Tuesday, September 7, 2010

River of Fury (1973), starring Lily Ho, Danny Lee and Ku Feng. Directed by Chang Tseng-chai.

"Dad passed away over a month ago. I've paid up all the debts. I don't want to be like Dad, farming in the countryside. I'd rather go out and see the world like Duobo."

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.

11 comments:

  1. Sounds really great! I'm going to try and find it in SF Chinatown on my lunch break. :)

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  2. Good luck with that! How well-stocked is that place in SF Chinatown?

    Thanks for reading!

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  3. I'm going to try to find it on on my lunch break too! Thanks for the review!

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  4. Got it! Sorry achilles girl. I found it at Sun Entertainment on Sacramento St. They may have another copy in their overstock. Of the stores in Chinatown, Sun has the best remaining selection, although they haven't discounted their Shaw titles as much as the other stores.

    I'll report back after I've watched it (hopefully tonight!).

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  5. My lunch break turf is Clement Street. They must like me because I get "the 20% discount" - after they raise the price by 25%! I'll check them this week. :)

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  6. LOL... what a deal! You only overpay by 5 percent. ;p

    There's a shop on Jackson St. above Grant that is selling Shaw DVDs at 3 for 20 bucks, but the pickings are pretty slim.

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  7. This was a good one which I watched primarily for Lily Ho. I like Danny Lee in stuff like this where it seems like he was actually a real actor and not the kind of almost exploitation actor he became later in the 1970s.

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  8. I got for Lily Ho, too, Glenn! Imagine my reaction when Danny Lee held his own with all the Shaw veterans! Too bad his talents got wasted the way they were in the later Shaws he did!

    This is one the best "blind buys" I've made all year! Glad to know you liked it, too!

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  9. I have this one but have yet to watch it. The director was picked up by Shaw's after his award winning movie FROM THE HIGHWAY made a splash. His first Shaw film REDBEARD is one I really want to see badly. There's a VHS bootleg out there somewhere. The costumes are extraordinary for this one. It looks nothing like the typical Asian film of the time. His THE FUGITIVE is also a must see. It's the best Eastern Western I've seen although Shaw's DOWNHILL THEY RIDE (1966; Huang Chung Shun as a good guy, too!) looks to be a lot of fun as well.

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  10. Hey Fang! I just finished watching this. I really liked the film's flavor and the boat and theater settings. The story was great, but I think the film could have benefited from an additonal 10-20 minutes of character building. The way that Lily dumped Danny was a little too much of an about face. And I felt that the betrayal by Ku Feng would have carried a little more emotional weight if there were a scene in the beginning showing him as a big brother figure. But I'm definitely interested in checking out the rest of Chang Tseng-chai's films, and thanks Venoms5 for the recommendation of The Fugitive, which I've long been curious about.

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  11. I see you're another satisfied customer, duriandave!

    Character development would've fleshed out the story, no question. We're only asked to take in the fact the three lead characters (Yezhuangzi, Yiqing and Duobo) have one thing in common, and that is bettering themselves through the pursuit of money, the three of them united by the river they go down by boat.

    Lily did jettison Danny harshly, but we know she did it under duress to please her pushy mother. The lady was a real "mutha" of a stage mother who favored her daughter more as a "meal ticket" than for her talents as an entertainer!

    I agree Ku Feng as an "older brother" to Danny wasn't elaborated on, only implied by the scenes they're in prior to the betrayal at the brothel.

    Maybe Duobo's relationship with Yezhuangzi's father should've been explained, too. Possibly, Duobo started smuggling opium when Yezhuangzi's father was still alive; their friendship could've broken up because of the illicit dealings going on, and father never told son the real reason why his friend didn't come to visit at the farm anymore. With no father around to steer him away from trouble, it's easy for Yezhaungzi to go look up the old "friend" of the family, not knowing what to expect.

    The book the movie was adapted from may be the only way to get the complete story, characterizations and all.

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