Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Brutal Boxer (aka Blood Fingers)

Director: Guan Shan
Starring: Ray Liu, Chen Sing, Tanny Tien Ni, Guan Shan, Mars

'Brutal Boxer' was at one time a 'lost' film and under it's U.S. title, 'Blood Fingers' became a favorite among old school kung fu enthusiasts who were lucky enough to catch it in theaters way back when and remembered it as one of the bloodiest and nastiest 'bashers' they had ever seen.

Shot in Thailand, our story concerns two brothers, Hsaio and Wu Cheng (Ray Liu and director Guan Shan) who are searching for their uncle. They stop at a restaraunt that they mistakenly think said uncle owns. Finding out too late that he doesn't and unable to pay their bill (never a good thing), they are besieged by the thugs that run it. When the twosome are able to fight the gand off, their skills are recognized by the crooked owner, King Chan (Chen Sing) who hires them and offers to assisst in finding the missing relative. Unsurpringly, the uncle along with his son, Chin (Mars) turns out to be resisting paying 'protection' money to the King and is under constant harassment. This of course, causes the two brothers to have a change of heart. To further complicate matters, King Chan's daughter has fallen for Wu.

So does the film live up to it's nearly legendary, bloody rep? In a way, yes it does. While the bloodletting isn't by the bucket load as the average Chang Cheh directed film of it's time, 'Brutal Boxer' features the type of ooey-gooey gore and crudely graphic makeup effects that are more often found in horror films. It plays like a fairly standard basher throughout it's running time, but truly earns it's keep in the incredible fifteen minute finale, where it gives Cheh's 'Boxer from Shangtung' a run for it's money in the bloody body count department. The actual fighting is some of the better and certainly most intense that I have seen from a film of this period.

Ray Liu makes for an appropriate 'pretty boy' hero who effectively cuts loose at the drop of a hat (his killing method is sticking his 'blood fingers' 'into' his opponent). Mars proves here as he had in 'The Rats' (reviewed elsewhere in this blog) to be a top fighter/stuntman, even at this early stage. His fighting actually outshines Liu's, but due to his odd looks, he was destined never to play the lead. Chen Sing is an absolute terror here. One of the baddest fighters to ever appear in Hong Kong cinema, Chen can amp up the intensity of an action sequence like no other. The film has (rather unfortunately) been marketed as an early Jackie Chan vehicle, disappointing many when they discover that he was merely a background extra. In truth, you would be hard pressed to spot him at all.

Overall despite it's admittedly depressing low budget, 'Brutal Boxer' with it's incredible finale is a solid  'basher' and worth seeking out for kung fu fans who like their action down, dirty and just plain nasty.

Rating: 6/10


Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Mirage (aka Mirage of Martial Arts)

Director: Tsui Siu Ming
Starring: Yu Rong Guang, Tsui Siu Ming, Pasha Romani, Connie Khan

 1987 was quite a year for Hong Kong action cinema. Sammo Hung released his magnum opus, 'Eastern Condors', Jackie Chan countered with his supreme sequel to 'Project A', then the two brothers reunited with third brother, Yuen Biao for 'Dragons Forever' which for them could be equated with The Beatles releasing Abbey Road (not as farfetched as it may sound). John Woo meanwhile, unleashed 'A Better Tomorrow 2' which contained no less than the most unbelievable finale in the annals of action cinema... whew! I thought I had seen all there was to offer from that year, so imagine my surprise when not too long ago I discovered this well hidden masterpiece which not only can stand alongside it's more celebrated brethren, but can contend for the title outright.

The strory: While accompanying a convoy of goods making it's way across the Silk Road, adventurer/photographer, Tong (Yu Rong Guang) finds his party ambushed by bandits. After defeating said bandits, Tong and his party are stunned to see over the horizon the vision of a beautiful woman. No one can explain the phenomona. The task is complete, but Tong cannot remove the vision from his mind and sets forth with his friend on a journey through Mongolia in the hopes of discovering that woman to be real.

Actor/Producer/Director Tsui Siu Ming took his ambitious show on the road, this being a Mainland China production. The results are often breathtakingly beautiful with sumptuous cinematography that nearly approaches the level of a David Lean production. But make no mistake, this is an action picture and the plentiful fights and stunts are simply among the best ever comitted to celluloid. No matter how many Hong Kong action films from the '80s I've seen over the years, I'll never get jaded to the miraculous stunts that populated them. This film is no exception and if anything amps up the quality of the stuntwork to a level little seen, even from this time period. As I stare in wonder and bewilderment at the spectacle, it makes me feel fortunate that such cinema was made before the horrid development of C.G.I. which as far as I'm concerned helped mark the death knell of such pictures.

The cast really give it their all as well.  In one of his earliest roles, Yu Rong Guang commands the screen, already displaying the skill and charisma that would soon make him a star in Asia. Director Tsui cast himself as Tong's faithful sidekick, lending the role all the inheret goofiness and sincerity that's called for. He also put himself out their in the explosive finale by setting himself ablaze (compared to Ringo Lam who preferred to let his stars perform the deed). Despite my feeble attempt at research, I have no idea who Pasha Romani is and that's a shame. As the lovely 'vision' who turns out to be nothing short of a nightmare for our love smitten hero, Romani's portrayal of the evil, animalistic warrior queen steals the film. So viscious and so powerful is her portrayal that it is nothing short of terrifying. If anyone reading this review has any further info about ms. Romani that they wish to share here, I'd greatly appreciate it.

'Mirage' is the kind of movie that comes along only every so often. Though the drama does admittedly take the occasional misstep for the action/adventure fan, it is the complete picture; strong perfs, wonderful scenery, expert direction and constant jaw dropping fights and stunts. It's a damn shame that such an amazing work like this is to this day, still waiting for discovery.

Rating: 9/10

Wednesday, February 6, 2013


Director: Ho Meng Hua
Starring: Chiao Hsiung, Ching Lee,Yang Chi Ching,Wang Hsieh, Dean Shek, Chiang Ling

Prolific director/auteur Ho Meng Hua (who has fashioned everything from the Monkey King/Journey to the West films of the '60s, to the influential cult fave 'The Flying Guillotine', to the King Kong knockoff 'Mighty Peking Man' to the outrageous dark horrors of the 'Black Magic' series) lenses a supreme wuxia/basher/crime thriller hybrid that manages to do justice to each genre.

The setting is the Tang Dynasty. A high ranking constable is framed for the theft of a shipment of jewels. Finding himself on the run, our hero must evade capture while attempting to find out who framed him as well as discover where the stolen jewels are located. He also finds himself in a tenuous relationship with a mysterious swordsman who's been trailing him; his motive unclear...

'Ambush' is one of those films that I simply stumbled upon while researching Shaw Bros. releases from this time period and turned out to be quite a buried treasure of entertainment. Ho Meng Hua keeps the complicated yet linear plot moving at an increasingly swift pace and loads the widescreen picture with some particularly dazzling and sumptuous visuals (at one point there is a striking faux horror element that anticipates the director's notorious later work for the studio). But the real selling point for me was the plentiful action. Initially appearing to be a strictly wuxia picture, the battles eventually give way to some eye opening (for a Shaw production of this vintage) hand to hand duels. These are all filmed with an edgy gusto that I found particularly thrilling. The highlight is undoubtedly the intense finale which takes place in and around a giant windmill that may have been specially constructed for the film. Ho shoots the sequence masterfully, milking every bit of tension and utilizing every interior and exterior section of the prop. It is an amazing sequence  and alone makes the pic a must-see.

In a surprising cast move, Chiao Hsiung assumes the lead protagonist role. Chiao had by this point made a career out of playing notably nasty villains (most of us westerners will recognize him from 'The Chinese Boxer' and 'King Boxer/5 Fingers of Death') and though initially questioning the move myself, I was pretty quickly won over. He doesn't have the typical 'heroic' look, but his quiet charisma suggests that he could indeed have made a career out of this type of role. Regular Shaw starlet, Ching Lee has little to do other than be rescued by Chiao though their final exchange is quite touching (after all she's been through, she entertains the idea of living with him in seclusion). Yang Chi Ching is another surprise as the main villain. Unlike most white haired baddies in kung fu films that are usually played by much younger fighters in wigs, Yang is well into his fifties, yet is quite imposing in the role, lending realism and respectability to his final battle with Chiao at the previously mentioned mill. Dean Shek is primarily known for some wince inducing, over the top comedic roles in later kung fu comedies, but delivers a fine, low key dramatic perf as the mysterious (and ultimately untrustworthy) swordsman. Chiang Ling threatens to steal every scene she's in as the amoral seductress who though morally irredeemable, still manages to gain a small measure of audience sympathy (O.K. a very small measure).

 'Ambush' is a top notch Shaw Brothers effort and a most curious and unusual one. I'll admit that there are still many Shaw releases from this early period that I've not seen but this film alone is cause enough for me to keep vigorously digging around for more. Hugely entertaining and highly recommended. 

Rating: 8/10