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Great Scenes – LADY IS THE BOSS

I recently went to see RZA‘s Man with the Iron Fists (2012) hoping for a glimpse of that old Shaw Brothers magic I love so well – and though it was undoubtedly watchable, I was disappointed that besides for a fantastic title sequence and the brief presence of Chen Kuan Tai and Gordon Liu, it seemed to be missing the LOVE I expected to see from a genre fan and Wu-Tang man. So like an addict I ran home and popped in the nearest Lau Kar Leung flick, Lady is the Boss (1983) – by no means a great film save for this amazing ending, which features the director’s company (many of them his students) referencing the hits in a medley of manic action. We get Venom Sun Chien kicking formal ass (in bow tie) against perennial monk Gordon Liu, escalating into more self-referential goodness when Mad Monkey Hsiao Hou bursts on the scene with some insane acrobatics. And watching the ending, in which Sifu Leung faces off against Wang Lung Wei, I realize why I love these movies so much – because they feature actual ACTING, moments of reality where actors react to wounds, or hesitate before taking a new strategy, or reach for a nearby dumbell to use as a weapon – which give the fighting a realism rarely seen in modern martial arts, where everything’s choreographed to the point of boredom and directors have to turn to indulgence like slo-motion, ridiculous split screen, or over-the-top gore to maintain our interest. No thanks. I’ll take LKL and the Brothers Shaw anyday.

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November 20, 2012   2 Comments

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

Existential Swordplay – SOUL OF THE SWORD

SOUL OF THE SWORD is a superlative Wu-Xia from the Brothers Shaw.

Most of my Shaw Bros. love has thus far been directed at kung-fu mastermind Lau Kar Leung (here and here), but there were other great directors and kung-fu choreographers in the Shaw stables, and plenty of great movies like this one – 1978’s Soul of the Sword [Sha Jue]. LKL’s once partner, Tang Chia handles the action choreography in this Wu-Xia film directed by Hua Shan (who gave us the classic Super Inframan), but it isn’t the action alone which makes this movie so watchable. Wu Xia: the closest thing Americans have to it is the genre of Western fiction – by authors such as Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey – but instead of The Wild West it’s an effervescent green Sherwood forest-like China, populated by colorful swordsmen with unique powers who endlessly greet one another: “I’m Fox Tail, carrying the jade sword of the mystic mountain.” “I have heard of you. I’m Fire Head, my teacher was your grand teacher’s teacher. I look forward to double crossing you soon.” The Wu Xia of the 60’s and 70’s (Come Drink With Me, The Magic Blade) were elegant and full of bluster, and in all honesty somewhat dull. But not this one – it’s grim, gritty and pulls no punches. Ti Lung plays “Nameless,” a swordsman on a quest to unseat the current “King of Swords” and become the greatest martial artist in the world (i.e. China). As an orphan, Nameless witnesses the masked King of Swords kill a swordsman whose wife then commits suicide, and the event inspires him to seek a life of power in order to defend the weak. But when we meet him as an adult he has forgotten all but his quest: he is arrogant, aggressive and cruel, with a single-mindedness which lays waste to friends and lovers. While today’s Wu Xia – like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Hero – are mostly critical of notions of heroism, this was one of the first to subvert conventions, and it is certainly more subtle and rewarding in its critique of the Warrior’s Code. The direction is slick, the acting superb (with Ku Feng and Norman Chu lending their talents), and the fantastic ambiguous ending underlines the existential crisis facing all heroic quests – whether they be personal journeys or great revolutions. But what really lifts the movie is the B story, when Nameless falls in love with the very same woman (the beautiful Lin Chen-Chi) as the one who’s suicide first set him on his journey (the beautiful Lin Chen-Chi). And it’s this surreal twist – of a swordsman haunted by a love which may destroy his quest – that raises the bar and gives the film a surreal, Buñuelian quality – like a martial arts version of Cemetery Man! And that’s just plain awesome – a surprise jewel in the Shaw Bros. treasure chest which I suggest you unearth immediately.

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April 27, 2011   No Comments

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