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Rumik World: Warau hyôteki (1987)
Eerily effective anime horror from the pen of Rumiko Takahashi
Rumiko Takahashi regularly infuses her contemporary manga stories with abundant elements from traditional Japanese culture. Often this was done for comic effect, as in "Ranma ½" and "Urusei Yatsura," but in the one-shot made-for-video animated film, "The Laughing Target" (1987), it's done as a genuinely chilling horror tale, as Yuzuru, a Tokyo high school boy, suddenly finds himself living under the same roof with Azusa, the mysterious cousin to whom he was betrothed as a child, as seen in flashback, and who has just moved in from the country, where she was raised in a traditional household. Her arrival at Yuzuru's home follows the death of her mother, her only other immediate family member, under strange circumstances. He hasn't seen Azusa in many years and is startled to find that she's grown into a tall, breathtaking, pale-skinned beauty with long dark hair. He hasn't given a thought to the childhood arrangement and has a loyal girlfriend named Satomi, his short-haired partner in the school's archery club. Azusa, however, has never forgotten the betrothal and is intent on going through with the arranged marriage. She warns Satomi to stay away from Yuzuru and follows up the warning with some very insistent behavior, stalking and terrorizing Satomi in various ways. Things get even scarier when Azusa's threats start to get backed up by a demonic force residing in her which can get quite destructive.
I like the way the whole thing is carefully laid out for us. In fact, we initially feel some sympathy for Azusa and might be forgiven if we actually think Yuzuru should live up to his familial obligation and agree to marry her. However, because of the 50-minute length, the gears shift a little too suddenly and we have no choice but to root for Yuzuru and Satomi as they are increasingly endangered. I found the characters compelling enough for a 90-minute movie and wish more time had been spent developing them, to the point of crafting a plausible romantic triangle to test audience loyalties, before Azusa's darker side erupts. Takahashi's imagination is well up to the task of filling out such a story.
I saw this film on a VHS tape from U.S. Manga Corps in a Japanese-language edition with English subtitles. Ever since that company went out of business, this production has been out of print in the U.S.
Shaw Bros. Wong Fei Hung film with a spectacular Lion Dance finale
RIVALS OF KUNG FU (1974) is the second Wong Fei Hung movie made about the character after the long-running series starring Kwan Tak Hing as Wong (99 films, 1949-1970) ended. It followed MASTER OF KUNG FU (1973), also from Shaw Bros., which starred Ku Feng in the role, but in the physician/martial artist's later years. RIVALS was even directed by the man who directed nine of the last films in the earlier series and it co-stars Shih Kien as Wong's antagonist, a role Shih played in most of the films in that series. So it may not be idle speculation to consider this film an unofficial continuation of that series. (Kwan Tak Hing would make guest appearances as Wong in numerous unrelated kung fu films over the next decade or so.) RIVALS stars Shih Chung-tien, a relative newcomer, as Wong, his first and possibly only starring role.
RIVALS is rather loosely plotted and its main plot line, about preparations for a Lion Dance competition and the question of who Wong will aid in getting the trophy, goes by the wayside quite frequently for comic vignettes or violent confrontations involving other characters. One subplot involves Wong's offer to "treat" the effeminate tendencies of his benefactor's only son, who's due to get married, and the treatment seems highly suspect. In any event, when the triumphant wedding procession begins, the film cuts abruptly away to some other business and never comes back to it. I found this meandering style of narrative tiresome in parts, but the film is worth sticking with until the end, since the Lion Dance finale is lengthy and quite detailed and ranks with some of the best Lion Dance sequences I've ever seen in a kung fu film. The film was shot entirely on Shaw Bros. studio sets.
Shih Chung-tien came to the film with a strong background in martial arts. According to the biographical info provided on the Celestial R3 DVD, he was a judo and karate coach at the Taiwan Police Academy. He's not the most charismatic kung fu star I've seen, but he carries himself with some authority and handles the fight scenes very well. He went on to appear in dozens of subsequent kung fu films, many of which I've seen, but I can't identify any other starring roles he had. His chief student in the film, a wiry and scrappy fellow named Ah Chi, is played by Liang Chien-lung, aka Huang Chien-lung, the name given on the DVD case, and also known as Bruce Le. He has a substantial martial arts background, too, and went on to make many more kung fu films, although I've seen very few of them. He has more than a few good fight scenes in this as well. Both of them fight Master Shen (Shih Kien, who had played Han in ENTER THE DRAGON a year earlier). Wong's final fight with Shen is especially exciting.
There are a number of notable performers among the supporting cast. Ricky Hui, one of a trio of brothers who became prominent comic actors in Hong Kong films (the others being Michael and Sam), appears as Little Rat, a hanger-on in the entourage of Master Shen, and has a funny scene involving grave-robbing. Two fighting femmes, Lily Li and Sharon Yeung Pan Pan, who would excel together in Lau Kar Leung's 8 DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER (1984) a decade later, play Wong's female students. Lily has no fight scenes but she does participate in the Lion Dance. Sharon has one fight scene. Ching Miao plays Boss Chou, Wong's wealthy backer and the one who pressures him to join the Lion Dance competition, while other familiar Shaw Bros. character actors play other key roles in the tight-knit Guangdong community depicted in the film.
Given the timeline of Wong Fei Hung's actual career, I would guess that the film is set in the 1880s or 1890s, which makes the inclusion of a hospital truck and a motorcycle in the final sequence something of an anachronism. (Wong lived to see such conveyances, but he would have been in his 60s or 70s by then.) While this isn't one of the best Wong Fei Hung films I've seen (which are too numerous to list here), it has its distinct pleasures and should be seen by fans of this unique kung fu subgenre.
American Experience: Walt Disney (2015)
Standard PBS overview with talking heads and archival footage
"American Experience: Walt Disney" is a two-part four-hour documentary about the life and career of Walt Disney--animator, entrepreneur, visionary. It takes a pretty standard approach to its subject, mixing contemporary interviews with various talking heads (biographers, academics, Disney animators) with archival footage of its subject, behind-the-scenes footage, and clips from various Disney productions. It's not exactly a paean to Disney and certainly does not emanate from the Disney Studio publicity machine, but it's not a wholesale attack on him either. It does offer a critical look at Disney's relationship with his staff and his sometimes contentious relationship with his brother Roy, who was also his business partner and the one who oversaw the studio's financial health. Walt had a vision and he sought to bring it to reality come hell or high water, the banks and unions be damned. One can admire his technical accomplishments and revel in the breathtaking artistry of his most significant works, but still take a jaundiced look at the way Disney's output, from his animated features to his TV shows and theme parks, watered down the complexity of human life and history and polished down the rough edges to promote a glossy worldview of a middle-class, racially homogeneous society with conservative values and idealized standards of beauty.
Part 1 offers an abundance of footage from Disney's early days in Kansas City, including clips from his earliest cartoons ("Laugh-o-grams") and pictures of him and his partners (including Ub Iwerks) at work. It follows him to California and his efforts to find a distributor for his films and create his own company. He had numerous setbacks, including losing the rights to his character, Oswald the Rabbit, but he persevered and found worldwide success with Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies. Eventually, Part 1 settles on the creation of SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937) and the extraordinary risks Disney took in crafting a feature-length animated film and the expenses incurred. We even see footage of its Hollywood premiere and get a blow-by-blow account of the audience reaction, one of the best sequences in the whole documentary. Disney then plunges into PINOCCHIO, FANTASIA and BAMBI, despite the impending world war and the eventual loss of the lucrative European market.
Part 2 opens with the 1941 strike that imperiled the studio and Disney's angry break with animator Art Babbitt, one of the leaders of the strike. (Babbitt eventually went back to work for Disney, a fact that goes unmentioned in the documentary.) SONG OF THE SOUTH (1946) is covered, along with the backlash by the NAACP against its treatment of racial themes, and some attention is given to Disney's testimony as an anti-communist "friendly witness" before the House Un-American Activities Committee. In the 1950s, Disney becomes increasingly obsessed with model railroads (encouraged by one of his top animators, Ward Kimball) and even builds one on his property that's large enough for Disney and various child visitors to ride around on, seen in ample home movie footage. The next big focus is Disneyland and Walt's efforts to design and build it and open it on schedule. Numerous minor disasters disrupt the opening day and these extend to the celebrity-packed live TV broadcast of the day's festivities, seen in lots of footage preserved from the event. Disneyland occupies most of Part 2 before the focus shifts to MARY POPPINS (1964), the subject of the 2013 Disney feature, SAVING MR. BANKS (unmentioned here), the plans for EPCOT and, finally, Disney's death.
The talking heads include at least four authors who've written books about Disney, some critical, some favorable: Richard Schickel, Neal Gabler, Michael Barrier, and Steven Watts. Their insights are always welcome, especially Schickel's and Barrier's. (Barrier is seen mostly in Part 1, while the others are sprinkled throughout.) There are a number of academics who contribute their thoughts, although I could have done without most of them. There is one African-American female art historian, Carmenita Higginbotham, who weighs in on the SONG OF THE SOUTH controversy. While she's critical of Disney on that issue, she actually offers a number of favorable assessments of other aspects of Disney's work throughout the documentary, all delivered with a refreshing degree of enthusiasm and affection.
Finally, I was very pleased to hear from a trio of Disney animators and designers who had worked with Disney in the 1930s and are still around to talk about it: Ruthie Thompson, Don Lusk, and Robert Givens. (Don Lusk is over 100 at this pointand didn't look a day over 80!) Which begs the question of why there wasn't more footage of interviews from past documentaries about Disney. "Frank and Ollie" from 1995, for instance, offered profiles of two of Disney's famous "nine old men," Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. Ward Kimball was interviewed on several occasions and he's prominently featured along with other veteran Disney personnel in "It All Started with a Mouse: The Disney Story" (1989), which I've also reviewed on this site and which had amazing behind-the-scenes footage from the 1930s and '40s that would have been useful in this documentary. I also wondered where Leonard Maltin was. Why wasn't he interviewed for this? He certainly knows as much about Disney as any of the featured interviewees. Is he too closely tied to the Disney Company and was he ordered not to participate? Or did the filmmakers simply not approach him? In any event, Disney remains one of the most fascinating entertainment figures of the 20th century and he left a huge footprint on American culture. He's one of the few film and TV industry pioneers who is still widely known among young people. This two-parter is well worth seeing by anyone who's interested in Disney, although I'm sure there is enough footage and material for a whole documentary series on him that I hope will one day emerge.
Sairento mebiusu 2 (1992)
Too much backstory in SILENT MOBIUS sequel
SILENT MOBIUS THE MOTION PICTURE 2 (1992) is a short (58-min.) follow-up to SILENT MOBIUS, the even shorter (53 min.) anime occult thriller based on Kia Asamiya's manga and released the previous year (and which I've also reviewed here). The focus of both films is Katsumi Liqueur, daughter of a powerful psychic who'd died in some kind of encounter with the demonic "Lucifer Folk" who are invading a post-catastrophic Tokyo (2028 A.D.) with only the paranormal warriors of the all-female AMP (Attacked Mystification Police) offering significant resistance. Katsumi is under the protective spell of her late father and is sitting on an untapped source of inner power that will definitely turn the tide of AMP's ongoing defense of Tokyo. The first film set up the facts of Katsumi's background and her parents' relationship to this whole mystical battlefront, with Katsumi's scenes with her mortally ill mother in the hospital offering a poignant layer to the proceedings. However, in this sequel, Katsumi resists the call of her destiny and wanders off on her own, defied at every turn in her attempts to leave Tokyo and get back to her home in Hawaii. She cries, she whines, she protests and even falls exhausted to the ground in the rain at one point. She even tosses away the talisman that guarantees her protection, making her vulnerable at one point to stepped-up attacks by the Lucifer Folk, seen in human form as an old man and young blond girl playing a form of psychic chess, but who emerge in full demonic form as monstrous, misshapen, asymmetrical creatures who speak in soft male voices. Through it all, the women of AMP struggle to guard and protect Katsumi and continue trying to persuade her to join them. Yuki, a young woman who befriends Katsumi and gives her a place to stay, also takes an increasingly proactive role in these efforts.
Normally in anime of this type, all this would have been a build-up to an action finale where the heroine accepts her destiny, unleashes her power, and wreaks havoc on her demonic opponents, but the resolution here is abrupt and unsatisfying and clearly designed to set up a sequel or TV/video series that never materialized. It even says "To be continued," in English, at the very end. There was a "Silent Mobius" TV series in 1998, six years later, but it was a complete reboot and not an actual sequel. So SILENT MOBIUS 2 seems strangely incomplete. Another half-hour wouldn't have hurt it. Nor would it have hurt to simply tell the whole story in a normal full-length animated feature, instead of two short films that don't quite succeed in making full dramatic use of the imaginative concepts introduced. (The first movie does, at least, offer much more occult battle action.)
Still, I'm impressed with the design and animation style and general tone of the piece, all enhanced by the full-bodied orchestral score (by Kaoru Wada). There are scenes in this sequel that are quite evocative, as when Katsumi recalls dreams of the Rainbow Bridge over Tokyo Bay and then seeks to find the spot in reality that matches the angle she saw in her dream. (The bridge is now in ruins, evidently damaged during the unexplained catastrophe.) There's also a very moving scene where she finds the house she lived in with her mother as a girl and walks through dark, dusty halls with flashbacks to her childhood. However, the effectiveness of these scenes is undermined by Katsumi's continually tiresome behavior as she rejects all entreaties to step up to the plate and help in the fight. In the later TV series, Katsumi resists joining AMP for the first two episodes, but only because she wants more information about Lucifer Hawk (as the demonic entity is called in the TV series) and her father's connection to them before she signs on. By the end of episode 2, she's fully on board and ready for action in half the time it took in these two movies.
'80s Sentai movie spin-off pumps up the action
SUN VULCAN THE MOVIE (1981) is a 28-minute movie spin-off of the "Solar Squadron Sun Vulcan" (Taiyo Sentai Sanbarukan) TV series, the 1981 season in the long-running "sentai" (superhero team) franchise that began on Japanese TV in 1975 with "Goranger" and continues to this day with the 2015 season, "Shuriken Sentai Ninninger." (The sentai franchise has contributed action scenes to the U.S.-produced Power Rangers franchise since 1993.) As such, it basically plays like a typical TV episode but packs in far more action and more spectacular stunts than normal for the show. I have the film as part of a DVD set of sentai movie spin-offs of the 1980s and it comes in Japanese with no translation, so I can't give much of a plot description. Still, it's mostly action anyway and easily enjoyed if you already have a love of the genre.
As usual for the franchise, there are outlandishly costumed villains, including four female henchwomen in attractive outfits who do most of the heavy lifting. Here they kidnap two impossibly cute children, a girl, Yukari, and her younger brother Tsutomu, and hold them hostage while laying in wait to ambush the Sun Vulcan team when they show up to try to rescue the tykes. They've also got a monster on deck, played by an actor in a rubber suit, to create extensive property damage and provide the formidable opponent sentai heroes always needed. This one boasts a head that looks like a gumball machine circled by little cannons.
Atypically for this franchise, Sun Vulcan consists of only three rangers, Red, Blue, and Yellow, all male. Their support team consists of an older man and his daughter who run a café when they're not working the control room for the team's various vehicles. Sentai teams from that period tended to have very large truck-like vehicles that would fly to the scene of battle and then unleash smaller vehicles and various weapons. Here the truck also transforms into the familiar-looking giant robot (or "zord," as such combat vehicles would later come to be known) which the heroes use to fight the monster after it turns giant-sized. I love the colors used for the vehicles, with the emphasis on primary colors (just like the three Rangers), a look enhanced by the rich color film stock from that period, something that cannot be recaptured in the digital era.
Another great thing about sentai shows of this era is the inclusion of large numbers of risky stunts, often performed by the actors out of costume. Here we see the Red Ranger ("Vul Eagle"), before transforming, dangling from an actual helicopter by ropes and the camera zooms in to reveal that it's the actor himself and not a stuntman. Another notable aspect of the action scenes in these shows is the reliance on actual locations in and around Tokyo for the staging of the fights. Here, they take over a construction site in Tokyo for one sprawling battle scene and make use of the terrain quite creatively. There are also fights along cliffsides and on rocky coastal outcrops facing the sea. These can't have been easy stunts to pull off--in full costume--so they're pretty exciting to watch.
The lead female villain, Cyborg Queen Hedrian, is played by Machiko Soga, who made a career out of playing such villains, and is best known in the U.S. as Rita Repulsa in "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers," in which ample footage of her from its Japanese counterpart, "Zyuranger," was dubbed into English for the U.S. version. Soga's character is seen only briefly in this movie and only appears in two short scenes, while her four female lieutenants, led by Yukie Kagawa as Amazon Killer, do most of the work.
Li bi gou (1980)
Muddled plot made worse by atrocious English dubbing
I have this film in a VHS edition released by Tai Seng's Martial Arts Theater under the title, THE DEADLY SWORD (1980). It's based on a story by Ku Lung, who provided the stories for so many enchanting costume tales of the "martial world" produced by Shaw Bros. in the 1970s and '80s, including THE MAGIC BLADE, KILLER CLANS, CLANS OF INTRIGUE, DEATH DUEL, and SWORDSMAN AND ENCHANTRESS, all reviewed by me on this site. THE DEADLY SWORD is not a Shaw Bros. production, so it lacks the polish and elegance of those films. While it has much larger sets than usual for a Taiwanese swordplay adventure, it still looks pretty cheap. The big problem here is that the English dubbing sounds so amateurish, with bad actors using exaggerated voices to read lines that were poorly translated from the original and often make no sense. As far as I can tell, the plot has to do with a stolen shipment of money and the attempts of the hero, security officer Yeung Chun (Barry Chan), to clear his name and free his men from jail after he's been accused of stealing the money himself. In the course of it, he regains his father's weapon, the sword of the title, referred to most often as the "deadly hook," which looks pretty crude when we finally see it. We never see him trained in its use, yet he wields it in battle like an old pro. There's a large cast of subsidiary characters, including members of the "Dragon Club," although I'm not sure how necessary many of them were to the plot.
There are a few nifty swordfights, and the lethal hook makes an effective weapon when it finally goes into action, but most of the staging is not terribly imaginative. (The first fight scene doesn't begin until the 18 minute-mark, a long time without action for a film like this.) Ling Yun plays the villain, a change of pace for him, and he has one sword technique training scene involving dozens of lit candles that might have been handled with a little more spectacle in another, better movie. Candice Yu On-On plays Su Min, Captain Yeung's sweetheart, and she goes on the run with him for part of the film. She's a lovely actress and was in some of the Shaw Bros. Ku Lung adaptations (DEATH DUEL, LEGEND OF THE BAT, THE SENTIMENTAL SWORDSMAN), where she was seen to much better effect, although I suspect she has a much bigger part here. Tien Yeh, a regular villain in these films, frequently intervenes in the fights, although it's not immediately clear where his sympathies lie. I'm not terribly familiar with the star, Barry Chan. I've had this tape for 14 years, but I always stopped watching it because of the dubbing. This week I pulled it out again and only finally finished it this morning after forcing myself to put up with it. If you're a Ku Lung completist or a fan of Candice Yu, you should probably see it. Otherwise, it's not recommended.
Wan fa gui zong yi Shao Lin (1976)
Nonstop fight action buries the most interesting plot element
There's a fascinating story, taken from Chinese history, at the heart of THE BEST OF SHAOLIN KUNG FU (1976), but it never gets explored in any meaningful detail, thanks to the abundance of fight scenes that dominate the action. Prince Chien Lung (Pai Ying), who soon became the Ching Dynasty's most famous and far-reaching emperor (reigning from 1735-1796), travels with his bodyguard (Carter Wong) to locate a secret document offering evidence of the prince's Han Chinese heritage. At one point it's implied that this is part of a presumed bid to legitimize his impending rule among the Han populace, although there is likely an ulterior motive (one fully outlined in the plot description on the video box from Lion Video which I hadn't considered when watching the film but made perfect sense afterwards). He even enlists the aid of a relative (Cliff Lok), who may be his half-brother, to enter Shaolin Temple and pass a lengthy series of grueling martial tests to get the document. I would like to have known more about Chien Lung's motives, but there simply is no attention paid to this. I wonder if some scenes were cut from the subtitled print I saw, which ran only 76 minutes, a rather short running time for a kung fu film with this star-studded cast. Curiously, Chien Lung, who was played in a heroic vein by Liu Yung in a series of Shaw Bros. films around the same time, is something of a villain in this film. He tends to confront an opponent or group of opponents only to sit back quietly with a smirk while his super-skilled bodyguard fights them off all alone, leaving a field of wounded behind him.
Fans of fight scenes will, of course, be satisfied. Carter Wong takes on all manner of opponents in the first half of the film, in scenes that are usually shot outdoors on location. In a lengthy middle portion of the film, Cliff Lok takes on pretty much every fighting monk at Shaolin in a series of "tests" that all take place in one day. He even takes a crash course in the 12 Tamo Strikes with the revered Shaolin Abbot. The famous 18 Bronze Men turn up in one bit, but they don't fight at all. (Lok turns up in the next sequence none the worse for wear despite the punishment he took in those fights.) Finally, there's one more big fight pitting Cliff Lok and his anti-Ching entourage against Carter Wong and his men, culminating in a one-on-one showdown between Lok and Wong. Doris Chen (aka Lung Chung Erh) shows up in a couple of scenes, but doesn't have much to do. Kam Kong, frequently a villain in these films, plays one of Lok's allies.
I was quite alarmed to note that the Shaolin fight scenes seem to have been filmed in an actual temple, and one that looks freshly painted, to boot. I'm hoping the statues and altars so close to the fighting were props. In one maneuver, Lok even spills black oil on the floor to slide along in order to make him too slippery for his opponents. I kept thinking about those poor temple caretakers and wondering if they simply banned all filmmakers from the premises thereafter.
Good cast, adequate fight scenes, muddled plot in below-average kung fu movie
The title on the VHS video box when I bought this was DRAGON FIST. The on-screen title on the film itself is SHAOLIN HEROES. Neither title has anything to do with the film, at least as far as I can tell from the English dubbing, although it's conceivable that two or more of the heroes in the film had actually trained at Shaolin once upon a time or that one of them is actually skilled at Dragon Fist, although it's never mentioned among the many styles that are called forth. The plot description on the video box is even more confusing than what's actually in the film so I wouldn't look for help there. I never quite understood what was going on as I watched it and it only became gradually clear who the heroes were and what their relationship was. If I had to sum it up I would say that it's about different factions trying to gain possession of the celebrated "Light Sword," whose properties are never exactly enumerated so we never quite find out why everyone wants it, nor do we get to easily find out from the action since there are so many fake Light Swords in circulation. There's also a plot about Mongolian agents infiltrating the Ming court to secretly pave the way for a Mongolian takeover of China although we hear about this more than we actually see it.
The hero, played by Wang Kuan Hsiung, is the son of a noble who's been accused of the murder of another noble and is thus a pariah within the larger clan structure. Wang then tries to find out who really murdered the noble. In his travels, he meets a waiter at a roadside restaurant-inn who wants to be his kung fu student. The waiter is clearly a girl although I'm not sure she isn't supposed to be masquerading as a boy. She is played by Doris Chen (Lung Chung Erh), a mainstay of these films and, as expected, there's a lot more to her character than meets the eye. There's also a transvestite assassin who is voiced in the English dub by an actress as though the dubbing director didn't realize the character was actually a man. Another mysterious woman, referred to only as "Mistress," travels the country following the path of Wang, and may or may not be Wang's enemy. Chung Hwa (sometimes spelled as Tsung Hua) plays another member of Wang's clan, but is the son of the murdered noble and holds it against Wang.
It all culminates in a big tournament staged on a platform situated in the middle of a lake to determine which clan gets possession of the Light Sword. Snake Fist and Drunken Master are among the combatants. One memorable bout has Golden Chicken (who usesyou guessed itChicken Style) defeating Tiger Claw and then taking on "Sick Doctor," who seems to examine his opponents as he's fighting them. The action then shifts to a forest road where a battle royale between the various protagonists and antagonists is staged to settle things once and for all.
The fights are fun to watch and come at a regular pace. Although Wang Kuan Hsiung (LADY CONSTABLES and GREEN JADE STATUETTE) was never the most rigorous of fighting stars, he does at least have a solid star presence and consistently commands our attention. Doris Chen is always an engaging performer and a welcome addition to any kung fu cast, although the streaks of dirt on her face during her stint as a waiter were quite distracting and made me wonder why the innkeeper/restaurant manager didn't make her wash her face. She has one major fight scene. Chung Hwa had been a leading man at Shaw Bros. in the first half of the 1970s (THE SWORDMATES, THE BASTARD) before turning up in numerous minor kung fu films made in Taiwan in the late 1970s to early '80s. Regular kung fu villain Lee Keung plays one of the opponents and spices up the action when he's on-screen. As far as I can determine, the director, Yang Ching-Chen, made only 12 films total in his career. I've only seen one other film of his, TWO GREAT CAVALIERS, which starred John Liu and Angela Mao, and I'd need to see it again to refresh my memory of it.
Gui ma da xia (1978)
Unusual kung fu comedy with some pleasant surprises
I have this film on a Hong Kong import DVD under the title, THE SMART CAVALIER (1978), presented letter-boxed and in Mandarin with English subtitles. (The on-screen title is THE CAVALIER.) Its main plot is a comic one and involves a grandfather (Yi Yuen) trying to marry off his granddaughter, Ping Erh (Doris Chen, aka Lung Chung-Erh), to the first man who can beat her in kung fu. This leads to a number of humorous bouts in which Ping handily defeats various over-eager suitors. When a fugitive Ming rebel, Kan Feng Chi (Sze Ma-Lung) inadvertently bests her as she's taking on his brother, the grandfather insists that he marry Ping. Kan refuses because he's on a mission of revenge against the Ching Dynasty generals who'd killed his father, so the grandfather and Ping pursue Kan and his brother and never let up for the entire film. This comic plot is balanced out by the more serious subplot of Kan's battles with Ching generals and their soldiers, culminating in a meeting of Ming rebels that's surrounded by Ching forces, leading to a pitched battle and a fight finale pitting four of the heroes (including Kan, Grandpa and Ping) against the Chings' most lethal warrior, Kung Tai Pu, played by kung fu great Lo Lieh.
I found the comic plot much funnier because it was juxtaposed with a more serious mission, which was played straight. As Kan and his brother take on a series of Ching opponents in a stream of well-staged fight scenes, Grandpa and Ping turn up in the most unlikely places despite Kan's best attempts to elude them. Given that Grandpa and Ping are fighters also, they often take part in the mayhem as well. One funny scene takes place in an inn where a wastrel with a harem spots Ping and decides to flirt with her himself by singing a song of courtship, a quaint and amusing piece of Mandarin culture woven into the scene, before the inevitable fight as Ping makes short work of the wastrel and his men. (Interestingly, the wastrel's Mandarin songs are left intact in the film's English dub.) A more extensive bit of business takes place in a brothel where the brothers had hoped to hide. Ping is initially turned away so she comes back, accompanied by Grandpa, dressed as a man. The brothel manager (Hong Liu) ingratiates himself with both sets of customers (the Ming rebel brothers and Grandpa and Ping) by telling outlandish stories with a practiced delivery that made me think I was witnessing some sort of Mandarin comic tradition that might have been popular among village crowds decades (or even centuries) ago. The actor who delivered these lines is someone I've seen in a couple dozen of these films, but he rarely got a part this substantial. He usually played angry villagers or dyspeptic shop owners in a single scene in his films. I wonder if he'd had some other previous career in comedy, theater or Chinese opera.
Some frequent villains in kung fu films turn up in virtual cameos playing Ching generals who fight and get defeated by Kan and his brother. These include Tsai Hung, Lung Fei, and Li Min-Lang. The final confrontation with Lo Lieh and his army boasts a large number of costumed extras, which indicates this film was higher-budgeted than usual. I'm not familiar with the actor playing Kan, Sze Ma-Lang, and have seen few of his other films, but he's quite good here. Doris Chen, as Ping, is a delight from start to finish and she has some excellent fight scenes here. I've seen her in over a dozen films and because she was so cute, round-faced and soft-looking, she didn't always get the fighting parts that went to more intense actresses like Angela Mao, Chia Ling, and Polly Shang Kwan, but was instead too often relegated to damsel-in-distress roles. She not only fights a lot here, but she gets to be funny, too, as she frequently takes on a petulant tone after seemingly being rejected by Kan. Nancy Yen (7 GRANDMASTERS), another fighting femme who didn't always get to fight in these films, turns up as another Ming rebel and joins the three main characters in their fight with Lo Lieh at the end. The director, Joseph Kuo, also made 18 BRONZEMEN, BORN INVINCIBLE, THE 7 GRANDMASTERS and THE MYSTERY OF CHESS BOXING, among many others.
After all the build-up entailed by the intertwining of the two plots, the ending may prove disappointing to viewers since it relies on a couple of egregious contrivances to conclude the big fight and leaves certain plot threads curiously unresolved. But the journey to get there is a lot of fun.
Hei long hui (1976)
Action film set in wartime China, loosely based on real events
LADY KARATE is the title under which this film can be found on YouTube. It is not to be confused with the kung fu film, LADY CONSTABLES, the film that both of the previous reviews on this page (by Blake Matthews and otakugrrl69) are discussing. That film stars Angela Mao and Chia Ling, the two greatest kung fu divas of the 1970s, and has its own IMDb page, where my review of it appears. LADY KARATE, which is also known as SPY RING AT KOKURYUKAI, stars Chia Ling as a real historical figure, a Manchurian princess and member of the Ching dynasty royal family who went by the Japanese name, Yoshiko Kawashima, after being educated in Japan and aligning herself with the Japanese war effort in Manchuria. She was a cousin of the famous "Last Emperor," Pu Yi, and was instrumental in getting him to resume the throne in Manchuria in 1934 as a puppet emperor for the Japanese. Under the name, "Eastern Jewel," she's a character in Bernardo Bertolucci's historical drama, THE LAST EMPEROR (1987), and she's also a significant supporting character in Ian Buruma's novel about actress Shirley Yamaguchi, "The China Lover" (2008). In addition, KAWASHIMA YOSHIKO (1990), a straight biopic, was made in Hong Kong by Golden Harvest and starred Anita Mui, a film I've also reviewed on this site. Finally, there's also a new biography entitled, "Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy: The Story of Kawashima Yoshiko, The Cross-Dressing Spy Who Commanded Her Own Army," by Phyllis Birnbaum.
LADY KARATE (1976) focuses on Yoshiko's mission to persuade Pu Yi to leave his comfortable existence in Tientsin and journey back to Manchuria to be the figurehead ruler of Manchukuo under the direction of the Japanese occupiers. She has ten days to finish the job or she'll be obligated to commit hara-kiri at the end of it, since she offered to do as much if she fails. She has enemies among the Japanese military who want to maintain control over Pu Yi themselves, as well as enemies among the Chinese patriots in Tientsin, including a group of students and newspapermen. One of the Chinese, played by Chang Yi, is a rather mysterious figure who has some connection to the royal family but has a public persona as a loser and a wastrel, yet runs around at night as an anti-Japanese masked avenger called the Plum Bandit. I never quite understood exactly who he was or what his goal was regarding the Emperor. At some points he seems to be opposing Yoshiko and at others they seem to be on the same side.
Chia Ling has quite a number of beautiful costume changes and is even dressed up in full geisha mode in a couple of scenes where she is seen managing a brothel in Tientsin. This is quite a welcome change of pace for the actress who usually played kung fu-savvy village girls in more traditional Chinese settings. Curiously, the girls in the brothel all appear to be Japanese, which seems kind of odd for that time and place. Nor is it adequately explained why Yoshiko's been given temporary charge of it when she's supposed to be on a larger mission. She has a couple of love scenes with Japanese military spies. The semi-nudity in these scenes, where we don't see the actress's face, leads me to believe that a body double was employed for Chia Ling.
Several action scenes are added to the mix and my guess is they were all a product of the writer's imagination. Chia Ling fights in only two of them. Early on, still in Japan, she's alone when attacked by Japanese agents for the military and fights them all off with an umbrella. Much later, while dressed as a geisha and working in the brothel, she helps spirit the Emperor away while using a sword and a knife to fight off Japanese swordsmen who have attacked the place. Other agents are involved in this fight as well. It's the more impressive of her two fight scenes and if there are any action highlights in the film, this one is it. There's also a full-scale military battle between Japanese soldiers and Chinese patriots in a forest that's presumably along the route to the university which the soldiers have been ordered to burn down. At the end, there's another gun battle between the Chinese and the Japanese, this time on the Tientsin waterfront, over the fate of Pu Yi.
None of this seems to have much historical accuracy, nor does it make much dramatic sense. For instance, when the Japanese soldiers launch their attack on the university it was all to divert the Chinese patriots so that the Japanese agents could take Pu Yi away in the commotion. Yet, the agents make no effort to do so, nor do they explain why they don't. Instead, the chief military agent goes off on a riverside picnic with Yoshiko when they're supposed to be getting Pu Yi out of the city. Confusion reigns in a lot of scenes like this. As for historical details, I noticed cameras, a radio and a 1970s model car that did not belong in this period setting.
The only other major actors I recognized in the cast are Chang Yi as the aforementioned Chinese patriot and Kam Kong as the head of the Japanese military spy unit in China. Some of the other actors are familiar faces from other kung fu films. There are two more beautiful actresses in the cast, in addition to Chia Ling. Sally Chen, aka Sha-Li Chen, plays a guest of the royal family who turns out to be a Chinese patriot working undercover. The other plays Momoko, Yoshiko's Japanese personal assistant, and I'm unable to identify her.
This is not a particularly good film, but it is worth seeking out on YouTube if you're as fascinated by the subject as I am and if, like me, you're a devoted fan of Chia Ling.