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HEROES OF THE UNDERGROUND (1976) – Competent thriller about Chinese resistance during WWII

Author: Brian Camp from Bronx, NY
6 January 2016

HEROES OF THE UNDERGROUND (1976), directed by Pao Hsueh Li, is a World War II spy thriller from Shaw Bros. about Chinese resistance leaders working undercover against the Japanese in Occupied China. Ling Yun plays a fugitive rebel leader named Ding Yi Shan (the film's Chinese title) who takes on the identity of an antique dealer in order to get into the good graces of Commander Nakajima (Frankie Wei), who leads the local occupation forces and fancies himself an expert on Chinese art. Nakajima's deputy commander, a female Chinese uniformed officer named Wang Ling (Ching Li), is also an undercover resistance leader and she and Ding have to direct various sabotage operations under the noses of the Japanese. One intricate maneuver involves planting explosives in a duplicate of an ancient statue and getting it into the commander's headquarters in the right spot before the timer goes off. Needless to say, the best laid plans… The overall story arc generates quite a bit of suspense through a series of cumulative incidents, leading up to a major gun and artillery battle in the spectacular finale.

Venerable Shaw Bros. actors Yang Chi-Ching, Lu Wei and Cheng Kang Yeh play local merchants who are secretly working with Ding and play a large role in the action. Yang usually played officials, nobles, tavern owners or aged fathers and rarely got as significant an action role as he has here. Lu usually played dyspeptic shop owners and rarely got to play a large, heroic role like this. I'm always happy when familiar faces get to shine beyond their usual typecasting. Ching Li plays quite a proactive role here, involving a lot of quick thinking and strategizing in order to maintain her believability as a lackey of the Japanese while also accomplishing her resistance goals. She even has to submit to a drunken Japanese officer's advances in one uncomfortable scene in order to distract him from a resistance operation. Meng Yuen-Man, a future kung fu star (HELL'S WINDSTAFF), plays Xiao Fu-Zi, a young inn worker who aids the resistance and is caught by the Japanese and tortured in a harrowing scene that leads to a poignant revelation. Oily Tien Ching, who often played duplicitous roles, is up to his usual tricks as the Chinese inn owner who grovels before the Japanese.

I was initially thrown off by the fact that all the Japanese officers and soldiers were played by regular Shaw Bros. actors, led by Frankie Wei Hung, who was better known for kung fu parts such as that of Hung Si Kwan in SHAOLIN TEMPLE (1976). They all speak Mandarin and their uniforms don't look Japanese, so I first thought they were Chinese Nationalist troops until I saw the Japanese flag plastered all over their cars, motorcycles and offices. Once I got over that, I enjoyed Frankie Wei's performance, particularly in the scene in which he calmly tests Ding Yi Shan's knowledge of Chinese antiques. The character is not a cardboard villain but a man who declares a high regard for Chinese history and culture and seems to think he's doing good in China. (Some of the other Japanese officers are not nearly as high-minded.) Director Pao Hsueh Li usually made kung fu films, so I was pleased to see him stretch his wings a bit and do something different. He tended to do his best work when he was under contract to Shaw Bros. The Celestial Pictures R3 DVD case for this film lists a date of 1974, which I'm assuming is the production date.

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