Goddamn You! Your kung fu is lacking...

Sunday, 2 June 2013

The Sword of Justice (1980)


Background:  This Taiwanese wuxia film was originally pencilled in for a dvd release on Toby Russell's Rarescope label - it featured in a 'coming attractions' trailer alongside other films such as The Monk's Fight and Witty Hand Witty Sword.  However, it was never released.  

A couple of years ago, a well-respected German collector managed to raise enough funds through a pre-order scheme to get copies of the aforementioned films taken from the original reels, and sent out to contributors.  Sword of Justice was meant to be released in a similar deal, but if memory serves me right, a copy of the Rarescope print was uploaded onto a torrent site before this could happen.

Since then a London-based fan has added an English dub track to the widescreen Rarescope print, and made some colour corrections.  For the purposes of this review, though, I'm using the original print, which is heavily worn and features burnt-in white subtitles.

The film stars Lau Seung-Him, Yau Pang-Sang, Lucia Cheung Siu-Lan, Ma Chin-Ku and Ching Paang.

Story: A formidable assassin, Shui Yi Han, sporting his trademark umbrella sword, arrives at the abode of his victim, and ruthlessly dispatches him down a well.  This prelude sets the tone for the story: crisp, atmospheric and clinical.  Famed novelist/screenwriter Ku Long is listed in the credits as a 'planner' for this film, and the themes and execution certainly bear his hallmarks.


Hero Lung Shan Lang (Lau Seung-Him) is introduced in a scene shortly after the credits.  A badass assassin kills a man in a nonchalant manner, which is witnessed by Lang.  Lang is 'the killer killer', a man whose mission is to avenge the death of his parents at the hands of the villainous Hai Dang organisation - a guild of assassins.  The idea of killing for money disgusts him, so he wants to rid the land of these morally bankrupt individuals.  Justice, not revenge (as he explains to one man).

On his quest to eliminate the henchman of the Hai Dang, and head of the organisation himself (Kung Ling), he assists the Seven Star Alliance Escort Company, which possesses a map of the whereabouts of Kung Ling's residence.  Kung Ling sends out his best scummers to smash the Seven Star Alliance, their head Lo Chien Fang, and Hero Lang himself.  A recluse assassin, Lu Tu Hsieh, who carves a wooden eagle to mark every man he has killed, is employed.  As is Shuai Yu Liu, a weasel-voiced hardcase (played by the action director Ching Paang).  Out of Hai Dang's reach is their former premier assassin Tieh Yuan, who now lives in a small house by the beach with a woman.  He is now a fisherman, and shuns his former life.

Hero Lang visits Tieh Yuan on his path to infiltrating and destroying Hai Dang, but faces a surprising foe at the film's conclusion.

Comments:  Wow.  This is a stunning film, on several levels.  Firstly, the atmosphere and cinematography is superb, and provides a living, breathing framework for the nature of the story.  The story itself is rather confusing, and needs several viewings to truly get to grips with (unless I'm just being thick - quite possible).  On first viewing, however, I understood enough of the plot to appreciate how the atmosphere generated by the music selection, camera angles, set design, and production choices really added to the flavour of the narrative.  The fabulous framing shots and the subtle lighting add to the rich texture of imagery created by the other effective qualities.  I'll not blow the game, but the way the camera focuses on the blood dripping from a sword, as both combatants freeze following a flurry of blows, is utterly fascinating.  The mood of this movie is exquisite - haunting, poignant, and often hypnotic.

Umbrella Assassin approaches the residence of his target

This brings me onto the action, the second reason for holding this film in such a high regard.  The martial arts are very satisfying.  There's a mixture of styles on show.  In some scenes, a duel lasts a matter of seconds, before the superiority of one fighter over another is swiftly and clinically confirmed.  One brilliant moment has Hero Lang killing a man before he can even unsheathe his sword more than a few inches.  There's definitely the influence of Westerns evident in scenes like this.


In other scenes, a one-on-one fight has more meat.  One such moment - the stand out scene of the film for me - has Hero Lang dueling with umbrella assassin Shui Yi Han on a bridge in the pouring rain.  They're holding umbrellas throughout the contest, which adds to the majesty of the moment.  The entire scene, though only a few minutes long, is the perfect marriage of lighting, mood, camerawork, and well-paced action.  Faster exchanges are punctuated by long pauses, as the duelists assess each other.  Water sprays off the umbrellas and swords as moves are elegantly performed.  It's balletic swordplay, and had me awestruck the first time I saw it.






There's also group battles - one particular moment in a dry riverbed has four Hai Dang assassins attacking the head of the Seven Star Alliance.  These are nicely choreographed by the action director, and the camerawork frames the shots nicely, mixing close-ups and distance work where appropriate.

 Hai Dang archers surround the teahouse holding the head of the escort company and his four best men.

Hell on

The choice of settings is also impressive.  As mentioned, the rainy bridge is a wonderful scene, but there's also some other stunning locales - a sandy shore, a dusty quarry, moody dark streets, a windy rural expanse, and the Hai Dang HQ is rather lovely, with a small lake, leafy trees and a picturesque abode.  The backgrounds are never dull, and their impact is maximised by the production values and cinematography.

Hai Dang

Another thing that adds to the experience of viewing this film is the quality of the print itself.  I realise that in the days of high definition this and 1080i that, many people would laugh at the frazzled nature of this print.  Whole scenes are rendered almost monochrome.  I have little idea about the richness of the colours in the original print, but on this one they're often very washed out and degraded.  The following screen grabs demonstrate this:

 Hero Lang 


A bloke getting skanked by an assassin. 

Seven hard bassas prepare to fight Hero Lang on the beach 

Superb lighting and atmosphere 


In spite of the obviously bust-up nature of the print, however, I love it.  It seems to add to the authenticity of this being a little-seen rare gem, rescued from obscurity for us to enjoy, in whatever condition it remains.  A rough diamond.  Kung fu flicks often have a well-worn look, which makes watching them feel a bit flea-pit; a tad special.  It's not really a mainstream genre, and the flecks of dirt and lines on the print simply adds to the experience of enjoying something more personal and specialist.  Coupled with the mood of the film and its cinematography, it's a very pleasing effect.  I'd love to see a crystal clear print to compare to this one.  However, I find myself wondering if the extra clarity and boldness would somehow reduce this rare kung fu film experience.  It's like old battered black and white (or sepia) photographs.  They have such charm, and you can almost feel the heritage in your hands; the experiences of the item.  I'm digressing here, but the bottom line is that I love this Sword of Justice print.

And that is the ultimate bottom line really.  I think this is a magnificent film.  It's confusing on first viewing, but the technical qualities shine through from the first minute to the last. On repeated viewings, the story and characters become clearer and a new level of appreciation unfolds.  Highly recommended.

The head of Hai Dang gives out his orders 

It's the end of the road for this lass.  Note the scratches on the print, and the overall washed-out look.  Awesome. 

Little moments like this are memorable throughout - during the blustery duel against the Eagle Carving Assassin, Hero Lang has a leaf land on his face.  It stays there for ages, before blowing off.  This fascinates the Eagle Guy (below)  


Friday, 31 May 2013

Like A Bad Tael...

I just keep on turning up.  The Chivalrous Inn will return shortly! Following a year-long hiatus, new film reviews are incoming. After considerable turmoil, with some rowdy types busting in and chucking tables around, things have settled down rather nicely in the tavern. So it's business as usual, with a new review hopefully upped this weekend.

I've picked up the smashed rice bowls, removed the chopsticks from the wooden pillars, and cleaned the smashed eggs off the ceiling. Welcome to the refurbished Chivalrous Inn...

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Champion of the Boxers (1972)



Background: This is a Taiwanese basher starring Tien Peng, Cheung Ching-Ching, Chen Hung-Lieh, Yee Yuen, Tin Yau and Cindy Tang.  It's quite rare, and sourced from a German collector.  This copy is Mandarin, letterboxed, with burnt-in English subtitles.

Story:  The owner of a gym, Yeh Ching Hai, is pursued by assassins hired by a Japanese boss (Yee Yuen).  Despite having a dagger embedded in his torso, he summons every ounce of crazy strength to defeat the minions of bully-boy Black Eagle (Tsai Hung).

The assassin arrives

He's doing alright, with cowardly Black Eagle hiding behind a naked woman, before another assassin intervenes (Chen Hung-Lieh), and finishes off Dagger-Gut, who dies lying on top of, well, see for yourself:

I can think of worse places to take my last breath

Dagger-Gut's students foolishly rush out to snatch revenge, but fail miserably in an all-too-predictable ambush.  Black Eagle actually breaks out some moves in this sequence, since he has his buddies backing him up.  The big tart.


The new boss removes the old sign from the gym, and hands over brothel and smuggling duties to his trusted lieutenants.  At this juncture, a new bloke appears at the gym.  It is Tien Lung (Tien Peng), who wants to kill the old gym owner, as revenge for his father's death.  Since he's been beaten to it, he leaves, bumping into a mysterious woman on the way out.

Tien Peng is annoyed that he can't kill a dead man

Later, Black Eagle sets about rounding up the village women for the brothel.  He threatens to take Tien Lung's cousin, but the other assassin intervenes, telling him to leave alone.  Undeterred, Black Eagle returns to Tien's home, and kills the girl in a struggle.  Tien Lung hunts him down and kicks his arse, before strangling him with a chain.


The boss is furious, and tries to find out who the murderer is.  Tien Lung brings a new Japanese woman to the gym as the assassin sets off to examine the place where Eagle died.  She is very capable at martial arts, and manages to insult the assassin straight away.  She even manages to snatch a piece of red material from his outfit, inscribed with the words 'Fang Chi'


Comments:  And that's the first twenty minutes.  From here, there are certain questions that need a resolution.  Will Tien Lung be found out?  Who is the mysterious Japanese girl, and what are her motives?  What are the motives of the assassin, and who is Fang Chi?


The plot succeeds in answering them.  There's no great surprises, and the exposition is sometimes clumsy and slow, but there's a neat twist on roles later on, and plenty of chaos.  It's got all the elements of a classic basher - the focus on revenge, anti-imperialism, honour and a touch of chivalry.  While it's not going to win any prizes, the plot at least adds some meat to the bones of the action.

The martial arts are ok.  It's 1972, so the action is a tad slow, with numerous occasions where the actor had prepared the defensive block even before the attack had been initiated.  This is a bit grating to see.  It breaks the illusion of the fight being raw and spontaneous.  However, advanced choreography techniques were in their infancy, so it's appreciable.  Tien Peng is too slow and swingy-armed in some sequences.  I've seen his later work, and he does get better.  He's perhaps more famous for his ice-cool performances in wuxia films, but you can see the genesis of his later portrayals in this calm and collected effort.  Even when he's getting whupped to a frazzle, he never looks totally defeated.  Arguably, he doesn't look angry enough, what with being on the double-revenge mission and all.


The standouts in this film, though, for me, are Cheung Ching Ching and Chen Hung Lieh.  There's some real humanity in Lieh's performance, which I'll not go into for fear of spoiling the story, but needless to say, his character's plight is well delivered by the actor.  Cheung Ching Ching looks fantastic in this film, and puts together some clean, pleasing martial arts work throughout.

The film is quite nicely filmed throughout, with some pretty framing shots as shown below:


Dead bloke in the foreground.  Nice.


To summarise, this is a slightly clumsy, unevenly paced film, with some reasonable action for its time, and decent central performances.  It won't convert the unconverted, and it may bore some, but I see it as an average genre entry which, while largely forgettable, is decent enough to watch for its duration.


Wednesday, 23 May 2012

The Raid (2011)



Chivalrous facts:
Director, writer & editor: Gareth Huw Evans
Starring: Iko Uwais  & Yayan Ruhian
Stunts:  Iko Uwais  & Yayan Ruhian
The same team that worked on Merantau

Plot (spoiler-free):
Gang leader Tama Riyadi (Ray Sahetapy) has taken over a block of flats within the slum district of Jakarta and neither rival gangs or the police have ever been able to take over them due to it housing some of the city’s most lawless bad ‘uns.
Rama (Iko Uwais) is part of a 20-man S.W.A.T. team assigned to take the tower back. Under the instructions of team leader Lieutenant Wahyu (Pierre Gruno) and Sergeant Jaka (Joe Taslim), they make an assault in the early dawn light, hoping to catch the criminals within unaware. However, things don’t go to plan and soon the team are on the back foot, fighting for their lives just to even escape again.

As time and bullets start running out, the team are forced to use hand-to-hand, bladed weapons and whatever they can use to keep the seemingly endless thugs at bay. Will any of them make it out alive?

Verdict:
Summer 2012 is full of big-budget Goliaths. Many film fans have high expectations for The Avengers, Prometheus and Batman 3. However, in the same way that The Matrix surprised a lot of people that expected The Phantom Menace to dominate the box office that year, The Raid is set to be remembered for delivering just as many thrills as some of its bigger-budget multiplex neighbours.

The Avengers and all their assembling was great and is easily the best Marvel film to date. However, at no point did the viewer think anybody would die and there was no real sense of dread – the complete opposite of The Raid.

The film starts with new recruit Rama preparing himself for the upcoming mission and kissing goodbye to his pregnant partner and before we know it, we’re on the back of the armoured van with the team making their way to the tower block. These opening scenes of stealth are pure John Carpenter are seriously tense. Director Gareth Evans has cited Assault on Precinct 13 as an influence and a guidebook on how to make an assault movie on a tight budget and it really works.

The dawn raid means that the colours have a washed-out look with an emphasis on blues that give a stylised look and a gritty feel.

For a relatively unknown cast, there are some really strong performances. Lead man, Iko Uwais, is a great discovery and has more personality than Tony Jaa and a vulnerability that Jackie Chan always likes to portray. He’s a one-man wrecking crew, but he’s not invincible to the constant barrage of attacks and the events unfolding around him and portrays regret at the killing he has to do to survive. I look forward to seeing him in future roles and hope he can crack the American market.

Ray Sahetapy fills in the role of the Big Bad with real ease and his sleazy confidence makes him a convincing threat. Special mention has to go to Yayan Ruhian who’s performance as Mad Dog is likely to go down in henchman history alongside Bolo and Oddjob. His methodical elimination of the SWAT team has brutal efficiency, but relishes the opportunity to fight with his hands – “Using a gun is like ordering takeout”.

If possible, try and see this at a cinema with other action fans as the collecting gasps, oofs and laughs from the crowd really add to the atmosphere. That’s not to say it’s noisy throughout, there are scenes of high-tension and at one point you could hear a pin drop as Rama, Bowo and the whole audience collectively held their breath to avoid detection.

At first, the recruitment of Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda felt like a publicity stunt for the film, but along with Joseph Trapanese, he’s genuinely crafted a great soundtrack that fits perfectly. The mechanical stabs and monstrous rumbles underline the action on-screen and enhances, rather than detracts from it.
The fight scenes are some of the best seen in modern cinema, but that’s because Evans draws on a childhood growing up watching Asian martial arts films that pride themselves on well-choreographed fighting shown in long takes with clear, wide shots. Hollywood has become over-reliant on “Shakycam” to make a scene appear more dynamic than it is and hopefully this film will show them that this technique is unnecessary and can ruin the action scenes of a film (the Bourne sequels and Quantum of Solace are especially guilty of this). Pencak Silat is every bit as deadly as Eskrima or Krav Maga and the swift and efficient takedowns are breathtaking.
(knife)
Evans has learnt the lessons from Merantau and its 56 takes for just one scene and gone for shorter cuts, but the editing is still clever enough not to take away from a fight sequence. Using the kind of techniques Sammo would use to shift focus from foreground to action happening in the background before a cut keeps the scenes fluid. You’ve got to actively look for the cuts as the action is so fast paced and engrossing.

The fight choreography is constantly thrilling and the Merantau team have once again put together a series of intense and exciting sequences, without making them feel like a demo reel, like a few other recent martial arts films have done. The shootouts at the start are intense, but the action really shifts up a gear once the team are reduced to using fists, knives, machetes, chairs and even fridges to defend themselves.

It’s not a perfect film - the final fight sequence is a tad too long and the plot is fairly light, but does is need extra baggage? Do other action classics like Die Hard, Predator, Assault on Precinct 13 and Aliens have particularly deep and twisty plots? No, they have a fantastic premise from which they hang a great action film from.
Although the film draws influences from many other films, it still manages to stand proudly on its own. Hopefully, word-of-mouth reviews will encourage people to see this as well as the other summer main events that cost over $200 million dollars more to make. Who knows, once people get passed their phobia of subtitles, a whole world of amazing films may be opened up to them.

This is the first time that a film has warranted walking straight back in and watching it again for a long time. A repeat viewing is a must, but a little recovery time from this exhaustingly full-on movie is needed first.

The original project was going to be called Berandal, a large-scale prison gang film, but budget restrictions forced Evans and his team to streamline the project and The Raid was born. Following the success of The Raid, a sequel is planned and will follow the ideas from the original Berandal script and Evans hopes to expand it to a trilogy. There’s also going to be a Hollywood remake, which does trigger alarm bells, but Sony’s Screen Gems plan on using the same choreographers so it could still be great.

That’s all in the future though, so get to the cinema as soon as you can to see The Raid as it’s an absolutely brilliant take on the siege premise that uses years of cinema experiences to craft an immense thrill ride of a movie.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Hero (1997)



Chivalrous Facts:
Director – Corey Yuen
Martial Arts Director – Corey Yuen, Yuen Tak (The Master, Dragon From Russia)
Starring:
Takeshi Kaneshiro (Chungking Express, House of Flying Daggers)
Yuen Biao
Yuen Wah (Dragons Forever, Eastern Condors)

STORY: After a severe drought, Ma Wing Jing (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Tai Cheung (Yuen Wah) leave Shantung for Shanghai. Once they get there, the only work they can get is as coolies until a chance encounter with crime boss Tam See (Yuen Biao) sets him on a path towards the power and money he’s always sought, but will he have to sacrifice too much to get it?

Impressions: Not to be confused with Hero (2002) starring Jet Li or A Man Called Hero (1999) also starring Yuen Biao, this is Corey Yuen’s remake of Chang Cheh's Boxer From Shantung and sees Takeshi Kaneshiro showing he’s not just a pretty face and can also bust some serious moves.

It’s an interesting story of how one man’s desire for money makes him forget all the things he holds dear – family, friends, romance – to take him to the top of the crime ladder. Ma Wing Jing’s descent is gradual enough to be believable and his first encounter with crime boss Tam See gives him an opportunity to show his skills and he learns his first lesson in setting his sights on higher goals than just picking up a dollar from the floor. A prolonged fight for a pocket watch on a horse & carriage shows the two men are equal in fighting skills, but far apart in status.

Yuen Biao is great in this as he plays a character quite different to most his others. Tam See is a crime boss but a very charismatic one. He wants to take Ma Wing Jing under his wing but finds it hard to have a love life when you’re at the top of the ladder. Obviously, Yuen Biao is no slouch when it comes to martial arts and he gets to showcase his talents in a number of scenes including an impressive sequence where he has to fight off dozens of axe-wielding assassins.

Yuen Wah also plays a role different to the usual cigar-twirling bad guy from the likes of Dragons Forever, Eastern Condors and On The Run, and instead plays the part of comedy sidekick. Tai Cheung’s devotion to Ma Wing Jing is unbreakable and he’d rather take a beating than see his friend hurt. There’s a humorous sequence where the two are trying to break out of police custody, but he fears his friend will get hurt so refuses to hand over a gun and when he finally does, he keeps hold of the bullets.

For fans of Corey Yuen’s stylised action, this is a must. It combines some kinetic and inventive fight sequences, but has a engrossing story that grips to the bloody end.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Robin-B-Hood



Chivalrous Facts:
Director/Producer – Benny Chan (New Police Story)
Stunt Choreography – Jackie Chan, Li Chung-Chi and The JC Stunt Team
Starring:
Jackie Chan
Louis Koo (Flashpoint)
Michael Hui (Cannonball Run)
Yuen Biao

STORY (Spoiler-free): Jackie Chan, Louis Koo and Michael Hui play a trio of safe-cracking cat-burglars called Thongs, Octopus and Landlord who rob the rich and give to themselves to feed their various vices including gambling and womanising. After Landlord’s savings are stolen, he asks the team if they’ll do another mission for a massive seven million dollars, even if it means breaking some of their rules. Seeing dollar bills in their eyes, they all agree and end up kidnapping a cute ickle baby that they hope to ransom back.

Whilst escaping from the kidnapping, they crash their car and Thongs and Octopus escape with the baby whilst Landlord goes to jail for two weeks for reckless driving. Whilst in Jail, Landlord sees on the news that the baby belongs to a millionaire couple and the other should look after the baby until he’s out of jail and then they will demand an even higher ransom.


Whilst Thongs and Octopus wait for his release, they have to avoid the hired goons of the gangster that ordered the kidnapping, the investigations of the police trying to find the missing baby, and the stern looks of disapproval from family members that don’t approve of their selfish behaviour.

When the time comes to hand over the baby, will they do it or will heart win over wallet?


Impressions: Well, the main talking point for this movie seemed to be the fact that JC is playing a bad guy for the first time since Rumble in Hong Kong (and before that only Killer Meteors and as a henchman killed by Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon), but even then the character was toned down from the initial ideas of a real nasty thug who beats women, burns people with cigarettes and probably steal the milk from your doorstep. The Chinese censors found the character to be too evil so he was toned down to just a compulsive gambler and thief and for extra comedic value, Louis Koo and HK comedy star, Michael Hui were added.


Obviously, this turns the film into a whimsical action-comedy that needs to be viewed with notion that it’s not serious melodrama, serious childcare documentary or gory thriller. The various scenes of Thongs and Octopus looking after the baby are silly fun and they get into some crazy scrapes whilst trying to protect him.

Action-wise, it takes quite a while for the first fists to be thrown, but even though Jackie isn’t as young as he used to be, he’s still doing eye-popping stunts that he makes look effortless. There’s a fight scene on a trampoline that could have been better than it was and with less wires, and a great sequence on a roller coaster (shot at Ocean Park in HK) but the final dust-up is worth the wait with every bit of scenery used as a weapon including, toys, gym equipment, musical instruments, quad bikes and dirty nappies that show the trademark inventiveness that made JC popular in the first place. There’s some nice shots and fairly long takes too that keep the pace fast and fluid.


Ultimately, the film is a bit of light fun and if you over-analyse it, it soon falls apart. Octopus’ idea of chivalry is insisting his pregnant wife take the bus to the abortion clinic instead of walking whilst he’s on a date with a woman with a rich daddy. This made him very hard to like, but the various comedic escapades with the baby helps change his mind about becoming a dad and in-turn, your opinion of him.

I didn’t know that Yuen Biao was in this before I saw it and I was pleasantly surprised to see he’s not just a cameo, but a proper character that even gets to bust some moves. In one scene, he’s fighting off gangsters and also trying to arrest Thongs, who doesn’t want to come along quietly! It was rumoured for a while that this would also feature Sammo Hung, putting the three stars together for the first time since Dragons Forever, but he had other filming commitments.

The (allegedly) dry commentary of the Dragon Dynasty release hasn’t made this release, but there is a second disc of extras to work your way through. There’s also the usual outtakes reel over the end credits with a great sequence where Jackie escapes from the top of a block of flats by jumping down the air conditioning units only to be faced by Yuen Biao who’s supposed to arrest him, but instead gets the giggles, forcing Jackie to do the take again, including the vertigo-inducing descent.