Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Vengeful Beauty


Director: Ho Meng Hua
Starring: Chen Ping, Lo Lieh, Tsui Siu Keung, Yueh, Hua, Wang Lung Wei, Shaw Yin Yin

Three years after directing the popular and influential, but ultimately spotty kung fu suspense pic, "The Flying Guillotine", prolific auteur Ho Meng Hua returns with a far more lively and entertaining sequel. This time around though, the famed weapons of mass decapitations  make only a cursory appearance.

Emperor Yung Cheng has been secretly using a band of assassins armed with the dreaded flying guillotines to dispatch a number of writers and scholars who have dared speak out against him (he's known to be a benevolent ruler and doesn't want his fake reputation tarnished; what a great guy). With word spreading that he himself is behind the murders, Yung finds a scapegoat in his chief officer, Han Tian Di. Working quickly, the emperor sends his most trusted guard, Jin Gang Feng (Lo Lieh) to slaughter his entire family. However  Han's wife, Rong Qui Yan (Chen Ping) survives. Doubling as a masked avenging angel, Rong initially attempts to avenge for her husband's murder but as she's two months pregnant, she decides to go into hiding instead. Knowing he is done for if the emperor discovers the survivor, Jin quietly sends his three children out one at a time to locate and silence Rong once and for all. Fortunately for Rong, she meets up with a remorseful ex-guillotine assassin, Ma Sen (Tsui Siu Keung) and former classmate, Wang Jun (Yueh Hua) and the three plot to bring an end to Jin.

Running a mere 78 minutes in length, "The Vengeful Beauty" moves furiously from one episode to the next while bearing all the hallmarks of a rushed production. Characters and plot points which are introduced or merely hinted at, quickly disappear from the proceedings. The emperor himself appears only at the beginning and is soon forgotten about, allowing Lo Lieh's Jin to assume boss baddie status. Rong's masked avenger disguise seemed at the beginning like it was going to be the main thrust of her character's story, only for the concept to get tossed away almost instantly. The Ma Sen character is hinted to be the same one as that played by Chen Kwan Tai in the original Flying Guillotine film (he even carries the same steel umbrella as in the previous pic), but it's never made clear. Most telling of all are the flying guillotines themselves. After being shown through flashbacks in the narrated opening sequence, the launched hatbox executioners make an appearance just shy of the thirty minute mark... and are never seen again! While it all sounds crippling to a movie like this, these moves not only do no harm, but the film bizarrely flourishes in part because of it. There is nary a dead moment to be found and not once as a viewer did I find myself wishing for the pacing to slow down so I could catch my breath. As a result, this is one of the most purely entertaining Shaw films that I have yet seen. The top notch action highlights are many and varied; we have the aforementioned lone guillotine battle, a strikingly visual ambush in a bamboo forest (perhaps the most impressive sequence in the film), a short, but welcome femme fight between Rong and Jin's topless daughter (Shaw Yin Yin), uncomfortable moments of Rong being beaten (remember, she's pregnant!) and a fairly wild finale featuring a half dozen or so Lo Lieh lookalikes.

The cast put forth some very strong work, belying the film's obvious 'B' movie status. Star Chen Ping has always been convincing in both the semi nude seductress and fighting warrior roles. She does much of her own fighting here and is only doubles for the more difficult flips and stunts. Lo Lieh is at his menacing best (then again, when isn't he?), yet somehow manages to bring a (very) small bit of sympathy to his role as he does what he does out of fear for his own family's safety. Yueh Hua is simply one of The Shaw studio's finest pure actors and certainly brings an air of realism despite his character being somewhat underwritten (don't want to give away too much about this character for those who have yet to see the film). It was interesting to see Tsui Siu Keung get such a large part as this point in his career. He was mostly relegated to small supporting roles and was hardly a known commodity. His screen presence is strong and proves that he can tackle a lead role if given the opportunity. He would get many more in the not too distant future.

Released the same year as the troubled, yet equally deliriously entertaining "Flying Guillotine 2" (which Ho did not direct as he was knee deep at that juncture in the King Kong clone, Might Peking Man, a troubled production in it's own right), "The Vengeful Beauty" may be short on decapitating hatbox attacks and a sensible narrative, but it easily makes up for it with it's lightning fast pace, strong performances from it's cast and wonderful action set pieces (some of the best that the Shaw studios put forth up to this point. Great trashy entertainment and highly recommended. 

Rating: 8/10

Monday, February 9, 2015

Jumping Ash

Director: Josephine Siao Fong Fong/Leung Po Chi
Starring: Ga Lun, Josephine Siao Fong Fong, Chen Sing, Michael Chan Wai Man, Nick Lam Wei Kei

This incredible little film is a perfect example of how not to judge a book by it's cover. Jumping Ash was one of several dozen Hong Kong vhs rentals courtesy of Ocean Shores that resided in my local video store back in the late 80s. It was also one of the few that I never bothered to rent. The cover seemed bland, the title didn't stand out for me and the modern day setting told me that this film was probably not going to be Fu friendly (which at that juncture was pretty much all that mattered to me). So I ignored it and forgot about it. Then about five years ago, the title was brought up in a very favorable way. I had only a vague memory of it at that point and made it my business to hunt it down (no easy task as it never received a dvd release). Finally getting my hands on a dupe (good luck finding the original vhs at this point), I decided to give it a watch and was so engrossed with it that I watched it again later that same evening. 

Marking the directorial debut of Leung Po Chi with assistance from actress turned part time filmmaker, Josephine Siao (who also doubles here as our main hero's put upon special lady friend), Jumping Ash stars an excellent and charasmatic  Ga Lun as small time detective, Callan Leong ( a cross between Popeye Doyle and Frank Serpico) who's out to bust big time drug kingpin, Tung (an effectively smarmy Nick Lam). Both cop and crimelord find their paths alternately dogged by a pair of killers from Amsterdam (the ever welcome pairing of old school martial art heavies Michael Chan and Chen Sing), the former hired to protect Tung while the latter looking to relieve him of his goods. When Callan ultimately oversteps his bounds and finds himself relieved of his duties, an unexpected alliance is formed...

Released in 1976, Jumping Ash has the look and feel of it's time period and yet it conversely features a frantic, off the cuff filming style that would not be found in Hong Kong cinema until the following decade. Despite it's low budget and depressing natural scenery, this film jumps right out at you from the get-go. It's quite obvious that what we're watching here is a group of young and talented  filmmakers who were truly looking to make something special and different. To that end, they succeeded admirably and then some. There is barely a slow or wasted moment during it's ninety-odd minutes and you truly feel as though you are privy to an actual police procedure. This is in part, due to the fact that the story itself is largely ripped right off the Hong Kong headlines lending the pic a welcomed unhealthy and downright dangerous atmosphere throughout. Even when the film bravely ventures into comedic episodes (the scene with the hooker is a riot and wait until you see where Callan decides to stash his new found Amsterdam ally), it somehow rings utterly true in spite of itself. Inspired work by all involved.

Complete with a quirky music score (one which led to a hit album, no less), Jumping Ash became a sensation in it's native land where it went on to become the highest grossing action film of the year. This is a film designed to appeal to the locals but it is such a pitch perfect and sure handed vehicle that it could be appreciated by anyone who's a fan of superior action movie making. A must-see.

Rating: 10/10


Sunday, July 6, 2014

Dragon and Tiger Joint Hands

 Director: Yueng Jing Chan
Starring: Anthony Chan Keung, Shut Chung Tin, Cheung Kam, Hsieh Hsing, Jack Long Sai Ga

After being rescued from the hangman's noose for a crime unbefitting the punishment, Chinh Hsiang (Anthony Chan Keung) returns to his village home after a three year absence. There he discovers local bully turned tyrant, Tien Pioa in league with the Japanese and bleeding the poor farmers for all they possess. At first Chihn refuses to help fearing it would merely cause more problems. However, the killing of his school's teacher (Jack Long) ultimately causes him to rethink his stance. 

This is a solid Basher containing characters and plot points that are brought into sharper and more detailed focus than one is accustomed to seeing in these films. Director Yeung Jing Chan (who doubled as producer here and whose few credits span the entire spectrum of the Hong Kong action biz, ending with 1992's Gambling Ghosts Are Ready) does well to keep the material feeling fresh. This type of story has been told countless times before, but rarely was I as caught up in the characters' plights as I was here. Unfortunately, it couldn't quite sustain it's tension and by the final reels, it felt like a bit of a stretch (Chinh ultimately takes what feels like an exorbitant amount of time before deciding to go into action). But that is forgiven when faced with some of the best fight action of this period. All of the many battles are quite exciting and unpredictable (always a plus with these things) and build well up until the finale which is particularly vicious. 

All in all, Dragon and Tiger Joint Hands is a well done little spitfire of a film with good work put in by all involved. Old School Fu fans in particular will enjoy watching a young Jack Long in pre-Seven Grandmasters style punch and kick action.

Rating: 7/10

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Two Toothless Tigers

Director: Sammo Hung
Starring: Sammo Hung, Yuen Shun Yee, Wang Lung Wei,  Chung Fat, Lee Hoi San

I've always said that I can enjoy or at least bare with a bad Hong Kong movie as long as the action is good. Sammo Hung has done several that fit into this category (the Lucky Stars films immediately come to mind), but never has there been a more extreme example of this than the awkward and downright dull Two Toothless Tigers... which just happens to contain some of the finest fight footage ever filmed.

The plot of this surprisingly disinteresting caper centers around restaurant owner, Pao (Sammo) and his dimwitted nephew, Ah Chin (Yuen Shun Yee).Chin it seems, is not in tune with the ways of the world and through his naivete (to put it politely) continuously gets himself in trouble with the local thugs. Attempting to impress a gang with his cooking talents, he instead unwittingly insults one of the lower ranks. Trying to make peace, Chin is tricked into trashing an antiques shop and finds himself owing much financial compensation and facing jail time as a result. As a solution to this little problem, he gets himself involved with a scheme to procure a treasure map from a vicious criminal...

While the basic plot is a flimsy shaggy dog-type deal, it is certainly workable enough to create some magic considering the amount of talent involved. That the end result is as uninspiring as it is, is surprising to say the least. I've watched this film twice all the way through (the second time in preparation for this review) and I'll be damned if I can remember some of the tired shenanigans that go on in the first half. This is flat filmmmaking, plain and simple. Luckily, the picture is somewhat rescued (by my account, anyway) by several insanely great martial arts bouts. After being lulled to a near comatose state throughout the first fifty-odd minutes, these fights are a truly jolting shot of adrenaline. I can't emphasize enough how amzing these bouts are, even by Sammo's normally sky high standards. The highlight here may be the prelim bout between bad guys Wang Lung Wei and Chung Fat. This brief, but explosive bout ranks as one of the finest and most breathtaking ever (yes EVER) and the others rank close behind. To say it's a shame that there weren't a few more of these populating the pic would be a tremendous understatment.

Ultimately, Two Toothless Tigers tried very hard to get me to dislike it, but the mind blowing battles that populate it's second half prevented me from doing so... if only just barely.

Rating: 5/10


Friday, June 13, 2014

Vengeance Is Mine

Director: Lam Chin Wai
Starring: Yukari Oshima, Ben Ng Ngai Cheung, Lung Fong, Pai Ying

Here's a fairly slow paced and incredibly cheaply made production that was shot on videotape (ugh!) and intended as either a direct to video release or possibly made for t.v. (the HKMDB lists it as the latter). Sounds pretty lousy, I know. So, why would anyone be interested in watching it? The answer, because it stars Yukari Oshima. Yes STARS Yukari Oshima as in The Osh finally gets the lead role all to herself after years of taking secondary (or even lesser) roles in so very many films. And this little cheapie flick proves what we die hard Yukari fans had long suspected, that our heroine could not only carry an entire production all by her lonesome, but would be as compelling as any screen actor or actress around in doing so. 

 Once you get past the terrible look and casual pacing of the film, you will discover a tour de force Osh performance, one written to allow her to transform from innocent victim to murderous avenger. Yukari portrays Angel Lee, a newly married Asian American who finds her blissful honeymoon interrupted by five masked thieves. They murder her husband in front of her and then take turns raping her (the camera carefully concentrating on Osh's ever expressive eyes and clenched fists, allowing the viewer to experience the pain and horror along with her). Now all but dead inside, Angel sets about finding her assailants. Initially agreeing to help the police in their investigation, Angel grows increasingly bitter and desperate as the years go by without a single lead. All the time staying put eerily at her dead husband's residence, Angel finally decides enough is enough. Training herself in various forms of self defense, she slowly goes from rumpled and sad victim to ultimately striking looking avenging... well, angel. Tracking down her assailants, she discovers they are now all doing very well for themselves as rich businessmen through their ill gotten gains. Attaining assistance from her sister in law, an aspiring model and actress who's been lured into the seedy world of porn filmmaking coincidentally by one of Angel's attackers, our avenger goes into action. In ever increasing brutality, she gorily shoots and stabs her way through the ranks of each now well to do enemy. During this process, it is clear that Angel has "come back to life", her pained expressions giving way to the kind of cold, yet wildly determined stares that only Yukari can convey. The police chief feeling sorry for her plight, decides to briefly look the other way while gently trying to persuade her to hand over the evidence she gathered (and that they infuriatingly could not), but she refuses. By the time Angel shows up at the head baddie's estate, she is clad in black and looking like the baddest little lady on the face of the earth.

Again, it really is a shame that the choice was made to film this on videotape as it contains one of the awesome Osh's finest and most majestic roles. The action itself is only second rate (perhaps the biggest casualty of the absence of nitrate), but Yukari's amazing intensity here easily makes up for it. Appearing in nearly every scene, this film allows her the most screen time of her career (the only other film I can think of where she takes the loan lead is the 1991 drama, The Angels which annoyingly enough, was also shot on video!) and will have fans lamenting that she wasn't given more opportunities like this throughout her nearly seventy (!) film career.

Rating: 7/10

Friday, May 23, 2014

It's Now or Never

Director" Chan Kwok Hei
Starring: Sharla Cheung Man,  Alfred Cheung, Cynthia Khan, Ng Man Tat

It's Now or Never is one of the hidden gems of Hong Kong cinema. Many outside it's country of origin have not heard of this wonderful oddity. I got my first and only exposure to this title via the fun genre book, "Sex and Zen and a Bullet in the Head". Penned in 1997 by Stefan Hammond and Mike Wilkins, it largely covered ground that most hard core buffs were already familiar with (if even just recently so in some cases). This movie however, was an exception and after finally viewing it, it's easy to understand why this bit of craziness was so championed by the authors.

The film opens with a bang, Over the driving beat of The Surfaris' Wipeout, we are introduced to a gang of early 1960s-style Teddy Girls led by Rose (Cheung Man) and her little sis, Tracy (Rain Lau). Always looking for trouble (of course), this lot frequently finds it. In this instance, they start a major brawl at a dance over boyfriend thievery.Hauled off to jail, they are quickly bailed out by Rose's father, Wong Tat (Ng Man Tat) who puts on a sob story for the ages that reduces many of the cops to tears. As we soon learn however, Wong is no martyr. On the contrary, he is quite the gigolo who often entertains his clients in his own bedroom... with his daughters in the next room no less. The girl gang draws the ire of a tough, vindictive policewoman (Chan Hui Ying) who has made it her business to shadow their every move. Rose in the meantime, has caught the eye of nerdy, lovesick cop, Shing (Alfred Cheung). The real trouble however comes in the form of Loan Shark Wong (Wong Chi Keung)  who on the behest of a jilted client, means to shake down gigalo papa Wong over mucho unpaid bills. In a bid to help Daddy Dearest, Rose enlists the smitten Shing while offering herself to the shy mama's boy as gratitiude.

It's Now or Never is that rarest of animals; a perfectly realized black comedy from Hong Kong. Director Chan Kwak Hei takes what would otherwise be thoroughly repellant material and manages to brilliantly weave a lightning fast satire that's as subtly hilarious as it is fun and exciting to watch.There is nary a false note to be found anywhere. Chan's nutty masterpiece has been compared to the works of John Waters (which appears to be the main influence here), but it manages to connect it's dark humor with it's strong entertainment value more effectively (and yes, subtly) than Waters has ever manged.

The cast as well, are all note-perfect. The gorgeous Cheung Man (Sharla Cheung) is an actress I'm familiar with, but have not been overly exposed to. This was due to her appearances in films that I wasn't too terribly interested in (early Stephen Chow comedies, various gangster melodramas). Seeing her in this movie is something of a revelation. Filmed in loving closeup, Cheung's Rose is one of the great ice queens; heartless and conniving, the character is ultimately softened (somewhat) by the selflessness of her would-be suitor. Ng Man Tat has appeared in so many comedies during this period (he was a regular sidekick in the aforementioned Stephen Chow pics), that he must have been one of the most in demand character actors in the industry. He is at his loathsome, scene stealing best here and it's to his credit and the film's that you feel some measure of sympathy toward this morally bankrupt character. Playing Little Bun, Rose's closest ally, Cynthia Khan gets to take a break from her action diva status and nearly steals the film. Playing against type as a wimpy, man hungry gang member, Khan is a riot as she attempts to get out of various fights by threatening to use her deadly Eagle Claw Kung Fu and getting her lovely rear end handed to her in each instance. It is no coincindence that she finally reveals her inner courage against a man as she applies her Eagle Claw to the groin (all that's missing is a shot of two eggs cracking as in the classic Fu feature, Invincible Armor).

It's a crime that a film as striking and original as It's Now or Never has yet to receive a dvd release (laserdisc and vcd only). It truly is a lost gem of a film that deserves rediscovering.

Rating: 8/10

and the trailer is pretty amazing, too...

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Bloody Mafia (aka Red Mafia)

Director: Ca Sa Fa (Casanova Wong)
Starring: Ca Sa Fa
Ca Sa Fa (birth name, Kim Yong-Ho but better known around these parts as Casanova Wong as I'll be referring to him from this point on) has always been one of my favorite screen kickers. Many consider him second only to Hwang Jang Lee and I'd certaintly concur with that. There are times where I think he's even Hwang's equal. The Korean super kicker (and ex Marine) was featured in many a Hong Kong martial arts pic of the late 70s and early 80s where his amazing skills were put to good use (see The Master Strikes elsewhere in this blog). I was aware that he worked onscreen in his native South Korea as well, but was completely unaware of this nasty little number, Bloody Mafia until recently. It was to be his last screen appearance (to the best of my knowledge) and on top of that, he sat in the director's chair for this one as well.

Normally here is where I'd give you a brief rundown of the plot. Unfortunately, this is one of those films that came sans any kind of english friendly translation; no subs, no dub, nothin'; just raw Korean and unfortunately I don't speak the language. Your fearful er, fearless author here was going to press on regardless as it seemed a straightforward enough story UNTIL I came across an actual plot description from the website "Rare Kung Fu Movies" which I'll share here assuming (hoping) they don't mind;

"Kang-ho is a man who believes loyalty is the highest human virtue. He befriends Geo-ryong who takes him into the mob led by Chung Dong-nam. Kang-ho becomes an underworld celebrity when he infiltrates and destroys a powerful international drug cartel. Geo-ryong falls for Kang-ho's younger sister Hye-rim. Meanwhile, Kang-ho and Geo-ryong try to mentor Oh-bong who tries to leave the organization but the organization attacks him before they can take him under their wings. He narrowly escapes death and is moved by their friendship. When the two friends realize that Dong-nam has been using his men for his own gain, they are angered beyond words and decide to attack him on Geo-ryong and Hye-rim's engagement day. But tragedy befalls them when Geo-ryong is killed. The sight of Geo-ryong's body devastates everyone at the party. During the final confrontation between Kang-ho and Dong-nam, Oh-bong sacrifices his life to save Kang-ho. Kang-ho deals the final deadly blow to Dong-nam for Oh-bong and Geo-ryong."

Drawing inspiration from several gangster genres (the horse's head gag from The Godfather is recreated here using a pig's head... with intestines added for good measure), Wong's direction is ambitious. Perhaps too ambitious for the film's obvious miniscule budget.This tends to give off a level of cheesiness that seems to be at odds with the dead serious and sometimes melodramatic tone of the film. Adding to this are several long soft core sex scenes. I get it, it comes with the territory. But it felt like there was at least one too many and they each went on for several minutes. Even Wong himself has a randy sex scene with a nightclub singer and soon to be girlfriend... and eventual ex-girlfriend. True, he finally lives up to his Casanova moniker, but this isn't exactly the kind of "action" I want to see our director/star involved in. I want to see Casanova Wong, the boot master, not the booty master. Fortunately, there's plenty of the more traditional action as well as there are a half a dozen or so fights scenes (possibly more, I lost count) on display and they are nothing less than spectacular! These are probably the best fight scenes I have ever seen in a Korean production and that alone makes this film a must-see. Wong may be a bit older, but he shows no signs of aging as he and his co-stars (including one who fights with crutches!) all show amazing form and lightning fast speed combined with choreography that matches the best of that in Hong Kong movies of this vintage. Only some choppy editing takes away from it just a tad. There's also a fair amount of gore on display, particularly the gruesome moment where Wong chomps part of a rival's nose off!

I need to mention one particular moment that may have been the single cheesiest thing I have ever seen in a movie (let that set in for a second); Wong's introduction to his would be squeeze takes place in (appropriately) a nightclub. In the background, you can hear Whitney Houston's I Will Always Love You playing and I at first assumed it was being used for mood music. But nooo, as the camera drew closer it became obvious that the nightclub singer herself was supposed to be singing this to Wong! Never mind that the song sounds like it's coming from another room rather than from her vocal chords and never mind that it was obvious she didn't know the english lyrics (I have no idea what she was actually singing)... The final effect was truly an out of body experience that nearly had me on the floor laughing. My goodness...

Did I mention that the plentiful fights are spectacular?

Rating: 5/10