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Baroque Kung Fu – FIVE DEADLY VENOMS

FIVE DEADLY VENOMS is a genre classic, but not for the reasons you think.

Part whodunnit, part horror film, with a pinch of Mexican wrestling thrown in for good measure, Chang Cheh‘s Five Deadly Venoms (1978) is a film that’s earned a reputation as a must-see for people interested in exploring Kung Fu cinema. The tale of a Kung Fu Master who dispatches his last student to discover which of his past pupils – Centipede, Snake, Scorpion, Lizard or Toad – is putting the clan’s special Poison skills to evil use (imagine that!), it’s a movie which features more sidelong glances, suspicious ducking down alleyways, and guessing games than it does actual martial arts. But despite the fact that it fails to wow in the action department, Five Deadly Venoms ultimately proves to be a thoroughly entertaining affair which grows on you with repeated viewings, thanks to director Chang Cheh’s knack for “borrowing” from other directors. Here he seems to be channeling Mario Bava, creating a palpable dread whose color scheme feels like the Kung Fu version of Planet of the Vampires – at once both colorful and grey – and whose violent passages feel sublimely campy and overwrought. What little kung-fu there is is first rate, the pedigree and skills of the cast – tough guy Lo Meng, strongman Lu Feng, nimble Chiang Sheng, superkicker Sun Chien, and all-around bad ass Philip Kwok – never in question. It’s just that there isn’t that much of it, by Shaw Brothers standards. While the earlier films of director Chang Cheh (The One Armed Swordsman trilogy, Shaolin Temple, Heroes Two) were loaded with innovative martial arts, by the late seventies – following the departure of choreographer Lau Kar Leung to begin a directing career of his own (36th Chamber of Shaolin, Dirty Ho, 8 Diagram Pole Fighter) – the action began to dwindle and become over-reliant on weird machismo, cartoonish violence, and fancy acrobatics. But despite this, there are incredible sets, crazy costumes with iconic masks, and ridiculous plot twists to keep you occupied, and when the five styles of venomous animals are on display it’s as if you’re watching a heady mix of 1960’s TV Batman by way of Kung Fu Panda. It might not be the best martial arts film in “godfather of Kung Fu fimmaking” Chang Cheh’s career – which spanned nearly a hundred films – but Five Deadly Venoms is nevertheless a one-of-a-kind cult classic any fan of filmdom should experience.

And hey lookee here- the movie available in its entirety!

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June 13, 2011   2 Comments

Kung Fu Fireworks – DIRTY HO

DIRTY HO is another transcendent kung-fu movie by one of the all time greats, Lau Kar Leung.

Quit snickering and get past the fact that it sounds like a porn flick: Dirty Ho [La tou He] (1979) deserves your utmost respect. The story of a playboy Prince (Gordon Liu) traveling incognito and sampling of the finer things his kingdom has to offer while fending off assassins is a bona-fide masterpiece. Despite the fact that for the first 40 minutes or so there is very little action, the story is strong, the comedy intelligent, and the character development compelling, as our Prince crosses paths with a country bumpkin named Ho, forcing him to become his student/indentured servant. The titular Ho (odd combination of words) is so clueless that he doesn’t even notice the attempts on his rival’s life until halfway through the movie – which is when the payoff truly begins. Lau Kar Leung, director of 8 Diagram Pole Fighter, The 36 Chambers of Shaolin, and countless other masterpieces, inventor of Horror- and Comedy-Kung Fu, and the single greatest contributor to Martial Arts Cinema, gives us one of his most imaginative creations: “Stealth Kung Fu,” a style by which the Prince manipulates his surroundings and dispatches his enemies in such a way that no one- not even the assassins themselves- might discover that he knows kung fu, which would reveal his Royal identity. As the action builds the fights get more intense, culminating in a fantastic Lone Wolf and Cub-esque set piece and a climactic 3-on-2 fight that’s simply mesmerizing. Wong Yue and Gordon Liu shine as Ho and the Prince and Leung’s usual collaborators – arch-villain Wang Lung-Wei, kung-fu god Wilson Tong, monkey man Hsiao Hou, the lovely Kara Hui and King Boxer Lo Lieh – round out the stellar cast. Part buddy movie, part high adventure, part playful criticism of his past employer (the first fight pokes fun at fellow Shaw Brothers director Chang Cheh‘s over-the-top films), Dirty Ho succeeds in every one of its many ambitions, and is yet another example of the under-appreciated brilliance of Lau Kar Leung, a director worthy of your time and energy.

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October 21, 2010   No Comments

Amazing Kung Fu Flick – 8 DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER

8 DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER might be the greatest Kung Fu film ever made.

8 Diagram Pole Fighter a.k.a. Invincible Pole Fighter (1984) is a Kung Fu melodrama which deserves wider recognition as a masterpiece of the genre and one of the most emotionally charged films to come out of the Shaw Brothers studio. Even within Lau Kar Leung’s magnificent body of work (which includes 36 Chambers of Shaolin, Dirty Ho, Heroes of the East, and Legendary Weapons of China) it stands out, in large part due to the tragic death of star Alexander Fu Sheng, who plays one of two brothers from the Yang Clan to survive a massacre orchestrated by the legendary traitor Pai Mei. After Fu Sheng’s death shut down production, LKL returned to finish the film, focusing the narrative on the other Yang brother (played by Gordon Liu), who lays down his spear and becomes a monk, only to later leave the temple in pursuit of revenge. The movie opens with a stagey over-the-top massacre, and while it no doubt resonated with audience members at the time, it might turn off viewers approaching this film cold. But if you’re patient, what follows is one of the great revenge movies of any genre. LKL again proves himself to be the consummate master, and his attention to detail and inventive shot construction leaves you breathless. The imagery is stupendous, the fight choreography insane- with not only the greatest one on-one-pole fight scene in history – between Liu and the Abbot, played by Phillip Ko – but also an incredibly inventive three-versus-a-horde-of-Mongols climax which takes place on a pyramid constructed of coffins, and features a creative way of disarming one’s enemy.

June 14, 2010   1 Comment

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