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Chinese New Year Comedy with Early Jackie Chan
3 October 2012
Curiosity and having to complete filmographies can be dangerous to our mental health (or at least a waste of valuable time) in viewing cinema. It can also be rewarding when you see that film that is underrated and under-appreciated, but most often I will settle for fleeting glimpses of sagaciousness, a few chuckles, memorable lines or at least one good scene. I have seen so many mediocre to bad films just because Jackie Chan is in it (include Police Woman which is also directed by Chu Mu) and the same goes for Sammo Hung. I was surprised when early on I got to see Sammo as a rickshaw driver. Unfortunately, he is not in the rest of the film and Jackie (billed as Chan Yuen-lung using Sammo Hung's Peking opera school name) is not in it until much later.

This movie is mostly known as the film in which Jackie Chan has a love scene (technically he has a couple in the movie; I believe he had not had another one until Shinjuku Incident and later he had one deleted out of 1911). But he also does not do any martial arts or action in it other than explaining the proper way to use a rickshaw (one of my favorite scenes in the movie and a prognosticator toward his later physical comedy though in his later scenes he is completely misused as a boy toy). The movie though is not really a sex comedy. That only happens toward the last vignette of the movie (his plot comes in toward the last third of the film, but even then it is interrupted with other plot lines) and it certainly is not a porn movie which Jackie has described it as. He has hurt himself with his statements on this because this canard still lives on.* This is a Chinese New Year (year of the rabbit) comedy so it is full of then popular actors out of Golden Harvest's lineup including Tanny Tien Ni (Black Magic), Wang Lai (over 200 films in her career), James Tien (The Hand of Death), Carter Wong (Hapkido, The Legendary Strike) and many more. When there is a variety of stars to showcase what better approach is to create lots of different vignettes and story lines that do not or barely connect. I am being factitious because the plot is rambling with very little cohesion. These problems could be forgiven if the film was funny or interesting but too often you end a scene with a freeze frame of a character's face after a bad joke. The longest story is of a mother whose frugal husband has recently died and her horrible sons and daughter-in-laws take very poor care of her until one son makes fake ingots for her to "pretend" to hide so she appears to be rich. Then the family members treat her well expecting to reap from her when she is deceased. One jest had a dumpling seller stating that his old dumplings had killed a kid the day before all after he tried to sell the same rotten dumplings to a rickshaw owner – actually I kind of liked that one. Can you believe they even put in a banana peel gag with the completely expected payoff? There are a few positives though. I liked the animated beginning and end credits, done by Au Ching, which I have not often seen in Hong Kong films. The sets are detailed (it would be interesting to know what other films used this set; the car in the film dates the setting from early to mid 20th Century) and a few of the comedic scenes are bizarrely funny, but most are rambling, trite and inconsistent. This was probably rushed out to make the Chinese New Year time-slot. I would not recommend this movie to anyone other than the morbidly curious or those suffering from Jackie Chan see-everything-itus like myself.

I have the R0/NTSC Legendary Collection release from Joy Sales/Fortune Star. The print is decent and the subtitles are better than many from this collection with not many gender mix-ups that are prevalent with these releases, but it is not without spelling and grammatical mistakes. The language is in Mandarin, which was the original release language. The subtitles are Traditional Chinese, Simplified Chinese and English. The extras are a trailer and a photo gallery.

* For example I found a mention on several sites which state that the film is pornographic. I have seen so many North American R-rated films that have worse sex-scenes. Sammo Hung's later released The Iron-Fisted Monk has much more explicit scenes as well as several Shaw Brothers films at the same time like Black Magic. Ultimately I think that the translation was off, Jackie's memory is hazy or Jackie misunderstands what porn is. The article that many people have quoted is titled Jackie Chan Admits Acting in Porn Movie (I first saw this written up in China Daily.)
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Ocean Heaven (2010)
A simple yet effective tale of determination
12 March 2012
This has been touted as Jet Li's first starring non-action drama. While that is interesting it is probably the wrong approach to think of Li's past roles before watching this movie. This is a simple bittersweet realist drama that is a moving cinematic experience because of the earnest performances. Jet Li's minimalist characterization is the right approach for his character Wang Xuechang and quite different than his action persona. The director describes Li's character as "like a man who has become a mother." He is described by others in the film as a good man, which he is. He is doing the best he can with this situation with dogged determination, not with brilliance or luck, but perseverance. Wang is a maintenance work for an aquarium and had lost his wife fourteen years ago. He also has complete responsibility of his son Dafu (Wen Zhang: also acts with Jet Li in the later The Sorcerer and the White Snake) who suffers from severe autism. Wang is also dying from liver cancer and is given around three months to live.

The film stars off inauspiciously. Wang takes his son out to the ocean to drown him and himself. This does not work because the son had secretly untied the rope and the son has one special gift in his mostly closed world -- he is an excellent swimmer. So Wang goes back to his home and work determined to leave his son prepared for his passing while his pains get worse by the day. At first he tries to find a place where he can leave his son. But either the institutions are for kids or seniors which the 22-year old does not qualify. While this proves difficult he also spends time going over simple behaviors like riding the bus, cooking eggs, and spending money so he can have some semblance of a normal life.

While Dafu spends his days swimming in the aquarium tanks he befriends a traveling circus clown and juggler Ling Ling (Kwai Lun-mei: also acts with Jet Li in the later Flying Swords of Dragon Gate; she also sings a song for the film) who also gives Dafu someone else to trust. But given that her life is nomadic and that Wang's life is slowly ebbing away you are left to wonder what is going to happen to Dafu.

This is Xue Xiao-lu's first directed film. Her only other screen credit is for the writing on Chen Kaige's Together. Xue has stated she has worked on this project fourteen years, referring to her volunteer work with autistic children, and by the time the screenplay got to be read by Jet Li it was in its seventh draft. What is impressive is the crew that was put together for this film. For the cinematography you have Christopher Doyle (In the Mood for Love, Rabbit-Proof Fence, Hero), for the music you have Joe Hisaishi (Kikujiro, Spirited Away) and production design by Yee Chung-man (Tokyo Raiders, Shaolin). Having this triumvirate is quite unbelievable considering the modest budget. Their collaboration helps the film immensely in sound and image.

This is a beautiful looking film. The cinematography and production design is dominated by blue hues throughout as a constant allegory to the water in their lives. The acting from Li and especially Wen is quite good. There relationship is quite touching as is the relationship between Dafu and Ling Ling. That one is underplayed, but I think that is the right decision for this film. So much of the success of this film depends on how Wen portrays his character's interactions with these two. There are no magical solutions to the familial issues, just a lot of hard work from caring people. There are no real antagonists in this story. Some might consider this a negative, but the movie does not need it. I am glad, because Dafu's life is difficult enough and the movie is emotional enough. I had to watch it in two sittings because the first half depressed me quite a bit. I do recommend this movie and hope those who are on the fence about watching this to give it a watch. I think it is quite a good film.

There are certainly some parallels between this film and Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung's Heart of Dragon. Both films were dramatic roles dealing with a caretaker having no choice in dealing with a mentally challenged relative and both were popular action stars getting a chance to expand their acting repertoire. This film also reminds me of Zhang Yang's underrated Shower in which the relationship between Er Ming and Liu parallels that of the two main characters here. There is also a water motif present in both films though I think the allegory is stronger in Shower and more matter-of-fact here. I mention these films because both are interesting and different approaches to similar matter. Shower is also one of my favorite films.

I saw this on the R1 Well Go DVD release. But there is also a R1 BD/DVD combo available from Well Go which should have the same extras. For the extras there is an 11 minute "Making of" extra which has interviews from Jet Li, Kwai Lun-mei, Wen Zhang and Xue Xiao-lu and inserted footage from the movie. It has some good information, but is ultimately too short. There is a trailer and a teaser for the movie as well. The start-up trailers (not accessible by menu) are 1911, The Stool Pigeon and The Man From Nowhere. I found a mistake in the description on the back cover which uses names for the two characters (Sam and David) that appear nowhere in the film and there is no English dub so I am not sure where they came from. The two dubs for this are a Mandarin 5.1 Dolby and a Mandarin Dolby Stereo. There is also an R3 Edko release of this film that came out in 2010.
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Biography: Boris Karloff: The Gentle Monster (1995)
Season Unknown, Episode Unknown
The Gentle Monster
9 November 2011
"My wife has good taste. She has seen very few of my movies." – Boris Karloff Arts and Entertainment's (A&E) long running serious Biography (1987 - ) have done quite a few episodes so it is easy to find one on a favorite actor or director. With a running time of 45 minutes I knew it was not going to have enough information on Boris that I did not already know, but it was fun to watch and like all of these I learned a few tidbits. As usual with this series it does a condensed version of his life starting from his difficult childhood as a William Henry Pratt, to his struggling days as a touring actor in Canada, his early days in the silent cinema and his successes and typecasting after Frankenstein (1931). He has done so many movies that if you are fan you are bound to notice many missing from this documentary. Good to see The Comedy of Terrors mentioned though.

One of the benefits of documentaries is to see new footage of stars saying nice things about the actor. Here we have Carol Burnett, Ron Chaney, Bela Lugosi Jr., Roddy McDowall, Robert Wise, Sara Karloff, Peter Bogdanovich (IMDB misses this one for the documentary; Peter directed Boris in Targets (1968) how many extras is this man in?) and several others. Everyone, of course, has nothing but nice things to say about him. I do wonder why he was married so many times (five or six; one they state they are not quite sure on).

One issue that is annoying because of the documentaries age is that the scenes of the films shown are from pretty bad copies (possibly public domain for the older movies). A later filmed documentary (literally in a few years) would have access to restored films and would look a lot more polished that what is shown here.

I do think fans of Boris would enjoy this as well as fans of the classic horror genre. I certainly liked it.

You can find this biography on two DVDs: Biography – Boris Karloff: The Gentle Monster from A&E or on the Heroes of Horror R1 Image release. Both are OOP, but if you can find either one pick it up. Though specifically if you can find the Heroes of Horror pick it up. It is an awesome biography set. Why are both OOP?
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Do Not Interfere With Black Magic
9 November 2011
I have been putting this off for a few years (I have had the DVD since 2009) mainly because I thought it was going to be shockfest that outdid The Boxer's Omen in gonzo-style horror. Well it was not even close to The Boxer's Omen which still holds a place deep in the suppressed subconscious of my cranium (actually it is more weird and gross than actually scary). In fact this has to be one of the most overstated and over-hyped horror films of Hong Kong though this is not a horrible film.

Chow (Phillip Ko: The Boxer's Omen, Shaolin Intruders) interrupts black magic by inadvertently saving the life of a black magic priest who is being chased down by an angry mob. Because of this the priest says at best he will get very sick and at worst his whole family will die. Since this is a horror film we know which scenario is going to take place. A film with him just being sick would not be as fun. But it is especially hilarious that it seems that the angry mob gets off clean and that he picked up the priest far from where the incantation went awry. I am probably over-thinking this.

Chow's wife Irene has been cheating on him because of his lowly taxi driver job, taxi drivers are a deranged lot (ask Anthony Wong), and his hair (seriously one of the worst wigs I have seen, worse than a Sammo Hung haircut). She is enticed by playboy Anthony Fong Ming (Norman Chu Siu-Keung: Bastard Swordsman) who visits her job of dealing cards and showers her with money, gifts, better hair (to be fair to Phillip check out Norman's perm in Hong Kong Godfather) and affection. One night those two adulterers have a fight and she gets out of the car and goes off by herself. Never good to be alone late at night when ruffians are about. She is confronted by two young hooligans who chase her down, one rapes her and ultimately she gets killed (why she runs into an abandoned house I do not know, why there would be an abandoned house in an abandoned area Hong Kong I also do not know).

When Chow finds out she is dead, he is ultimately a suspect for about 15 seconds. Fong is another suspect and despondent Chow finds out about the affair. He gets bad ideas in his head and wants revenge at all costs for those involved and goes to the black magic priest (still dressed like a shirtless jungle native; I wonder if he goes to the store like that) to seek revenge. This requires that they dig out his wife's corpse and he is warned that his monomaniacal revenge will likely result in his demise as well. The corpse is used quite effectively and it is creepy, the most scary aspect of the film. You can see it on the cover of the DVD and poster.

Fans of horror could do worse by seeking this out. I do not think it is as unique/interesting/gratuitous as Black Magic or The Boxer's Omen out of the Shaw Brothers horror oeuvre and I would suggest seeking those out first. This film overdoes the sleazy exploitation aspect of it, elongates the nudity and the film comes off more as a voyeuristic exercise especially in the beginning which starts to drag on. The slow motion topless running scene becomes almost absurd in its length and its use of the zoom lens. But you do get the benefit of a few fight scenes decently done involving Phillip Ko (still mad about the outcome with Norman Chu) who proves once again that you should not mess with taxi drivers or Phillip Ko. You also get a variety of gross out moments, Taoist priests, scares all done better in a variety of Hong Kong films. However, when the ghost is seeded there are plenty of horror elements, while keeping the exploitation element alive, especially towards the finale that will be of interest to viewers. There you get to witness a creature that seems inspired by John Carpenter's The Thing while a segment from the soundtrack from Alien is played.

I have the R1 Image release and it has English and Spanish subtitles. It comes with the Mandarin mono dub only. The R3 IVL release comes with both the Cantonese and Mandarin dub. At the time of the Hong Kong audience would have heard the Cantonese soundtrack, but most of the transnational audience would have heard it in Mandarin. Since at the time post dubbing was the norm and multiple dialects were often used on set it does not matter as much to me. However, this is a controversial topic where some have to have the "preferred" dub. I personally would like a release from this time period to have both the Cantonese and Mandarin language, but I will take what I can get. There are plenty of the Image released Shaw Brothers trailers (not the original trailers) on this release, but no trailer for the movie.
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In lust of power and wealth, hair turns gray.
23 August 2011
The prolific Chor Yuen (Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (1972)) whose work covers many genres was an important director with The Shaw Brothers, but today his oeuvre is known less than Chang Cheh and Lau Kar-leung. The genre that I am most familiar with from his films are the wuxia adaptations from the Gu Long novels including this one which was taken from (the Chinese title of the film is the same as the novel). While his direction was usually fine he had a habit to trying to fit in an overabundance of plot turns and characters that can be typical in adaptations of literature. I felt this was a hindrance to many of his directed films such as Bat Without Wings (1980), but in this movie it worked quite well. So far, and I have many more films that I would like to see of his with most not available on R1, this is easily my favorite movie directed by Yuen.

The Magic Blade is a consummate wuxia adaptation in the jianghu universe (literally means lakes and rivers but has come to mean the fictional world these fighters inhabit). The best wuxia films have hearty heroes, sundry and plentiful villains, diverse powerful weaponry and a complicated plot that I will eschew discussing too much about in this review. This film has all of that. We start with the solemn hero with an absolute code of ethics bemoaning a lost love because of his quest in becoming the number one martial artist. Who better to play this than the stoic Ti Lung as Fu Hung-hsueh? He resembles Client Eastwood in the Sergio Leone's The Man With No Name trilogy in attire while his character is much more chivalrous. Every wuxia warrior must have a sublime and deadly weapon and Fu has his unique titular sword in tow. It is a blade that can swivel like a tonfa and looks like it would work well in mowing down your lawn as well as your enemies.

To be number 1 in the jianghu universe it helps to have spent years dedicated to becoming the best swordsman possible. It also helps to obtain a weapon that is so incredibly powerful that it can be used against those swordsmen who have wasted years learning their art to be number 1. What is a sword compared to the powerful Peacock Dart which can kill everything in range except your own fighters? How the device knows that I am not sure but I liked it much more than the spider weapon in another Chor Yuen film The Web of Death (1976). It does have another issue where it can only be used a few times, but we will ignore that as well. The Peacock Dart has been safely hidden away for many years at Peacock Mansion but a rising antagonist the mysterious Master Yu wants to obtain this magnificent weapon. Fu is entrusted with this weapon as it is no longer safe at the Peacock Mansion, but that now makes him an even bigger target than before. Will Fu survive the onslaught to finally face Master Yu (whoever he/she is)?

There is so much to like in this film. Tang Chia's (Shaolin Intruders (1983)) and Wong Pau-gei's fight choreography is excellent. While each fight tends to be short (Dr. Craig D. Reid notes that there are 22 fights for a total of 14 minutes and 8 seconds of action in his fun compendium The Ultimate Guide to Martial Arts Movies of the 1970s) the variety of weapons and situations employed are awesome. One of my favorite fight scenes is the human Chinese chess game where Fu gets caught up in the schemes of mini-mastermind Ku Wu-chi. The characters, especially the bad guys, are diverse, plentiful and quite memorable. My favorite is Devil's Grandma (Teresa Ha Ping who has been in at least 243 films) a cackling elder, who has a penchant for human pork buns, can do complex martial arts and would probably poison her son. But there are many other characters from bad guys who would rather play chess, an effeminate swordsman, a sympathetic Lo Lieh character (or is he) and countless others who will be introduced and then dispatched with quick efficiency by the hero (for example: here's a bad guy who gets a Chinese title on the screen, you think he must figure prominent in the story, wait now he is dead, never mind). The story while somewhat complicated but not overly complex like Chor Yuen's The Duel of the Century (1981) is full of plot turns and interesting scenarios with my favorite being the town of the dead (Yuen would repeat this scene in Bat Without Wings).

I easily recommend this to fans of wuxia. I am not sure how well others take to this because there is a fantasy element to these films that some people have trouble connecting to (not sure why when there are so many sci-fi and comic book hero films that skew reality) and the plot is one you do have to pay attention to and a second viewing does help. But this is a brilliant and fun film. The cinematography by Wong Chit is beautiful (he had already been working 20 years), the sets are ethereal and beautifully crafted and the fights, scenes, characters mentioned earlier help form one of my favorite Shaw Brother's films. Now taste my thunder bullets.

The movie has a sequel named Pursuit of Vengeance (1977: Chor Yuen).
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Rango (2011)
Shakiest Lizard in the West
25 March 2011
I do not always understand Roger Ebert's penchant for his overuse of the **** rating, but I still take it in consideration when deciding what to watch. I was in the mood to see something in the theater and this week did not seem to have an overriding amount of films that screamed watch me. So I thought instead of watching the poorly reviewed Battle: Los Angeles, I thought I would see what Ebert stated as "... some kind of a miracle: An animated comedy for smart moviegoers, wonderfully made, great to look at, wickedly satirical, and (gasp!) filmed in glorious 2-D." His rating is, of course, too high, but the movie is a fun and pleasant experience.

There is nothing tremendously new or original in the plot. While the anthropomorphism of the various animals thrown together help make it seem they are in their own unique world, film fans are going to notice this is not the case though they probably will enjoy the huge amount of references to other material. Johnny Depp plays Rango/Lars a lizard that had a comfortable existence as a kept lizard in an aquarium with a headless doll and a fake fish for a companion. A near accident in a traveling car causes his habitat to fly out and crash amongst the highway leaving him to bake, shed skin and half to dodge traffic. There he meets an armadillo half ran over on the road (that has to be a little much for young kids) who is a Don Quixote character (another reference to a Johnny Depp project) who sends Lars on his way to meet his destiny.

Destiny is a woman lizard named Beans who has a quirky trait which is really just an instinctual behavior gone wrong (she freezes at inappropriate moments). She leads him to a western town that is drying up from lack of water. In fact water is the most important currency there and unbeknownst to the two folks the bank's reserves are almost out. Lars finds himself in a saloon and with his acting talents and his need to not get killed he creates a fake bravado and a monstrously tall tale of heroics. At this point I am reminded of Don Knotts in The Shakiest Gun in the West (IMDb wrongly states that the character was Barney Fife influenced), but of course it also reminds me of the original The Paleface (had to have at least one Bob Hope reference).

Through happenstance and just plain luck the townsfolk thinks he is a majestic hero after he dispatches a ravenous bird and gets made sheriff by the town's mayor (Ned Beatty doing an obvious John Huston imitation from Chinatown). However, someone is stealing the town's water and with the bird gone an outlaw rattler has no fear to come back to the town. Will Lars (known in the town as Rango) succeed? Is there any question to what will happen in the film? Probably not, but it is still fun.

This is not really a film for kids though. I was paying somewhat attention to the children's and parents reactions and it seemed the parents made the stronger laughs and comments. I wonder if anyone else caught the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas reference. Some of the scenes are a bit strong for PG and in some of the reviews I have read (Modesto Bee for example) they like the film but pan it because it is not for kids.

The animation is quite good and it helps to be seen in the theater. While the storyline is a bit trite and perhaps a bit too much material is derivative (even the score is quite reminiscent of Ennio Morricone), there are enough superlative scenes and humor to make this a worthwhile cinematic venture. Heck I might go so far as to say this will probably be nominated for an animated Oscar, as long as the Academy can remember a film before September.

Other random information: I have to mention former Modesto native Timothy Olyphant as the voice of The Spirit of the West (I wonder who he is imitating).
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Laughing Time
22 March 2011
I have heard horror stories on the quality of John Woo's comedy. I figured he was like John Ford in the aspect that he can use comedy in films but would have more trouble doing a comedy. While I have not seen enough of his farce to make a superlative judgment of his comedic abilities this movie is not a healthy prognosticator of what I can expect in his other "humorous" movies.

I am not a fan of under-cranking. Its jerky motion caused by frame manipulation makes me annoyed especially when it is overused. I do not even like it in otherwise fine films like The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970). In Laughing Times it is used so much that it becomes so overbearingly irritating that if it was not for the sound you were thinking you were watching the movie on fast forward. I was debating whether this was used because silent films were projected at the wrong speed which gave them that sped-up look and John Woo wanted to replicate that or in fact that Woo wanted a Benny Hill style of humor through many of the chase scenes.

Dean Shek Tin is sometimes derided by fans of Hong Kong cinema for his over-the-top demeanor and comedic styling that would have worked well in vaudeville, but have not always translated to later movies. I am more ambivalent than some about his abilities; I have sometimes liked his goofy demeanor in such films as Drunken Master and Fearless Hyena. But never would I have thought of him as portraying Charlie Chaplin. He is gangly, he is too tall, and his humor tends to be very broad. When you think of silent movie actors he is more like an Al St. John than a Charlie Chaplin. While he does overdo his acting several times in this film and his wheezing seems almost to the point of him having emphysema, his mannerisms are pretty close to Chaplin's (though why does it seem annoying when anyone but Charles pretends to be Charles Chaplin). But where I was surprised the most is that Shek is actually quite good at pantomime. In fact I feel that the problems behind the film are because of John Woo's story and comedic timing not because of Dean Shek. That would have been impossible to do since Dean co-owned the production company Cinema City for this film.

Shek plays the oriental Charlie Chaplin (called that in the film), a homeless wanderer who just happens across by happenstance various articles of clothing that make him resemble Chaplin much to the amusement of a passerby who laughs at him until walking into a wall (one of the few funny gags in the film). Charlie spots a beautiful female Chu Siu-man (Wong Sau-man) singing in an eatery for her opium-smoking dad and he glides on in and catches her attention by missing his chair and falling to the floor. He later saves and befriends a little orphan (Wong Wei playing the Jackie Coogan role from The Kid (1921)) who was being chased because of stealing food from a patron.

He later saves the hide of a drunk (Wu Ma) and then accidentally destroys the liquor the drunk stole. Meanwhile the kid gets inadvertently involved with drug trafficking, gets arrested then escapes. However, the villain in charge who is also involved with child slavery (though he is faithful to his wife that he hates) Master Ting (Karl Maka whose eyebrows are the greatest thing in the film) feels he knows too much and should be dealt with appropriately. He kidnaps the kid from the help of two sunglass-wearing (yes before A Better Tomorrow ) thugs who are quite incompetent like everyone else in the film. Charlie's beloved is also sold to slavery. Will Charlie be able to save them with the help of the drunk who also has a vendetta against Master Ting? Will you be able to make it this far in the film?

This was John Woo's first film for Cinema City and Cinema City's first film. He used the pseudonym Wu Hsiang-fei for the Chinese version because he was under contract with Golden Harvest at the time. In fact if this movie did not succeed there would have been no Cinema City which would later make its mark on Hong Kong by creating the ultra-successful and influential comedic series Aces Go Places in 1982. This is a film I really cannot recommend to anyone except those who are looking to complete John Woo's oeuvre and those interested in the influence of silent film on Hong Kong cinema a topic that is vastly underrepresented in cinematic writings. While there are moments that will remind you of John Woo, most obvious is the slow motion orgy of cake destruction which oddly is one of the better scenes in the movie, the movie is just not funny and some of the gags are more gross than funny like the goldfish eating/spitting of Master Ting. Its attempt at pathos throughout the movie never works.

Its name is taken off of Modern Times though originally the English title was Laughing Time for the amount of laughs in the film. In fact there are many gags lifted or done as homage to Chaplin's work. Everything from the boxing referee gag from City Lights, the mechanical gag from The Circus, trying to get a job but being pushed from queue to queue gag from A Dog's Life, this scene also uses a gag lifted from The Pink Panther Strikes Again as well, to a somewhat funny reworking of another gag from A Dog's Life where Charlie is being the arms of a knocked out bad guy to eventually knock out the other bad buy. Some of these gags might seem fresh if you had not seem them before, but I would easily recommend the Chaplin films before watching this movie.
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Monomania not social skills
4 March 2011
Here is a film that is impossible for me to review without interjecting my own experience as a software engineer. Most of what is shown in the film I have experienced in microcosm -- everything from a lawsuit, intellectual theft, the CS courses, spending countless hours writing source code, dealing with some of the most emotionally inept humans on the planet (and some of the most brilliant), being part of a start-up during the .dot com era, having a company grow exponentially (that company fell faster than Icarus, but that has not happened to Facebook, yet), money freely flowing and being betrayed. There are not many industries that are as paranoid as the software industry. The amount of non-disclosure agreements, paranoia and intellectual theft make the industry feel more like cloak and dagger than what an outsider to the industry might just think as a playground for nerds and geeks.

Mark Zuckerberg has an idea. Well technically (the best kind of correct) two twin rowers the Winklevoss's have an idea (both played by Armie Hammer). To improve a social network specific to Harvard. They recruit Zuckerberg after he performs a hack that brings down the school network with a program that allows users to compare the looks of randomly chosen females downloaded from several sites. But Mark avoids the two and with a business partner and best friend Eduardo Saverin (and one additional programmer) set out to create their own version of a social network for the school. Ideas are constantly stolen and you expect that they will be stolen. So it is a bit harder for me to feel for the Winklevoss's on this issue. Their naivety seems a bit much for Harvard, but it does happen. Its exponential popularity helps excite the interest of nerd-badboy (played well by Justin Timberlake) Sean Parker whose narcissistic behavior is legendary and only upstaged by a company he helped create in Napster. With this unholy union the company expands even more. But at what cost and will it survive the enemies that have been created not only by the success, but by the enemies created from within the company.

Jesse Eisenberg's portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg is sublime and spot-on. It does not help if you have been around many variants of this personality and their borderline (or full) Asperger's Syndrome. They are certainly easier to take in a two-hour movie, but not as fun when you work with them and every single perceived fault is ripe for an acerbic comment. But the monomania that is displayed akin to The Nutty Professor while stereotypical is quite true. When you are working on a problem or a perceived solution it can dominate you and make you oblivious to anything else. His surly and sarcastic conduct no matter what the setting certainly defies social normalcy (especially in the trials), but that is also quite true of this creature.

While I do feel the film has been overrated, and I am somewhat glad it did not win the Oscar, I do feel it is a good film and I enjoyed watching it. There is some sloppiness to it though. In a particular scene to show Mark Zuckerberg's intellectual prowess as he leaves in the middle of a problem in a CS course (leaving for a personal issue) the professor calls him out and states that not everyone will be successful, in response he of course answers the question to the bewilderment of the professor. This is analogous to the "Jeopardy" scenes in films where answering is to show your mental acuity. Another scene was the "Eureka" scene where an individual comes to him and discusses an idea which facilitates hey The Facebook needs a marital status. That idea has been used way before The Facebook (BBSs for example).

It also seems weird to me that they eschewed the whole MySpace rivalry. I know you have to streamline a story, but that was such an important part of so many decisions and attitude that Facebook went through that it seem like a whitewash of history.

Though I have to admit David Fincher made a difficult subject interesting. If you focus too much on software concepts you will have a film full of jargon that is indecipherable to but a few. He kept this at a minimum with a few references here and there with, I think, only one mention of Perl and a few mentions of PHP. This is wrong in the portrayal because these individuals nomenclature would be esoteric (though still quite sarcastic, the amount of jokes I have heard on design patterns like a Singleton or basic concepts like hash maps could drive a person crazy), but I certainly would not dock the film for taking the high road. In fact because of this I really enjoyed the sardonic dialog. Also, the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, which would win an Oscar, is outstanding. Though anytime I hear Edvard Grieg's "Hall of the Mountain King" I always think of Fritz Lang's M.

I did have a suggestion for a name change -- drop the The.
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I know, I know
30 December 2010
Analogous to Expect The Unexpected (1998) and The Longest Nite (1998) Patrick Yau is the nominal director in The Odd One Dies but did not do the majority of directing (though Yau has stated of those three films he had the most input with this one). The uncredited director is Johnnie To, whose production company is Milkyway Image with Wai Ka-Fai, that was the force behind the film. Aside from those three films (which I have seen) Patrick was credited to one more film The Loser's Club (2001; which I have not seen) and apparently his film career has been over since then. However, when watching the movie it is easy to see many familiar elements of To including genre (shashou pian: professional killer genre), incorporation of black humor and Lam Suet.

Takeshi Kaneshiro is a laconic street thug called Mo who is either on a death wish or just does not care. I see a bit of this character in Louis Koo's performance in Throw Down (2004), but when you watch this it is hard not to think of Takeshi's two previous Wong Kar-wai* roles (Chungking Express (1994), Fallen Angels (1995)) as well. Takashi after losing much money in gambling decides to take on a hired killer role for 88,000 HK dollars cash. First he gets himself an old large mobile phone, sunglasses, chain, watch, used car with a capricious bumper and a jacket. How he gets those items is quite hilarious. Since he is hell-bent, or just does not care, he gambles a good portion of that money away as well. He loses thousands after thousands, doubling his bet every time with a local card shark named George (Lee Diy-yue), without as much as a wince when he loses. But then the strangest thing happens, he starts to win and he wins big. Then he decides to hire someone else to do the killing.

The newly hired killer is, much to his surprise, a female (Carman Lee) who is just out of jail from a previous man-slaughter case (she killed her cousin for her boyfriend/Uncle Simon (singer Ken Choi Fung-Wa); though I am not sure if I am correct -- I believe she killed the infant she had with him when she was 14) and she is just as laconic and nuts as he is. They both smoke quite a lot and almost appear to be Doppelganger's of each other.** However, she is malodorous and unkempt. They, of course, become attached to each other. Now what is he going to do about the hit? I had a lot of fun watching this movie. I had so much merriment that I did the rare thing and watched it twice within a week which I had not done with another film in years. There is a peculiar comedic style to this that is dark, but still quite bloody good (literally). This includes a recurring fingers dismemberment joke when the Triad character Tony (Korean actor Byun Woo-min) catches a knife from both Takeshi and later Carman is brutally hilarious but also leads to a strong scene of redemption at the end. The direction is also quite quirky. You get a great look of Hong Kong in this film which is another trademark of many of Johnnie To's work. There is an excellent scene of Takeshi running around a busy area crossing one street after another. He is almost hit several times and it is great to see the passerby expression (many of these movies will be filmed with many people not knowing they are being filmed). All filmed with no or very few cuts. In fact it is quite reminiscent to a similar scene in Police Story 2 (1988).

I really wish these early Milkyway films like this one, The Longest Nite (1998) and The Mission (1999) would get more recognition especially amongst more mainstream critics who tend to eschew anything Hong Kong that is not Wong Kar-wai. This has been slowly changing over the years with Stephen Teo's book on Johnnie To as well as David Bordwell adding a section on To in his updated Planet Hong Kong (online only). But as a fan of these movies such as this one it still is not enough.

* Johnnie To has stated that in an interview with Stephen Teo: "we didn't deliberately set out to copy Wong Kar-wai. I don't copy other people's stuff. The film is about loneliness and it's possible that it shows a tendency to Wong Kar-wai." Interestingly enough Stephen Teo does make note of several similarities between Wong's films and this movie in his book Director in Action (2007). My own personal opinion is that the biggest similarity is Takeshi Kaneshiro's performance. While some have stated the cinematography resembles Wong's work, I feel it is just because of the use of hand-held and overuse of canted angles. The issue of expiring time is familiar but I feel that is prevalent of Hong Kong cinema as a whole since the handover was to happen a little over a month after the release of this film. Plus one of the strongest thematic elements for Wong's oeuvre the ever-present "unrequited love" is missing from this film.

** The Doppelganger is another recurrent theme in To's films as well as the use of motifs. When watching this movie look for a massive amount of scenarios repeated for a second time or third time. The last time the scenario happens it signals a change. For example, when Takeshi meets Simon for the second time he beats him up. When Carmen sees him she fantasizes about killing him, but leaves him without doing anything. When Takeshi tries to stab the Triad member for the third time (Carmen did it the second time), he does not go through with the motion to remove his fingers and ultimately receives the forgiveness of him. There are many more throughout the film sometimes with the Doppelganger taking the place of the protagonist.
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The perfume is made of what?
27 December 2010
JeeJa Yanin has had an auspicious start to her martial arts movie career. He first film Chocolate (2008) was a solid martial arts film that showcased her ability and allowed her to downplay acting by having her being mute. She gets to talk in this film and is generally fine with her acting abilities, but her strong points are still her martial art abilities. JeeJa is the most exciting female martial artist in cinema right now. While that might not be saying much, I do find her fun to watch. Much like Tony Jaa, I feel with the right script both could do much more than with the material they are currently given.

Raging Phoenix succeeds on the action scenes but ultimately fails in the plot. JeeJa is Dea a confused slightly erratic woman down on luck with choosing boyfriends, removed from the band she was playing in because of attacking that boyfriend during a performance and of all the luck she is now targeted to be kidnapped by a gang called Jaguar who target specific smelling women who will be harvested of their pheromones to sell on the black market as a sex aphrodisiac. That just sounds silly doesn't it? Wait it gets better. She is saved by Sanim (Kazu Patrick Tang: Bangkok Adrenaline) a practitioner of a martial art called Meiraiyuth who is part of a group of marauding good guys who have lost their significant others to this nefarious gang. These include three others named Pig Poop (Nui Sandang), Dog Poop (Sompong Leartvimolkasame), and Bull Poop(Boonprasayrit Salangam) NOTE: I modified the names for IMDb. She then becomes their student in learning this martial art to use in destroying all of these kidnappers and in search of the head of the serpent of the gang played by Thai/Indian bodybuilding champion (and once was part of the Royal Thai Police) Roongtawan Jindasing in her first movie appearance. Of course she has to survive the training which involves imbibing much liquor and getting beaten up.

The first fight scene is partially impressive. I love the use of modified powerisers the bad guys have which are like a pogo stick per leg but longer and built with blades. I was skeptical at first, but it came out quite creative and entertaining. I would love to have those, though I would probably kill a few people while learning it and potential decapitating myself.

While the use of wires to accent the fight scenes is overused, they do help create an aesthetically pleasing martial arts style in Meiraiyuth. It is a mixture of drunken boxing, Muay Thai, break-dancing and Capoeira. While it may not always be advantageous to throw in a dance move while beating someone up it is impressive here. One problem that occasionally comes up is that when doing extremely flexible moves at impossible angles the impact of the blow comes off as very soft and the overreaction of the opponent is forced though I have seen this issue in many action films (as well as the mysterious blow that completely misses the person yet that person is blown over by the wind of the punch or kick).

But besides the plot I have one other issue that annoyed me. Some of the CGI use is pretty bad. This is especially evident when they are trying to break into the lair of Jaguar. At its worst is when they initially break in and fall or "slide" down to the lower depths. They basically looked like they were moving their arms and legs while the background is changing. The bridge fight scene is also hurt by this where much around them looks like they are in a computer game from the mid 1990s. When you watch something as impressive as the few fight scenes you wonder why they resorted to this phony graphics manipulation.

I have to admit I had a fun time watching this movie. The story is not as solid as Chocolate (though better than Ong Bak 2) and like many Thai action films they feel derivative (or homage) of other successful Asian films especially ones from Hong Kong. The incorporation of Meiraiyuth reminds me quite a bit of drunken boxing and it is impossible not to think of Drunken Master. Early on the manipulation of Deu's body as a weapon by Sanim certainly reminds me of its use in Dirty Ho, but a few Jackie Chan films as well. The film seemed to completely forget the drinking part of the art in the later part of the film.

I have the Magnet R1 release. It has two main extras: a "Making of Raging Phoenix" and "Behind the Scenes of Raging Phoenix." The "Making of Raging Phoenix" (11m.53s) is in Thai/French with removable English subtitles. It is a fun extra though you wonder how/why the director Rashane Limtrakul spent a year writing the script. Patrick Tang speaks French in the extra. The "Behind the Scenes of Raging Phoenix" (10m.35s) is pretty much showing them practice the fighting scenes (and some drum training) to a Thai(?) rap beat. However like in the end credits of a Jackie Chan film you get to see mishaps and the dangers of this type of film when JeeJa Yanin hurts her neck and gets put into a brace. And to top it off it has the international trailer (3m.34s) of this film and various trailers "Also From Magnolia Home Entertainment." There is an English dub and the English subs do not appear to be dubtitles though many of the sentences are the same.
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Fireball (2009)
Abuse of Editing Makes This A Difficult Watch
12 November 2010
I hate when you watch a film that not only feels like a waste of time but when you lament that time could have been spent elsewhere from watching a better film or cleaning the toilet. I knew not to expect an Ong Bak or a Chocolate. Also, I recently enjoyed the Legend of the Tsunami Warrior which was not a great film, but you can see the maturity of the Thailand popular cinema in terms of special effects and film techniques so I was curious on this film. Sometimes curiosity is dangerous.

Many times when you are watching a martial arts film (sometimes this goes with musicals as well) you can forgive an inane plot, idiotic characterizations and pretty much everything else if the fight scenes are sagacious. Usually when they are not it is because you are presented with actors (and/or choreographers) who know nothing about showcasing the proper aesthetics and the artistic ability to convey the beauty that makes martial art cinema great. Sometimes, like in this film, the actors have the martial arts ability, but it is the director, editor and cinematographer that help make this film an irritable exercise in how long can you sit at a time while watching this before you change and watch something else. I can forgive the film quality which has the feel of a low budget TV movie. I cannot forgive (besides the plot) the elliptical editing, the cinematography which seems to be done by a 300 pound ex-alcoholic after running a mile who is suffering delirium tremens, and the soundtrack with exception of the cool Thai rap heard early in the film. Honestly, I have no idea what they were trying to accomplish with the editing. Were they trying to outdo Michael Bay?

The plot was not much better. Here we have Tai (Preeti Barameeanat) a criminal who was set free because of his twin brother's Tan's (same actor) cash contributions that left Tan in a coma. Tan was making money with the underground basketball game called Fireball. Tai takes his identity and gets back into the game to find out who was responsible for his brother's condition as well as try to make money to pay for an operation for his deteriorating brother. In the meantime he is falling for his brother's girlfriend. I like the idea of having an underground basketball game featuring Muay Thai and run by drug lords. But the execution of it could have been better. Allowing weapons to be used really made it silly and stupid. I know I should not be thinking, but who would put themselves into that situation without much money or without having their family held hostage? Ultimately the best situation for this type of game where you win by scoring once (or dispatching all of your opponents) would be to hire very fast players who could score right off of a fast break (even with individuals trying to beat you up) since a good basketball player should be able to do a layup/dunk even with two or three guarding and not getting hit. With full disclosure I am a basketball fan – I have no idea whether that would predispose my thinking one way or the other for this movie.

One of the benefits of lower budget films is that much is done on location. You get to see a lot of city life and as a byproduct of the frenzied fight scenes I found myself enjoying the surroundings more (it is usually a bad sign for a film when you start paying attention to things like background people, possibly product placement and anything but what you are supposed to be focusing on). The attempt at creating a commentary on the social-economic conditions of these youths ultimately did not work because of a few plot threads that either made you to hate the drug lords yet put your sympathy on the one upcoming drug lord who recruited the protagonist and a few others who you get to see a bit of their daily lives.

The Lionsgate release had no issues though it does seem that there are dubtitles – so there is an English dub along with this as well. Special Features include a trailer for the film, additional Lionsgate trailers (Wushu, Death Warrior, Four Dragons, Bodyguard: A New Beginning, Never Surrender) and a Behind The Scenes which lasts around 11m 44s. The Behind The Scenes is in Thai with intercut scenes of the movie in English dub and even has some outtakes and behind the scene footage (where wires are shown). It has the director Thanakorn Pongsuwan talking about the origin of the story, the plot of the film and choice of actors. Also featured are: the producer Sangar Chatchairungruang (can't believe he stated that goal of the film was creating fun), the lead actor(s) Preeti Barameeanat (from Clash Band), actor Sam Kasem (Zing; in real life he is a Thai boxer who fights in Japan) and actor Arucha Tosawat (Tun).
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"The Most Beautiful is not a major picture, but it is the one dearest to me." - Akira Kurosawa
10 November 2010
Propaganda films are usually of interest to me because of the situation and time period they were made in and their point of view not because of plot or sublime character development. Rarely do the characterizations, I currently cannot think of one, go beyond one or two dimensions. This is because the point of the propaganda film regardless of origin is to rally the troops and align their sense of duty. This movie is no different in that regard. But there are several key differences from the typical propaganda film that makes this film more interesting. The most interesting approach was the documentary approach Kurosawa took. Though he used actresses he did all he could to remove the artificiality of their craft to create a realistic portrait of the young girls at that time who were working in military construction. I felt this movie was effective in that regard. The tempered acting to those that are used to the Noh influenced acting of his later films. Another surprise is that this is one of two films of Kurosawa where the protagonist is a woman. The other one is No Regrets For Our Youth (1946) with Setsuko Hara.

The least interesting aspect of the film is the story. It is about a group of young women in an optical instrument factory that have to push up production to fill the need for the optical lens. While the men were asked to increase their production a hundred percent, the women were asked to do 50 percent. This insulted the women and they asked that they do a more respectable number like 66 percent (would a higher number have been insulting to the men?). The hardships created by this are numerable as the women face sickness, injury, mental breakdown and general crabbiness.

The movie is too episodic and heavy on the "team spirit" motif (not that Kurosawa had much of a choice), but it eventually settles on the titular protagonist in Tsuru Watanabe (Yoko Yaguchi) who embodies the spirit (kokoro) of an ideal worker. Her mother is dying, but her father and her mother want her to stay in the factory working so that Japan will not lose face. What is subversive is that she is a stubborn individualist. When she loses track of lens that she did not finish correcting, she goes through the monument task of finding it, and regardless of the pain it causes her, the lack of sleep and her supervisors telling her she does not need to do it – she does it anyways.

I do not agree with Donald Richie in his The Films of Akira Kurosawa when he states "Twenty years later it is almost impossible for us to think a lost lens this important." She states that she worries that lost lens might result in the death of Japanese soldiers (and possibly in her mind a battle and ultimately the war). It does not matter if she is correct in this thinking, it only matters that she feels that way. Anyone who has any degree of OCD can relate to this. Once the mind gets fixed with an idea that may haunt them it is easy to understand the monomania which consumes her until she finds her mistake.

One thing that surprised me when hearing it in the film, and the fact that Kurosawa got away with putting into the score (he mentions this in his autobiography), is the insertion of "Semper Fidelis" by John Philip Sousa.

Has anyone seen any other Kurosawa film where he uses as many horizontal wipes? After the picture he married the main actress Yoko Yaguchi. It was love at first sight. Kurosawa stated "She was a terribly stubborn and uncompromising person, and since I am very much the same, we often clashed head on." I do wonder how well they got along over the years though.

I think this film can satisfy not only Akira Kurosawa fans but fans of social realist cinema and of course those looking for propaganda films of WWII. If someone is just getting into Japanese cinema this probably could be passed on for quite a long awhile. But for completists (those reading this) they will want to see this. But then again completists want to see everything.
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Shao Lin men (1976)
Death only means there is a hole in my body
4 October 2010
Early in John Woo's career as a director in Hong Kong, he had the auspiciousness to direct three of the seven fortunes in Yuen Biao, Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung in their first movie together Hand of Death (1976: Chinese Title literally means Shaolin Gate) though much was not made of this at the time because they were all struggling to make a career. They have yet to work together again in such a capacity though they have said nothing but kind words about each other since. An interesting point, in hindsight, is that the star of the film is none of the three (it is hard to spot Yuen Biao as his role is of a stunt double and bit actor) but Korean export and Tae Kwon Do expert Dorian Tan Tao-Liang.

Dorian Tan Tao-Liang stars as Yun Fei a Shaolin trained fighter looking to find Zhang Yi (John Woo) and escort him through White Stone town and across the White River. Zhang holds a map of all Qing bases in the Guangdong and Guangxi provinces in southeast China. He can get a hold of Zhang by contacting pupil Chiu Guo. However, when he is found, he has already been arrested and ready to be beheaded by the Manchus led by a traitor of the Shaolin Shih Xiaofeng (ubiquitous bad guy James Tien: Fearless Hyena, Winners and Sinners) who has taught himself White Crane Soul Chaser Style (he is the titular Hand of Death). Even though his Kung Fu is superior, he has the additional help of Eight Bodyguards with different styles and two top ranking guards in Smiling Fox and Du Ching (Sammo Hung who also does the stunt coordination) whose overbite is quite preposterous and resembles a "hopping vampire" though he is trained in tiger and crane styles.

Yun Fei gets the assistance of a woodcutter Tan, who helped him earlier to get past a roadblock and dispose of a body (a true friend helps you get rid of a corpse). Tan's elder brother was killed by Shih's men. Tan also obtains the help of "The Wanderer" (Yeung Wai) an expert swordsman who accidentally killed a prostitute he was in love with also because of Shih and would have given up his sword for good if it was not for Yun. These men will help Zhang Yi get across the river to get the plans to help once and for all defeat the Qing Empire and restore the Ming Dynasty (the plot of the Qing Dynasty as bad guys is one of the staples of Hong Kong martial art movies like Heroes Two, Royal Tramp and Iron Monkey).

Many will have bought, borrowed or rented this movie because of the presence of Jackie Chan. He originally was only supposed to have a stunt man role (helped hired onto the film by his "big brother" Sammo Hung) but as John Woo found one of the Korean actors lacking in the physical department, he replaced his part with Jackie Chan and expanded his role according to an interview with Lee Server in "Asian Pop Cinema" he stated he "changed the whole script to focus more on him and show his great skill." though there might be some fraudulent hindsight with that statement. Jackie originally had been the stunt coordinator for Woo's first film Young Dragons (1975) that came out a year earlier. Jackie did get hurt on the film, getting knocked unconscious after being pulled by a cable while being kicked by Dorian Tan and landing and hitting his head on a rock (though this would not be as bad as his most famous accident in Operation Condor where he almost lost his life).

Others might watch this because it belongs in the oeuvre of John Woo. It is still very early in his career (his fourth film in two years of being a director), but you can see traces of his talent. There are some nice hand-held scenes, a little use of slow motion and hints of "heroic bloodshed" elements (though this would come to blossom in Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1979)) like an early scene when Jackie Chan and Dorian Tan first meet which seemed to hint a certain homoerotism (or else those were some of the most strange smiles I have ever seen), but then failed to capitalize on it later in the film.

Overall, this is a decent, yet unspectacular film. The direction is solid, yet it does not feel like a John Woo directed movie. The scenery of the Korean hillsides is absolutely beautiful and helps makes this movie easier to watch. The story is mediocre, but not too many glaring holes in the story. The Kung Fu ability is give or take. The kicking of Dorian Tan is beautiful to behold, his punching ability and forms are good but not great. Jackie Chan is also awesome with his fighting and you get to see him use a spear the Little Eagle God Lance as it is called in the film (which that and the staff are the traditional weapons that Jackie is best with). The highlight fight scenes of the movie are when Jackie fights several of the Eight Bodyguards and later when Dorian fights Sammo. The latter is especially impressive because of Sammo's willingness to hurt his body to make Tan look good. James Tien is not much of a martial artist, though his acting if fine as he is the consummate Hong Kong bad guy, so his hand-to-hand combat scenes are a bit pedantic though he has one scene wielding a sword that was good.
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Well It's a First
4 October 2010
Contrary to popular belief and even in contrast to Jackie Chan and many other sources, "Cub Tiger From Kwang Tung" (aka Little Tiger of Canton) was finished and even had a small release (probably around 1973 or 1974, I currently cannot find exact details) though it was filmed a few years earlier in 1971, done a little before his stunt work in "Fist of Fury". Chan was given an opportunity to star in this movie by his "biggest sister" from his Peking Opera youth whom was now an assistant to a film producer. In Chan's autobiography "I Am Jackie Chan" he has nothing good to say about this experience stating "One night, the director and producer quietly disappeared, taking with them any hope that the movie would be finished." It is not his first film either, he had done several movies as a child actor in the 60s with "Big and Little Wong Tin-Bar" (1962) being his first appearance in a movie. He looks quite young though and slight of build compared to his later appearances.

Jackie Chan (he uses the screen name Chan Yuen Lung using Sammo Hung's old opera name) portrays Hsiao Hu, an adopted precocious martial art youth who has been brought up by a semi-sadistic foster dad (Tien Feng: Fist of Fury, Young Master) and enjoys sparring with his foster sister Hsiao Lam (Shu Pei-Pei) when he is not working for his Uncle Chiang at Chiang Kee Noodles. Hsiao Hu does not know that his real Dad died absorbing Lu Chi's aka 3rd Brother (Kwan Chung) "Leg of Doom" (the move sounds good, does not look that impressive though should be named "Leg of Partial Hurt") so Tien Feng could get away and raise his Hsiao Hu.

Meanwhile, back at the noodle shop, a group of ruffians order a plethora of food, yet refuse to pay. Hu's superior Kung Fu is shown as he destroys them in fighting. Lu Chi just happens to be their boss and this angers him immensely when he finds out. Hu's foster dad is perturbed by his fighting and tortures him with excess work. At first it is just moving extra pails of water, but after another incident (even though he saved his sister) he is forced to put his hands into broken glass (great dad). Later, he forces Hu to "really" fight his foster sister (later in the film though he states that they were made for each other). Of course, Hu's foster dad is only trying to prevent him from using his Kung Fu so he won't be found out by the vengeful Lu Chi (though I do not think this point is ever explicitly said). As in any martial art movie I can only recommend this for Jackie Chan or martial art movie fanatics for completeness. The editing is quite bad and the story is a bit hard to follow leaving lots of floating plot points. The lifted score (I am pretty sure this is not an original piece) is quite annoying as it is repetitively used. The martial art action is decent though, Jackie Chan looks quite better than everyone else and so the pacing is sometimes off in the fights. The finale works as well as it should though the highpoint of the film is the demonstration of skills during the beginning credits where Chan gets to show off his technique and acrobatic skills (the 70's Jackie films show Chan do more of his Peking Opera background than later films as well as this film shows him pre-eye surgery).

The film quality of the Rarescope R1 edition is quite poor with a cropped picture (shown 2:35:1, but a lot of image is missing), burnt-in subtitles that are occasionally replaced by "other" subtitles when the cropping interferes (and that replacement also has typos and grammar mistakes) and copious amounts of damage. Also, the back cover description has many mistakes with its summation of the plot. The funniest is the combo of "his father has forbidden him ... from learning the martial arts" and "... killed his father many years before." Still it is nice to have available in a non-"Master with Cracked Fingers" version shown close to what it originally was.

The extras are a hodge-podge of trailers, still gallery and a 6-plus minute questionnaire and answer with Jackie Chan. The still gallery is not too bad with what looks like lobby cards and stills from the movie. The Q and A with Jackie Chan is a shaky camcorder print of Jackie being questioned after a showing of "Rumble in the Bronx" (quick talk about the longer HK cut). So this was probably originally filmed around 1997 in the UK (the year it came out in UK) with other clues such as the accents and he talks quickly about future projects: Police Story 5 (probably talking about New Police Story though that would not come out until 2004), a western story (obviously talking about the future "Shanghai Noon" (2000)), a South African story ("Who Am I" (1998)) and about finishing A Nice Guy (later known as "Mr. Nice Guy"; though filming was done in 1997). Not much is learned from this extra other than a quick mention of the "fireman story" that never came about and audiences that are annoying are ubiquitous. Jackie is asked to perform some moves (which he absolutely hates to be asked to do) and he feigns a previous knee injury though later he can be seen bouncing around without any problems.
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Never act with babies or Kung Fu Masters
2 August 2010
I did not enjoy the previous effort of a Benny Chan directed Jackie Chan film in "New Police Story" that I was definitely worried about a "Three Men and a Baby" inspired effort. The result was mixed, but going in with low expectations I was pleasantly surprised. "Rob-B-Hood" (US release name is a bizarre name change to "Robin-B-Hood" though in this movie there is no stealing from the rich to give to the poor; neither title is very good) is the third film in the collaboration between Benny Chan and Jackie Chan and Benny's first attempt at a comedic action film. While this film was successful in Asia it was not theatrically released in North America and most of Europe.

Jackie Chan and Louis Koo Tin-Lok star as mediocre bad guys Thongs and Octopus. Jackie Chan tired of stereotypical nice guy roles wanted to play a criminal, though his character Thongs is a burglar and compulsive gambler, the "good guy" nature of his character comes through quite clearly and his performance does not veer far from most of Jackie's previous personae. This role is a good step in broadening his experience as an actor. Octopus is a married womanizer who works with Thongs. He married very young to Pak Yin (the terminally cute Charlene Choi) and is doing his best to woo wealthy young women while avoiding his wife. Thongs and Octopus both work under the guidance of the Landlord (Michael Hui) a conservative criminal who hoards his theft while the other two spend their "earnings".

The Landlord has had his loot stolen by another criminal (he suspects everyone after this) so he allows himself to get contracted to a nefarious case to kidnap a baby for seven million dollars and give the infant to the possible grandfather to test if the baby is his sons (the son is dead and currently frozen in a very expensive decorated freezer). Thongs and Octopus both need the money so they acquiesce and help the Landlord with the felony. Of course, Thongs and Octopus, through a partially botched kidnapping attempt, are forced to take care of the cute defecating infant until they can reestablish getting the kid to who hired them. And, of course, they get attached to the baby (I cannot believe the baby got nominated for Hong Kong Film Award's Best New Performer category).

Some of the negatives of this film include the ill-defined female characters (it seems they would have been better characterization in the original three-hour workprint, but that meant a whole lot more exposition); especially Gao Yuan-Yuan's Melody character who I had trouble figuring out what her relationship with Thongs was the first time I watched this. Some of the baby poop jokes were overdone as well as some of the infant's scenes in general (reportedly the child was an infant terrible on the set; delaying shooting and helping push the film over budget). There is only so much you can do with a babbling, spitting, crying child with flatulence. Yuen Biao's Inspector Steve Mok character is definitely underused (as well as Michael Hui), though at least he gets more than a cameo in this film. And then there is the horrible overuse of Pepsi advertising including one scene where Jackie slides down a pole revealing the largest Pepsi graffiti I have ever seen.

I did end up liking this film though. There is a certain congenial innocence with the lead characters that works well in this comedic action hybrid. In most Jackie Chan movies there are little stunts that sometimes seem as throwaways but are quite dangerous and are done with Keatonesque ease. In this movie Jackie slides down a staircase column and props himself up with ease at the end. If he fell on the wrong side he could have been seriously injured, but since it is so effortlessly it seems so simple. Jackie Chan has used more wires in his stunts and it definitely shows in this film, but I do not fault him for it, since his body cannot handle the punishment like it used to. The stunt where he jumps from air conditioner to air conditioner to the bottom of the street is impressive (even if a wire was used) and his and Louis Koo's stunts in the amusement park owned by the grandfather (location was Ocean Park) were quite good. In fact Jackie was said to be impressed of Koo who was willing to do many of his own stunts in the movie.

There could have been more fighting in this movie but there is a good scene in the apartment of Jackie between Jackie, Yuen Biao, Ken Lo and more. It is inspired by a similar scene in Project A (this is also mentioned in the Benny Chan commentary), but still pleasant. While there are many faults in this film and I think that many action purists will not like this film, I found much that was enjoyable from the comedy to the action and stunts. Now please Jackie no more movies with babies.
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Shower (1999)
Heaven Shower's Us With Blessings
2 August 2010
Warning: Spoilers
In one of the fastest growing areas of the world, the burgeoning metropolis Beijing (like many places in the world), many past facets of life are being replaced to make way for "modern" conveniences. In the movie Shower, from mainland China's Xian Film Studio directed by Yang Zhang (Spicy Love Soup), this dichotomy of the new and the old is symbolized by the shower and the bath. The shower is a fast convenience that takes water for granted while the bath and especially the bathhouse is a tranquil way of life. Master Liu (Zhu Xu also in King of Masks) is owner of such an establishment where you can bathe, get a massage, get treatments like cupping, get a manicure, play Xiangqi (Chinese Chess), or challenge local patrons to cricket fighting. It is analogous to a men's club (or Cheers) where regulars come to relax as well as socialize (and everybody knows your name as well as your problems). Liu lives with his mentally slow son Er Ming (wonderfully played by Jiang Wu) who helps out with the daily chores.

Shower starts off with an idea by bathhouse denizen He Zheng of an automated shower (reminds me of the automated restrooms in large cities like San Francisco or the suicide booths in Futurama) where you pay your money and get put through an automatic human wash that sprays soap, water and scrubs you to a healthy clean. It is a clever idea by a slacker whose entrepreneurial ideas tend to fizzle and who still needs to fix the neon sign for the bathhouse. It is entirely appropriate that he is telling this idea while relaxing in the caldarium.

The drama begins when Da Ming (Pu Cunxin), son of Liu, comes to visit from Shenzhen after an extended absence. He came after misinterpreting a postcard that Er Ming sent that seemed to show the death of his father. While Liu was happy to see him he then realized the only reason his son came to visit because he thought he was dead. Da Ming decides to stay for a few days though his faster pace existence is evident by the fact he only takes showers now and not baths. Things have changes so much between them at one point that Liu wishes his son had not even shown up (though at this point Da Ming had lost his younger brother while buying a ticket home).

The distant relationship between Liu and Da Ming is counterbalanced between the beautifully simple and close relationship between Er Ming and Liu. Liu takes care of him but allows Er Ming to help out with the business and even exercises with him. It is a touching kinship that seems realistic and not forced. Da Ming is awed by this bond. He has spent so much time away that he is an estranged "prodigal son." The biggest strength of this film is it's characterization. There are many wonderful supporting roles in this film. There is the impotent Zhang and his shrewish wife. There are the bickering cricket trainers and fighters (including Mr. Wu who has possibly used illegal substances to beef up his cricket.) There is Miao Zhuang who loves to sing Eduardo Di Capua and Giovanni Capurro's O Sole Mio in the shower. And He Zheng the daydreamer who owes lots of money. I am quite impressed by how well all of their lives are interconnected throughout many of the subplots.

Small spoiler in this paragraph: I do no have much to complain about this film (other than the multitude of men's buttocks shown). It would seem that the impending doom of the district, including the bathhouse, to be replaced by a shopping mall would seem a contrite stereotypical plot device but for Beijing and the surrounding areas it is really happening. I did think one scene involving Er Ming and a hospital felt forced and tried to be too emotionally manipulative, but that was probably the only moment that I felt was mediocre..

The central theme to this movie is water. There is an emotional flashback scene where Liu talks about Er Ming's mother from the northern province and how much families had to sacrifice just to get enough water for the daughter to take a bath before her wedding day. Water is a purifying force. When Mr. Zhang had problems with impotence it was solved with a special potion and a bath. When Miao Zhuang could not sing in front of the neighborhood, water was used to cure this disorder. Water is also a destructive force. The only death took place in water. Er Ming used a water hose to disrupt a moving party. It is also a healing force: Liu and Da Ming made peace during a storm. In the film water is analogous to life. The wooden plaque at the end of the film sums up the movie with the aqueous statement: "Heaven Shower's Us With Blessings".

Shower is one of my favorite mainland Chinese films. It is bittersweet, poignant, funny yet emotional complex movie I have watched several times. There is no sugary-sweet ending so it feels more natural. What stays with me though is the memory of the characters and how they remind me of characters that frequent every archaic establishment. Personal note: I may be biased for this film in certain aspects because I used to manage an arcade that was eventually torn down to make way for a larger parking lot. The amount of diverse characters there, like in Shower, was immense.
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Police Story (1985)
Yet another Police Story review!
29 July 2010
French film-maker Jean-Luc Godard once said that the best criticism of one film is to make another. Jackie Chan was so dissatisfied with his experience on the cop drama The Protector, his second staring lead in an American film that he decided to make his own Police Story under his underused vanity label Golden Ways Films Ltd. In Hong Kong, he would have much more control over script, stunt coordination and direction that if he was going to flounder it would be on his terms. The result of his efforts is one of my favorite action films as well as Jackie's personal favorite amongst his modern fare.

Jackie Chan plays Chan Ka Kui a model Hong Kong cop who gets involved in a police procedural code-named Operation Boar Hunt to take down a triad led by Chu Tu (prolific director/actor Chor Yuen). This operation begins in a shanty town specifically built for the film. The detail is extraordinary in the design and like everything created for an action film it is short-lived. In one of the most awesome car chases I have ever seen (up there with Bullitt and The Blue's Brother's mall scene) Chu Tu after being cornered by the police decides to drive through the hovels instead of being captured and Chan decides to chase after. The juxtaposition of having the camera in the vehicle and long shots in which stuntmen are scurrying to avoid being hit (several stuntmen were injured in this scene) are sagacious in displaying the maelstrom of destruction. That and it's pretty dang cool.

Most films would have given a respite after that tumultuous scene of car and house derby but as soon as Chan finishes the car chase he goes into foot mode while running after a double-decker bus that Chu Tu and a few of his cronies hijacked. As he catches the bus he is literally hanging by an umbrella and holds unto the outside of the bus while trying to climb his way in while fighting people who do not want him aboard as well as dodging traffic as the bus speeds along. Two of the stuntmen got hurt at the end of this scene where Ka Kui forces the bus to stop and as they flew out of the top windows they were supposed to land on top of the car that was stopped in the middle of the road but the momentum of the brakes as the bus rocked backward after stopping made them undershoot the stunt and land on the road.

Police Story has a stronger storyline than most Chan movies. After the arrest of Chu Tu, Inspector Li sets up his secretary Selina Fong (Brigitte Lin) by letting her go free of all charges to try to pit her against her boss. Ka Kui is assigned to protect her (several scenes of this scenario were cut out of the film). This causes problems with his girlfriend May (Maggie Cheung). Chan tries to trick Selina into trusting him by pretending to save the day when Mars attacks Selina in her apartment. What ultimately happens because of this is predictable but this is a mere trifle.

The comedy is underrated in this film. There is a great sequence in which Jackie is assigned to the Sha Tau Kok Police Station, a rural area in the north eastern corner of Hong Kong, after he completely messes up the prosecution of Chu Tu. He deftly tries to answer several phones and juggle several conversations at the same time while not being really successful in solving any of them. Like Project A, his influence by silent film comedians is shown in how he performs this skit with physical perfection. This scene is so sublime I cannot fathom why this was missing in older American prints. I also enjoyed where Jackie does this beautiful car-slide stunt by doing the ultimate parallel parking by sliding the car parallel into a spot barely bigger than the car.

Another highlight of this film is the final sequence named "glass story" by the stuntmen. It takes place in a mall where Jackie has cornered Chu Tu and his cronies. It is 10 minutes of excellent martial arts, stunts and action. Some of the highlights is great fights by Jackie with clothes racks, Brigitte Lin doing her own fighting, Chan doing a jump into moving stairs, lots and lots of broken glass and the famous multi-story slide down a pole. Jackie severely burnt his hands on his slide down, partially attributed to the wrong voltage being set on the lights attached to it and it is also mentioned on his own autobiography that he injured his spine and hip on that drop. This is doubtful because on a camera with an alternate angle from the floor (shown in deleted footage) shows him bouncing up after the fall and slugging a stuntman (and according to Fung Hak-On hurting him). If you have ever had a back injury you usually do not do get up after it happens or beat up your stuntmen.

This movie not only influenced the Hong Kong action picture, it would also influence American action pictures. Sylvester Stallone would use the bus scene in Tango and Cash, several early scenes were copied in Rapid Fire, Brett Ratner took so much from this film in making Rush Hour (self-admitted in commentary in Rush Hour and Dragon Dynasty's Police Story DVD) and countless other action choreographers and directors would be directly or indirectly affected by this work. This movie was created because of the visionary ideas of Jackie Chan and the backbreaking effort of Sing Ga Ban – Jackie Chan's Stuntman Association and their every increasing effort to out due a rival stuntman association led by Sammo Hung. Their backbreaking effort helped make this a hit (26 million HK dollars; Best Film for the Hong Kong Film Awards) and became the favorite of action auteur directors everywhere.
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Xun cheng ma (1982)
"One must have skills to travel the world" -- Fu Jun
29 July 2010
Many of Hong Kong films have a backdrop of historical intrigue in the Qing Dynasty (circa 1644 to 1911). Golden Harvest's The Postman Strikes Back takes place a few years after this period in 1913 just after the establishment of the Republic of China with Yuan Shikai and the Northern Warlords fighting Dr. Sun Yat-Sen. The historical aspects behind this is quite fascinating (though only mentioned a little in this film) because Sun was originally elected the first Provincial president after the Qing Dynasty and then helped get Yuan elected as First President of the China Republic, was most likely coerced into doing this and later would rebel against this (Sun would go to Japan shortly after the failed coup and Yuan would die a few years later in 1916.) Back to the story: bandit Zhao Long holds the northern mountain pass named Laoma that is of great use to Yuan militarily and sends envoy Hu (Eddy Ko Hung) to persuade Zhao to side with Yuan.

Hu enlists the help of a courier named Ma (Leung Kar-Yan from Drunken Dragon) a stoic no-nonsense man whose own job is fraught with little money, unappreciative little bastards who do not appreciate the melted chocolate he has brought them and the fact that he knows his living is in jeopardy as transportation like the railroads become more commonplace. Even then he was reluctant to help Hu until his troublemaker friend Yao Jie (Yuen Yat-Choh) decided (or was it another reason …) to employee himself under Hu. Now there is a little confusion on why he eventually took this job. Ma was confronted earlier by his sister Guihwa (Cherie Chung Cho-Hung) who had told him that father sold her 15-year old sister to Shanghai and needed money to get her back. Unfortunately this plot angle did not go anywhere (several story lines are mentioned in the film without resolution or sometimes without even being alluded to again like this one and Ma's career demise).

For 300 taels of gold per person, four cases of an unknown matter need to be delivered to Zhao Long before his birthday of December 20th. If anything gets compromised they are ordered to blow up the contents and to not look at them. Hu hired Fu Jun to join the group -- a cigarette smoking, scarf wearing gambler (reminds me a little of Tatsuya Nakadai in Yojimbo) who has baggage of his own -- played by a skinny Chow Yun-Fat in an early movie role. Joining Ma are friend Bu (played by great character actor Fan Mei-Sheng) a man who is an expert with explosives, Ma's sister Guihwa, and Southern rebel Li Fu whom they save later in the trip and possibly has eyes for Fu Jun (another dissipated angle). They all band together to deliver the goods or perish trying. Several of them would choose the latter.

Several negative aspects hurt an otherwise interesting film. There are too many loose ends, disappearing characters and conflicting story lines with the narrative. This could have been because of the use of four writers including the director Ronny Yu for the script. There is also too much exposition that slows the middle of the story without any progressing of the story. Sometimes Leung Kar-Yan would be too wooden in his acting approach though sometimes his austere nature was appropriate. The only problem I had with the filming was with the night scenes because they are appear murky probably because they are filmed on location and at night.

However, I think there are enough positives to make this an enjoyable movie. The cinematography is excellent and the use of the camera was ingenious in many scenes of a very cold Korean landscape (of course if you notice this then maybe the adventure was stagnant). Ronny Yu's (Fearless, The Bride With White Hair, Freddy vs. Jason) direction is quite good and consistently chooses interesting shooting techniques with hand-held cameras in many exterior shots. Eddy Ko Hung's is excellent as the villain. Ideas were impressive from the ice-skating bandits to Fu Jun's wrist bow to exploding rats. The fight scenes are interesting if a bit short with Chow fighting two bandits at once with one standing on a platform attached to the back of his partner and an excellent finale with the unmasked ninja fighting the protagonist Ma. The penultimate action sequence with Fan Mei-Sheng is probably the best scene in the film with a Ramboesque and Wild Bunch feeling to it. Ultimately though, the cohesion of all the elements is lacking and a tighter script and faster pacing could have made this a splendorous film. Though the movie may not be sublime at least you get to see an exploding ninja and Chow Yun Fat in a non-starring role attempt Kung Fu with his aggressive scarf-style. You may also learn that a compass can save your life against underground enemies.

The DVD copy I have is the Fortune Star/Fox release. It has a good transfer and unlike the earlier releases from this label it does not have dubtitles. There are really no extras except trailers which is normal for the bare-bone releases of Fortune Star/Fox. Of an interesting note here is what Bey Logan of Dragon Dynasty has to say about this film and its Fox release: "I hope one day we can do Postman Strikes Back justice on a future DVD re-issue. … The Fox US edition, though technically decent, didn't have much in the way of extras." Of course, extras would be nice though I do not see Dragon Dynasty doing a better job of a transfer.
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Du bei dao (1967)
Chang Cheh's Early Masterpiece
28 July 2010
Though the chambara influence on Chang Cheh was already seen in his previous film The Magnificent Trio (1966), a remake of Hideo Gosha's Three Outlaw Samurai (1964) (and quite possibly the earlier Tiger Boy (1966): not available on DVD), it would be The One-Armed Swordsman that would help define Cheh as an auteur with his own blend of Japanese action aesthetics, American rebellious characters and Chinese wuxia heroes. This film would not only be the first film to break the 1 million HK dollars barrier it would also be a watershed moment for the area's cinema. The popularity of this film as well as King Hu's hit the year before Come Drink With Me helped push in a new era of Mandarin language movies as well as push out the indigenous language Cantonese cinema for several years. But it would be the brutal style of Chang that would dominate the regional efforts and not the Peking Opera influenced King Hu. This movie would also be the first in the subgenre of "one-armed" films that stereotyped the career of the star of this movie Jimmy Wang Yu.

Wang Yu had already acted in a couple of Chang Cheh films, but it is his performance here as Fang Gang that would make him a star in Hong Kong. Fang is an orphan whose father had perished saving the life of Qi Ru-feng (Tien Feng). Qi shows his gratefulness by taking on Fang as a student. Fang also obtains the broken sword that was used by his father, but it could not possibly be of any use. He quickly becomes an adept student that because of his success and austereness has earned the ire of not only a couple of rich students, but also with Qi Pei-er (Pan Ying-zi), the daughter of the sifu, when he rebukes her advances. It is usually a bad idea to turn down your teacher's daughter and in this film it is no exception.

Fang's skill level is so advanced that he toys with the other students and Pei-er when they intend on teaching him a lesson. He completely outclasses them with his masculine masterful display of martial arts. However, since he is only toying with them he lets his guard down not expecting that the petulant daughter will exact her revenge by cutting off his right arm. It is not difficult to see this as a castration allegory for not only embarrassing her in the fight, but also not returning her affections.

Blooded and broken, Fang stumbles off leaving a crimson trail (while not bloody by later Shaw Brothers standards, this was gory for its time) until he gets found and saved by orphan Xiao Man (Lisa Chiao Chiao) who hates the world of martial arts because it lead to the death of her father. Yet when Fang wakes from his shock induced slumber, later gets beat up by a couple of ruffians, falls into a deep doleful state she takes pity on him and gives him her father's manual of martial arts. While part of the manual is missing it luckily has the "left-arm" portions. A few days later he is an accomplished one-armed fighter. Obviously it is unrealistic that in a short time he could lose an arm and then become an accomplished fighter (and one scene of him displaying his power of chi should probably have been trimmed as it does not fit in with the rest of the film) this treatment is probably copasetic with the Jin Yong novel The Return of the Condor Heroes (1959) this movie is influenced by.

Meanwhile Qi Ru-feng has decided that he is going to retire from the martial arts world at the age of 55. With all of his success as a swordsman he has created many enemies. Two brothers Smiling Tiger Cheng Tian Shou (Tang Ti) and Long-Armed Devil (called this because of his whip played effectively by the ubiquitous Yeung Chi-hing) have devised a way to destroy him and it involves a weapon that can render Qi's Dao sword that his entire school uses useless. The lesson behind this is to always teach your students to be proficient in more than one weapon and do not always cling to one approach to fighting. With Qi's best student missing (in more ways than one), and his other disciples being removed from this planet, his reign as head of the martial arts world seems to be at an end.

Wang Yu gives a good performance as the stoic brooding loner who is a combination of a wuxia hero and James Dean. He is not the most adept martial artist though. His Narcissist nature angered many actors and gave way to mediocre performances in the 1970s and beyond. Because of this and his later exploits in Taiwanese triads his reputation has suffered quite a bit among Hong Kong cinema fans. For the most part I tend to agree with the critics and fanboys on this except for his most famous One-Armed roles he seemed born to play (even if he does have two arms).

While the influences of such Japanese films as the Zatoichi series are strong on this movie, it still has uniqueness to it that interests me. This would be a highly influential film to the Hong Kong audience not only on technical issues such as one of the first uses (and overuses) of hand-held camera in HK, but in thematic elements as well. It is enjoyable to see the whole martial art world questioned and Fang's subjugation to his principles are reminiscent of a Randolph Scott character in a Budd Boetticher western. This movie would spawn several sequels, remakes and retreads and certainly up the ante for use of blood packets, missing limbs and stomach slashes. While the action scenes might feel dated and might not be plentiful enough for some viewers, it is one of the better and most important Hong Kong films of the 1960s.
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Is anyone missing a hand?
20 July 2010
There is certainly an auteuristic streak in the small amount of cinema I have seen from Derek Yee. His previous film Protégé (2007) dealt with the drug trade in a didactic manner which is similar to the approach this film takes in dealing with illegal immigrants in Japan. Both this and Protégé have a curious and sometimes overacting performance from Daniel Wu (Rob-B-Hood). They also both involve severing an arm. But it is his didactic approach that annoys me a bit in this film. I could not quite verbalize it until watching the extras in which Jackie Chan states that the message of the film was that of "be happy where you are" which is, of course, simplistic and ultimately deadly if you are living in a repressive regime. However, I could forgive a bit of lesson-oriented cinema (I did in Protégé), but there were other issues on the forefront that lessoned my enjoyment of the film.

The biggest issue I think some people will have this is that they will be expecting a "Jackie Chan" film. It is not. I admire Jackie for extending his reach into cinema to take on a decidedly un-charismatic role though this is nowhere near the first time with Crime Story or New Police Story for roles in this vein and for a true antagonistic performance you can go way back to The Killer Meteors (1976). I think his performance is good. I did not think his character, along with several others, was well thought out though.

Jackie stars as "Steelhead" an illegal immigrant in Japan who is looking for his lost love Xiu-Xiu (Xu Jing-lei: The Warlords) who has disappeared at the same time he is trying to just survive. While this is a May-December relationship (she is much younger than he is), nothing is said about this in the film. I am not sure if he was portraying a much younger man (especially due to flashbacks of them younger which would put them close to the same age) or ego was involved or there is just a strange miscasting. He befriends several immigrants like Lily (Fan Bing-bing: Flash Point), Jie (Daniel Wu) who only wants to be a chestnut vendor and Hong Kong Boy (Chin Kar-lok: Protégé) and eventually has a relationship with Lily in a vastly underused plot line that gets exploited in the end that left me vastly unsatisfied.

Meanwhile two big things happen: he saves the life of Inspector Kitano (Takenaka Naoto) who is in charge of enforcing immigration and he also saves the life of Eguchi Toshinari (Kato Masaya) who happens to have a high position in the Yakuza and coincidently is also married to his former sweetheart Xiu-Xiu. The sheer coincidence of Jackie saving several lives seemed a too fortuitous but also those scenes go completely against some of the decisions he makes later in the film. It is like Yee wanted him to do evil things to show the depths someone can go to when they are pushed to the brink, but his character remains almost ignorant of them even though he committed some heinous atrocities in the name of helping out himself (to procure a "legal" Japanese ID) and his fellow immigrants. Soon you will see a rise of Scarface proportions with Steelhead serving directly under Eguchi as well as with his Steelhead's friends most notably Jie who turns into a drug using anime looking character.

The strength of the film is in particular scenes such as the plethora of issues that are presented to the illegal immigrant from not speaking the language, locals who do not want you there, loneliness, poverty and odd jobs like cleaning the sewers that no one else wants to do. This is a familiar situation to many countries. I do wish that a bit more was spent on why they wanted to leave in the first place. The film had such promise early on that the varied contrivances of the plots and characters started to get more and more overbearing. I think part of the reason was that the director Derek Yee had been working on this for so long and wanted to put so much of what he learned about the topic in one film that a compendium of characters was shoved into Jackie Chan and others that so much seemed contrived.

If you have seen Protégé and liked it, then it is possible that you will like this as well. If you are specially looking for a stereotypical Jackie film you will most likely dislike it. The action here is presented more realistic so everything appears clumsier. There are times when you expect Jackie to break out and use weapons or handle multiple bad guys with ease, but that is not a fault of the film and is more my preconception. I have read positive reviews on this film (I disagree with them) though most do tend to talk about "plot problems" and several seem to give this a passing mark solely because of the good performance from Chan. While I was happy enough with his performance the myriad of character and plot inconsistencies for me was the biggest reason I am giving this movie a mediocre review.
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Sticky Rice will expel the vampire toxins.
9 June 2010
The most important film in the kyonsi (jiangshi) sub-genre (hopping vampires who can suck blood through their long fingernails) of Hong Kong movies is Mr. Vampire produced by Sammo Hung's Bo Ho Films Company which would help bring out another important Hong Kong horror/comedy in "Spooky Encounters". This comedic/horror is a mixture of Cantonese comedy, Taoist priests, sticky rice, chicken blood and a dash of kung fu that has become a perennial viewing of mine during the Halloween season. Its success did not go unnoticed and spawned many sequels and imitators many directed by the same director as this movie Ricky Lau Koon-Wai and starring mono eye-browed Taoist priest (fat-si) Lam Ching Ying. It also had local critical success and would be nominated for several Hong Kong awards including Best Picture (which Police Story would win), Best Director, two best supporting actors (Lam Ching Ying and Ricky Hui). It would win for Best Original Film Score.

It is said that when someone dies in anger a breath is caught in the throat. Nothing can exasperate this more than burying the body in an area with bad Feng Shui. Mr. Yam (Huang Ha: Spooky Encounters) has been having inauspicious luck since the burial of his father and has hired Master Ko (Lam Ching Ying: Prodigal Son) to help move the body to sacred ground. Every great master must have bumbling protégés and Ko has two in Man Chor (Ricky Hui: Plain Jane to the Rescue) and Chow Chun (Chin Siu-Ho: The Tai-Chi Mater). Hui (brother to Sam and Michael Hui who are also famous HK comedians) plays his role quite well and is adroit with his comedic timing (watch him in the background in many scenes; always busy) while Chin is more of a face in this movie (though he has an extensive martial arts background). Guess who gets the romantic role in this movie? Part of the problem of having blundering help mixed with caring for the undead is the possibility (probability) of letting a ravenous choleric blood-sucking corpse loose on the populous. Because of an improperly sealed casket, Grandpa Yam (Yuen Wah: Eastern Condors) escaped from his coffin and killed his son unbeknown-st to inept police officer Wai (Billy Lau Nam-Kwong) who believes Master Ko is responsible and arrests him. However, younger Yam's corpse is slowly turning into a wandering cadaver (like father, like son) whose body is set in viewing distance of the jailed Ko. Later, Man Chor gets injured by the springy corpse's vampire-like nails while protecting Yam's daughter Ting Ting (Moon Lee Choi-Fung) and similar to the effects of European vampires bite wounds he will slowly turn into one unless prevented somehow. Meanwhile, Chow Chun is having problems of his own with a beautiful ghost named Jade (Pauline Wong) who has tricked him into falling in love with her. Some of this story does remind me of Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu (the house of the spirit and the way Ko helps repel Jade by the characters drawn on Chow Chun), but there are many Chinese stories that have used these elements before Ugetsu.

If I was to nitpick about the deficiencies of this movie I would state the abrupt ending as the biggest one -- a bane of many Hong Kong films. Also, the chicken violence, which is real, might offend some (Harry Angel would like it) as well as the removal of a gallbladder from a snake – which is also real (though after watching Shaw Brothers release Killer Snakes I have become numb to small amounts of slithering serpent violence). I know some might not like the broad humor associated with Cantonese comedy, but I have come to appreciate much of it.

However, there is much to appreciate from the dancing and comedic aspects of Ricky Hui to the effective use of Kung Fu and stunts. The secondary plot of the ghost love story also worked well for me. The introduction of the female ghost brought into the story was one of the most beautiful shots in the film marred only by an annoying sound effect. And like a good comedy should it finished off with a laugh. During this scene and the end credits there is a wonderful song used named Gwai San Neung "Ghost Bride" performed by the Kit Yi Chorus. The main strength of this film is that it sticks well to its premise of a comedy and does unnecessarily mix dramatic elements.

There should not be a discussion about this film without mentioning the austere pillar performance of Lam Ching Ying. This performance is analogous to Vincent Price in which a career defining House of Wax (1953) set forth a years of horror for Vincent Price. Both actors had years of experience in various genres before their "breakout" horror roles, both had excellent roles before (Prodigal Son for Lam and Baron of Arizona for Price) and would later have lucrative but strongly typecast roles offered to them afterwords. Lam's rendition of this Taoist priest is so perfect in its entirety (his athletic skills certainly help) that he has become a cult icon in certain circles. Like all good Taoists, he knows the value of sticky rice and its many ubiquitous powers of healing.

Along with Spooky Encounters this is a must watch movie from the Hong Kong comedy/horror oeuvre and perfect for introducing kyonsi to your friends -- as long as they do not like chickens (or snakes) and you have friends of course.
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Full Contact (1992)
Teeth marks are better than any marriage certificate.
8 June 2010
Ringo Lam's characters in Full Contact come in three flavors: bad guys with values, bad guys without values and victims. The first category is led by antihero Godfrey (Jeff or Gou Fei in other translations), one of Chow Yun-fat's most adversarial characters (not counting his Emperor role in Curse of the Golden Flower), who is a thief with a conscience who can deftly ride a motorcycle and wield his balisong knife. He is set to marry Mona whose creative dancing career apparently does not make enough money. Look for a later dance scene resembling something out of Encino Man. Their friend Sam (Anthony Wong: Exiled) had to borrow money from a loan shark in Thailand named Hung to help pay for her Mother's burial (the translation states this but I think it meant internment costs). Since he cannot pay back he is in deep trouble until Godfrey helps him out. This causes Hung to put out a hit on him.

Sam has a job coming up that could make him and his friends a lot of money. It is with his cousin the overly-flamboyant homicidal homosexual Judge (Simon Yam: PTU) and his two lackeys the muscular Psycho (Frankie Chan) who has a penchant for big guns and loose women and his girlfriend the nymph Virgin (Bonnie Fu). This job involves busting an ammo truck worth millions of dollars. However, unbeknown-st to Sam at the time they will get paid by Hung to take care of Godfrey and they will ultimately kill other pal Chung. In the meantime Mona has to take her Mom's ashes to Hong Kong. While Godfrey promises to marry her when she gets back, we all know that any promise before a big job will not be a promise kept. Those who see this will wonder why Godfrey takes this job when their initial meeting does not go well.

The operation goes almost exactly as planned for Judge. However, it is not as easy as he would have liked. While he finds Godfrey attractive he still has to kill him. This leads to an explosive showdown that leaves Godfrey with a missing thumb and trigger finger on his right hand, an innocent family dead and its daughter severely burnt. Sam capitulates in allowing this because he is a sniveling coward (his 180 degree personality change in the film is too unrealistic even though Anthony Wong still did a good performance with this character) and even shoots his friend and leaves him for dead. Why Judge doesn't check on the "death" of Godfrey, I do not know, but it allows him to live, take a cute dog, time to heal and time to learn to shoot with his other hand so he can exact revenge. His monomania allows time for Sam to sneak in on his girlfriend while everyone else thinks he is pushing up daises.

Lam's directorial style is grittier than John Woo's operatic mode of direction, but the spirit of Woo is in this film. He refers to Woo in a few scenes from the briefcase ending analogous to The Killer to Chow Yun-fat spitting out his cigar before killing like Tequila spitting out his toothpick in Hard-Boiled. While the action is not as hyperbolic as Woo's his characters are more exaggerated. Godfrey becomes a vessel for brotherhood (yi) in his quest for vengeance with his own code of conduct. He is not only taking revenge for a lost friend, he is taking revenge for a family wrongly slaughtered and a disfigured daughter. This film feels like a mixture of John Woo and Chang Cheh – it fits well in the sub-genre of heroic bloodshed. With a plot that could have been taken out of an old-school martial arts film what better place for Godfrey to get over his injuries then in a monastery with the help of a monk.

The one-dimensional characters are one of the biggest weaknesses with this film. When Judge states one sentence late in the film on why he acts the way he does it comes a little late – though Simon Yam's performance is a high point in this film. Virgin and Psycho are completely over-the-top as well but they do not have the finesse that Judge has. But in their excess with Psycho's muscle-bound dumbbell and Virgin's oversexed vixen there is a camp factor that I found enhanced the emotions and nihilistic content of this film. The triangle relationship between Sam, Mona and Godfrey annoyed me a bit but it did keep in line with the protagonist's revenge motif.

Where this movie excels is the gun-play scenes, fight action scenes choreographed by longtime Shaw Brother's actor/action director Lau Kar-wing and the excellent direction of Ringo Lam. He has a solid aesthetics in putting together scenes and creates a brute force style of action. The scene most mentioned from this film is club shootout between Godfrey and Judge. It sublimely employs the use of the bullet POV. There are also a couple of pyrotechnic scenes that are also quite extraordinary in explosive carnage and were a good reason for the overinflated budget.

This movie was not viewed as a success in Hong Kong. It was not a flop though since it made almost 17m HK dollars; however, since it cost over 23 million HK dollars it was a loss for Golden Princess. It has a better reputation here in the United States and along with City on Fire is it his most popular. I highly recommend it to viewers who are interested in action cinema. If you take a character first approach to film then you can probably avoid it. But for those who have gone this far in the review I figure you either have seen this movie or are interested in seeing this anyways. With great lines like "wash your butt and wait for me" I know you will like it.
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Just be patient and wait to laugh
3 June 2010
"Spooky Encounters" (aka Close Encounters of the Spooky Kind; 1981) is a seminal work in the hybrid genre of Hong Kong comedy/kung fu/horror films. While this had been done before by the Shaw Brother's "The Spiritual Boxer" (1975), "The Spiritual Boxer Part II" (1979) and Lo Wei's unsuccessful "Spiritual Kung Fu" (1978), "Spooky Encounters" is the film most causal in the formative kyonsi (hopping vampires) craze of the 1980s with "Mr. Vampire" (1985) as the best example of that sub-genre with its plethora of sequels. It was directed by and stars Sammo Hung Kam-Bo ("Warrior's Two" and "The Prodigal Son" who would also produce "Mr. Vampire") during the golden age of Golden Harvest and was the first film under Sammo's Bo Ho Films Company.

Sammo stars as Bold Cheung an affable courageous not-so-bright cuckold who works for Mr. Tam (I am not quite sure what Cheung does though). However, Tam is cheating with Cheung's wife and Cheung came awfully close to finding the two together; however, he did find a shoe that was left behind. Since Tam, who is going to run for mayor, does not want any scandal he decides to employ the services of a black-magic Taoist named Chin Hoi to murder Bold Cheung. Luckily his brother-in-witchcraft Tsui (Chung Faat who is also in Sammo's "Prodigal Son" and "Magnificent Butcher") is astonished he will breaks the rules of the sect (the four rules are: must not be greedy, must not kill, must not insult our god and must not behave badly) and goes off to help Cheung.

Tsui's first good deed is to help Cheung survive a bet with an employee of Tam (played by the ubiquitous Wu Ma) to spend a night in a haunted place that looks like a giant storage shed. It houses a kyonsi – an undead vampire/zombie that is stiff, has to hop to get around, can suck blood through its long fingernails (does not happen here) and has good kung fu skills for some reason. Cheung being a bit of a dullard gets talked into staying two nights. Obviously this does not work so Mr. Tam ends up framing Cheung for the murder of his wife though no body is found. Now Sammo has the law after him led by the Inspector (Lam Ching-Ying) as well as the supernatural sorcerer.

There is not much to complain about in this film. The few annoyances with the movie is the episodic structure the film takes on in the beginning and the underutilization of Lam Ching-Ying ("Mr. Vampire") fighting especially since he is credited as an action director. Also, the very ending is quite unsuspecting (not necessarily for Hong Kong aficionados) and seemed a bit excessive and hard to watch (for those who have not seen it I will not spoil it, it even startled me the second time I watched the movie). You also might not appreciate the film if you like chickens (unless you like exploding ones). There is also some mention of animal killing though nothing is shown (except for the chickens).

The strengths of the film are many. Sammo is in the best shape of his life during the early 80s. He does look slightly corpulent but his kung fu and movement appears effortlessly and adroit (a big difference to how he would appear in the late 80s and beyond). I did notice he was doubled in a few scenes like when he was transformed into the Monkey King, he does not do some of the swinging movements, but for most he was not doubled. There are a couple of classic fight scenes with the tea house bit where Cheung loses control of his arm to the evil Taoist and takes on the tavern (I do not think it influenced Evil Dead II though you never know) and the excellent showdown at the Longevity Inn where Cheung is transformed into the Monkey King and has to fight the Dragon Slayer. In those fights Sammo does some great fighting with a bench in the first and a spear in the second. The whole finale I found quite entertaining with the dueling Taoists. Sammo's direction was also strongest in the 80s where he uses hand-held cameras to great use and has nice composition within frames. He does overuse under-cranking in this movie though he tends to do that a lot in his films (as well as most Hong Kong films during that period). His best asset as a director is that he makes everyone else look better and never puts himself in the forefront if he does not have to.

The mixture of humor/action/spookiness works well too. The horror aspect is definitely influenced by the Shaw Brother's films like "Black Magic" (1975) but never goes into the grossness (or nudity) of that film. The humor lightens the macabre aspect while kung fu and comedy meld well for some reason. "Spooky Encounters" is not scary or gore-filled by today's standards, but it is still a good spooky film that is a must for those into 1980s Hong Kong martial arts cinema or fans of Sammo Hung.

Best advice learned from this film -- when you need more chi stamp the ground and if two opponents are evenly matched the one with the higher alter will win.
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Tie saam gok (2007)
Three is the Magic Number
29 March 2010
The idea behind this film was to get three of the best Hong Kong action/crime directors today working together. The result was each did one segment (around 30 minutes each) in chronological order with Tsui first, Lam second and To finishing it off. This would be done differently than a film like Four Rooms (1995) where each segment was basically a separate story. In this movie each director would continue after the other to move the story and characters along from what happened previously. Like many conceptual films this movie sometimes seems a bit forced, sometimes clunky, some plot angles hang, disappear and seem a bit confusing, but I still found the movie quite interesting and entertaining.

Triangle (the Chinese title is The Iron Triangle) starts off with Tsui Hark creating the foundation for the plot. It is both good and bad that Hark creates tons of plot angles for the movie to go. It gives the Ringo and later To plenty of room to move with, but also will leave either a bit too much to be either ignored and some angles barely gone over that a tighter script would have just ignored. In fact it took me a few tries to get past the beginning.

Simon Yam (PTU, Election) is Lee Bo Sam a former race driver who is friends with Fai (Louis Koo: Throwdown) and antique shop owner Mok Chung-yuan (Sun Hong Lei: Seven Swords). Fai is trying to get him to acquiesce to a driving job for a jewelry heist. If he does not Fai will receive harm from some local triad members. All three need money though. In the middle of the meeting between Fai and Lee a strange man gives those three a small gold piece and states where they can find the rest of this treasure. His motives for doing this are a mystery to the bunch. Meanwhile Lee's wife Lin (Kelly Lin: Sparrow) is having an affair with policeman Wen (Gordon Lam), states that her husband is trying to have her killed off and wants Lam to get rid of Sam first.

When Ringo Lam takes over in the first film he has directed since leaving the production of Wake of Death (2004), he ups the psychological attitude of the film and enriches the characterization. The most effective change is how the love-triangle relationship between Lam, Lin and Sam no longer appears to be the stereotypical triangle in the beginning and takes on a new bizarre dimension. Ringo Lam does a homage to Reservoir Dogs which was based on his film City on Fire so you see a homage to an homage) by using a record player, a handcuffed cop and a few other scenarios in this middle segment of the film.

The last segment belongs to Johnnie To and from the beginning where we see Lam Suet (Lam is in a lot of Johnnie To movies) we know who is directing this. Suet plays a drug addicted epileptic who causes flats in both automobiles and bikes and offers to fix them. The area where he is in has no cellular reception and a conveniently located eatery where they can wait while their vehicle is being fixed. However, Wen is there as well as the triad members who are there to purchase firearms. This is another use of the triangle in this film. To offers his normal use of "Team Spirit" themes and Mexican standoff action in this conflict triangle to make the last half hour quite interesting.

While this film never fully jells together, some plot changes are just a bit bizarre like Lin's character change (or really non-use) in the third segment, I still ended up really liking this film. There are quite enough brilliant moments that make this movie a recommendation for fans of not only Hong Kong cinema and Johnnie To, but movie fanatics as well. You just have to get past the first 15 minutes.

I have the Magnolia pictures R1 release that has two extra features: a "Making of" and a Behind the Scenes. The "Making of" is solely focused on Johnnie To's segment and ultimately not that interesting. It is mostly standing around, saying a few lines and more waiting. Behind the Scenes actually has the most information with interviews from several of the cast and crew. The region 3 release of this by Mega Star has deleted scenes, TV spots and trailers in addition to what the R1 has. I was most disappointed that the R1 does not have the deleted scenes, but it is still a worthwhile release.
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Cantonese Wenyi Realist Drama
26 February 2010
This is one of the few early Cantonese language films available on DVD. Like The Kid (1950) it is most likely only available because one of its costars became the most famous martial artist of all-time -- Lee Siu-Lung. While Bruce Lee is only 13 at the time of this film he had already co-starred in several movies. While most think of Hong Kong as an action-oriented cinema at the time of this film socioeconomic (wenyi) melodramas were prevalent in many of their films. This was one of the early films produced by Union Film Enterprises (Chung-luen) which was built out of the South China Film Industry Workers Union.

The combination of drama and class concerns is quite evident in this plot. A young mother is spurned by her rich lover (Cheung Ying) after she has his son. She cannot pay her doctor bill so she leaves the kid in the Doctor's care. The Doctor (Lee Ching) adopts this infant (played by several actors during this movie including Bruce Lee) whom he takes as his own, his previous wife is no longer alive, and names him San. However, when he remarries, the new wife Lucy (Yip Ping: The Kid) has an extreme hatred of the adopted son and when she gives birth to her own son; she forces the husband to give up the boy in one of the most moving scenes in the movie. Luckily the nanny (Wong Man-Lei) takes him in (the son goes from a rich environment to a poor one). However, her husband is a no-good gambler who takes a dislike to this intruder even though the kid does a lot of work for the lazy man.

The son San (neither IMDb nor HKMDB have complete credits on this film and they are missing this name as well as many others; HKFA has better information but is wrong on a couple of plot points and misses the English names used for several of the characters) befriends a blind girl (this becomes an important plot point later), is subservient to his new mother and father, but because the dad hits him this ultimately causes the nanny to care too much for him and she loses her job. She makes by with her sewing skills, but ultimately tensions rise because of the loss of money.

Issues go from bad to worse when the new mother (nanny) dies because of a blow from the new gambling dad. He soon gives away the boy to settle a debt on the urge from his even creepier brother. The family and his birth mother finally comes back to settle debts and see her son, but San is now gone.

The final act of the film is silly, but quite similar to other Hong Kong class-oriented films from this era. It even has a final moralizing message spoken to the camera (that reminds me of The Dictator) while every plot end is taken care of. Good things happen to the good characters, if they are still alive, and the bad characters get their comeuppance. While the message is noble the didactic browbeating can be a bit too much.

Not a great film, but the camera work was decent and the direction from Chun Kim was good. Most effective were several of the emotional situations San went through. I also really liked seeing many outdoor shots of Hong Kong interspersed throughout the film. These scenes especially made me wonder how much the Italian neorealist movement influenced this film. The use of classical music on the soundtrack seems too sporadic, but this use was not uncommon in several of the 1950 HK films I have seen.

The Guiding Light will certainly be of interest to die-hard Bruce Lee fans and those interested in early Cantonese cinema. However, if you specifically want to watch this film because of Bruce Lee be warned that you will probably be disappointed since there is no action and the film is strictly a social melodrama. Personally, I still found much to be gleaned from this movie. I think many would prefer to watch The Kid (1950) over this film since it has more Bruce Lee (even younger), a better print and is talked about more amongst Hong Kong cinema historians.

The Cinema Epoch R1 release is particularly poor. I suspect that nothing better exists than this and the copy is better than public domain. But is has such a plethora of scratches, cuts, poor night scenes, jumping of the reels and audio difficulties especially towards the end of the movie that make the viewing experience more tedious than it should be. I would have appreciated the cinematography much more with a better print. The scene selection on this DVD is one of the cheapest methods I have seen by only using numbers to get to a particular unknown scene. The producers of this disc populated this movie with another young Bruce Lee role in An Orphan's Tragedy.
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