Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Thunderbolt Fist (1972), starring Shih Szu, Chuan Yuan and Nan Kung-hsun. Directed by Chang Yi-hu.

(All images courtesy Celestial Pictures.)
OFFBEAT casting, a plot with a measure of actual details and one of the more unusual endings found in any martial arts movie lifts The Thunderbolt Fist a notch above the "usual" Shaw Brothers product. Make no mistake, this is as derivative as these flicks can get, but most of the good films in any given genre are not innovators. (This picture owes its existence mainly to earlier Shaws like One-Armed Swordsman, The Chinese Boxer and King Boxer.)

Considering the initial reason I got this DVD was only because one of the background players was Fu Sheng (briefly visible in two scenes), I give credit to the star turn of Shih Szu for making me come back for repeated visits. Though her part is in a supporting capacity, she has top billing; it's her picture to steal, and she does it well.

Brother Fang reminds you Shih Szu is HOT!

A sizeable band of Japanese ronin invade a town in northeastern China, terrorizing the citizens into submission and siezing control over the local ginseng trade; people can sell it only to the Japanese. When a group of farmers led by Gin Chi (Gam Kei Chu) resist this, they rough it up with some of the ronin, killing one. With the elders of the town (including the mayor) afraid to take any action against the Japanese, Gin and his friends make their escape to the mountains, vowing to take care of the ronin themselves after a period of extensive training.

The ronin are so itching to show their superiority to the Chinese, they've even built a fighting ring in the town upon which they intend to make spectacles of the "sick men of Asia". Before leaving, Gin Chi suggests if Ping Bai (Feng Mien) of the Jinxian School of martial arts defeats the ronin leader, Gu Lan (Chan Feng Chen), in the ring, they may get rid of the Japanese for good. Gu himself delivers this challenge to Ping, and they eventually have at it; despite some injury to himself, Ping defeats Gu, killing him.

Chan Feng Chen and Feng Mien.

The ronin go after Ping, killing him in retalation; Ping's friend, Old Wang (Wong Ching Ho), flees with Ping's son, Tie Wa, to the mountains where Gin Chi is hiding out. In their haste, they leave behind Ping's manual on the "Thunderbolt Fist" technique in the care of Tie's childhood sweetheart, Feng Niou.

Shih Szu and Chuan Yuan.

Ten years later, the kung fu of the older Tie Wa (Chuan Yuan) is pretty good, thanks to his being trained by Gin and his daughter, Die Er (Shih Szu), but it's now time for Tie to retrieve the manual, the book that holds the key to getting the ronin out of their lives. He departs for town to find Feng Niou (Wong Chin Feng) and guage how tough the ronin forces are.

Wong Chin Feng and Chuan Yuan.

Tie finds out Feng has married his old friend Da Xiong (Tung Lin), who rescued her from the clutches of Gu Gang (Nan Kung-hsun), the son of Gu Lan who now leads the ronin. (By catching a glimpse of him in action, Tie knows Gu's martial arts skills are even better than that of his father's.) Gu Gang, having dealt with Tie and Da when they were all younger, knows these two working together will bring him unwanted hassles; he has innuendo spread around town that Tie has been fooling around with Feng. Soon enough, Da tries to mix it up with Tie over the misunderstanding, but Feng intervenes, telling them it's a ploy by the Japanese to turn them against each other. A battered Tie wisely retreats, taking the manual with him.

Having barely started to learn the Thunderbolt Fist, Tie impulsively sets off to town again to deal with Gu, staying under wraps at the closed-up Jinxian school. Against Tie's wishes, Die Er sneaks off after him, arriving to see firsthand how the townspeople are getting shaken down by the ronin, including having to pay protection money. Figuring out where Gu resides, she sneaks in at night, steals a large quantity of currency from his vault, and redistributes it to the people who need it more.

Upon discovery of the theft, the ronin think Tie is the one responsible for it, and Gu sends off a challenge to Tie to meet him at the ring for a duel. Da Xioung intercepts the note, and having realized his misjudgement in accusing Tie of adultery, goes to fight Gu in his place in hopes of making up for his mistake. Gu fatally wounds Da, and he's left to slowly die.

Wong Chin Feng and Nan Kung-hsun.

Once Gu discovers where Tie's been hiding in town, he goes off with some men after him. Tie has yet to be a match for Gu, and he gets captured, as is Feng not long after her husband passes on. Tie is tortured by the ronin, the worst of it being a disabling of his right arm while a horrified Feng watches on. Only her agreement to submit herself to Gu's sexual appetite saves Tie from death, and he gets released. After Tie is gone into the night, Feng commits suicide before Gu can lay a hand on her.

As Tie recovers back at the mountain hideaway, he hears of Feng's ultimate sacrifice, reinforcing his determination to resume learning from the manual, despite his recent handicap. With one good arm and two legs, it's not long before he masters the technique, and he and all the other Chinese patriots finally ride into town, ready to take on the Japanese. Many ronin get slaughtered in a long, bloody struggle, and Tie manages well against Gu, much to Gu's amazement. He brings the battle to an abrupt stop, saying he and Tie should finish the fight the next day in the fighting ring; Tie agrees.

Gu uses one last dirty ploy to better his odds; he has a man try to slash one of Tie's legs hours before the bout. Even that's not enough to deter Tie, and come the morning, he goes to face off with Gu, hoping to bring an end to the ronin's hold over the town by bringing down their leader in the same ring where his father stopped Gu's father years ago....

After that...NO "SPOILERS"!

A cut scene from The Thunderbolt Fist.
(Nan King-hsun and Gan Kei Chu.)

As the story goes, scriptwriter Li Cho Chien throws in some specifics not always found in "revenge" pictures. Tie Wa, Feng Niou, Da Xiong and Gu Gang knew each other in childhood, as illustrated by the opening scenes and a flashback; their interactions with each other have a payoff (most of them not nice), which helps us to empathize with the good guys. (This extends to Tie Wa's initial training with Die Er, though the fact the girl playing a younger version of Shih Szu doesn't have the closest resemblance to her is a slight fault.) The rest of the "Chinese versus Japanese" storyline goes into Fist of Fury territory, but along with an air of Chinese patriotism, the final confrontation with the ronin is more believable as the hopes of all the Chinese doesn't rest on one person's shoulders.

This was South Korean director Chang Yi-hu's first film for Shaw; circumstantial evidence suggests he may have had some sort of assistance from Jeong Chang Hwa, director of King Boxer. Yi-hu could've been facing a language barrier (surrounded by people who spoke only Mandarin) during the making of TTF, so a fellow South Korean (who dealt with same when he started at Shaw) was brought in to help out! This could explain why more than a few personnel from both sides of the camera in KB are also found in TTF. Compare the credits to both movies at Hong Kong Cinemagic, then watch them both back to back (look at KB first), and you may see what Brother Fang does.

Chuan Yuan, best known for his role as the main heavy in the Chang Cheh movie The Duel, is effectively cast against type as Tie Wa. Some think he looks a lot older than Shih Szu; his facial hair and some of the lighting seems to emphasize this, but the chemistry he and Shih Szu have between one another more than compensates for any inconsistency. He does well in fighting, using two arms or one; he even gets a few unexpected, funny moments in a action scene (in fact, the light tone pops up in other fights) I never anticipated. He's an underrated actor who should've done more movies.

Nan Kung-hsun (who lost his eyeballs in KB) simply oozes nastiness as Gu Gang; he's as ruthless in his fighting as he is in under-handed tactics! As playing it in a one-dimensional sense goes, he's so deserving of having any of his blood spilt!

I do not exaggerate when I say Shih Szu enhances every moment she's on the screen. (No bias here, really; it's the first action role of hers I saw which sold me on this talented woman.) Her part is more lighter in nature than her turn in The Young Avenger, and she handles the martial arts (choreographed by Leung Siu Chung) with the same ease she brings to using swords. By comparison, she's no Angela Mao, but her performance is cute, dramatic and energetic when it needs to be. This is a necessary purchase for all Shih Szu fans, no arguments about it!

The remainder of the cast is just as good, with Fang Mien, Tung Lin and Gan Kei Chu (with a silly wig that makes him look like Rob Reiner as Mike Stivic, the "Meathead") notable standouts. In addition to Fu Sheng, look for cameos by Sammo Hung, Ricky Hui and Bruce Lee's pal Unicorn Chan.

This movie is available on DVD in two versions. The IVL disc is notable for having only the original Mandarin soundtrack as an audio option, plus within the stills gallery is a photo (see above) of a sequence left out of the final edit. (It must take place prior to the last meeting of Tie Wa and Gu Gang, based on what Nan Kung-hsun is wearing.) The anamorphic picture on the Image disc is not as sharp as it is on the IVL, but the US release does have the English dub, which is delirious fun. Whatever version you prefer to get, you will be entertained!

Nothing overly deep here, just pure, non-PC fun.

And that ENDING!

Recommended by Brother Fang!

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.

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

Today would've been his 56th birthday....

Alexander Fu Sheng (1954-1983)
(Thanks for the image, Marla.) 

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Get Ready to Forget the "Match Game" Star! #1: Trish Stewart

FOR you who re-member watching those celebrity-loaded TV game shows of the '70s-'80s, how the producers of these programs de-fined "celebrity" ran contrary to your definition. These shows could only get people of the "B" list, "also-ran", "washed up", "up and coming" or "flash in the pan" variety.

Add to that list the category of actors most alien to little kids: somebody from a soap opera! They were what only your mother watched (or taped to watch later when VCRs became common-place); they were what sent a kid outside to play until the cartoons came on later in the day, if school wasn't an issue.

Imagine what my response was when I decided to try out my DVR by recording some episodes of the kitsch classic Match Game '75, and I saw... her. My first reaction was, "Wow! Something even better than Charles Nelson Reilly's wisecracks!" This lady's lovely by today's standards; these pictures don't lie.

She is Trish Stewart, and at the time, she was one of the original cast members of the CBS soap The Young and the Restless (1973-present). I recall my mother watching this when it premiered (or not long after) due to the main title "Nadia's Theme", which later became a hit in '76 (#8 on Billboard).

I remember first hearing the music used as an underscore cue in Stanley Kramer's '71 movie Bless the Beasts and Children, which re-ran on TV quite a few times prior to the debut of TYatR. (The Barry De Vorzon and Perry Botkin, Jr. com-position was initially called "Cotton's Theme".)

This would later be retitled "Nadia's Theme" when ABC (the network airing the '76 summer Olympics in Montreal) lent the music to Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci for use in competition. She never used it for a routine, but she still won gold medals. The instrumental went on to win a Grammy in '77.

Back to Trish; if you click on her IMDb link, you'll see the other TV programs she appeared on during her time in the spotlight. I don't remember seeing her in some of these shows, but in light of her Match Game appearance (one of many she did), I sure wouldn't mind seeing more of her, she left such an impression.

Easily, she's the most natural and least pretentious of the six panelists on in the week's run of shows (five) I saw, more pleasant than regulars Brett Somers, Richard Dawson, Gary Burghoff or host Gene Rayburn, who tended to get on my nerves if I watched MG too much. (CNR was not on that week.)

She reminded me of the younger Candice Bergen who had appeared on the first season of Saturday Night Live ('75) by how she dressed sharply (by '70s standards), her shoulder-length hair (though Bergen's a brunette) and how the men on the show noticably treated her like a lady.

As I take the time to think of popular stars who started on soap operas and went on to bigger and better things, I then think about the vivacious woman I saw on MG and wonder what was wrong with her that she couldn't move beyond TYatR (which she left in '84). Was it because of her being on MG? Of course not.

There's a difference between good actors and big stars. Good actors are "a dime a dozen", and big stars are "one in a million". Sometimes, it's hard to believe some performer who appears to come off like a million bucks is actually worth ten cents to the entertainment industry. In that sense, Trish is, herself, "one in a million" amongst dozens of people. In the final analysis, as long as reruns of her shows play on TV (or DVD), she won't be truly be forgotten...compared to an Avery Schreiber.

I think I'll hold on to these DVR recordings for a while.

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Men From the Monastery (1974), starring Fu Sheng, Chi Kuan-chi and Chen Kuan-tai. Directed by Chang Cheh.

DIRECTOR Chang Cheh must have had some regrets about making Men From the Monastery; why else would he rework such substantial pieces of it into The Shaolin Avengers and Shaolin Temple (both 1976)?

Of all Cheh's eight films in his "Shaolin cycle", MFtM is the one most devalued, if most of all of the written critiques I've read about it is any indication. I feel this may be an excessive judgement. If this can be considered a lesser Cheh effort, it's one that's more entertaining than the flawed attempts at experimentation like The Fantastic Magic Baby (1975) or Heaven and Hell (1978). It also includes the full-fledged debut of a Shaw favorite; more on him in a little bit.

The story is divided into four chapters, the first one featuring Fang Shih-yu (Fu Sheng). Fang attempts to leave the Shaolin Temple, and after clearing the wooden men alley, one of the two brothers on guard, Chen Si Di (Tung Choi Bo), tries to stab Fang before he departs. The other brother on duty takes the knife for Fang, allowing him to escape. Chen tells fellow Qing loyalist Feng Dao De (Lo Dik) of his failure to stop him, and they both go to Zhi Shan, the abbot, to try pinning the murder on Fang. The abbot doesn't believe them for a minute, so on advice from their fellow Shaolin traitor, Brother White Brow, they decide to return to the Wu Dang Martial Arts School and deal with Fang later, White Brow plotting to take care of the abbot another day.

Fang goes to a nearby town to look up an old friend, He Da Yong; from him, Fang learns his old Qing nemesis, Lei Lao Hu, has been practicing pile formation (pole) fighting while he was away at the temple; he's killed two people already. Fang's pal offers to help him with the basics of the formation, but he's murdered by Lei's men the next day as he chops down a tree for a pole. Fang retaliates; he slays Lei's men and quickly hunts down Lei himself, who's waiting for him atop his own pole formation (with sharp bamboo spikes along the ground below, ready for those unfortunate to fall and be impaled on them). Despite a lack of experience on the poles, Fang triumphs over Lei with what he learned from Shaolin.

The second chapter spotlights Hu Hui-chien (Chi Kuan-chi). In Guangzhou, two outlaw Qing symphathizers (instructors from the Jing Lung Martial Arts School) kill Hu's father (Wu Chih-ching), and he wants revenge. His determination is better than his martial arts skills, and he endures their repeated trouncings, even a near drowning where he gets rescued by his girlfriend, Li Cui Ping. Fang intervenes during another ill-advised fight, and he suggests to Hu some time at the Shaolin Temple will help him to defeat them.

Three years later, Hu leaves the temple, and with minor assistance from Fang, he turns the tables on his tormentors, wrecking the Jing Lung school and beating up the troublesome instructors. In a final move to make an example out of the two, he brings them back to the school in front of the students still around, stating these murdering thugs are from the Wu Dang school and are allied with Feng Dao De. The school can still operate, but if they ever cause trouble like their instructors, he'll beat them up, too. As the two suddenly jump up for another attack, he swiftly kills them, their death bringing home to all who witness it the earnestness of Hu's message.

The third chapter focuses on Hung Tsi-kwan (Chen Kuan-tai). After Hung manages to slip out of a brothel before a band of Qing soldiers led by Lei Da Pang (Wang Ching) can catch him, he goes off to convene a meeting of Shaolin disciples where he tells all in attendance that they must look for more men who oppose the Qing.

Prior to the meeting, he met up with two disciples on the road (one of them played by Bruce Tong), who were soon discovered to have been tailed by Lei and his men. Hung and the small group of Shaolin men got every Qing but Lei, who fled the scene when the going got tough.

Presently, Lei reports what occurred to his superior, Gao Jin Zhong (Kong Do). Angered, Gao gives the order to burn down the Shaolin Temple and to begin hunting down and exterminating the fugitives.

The final chapter (titled Men From the Monastery) wraps things all up. After the temple is burned down, and the abbot is killed by White Brow, the assembled Shaolin disciples split up to keep ahead of the Qing. An attempt to hole up on a Chinese Opera troupe's boat is foiled by Lei and his men. Li escapes, and two of the Qing, posing as rebels, go with her to find Hung and the others, one of the men leaving trail markers for the other Qing to follow. Li is on to their ruse; she leads them to the Shaolin men, but they are killed before they have a chance to report back to Gao and Lei.

The Qing lose track of the disciples until Chen Si Di spies two of them transporting sacks of rice to an abandoned temple where Hung and the others are hiding out. Upon hearing this news, Gao and Lei mobilize their men and go to eradicate the Shaolin rebels. As for Feng Dao De, he's along to take out only one of them: Fang Shih-yu....

After that...NO "SPOILERS"!

I have no trouble with the general story as structured by Cheh and writer Ni Kuang; the plot is slightly overrun by the action, but not to extremes. The lack of characterization doesn't hurt here because the pace is fast enough you never get the chance to dwell on it. For continuity buffs, however, the thread of familiarity connecting MFtM to Heroes Two will drive some nuts. Cast members, standing sets and outdoor locations used in HT that show up here again are not always redressed well, though some of the returning actors actually get (arguably) better parts in this! For anyone used to the conventions of low-budgeted movies, all of this just adds to the enjoyment factor, including good photography and well-selected music cues.

The main sticking point to many is the contribution Lau Kar Leung (with Tong Gaai) brings to the fight choreography. While it's not lacking in action, it is missing a lot of the moves of the "Hung Fist" style. What got spotlighted in HT got over-looked here. It's an apparent oversight (caught after the fact) that did not happen again in the other sequels. Even so, "heroic bloodshed" is in abundance and doesn't disappoint; cuts to black & white film and red tints are part of the film's bloody climax.

While Chen Kuan-tai returns as Hung, his prescence in the story is reduced (the bulk of it carried by Fu Sheng and Chi Kuan-chi), which disappointed me some, but he does have his moments here. (Executioners from Shaolin would let him encore Hung a final time in a more memorable way.) Fu Sheng continues to shine as Fang, and his pole-fighting sequence is a well-edited highlight; there's more tension felt with the close and low shots than what the re-staging had in The Shaolin Avengers. Chi Kuan-chi manages to make a good impression in his first big part as Hu, even if it's somewhat laughable (and implausible) to see this muscular fighting machine get his butt handed to him earlier in his segment! Once he's in the temple, he becomes that more familiar, upstoppable "force of nature" with dazzling moves. He doesn't get to show much dramatic range here, but he plays his part capably.

The rest of the supporting cast are comparably good. Among the heavies, even though Kong Do's role is of the highest-ranking Qing, no one actor dominates overall. All of them have limited screen time, so the villainy is rather diluted; Lo Dik as Feng caught my attention out of all of them. I wish I knew the names of the ladies who played Li (Hu's girlfriend) and Hung Ying (the woman Hung was with at the brothel); they both had plum parts here where they weren't submissive victims. (If anyone does know who they are, drop a note here in a comment!)

The rudimentary nice assemblage of the IVL DVD is given a boost in the "extras" department with the original trailer included. The main presentation has a very good anamorphic picture and clear, strong mono audio (Mandarin language); unless Tokyo Shock considers making it a future release, this is as good as the movie's gonna get.

MFtM is not a bad film; it just presses the limits of its modest budget and limited production schedule by cramming so much into an hour and a half. That this "rush job" would spur Cheh on to revisit the material (by spreading it out over two movies) makes sense. Still, MFtM succeeds through the majority of its parts (if not as a whole), and there's a mess of them, so that's the cinematic equilvalent of a high batting average. To take the baseball analogy further, it's not so much a "grand slam" as it is a hit that gets you to third base, and that's not bad at all!

More for fans of Fu Sheng and Chi Kuan-chi than for you Chen Kuan-tai lovers! Otherwise, complete your "Shaolin cycle" collection with this! Recommended by Brother Fang!

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.

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