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May 19, 2014

Martial Arts Movie Marathon


Manchu Boxer / Qi sheng quan wang
Wu Ma - 1974

The Skyhawk / Huang Fei-hong xiao lin quan
Cheng Chang-ho - 1974

The Association / Yan ku shen tan
Cheng Chang-ho - 1975

The Dragon Tamers / Nu zi tai quan qun ying hui
Wu Yu-shen - 1975

Shout! Factory Region 0 Two disc set

For those who have some degree of nostalgia for the kind of stuff that played in theaters about forty years ago, or who are curious about what was usually dismissed by critics as "chop-socky", the four movie set may be of interest. All four films are from Raymond Chow's production company, Golden Harvest, notable for the films that made Bruce Lee a star. For some, it may be hard to imagine that there was a time when movies that were mostly about the rivalries between different martial arts schools were commercially viable, usually with indifferent English language dubbing, often presented by fly-by-night distributors looking to make a quick buck. Nothing here is of the quality of something like King Hu's influential A Touch of Zen, but three of the four are worth a look for various reasons. Also, all four films are dubbed in Mandarin and have very readable yellow subtitles.

From a critical and historical perspective, one can view these films with the kind of appreciation given to a Warner Brothers movie from the Thirties or Forties. There is something of a house style, yet as one can see stylistic differences between a Warner movie directed by Raoul Walsh or Michael Curtiz, one can also discuss some of the differences between the directors represented here. Other recognizable elements are some of the names in the credits, music by Joseph Koo, as well as recurring cast members such as Sammo Hung, listed as Hung Kam-bo, and Carter Wong.

Manchu Boxer is the most generic film in this collection. Liu Yung wants to be a high minded practitioner of martial arts, but where ever he shows up, he's challenged by one badass after another. He feels sorry for one guy he's killed, and decides that he's going to donate his match winnings to the guy's family, claiming it's a debt he owes. This is the kind of film people probably imagine most kung-fu movies to be like, with lots of fighting, and a forgettable plot. Even when the scripts are questionable, the other three films display varying degrees of visual imagination.

There's a story waiting to be told about Cheng Chang-ho, born as Chang-hwa Jeong. A Korean filmmaker whose best known films were Hong Kong productions, signed with a Chinese pseudonym, gives his two films here some visual panache. Mostly this is in the form of canted angles, but in The Skyhawk Cheng finds ways of letting the picturesque scenery and architecture of Thailand do much of the work. Sixty-nine year old Kwan Tak-hing is the star, playing, as he did for most of his career, a fictionalized version of Wong Fei-hung. The basic story is one about rival martial arts schools trying to beat Wong and his students, while Wong always tries to take the high road in avoiding fighting if possible. There's a sub-plot involving the bad guys cheating the owners of their restaurant through gambling debts. Sammo Hung tags along while Carter Wong exchanges glances with Nora Miao.

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The Association

Cheng's The Association is the high point of this collection, where he lets his imagination run amuck. The film opens with a female agent shot by a firing squad. The backdrop is a very pink sunrise. From there things get progressively nuttier as a Chinese cop, Huang, with a modified Afro discovers a secret sex club with some very wealthy patrons and corruption in the police department. If there was ever a movie that seemed to be designed for exhibition at New York City's grind houses in the Seventies, this is it. Finding a young dead female, Huang, pokes at her exposed breasts before carting the corpse around accusing several people of murder. At the private club, supposedly a charity organization, two blondes engage in a lesbian sex show, followed by the men making high dollar bids for bedmates. One of the blondes also does some kind of dance wearing a very sheer red nightgown for an audience of other women, with a mostly nude female victim on a table. In order to catch a criminal, Huang hides in the wardrobe of a wealthy young widow, who has a dream about being ravished by the cop who makes clear that his intentions are strictly honorable. And that woman who gets shot in the film's opening? She has an identical sister, with Angela Mao looking cute dressed as a boy with a plaid newsboy cap.

There's a brief scene of sex in The Dragon Tamers, but unsurprisingly for a film by John Woo, bromance is the more palpable relationship here, between two guys who are both friends and temporarily romantic rivals. The second film by Woo, it seems to promise a bit more than what is delivered with the setup of rival groups of female martial artists. No doves fly here, but there is a flock of pigeons. Again, we're back to the trope of martial arts school rivalries, with domination by the baddest of bad guys in cahoots with the baddest of bad girls. Anyone who would have watched this film when it was released would never have guessed that the director would go on to define a new generation of Hong Kong filmmakers with films like The Killers or Hard-Boiled, or become internationally acclaimed for Hollywood and mainland Chinese films. At the time the film was made, Woo lacked the discipline to realized that there is such a thing as too many zoom shots. He seems to have been under the influence of Sergio Leone with close-ups of eyes, and the placement of characters, especially in the last two fight scenes. There is also the use of rack-focusing in a conversation between the two chief villains. While mostly of historical interest as an early example of John Woo's work, the film serves as a reminder of a time when young filmmakers were allowed to practice their craft before evolving into artists.

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The Dragon Tamers

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at May 19, 2014 08:18 AM