Friday, November 30, 2012

Shaolin Martial Arts (1974), starring Fu Sheng, Chi Kuan Chun, Gordon Liu Chia Hui, Bruce Tong Yim Chaan, Irene Chan Yi Ling, Leung Kar Yan and Johnny Wang Lung Wei. Directed by Chang Cheh.

All images courtesy Celestial Pictures.
FOR anyone who likes their Shaw Brothers flicks with Shaolin kung fu, Shaolin Martial Arts will live up to its name for you adequately. The third of four Shaolin-based films made by director Chang Cheh to be released in 1974, it initially attracted moviegoers because of the pairing of rising stars Fu Sheng and Chi Kuan Chun, but it's since been rediscovered in the home video age for the early presence of popular performers Gordon Liu (not yet shaving his head), Leung Kar Yan (not yet sporting a beard) and Wang Lung Wei (not yet using a finger to make his point). With a script by Cheh and the prolific Ni Kuang that deviates some from the convention found in most of these films, it catches the viewer's attention with a low-key, moody story.

Lau Kar Wing
Long after the Shaolin Temple has been burnt down (heroes like Fang Shih-yu and Hung Tsi-qwan are mentioned in the past tense), the Qing court gets word from the province of Guangdong of the discovery of Shaolin rebels at a kung fu school run by Lin Zan Tian (Lo Dik). They arrange to have Wu Chung Ping (Kong Do) open and manage a Manchu school nearby, using it as a subterfuge for rooting out the fugitives. The Manchus finally strike at a ceremony jointly attended by the schools, killing a Shaolin student (Lau Kar Wing) in order to provoke a fight, but their strategy backfires when the agitators trounce the Manchus, including Ping. Not surprisingly, once the Qing authorities arrive, they side with the Manchus, claiming nothing more happened than a "gang fight", thus denying the Shaolin men justice for their slain brother.

left to right: Leung Kar Yan and Johnny Wang Lung Wei
Disappointed Ping and his pupils failed to defeat the rebels, a Qing general (Lee Wan Chung) offers Ping some assistance via his confidante, kung fu master He Lian (Fung Hak On). Lian has summoned his two favorite disciples to help the Manchus eradicate the Shaolin agitators: Ba Kang (Leung Kar Yan) and Yu Pi (Johnny Wang Lung Wei). Kang is highly trained at Steel Armor kung fu, which makes his skin tough and invulnerable to blows; Pi has mastered Qi Gong, which enables him to withstand a blow from an opponent and "rebound the power of the blow", injuring "the one who initiated the punch."

top, left to right: Fu Sheng and Chi Kuan Chun
below, left to right: Bruce Tong Yim Chaan,
Tino Wong Chueng and Gordon Liu Chia Hui
Soon enough, the dissidents find out Kang and Pi are forces not to be trifled with when the duo leads a group of Manchus on a visit to Tian's school; once there, they kill his two best students in brief, one-sided matches. Among those who witness the spectacle are Shaolin aspirants Li Yao (Fu Sheng), Chen Bao Rong (Chi Kuan Chun), He Zhen Gang (Gordon Liu Chia Hui) and Mai Han (Bruce Tong Yim Chaan). Knowing they're in over their heads if they fight this deadly twosome, they flee from the Manchus and report what's transpired to the ailing Tian, who lives in seclusion with his daughter, Lin Zhen Ziou (Irene Chan Yi Ling), and his niece, Ah Wai (Yuen Man Tzu).

Lo Dik
Once he's been updated, Tian knows exactly what kind of kung fu they're dealing with, and he believes the Eagle Claw and Rolling Eagle Claw styles will best take out Kang and Pi, respectively. However, he's no expert on those martial arts, so he has Gang and Han go to a reclusive sifu known as the "King of Eagle Claw" (Chiang Nan) for a few months of special training, while Yao and Rong stay with him and continue their Shaolin training.

Eventually, Gang and Han complete their training, but on the way back to see Tian, they get word four Shaolin students have been recently captured by the Manchus, prompting them to go into rescue mode. For an instant, it looks like their new abilities put them on equal footing with Kang and Pi, but they fall short of that. Gang and Han are killed, but the pupils manage to escape the Manchus' grasp and tell Tian about the bad turn of events.

left to right: Simon Yuen Sui Tien and Feng Yi 
Realizing he tragically underestimated Kang and Pi's advanced skills, Tian has Yao and Rong seek out two other sifus whose areas of expertise may be more helpful toward ending the murderers' reign of terror. Yao goes to Master Liang (Simon Yuen Sui Tien) to learn Tiger and Crane Fist (to stop Kang), while Rong locates Master Yan (Feng Yi) so he can learn Wing Chung (to stop Pi). In the beginning, the workouts are long, tiring and exasperating (Yao has to wait a whole month before Liang agrees to work with him!) to the point both consider quitting, but they quickly change their minds once Ziou and Wai disclose how Tian defiantly committed suicide when Kang, Pi and the Manchus came calling on him not long after they left. Now refocused, the young men dive into the training with a passion. Months later, Yao and Rong, eager to avenge the deaths of Tian and their many Shaolin brothers, are finally prepared for a showdown with Kang and Pi, mano-a-mano....

top, left to right: Irene Chan Yi Ling and Yuen Man Tzu
bottom, left to right: Kong Do and Funk Hak On
As a whole, Cheh and Kuang's screenplay for SMA doesn't get mired in formula because the formula is a work in progress. The narrative fares better when shown from the viewpoint of the Shaolin rebels. Vicariously, we feel their anger when their comrades are slain; their camaraderie as they hide out from the Manchus; and their disappointment and elation as they go through the rigors of learning kung fu. What doesn't come off as well are the villains. Kang and Pi are intimidating enough, but their limited screen time lessens their menace; with Ping and Lian, their roles are way underdeveloped, and a good rewrite could drop either of them without harm to the story. Some have reserved their loudest complaints for Ziou and Wai. It's possible the women were added at the suggestion of the Shaws (the romantic angle is played up in the original movie trailer, included on the IVL DVD), over the objections of director Cheh. (Did Kuang write them in?) I have no hangups about the ladies (though their girlish behavior is laid on thick), and it's to the credit of Kuang and/or Cheh they're not depicted as damsels in distress.

Despite having young ladies in his yang gang scenario, Cheh directs SMA assuredly, with as much attention given to the pensive moments as are the boisterous ones. The photography by Miyaki Yukio (Kung Mu To) helps to set the proper atmosphere, particularly with a good usage of darkness in well composed low-lit scenes. Kwok Ting Hung's editing is adroit, enhancing the grace, beauty and intensity Lau Kar Leung and Tong Gaii bring to the choreography of the training sequences and the fights. (Only the climatic battle ends with a whimper, but that's more of another script problem.)

The cast handles their parts capably. Fu Sheng and Chi Kuan Chun make a great team, both at (or near) their physical peaks, and while Chun gets his fair share of acting opportunities (and is very good), Sheng carries the picture with his winning personality and an underplayed performance, even during his comedic scenes with the winsome Yuen Man Tzu. Irene Chan Yi Ling (forever "Princess" in Cheh's Young People) shows impressive range in what time she gets to be seen as Tian's daughter (and Rong's girlfriend). Lo Dik, Feng Yi, Chiang Nan and Simon Yuen Sui Tien are great as the Shaolin sifus, with Tien a true scene stealer as the obstinate Liang, who gives Yao no mercy. Supporting player Bruce Tong Yim Chaan gets a rare weighty role as the Shaolin student fated to die at the hands of Pi; why this above average actor and fighter didn't get a chance at stardom is mystifying. As already noted, Kong Do (Ping) and Fung Hak On (Lian) are given skimpy roles, but they give enough of a spark to them they don't come across as cardboard cutouts. As always, other familiar Shaw faces are present throughout, including the likes of Tino Wong Chueng, Dang Tak Chueng, Chan Dik Hak, Li Chen Piao, Lo Wai and Lam Fai Wong.

left to right: ? and Leung Kar Yan
What about those three newcomers mentioned earlier? For Leung Kar Yan and Lang Lung Wei, SMA was their second Shaw movie (but the first to be issued), while Gordon Liu had a few more films under his belt prior to this one. So it stands Liu is the more accomplished actor and gets to show off his kung fu capabilities in a memorable fight with Yan, demonstrating his potential as star material years before he got his big break with The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. As the efficient killing machines, Yan and Wei play don't get to display any depth but they are convincingly tough. However, Yan arguably gets the meatier role as Kang, highlighted by one of the movie's best scenes where a prostitute's attempt to arouse him fails because, thanks to his Steel Armor training, he's capable of retracting his sex organs into his body cavity!

The IVL DVD is the best way to experience SMA. It boasts a remastered, anamorphic picture, the original mono Mandarin soundtrack and English subtitles. Extras consist of bios and newly made Shaw trailers by Celestial Pictures. (I first saw this years back in bootleg form with the English dub, which I didn't like much, thanks to the overly sweet voices given to Ziou and Wai. Seriously, you get a better feel for the emotional tone of the movie if you see the legit DVD. Watch that, not the bootleg.)

SMA is early in Cheh's "Shaolin Cycle", and it has the bumps in the script to prove it. Fortunately, the modest imbalance (a.k.a. the weak villainy) doesn't hurt what is an exciting and fun (even thoughtful) film. Most of all, with Fu Sheng, Chi Kuan Chun, Gordon Liu, Leung Kar Yan and Lang Lung Wei participating, it's definitely not boring.

Brother Fang cuts to the chase: "A special dose of Shaolin, featuring the ascending Fu Sheng and early looks at Gordon Liu, "Beardy" and Lang Lung Wei. Recommended!"

Keeping it trivial....

Brother Fang, Shaolin Temple.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Game Show Photo Essay #3: The Password is "Neckerchief."

(All images courtesy GSN, unless noted otherwise.)

THE following was taken from episodes of Password Plus that originally aired on NBC from May 7-11, 1979.

Sixteen weeks into the game show's run, a unique fashion statement was being made loud and clear:

Episode 86 (Monday)

Episode 87 (Tuesday)

Episode 88 (Wednesday)

Episode 89 (Thursday)

Episode 90 (Friday)

For those who don't recognize their faces or names, Susan and Bill are best known for their acting roles on the long-running NBC soap opera Days of our Lives. (As of this date, it's the only soap left on NBC's schedule, and they still appear on there from time to time.) Back then, for those who were fans of DOOL, their guest appearance had to be sweet stuff. For anyone who avoided soaps, however, it must have been a downer, until the "strangers" proved they could play the game. (While I've never watched daytime or nighttime soaps, I have seen shows like Degrassi Junior High and the older, serialized Doctor Who, so I know how easy it is to get addicted to a good continuing story. If your favorite soap was among those cancelled within the last five years, I empathize with your pain.)

(Google images)
From what I've gathered upon further reading, back when soaps were popular and plentiful, Susan and Bill were once like soap royalty. That they made the cover of Time in '76 seems to be proof of this, though they might've also gotten there because the cover story mentioned Thurgood Marshall (a Supreme Court Justice of the era) was a fan of DOOL. When the magazine was published, DOOL was a ratings winner; a year later, its viewership began to decline, brought on by the combination of stiff competition (ABC's All My Children) and a bad time slot. So it went when Bill and Susan came to play PP, the "power couple" wasn't quite so much. Even so, after recently looking at these episodes on GSN, I got the sensation the two seemed to have a slight air of aloofness about them, unlike the vibes I've gotten when more familiar faces (like Bert Convy, Joyce Bulifant, even David Letterman) have appeared on these reruns. In no way were these two snobs; they played the game well (Bill fared better, advancing to the "Alphabetics" bonus round more times than Susan), but there were moments where some of the contestants' excited reactions during play actually startled them, suggesting these soap stars (at the very least) hadn't been bowling in years, if at all. Then again, while a measure of detachment is synonymous with actors, most conceal it better than Susan and Bill did on PP.

Unlike the Password of the '60s, putting on nice suits and dresses wasn't a regular occurrence on PP, so celebrities were now often trying to wear clothes as semi-casual as what the contestants wore.

Overall, Susan's attire is late-'70s OK, except for Tuesday's pink dress, which is best described as a modified housecoat. (Remember those?)

If his scarf were red, he could've
sold Sugar Frosted Flakes.
As for Bill--where to begin?  Call them scarves, neckerchiefs, bandanas or whatever, his neckwear comes off as an odd mixture of cowboy and upper crust. On Monday, the one he sports looks the least ridiculous with what he's wearing; from there, his wardrobe choices are compromised by their usage. He absolutely doesn't need them with what he's wearing on Tuesday or Wednesday. Worse, how he chooses to wear Thursday's scarf in conjunction with a buttoned-up vest and buttoned-down shirt suggests he's auditioning to be a Chippendales dancer later in the day, possibly in Tombstone, AZ. He nearly comes back from the brink with Friday's "outfit," but the bright yellow scarf makes him look more like a singing cowboy. (Not a stretch, really, as he began his career in showbiz as a singer.)

The "camouflage" in action. (BBC/Warner home Video)
The only scarves I've ever put on have been for wintertime, so I don't know of the appeal of wearing them other times of the year. I do know women sport them more creatively than men, and both will utilize them as a kind of camouflage over a neck that's not as firm as it used to be. As you can see (above), it doesn't always work so great, but they are a cheaper alternative to plastic surgery. And if you see a dog with one on, well, that's just frigging cute!

(Google images)

On a closing note, kudos to the the individual who changed Susan's PP billing after the first show was recorded (ladies before gentlemen, remember), but why wasn't the Monday episode corrected in post production?

Keeping it trivial,

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

1001 Individuals More Memorable Than Charlie Sheen.... #95: Ernest Borgnine (1917-2012).

(Google images)
("Cartoon" by R.A.M.'67...with apologies to Paddy Chayefsky.)

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.

Monday, June 25, 2012

A Milestone? Really? Okay....

I'VE recently found out this blog has been looked at 25,000 times...and counting.

Thank you to all of those who have contributed to making this event possible.

Brother Fang appreciates it!

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Prodigal Boxer (1972), starring Meng Fei, Pai Hong, Maggie Lee Lam Lam, Wong Ching and Yasuaki Kurata. Directed by Choi Yeung Ming.

(All images courtesy Warner Home Video, unless noted otherwise.)
ON the surface, The Prodigal Boxer (a.k.a. Kung Fu the Punch of Death) looks and sounds like a typical early '70s "old school" martial arts flick from HK (especially if you watch the version with the English dub, which I did). However, based on what little information is available online about the movie, there's more to it than being a mere 91-minute diversion. It's reported to be "a Shaw [Brothers] independent film" (which may be why there are more than a few Shaw regulars in front of the camera and behind the scenes), and because it depicts the story of the Chinese martial arts hero Fang Shih-yu, it's also linked to Shaw director Chang Cheh's "Shaolin Cycle" series of movies. Further, with a HK release in '72 (the exact date is unknown), it came out roughly over a year before Cheh began developing his first Shaolin feature (Five Shaolin Masters, the first of four Shaolin features to be filmed for '74, but the last to be issued), so circumstantial evidence suggests TPB might have inspired Cheh to undertake the Shaolin pictures. Did it? More on that later.

the crickets
When his cricket is triumphant in a fighting match, Fang Shih-yu (Meng Fei) winds up in a scrap with the sorehead owner of the losing insect. During the short skirmish, Shih-yu accidentally delivers to him a mortal blow, and he dies hours later. As it turns out, the dead man was the top student at a kung fu school run by Iron Fist Tan (Yasuaki Kurata) and his brother (Wong Ching), so the call for vengeance on Shih-yu (with whom they've had trouble previously) is swift. While he's out with friends, Tan and his sibling go searching for him at the Fang residence. Finding his mother (Pai Hong) and his father (Shut-Ma Wa Lung) there, the two thugs decide to go on the offensive anyway, but they succeed in slaying only the old man.

left to right: Meng Fei and Pai Hong
Upon returning, Shih-yu tries to ask his mother who killed his father, but she says nothing, knowing his kung fu is not strong enough for him to take on the brothers. Instead, she whisks him away into seclusion to work on his training, but when he soon finds out the brothers are responsible, he recklessly goes off after them. Of course, Shih-yu is in over his head, but lucky for him, he escapes certain death by the arrival of his mother and the authorities.

left to right: Maggie Lee Lam Lam and Meng Fei
Under the treatment of his mother and Siu Pin (Maggie Lee Lam Lam), a woman he befriended on the night of his father's murder, Shih-yu rebounds from his injuries and resumes his training. Even though his kung fu improves greatly, his mother insists he's not ready yet. He discovers this the hard way when a chance meeting with some of the brothers' students leads him right to the brothers themselves, followed by another round of combat where he's on the receiving end of a thorough beating. 

left to right: Yasuaki Kurata and Wong Ching
Again, Shih-yu goes back into recovery, and this time, in addition to even more training, he also gets the extra benefit of taking prolonged herb baths (lasting for several weeks) which make his skin nearly invulnerable. Once he's fully prepared to confront the brothers, he delivers to them a challenge to duel, which they accept. A last minute complication arises when Shih-yu's mother falls ill, and since he wants her well so she can see the fight, he's forced to endure a little more humiliation from the brothers in order to get the battle postponed for a few days. Fortunately, she gets better swiftly, and before too long, Shih-yu is facing down the scum who murdered his father for (hopefully) the last time....

Meng Fei
Did TPB specifically influence Cheh to create the "Shaolin Cycle?" Not likely; I think action director Lau Kar Leung, with his extensive knowledge of Shaolin martial arts, might be the one most responsible for that. I can imagine a scenario where he pitched the idea to Cheh, who then passed it along to Shaw Brothers, and Shaw, not completely sold on the concept, proposed a "test" film to gauge moviegoers' interest, which became TPB. However it actually got made, TPB was a catalyst in Cheh's undertaking of the Shaolin movies, and the connections it has with Shaw can't be disputed. If you're in doubt, consider how TPB director Choi Yeung Ming went on to co-direct Police Force with Cheh, and star Meng Fei was later cast in Cheh's Five Shaolin Masters. (As fate would have it, those were the only Shaws they worked on.)

left to right: Yasuaki Kurata and Meng Fei
On its own terms, TPB is okay as an "old school" martial arts movie. Ni Kuang's screenplay is straightforward with a linear plot that's not adorned but has sufficient characterization given to the good guys to make you root for them. Choi Yeung Ming's direction is workmanlike with some artistic flourishes and inspired placements of the camera in certain shots. Wong Pau Gei (who doubled as an assistant director) and Lau Kar Wing's fight choreography doesn't lack for energy or intensity, though some of its impact is dimmed by the film editing. The English soundtrack is a bit loud and harsh, but with familiar Shaw vocal actors on duty, it's tolerable. While most of the voices are (inevitably) ill-matched to the performers, the quality of the production is assured enough such quirks (including the translation) don't spoil the viewing experience. If you love "old school," you can't go wrong with TPB; just don't expect a "campy" affair.

How does it stack up to the movies of Cheh's "Shaolin Cycle?" Notably, the story is smaller in scale (focusing on Shih-yu before he entered the Shaolin Temple), the fights keep mostly to the ground and the extent to which women are featured goes contrary to the average Cheh Shaolin feature. To think that frequent Cheh collaborator Kuang wrote this is surprising, low key as it is, but back then, he probably saw it as a "one-shot" picture and wrote it as such, not knowing what lay ahead of him. (Eventually, he would write the majority of scripts for Cheh's Shaolin films.)

Continuing with the comparisons, Meng Fei's portrayal of Shih-yu contrasts greatly with that of Fu Sheng's memorable interpretation for Cheh. Part of this is due to the story, but some of it may relate to his acting experience. (It was his second film.) However, the fact Fei doesn't look and act "larger than life" like Sheng works well within the confines of the movie, making him an ideal choice for playing an underdog. (Not an easy observation to make with that ridiculous English voice he's given.)

Gratuitous picture of Maggie Lee Lam Lam.
As for the rest of the cast, standouts are Pai Hong as Shih-yu's mother, Maggie Lee Lam Lam (Mrs. David Chiang) as Shih-yu's girlfriend and Yasuaki Kurata as Tan, who manages to be menacing without overacting (unlike his "brother," Wong Ching). Within the supporting players, watch for Fung Hak On (in a rare "nice guy" role), Shut-Ma Wa Lung (as Shih-yu's father), Tung Choi Bo, Lau Kueng, Lo Wai, Yeun Cheung Yan and Danny Chow Yun Kin.

(Google images)
My copy of TPB comes from the 2006 Warner Martial Arts Double Feature DVD that combines it with Militant Eagle (1978), and it's also on Warner's 2007 two-disc 4 Film Favorites set, where TPB and ME are joined by  Moonlight Sword and Jade Lion (1977, with Angela Mao) and The Bloody Fists (1972, with Chen Kuan Tai). It's presented in non-anamorphic widescreen with a picture quality that ranges from very good to fair. As already mentioned, the sound on the English dub (the only language option) is noisy with a few moments where the dialogue is hard to decipher, but not enough that you can't keep up with the story. If you can't get your hands on an import version of TPB, the Warner DVD is better than nothing.

If you want to consider TPB as a companion piece to Cheh's "Shaolin Cycle" like Showdown at the Cotton Mill (1978) is, then alongside that later production, it's a minor offering. If Shih-yu's name was changed, and the bathing in herbs was cut out, the movie would become a routine "revenge" picture redeemed only by decent acting and good action scenes. Otherwise (whether you care anything about the film's history or not), while lacking the polish of better martial arts movies made around the same time, TPB is comparably entertaining and worth a look.

Brother Fang cuts to the chase: "This nearly-forgotten curio in the annals of films with Fang Shih-yu lacks the Shaolin Temple, but it's still fun for what it is. Any Meng Fei fan who doesn't have it yet needs to buy it. Everyone else should either rent or watch on YouTube."

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.

P.S.-- Buy The Prodigal Boxer here.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Game Show Photo Essay #2: "In the old days, Jack Paar used to do that all the time."

THE following came from the premiere of Password Plus, originally broadcast on NBC January 8, 1979. Minor edits are inserted into the transcript for the sake of clarity....

(All images courtesy GSN.)

GENE WOOD: It's more than Password, it's Password Plus!

WOOD: Our guest stars, Elizabeth Montgomery and Robert Foxworth!

WOOD: And here's the star of Password Plus, Allen Ludden!

Fast forward to game two....

ALLEN LUDDEN: Okay, we're back!... Got another puzzle up there right now, and this time, we're going to give the words to Sylvia and Bruce. First, to [the home viewers], of course. And Sylvia, you will have the option because [Elizabeth and Bruce] got the [first] puzzle.... What are you going to do, Sylvia? You gonna pass, or you gonna play?

SYLVIA: Oh, I'm going to play!

LUDDEN: Okay, good!

SYLVIA: Cigar!


LUDDEN: Gee, that's a good clue, Sylvia!

LUDDEN: Sylvia, it was that second clue that interested me the most!

If I didn't know better, I'd swear she tried to give Robert a third clue.

Here's the real deal for those who are eager to see it play out in full, uploaded to YouTube by "jennings861." (Check out the other two parts if you want to see the complete episode.) She's not actually "bleeped", so pay attention and hear how precisely her remark was cut out by the sound editor. Why this gem of a clip never made it to any of those Game Show Moments Gone Bananas specials hosted by Ben Stein (available on DVD by Mill Creek Entertainment) is mystifying, but as the "Cigar Lady" came in at #11 on Entertainment Weekly's list of the "25 Funniest Game Show Bloopers", it's beginning to get the recognition it deserves.

I always loved it when a PP contestant accidentally spoke the password that was part of the puzzle. (It was even better when Allen did it, and it's been said Bert Convy did so a lot on Super Password, but I think that's an exaggeration.) Such an innocent mistake illustrated how easily people could get wrapped up in the game (and often did), which is the hallmark of any good game show.

Of the celebrities, only Robert Foxworth is still around. As for contestants Bruce and Sylvia, who knows? If they are still alive and prosperous, then I wish them well, especially the good-natured Sylvia, who took  her mistake (and slip of the tongue) in good stride.

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.