The Story of Sue San (1964) — August 4, 2014
King Hu’s directorial debut. He’d been acting and working a variety of other movie jobs (props, writing, etc) since the mid-1950s, and this is for the most part in the vein of his two films as assistant director under Li Han-hsiang, The Enchanting Shadow and The Love Eterne. Like those films, it’s an adaptation from medieval literature, in this case of a story from the Ming Dynasty collection Stories to Caution the World, published in 1624. Betty Loh Ti, the star of those other two films, also stars here as the eponymous prostitute. A rich guy (Lei Zhao, who starred with Loh in a number of films through the 60s, including The Enchanting Shadow) meets her and falls obsessively in love, leading to his downfall and ruin.
But rather than follow this Blue Angel template, it turns out the girl actually does like the guy. And as he is able to rehabilitate himself, his fortune and his standing in society, she merely falls ever further into degradation, first as a prostitute, then forced into concubinage, finally into prison, framed for murder.
It’s in the final scenes, when Loh recites her misfortunes in song (literally telling “the story of Sue San” whereas the film we’d been watching had been telling us the man’s story as much if not more than hers) that everything really comes together. It’s not as musical as the other huangmei films I’ve seen, with only a few songs here or there. But when Betty Loh Ti takes control of the narrative and sings us her story, the generic melodrama becomes something a little special.
Sons of the Good Earth (1965) — August 5, 2014
King Hu’s second film, and the only one of his that I know of that is set in the 20th Century (he had some extremely hard to find ones in the 1980s that I’m not sure about). It’s still a period film, set 20–30 years earlier, during the Japanese invasion of China. Seen in retrospect, it serves as a kind of encapsulation of the shift in the films the Shaw Brothers in general and Hu in particular made from the early to the late 1960s: from musical melodramas to bloody action films.
It begins, as so many films do, with a woman being forced into prostitution. In this case it’s the great star Betty Loh Ti. She’s rescued by Peter Chen Ho, a local sign painter and Loh’s real-life husband (things did not end happily for the two actors: she committed suicide in 1968 and he died of cancer in 1970). The two, with the help of Chen’s buddy and fellow painter and the various motley residents of a tenement house (looks like a converted mansion, or at least a converted mansion set) manage to outwit the pimps who try to recapture her and everything ends in a happy celebration of togetherness and community. That’s the first half hour.
And then the Japanese invade and blow everything to hell. The community splinters into various factions, the women end up suffering as much if not more than the men (the film’s highlight involves a minor character, a singer who sings a pointed folk song at the Japanese army and pays for it with her body as soon as someone translates it for the officers). The middle third of the film is packed with reversals and betrayals, finally splitting apart the protagonists and driving Chen into the wilderness to join the resistance.
The last third is an all-out war movie with King Hu himself leading the Chinese in an invasion of the town. The action is well-captured but poorly acted, the guns look incongruous in the actors’ hands, like they’ve never handled them before (one’s movie death is less effectively heroic when the hail of bullets one is flying out on comes from a gun that’s bigger than you are). More convincing is Peter Chen freaking out after a friend gets killed and hacking a Japanese soldier up with a sword with blood-splattering fury. But the best is a pre-battle scene, when Chen and his buddy have first come to the rebel camp and Hu addresses all his men while a pharmacist pulls a bullet out of his shoulder. He makes barely a sound despite the agonizing pain, so strong is his resolution to fight for his country. Good stuff.
The cast is a who’s who of mid-60s Shaw Brothers talent, filled with the That Guys of the 70s golden age. I missed Wu Ma this time, but I did spot Lau Kar-leung’s brief appearance (he plays a Japanese agent that gets knifed by a hero).
Dragon Gate Inn (1967) — June 8, 2016
So exciting to finally see this on the big screen, to at long last get a sense of the sublimity of King Hu’s use of space, the ‘scope frame arranged so precisely in the various stand-offs, the judicious close-ups lunging out at the audience. Even smaller stuff, like the “take the shortcut” joke, which would be just as at home in a Mel Brooks movie, works so much better on the big screen, similarly the whip pans of Pai Ying’s leaps out of danger, the gradual reddening of Shih Chun’s eyes, and the gorgeous natural vistas that would go on to become an integral part of Hu’s films. Having perfected the action movie in 1967, he was free throughout the 1970s to take it places no one has yet managed to follow.
The Fate of Lee Khan (1973) — August 7, 2014
If I ever run an inn on a medieval Chinese border-crossing, remind me to invest heavily in extra tables, chairs, dishes and whatnot. Also to hire pretty waitresses that know kung fu.
At one point a portly waiter does a backflip and I’m 99% certain it’s Sammo Hung doubling for him. It’s a Sammo backflip.
Almost the entire film takes place within an inn, and in the main common room of the inn (there are a couple short sequences in one of the guest rooms and a side room). But Hu so constantly varies his camera set-ups, and keeps the plot always hurtling forward, that it never feels stagey in the way something like Key Largo does.
Like Dragon Gate Inn, the first half of the film chronicles the gathering and unmasking of the various heroes while the second half unfolds their fight against the villain. Also like that film, it features a collective hero rather than the serial heroes of Come Drink with Me, A Touch of Zen, and Painted Skin.