Chang Cheh Capsule Reviews

Chang Cheh Capsule Reviews

The Magnificent Trio (1966) — November 5, 2017

Chang Cheh’s second wuxia film, and the oldest one to survive. The first, Tiger Boy, was a low-budget black and white film for which he did the choreography himself. By all accounts it has been lost. The Magnificent Trio is in color and has all the Shaw bells and whistles, and for the first time Chang used the team of Tong Kai and Lau Kar-leung as choreographers. Jimmy Wang Yu plays a noble warrior on the run who falls in with Tien Feng’s scheme to protest the local magistrate’s injustices by kidnapping the man’s daughter. Lo Lieh is the magistrate’s reluctant swordsman, and Cheng Lui plays a righteous man who gets let out of jail along with a gang of criminals to rescue the daughter. The three stars eventually realize they share a common code of honor that distinguishes them from the petty criminals who oppress the people, and take turns making brave sacrifices (of themselves and the women they love) for their ideals. It’s all pretty standard Chang stuff, though it moves much more deliberately than it should and the heroes are especially slow-witted.

The Trail of the Broken Blade (1967) — November 7, 2017

Basically the same plot as Golden Swallow (which would come out a year later): Jimmy Wang Yu as part of a love triangle between the swordswoman he loves but can’t be with (because he assassinated the evil prime minister who murdered his father) and the swordsman he loves but can’t be with (because he’s a guy, obviously, nothing gay going on in Chang Cheh movies). But Kiu Chong and Chin Ping are no Lo Lieh and Cheng Pei-pei, and the movie bogs down in the boring melodrama of Wang’s secret identity and whether anyone will ever figure it out.

Things pick up only at the end, when Wang assaults the evil pirates led by Tien Feng on Flying Fish Island (complete with a trap-filled cave), but it holds none of the majesty of his doomed assault in the later film. Subtext comes perilously close to text when Chin Ping realizes that Wang has gone off alone because he “wants to sacrifice himself”. The Chang hero doesn’t just stand up for his code despite all odds, he actively seeks out an ideological justification for his own glorious self-destruction. On the other hand, hoping his two friends will be united after his honorable death, Wang Yu desperately gasps at them “Go. . .go eat something!”

The Singing Thief (1969) — June 1, 2014

Not as much (intentionally, I think) fun as the films inspired by it (the Aces Go Places series and John Woo’s Once a Thief), this Chang Cheh variation on To Catch a Thief, with a retired burglar (he’s now a lounge singer) called back to clear his name after a series of copycat thieveries is mostly notable for having the most appallingly hideous/hilarious fashions of any movie I’ve ever seen. A puffy red short-sleeved button-down shirt, open to the navel, with a matching pair of ultra-tight short shorts, candy striped wallpaper, red red carpets and a round bed covered in red velvet, tight pants and long, multi-colored scarves and much much more. It’s 70s baroque at its kitschiest.

And of course, since its a Chang Cheh movie, it all ultimately revolves around a betrayal of the brotherly loyalty code.

Dead End (1969) — June 3, 2014

So Chang Cheh made a straight-up New Wave film, full of class anxiety and only a little fighting. In Ti Lung’s debut he plays a young clerk who can never make it past the probation period of his various jobs, but he dreams big. He’s so cool, he has to smoke two cigarettes at the same time (“Double the pleasure”, he explains without affect). The opening sequence is a tour de force, as Ti types his insurance forms at hyper-speed and then relaxes in slow motion, Chang cuts between shots of office workers running through Hong Kong (motion slightly sped up) while Ti imagines the good life of the rich (poolside relaxation, lawn bowling, motion slightly slowed down).

The plot is rote: Ti dates a rich girl, her family doesn’t like it, a gang of toughs intervenes, it ends badly. But the deliberate pace, flashes of formal experimentation and the almost complete lack of fight scenes in favor of Ti’s angst mark Chang as more than a mere director of formula kung fu, but a true contemporary of New Wave 60s and 70s directors from around the world.

Have Sword Will Travel (1969) — October 28, 2010

The title’s a dead giveaway, of course, but this is another Western-influenced wuxia film. The director again is Chang Cheh and David Chiang plays the stranger who wanders into town, talking to his horse, whom no one is sure they can trust but ends up saving the heroine and defeating the bad guys (spoiler!). Chiang is a great screen presence, slight and sardonic, he’s like a goofier, more athletic Tony Leung. He falls in with a couple who are trying to defend a money shipment from a gang of thieves (seems the famous master who usually escorts the annual shipments has gotten so old he’s lost his kung fu, but he daren’t admit it). The guy in the couple totally doesn’t trust Chiang, not least because his fiancée is obviously into him. It all culminates in a bloody extended fight sequence, equal parts Throne of Blood, Game of Death, and, say, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia as Chiang’s determination to prove his honorability and save the day for all involved reaches gruesome proportions.

The Wandering Swordsman (1970) — October 28, 2010

A slightly lesser version of the Have Sword Will Travel story, again teaming director Chang with star Chiang. It’s the subtitles, I’m sure, but Chiang’s character here repeatedly gives his name as “Wandering Swordsman” which just isn’t silly enough to be cool. His character here is a lot dumber than in the previous film, as he gets duped into helping a gang steal a bunch of money from the good guys. When he finally realizes his mistake (which seems to take a painfully long time) he takes his revenge in a most satisfactory manner. While the melodramatics aren’t as bold as Have Sword, which is a bit of a plus, it seems more like that’s because everyone was more going through the motions rather than a conscious choice to pare things down. Still, I’ve yet to see a Chang Cheh film that doesn’t have at least a couple of fantastic fight sequences, and David Chiang is a charismatic enough performer that he almost manages to sell his character’s idiocy.

The Boxer from Shantung (1972) — May 9, 2014

Chen Kuan-tai punches dudes in the fist. David Chiang dies a glorious death, kicking off one of the most brutal half hours of director Chang Cheh’s career.

Chen is a new immigrant to 1930s Shanghai who fighting prowess earns him the respect of Chiang’s old school gangster, the enmity of the rival, less honorable gang, and the love of the people (after defeating a giant Russian in the wrestling ring). Chen and Chiang are gangsters with hearts of gold, united by their belief in the wuxia code of chivalry. Since this is a Chang Cheh film, they are of course done in by their belief in said code when it turns out that not everyone else shares it.

The moments when each man realizes their mistake are heart-breaking. Their defiance in fighting on regardless, hatchet in their ribs be damned, is the essence of Chang Cheh.

The Water Margin (1972) — October 28, 2010

The Water Margin is one of those massive classics of Chinese literature that get adapted again and again into films (like The Three Kingdoms, which last year brought us John Woo’s masterful spectacle Red Cliff, as well as a wonderful video game series). This film, as the introduction explains, is an adaption of five chapters in the middle of the saga. The story concerns a gang of outlaws fighting political corruption who attempt to free a kung fu master who has been framed by his servant who has been sleeping with the master’s wife so they can enlist the master in a fight against an evil government agent and his evil minions. There’s a dizzying amount of characters (familiar, I’m sure, to those who know the book) and the plot isn’t really as confusing as I made it sound, keeping in mind that it’s really one tiny section in the middle of a vast story. Anyway, the film’s a lot of fun, with a pronounced Spaghetti Western influence (some parts of the score were direct ripoffs actually), an epic scale rare in the Shaw Brothers films I’ve seen and with some good performances, especially from David Chiang, an actor I wasn’t familiar with before, but will see a lot of in the future. Another film by Chang Cheh, it does have his trademark nihilist streak, especially in the final sequence, which features a pretty brutal bit of nonsensical dying for wrongheaded ideals (think Kagemusha without the guns).

Added May 21, 2018:
Only seems confusing because every single actor gets introduced with an on-screen credit naming them and their character, dozens of names we can’t possibly remember. But then almost none of those names are important (at least in the movie, I’m sure they all play memorable roles in the novel), though a lot of them are fun. My favorite is “The Rash”, who I thought was named after a skin condition before realizing it’s because of his hasty and aggressive behavior.

Really it’s just a movie about a gang of honorable bandits trying to rescue a decent guy they inadvertently set-up for murder, and failing in increasingly spectacular ways until a whole town is engulfed in war. And also about David Chiang charming the pants off of everyone.

Funnily enough, watching this and The Brave Archer on the same day reveals that though this is based on a 14th century novel while the latter, from Jin Yong’s Legend of the Condor Heroes, is contemporary, everything about the psychology of the characters and performances is vastly more modern in The Water Margin. I don’t know if that’s a matter of adaptation, or if it’s true about the sources as well, with Jin Yong adopting an even more ancient narrative style for his wuxia epic. A subject for further research.

(Yeah, I have both books, I will read them, eventually).

The Blood Brothers (1973) — July 4, 2013

Kung fu melodrama that both contains the seeds of the ‘heroic bloodshed’ genre that John Woo and Ringo Lam would popularize in the late 1980s and Johnnie To would deconstruct in the 2000s and demonstrates the stuffy puffiness of much of the Shaw Brothers’, and director Chang Cheh’s, early 70s work that would be punctured within a few short years by the more comically self-conscious films of Lau Kar-leung and the Golden Harvest trio of Sammo Hung, Yuen Woo-ping and Jackie Chan.

Shaolin Martial Arts (1974) — November 8, 2017

On the Shaolin timescale this takes place sometime in the third generation after the destruction of the Temple, which I guess would make it contemporary with the Wong Fei-hung stories. Fu Sheng and his pals are students at a Shaolin kung fu school in Canton who fight with a rival Manchurian school. The Manchus bring in a couple of ringers with apparently unbeatable skills to trash their joint and kill some heroes (Lau Kar-wing is the first one to die, victim of a sucker halberd to the gut). Retreating to a hiding spot, their aged master sends a pair out to learn new skills from more advanced masters (one of the two is Gordon Liu). There’s a long training sequence, which ultimately leads to failure and a repeat of the whole setup, this time another pair finds another pair of masters. This is where Fu Sheng learns from Yuen Siu-tien (an old master who learned his style from Temple refugee Hong Hsi-kuan), while his buddy learns Wing Chun from another guy, in a sequence that Quentin Tarantino ripped off almost completely in Kill Bill Vol. 2.

In his memoir, Chang Cheh locates this film as the genesis of Jackie Chan and Yuen Woo-ping’s breakthroughs Drunken Master and Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, with his casting Yuen Siu-tien in the irascible old master role that helped make those later films so much fun. It’s kind of a stretch: Yuen doesn’t do much here but ignore and be mean to Alexander Fu Sheng for a while, Chang is too classy for the antics of those later films. He isn’t exactly taking credit for Chan and Yuen’s success: rather he notes that a lot of people built off of ideas he had originally, with those followers surpassing his own work (Lau Kar-leung and John Woo are included in this bunch). Of course, when you’re making half a dozen films a year for a decade, you’re bound to have a lot of ideas that end up only half developed that ultimately find full expression in later, more focused works.

All Men Are Brothers (1975) — December 3, 2010

A sequel to the Chang Cheh-directed adaptation of a section of the classic Chinese epic The Water Margin. This one isn’t quite as good, though it is more focused in story and character. The band of outlaws from the first film, now reconciled with the Emperor, attempts to capture the seaside town Hongchow. Spies infiltrate the city, come up with a plan, and execute it. In the meanwhile, lots of heroes get the chance to prove their heroism by dying heroically in Chang’s characteristically brutal kung fu sequences. David Chiang again stars, though he doesn’t get the chance to be as charming as he was in the first film.

Boxer Rebellion (1976) — July 20, 2013

A Chang Cheh variation on the historical epic, with his band of blood brothers (Alexander Fu Sheng, Bryan Leung Kar-yan (aka Beardy), and Chi Kuan-chun) caught up in the eponymous revolution. Chang’s portrait of the Boxers is nuanced, a mob of thugs deluded by poverty, oppression and rulers either in it for self-aggrandizement (the leaders of the movement) or completely oblivious to reality (the Empress Dowager and the rest of the Qing government, hopelessly lost in ornament and ritual within the Forbidden City). But within this mob are heroic figures, men hoping to stand up and fight for justice against the foreigners exploiting the nation and murdering Chinese just as wantonly as the mob does. It’s a Chang Cheh world: everyone is in it for themselves, human life is cheap, but there remain a few heroes willing to do what’s right, and they mostly end up dead.

We see the events through the three “brothers,” martial arts masters who are intrigued by and join the Boxer movement, only to discover that it’s a scam. But they keep on, believing the trickery (convincing people, even the Empress, that their magical spells can make the Boxers impervious to weapons, even foreign guns) can help motivate the masses to stand up to the occupation. But they become increasingly disillusioned by the Boxer leadership and eventually go their own way. In the aftermath of the revolution (crushed by the united forces of eight nations (Japan, the US, Russia, Britain, France, Austria-Hungary, Italy, and Germany, as seen from the other side in Nicholas Ray’s 55 Days at Peking), as foreign troops take bloody reprisals against any Chinese they can find (the German commander calls it “Operation Punishment”), the three find themselves trapped in the city and have to fight their way out. Heroic deaths ensue, as does a hope for the future, as one man walks out of the city and into the sunset, in search of Sun Yat-sen and his Revive China Society.

The Braver Archer (1977) – May 6, 2018

Man this sequel to Ashes of Time is nothing like the first film.

Crippled Avengers (1978) — October 28, 2010

If Lau Kar-Leung is the John Ford of kung fu films, with The 36th Chamber of Shaolin as his My Darling Clementine, then Chang Cheh is the Sam Peckinpah and this is his Wild Bunch. Lau’s films, when they aren’t being outright comic, emphasize the spiritual and communal side of martial arts more than any non-King Hu director I’ve seen. But Chang’s are all about the brutality of the violence and how it eats up its practitioners, no matter which side of the good/evil divide they fall on. After his son is maimed in an attack, a Tiger Style expert makes him some metal hands and the two proceed to terrorize a town for decades. When they cripple three regular guys and a kung fu expert who tried to defend them (one loses his legs, another his eyesight, the third his hearing, while the kung fu guy is brain-damaged into a crazy fool) they team up, learn new, better kung fu, and seek their revenge. This film has the reputation of having the best fight sequences in the entire genre and from what I’ve seen, that is entirely true. Chang reunited the team from his previous film, The Five Deadly Venoms (this group were so popular they appeared in several other films together as well), and while I found that film to be largely lame, a weak detective story salvaged by a brilliant final fight sequence, this film is non-stop beautifully choreographed hardcore action. I really can’t say enough about it, partially because I just don’t have the vocabulary, but also because despite all the kung fu films I’ve seen in my life, I’ve still never seen anything like the action in this film.

Added May 4, 2018:
The ring training sequence with Philip Kwok and Chiang Sheng is the best pas de deux of the 1970s.

It's reprise, with Lu Feng added to the duo, is only rivaled as a three-way duel by the pair of fights in Dirty Ho.

Chiang's giggling infirmity brings a sense of wonder to his and Kwok's acrobatics. Without it, this would be one of the more unbearably cruel and nihilistic of Chang Cheh's bleak Venoms phase. As it stands, this is the only one of the bunch to really show the joy of making action cinema.

Masked Avengers (1981) — August 11, 2018

The secret bonus 35mm feature paired with 8 Diagram Pole Fighter at the Grand Illusion. The print was also in good condition, but similarly a bit pink and faded. It was dubbed though. Can’t remember the last time I watched a dubbed Hong Kong movie. It definitely changes the experience, but I don’t know, adding some unintentional comedy into the mix maybe makes these late Chang Cheh films, with their unrelenting violence, goofy machines, interminable fight sequences and stupid plots, play a lot better. This was definitely more fun than watching it at home was.

Brave Archer and His Mate (1982)— January 16, 2011

This is the fourth film in the Brave Archer series, and I haven’t seen any of the first three. Perhaps that explains the rapid-fire exposition of the first third of the film, where characters get killed, solve murders, double-cross each other, and kill even more people with remarkable alacrity. Eventually, things mellow out and we travel 15 or so years into the future. The Archer and his Mate raise some kids, one of whom is the son of a bad guy that got killed in the beginning. When they start to teach their brood kung fu, the adopted kid (Alexander Fu Sheng) gets picked on, turns a little evil and falls under the influence of crazy bad guy Ouyang Feng (played by Wang Li). This bad guy is actually the Leslie Cheung character from Ashes of Time, as this was based on the same Louis Cha novels as Wong Kar-wai’s movie (there are absolutely no other similarities between the films). Anyway, the Ouyang Feng plot gets quickly resolved and the last third of the film takes place in a totally different environment, as the Archer and Fu Sheng help some monks fight off some horny bad guys who want to hook up with a dead girl. Or something. This is the only part of the film with any real fight sequences, and director Chang Cheh utilizes several of his Venoms to good effect. On the whole, the movie’s a mess, and I doubt it would be better after seeing the first three films, since it’s mostly the story of a whole new generation of characters.

Five Element Ninjas (1982) — July 28, 2013

Announces itself as intended to show off period-accurate weapons and costumes, and that’s largely all it accomplishes. One clans beats another in a martial arts competition, the loser hires some ninjas to kill the winners. they do, but one man is left to retrain and get revenge. The Five Elements is a “formation” or gauntlet whereby the hero must face the ninjas who use five different ways of hiding: in the ground, in the water, behind smoke, behind shiny hats, and in trees (not in branches, literally inside trees). These fights are fun, in the brutally violent and bloody mode of late Chang Cheh movies.

Lau Kar-leung did much better with similar material in Heroes of the East (aka Shaolin vs. Ninja) by setting it within a Taming of the Shrew-esque marriage plot. Chang on the other hand just goes through the motions of the standard training/revenge story.