Friday, September 29, 2017

Shaw Brothers September: The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter

The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1983) is one of the Shaw Brothers’ darkest movies – both on and off-screen – marred by real-life tragedy when one its stars died during filming. It is also one of their best with some truly spectacularly choreographed action sequences.

Betrayed by General Yang’s right-hand man, General Pun Mei (Lam Hak-ming), whose army of Mongols ambush him and his seven sons at Golden Beach, killing them all except for Yeung Dak (Gordon Liu) and Yeung Chiu (Alexander Fu) – the fifth and sixth sons respectively. The battle itself is an astounding master class of choreography as the seven brothers armed with spears take on insurmountable odds. The fighting is fast and furious as the brothers are systematically picked off in particularly bloody and vicious fashion until only two remain.

Chiu returns home severely traumatized by what happened and Alexander Fu does an excellent job showing how his character has been driven mad, lashing out at his own family, trying to kill his mother until she is able to calm him down.

Assumed dead and declared a deserter and a traitor, Dak takes refuge in a monastery in Mount Wutai, patiently biding his time until he can exact revenge. The Mongols pursue him to a hunter’s dwelling where the man lets Dak escape while he takes on the marauders with a trident in an impressively staged action sequence.

Gordon Liu delivers a particularly impassioned performance as evident in the scene where Dak demands and then begs to become a Buddhist monk, conveying the hurt and desperation of a man with nothing left to lose. The actor gives everything he’s got in this powerful, even moving scene.

What’s interesting about The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter and what distinguishes it from other Shaw Brothers kung fu movies is that it spends a significant amount of time showing how the death of their siblings affects the fifth and sixth sons. It isn’t something that is dealt with in passing but shapes and defines what these characters do for the rest of the movie.

Everything builds to the climactic showdown between Dak and Pun Mei in an inn where his sister is being held captive. His initial assault sees the monk utilizing a cartful of bamboo poles as projectiles to defeat his foes, which is an extraordinary sight to behold. It is merely a warm-up for the showdown in the inn. At one point, Dak frees his sister in the middle of the battle and straps her to his back all the while fighting his opponents. When Dak’s fellow monks show up, then the real fireworks begin. The martial arts on display in this sequence are among the finest ever seen in a Shaw Brothers movie.

The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter started filming in 1981. During principal photography Alexander Fu suffered a serious injury, breaking both his legs and having a head injury. Production stopped. He recovered well enough that filming was able to resume, but on July 7, 1983 he was in a car accident with his brother and died in a nearby hospital from his injuries. After much contemplation, it was decided that filming would continue but with significant script changes. Originally, Chiu was supposed to go to the Buddhist temple and become a monk. This was changed so that Dak went instead.

The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter is considered one of the darker, bloodier movies in the Shaw Brothers canon but it is also an excellent study on loyalty while exploring the effects of physical and psychological trauma. Most importantly, it has some truly fierce and fantastic fight scenes that must’ve been a real challenge to choreograph. All of this would be meaningless if the movie wasn’t anchored by the performances of Alexander Fu and Gordon Liu as the two surviving brothers who deal with the aftermath in their own unique ways. Their performances are what makes The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter such a compelling movie.


SOURCES


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Hatfield, J.J. “Eight Diagram Pole Fighter aka Invincible Pole Fighter Review.” City on Fire. March 1, 2011.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Shaw Brothers September: One-Armed Swordsman

One-Armed Swordsman (1967) is often considered the first true modern martial arts movie, featuring a brooding anti-hero and adopting a gritty look with lots of blood, ushering in gorier movies of its kind. It was a huge hit, reaching the milestone of being the first Hong Kong movie to make HK$1 million at the local box office and transforming its lead actor Jimmy Wang into a major movie star.

As a young boy, Fang Kang watches his father die a heroic death defending his mentor Qi Ru Feng (Tien Feng) from a pack of bandits. With his dying breath, he asks Qi to take his son on as a pupil. He agrees and Fang (Wang) grows up determined to live up to the memory of his father, even keeping the broken sword that he used in his last battle in his honor.

One day, two students from wealthy families and Qi’s spoiled daughter Qi Pei Er (Angela Pan) ridicule Fang because of his poor background. After Qi chastises them for their behavior, Fang decides to leave rather than cause trouble, but he’s ambushed by Pei Er and the two other students. In a moment of treachery, she cuts off his sword arm! The betrayal scene is shot on a beautiful, snowbound set with a multitude of flakes falling down around the characters in stark contrast to the cruelty on display.

Fang flees and eventually passes out due to blood loss. He’s rescued by Xiao Man (Lisa Chiao Chiao), a peasant girl that nurses him back to health. She encourages him to relearn how to fight with his other arm and he becomes a formidable martial artist. Meanwhile, Qi’s old foes, Long-Armed Devil (Yeung Chi-hing) and Smiling Tiger Cheng (Tang Ti), are eliminating his students with the help of the “sword lock,” a weapon that allows them to hold their opponent’s sword at bay while they stab or slash them with a short sword. Fang catches wind of what’s going on and puts his newfound skills to good and bloody use.

Fang is a tragic character that loses his father at an early age and then loses the ability to do the only thing he was good at doing. As a result, he loses his purpose in life. It is only Xian Man’s belief in him, and the love that develops between them, that re-engages him with life again. Her father also died tragically and this heartbreak at an early age bonds these two characters in a profound way. Xian Man is a fascinating character in her own right. She saves Fang twice – physically by getting him medical attention before he bled out and spiritually by not only giving him purpose in his life but also inspiring him to love her.

At the end of One-Armed Swordsman, Fang learns an important lesson in life – that being a simple peasant is just as worthy an existence as a master swordsman. Most importantly, he comes to this decision on his own terms after paying back his debt to his mentor.

Director Chang Cheh got the idea for One-Armed Swordsman and picked Jimmy Wang as he felt that the character had a personality similar to the actor. They had worked together before and he asked Jimmy to be in it. The actor found filming to be challenging as he was right-handed and had to learn how to fight with his left. His right arm was tied down and he often lost his balance during fight scenes. Jimmy also had to learn how to fight with a short sword and was hit often as a result. His arm was covered in bruises, as was his face from falling down.

The phenomenal success of One-Armed Swordsman spawned two sequels – Return of the One-Armed Swordsman (1969) and The New One-Armed Swordsman (1971) – and countless imitators but none of them reached the operatic heights of the original.


SOURCES


“Interview with Star Jimmy Wang Yu.” The One-Armed Swordsman DVD. Dragon Dynasty. 2007.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Moonlighting


BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post originally appeared on the Wonders in the Dark blog for their Top 80 Greatest Television Shows.

In a landscape dominated by the likes of Dynasty and Hill St. Blues, Moonlighting was a breath of fresh air when it debuted on American television in 1985. It was a detective show that provided a funny, witty alternative and ambitiously took the screwball comedy popular in the 1930s and 1940s and gave it a contemporary spin that has never been duplicated as successfully on mainstream T.V. since.

Al Jarreau’s memorably soulful theme song plays over opening credits that include stills of iconic Los Angeles culture setting the perfect tone for the show. Moonlighting features a fascinating premise: what does an aging supermodel do once she’s past her prime and can no longer live the lavish lifestyle to which she’s accustomed? Maddie Hayes (Cybill Shepherd) is an ex-model who wakes up one morning to realize that her accountant has run off with all of her money. She scrambles to try and reclaim her fortune. As luck would have it, she invested in several companies and decides to sell off her shares. The last one on the list is the Blue Moon Detective Agency, run by the fast-talking, wisecracking David Addison (Bruce Willis). On the surface, he doesn’t seem like much of a detective but rather more of a hustler on the make.

Maddie tells him that she is closing down the agency. After all, on her first day the staff are playing cards, receptionist Miss DiPesto (Allyce Beasley) is reading a romance novel and David is watching the Family Feud. No phones are ringing and no clients are in the waiting room. Desperate to maintain his cushy gig, David tries his hardest to change her mind. In the process, they stumble across a mystery – or rather, have one thrust upon them. Even though she would never admit it in public, David has chipped away at her defenses and begins to charm her. She holds off on closing down the agency because she is having too much fun running it with David.

Bruce Willis is perfectly cast as the smart-ass David Addison. There is a loose, improvisational feel to his performances as he gleefully gives Maddie grief at every opportunity. Cybill Shepherd is his ideal foil as the cold, no-nonsense Maddie Hayes. The best moments are when these two contrasting personalities clash – the epitome of a love-hate relationship. He is full of smarm and charm while she is the straight man that tries to keep him in check and on point during a given case.

The writing on the show is excellent. The dialogue is crisp with a snap and pop to it. In “Next Stop Murder,” an homage to Agatha Christie murder mysteries, Blue Moon’s chipper, rhyming receptionist, Miss DiPesto wins a contest to participate in famous mystery writer J.B. Harland’s murder mystery train. David and Maddie drive her to the station and accidentally get stranded on the train with a real murder to solve. Here is a memorable exchange in the episode:

Maddie: “I was not born yesterday!”


David: “It’s true. I had lunch with her yesterday. If she’d been born I’d a noticed.”

It isn’t only the words but how Willis delivers them that makes what he says so funny. And yet, the show isn’t wall-to-wall comedy. There are sober moments of drama and, of course, romance. The show even addresses David’s lack of maturity in “My Fair David,” where Maddie bets him that he can’t act like a mature professional for a full week. This episode features some of the funniest bits between Shepherd and Willis in the show’s entire run.

For all of the hilarious banter and hijinks David and Maddie get into, the show has plenty of poignant moments as well, like the episode entitled, “Gunfight at the So-So Corral,” where an aging hitman (Pat Corley) hires David and Maddie to find an up-and-coming killer (Gary Graham) gunning for him under the pretense that he’s his son. There’s the inevitable showdown between the two assassins with the elder one getting the upper hand. In a rare moment of mercy, he lets the younger guy live and delivers a moving speech about what being a killer has done to him over the years.

In some respects, Moonlighting is a clever update of The Thin Man series of movies with screwball comedy pacing complete with rapid-fire exchanges of witty dialogue as the characters banter and bicker furiously like a couple straight out of a Howard Hawks screwball comedy. It is not easy to recreate the fast-paced banter of this genre. It takes a certain skill set to deliver dialogue like that and Willis and Shepherd make it look easy. David infuriates Maddie with his unprofessional behavior that she secretly finds exciting and fun. She comes from the fashion world and is a fish out of water that is shown the ropes of the detective biz by David, an experienced investigator (maybe?) and consummate bullshit artist.

By season two, the show’s creator, Glenn Gordon Caron, parlayed the show’s success into making more ambitious episodes and having characters break the fourth wall. “The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice” was shot in black and white as an homage to classic Hollywood musicals and film noir. It was even introduced by Orson Welles, a week before he died.


Each episode had David and Maddie confronted with and eventually solving a different mystery while the playful sexual tension continued to build, which, at the time, had fans anticipating if and when they would become romantically involved. The eventual consummation of their relationship would ultimately ruin the show. The sexual tension was gone, replaced by uncomfortable tension as the delicate balance between comedy and drama was upset with things getting too serious. The show became consumed by its own meteoric success and the off-screen tension between Willis and Shepherd spilled over to the episodes and the show never recovered, becoming a cautionary tale for future shows of its ilk not to make the same mistakes.

Moonlighting set a new standard for the bickering, romantic comedy that has influenced so many T.V. shows that came afterwards (even something as squeaky clean as Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman to the more recent Castle). In its prime, before things got too serious between David and Maddie, it was the funniest, smartest show on T.V. with the first two seasons in its purest form: sharp and focused. What made the show work so well was the chemistry between Willis and Shepherd, resurrecting her career and launching his (with the subsequent starring role in Die Hard making him a bonafide movie star). The show holds up remarkably well today (even with the dated clothes and hairstyles) and this is due large part to the writing and chemistry between the cast members.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Shaw Brothers September: The 36th Chamber of Shaolin

Produced by the legendary Shaw Brothers Studio, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin was released in 1978. Its protagonist was based on an actual historical figure – a legendary Shaolin monk – that existed during the Manchu Dynasty during the early 18th century, but his life was highly fictionalized for the movie.

The Manchu government is a tyrannical regime that reigns across the country and is embodied by General Tien Ta (Lo Lieh), an impressive combatant that easily bests an insurgent armed with a battle-axe in a fight sequence that starts off the movie. Chong Wen College and its teacher Mr. Ho plot with a group of students against the oppressive government.

In response to the rebellion, several students accused of being spies are rounded up, tortured for information and eventually killed by Lord Tang, one of General Tien’s enforcers. He even kills the father of one of the college’s star pupils, Liu Yude (Gordon Liu).

Gravely wounded by Lord Tang, Yude flees to the nearby Shaolin Temple to learn kung fu so that he can eventually get revenge on the Manchu government. The monks take him in and nurse him back to health, renaming him San Te. He starts briefly at the top chamber and quickly realizes that he’s not ready for it.

And so begins one of the greatest training montages ever put on film as he begins at the bottom, working on the fundamentals – balance, power and speed. From there, he moves onto building up arm strength, weapons training and so on. These are grueling tests of strength, endurance and dexterity. San Te is a quick learner and soon excels at every test he faces.

What is so striking about The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is how political a movie it is with the Manchu government being extreme repressive. It exploits and keeps the populace down with an iron fist. Anybody who resists in the slightest is tortured and killed. Yude barely escapes with his life having lost everything and takes refuge with the Shaolin monks where he reinvents himself and yet never forgets where he came from or what happened.

What’s interesting about The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is that once our hero enters the Temple, the tone of the film takes on a decidedly more philosophical one as the monks practice a sound mind as well as a sound body, dropping such pearls of wisdom like, “Being at one is eternal,” and “A pure body is light, steps stable, stance is firm.” Initially, Yude is dense and useless, which results in being schooled repeatedly by his elders. He is rash and impulsive but persistent, refusing to give up as he has nowhere else to go.

Yude undergoes a series of punishing exercises that build up his physical abilities. It is only after he’s mastered the basics that he’s allowed to begin kung fu training. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is one of the best training sequence movies ever made as it shows the commitment needed to become more than mere proficient, but a master. It also shows how much Yude fails as he succeeds, putting in the hard work needed to advance through the Shaolin chambers.

Gordon Liu is an exemplary martial arts actor, more than capable of conveying his character’s physical prowess but he also has a very expressive face that he uses to convincingly convey the emotions Yude experiences in a given situation. He also does an excellent job of portraying his character’s coming of age, from a na├»ve student to a Shaolin monk in tune with not only himself but also the world around him.

Once San Te leaves the temple, he actually puts into practice what he learned into his fighting technique and we see just how far he has come. The climactic scene comes when we watch as San Te systematically dismantles the Manchu government’s forces and it is an impressive sight to behold, but is only a warm-up for the even more exciting confrontation he has with the evil general.


--> The 36th Chamber of Shaolin was so successful it spawned two sequels, Return to the 36th Chamber (1980) and Disciples of the 36th Chamber (1985). It also inspired several albums by legendary rap band, the Wu-Tang Clan. For those of you that only know Gordon Liu from his appearances in the Kill Bill films, this is the movie that really showcases his considerable talents and a must-see for any fan of the kung fu genre.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Shaw Brothers September: King Boxer


BLOGGER'S NOTE: Every week this month I plan on taking a look at different kung fu movie from the legendary Shaw Brothers studio that helped pioneer the genre in the 1970s.

During the 1970s, the Shaw Brothers produced some of the very best kung fu movies, or wuxia as it was called in China, ever made. Their first big success actually came out in the 1960s – One-Armed Swordsman (1967), which made $1 million in Hong Kong, but it wasn’t until a few years later that they made in-roads all over the world with King Boxer (a.k.a. Five Fingers of Death, 1972). It was the first of its kind to be picked up by Warner Bros. and distributed in the United States. It helped kick start the kung fu movie craze of that decade.

The movie gets right into it as an old martial arts teacher is attacked by a group of thugs armed with knives. Despite his advanced age, he is able to hold them off, jumping through the air like a man half his age. Fortunately, one of his best students, Chao Chih-Hao (Lieh Lo) arrives just in time to scare them off. The teacher realizes he can no longer teach his pupil anything new and sends him off to study under a superior master, Shen Chin-Pei (Fang Mian).

Meanwhile, local martial arts despot Ming Dung-Shun (Tien Feng) controls the five northern provinces and maintains dominance by befriending and then enlisting martial arts experts like Chen Lang, an man with an exceptionally hard forehead that he uses to best a local strong man (Bolo Yeung) by headbutting him into submission!

Chao shows up at Master Shen’s school and is easily bested by one of his students only to be relegated to the kitchen. He toils away there but is tested regularly and randomly until he is soon dodging spears and breaking branches with his bare hands. He is then deemed worthy enough to be a student.

There is an upcoming national tournament among the various martial arts schools and Master Ming sends Chen Lang to trash Master Shen’s school. He makes quite an entrance by taking the school’s sign and breaking it in half with his head. He then proceeds to thrash the students, sending one through the ceiling and another through a wall. Chen Lang confronts Master Shen and bests him through cowardly tactics.

Chao decides to confront Chen Lang and amazingly is able to defeat him. He is rewarded by Master Shen with being bestowed knowledge of the Iron Palm technique that causes his hands to glow red as he channels his inner chi to deadly effect. He plans to compete in the tournament. Being a dishonorable man, Master Ming brings in ringers from Japan to ruin Master Shen’s school’s chances.

By making Master Ming’s brutal hired guns Japanese, the Shaw Brothers cannily appealed to Chinese national pride. No wonder King Boxer did so well in Hong Kong! They fight dirty, are remorseless killers, and punish Chao so severely that we want to see him get better and exact well-deserved vengeance on the bad guys. Ming even uses his own son, Meng Tien-Hsiung, as an enforcer. You can tell that his son his a bad guy by the sly, arrogantly evil expression permanently affixed to his face and the long cigarette holder he uses while perpetually fondling two ballbearings as his goons do the dirty work for him.

Director Chang-Hwa Jeong employs sudden zoom in and outs and even the occasional freeze frame during many of the movie’s dynamic fight scenes. This is a beautifully shot movie with expert use of the 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio (Shawscope!) and superb compositions of every frame. The use of shadows for dramatic effect in one scene and a brief fight that takes place at sunset resembling something right out of 1950s Technicolor era, is part of the reason why King Boxer is so revered among kung fu movie fans.

The kinetic fight scenes are exciting to watch and, at times, surprisingly brutal with plenty of blood, eye gouging and even a decapitation! They are expertly choreographed, gradually build up in intensity and in terms of style to the final showdown between Chao and Tien-Hsiung at the competition where, of course, the Iron Palm technique is used, but this sequence is merely a warm-up to the penultimate fight at the end as Chao takes down all the bad guys, one by one, in an extremely satisfying conclusion.

Korean director Chang-Hwa Jeong was hired by the Shaw Brothers because he was capable of making a modern action movie. He received the screenplay written by Kong Yeung but felt that the story was “ordinary.” He took the core of it and then changed the content himself, creating things like the Iron Palm technique, the hired enforcers from Japan, and the character of Chen Lang. He wasn’t able to hire martial arts choreographers as they were working with Chinese directors and so he hired their assistants instead. At the time, wire work was the norm for fight sequences but he found it too slow and not realistic enough. He used trampolines, which he found conveyed fast, powerful action.

King Boxer follows a traditional hero’s journey as he must overcome insurmountable odds and personal hardships to beat the bad guys while maintaining his honor and that of his school. It tells a simple yet effective tale full of betrayal, torture, revenge and even some heroic style redemption thrown in for good measure – all heightened to melodramatic levels making for a very entertaining ride. Our hero has to deal with a devastating injury and his own self-doubts before he can face the bad guys and use the Iron Palm technique to save the day. You soon find yourself rooting for Chao to win the competition and make himself worthy of the cute woman he loves as well.

When King Boxer debuted in the U.S. under the title, Five Fingers of Death, it was a big hit, paving the way for Bruce Lee’s subsequent success and launching the kung fu craze of the ‘70s. In the 1980s, it inspired filmmaker John Carpenter to make Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and, more recently, was a huge influence on Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films where he paid direct homage to King Boxer. It is a movie that still holds up and remains one of the best examples of its kind from the ‘70s.


SOURCES


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“Interview with Director Chang-Hwa Jeong.” King Boxer DVD. Dragon Dynasty. 2007.