, also much like that, a combination of artistic refinement and commercial crassness. Trademarks are a willingness to push the borders of taste, the glorious ShawScope format (the usual 2,35:1, but they knew how to herald their own name) and – for the most part – a lush, sometimes almost garishly intense color palette. The rest was up to their prolific directors and casts of varying talent and vision.
In order of viewing:
Come Drink With Me
The only one I could see on the big screen (last year in Cannes when the restoration project was introduced in the West; I subsequently bought the DVD), this 1966 King Hu breakthrough film lacks the magisterial pace of his later A Touch of Zen
, but it is the touchstone of wu xia movies, introducing amongst other things the unavoidable inn brawl, suprisingly bloody bouts choreographed with considerable more realism than was the norm back then (though with Hu’s keen eye for aesthetically pleasing movements) and acting touchstones Hua Yueh (a proto-drunken master type in this one) and the almighty Cheng Pei-pei (“She’s almost as lovely as Maggie Cheung”, a friend remarked and indeed I didn’t hit her on the spot for that). Plot despite philosophical touches almost neglectable in retrospect, since it’s been recycled somewhere in the 3-digit-numbers; for all its formal care in compositions, martial arts balletism and character sketching several changes of tones (from bloodbath to funny music interlude) make this amazing effort hard to pin down; no arguing the impact of its chivalrous attitude, musical quality and especially the feverish hothouse showdown, though. Only complaint: King Hu made no more than 2 pics for the Shaws, who’ll release the rest?
The Heroic Ones
The first film I saw by legendary Chang Cheh (not only John Woo, a former assistant director, swears by the frequently homoerotic, darkly nihilistic, single-mindedly body-oriented works of the master), a rather lavish martial arts epic about the bloody wars of (and within) a group comprised of the 13 super-skilled quasi-sons - among them Chang-axioms David Chiang and Ti Lung - of a warlord. Kinetic in its choreography (clear orchestration of brilliantly executed thud-whoosh-handfights and ridiculously violent weapon mayhem) as well as its direction (Scope-handcamera gives ragged, energetic impact as in Kinji Fukasaku’s innovative Japanese gangster films of the period), it is almost mythically disillusioned in plot: Almost no good deed unpunished, the more humane the person, the grislier his death. Top-notch materialist pessimism, possibly in the league of Bressons Lancelot du Lac
The Anonymous Herous
Another Chang Cheh effort, this 1971 release starts off as light-hearted action-comedy with Ti Lung and David Chiang embarking happy-go-lucky on a suicidal revolutionary assignment (lovely Li Ching assists) with broad strokes of Asian humour clashing into epic shootouts (a rather remarkable one on a moving train in its center hampered by horrible rear-projection – never quite a Shaw forte, see The Mighty Peking Man
below) before it veers into a martyr-happy showdwn that makes the obvious model The Wild Bunch
look positively restrained in comparison. Hard to reconcile the arising inconsistencies, but somehow all the more fascinating for it. After only two films Chang Cheh a top contender for most nihilistic of directors.
Hong Kong Nocturne
A 1967 musical by Inoue Umetsuge, a Japanese regular for Shaw (gotta find out the back-story some day), this is fairly ludicrous in many aspects (for every second song-and-dance number the leads assemble on the roof of the house), but its colors close to hallucinatory and – for all its backfiring escapist bric-a-brac - traumatically unsentimental in its portrayal of the female lead’s (Cheng Pei-pei again, bless you) struggle to settle for either job or romance, as there are no other options. Your guess what’s the outcome.
A late work of the Shaw studio, this utterly dark 1982 horror film by Sun Chung combines its almost mean-spirited (others might prefer the term: clear-eyed) view of humanity with georgeous period detail. Plot completely perverse: a businessman hurt in his pride hires reclusive lantern-maker (Lo Lieh in an irresistivble turn) to build him a masterpiece so he’ll win the annual lantern-fest, turns out he destroyed the mad craftsman’s existence years earlier which doesn’t cost him as much as a glance of irritation, but the lives of his loved ones later on, as the now weirdly customed hermit abducts them one by one, carefully removes their skin and uses it for the most magnificent set of lanterns. Garnished with martial arts interludes and emerging slightly cut after all this years, this is an essential film about the beauty of terror (and vice versa).
The Killer Snakes
The HK response to Willard
(am I the only one psyched about the Crispin Glover remake?) and Ben
, Kuei Chih-hungs 1974 exploitation flick has a memorable turn by debutante Kam Kwok Leung, who stars as a young man that’s scarred in every respect and has his serpent friends take revenge. Totally tasteless in its play with primal fears – a woman is killed via rather unwelcome and extensive snake penetration -, this is an amazingly sleazy psychosexual abyss that dares go where the west did not. In fact, that’s its trump card: it’s so outspoken it’s almost idiotic. Or brilliant. Or both. Otherwise its gritty portrayal of urban aliention and mental defects place it pretty close to classic disreputable 70s horror.
The Cave of Silken Web
This 1968 period comedy is the third in a series that follow the classic fables of the Monkey King. Shaw super-hack Ho Meng-hua relishes in silly comedy, sexy starlets (spider godesses who live in the titular, ehm, cavity – subtle metaphor also not the director’s strong point) and a trippy color scheme that seems imported from the latest love-in at Haight/Ashbury. Quite amusing in its excesses with a few throwaway reflexve bits and an outrageous sadistic streak.
The Blood Brothers
Chang Cheh’s sweeping 1973 epic uses a flashback structure – David Chiang explains in a trial whose outcome is premediated why he killed former friend, later power-crazy governer Ti Lung (who gives one of his most legendary perfomances) – to emphasize the futility of nobility in corrupt ages. An ingenious solution, this device of desparation nevertheless almost undercuts the romantic gloom and tragic grandeur inherent in the central love-quadruple (Ching Li has a surprisingly thankful role in Cheh’s male-centered universe here), especially as the brilliantly drawn-out conclusion goes for a fortissimo of emotions. Still, of the Chang Cheh films I’ve seen, this one explains the best where John Woo is coming from.
Practically the opposite, this swift, violent 1973 Chang Cheh potboiler is pure, prime chopsocky. Excerpts of the classic Fong Sai Yuk (the hero is played by then 19-year-old Alexander Fu Sheng in a star-making debut) tale are used for a study in the endurance possibilities of the human body. Plot basically an excuse to grind from one torture to the next fight, but masterful in its choreography and tight in its splendor of suffering. During the extended, expressive showdown the screen flashes red everytime a fatal blow is struck.
The Mighty Peking Man
Ho Meng-hua’s amazingly slapdash 1977 attempt to cash in on the King Kong
remake, this easily outdoes Toho’s Godzilla
series in cheap models, Ed Wood in its use of inept rear projection and any functioning mind with its sub-Tarzan exotic trappings (Swiss import Evelyne Kraft, as the poor Eastern Man’s Fay Wray, complete with tiny leather outfit and a scene where a sanke bites her thighs only that far from the end of same, making for an indelible blunt sexual image when poison-sucking ensues). In other words: A must-see for every self-respecting trash aficionado, who will cheer at the Mighty Peking Stomp that Giganto-Yeti uses repeatedly on innocent bystanders.
Comic master Michael Hui gave his hugely successful screen debut in 1973 as dumb, horny, powerful Warlord who tempts the gods after 5 minutes, has exectued somebody every other 5 and even manages to have the Empress Dowager’s grave defiled before his ineveitable end arrives (which comes as a suprise only for himself). A remerkably cynical comedy about lust, greed and belligerence (a pretty timely film, actually), though director Li Han Hsiang’s exquisite attention to decor and female anatomy slows the proceedings down considerably, even if he tries to compensate with sudden zooms and a loose plot structure. Hui’s brilliantly deadpan turn is enough to keep things together.
Next to Chang Cheh, Chor Yuen (aka Chu Yuan) is considered the king of martial arts in the Shaw Universe. This confusingly complex and beautifully mounted 1976 wu xia film, the beginning of a whole cycle, gives some idea: Whereas for Cheh production design and lush cinematography are incidental pleasures at best, a distraction from his materialist interests more often, his colleague is enchanted by luxurious decor, gauze-covered compositions and tasteful color work. Even more interesting are the fascinating, labourious dynamics in this rollercoaster of backstabbing and double-crossing about several henchmen out to kill a powerful, wise and unscrupulous clan leader (for once not a villain, but a sad figure: Ku Feng). The central conceit is the impossibility of romance, even loyality amongst men whose sole purpose is to kill; a point made so feverishly that you fear he film will run out of characters halfway through. (Seldom has a movie been so insistent in repidly disposing of its stars.) With a few more cards up his sleeve, Chor Yuen manages to reach the 100-minute-mark without ever letting you question his impeccable taste or his flair for visual metaphor embedded into an escalating series of tragic and inevitable deaths. Even he unexpectedly happy ending is completely undemined when it arrives, a postponement at best.