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.

15 comments:

  1. Thanks for the recommendation, Brother Fang! I just read three other reviews at HKMDB, and they all praise Shih Szu's performance. I'll look for it next time I go shopping. ;)

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  2. It's all good, duriandave! Hope you find a copy swiftly! :o)

    Another good one to look for is The Proud Youth (1978), a Sun Chung film; I got it yesterday, and it's another winner, albeit more serious than TTF! Shih Szu has a good supporting part in which she actually gets busy in an action sequence (think Lily Ho in The Water Margin)!

    I also got Song of Orchid Island (1965) with Cheng Pei-pei; quite good on its own terms! Lily Ho's part in this is an utterly thankless one any actress could've played, but that's countered by the gorgeous Pei-pei with her winning performance!

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  3. OK... I'll add Proud Youth to my list. I really wish there was a NetFlix for these Shaw films. As I'm sure you know, it can get costly sampling the more than 500 titles!

    Song of Orchid Island was pretty bizarre, but definitely worth sitting through to see a young sun-kissed Pei-pei.

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  4. I pick and choose through the available Shaws (and other imports) carefully; sale prices and in-stock availability are key points to my making purchases of these DVDs or BDs. (VCDs will never persuade me to get a player with which to play them!) It's why I got the Sun Chung movie!

    It was a surprise to see Shih Szu doing a physical scene of any kind in TPY, especially since I read somewhere she was supposedly restricted from doing stuff like that at Shaw after an on-set injury in '75!

    Thanks for reading the review, duriandave!

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  5. I first saw this on the Black Belt Feature back in the mid 80's. I remember a scene near the beginning where the Japanese kill all these villagers. Much of the scene was in B/W. I barely watched the HK DVD and can't recall if the scene is in B/W on the DVD, too.

    Chuan Yuan did a handful of dramas, too and also played a good guy in the surreal IMPERIAL SWORDSMAN from 1971, definitely one of the most unusual Shaw swordplay actioners.

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  6. Fang, I sometimes go with VCDs if it's a title I'm curious about but which hasn't got the best reviews. However, VCDs don't show off action to good effect. So, if it's a swordplay film, I always go DVD.

    Venoms5, you piqued my curiosity with your comment about Imperial Swordsman. And after seeing this lobby card at HKMDB, I definitely want to watch it.

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  7. venoms5, The opening on both DVDs is in color; only two minor flashbacks are b&w.

    How were violent scenes often altered on BBF? HOW did "the ENDING" of TTF get aired, if at all?

    I'm definitely making it a point to look for Imperial Swordsman! Thanks for the tip!

    duriandave, any ideas on how long the VCD format may stick around? Any truth to the rumor they initially wanted to call them "8-Track DVDs"? :o)

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  8. VCDs are still pretty popular in Asia because they are so cheap. But perhaps once BluRay takes off, they will disappear as DVD becomes the new "8-track". But by that time, we'll all just be streaming and downloading any way!

    FYI, you can play VCDs on your computer with QuickTime and other players. And there are a few Shaw titles that were inexplicably released only on VCD, such as the amazing Temptress of a Thousand Faces.

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  9. Interesting to contemplate DVDs going the way of 8-Track tapes, duriandave! It's possible they'll have that sort of lingering endurance vinyl records have now! Otherwise, I agree all of us will be downloading or streaming movies and music someday!

    It's inevitable I'll be checking into VCDs at some point; I'd be lying if I said otherwise! I know achillesgirl (among others) gets a lot out of their affordability, and if I have to buy something to play them, it won't cost too much!

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  10. I don't remember. At the time, I didn't like the movie and don't think too much of it now. That one scene near the beginning is all I remembered of it from the film at the time. The movies cuts varied from one film to the next. On channel 48, that quick shot of the kunoichi's breasts from 5 ELEMENT NINJAS was left in, but on USA Network, it was cut out.

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  11. Hey Fang, are you sure you're DVD player won't play them? You must already be using a region-free player. And I can't imagine one that doesn't also play VCDs.

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  12. @ duriandave--
    My JVC "region-free" DVD/BD player falls short of playing VCDs, which I recall from the product description when I saw it on Amazon.

    @ venoms5--
    What was it like seeing those breasts on channel 48? ;o)

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  13. haha, it was a bit shocking. Not sure how that slipped through. I've seen that film well over two dozen times since. I had seen several Shaw movies at the drive in, but 5 ELEMENT NINJAS stood out and made a point to watch it every time it was on tv despite having recorded it from the channel. That tape is long gone now. Channel 48 was a truly great channel for cult film lovers.

    Anyway, those early days of Black Belt Feature (which later turned into Martial Arts Theater, then Kung Fu Theater) when I remember watching it, they showed mostly the basher type movies with the CC shaolin movies and stuff like HEROIC ONES (under the title of SHAOLIN MASTERS!) and SEVEN SOLDIERS OF KUNG FU (ALL MEN ARE BROTHERS), the latter of which was butchered all to hell with all the death scenes (the ones shown anyway) in B/W. Later on, the venom stuff was shown more than anything else. At least once a week you'd see DESTROYERS or KILLER ARMY, or MASKED AVENGERS. They also showed other 80's Shaw movies. The earlier 70's stuff got shoved to the wayside.

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  14. If somebody from an American film or TV production company gave the Venoms a lucrative contract (when their movies were hot on TV), what could've we gotten?

    SCENARIO ONE: In the variety show The Five Deadly Venoms and Jeff, comedian Jeff Altman would be dead within the first minute! SPECIAL GUEST STAR: Foster Brooks! :o)

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  15. The possibilities are/were endless!

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