Goddamn You! Your kung fu is lacking...

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Big Boss of Shanghai (1979)

Background: I received this from a German collector.  It contains an English dub as well as English subtitles.  I watched the film accompanied by the latter.  The spelling and grammar are occasionally poor, but largely clear and understandable.  It's a letterbox print, in decent condition.

After watching a few swordplays recently, I felt the urge to watch something with a different pace and focus.  Something with more advanced choreography.  Something with a different setting.  Big Boss of Shanghai, sat on top of a huge pile of recent acquisitions, looked ideal.  And so it proved to be.

Story (BIG SPOILERS): Two poor knockabout mates, Wong (Chen Kuan Tai, also directing) and Cheung (Jimmy Lee), accidentally get into bother with the local hoodlum, Mr Wang.  Their problems are compounded when Ah Sam, a friend, reveals that he has stolen from Mr Wang.  Wong tells him to return the wallet, but Sam is viciously beaten by Mr Wang's lackeys.  Wong and Cheung intervene, and a man is killed.  Mr Wang swears that he will have Wong arrested, so the two lads flee on a train to Shanghai.

In Shanghai, after grabbing a drink from a water pump, the boys venture out into the streets.  A starving Cheung is humiliated by a weasel-like shit, who forces him to crawl around for a bun.  Wong intervenes, and scolds Cheung for having no dignity.  They secure work at the docks, working fast and hard, but soon discover that the aforementioned Shit-Weasel runs a racket in the area.  Mr Shit only gives them a paltry fee for their labour, so the lads smash him and his toughs up.  One of the workers tells the guys that they run that area now, much to their bemusement.  

Weasel Shit informs his boss, Fan, that Cheung and Wong beat him up and are expert fighters.  Fan asks Weasel to invite them to a meeting to discuss the future.  Cheung seems more open to promises of bigger returns than Wong, but they both go anyway, and are suckered into a trap.  Fan's men attack, but are no match for the powerful fighters, and soon they team up to whup Boss Fan.  Fan's aide, Weasel Shit, draws a knife and kills his boss.

Under Wong's regime, the workers get better treatment.  Cheung is annoyed that they're giving away too much, and easy prey for Weasel, who begins to sow seeds of greater discontent in Cheung's mind.  Meanwhile, Wong tightens his grip on the area, beating up rivals and training his men to defend themselves.  The boys are invited to a meeting at a teahouse by a big fat boss.  Once again, they are attacked, but swiftly make their way up the stairs to take on Fatty himself.  After putting on a tough show, Fatty is despatched.  He concedes to Wong, before Cheung smashes a vase over his head, killing him.  Wong is disturbed that Cheung felt the need to kill a man who had relinquished.  He explains that they should be trying to make friends, not enemies, and play fair.  Cheung retorts that Wong should just become a preacher.

The developing rift is gradually seized upon by another boss - Lam (Chen Sing).  He invites Cheung round to his mansion for a meeting.  Cheung sees the high life offered by greater returns - a huge house with a pool room, brandy, comforts - and gets an eyeful of leg off a waitress.  Lam tells Cheung that his returns aren't as big as they could be due to Wong's attitude, and explains that Wong is hurting his business by refusing to allow opium and arms shipments through his territory.  Cheung initially ignores him and assists Wong in throwing opium shipments off a train, but Lam asks Cheung to team up with him to rule Shanghai's underworld.

Wong is lured to a casino by Cheung.  A fight breaks out, and Cheung steps aside.  Wong leaves on his own, taking a rickshaw, but is thrown off at a rickshaw roadblock.  He takes on dozens of assailants, and receives two stab wounds.  He runs through grotty alleys, and is on the verge of defeat when he is rescued by Ah Sam, driving a car.
Boss Cheung is more ruthless to his workers.  He allows opium and arms through, and strikes anyone who mentions the name of 'Wong'.  Wong recovers at Ah Sam's cousin's house, and is furious to hear of Cheung's actions.  He confronts Cheung at the docks, and they fight.  It ends in a stalemate, as Wong is still injured.  Wong warns Cheung about Boss Lam, but does not attempt to kill his friend, clearly still clinging onto the hope that he can be 'rescued'.

Wong's stock rises again in the area, and Cheung challenges him about taking workers off him.  Wong agrees to give him some back, but guarantees their well-being.  Wong takes Cheung back to the water pump they used when they first arrived, but Cheung is unimpressed and walks off.  Wong also falls into favour with the French rulers of the area, being appointed Director of Public Works.

Boss Lam continues to be worried about the influence of Wong, and persuades Cheung to invite him to dinner.  They arrive to a cordial reception at Lam's mansion.  Wong is betrayed horrifically, and is forced to fight Lam to the death.  Cheung tries to finish Wong off, but Ah Sam stabs him.  The ending is abrupt - it suggests that the dying Cheung reaches towards Wong in reconciliation.

Impressions (Spoilers):  Wow, what a neat little film to end the weekend on.  It's an uncomplicated yet gripping effort, as two friends with the same aim grow apart as their methods differ and others take advantage.  The seeds of Cheung's betrayal are sown early on, when it becomes clear that he has a different ethos to Wong.  Wong is noble, honest and looks after people, but Cheung is more interested in remorseless self-gain.  Right at the start, when Sam reveals that he has Mr Wang's wallet, Cheung is apathetic, whereas the greater moral fibre of Wong tells him he must return it.  Cheung huffs when Wong is generous to his workers, and is drawn towards betrayal all-too easy.  His cruel streak grows as he shows no remorse - the dagger struck into Boss Fan by Shit Weasel is rammed home by Cheung, and he ruthlessly kills Fatty.  In contrast, Wong rises in the world through honesty and integrity, which makes him an easy target for double-crossing.  It's quite touching how Wong retains his naive faith in his friend right to the end.

The fights are very pleasing indeed.  There's some well-choreographed punching and blocking, with particularly striking work from Chen Kuan Tai.  The cuts are of a decent length, and well-framed - the attack on Fatty's teahouse has a camera panning up the stairs, as Wong kicks and throws people here and there.  During the attack in the street, Wong runs towards a camera as it pans back, giving a real sense of speed, and another camera tracks his flight from pursuers at a diagonal angle.  It's simple, yet effective camerawork from CKT.  There's some great work with poles and sticks, as attacks are parried and turned in well-constructed movements.  I'm trying not to over-sell it, as it's nothing amazing, just solid, satisfying work.  There's also some wince-inducing scenes in the last battle.

To summarise, this is a solid, entertaining, undemanding little film that gripped me from start to finish.  The leads are good and the action very decent.  On another day and in another mood, this may have seemed to be a bit cliched and forgettable.  In the event, it was just the job.  Chen Kuan Tai is fast becoming a personal fave - his work is consistently pleasing.    

Kicking in Shit-Weasel and his cronies at the Docks

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