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FRIENDS (1973) followed two similar films by the same director, YOUNG PEOPLE (1972) and GENERATION GAP (1973), both featuring Shaw Bros. kung fu stars in contemporary youth dramas, and both also reviewed on this site. YOUNG PEOPLE consisted of more or less random scenes of college kids putting on a show, playing basketball, competing in a kung fu tournament, and participating in a go-kart race. GENERATION GAP followed the travails of an ill-fated romance involving youthful runaways in Hong Kong. FRIENDS focuses on a group of male friends, all under-employed but nursing big dreams, but emphasizes one friendship in particular. It starts off with some genuinely touching scenes of male camaraderie, but sinks into melodrama in its second half with a contrived kidnap plot. It stars David Chiang, who'd starred in the first two films as well, and Alexander Fu Sheng, who'd been an extra in YOUNG PEOPLE and had a small speaking part in GENERATION GAP. Chiang and Fu Sheng both starred in many kung fu films for the same director, Chang Cheh, and appeared together in such classics of his as FIVE SHAOLIN MASTERS (1974) and SHAOLIN TEMPLE (1976).
In FRIENDS, Hua Heng (David Chiang) is a poverty-stricken aspiring painter whose day job involves painting the ads that go up on the sides of buildings. He and his buddies hang out in a makeshift gym set up in an abandoned building where they train and practice kung fu. His girlfriend is Gao Xin (Lily Li), a bar maid who is in debt to loan sharks. Into their lives comes Jiaji (Alexander Fu Sheng), who happens upon Hua Heng in a street fight with local thugs who'd made fun of the painting he's carrying and decides to help him out. Afterwards, Jiaji tags along with Hua Heng and follows him to the gym, where he proves his own skill at kung fu in an impromptu fight with one of the group. Unbeknownst to them, Jiaji is a rich boy, the son of a Hong Kong billionaire (Lu Ti), and he decides to stay with Hua Heng and not go back to his sheltered home life, where his preoccupation with kung fu was his only outlet for self-expression.
During all these scenes, there's a warm, freewheeling quality to the action as Hua Heng and Jiaji bond and we come to sympathize with Hua Heng, the struggling artist who is unable to get recognition for his work, and Jiaji, the rich kid who hungers for some real experience. The friends in the group seem to really enjoy each other's company and provide key support when things go bad for any of them. Hua Heng and Gao Xin also have a tender, romantic relationship and one wants things to go well for them. We even see two paintings he's made of her.
But then things take a turn into clichéd crime film territory when Jiaji comes up with a plan to fake his own kidnapping in order to get money from his father to pay off Gao Xin's debt to the loan sharks and prevent them from selling her into prostitution. He recruits Lin Sibao, one of the buddies, to help him and swears him to secrecy. He then tells Hua Heng he got the money by selling his paintings to a dealer he knows. When Lin Sibao seeks to milk this tactic for more money from Jiaji's father, the loan sharks get wind of it and proceed to kidnap Jiaji for real and hold him for a $50 million (HK) ransom.
There's a lot of kung fu in the movie, more than was in YOUNG PEOPLE and GENERATION GAP and more, probably, than the film actually needed. David and Fu Sheng fight off street hoods in one scene, loan sharks and their gang in a couple of others, and the kidnappers in a series of fights at the end. It gets a little ridiculous at times, especially when the odds are really against them. Which is too bad, because otherwise we get to see completely different sides of both David and Fu Sheng, who play looser, more relaxed, and more emotionally expressive characters than they do in their kung fu movies. And we get to see David and Lily Li locked in a romantic embrace, a scene I'm sure I haven't seen with these two in a Shaw Bros. film before. (Lily went on to become one of the studio's top female kung fu performers in films like EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN and SHAOLIN MANTIS.)
There's a mix of Hong Kong location shotsin out-of-the-way localesand Shaw Bros. studio sets. The music is all over the place, with huge helpings of Ennio Morricone soundtracks late in the film.
This is generally for Chang Cheh/Fu Sheng completists only. I'd recommend both YOUNG PEOPLE and GENERATION GAP over this one because they're so different from the other films made by this cast and crew and because they both co-star pop singer Agnes Chan early in her career. FRIENDS doesn't quite have the distinct pleasures those films did.
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