Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Young Avenger (1972), starring Shih Szu, Yueh Hua and Fan Mei Sheng. Directed by Yueh Fung.

HOWEVER long she's on the screen in a Shaw Brothers movie, I get a lot out of a performance from Shih Szu. Even though she was brought in as a replacement for Cheng Pei-pei, we know she ultimately turned out to be her own person. Her striking beauty was equally as impressive as her dramatic range and her physical capabilities with swords or martial arts. Only a injury that occurred while on the set in the mid-'70s would take her from action parts (she was "deemed a safety hazard", according to the Shaw Brothers Reloaded site) to the standard "leading lady/victim" ones. By 1980, she'd be gone from Shaw; it was their loss.

Let's revisit her earlier times with her role as the title character in The Young Avenger. It's a typical "Shih Szu: Phase One" film, and that's a good thing.

After an exciting fight (during the opening titles) introduces us to Bao Zhu (a.k.a. "The Young Avenger", a renowned hero/assassin in the martial arts world), we go back ten years to Wan Sang Town, where the hunch-backed Liu Tou (the "Judge"), one of the three outlaw brothers known as the "Heroes of Qin Town" (Fan Mei Sheng, The Kiss of Death), arrives looking for Li Kui ("The Old Chief"), one of four brothers known as the "Heroes of Jiangnan" (Tung Lin, King Boxer). Twenty years prior, Liu's brother was killed by Li (he says it was accidental) with his mighty Dragonsword, and he now wants Li to pass on to him how to use the sword as a way to make up for the death.

Li says It's been so many years since he's used his sword, he he can't even recall the technique, so he must decline the request to a simmering Liu. Hours later, Liu shows up at Li's house, finding the old man practicing with the Dragonsword; even so, Li claims (smooth as his moves are) he still doesn't know everything! A skirmish breaks out; Li's victorious, but Liu gets in an Iron Palm "sucker punch" before leaving, saying there'll be a rematch in ten years at the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Seconds after Liu's gone, it turns out the Iron Palm dealt a fatal wound to Li. On his deathbed, the sifu tells his student, Er Hu Zi (Ng Ming Tsui, The Blade Spares None) to take his young daughter, Bao, to her fourth uncle (known as "The Mad Monk", but these days, he's just a monk) at Dai Bei Temple to learn the Dragonsword technique so she may avenge his death.

Li's sister (Chen Yen Yen, Dead End), there to watch over him with her son, Chen Shi Lun, protests the idea, and considering how her boy would rather learn martial arts than study, it's easy to see why she feels this way. However, Bao wants to go, too, so the decision's final; she leaves the next day, cousin Chen giving her a small, porcelain Bhudda as a going-away gift before she's gone. When Li's third brother ("The Bookworm") arrives to mourn, he hears of Chen's learning issues and offers to help him out, including teaching him the Iron Fan Technique (with an actual iron fan that has deadly sharp tips).

Then, we return to the present day, where the now-adult, fully-trained Bao is walking the long journey back home. Despite being a paid assassin and ocassional bounty hunter, she leads a beggar's existence. After some battles along the way, she arrives back at Wan Sang Town. She goes to an inn to eat, but the workers do not want to serve this scruffy person, certainly not one who dares to sit at a table reserved for the inn's owner. When she flashes money, in addition to a tough attitude, they leave her be.

To her surprise, the owner is her grown-up cousin Chen (Yueh Hua, Come Drink with Me). She manages to catch his attention by throwing the little Bhudda she has saved for all those years at him; his reflexes are quick, and he catches it with his iron fan. He immediately knows who she is, and he knows why she's come back; after all, the Mid-Autumn Festival is only days away. After an emotional reunion with him and her aunt, she settles in her father's old residence and awaits Liu's return.

Ahead of his arrival, Liu has sent forces to surround the town. A spy (Liu's brother) is sent in to see if Bao is there. She sees him, and Chen quickly captures him. Along with Er Hu Zi, the two find out who he is and what's going on. Chen tries to let him go to give Liu's men the message that Bao is in town, but the vengeance-fueled lady slays him before he has a chance to leave.

Her actions aggravate an already bad situation; in retaliation, an innocent farmer is taken down with an arrow courtesy of Liu's men. Despite this, the citizens haven't forgotten how Bao's father helped them in the past, so they prepare for the advancing enemy, with Bao's fight now their fight, too.

So it goes that Liu's sneak attack on Wan Sang back fires, Chen and the townspeople taking out most of those men before Liu finally arrives. He's a little grayer, but still just as nasty; he's ready to take on the daughter of Li Kiu....

NO "SPOILERS" from here on!

Oh, that face! Shih Szu.

The most interesting observation to be made about TYA is regarding the nature of Bao Zhu. From the script by writers Ko Jui Fen and Hu Pao, we know she was sent off to learn how to use the Dragonsword in order to take revenge on Liu Tou, but at some point on her way back home, she decided to use her skills for reasons other than self defense. In the opening, she's been hired to kill the Tung brothers. Later on, she gets help from two inept robbers in liquidating men from a local triad a nearby town has a bounty on (so much money per member), letting her helpers keep the bulk of the reward. While the people we do see her eliminate are a rotten lot, there is an implication some of her victims didn't need to be killed, and she may have even gotten a little bloodthirsty at some point.

This may explain her emotional state when she's at the inn. Cousin Chen and the others have only heard so much about the scum she's taken out; her killings apparently went beyond those done in the name of "The Young Avenger", and she feels shame. Combined with the homecoming, thoughts of the impending fight with Liu, and all the blood spilt, she finally breaks down and cries. In the end, "The Young Avenger" is all too human. (Shih Szu's performance here, along with the music cues used, really caught me at this moment, giving me a slight lump in my throat. Her acting is the punctuation mark that gives her character the dimensions she has.)

Don't call Yueh Hua a "fan dancer"!

Beyond this variation in the almighty "REVENGE" theme, the script is fairly conventional. Director Yueh Fung (The Bells of Death) keeps things moving quickly and efficiently so other plot points never given any elaboration on are bypassed in order to get to the action. (Another thing to ponder: Are cousins Bao and Chen sweethearts?) If seconds or minutes have been trimmed from this, it's hard to tell where, so credit the unidentified film editor with doing a solid job.

The cinematography by Kwang Han Lu (One-Armed Swordsman, The Assassin) is impeccable; he helps set the proper mood for the picture whether in studio or outdoor locations. (He certainly catches Shih Szu's face in flattering ways; she's as lovely dirty as she is cleaned up!) The fight choreography by Hsu Er Niu is never dull; he makes Shih Szu and Yueh Hua look good with a sword and the iron fan, respectively, and uses wirework sparingly for certain jumps. A lot of the music cues were new to my ears; wherever these came from, they add a lot to the tone of the film.

The cast isn't a huge one, which helps to keep the story on the small scale it's meant to be. Fan Mei Sheng does well as the main heavy, though his abscence in-between the beginning and the end seems too long. Top-billed Yueh Hua is just playing a supporting role like he did many times for Cheng Pei-pei, but he gives his usual above-average performance. He also gets a cool weapon in the iron fan; too bad he didn't get to use it more. (It can be thrown like a boomerang, reminding me some of the "flying guillotines" found in other "old school" martial arts movies.) Along with Chen Yen Yen, Ng Ming Tsui, Tang Ti and other faces familiar to regular viewers of Shaw movies, the remainder of players lend capable support.

The whole of the film rests on Shih Szu's shoulders, and she handles it with the stamina of Atlas. She does her fight scenes with her own kind of grace and intensity; it's in those moments when she shows her vulnerable side that she stands out over the likes of Pei-pei, Lily Ho and even Li Ching. She's not dressed up here like in one of her later roles (such as The Deadly Breaking Sword), but her physical prescence is still commanding. Attractive as she is from the neck down, it's her expressive face that draws the most attention, especially those hypnotic eyes. She mesmerized me every moment she was around.

Flaws in the story aside, TYA is a compelling blend of action and drama with an ending most people won't see coming! (I still have mixed feelings about it. Anyone who has seen this already knows what I mean.) The unexpected level of subtext found in the character of Bao Zhu is most welcome, and it will bring you back for additional viewings.

As is to be expected, the IVL DVD is a nice presentation, from the anamorphic picture to the Mandarin soundtrack and adequate English subs. Great as this movie is, you won't care that it lacks real "special features"!

Simply put, with Shih Szu in a Shaw movie, you can't go wrong! Recommended by Brother Fang!

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.

P.S. - Purchase it from Play-Asia by clicking on here.

16 comments:

  1. This sounds like a must see. I'll look for the DVD in HK next time.

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  2. Pick up all the Shih Szu DVDs in HK you can, I say!

    The story in TYA is much better than the one for Heroes of Sung, guaranteed!

    I will add if Celestial does any Shih Szu movies in 3D, I'M THERE!

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  3. I was really impressed by Shih Szu in The Young Avenger. Your review makes me want to watch it again!

    Which of her other films would you recommend? I've only seen this one, The Crimson Charm, and The Lady Hermit.

    BTW, her character's name Bao Zhu is a nod to Connie Chan (Chan Po Chu / Chen Bao Zhu), who was the Cantonese queen (or king, if you will, since she often played male characters) of swordplay films.

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  4. Thanks for your feedback, duriandave! It's appreciated!

    My library ofShih Szu movies is limited, too, but of what I've gotten so far, there are enough worth recommending.

    She's great in [the first story of] Trilogy of Swordsmanship, The Thunderbolt Fist, The Shadow Boxer and (as Glenn has said) her fighting is the highlight of Heroes of Sung! For non-fighting parts, The Deadly Breaking Sword is a great Sun Chung film; here, she is breathtakingly gorgeous as a courtesan, and her acting is just as marvelous!

    I plan to order more of her movies in the coming weeks!

    How is she in The Crimson Charm?

    GREAT factoid about the Connie Chan connection! Considering her last film (for Shaw), The Lizard came out later in '72, this is obviously an "in-joke" reference! Thanks for bringing that bit of trivia to the Trivia Wing!

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  5. Thanks for the recommendations, Fang!

    It's been a while since I saw The Crimson Charm, but if I remember correctly, Shih Szu get's killed off half-way through. The film is most a show case for Ivy Ling Po, who plays a one-armed swordsman, and Chang Yi. It's not a great film, but enjoyable. There are lots of odd jianghu characters -- which I always like -- including a pancake-faced Ku Feng dressed in a leopard-skin jacket.

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  6. Wow! How did Ivy Ling Po manage using one arm? Better than Jimmy Wang Yu or David Chiang?

    So Shih Szu does no fighting in this, then? I'll still look around for this, though it appears it's "out-of-print"!

    Thanks for the info!

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  7. Sounds great. I have never seen her in anything, and now I want to!

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  8. Wherever you usually pick up your Shaw movies, achillesgirl, hopefully you'll find a lot of Shih Szu to choose from, including those I told duriandave about!

    Funimation will release her movie with Cheng Pei-pei (The Lady Hermit) in February, so I know you'll review that for Hong Kong Cinemagic!

    Also check out the "RARE" Massacre Survivor (available on the FLK site) and the Shaw The Bloody Escape! She's a "damsel in distress" in the latter one, but it includes Chen Kuan Tai with a great part in an early Sun Chung film!

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  9. Ling Po performed just as well, sans one arm, as Wang Yu and David Chiang. But I don't think recall any extensive retraining scenes à la OAS. She had a lot of qi power. So, the missing arm was more of a cool character novelty than a traumatic and integral plot event.

    As for Shih Szu, she does have some fight scenes but doesn't get to cut loose the way she does in YA.

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  10. Again, I hope I find a copy of The Crimson Charm someday! It sounds good!

    Have you seen that Shaw Brothers Reloaded site? I found there a biography of Shih Szu that has more up-to-date information than the profile from Celestial Pictures! What a great discovery!

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  11. I remember very little from THE YOUNG AVENGER. I will surely watch it again, but I recall it made little impression on me just as LADY OF THE LAW did, also with Shi Szu. She's good in THE BLACK TAVERN, the pseudo sequel to LADY HERMIT. She's not really in the movie till late, but until then, you got tons of gore, cannibalism, Ku Feng in one of, if not his most intimidating role and one of the most gruesome finales ever conceived.

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  12. Shih Szu is the best part of TYA, so it's definitely worth another look, venoms5! The opening fight during the main titles is cool, nicely edited with some music that must have been lifted from "blaxploitation" movies!

    As it is, one of my latest IVL buys is Lady of the Law! At the moment, I'm side-tracked by watching the Blu-ray set of The Prisoner TV show, so I'll look at it right after!

    I await the Funimation release of The Lady Hermit, while The Black Tavern will be harder to acquire as it's out-of-print!

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  13. I highly recommend THE BLACK TAVERN if you like your Shaw's on the spectacularly gory side. I'll be on the look out for the disc, Fang.

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  14. If you can locate a copy of The Black Tavern for me, venoms5, I'll pay you good money for it, guaranteed! You're bound to have better luck at finding one than I! :o)

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  15. I sent you a message at KFC regarding BLACK TAVERN, Fang.

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  16. Message received, venoms5!

    Thank you! I'm looking into it! :o)

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