FROM THE HIGHWAY - Period adventure with early kung fu scenes
FROM THE HIGHWAY (1970) was produced by Cathay Pictures, a Hong Kong studio that was, for a time, a competitor of Shaw Bros. It's a historical action drama set in the 1910s at a time when warlords were running rampant in northern China, raiding villages with no government forces to oppose them. The film focuses on one village where the residents have stood up to marauding bandits and are making preparations to hold off the next assault. A group of the bandits infiltrates the walled village by cleverly disguising themselves as a traveling band of herb vendors. A mysterious stranger shows up and takes it upon himself to ferret out the disguised bandits and confront them. When another bandit enters the village and kidnaps the village chief's son to hold him for ransom, the stranger pursues the kidnapper, setting the stage for the bandits' final attack on the village led by the brutish bald-headed Iron Gourd.
The film is beautifully photographed in true epic style. The production design is quite impressive, involving not only sprawling Taiwanese locations but also the massive village set built from scratch in the middle of nowhere. There's a strong and evocative sense of time and place throughout. There are few familiar faces or names in the cast, at least to this longtime observer of Hong Kong film, but the actors are all extremely believable and well-directed. The lead actor, in the role of the kung fu-fighting stranger, is Peter Yang Kwan, aka Yang Chun. Character actor Lee Man Tai appears as the bandit who kidnaps the village chief's son.
This film is occasionally cited as the first modern kung fu film, predating Jimmy Wang Yu's THE CHINESE BOXER (1970) by a few months. While its use of "empty-handed combat" marks a shift from the swordplay films then predominating over at Shaw Bros., there is simply not enough of it in the film to mark it as a definitive first. There are a few short scenes of kung fu combat, usually executed in quick, decisive blows rather than the furious trading of hits and kicks which came to be the norm in subsequent films. These scenes are not particularly well-choreographed or edited. The shots are a little too close and the cuts too quick for viewers to really see everything they need to see. Kung fu fans who are curious about early examples of such fighting on screen should seek this out, although they mustn't expect the kind of intricate fight direction they're used to.
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