Friday, December 24, 2010

And now, a special word from Jim Perry on the set of Card Sharks (1978)....

"WELL, that is all the time we have for now.

"Julie and Philip, I hope you will come back with us next time and finish the match. You're a couple of of delightful people. I must say one of, one of the joys of doing this show is meeting nice people like you!

"Hope you're having a very pleasant holiday season! Be very careful; have a most pleasant holiday all the way through, okay?

"Thank you for joining us; now, we'll see you next time on Card Sharks!

"'Bye, 'bye!"

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.

(P.S. - Merry Christmas to all readers of the blog, regular followers or otherwise! Thanks for your support!)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Lady of the Law (1975), starring Shih Szu, Lo Lieh and Chang Pei-shan. Directed by Shen Chiang and Hsiao Yung.

Behind the scenes with Shih Szu.

DID an incident occur during the making of this film, prompting those at Shaw Brothers to bar their wuxia star Shih Szu from doing any more action-oriented leads not long after? It's a question yet to be answered satisfactorily in my mind.

The fansite Shaw Brothers Reloaded relates that sometime during '73-'74, "she heavily injured her right arm during a movie shoot", resulting in her being restricted "to play 'damsel-in-distress' roles only." Lady of the Law was put out in '75, but it's possible it was completed in '74 and its release temporarily delayed; this happened with Shaw pictures once in a while, so this fits into SBR's scenario. However, once I saw her in The Proud Youth, a '78 "sleeper" from Sun Chung, she was back doing a physical part, albeit a limited one in contrast to years past; based on this, any imposed ban wasn't a permanent one.

Regardless of how it came about, the notion is Szu was not happy with being treated like fragile china, as a result. Partly on advice from Ti Lung, she would find action on some independent productions (like the '79 Massacre Survivor) until her Shaw contract expired in '80; from there, she did TV work in Taiwan until she left the entertainment industry in '87. Considering how Fu Sheng's Shaw career got mucked up with his "Black September" on-set accidents, Szu was wise to get out while she was still in one piece. This fact alone makes Brother Fang relish all her movies now out on DVD that much more, including LotL, her "swansong" to Shaw wuxia films.

Aside from an interesting detour, the story is involved but fairly straightforward. Jiao Yaner (Lo Lieh) is out to avenge the death of his father, the chief of Yungtong Escorts after Chief Chen (Yang Chi-ching) of rival Wacheng Escorts had him killed in an elaborate scheme to become the main escort service (the ancestor to armored bank trucks) in the region, Chen skimming the coffers often while maintaining the facade of being an upright citizen. The younger Yaner only escaped death at the hands of Chen thanks to the intervention of sifu Madam White Brows (Ou-Yang Sha Fei) and her student, a little girl named Leng Rushuang. Chen was even brazen enough to go so far as to pledge to White Brows he'd raise the orphaned Jiao to manhood. Because he felt the boy was traumatized by his father's fate, he didn't think there would be any retaliation from him; he thought he was getting a servant who constantly feared for his life: a plum arrangement, in Chen's eyes.

In reality, several years after the passing of his father, Yaner has been only biding his time, learning the "Flaming Daggers" technique from a manual of his father's while he awaits the return of Rushuang, who promised to come see him again someday. One night, Chen's son (Dean Shek Tien) watches him practice in secret; he tells his father, and he's upset that despite deliberately not training Yaner in kung fu, he wound up doing it on his own. (White Brow suggested he shouldn't train the boy if he showed any bad temper; of course, Chen sneakily agreed to this.) Yaner is not as dumb as he looks, after all; moreover, he's dangerous in relation to all of Chen's illicit interests. Still, at the moment, he's more worried about someone else.

Rushuang (Shih Szu) is now known in the martial arts world as the "Lady of the Law", a vigilante who's partnered with the local authorities in the dispensing of justice. She is there in Ji County to help in the capture of a murdering rapist; as it turns out, the perpetrator is Chen's son. As they begin to feel the pressure of the investigation, Chen and his offspring (in an act that's so much "killing two birds with one stone") frame Yaner for the crimes, the son planting the body of his latest victim (the concubine of Valley Head, played by Chang Pei-shan) in Yaner's room.

Alas, once she sees where the corpse of the victim is, Rushuang is disappointed in Yaner, regretting she helped to save his life so long ago. Knowing she's not on his side (yet) and how he has no chance as long as Chen tries to orchestrate a speedy execution for him, Yaner is compelled to escape. Rushuang and some constables begin the pursuit, with Chen and his "demonseed" not far behind, hoping they can get to Yaner first. Now, the last hope for Yaner being exonerated is in his finding Officer Yan Bixian (Chan Shen), a witness who's being kept in protective custody at a nearby prison. Though the rapist blinded him with rocks and dirt in a desperate ploy to avoid capture (the night Rushuang arrived), he can still identify the culprit by his voice....

Writer and director Shen Chiang is reunited with his three stars from Heroes of Sung (1973), and he delivers a quirky but strong screenplay that suits them better than his haphazard one for the earlier film (save for the freaky "splitting" finale that would be equally at home in a "Venoms" movie). He and his co-director Hsiao Yung do a marvelous job with the direction; Yung's parti-cipation may be the reason this picture is better structually, compared to Chiang's solo effort on HoS. They put a lot stuff of into the running time of 86 minutes but not so much the result is like an overpacked can of sardines. Beyond the inevitable formula elements found in most Shaw wuxia films (trampolines, high leaps, and erratic wirework), LotL has so much going for it, I don't even mind the abrupt ending!

One of the more mindboggling performances I have ever seen from a Shaw actor is found here, courtesy of Lo Lieh. His work in King Boxer and Clan of the White Lotus doesn't compare to his interpetation of this strangest of heroes. Yaner continually pretends he is "shell-shocked", even a little mentally slow, as he prepares to deal with Chen. At the same time, the story hints he has been literally waiting years for Rushuang to come back to the point he (apparently) spent much of his spare time each day out on the street watching for her arrival in town. Not all this behavior feels like a charade; has he become obsessed over her riding to his rescue? Is she the "trigger" to his proceeding with revenge? Lieh's acting job here is such that you find yourself wondering if he has maintained his sanity all these years as a lowly helper for Chen; there's no doubt Chen and the people who work for him (also his son) have treated him like crap, so if Yaner has kept his wits intact all these years, then he's the equivalent of a John McCain among indentured servants. Fighting or acting, Lieh managed to impress me in LotL like he never has before.

Cheng Piang-shan is back to being a bad guy after being good in HoS. (To look at the cover for the IVL DVD, you're inclined to think he's fighting crime with Szu and Lieh.) He plays an associate of Chen who happens to have many wives, and when he loses his newest woman to the rapist, he wants Rushuang to replace her. He figures into the "detour" subplot where she has to deal with his sword-wielding "harem" as she tries to track down Yaner. I'm more used to him as a villain, so he didn't fail to disappoint me (trademark "cookie-eating grin" and all) as the secondary heavy.

Shih Szu does the "Lady of the Law" reasonably straight. If she's not playing a supercop in this, then she's a very persistant, savvy person who gives Chen or other troublemakers a reason to fear the wrath of her blades. Again, she breezes easily through portraying another wuxia heroine, which includes doing what stunts she did (which appears to be the majority of them). Then again, she always did a great job in her movies for Shaw, whether she did fighting or not.

In the end, LotL is your typical above-average Shaw production that looks and plays better than some HK "A" pictures of the '70s. The remastered film and audio on this DVD complement the original presentation; it's a movie that anyone who loves Lo Lieh or Shih Szu absolutely needs to add to their collection.

Given a choice, I'll take Lady of the Law over She's the Sheriff any day!

Recommended by Brother Fang!

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.

P.S. - Purchase it from PlayAsia by clicking on here.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Young People (1972), starring David Chiang, Ti Lung and Chen Kuan-tai. Directed by Chang Cheh.

WHOEVER is still holding out on purchasing a copy of Young People for non-economical reasons, let me reassure you that as widespread as the opinions are on the Shaw Brothers film, this is a special release from director Chang Cheh and script co-writer Ni Kuang worth getting. After its availability as a download (and an illegal one at that), what are the chances this will seriously be reissued again on DVD or VCD (even BD) after it goes out-of-print? Even though Cheh has a following around the globe, it's not a huge one, so it's probable his lesser-known releases shall fade away into the ages, while newer generations of fans and film scholars will dissect a selection of his movies (like One-Armed Swordsman, Vengeance!, The Duel or The Five Venoms) ad nauseam. If you feel my theory has some merit, then buy Young People now, 'cuz the window of opportunity may be closing.

Flavored with a lot of location filming at Chung Chi College (a Christian college founded in 1951, affiliated with the Chinese University of Hong Kong), YP is Cheh and Kuang's scattershot attempt to understand college-age young adults. (Our heroes are never seen in classes, by the way.) They are all over the map when comes to their presentation of what they think makes the minds of men and women in their earlier twenties tick. YP can only be safely classified as a Cheh movie; to categorize it as something else is pointless because it's fragments of genres and homages to other films, all of them tied together with a very basic plot.

To simplify the story, which has been re-counted many times in other reviews, it's the jocks (led by Ti Lung) versus the martial arts club (led by Chen Kuan-tai), with the performing arts club (led by neo-hippie David Chiang) somewhere in the middle. While the basketball players and purveyors of kung fu vie for the school's honor (not to mention Lung and Kuan-tai competing for the charms of fickle Irene Chan), the dancers and "band geeks" prepare for the school's anniversary celebration. How does Chiang unite these two hot-headed guys in friendship? Through peace, go carts and dance choreography!

So, what is there to enjoy in YP? Let's start with some intentional things:

1) Irene Chan! From her first scene onward, she makes you want to see the movie to the end. Anyone who has said there isn't any comedy in this wasn't paying attention to her work. The sequence where she barges into the mens' locker room before the big basketball game is a riot; her facial ex-pressions as the guys hurriedly cover up are priceless. She goes from Kuan-tai to Lung (and back to Kuan-tai) without much thought put into it beyond the fact they won trophies, which seems to be what draws her to them. When she loses both guys, you know she deserves this comeuppance, yet you can't help but feel sorry for her because for all her charms, she's still a ways off from being  a mature woman. Chan's combination of sexiness and fine acting in the role of Princess is one of the better peformances of a leading lady in any Cheh movie out there.

2) Bolo Yeung! One favorite Bruce Lee nemesis is (mostly) cast against type as one of the jocks. Not only can he play basketball, he is also adept at comedy; his scene where he and Wong Chung make fun of Kuan-tai's speech patterns (he speaks no more than three words at a time) is pure goofy fun. He's a sight to see with his crewcut and wearing those way-out '70s fashions. (Dig that visor!) He's not a constant presence in the picture, but when he's on, he easily catches your attention in an atypical part.

3) "The Blood Brothers!" Well, at the time, Lung, Chiang and Kuan-tai were yet to be in that '73 film, but if you happen to watch TBB after seeing YP, you'll never look at the former movie again in quite the same way. The guys are cast to type; Lung is the BMOC, Kuan-tai is the soft-spoken karate expert and Chiang is the drummer who feels all the world needs now is love, sweet love. As silly as the film is, the trio give their all and make the situations feel somewhat plausible. (If you think Lung is bad in this, please reacquaint yourself with his spot-on John Cassavettes imitation in Black Magic [1975], and stand corrected!)

What elements enhance YP by accident, if not design? They would be:

1) The music! For a flick that's designed to appeal to youthful moviegoers, the sound-track is as big as Woodstock: Snoopy's friend, not the festival. After the opening where Chiang does an "edgy" drum solo, we get three watered-down folk songs from Agnes Chan, the younger sister of Irene. She's cute and competently sings (in English) "The Circle Game", "You've Got a Friend" and a bad lyrical rip-off of "What the World Needs Now is Love". Except for an ambitious MTV-like interlude in "YGaF" (pictured), she's showcased with meaningless background dancing and a finale (set during the great anniversary assembly) where she seemingly enters and exits by way of crane or hot air balloon! Another performer (even a mere dude with a guitar) would've added variety to the production, but since Agnes got a HK hit with "TCG", somebody thought she was all the film needed (and could afford). To top it all off, the recordings she lip-syncs to are of a lower fidelity than the rest of the incidental music; to hear how her songs sound, you'd swear records were directly dubbed onto the film's audio track.

2) The "big events!" Besides running too long, the basketball game suffers from bad foley work; where are all the squeaking tennis shoes? (Also, Fan Mei Sheng gets a billing in the movie, yet he's barely seen in his sole appearance as a bench-warmer in the game! Fu Sheng gets more screen-time in all his little cameos combined.) The go cart competition is slightly better with some filming taking place during a real race. Chiang, Lung and Kuan-tai are actually driving in many parts, which is a big plus; only the race's conclusion will make you roll your eyes. The anniversary show is just bizarre, featuring dancing inspired by West Side Story (and a precursor to the dancing in the "Earth" portion of Heaven and Hell), more drumming by Chiang, and little Agnes; it's the HK version of a Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney musical! The karate tournament comes off best as Kuan-tai dazzles all with his skills; Lau Kar Wing and Tong Gaai co-ordinated the fighting action, so all the other principals who had to bust a move here (or in other parts of the picture) were well trained to do so.

3) The "hip" script! Whoever did the lion's share of work on the story, Cheh or Kuang, doesn't matter; there's plenty of blame to go around about the using whatever it took to make YP appear on the "cutting edge" and "with it"... by 1972 standards. The clothes, the walkie talkies, a David Cassidy poster (in Agnes Chan's room), the music (kinda), product placement (7Up, Schweppes and Viceroy cigarettes), go carts and a dune buggy add to your viewing enjoyment by being so woefully out of date from the first day YP played in HK cinemas right into the 21st century. Anyone who has attended college in the past 30 years knows the only bit of college they got right in YP is when Chiang and his friends take a beer break!

Though the main characters in YP are stereotypes, all that unfolds in almost two hours' time doesn't stoop to the level of an Archie comic. (Wu Ma with a "crown" like Jughead's would be too much.) The plot (and the humor) seems to have been inspired (or stolen) from American International's "beach" movies (with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello), especially Beach Blanket Bingo. (Observe the comedic fight of the jocks against the martial artists, and substitute go carts for skydiving.) In fact, this is the only Cheh movie that could be rated PG (PG-13 if you think the violence harsh) by today's standards, so if you have to play a Chang Cheh film with your grandma present, this is the one. Those who prefer their "yang gang" fix with Shaw blood all over the widescreen will want to pass on this.

The IVL DVD is the usual slick, bare bones package. An original HK trailer would've provided some insight in how YP was sold to movie patrons back in '72, but all the promos on the disc are produced by Celestial. The new English subs are hilarious in two spots where the Mandarin translator throws in more recent slang; relish Ti Lung saying "homeboy" and "hommie" (SIC)!

After Susanna, YP is one of my favorite Shaw "guilty pleasures." If you don't try to compare it to Animal House or The Paper Chase, you'll have a good time wondering how Chang Cheh became the unofficial spokesman for the younger generation of Hong Kong...if not the world!

Recommended by Brother Fang!

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.

P.S. - Purchase it from PlayAsia by clicking here..

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Get Ready to Forget the "Match Game" Star! #2: Elaine Joyce

OKAY, for all those times she appeared on Match Game as is, I should have profiled  Elaine Joyce (her maiden name is Pinchot) first. I had to see more than a few MG reruns on Game Show Network (GSN) before I saw one with her, and when I did, the memories began to flow like water. Research filled in the many gaps.

This opening shot (from a Match Game '75) is synonymous with how I remember first seeing her back in the '70s; she's one of the few celebrities who looked good in this stylized... uh, "bowl cut" hairdo. (Bad example: Robbie Rist.)

Some of you might remember her more via her marriage to Bobby Van (born Robert Jack Stein); they often did joint appearances on some shows, such as Tattletales and an episode of CHiPs. Both are best known as performers in musicals, though they had done their own fair share of movies and TV shows. When they got married in 1968, he was 39, and she was 22. At the time of the MG'75 taping, Bobby was hosting the short-lived game show Showoffs, which Elaine was promoting with her note. He'd go on to host two more, but his debut came under unfortunate circumstances.

The original choice for emcee was Larry Blyden, previously the last host of What's My Line? (the syndicated version). He taped the pilot for ABC (a formality as the Mark Goodson and Bill Todman production was a shoo-in) in late May of '75. Shortly after, he would die in a car accident while on vacation in Morocco, about three weeks before the production resumed. Rather than delay the program's premiere (for a period of mourning), they selected Bobby as a last moment replacement. A pall was cast over the set during Showoffs' run; Bobby didn't altogether click with viewers, too, and the show only ran six months after its June 30th bow.

The union of Elaine and Bobby would sadly end when he died of cancer on July 31, 1980. In 1981, while she worked on the sitcom Mr. Merlin, she got a fan letter from one J. D. Salinger (yes, the author of Catcher in the Rye); after a period of correspondence, a secret relationship followed. While this odd pairing went on, Elaine married John Levoff, a TV producer, with whom she had a son, Michael. (She had a daughter, Taylor, with Bobby.) Beyond a May '82 newspaper report that Salinger was spotted in Jacksonville, FL, to see a play Elaine was in, their affair lasted quietly through the latter '80s, and her second marriage crumbled in due course.

Into the '90s, Elaine was keeping busy with parts in shows as diverse as Beverly Hills, 90210, Murder, She Wrote and Days of Our Lives. In 1999, she got married to her third husband, Neil Simon (The Odd Couple and... [shudder] ...The Odd Couple II movie), and they are together to the present day. They've even collaborated together, as illustrated by this poster of a show she did in 2007. Considering her connections to Salinger and Simon, the evidence strongly suggests Elaine is anything but the intellectual lightweight she sometimes portrayed in some of her many film and TV roles. (This is not implying Bobby Van was an idiot, too; his only bad judgement call seems to have been participating in the awful musical remake of Lost Horizon in 1973!)

From all the MG episodes I've watched, she is a lot of fun to see in action; I must also add there are the moments she can be  grating, but such is a fate that fell upon all those who graced the CBS TV studio where MG was recorded in mini-marathon sessions. (Five shows on Saturday, five shows on Sunday, and then a two-week break before it started all over again.) She was a semi-regular, compared to those like Richard Dawson or host Gene Rayburn, but she was on so many times, she's as readily remembered by fans as the "veterans" of the show are. The people who saw Elaine on MG really liked her; otherwise, the producers would've stopped asking her to return at some point.

Did the other celebrity panelists feel the same toward her? At least, there was one known contrarian. Before her death in 2007 (almost four months to the day after Charles Nelson Reilly passed on), Brett Somers sat down for an interview (included on the 2006 The Best of Match Game DVD set, available from Mill Creek) where she said of Elaine (and I quote):

"I never shared [my dressing room] with Elaine Joyce. I was never crazy about her."

"I used to sit in the 'dummy' seat... Elaine Joyce sat there a lot."

The reruns demonstrate why Brett still harbored the feelings she did long after the show was over. Elaine (about 29 at the time of the MG'75 era) is very outgoing and friendly, notably so with the men in front of the camera and behind. In the week's worth of installments I recently saw, director Marc Breslow heavily favors Elaine with more shots of her on-camera than what's usual with the celebrity regulars and semi-regulars. That this is very noticeable in the last few shows might be due to everybody having returned from the notorious dinner breaks that occured during a pause in taping (where more than a few were said to have often returned in a tipsy state, though this has yet to be verified).

Here, she is playfully flirting with Gene more than usual... not that Gene's complaining. (Neither would Brother Fang.) Actually, Elaine's personality is intoxicating without the prompting of alcohol; at her most affable, it's easy to figure out why Bobby Van (or anyone else) fell head over heels for her.

How she appears on these programs is, of course, only one facet of her personae. She is certainly a strong woman who has had to cope with (among other things) the death of her first husband and a career of ups and downs before finding love the third time around; hopefully, it's for keeps.
What more can I say about this remarkable lady? I think I've renewed my membership in her fan club! True, she's no Meryl Streep, but then, I don't expect her to be.

In closing, how do you respond to Brett's remarks, Elaine?

Fair enough....

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin ______.