Saturday, December 31, 2011

Shanghai 13 (aka All the Professionals)

Director: Chang Cheh
Starring: Ti Lung, David Chiang, Chen Kwan Tai, Liang Chia Jen, Andy Lau, Wang Yu Chiang Sheng, Lu Feng and oh, so many others...

The year was 1984 and the once mighty Shaw Bros. studio was on it's last legs. Legendary director Chang Cheh had left the studio a year earlier, his magnum opus Five Element Ninja being his last hurrah. He continued to make films independently in Taiwan. His first two features, Attack of the Joyful Goddess and The Nine Demons were both near disastrous fantasies that did a disservice to his reputation. Coming up on his 100th film, Chang apparently wanted to do something special (and wasn't about to let a complete lack of budget stand in his way). Assembling a Dream Team, who's who of former and current superstar proteges (ranging from the original kung fu movie star, Jimmy Wang Yu to up and comer Andy Lau), Chang wrote, produced and directed Shanghai 13, the Destroy All Monsters of old school kung fu movies.

Our story is set during the last days of The Republic when China was under the threat of invasion by the Japanese. Discovering a plot that would turn China into a Japanese colony, a government minister by the name of Mr. Gau steal incriminating documents. With the help of the underground, the "13 Rascals", Gau must make his way through Shanghai to board a boat to Hong Kong where he will present his evidence. But the traitors have their own contacts in the criminal world (including several members of the 13 Rascals who have defected). Without knowing exactly whom he can and cannot trust, Gau finds his path growing more dangerous by the moment.

From this plot setting, Chang unleashes a series of pitched battles that are probably the most exciting in his twenty plus year career. Starting off slowly (Both Wang Yu and Chen Kwan Tai start off the movie in essentially non fighting roles), the film gets it's main plot device out of the way during the first thirty minutes. From there, it moves from one blistering martial arts battle to the next with each sequence managing to top the previous one. It truly was a thrill to see so many top name fighting stars from the past (and a few from the present) go at it with fairly reckless abandon. The choreography combined the traditional 70s style combat with 80s style speed to make for an irresisitable viewing experience. Highlights include former Venom Lu Feng battling first Liang Chia Jen and then Andy Lau, a big time battle in a casino featuring an aging but still lithe David Chiang and the finale at the dock which features a mustached Ti Lung (with cap and pipe!) vs. the legendary Chen Sing as well as current Chang fave, Cheng Tien Chi. For fans of old school style fighting, it just doesn't get much better than this.

That isn't to say that Shanghai 13 is perfect. Far from it, in fact. The non exisitent budget and apparent rushed film schedule (both of which are especially regretful considering the amount of talent going on both in front of and behind the camera) reveals itself in the form of some sloppy editing and so-called sets that couldn't decide if they took place in the designated era of the 1930s or 1984 when the film was actually shot.

Despite these quibbles, there is no way I'm going to give Shanghai 13 anything less than my highest recommendation. It's just too much damn fun. One of the great ones far as I'm concerned.

On a side note, the opening credits feature an incredible guitar riff which was lifted from the Death Wish 2 soundtrack, composed by Jimmy Page. Wonder if Jimmy knows his music was used for a kung fu movie?...

                                                                 ***1/2 / ****

Friday, December 23, 2011

Rocco, Ang Batang Bato (The Boy God) (aka Stone Boy)


Director: J. Erastheo Navoa
Starring: NiƱo Muhlach, Jimi Melendez, Cecille Castillo

Here's a truly bizarre children's fantasy from the Phillipines that somehow manages to be equal measures charming and creepy (O.K. mostly creepy) while containing enough freaky imagery to send many an unsuspecting Western viewer's head spinning in disbelief.

The convoluted, yet linear story begins as baby Rocco (played by local child star, Nino Muhlach) is born the same night that his parents are viciously gunned down (exactly by whom is never made clear... to me, anyway). Fast forward eleven years and Rocco is being raised by his grandmother. She warns him not to display his newly found powers (which includes superhuman strength and the ability to crouch down like a ball and roll violently into things) and weakness (he loses his powers when exposed to water). Turns out easier said than done however because the evil scientist, Dr. Meagele has been conducting experiments on the locals, transforming them into either vampires or werewolves. After defending his home against one said lycanthrope, word spreads about Rocco, the Stone Boy. He is lured by a trio of witches who after weakening him by dousing him with water, tie him to a spit and prepare to dine on him like a Roast Pig (this is by far the most disturbing image in the movie). As the witches turn into wolfies, the heat from the fire that our hapless hero is basting on restores his strength. Fighting them off (as well as huge vampire bat that attempts to carry him off) Rocco seeks refuge in a cave. There he bumps into Vulcan, an elderly immortal who tells Rocco of his legacy; that he is himself, half immortal (on his father's side) and must travel to the land of the little people to free his parents souls which are in limbo. Allying himself with said little ones and receiving help from a suspiciously Darna-like woman warrior, Rocco is off to the rescue, battling a Cyclops and various other nasties in his quest to free his parents' souls.

The film takes a little while to really get rolling (much like our Boy-God himself) but once it does... ooh mama! It is hard to believe that this film was aimed at the kiddies, what with the gore and carnage on display, but it indeed was and that makes the proceedings all the more... let's say exotic for a lack of a harsher adjective. It lacks the extreme violence that is found in more adult Filipino fare like The Killing of Satan (which I previously reviewed), but there is plenty of eyebrow raising stuff going on for a family oriented fantasy.

Overall, Rocco, Ang Batang Bato with it's decidedly cool low budget effects and genuinely creepy visuals, shapes up as recommended viewing for fantasy fans with a penchant for the decidedly different. Just make sure you know what you're getting into before diving in.

                                                                 *** / ****

Friday, December 16, 2011

Death Duel of Kung Fu

Director: Chang Chu
Starring: Wang Tao, John Liu, Han Ying

Another one of those pleasant surprises that I stumbled upon back in the mid 80s courtesy of Ocean Shores, at the time one of the best companies releasing Kung Fu movies on vhs here in the U.S. This 1979 period piece teams Wong Tao and John Liu who previously duetted in 1976's  The Secret Rivals. Like that groundbreaker, Death Duel of Kung Fu was shot in South Korea on a similarly low budget, but the results here are actually more impressive than it's better known predecessor.

Set during the Qing Dynasty, our film begins with a strong sequence showing the beheading of the Qing Field Marshall at the hands of Ming Patriot, Shung Ching Kwei (Wong Tao). Now on the lamb, Shun finds himself hunted by Lord To Ko Lan (Han Ying). He also finds his trail dogged by mysterious rogue, Sun Sen (John Liu) as well as a mysterious Japanese woman who may or may not be his ally. Finding themselves initially at odds, Shun (Southern style fighter) and Sun (Northern style) must eventually team up in order to combat To and his lethal Crane style.

I was never the biggest fan of Wong Tao (aka Don Wong) as I found him to have a rather bland screen presence. Here, his stoic image is put to good use and this is probably the best work he's done. John Liu is one of 70s Kung Fu cinema's premier leg fighters. His kicks are nothing short of amazing (as demonstrated in the egg breaking training sequence). The two actually work off each other very well as they had in Secret Rivals (here their roles seemed reversed as Wong plays the no nonsense main hero and Liu the antagonistic rouge). As the villian, Han Ying (aka Eagle Han) brings a sense of menace and authority to his role. It is a relatively low key performance, but an effective one.

Written by Shaw Bros. vet, I Kuang and directed with an assured flair by Chang Chi, Death Duel of Kung Fu charges along at a swift, economic pace while featuring some fine martial arts battles (courtesy of choreographers Chien Yuet San and Mong Hoi), making this one of the stronger Independently made period pieces of the 70s. Worth seeking out.

                                                               *** / ****

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Daredevils (aka Daredevils of Kung Fu) (aka Shaolin Daredevils)

Director: Chang Cheh
Starring: Kuo Chui, Chiang Sheng, Lu Feng, Lo Mang, Sun Chien

The ubiquitous Chang Cheh first introduced the "Venom Mob" (Kuo Chui-usually the leader, Chang Sheng,-his tag team partner, Lo Mang,-the muscleman who arguably became the most popular "Venom" here in the States, Lu Feng,-usually the villian and Sun Chien,-the kicker) in 1978 in the now legendary cult movie The Five Venoms (aka 5 Deadly Venoms). That film (devoid of a name actor and absent of any comedy relief which had become the trend at that point) became a surprise hit and began a series of a dozen or so adventures with the same group (though all five did not appear in every subsequent entry) up until 1981 where they disbanded. These films were among the wildest and bloodiest ever seen in the Shaw cannon.

The Daredevils filmed in 1979, was an unusual entry in that in took place during the early Republic period (1920s). This allowed for Shaw Bros. to dress up their familiar sets a little differently, making for a slight visual alternative to what fans became used to seeing. Guns were also featured here, albeit briefly and admittedly awkwardly (it wasn't until the mid eighties before Hong Kong movies were to truly meld martial arts and gunplay).

At the start of the film, Lo Mang's character is in mourning. His wealthy family having been betrayed and killed by a vicious General. When Mang seeks revenge, he is himself killed by the General's martial arts bodyguards. In retaliation, his four closest friends, all street acrobats (the Daredevils) use his family money in order to construct an elaborate ruse to get close to and ultimately assassinate the General.

The first thirty minutes of this film features some lively action but once Lo's character is killed off (way too early, I may add), the adventure bogs down a little in an overly elaborate cat and mouse game that wasn't as interesting as I had hoped it would be (watching characters getting patted down over and over again got a little tedious). Fortunately, things do pick up and the finale (where our four acrobat avengers finally have their man cornered) features one of the better fights found in this series..

Overall, The Daredevils may not represent The Venom Mob at their best, but the unusual setting and terrific finale make it a worth catching. Just wish they hadn't killed my favorite Venom off so early on.

                                                                    **1/2 / ****