Tuesday, September 7, 2010
River of Fury (1973), starring Lily Ho, Danny Lee and Ku Feng. Directed by Chang Tseng-chai.
WITH this opening line (rewritten from the English subtitles for clarity), so starts River of Fury, a drama from Shaw Brothers that features the first leading role of prolific actor/producer/director Li Hsiu Hsien, better known to many people as Danny Lee (Super Inframan, The Mighty Peking Man).
Here, he is Zhou Yezhuang; his friends call him Yezhuangzi (Mandarin for "strong country lad"). After his father's death, the son of a farmer sells the property, deciding to venture into the outside world to earn a living while having a little adventure (maybe) along the way.
He looks up a friend of his father's, Duobo (Ku Feng, The Avenging Eagle), a helmsman for a boat that carries Wang's Opera Troupe, a group of actors who travel town to town performing Chinese operas for people from the countryside. The touring company has just arrived in Yezhaungzi's hometown to do some shows.
Getting past the bad news of his friend's death, Duobo is more than happy to have Yezhuangzi aboard and help him out, saying, "I'll count you in no matter what business I have." In this case, on dry land, Duobo's business is opium smuggling. More on that later.
In the meantime, Yezhuangzi has fallen for the lead actress in the troupe, Ge Yiqing (Lily Ho, The 14 Amazons), their feelings firmly established as mutual when Yezhuangzi rescues some underwear of Yiqing's from the river after it accidentally falls in while being laundered.
When the boat comes to the next town, Duobo takes Yezhuangzi along on one of his excursions, and the young man finds out about Duobo's smuggling (the primo merchandise kept hidden in a wine jar on the boat). Duobo says it's easy money, compared to what he gets for running the boat, and he doesn't want to spend the rest of his life steering a boat. Yezhuangzi goes along with the notion with some reservations, feeling some of the itch Duobo has for the easy money.
Later, sometime after Yezhaungzi and Duobo save Yiqing from a spurned playboy (Fan Mei Sheng, The Water Margin) during a performance, Yezhuangzi declares he wants to marry Yiqing, buy some land, and settle down with her. With Duobo and Master Wang (Yeung Chi Hing, Vengeance!) along as support, he goes to see her mother (Ou Yang Sha Fei, Whose Baby is in the Classroom?). She doesn't think much of the poor farmboy, preferring her daughter should either be acting in bigger theaters for more money or marry into big money. When Duobo offers that Yezhuangzi will give a betrothal gift of $3,000 [HK] to her, she's as pleased as Yezhuangzi is shocked. How will he pay back Duobo?
In part, he'll go on a smuggling run for him, that's how. Duobo sends him off on a trip with the jar full of opium (giving him a gun for safety) while the actors have a two-month booking at a big theater in Shenjia Beach. Yezhuangzi will earn $500 [HK] for the task.
In his absence, a wealthy townsman named Liu (Tien Ching, Delightful Forest) sees Yiqing perform, and he's immediately attracted to her. So much so that he offers Master Wang even bigger theaters for the group to work in, sweetening the deal by agreeing to absorb the loss Wang will endure when the troupe breaks the 2-month contract. Wang accepts, and Yiqing becomes a star, becoming more popular than she's ever been. Most importantly, Liu quickly becomes engaged to Yiqing, much to her mother's delight.
Inevitably, Yezhuangzi returns weeks later to find his whole world turned upside down; of course, Yiqing will have nothing to do with him, but the real twist of the knife is when Yiqing's mother smugly gives him back the betrothal money. Duobo tries to help Yezhuangzi drown his sorrows by taking him to a brothel and getting him a prostitute.
Then, an associate of Duobo's suddenly arrives at the brothel, warning him the police apparently tailed Yezhuangi, finding two telltale ferry tickets in with his clothes, as well as the opium stash, on the boat, and they'll be arriving there shortly to arrest him. Duobo decides to let Yezhuangzi be the scapegoat rather than face justice himself. Yezhuangzi (who doesn't get it on with the prostitute, his heartbreak for Yiqing still strong) is taken into custody without incident.
After serving a two-year sentence, Yezhuangzi is released from jail, and with freedom comes a ride to Duobo's large mansion first thing (that's how big Duobo's opium business got while he was away). Also there waiting for him is Yiqing; she dumped Liu a while back (he wouldn't leave his wife for her), and with her mother now dead, she's free to get back together with him.
Yezhuangzi wants nothing to do with either of them, Duobo in particular, especially once he found out (while in the stir) how he was set up as a patsy. Duobo offers no true apology in return, and when he then has the utter nerve to ask Yezhuangzi to rejoin him in the business, it seems like a last confrontation between the two former friends is about to go down very soon.
After that . . . NO "SPOILERS"!
With a screenplay by Ni Kuang that's taken from a novel by Hsu Lu, RoF is a short (80 minutes) but solid drama with well-placed dashes of of martial arts and exploitation that aren't overdone. (The story actually takes place in contemporary times; I didn't really pick up on this until the scene when photographers in suits with 35mm cameras arrive at one of Liu's theaters to snap pictures of Yiqing.)
The direction from Chang Tseng-chai (The Casino, Sex for Sale) is smooth and assured; he gets high-caliber acting from all the actors under his guidance. He makes the movie look like an "A" picture thanks to excellent photography, the music score (stock cues, most likely) adding to the atmosphere of the proceedings.
Danny Lee takes the familiar country bumpkin stereotypical role of Yezhuangzi and gives it some dimensionality; his earlier scenes with Lily Ho are charming, with flashes of bashfulness that I didn't expect at all. He handles all scenes with such a naturalness that it makes me wonder why he didn't move on to another studio sooner to do bigger-budgeted pictures more worthy of his talent.
Nothing's wrong with Lily Ho's work in this; she's fine (and foxy) as Yiqing. She has great chemistry with Danny Lee, and the highs and lows of the relationship are comparably carried well by her. Her Chinese opera scenes are a special treat, considering she had previous experience performing in actual ones.
The ultimate Shaw actor, Ku Feng, does an extraordinary job of making Duobo seem to be an otherwise upright person who turned drug smuggler to help make ends meet; he is practically a mentor to the farmer's son, so when he lets Yezhuangzi take the bum rap (mere minutes after getting the kid a hooker!), this predictable turn is given a special texture through Ku Feng's nuanced acting.
The rest of the cast provide equally strong support to the leads, including [the recently deceased] Ou Yang Sha Fei in her finely-tuned portrayal of a stage mother. (Some will debate it, but I'll contend she's the real villain in this story.)
Though RoF is only a drama, there are a couple of martial arts scenes included here; they're choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping and Yeun Cheung Yan. Danny Lee and Ku Feng do the work very capably, both of them showing a lot of athleticism that's all the more astounding when you see everything Ku Feng does.
As always, IVL's DVD has the nice anamorphic Shawscope picture, good audio (in Mandarin), passable English subs and the typical special features.
The brevity of the film doesn't hamper what is a well-told story that exhibits no signs of being padded out. The drama was riveting enough that I did not find myself constantly watching the time or twiddling my thumbs while waiting for the fighting! Fans of Shaw martial arts films who've considered buying any of the other genre movies they did won't go wrong if they start with this one.
Highly recommended by Brother Fang!
Keeping it trivial....
Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.
P.S. - Purchase it from Play-Asia by clicking on here.