Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Tournament

                                                  Director: Huang Feng
                                        Starring: Angela Mao, Carter Huang

Here we have one of the better Huang Feng/Angela Mao team ups. Throughout the first half of the 70s, Angela Mao and director Hung combined for a dozen or so martial arts flicks with a heavy emphasis on more realistic fighting. This 1974 attempt is one of the more exotic ones as it takes place partly in Thailand and features extensive Thai Boxing sequences.

In the film, Angela Mao as usual, portrays the top student at a Chinese martial arts school. This time though, she also happens to be the daughter of the Headmaster who finds himself tricked into a Thai Boxing match that finds his school suffering humiliating defeat, leading to his suicide. After this incident, the students (led by Angela) decide (against the wishes of the other school headmasters) to do a little brushing up on their Muay Thai. This leads to a nice travelog of Thailand and some impressive ring fighting as she attempts to learn a new fighting system while simultaneously restore the dignity of her school.

I was never overly impressed with director Huang Feng. His work always seemed very pedestrian to me; very middle of the road, sometimes even flat. The few times he tried anything dramatic, the scene falls on it's face. This was never truer than the scene (about half an hour in) where the headmaster commits suicide. The sequence is played so over the top (he imagines his colleagues in distorted closeup, degrading him for his unforgivable loss) that it will cause some viewers to collapse in fits of laughter rather than feel any proper sympathy.

What helps his films stand out are the absolutely fantastic fighters that populate each of them. Angela Mao (a real life Black Belt in Hapkido) is incredible as always and is given ample opportunity to display her skills; be it ring Thai fighting (with gloves on), fighting on poles or just some meaningless brawls. Case in point, the terrific duel she has with Whang In Sik. Whang (a Korean Tae Kwan Do black belt) was one of the premier villains of early kung fu cinema and a frequent foe of Angela Mao. Their mid film duel here has nothing to do with the plot, but is a real "wow" to watch and probably the best fight in the film. Co star Carter Wong is another regular whom many here in the west will know as the guy who expands in Big Trouble in Little China. He basically takes a back seat to Angela (as he often does) but still has good screen presence. The fight choreography in this (and all of Huang Feng's films) came courtesy of a young pre superstar Sammo Hung, who also has a fight scene with Angela. Sammo is in my opinion, the best fight choreographer who ever lived and it is for this reason more than any other why Huang's films are so memorable.

The Tournament is a good enough film and a great showcase for Angela Mao, but with more creative and assured direction it could have been a classic.

                                                                *** / ****

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