Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Delightful Forest (1972), starring Ti Lung, Tin Ching, Chu Mu and Yu Feng. Directed by Chang Cheh and Pao Hsueh-li.

"This one's dedicated to the fine people over at the Heroic Sisterhood Facebook
page who love their Ti Lung on Tuesday-- and every other day of the week!"
 (Google images)

(All movie images courtesy Celestial Pictures)

***AUTHOR'S NOTE: More than a few reference sources, including contemporary HK posters, cite the movie's title as just Delightful Forest, with no "The". I'll refer to it in the same way. In addition, my experiences with anything relative to the literary Water Margin stem only from Chang Cheh's four movie adaptations and Li Han-Hsiang's 1982 Shaw Tiger Killer, plus online material about the novel, such as the writings on Wikipedia. Based on this, my review is focused on the movie, with an occasional nod to the online breakdowns of the novel and its characters, which helped me to understand what was going on in the movie substantially.***

ONE interesting bit of trivia related to Wu Sung, one of the better-known fictional heroes from the Chinese novel Water Margin (a.k.a. Outlaws of the Marsh), comes from Wikipedia. It says his story "is probably the only one that has been remade many times in Chinese media, due to the fact that adultery in China was a serious offence (and a huge dishonour to the family)", which says a lot about their culture. (How much of that same adultery contributed to the rise in population over the centuries, I can't begin to guess.)

So when Shaw Brothers director Chang Cheh decided to to produce a series of films based on the book, it was inevitable one of them would spotlight the honorable, wine-drinking tiger killer. Of course, in keeping with the filmmaker's "yang gang" philosophy, as Delightful Forest (the prequel to his The Water Margin, released in HK 2/17/72) was being made, he decided to pass on the earlier "soap opera" elements of Wu Sung's tale and focus on the events that led him to join the 108 bandits on Mount Liang Shan (in northern China) in rebelling against Hui Zhong, an emporer (non-fictional) of the Song Dynasty who reigned during troubled times from 1101-1125 AD.

Lau Kar Wing
The picture opens on Wu Sung (Ti Lung) avenging the murder of his brother. He's already slain his adulterous sister-in-law, and he now spots her lover/co-conspirator, Ximen Xing (Lau Kar Wing), entering the nearby Lion Restaurant. In short order, Sung confronts him, and after a fiery brawl, kills him quickly. Once the authorities arrive, the former head instructor (policeman) of Yang Wu County surrenders peacefully, ready to accept punishment.

left to right: Ti Lung, Yu Feng and Wong Kuong Yue
As two sheriffs escort him to the magistrate for sentencing, a chance to escape is offered by the proprietors of an inn, Zeng Qing (Wong Kuong Yue) and Suen Er Niang (Yu Feng); they are two of the Liang Shan outlaws, who know of him and his righteous reputation. They feel he'd be better off fleeing and joining their ranks, but Sung passes on the proposition (for now), resigned to his current fate.

left to right: Tin Ching and Wong Ching Ho
Upon arrival at An Ping Fortress, the prison chief (Wong Ching Ho) only spares Sung from a flogging due to the intervention of Shi En (Tin Ching), his son. En also knows a lot about Sung, and he asks him for his help in dealing with a pressing problem he has. Its name is Jiang Zhong (Chu Mu), an imposing bully who has taken control of the village En oversees, Delightful Forest (best labeled by an anonymous reviewer as a "Sin City"), extorting business owners for money under the threat of violence. Sung agrees to teach the thug a lesson, asking only in return that En gets him plenty of wine to ingest (a perceived boost to his brawn) at each roadside stop they encounter on the way.

left to right: Ti Lung and Chu Mu
Countless bowls of wine later, they reach Delightful Forest, and when a wasted Sung raises a ruckus while imbibing even more at an establishment managed by Zhong's wife (Kwok Chuk-Hing), he finally confronts Zhong himself and gives him a thorough trouncing. Sung makes him apologize for his misdeeds, repay the taken money and leave the village as soon as possible, En providing Zhong and his spouse adequate transportation out.

left to right: ?, Ti Lung and Chiang Nan
They wind up at the residence of corrupt Governor Zheng (Chiang Nan), who sent Zhong to Delightful Forest in the first place. When Zhong mentions he got clobbered by the great Wu Sung, Zheng knows he's got a mess of trouble on his hands. With help from his brother (Nam Wai-Lit), Zheng plots to get rid of Sung so they can easily reclaim Delightful Forest. Inviting Sung to his place, Zheng kills him with kindness, and by observing Sung's kung fu in action, he now knows how to deal with him. Under the veil of a bogus charge of stealing from Zheng, Sung is captured, and with his powerful arms rendered immobile for fighting, he is beaten into near unconsciousness.

Ti Lung
Sent back to prison, Sung escapes certain death at the hands of two bribed jailers, thanks to Jail Warden Tong (Li Min-Lang), a friend of En. The plot failed, Zhong suggests to Zheng having Sung killed as he is sent back to the magistrate again, and Zheng agrees. However, a recovered Sung is aware he's still a marked man, and after he slaughters his would-be assassins, he sets off for a final confrontation with Zhong and Zheng....

Considering Chang Cheh had The Water Margin, Delightful Forest, All Men are Brothers and the "White Water Strand" segment of Trilogy of Swordsmanship in various stages of development concurrently, and DF fared as well as it ultimately did aesthetically (and, presumably, fiancially), seems miraculous, but it's not a surprise. DF (co-directed with Pao Hsueh-li) is another reminder of how Cheh was more adept at creating smaller movies than big-budgeted epics. This is not to say he couldn't conceive an epic, but the point eventually came where he got in over his head with making them. Later ambitious films like 7-Man Army and Boxer Rebellion (both 1976) simply lacked the box office success of earlier Cheh classics like One-Armed Swordsman or Boxer from Shantung because it was obvious the money was put more towards the onscreen spectacle rather than help sustain the screenplays. Fortunately, back in 1972, Cheh had yet to hit the wall creatively, regardless of the scale of the movies he worked on.

DF (released in HK 9/20/72) is a unique concoction, best described as a wuxia/martial arts variation on a Spaghetti Western. As Italian director Sergio Leone is said to be among those who influenced Cheh's style, what we see as DF plays out confirms this. It's more than the heavy usage of music cues from (according to critic Brian Camp) Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West and Duck, You Sucker. It's there in the script (by Cheh, Ni Kuang and Chin Shu-Mei), how some scenes are lit and how cinematographer Yuen Teng-Bong sets up shots within his widescreen lens. After that, there's the acting, the foley work, even in the pacing and editing of the fight scenes. As a whole, DF is a veritable ode to Leone. On the other hand, one need not have seen a Spaghetti Western to appreciate the look and feel of DF, which ranks high as one of Cheh's most stylish films.

For the women, a gratuitous shot of Ti Lung without a shirt.
DF is an ideal showcase for Ti Lung's talents. While King Eagle (1971) proved he could carry a picture on his own without David Chiang, DF helped to cement the fact he was star material. Granted, Lung doesn't get to show much range here (acting like he's a cat with a perpetually arched back), but because Wu Sung is such a larger than life character, Lung embraces the role of the tough, abrasive (but honorable) badass with enthusiasm. He's also at the top of his physical game, tackling the fight choreography by Lau Kar Leung, Lau Kar Wing, Chan Chuen and Tong Gaai with energy and great leg work. (According to the Kung Fu Cinema site, it's an early use of traditional kung fu, or "shapes" fighting, found in a Cheh film.) While he doesn't resemble the man depicted in old drawings, Lung's interpretation of the part of Wu Sung is involving and anything but boring.

Chu Mu is convincingly rotten and mean as Jiang Zhong, who is truly a bully by definition, even with the crazy beard and eyebrows. (How this brute ever got a wife is mystifying.) Unlike Mu's later role as General Che in Heroes Two, he's more involved (and animated) in the fight scenes he undertakes with Lung, which makes the outcome of the climatic battle between Sung and Zhong more satisfying than the one with Che versus Hung Tsi-kwan and Fang Shih-yu.

For the men, a gratuitous shot of Yu Feng.
The rest of the cast is comparably good, but I'll point out my favorites. Wong Kwong Yue and Yu Feng aren't on long as the two Liang Shan bandits (both would reprise their roles in AMaB), but they make an impression, especially the breathtaking Feng. The camera captures her smoldering beauty, and she exudes sexiness as Suen, making quite an impression on Sung at first sight. As Shi En, Tin Ching is fun to watch as a straight man reacting to Sung's antics, including his excessive consumption of wine. Chiang Nan is suitably oily and crafty as Governor Zheng, who manages to snag Sung more with brains than by brawn. In addition, watch out for Wang Ching (Mobfix Patrol), Danny Chow (Police Story), Fung Hak On (Warriors Two), Li Min Lang (The Shadow Boxer) and Tsang Choh Lam (often a waiter in many Shaws)!

(Well Go USA)
With the IVL DVD out of print, the cheapest way to currently get a copy of DF is to buy either the DVD or BD from Well Go USA. Both have trailers as "extras", an anamorphic widescreen picture, vivid colors, subtitle options (Chinese or English) and language options (Mandarin or English dubs). The differences between the two are in the picture sharpness and the audio. The DVD features a good picture, plus both soundtracks have additional music and sound effects dubbed on by Celestial Pictures. In contrast, the BD (which came out months after the DVD) has a very sharp picture (though the resolution is 1080i, not 1080p), and both soundtracks are in their original, undubbed forms. The only problem comes from Celestial's English subs, which are (as on all their Shaw reissues) from a new translation that doesn't always flow and contains just enough inconsistencies, spelling mistakes and grammatical errors that make following the plot a bit of a challenge. (Those who know Mandarin or prefer the English dub are truly blessed.) If you have the option of choosing, your best bet is the BD. Those who aren't picky may be content with the DVD, but if they're clamoring to listen to the movie without the enhanced audio tracks, they should invest in a Blu-ray player and get the BD without haste.

For anyone who's interested in experiencing Cheh's Water Margin movies, a good starting point may be DF. With fewer people to keep track of than in TWM or AMaB, it's easier to watch and keep up with. In fact, it stands well on its own and can be enjoyed without seeing the others. It's not perfect, but it's a solid, well-paced film, skillfully balancing atmosphere, bloody action and drama with dashes of comedy as seasoning. For Ti Lung fans in particular, they get to see him deliriously dive into the role of Wu Sung, a nice respite from David Chiang and playing wandering swordsmen. If I had to give DF a numerical rating, I'd give it eight bowls of wine out of ten. Cheers.

Brother Fang cuts to the chase: "Easily the best of Chang Cheh's Water Margin movies. Whether you see them all or only Delightful Forest, you'll find yourself returning to it again and again. Recommended."

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.

P.S.-- Buy Delightful Forest here.

Friday, July 8, 2011

1001 Individuals More Memorable Than Charlie Sheen.... #36, #37, #38 & #39: The Ding-A-Lings!

(All images courtesy Time Life Video/NBCUniversal, Inc.)

Helen Funai.

Lynne Latham.

Jayne Kennedy.

Tara Leigh.

Brother Fang sez: "Four of the more notable reasons to invest your time (and money) on the recently-released 6-DVD collection The Best of The Dean Martin Variety Show from Time Life. However, the featured episodes are BUTCHERED (sometimes, real choppy editing is evident) because Time Life was at the mercy of NBCUniversal regarding the footage due to the inevitable "rights and clearances" of music and guest stars, so renting this set or watching YouTube videos of these sexy, talented singers and dancers may be your best bet.

"An offshoot of series regulars The Golddiggers, The Ding-A-Lings (a.k.a. The Dingaling Sisters) had a few personnel changes during the years they were on Dean's show; these fine ladies are a later lineup from 1972. The most familiar face belongs to Jayne Kennedy, who later hit big in the late '70s through early '80s by acting for TV and movies, as well as co-hosting The NFL Today on CBS."

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

1001 Individuals More Memorable Than Charlie Sheen.... #545: The Ice Cream Bunny!

(Legend Films.)

Brother Fang sez: "Since the Easter Bunny is still making his rounds (he's not Santa, remember), his third cousin and I would like to wish all readers of this blog a Happy Easter, whether your day's boisterous or quiet!"

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

1001 Individuals More Memorable Than Charlie Sheen.... #25: Elisabeth Sladen (1948-2011).

(BBC/Warner Home Video.)

Brother Fang sez: "RIP, Sarah Jane."

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Extreme Makeover: Charlie Brown Edition!

(All images courtesy Google Images.)
ALMOST five years after the last new Peanuts cartoon (He's a Bully, Charlie Brown) was broadcast on ABC in 2006, the latest one (number 45) made its bow on March 29: Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown (for now, only available on DVD, Blu-ray and "On Demand"). It's the first special to not involve long-time producer Lee Mendelson and director Bill Melendez, who passed away in 2008. An all-new production team, led by co-directors Andy Beall (formerly of Pixar) and Frank Molieri (an animator who has worked on projects as diverse as Space Jam and The Simpsons Movie), continues the tradition of adapting select Peanuts comic strips into a new story, which has been the standard practice since the death of creator Charles Schulz in 2000. Unlike most recent specials, the producers of the 46-minute movie give viewers a unique trip to yesteryear that could become the norm for future Peanuts cartoons, if it's a success.

HiaWBCB focuses on the efforts of Linus to hold onto his security blanket and maintain his sanity at all costs, his primary obstacles being Snoopy, Lucy, the lovestruck Sally and his "blanket-hating" grandma. Meanwhile, life goes on around him, as Charlie Brown struggles to fly a kite, Lucy competes with Beethoven for the affections of Schroeder, and Pig Pen gets down and dirty.

As written by Stephan Pastis (creator of the comic strip Pearls Before Swine) and Craig Schulz (son of Charles), the script for HiaWBCB is adapted from a few blanket-themed stories that ran for weeks as daily Peanuts strips in the early 1960s; combined with it are an assortment of setups or gags that range from the first strip in 1950 through those of the 1970s. As a result, the plot is episodic and doesn't always flow smoothly. Given that the desire is to preserve Schulz's words (and the comic timing of the strip) as much as possible without provoking cries of blasphemy from serious fans, Pastis and the younger Schulz can only do so much. Despite the restrictions, they still manage to create a decent narrative that's reasonably faithful to the original source material.

Under the mandate of director Beall, the cartoon was made "the old-fashioned way" (with miminal use of computers), and that's the key to its charm. Not only is the actual animation done by hand (the bulk of the work started in the US before getting finished by animators in South Korea), the backgrounds are paintings in watercolor like they were for the old shows. Even the design of the characters are inspired by the earliest Melendez specials; in fact, the story's setting is the mid-1960s. (Linus watches a boxy TV set with an antenna on top, Lucy plays a game of checkers, and long-forgotten characters like Shermy, Patty and Violet are prevalent, with no Peppermint Patty, Marcie or Rerun anywhere at all.) At times, it's astounding how close the new animation resembles that of the vintage shows, right down to inconsistencies in the drawings and continuity errors. (Actually, I think the "errors" were done in tribute to Melendez!) At the same time, one is reminded they are watching something made in the 21st Century, as illustrated by the widescreen picture (1.78:1) and the use of odd angles and different points of view in framing shots (often resembling pop art) that deviates from what Melendez did greatly.

The voice actors are uniformally excellent, with the standouts being Austin Lux (Linus), Trenton Rogers (Charlie Brown and Schroeder), director Beall (Snoopy) and especially Shane Baumel as the scene-stealing Pig Pen (though this comes through sight gags more than verbal humor).

Some have cited the music by Mark Mothersbaugh (Devo) to be the weakest part of the whole presentation, but this is an unwarranted charge. In HiaWBCB, the emphasis is placed more on the story, and with the classic compositions of the legendary Vince Guaraldi overshadowing every Peanuts cartoon made after his death in 1976, Mothersbaugh is wise to keep his score (which includes some cues by Guaraldi) and arrangements close to those of the older shows. If he is playing it safe, his efforts here are better than the lifeless stuff Ed Bogas and David Benoit made or arranged for specials of previous years.

While I got the Warner BD+DVD+Digital Copy combo (an "exclusive" at Walmart, but obtainable elsewhere), the DVD version will be good enough for most people. The picture is bright, lush and sharp, the visible grain on the image the result of a filter which brings an agreeable "film" look to it. The audio is strong and clear, but because it is a newer cartoon (not in a mono mix like the older specials), be ready to crank up the volume to appreciate all the nuances of the English 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. Special features (not counting trailers) consist of three short but informative featurettes on the making of the movie and one deleted scene.

Those intimate with the Peanuts cartoons will notice familiar bits of business in HiaWBCB, and that's because some of it appeared in earlier productions, most notably on The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show. Happily, with the injection of fresh talent brought to this latest special, new life and vitality has been brought to old stories and gags, regardless of how many times we've encountered them and where (in print or on video). Most importantly, by reintroducing the degree of melancholia Schulz gave the strip back in the 1960s (which Melendez initially embraced), the producers made a cartoon that's more bold for assuming this tone than all the specials made in the last 10 years combined, and it delivers more than a few belly laughs in the process. (Also look out for some surprise cameos and in-jokes!)

However, for those accustomed to the "kid friendly" shows that began airing during the 1980s, this change is foreign to them. A few have even accused Pastis of channeling the dark elements of his Pearls comic strip into the screenplay, but anyone who knows of Pastis's background knows he's a fan of Peanuts, so there's no way he's going to mess around with what Schulz did for almost 50 years. At its creative peak, Peanuts was a strip for adults, discovered later by children, and the story reflects this accurately. So it goes this is the first Peanuts special geared more to older fans, but it can be watched by children, too (with Mom and/or Dad, preferably).

In summary, HiaWBCB is one of the best animated adaptations of Peanuts ever made since the end of the 1960s, and this statement comes from a lifelong Peanuts fan of 40+ years who's seen 'em all. Done as much in tribute to Bill Melendez as it is to Charles Schulz, it's a delightful, contemplative throwback to a time when things appeared to be simpler, and the words "computer" and "animation" had yet to be uttered in the same breath.

Brother Fang sez: "Don't you DARE call this a 'reboot', you blockhead! Do I recommend you buy or rent it? Good grief, yes!"

Keeping it trivial....

Brother Fang, Shaolin Temple.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sunday, April 3, 2011

1001 individuals More Memorable Than Charlie Sheen.... #10: Doris Day!

(Virtual History.)

Brother Fang sez: "Though the year she was born in is disputed by several sources, it IS her birthday today! Whether she's 88, 89 or whatever, let's all wish this veteran of Hollywood a Happy Birthday!"

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.

Friday, April 1, 2011

It's April, fool!

LET'S celebrate the first day of April and All Fools' Day with a song from somebody who was nobody's fool! Enjoy Tiny Tim's rendition of "April Showers", the "A"-side of a rare 1966 45rpm single (Blue Cat 127) produced by Richard Perry, who also oversaw Tiny's classic Reprise LP God Bless Tiny Tim. (He even played all the instruments on this track!)

If this doesn't help remind everyone spring is here (after that holiday which has been overtaken by a certain Pagan creature with long ears), I don't know what will!

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

1001 Individuals More Memorable Than Charlie Sheen.... #17: Gene Gene, the Dancing Machine!

(Google Images.)

Brother Fang sez: "This pictorial essay is just beginning. Stay tuned for more!"

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Four Riders (1972), starring David Chiang, Ti Lung, Chen Kuan-tai and Wong Chung. Directed by Chang Cheh.

(All images courtesy of Celestial Pictures.)

MUST a movie make sense to be enjoyable? Not really, and don't believe any high-brow film critic who says different. (Once in a while, they like something a little illogical, too.) Even if there's a followable storyline, it doesn't take much from the filmmakers' side of things to unintentionally envelop the audience in a fog if they're trying to establish a particular look or style to their picture. Sometimes, the results can come back to bite them on the butt, artistically and financially; when they work out favorably, it can be a unique anomaly of cinema, if not a cult classic. That said, does the Shaw Brothers oddity Four Riders measure up with the other entertaining doses of yang gang from the formidable Chang Cheh?

Somewhere in South Korea, it's the end of the Korean War. A Chinese veteran of the conflict, Feng Xia (Ti Lung), drives to Seoul for some relaxation after collecting his pension (in American currency) and liberating a jeep from an army colonel (Lo Wai) he recently decked. Along the way, he picks up a fellow soldier, Gao Yinhan (Wong Chung), who's heading in the same direction to see Li Weishi (Chen Kuan-tai), a retired First Lieutenant recuperating at a hospital from wounds received in battle.

Not long after the two part company in the city, Xia stumbles upon some guys who've just pummeled an American GI to death; to be exact, they're members of a drug cartel run by Boss Hawkes (Andre Marquis), and they killed the man for his refusal to be a mule on his return trip to the US. Xia is overwhelmed by them before he can leave, and Hawkes' second-in-command, Lei Tai (Yasuaki Kurata), frames him for the crime. As fate goes, until a trial date is set, the injured Xia is confined by SK MPs in the prison ward of the same hospital where Yinhan's visiting Weishi. Yinhan is certain Xia is innocent, and since Weishi feels he has no chance at being found not guilty, he suggests Yinhan get a gun that his nurse, Song Hua (Ching Li), can smuggle to Xia and use for a quick escape.

Meanwhile, when Xia's army buddy, Jin Yi (David Chiang), reads of his plight in a newspaper, he knows something fishy's going on, too; based on all the time he's spent visiting lovely hostess Wensi (Lily Li) at the Hello John Club owned by Hawkes, he knows of the illegal activities going on. He calls out Tai about what's being done to Xia, but he's soon beaten up by him and Hawkes' other flunkies. Only Hawkes' brassy girlfriend, Yinhua (Tina Chin Fei) saves him from a premature demise; after a night of sex with her, he sneaks off.

After a few leads that go nowhere, Yinhan finally gets lucky when he's offered a gun...by Tai; Hawkes wants Xia dead immediately, and he says he'll pay anyone who'll do the task. (I'm guessing the payment consists of hot lead.) Shrewdly, Yinhan pretends to accept the offer, and before too long, Xia breaks out of the hospital with Weishi and Yinhan. Tragically, Song Hua is shot by Hawkes' men as she flees with them, to the horror of Weishi.

Eventually, Yi joins up with the three fugitives. On the run from the SK army (while keeping one step ahead of Hawkes' confederates), they devise a plan to bring down Hawkes' operation and exonerate themselves in the eyes of SK military justice. While Yi returns to the Hello John to look for incriminating paperwork, the other three confront Tai and Hawkes' other men in a free-for-all at a gymnasium. There's only one complication to all of this; unknown to the four, the SKs are now on their way to the gym, and they believe the Chinese are part of Hawkes' gang....

The title Four Riders (re-titled as Strike 4 Revenge in the US) comes from a scene when Weishi reads aloud his favorite piece of Biblical scripture to his nurse; it's the only time this reference shows up in the entire film. In turn, the only things these four heroes ride are jeeps, and they're more concerned with saving their own hides than unleashing an apocalypse on the world. It's their urgency to rescue Xia, along with the need for all of them to survive long enough to stop Hawkes and have their names cleared, which propels this testosterone-drenched melodrama (with a hint of swagger) that could've only been directed by Chang Cheh.

The kick I've gotten out of watching FR all the times I have (over a dozen, so far) does not distract me from the fact that some-where between the completion of the script (by Cheh and Ni Kuang) and the wrap-up of filming, the setting of South Korea in July, 1953, was forgotten in the process. Money appears to have been the main reason why, and if Cheh had a few movies in various stages of production at the time, it might also explain why the story never got reworked. Getting down to basics, with all the '70s hair, wardrobe and other trap-pings on the screen, the lapse of historical accuracy in FR doesn't detract from its entertainment value, and it shouldn't bother you, either. (Imagine it's one of those dramatizations on America's Most Wanted or the History Channel.)

The film shot on location in SK by Kung Mu To is wonderful and fascinating to see, be it snow-covered ground or the narrow streets within Seoul. The scenery is so unique and refreshing (especially if you're not familiar with SK), when the movie cuts to a tell tale Shaw location (indoors or out), the contrast is great enough you feel cheated by this budgetary consideration because the SK footage makes the stuff shot at the studio look like crap. Anybody who gets easily bored with any studio-bound Shaw picture will relish this change of pace.

Each of the main players contributes good performances. Ti Lung exudes machismo as Xia, and the opening where he belts his former superior is a brilliant, dark-humored vignette that plays like an outtake from M*A*S*H. David Chiang is low-key and smooth as Yi, the brains of the quartet, though one of his early bits at the club (fine as they are) could've been dropped so he could join up with his comrades sooner to jumpstart the plot. As Yenshi, Chen Kuan-tai believably goes from the young guy in love with Song Hua to an anguished man who wants payback for her death. As Yinhan, Wong Chung (in his biggest role prior to being cast in The Deliquent) manages to avoid being the "fifth wheel" of the group with his athleticism and likeability, best illustrated by his first scene where he plays with some children. Only Lily Li (as Wensi) and Ching Li (as Song Hua) get short shrift with the usual type of parts Cheh often limited them to, but they elevate their minor contributions to another level through their acting.

Let's now give praise to the featured villain. Bypassing the laughable pastiness of Andre Marquis as Hawkes, Yasuaki Kurata is an inspired choice as Tai. During 1972, Kurata was relatively early into his career at Shaw, so his acting was still evolving, but the aura of suaveness he projected into performing "heavies" is already prominent. His martial arts moves are equally dynamic; he's into Lau Kar Leung and Tong Gaai's fight choreography with an intensity that threatens to overwhelm the abilities of the four leads. While his efforts only lose steam with his hilarious English dubbed voice (used when he talks to Hawke) and being (unconvincingly) clobbered by Chiang in one sequence, the man can successfully convey nastiness without overacting, which makes his work here (and in other movies) engrossing to watch.

For all the unevenness of FR, the picture doesn't lack in thrills and drama. Would FR be a better movie if Cheh had the money to make the production appear more authentic for the time period depicted? That notion can be debated, and Cheh's later historical epics like 7 Man Army, The Boxer Rebellion and The Naval Commandos are (for some) three good arguments that giving him bigger budgets didn't always yield better motion pictures.

Anyhow, I finished with trying to understand why Cheh let this film veer off course like he did a long time ago. I decided to stop making sense of FR and just enjoy it.

Brother Fang says: "Another 'sleeper' from Chang Cheh that's been nearly forgotten by people and shouldn't be! Warts and all, Cheh delivers the violence and suspense more than capably!"

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.

P.S. - While you still can, purchase it at PlayAsia by clicking here.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Police Force (1973), starring Wong Chung, Lily Li, and Fu Sheng. Directed by Chang Cheh and Tsai Yang-ming.

(All images courtesy Celestial Pictures.)

ALLOW me to make a statement that can be considered a lesser form of heresy: if there were no Fu Sheng in Police Force, this Shaw Brothers movie would be no less watchable than it is now. Anyone could've been cast in his part, and fortunately for Sheng, Chang Cheh saw something in this newcomer and gave him those fabled fourteen-plus minutes at the beginning. Whether he was intentionally offering a taste of Sheng to pique the interest of HK moviegoers or hedging his bets by limiting Sheng's involvement in the film, that's unknown, but we certainly have an idea what happened to Sheng after its release (eventually). For now, Cheh's goal was trying to establish Wong Chung as a star, and months after audiences watched him play a juvenile delinquent, they now got to see him in the mature role of a cop (his first of many) in this "slice-of-the-'70s" crime drama, filmed with the cooperation of the (then) Royal Hong Kong Police Force.

The plot of PF is an uncomplicated one. When Liang Guan (Fu Sheng) is murdered while protecting his girlfrend, Shen Yan (Lily Li), from harm during a robbery gone awry, his best friend, Huang Guodong (Wong Chung), decides to join the HK Police Force, vowing to Yan he will track down the perpetrator and kill him in an act of revenge.

In five years, Guodong goes from being a cadet to Inspector, and when he discovers a recent police sketch of a man spotted dumping a body matches the one made of Guan's murderer, his most important manhunt begins in earnest.

The suspect, Gao Tu (Wong Kuong Yue), is soon found out to be connected with one Sun Zuozhong (Wang Hsieh), and the last thing the counterfeiter needs is the police bugging him because of this association. Soon, Tu's a marked man, and it's Guodong who saves him from being killed by some of Zuozhong's men. When Yan (with Guodong at the time, coincidentally) confirms Tu's ID, Guodong's moment to avenge Guan's death has arrived, but he realizes he can't do it because he is a policeman; Tu must be used to help bring down Zuozhong's criminal organization. Yan's disappointed in Guodong, but when she gets a chance to shoot Tu dead, she's unable to follow through, knowing Guodong is right.

With Tu in custody and ready to help police investigators, Zuozhong decides it's time to get out of HK, and he begins to flee on his yacht, hoping to escape to international waters. Guodong sends his four detectives off on a fast boat to pursue him (taking Tu along to help identify the yacht), while he gets on a police helicopter and flies off after them to provide backup....

After an intense release like The Delinquent, PF seems subdued, by comparison, but considering the movie was made with the blessing of the HKPF, there's little doubt they had final script approval. This is why parts of the screenplay by Cheh and Ni Kuang feel like a recruiting ad, but it's the HKPF's participation that gives authenticity to the police procedures we see within an hour and 41 minutes, as well as make the film look like it cost more to make than what it actually did. Cheh used his access to police buildings, equipment and personnel to positive results.

As for straight drama, while a lot of it is familiar stuff, the movie's pacing never lags, so the cliches don't get to hang around. The exception is Yan; Lily Li makes the most of what's written for her (and models a cool '70s wardrobe), but her character lacks real depth. Only when Yan stops obsessing over her boyfriend's killer to assist Guodong during his investigation does she get to be interesting, but it's too little, too late. To top it all off, she has to go into the old bit of getting cold feet when a choice moment to kill the murderer herself arises, which is the only serious lapse in an otherwise decent story. (What? Not even a flesh wound?) Her departure from the film after Tu's apprehension is abrupt as it is anticlimatic; what a waste of talent.

On PF, Cheh works with another co-director, Tsai Yang-ming, whose first film was the '72 independent production The Prodigal Boxer (a telling of the story of Fang Shih-yu that predates Heroes Two by two years). Cheh's style is so dominant throughout, Yang-ming's contributions are hard to decipher, so it's best to consider it more as a Cheh film. At any rate, he's on top of his craft here, with stylish location shooting in HK and involved action sequences, with fight choreography overseen by Lau Kar Leung and Tong Gaai. Save for a few continuity errors (like a "quick dry" Guodong after a dip in the ocean), this is one of the more slicker Cheh movies set in contemporary (1973) times.

There's a lot of good acting to enjoy here. Wong Chung is is ideal as Guodong, a guy who can smack a felon around along with the best of HK's lawmen. Wang Hsieh (The Lady Hermit) as Zuozhong is menacing like a bulldog, and Tung Lin (The Delinquent) looks properly authoritative as Chung's boss, a senior inspector. Among the many other supporting players, watch out for Fung Ngai (Fist of Fury), Bruce Tong, Teung Tak-cheung and Lee Yung-git. In the offbeat casting category, regular "heavy" Fung Hak-on is fun to watch as Guodong's partner (seen in this screencap with the obligatory ugly jacket).

As for Fu Sheng, he handles his screen debut better than expected. He manages to convey his acting range in what little screentime he has as Guan, and his performance is a natural one. He handles his action scenes equally well; his skills are sharp and focused during his scene at a karate tournament, where he takes on Lau Kar Wing (who appears later in two other minor roles). Guan's established quickly enough as a likeable fellow (and loving boyfriend) that when his death comes at the hands of Tu, it is poignant as he expires in a modern version of "heroic bloodshed", and the nasty nature of hs demise makes the desire for revenge Guodong and Yan share all the more potent.

PF is a transitionary film in the genre of crime dramas, HK style; it's a "last gasp" of an era where characters and situations were defined in terms of "black and white", and it's one of the earlier attempts to bring an audience realism through blood, urban grittiness and antiheroes. Guodong's initial motivation for joining the police force (vengeance) is as emotionally complex as the film gets, and for all the violence there is, it's not elaborately staged and meticulously edited. It's still years away from anything like Police Story or Hard Boiled, so anyone who sees PF on the merit it's a Cheh film should expect an "old school" movie and nothing more. In summary, Wong Chung as a '70s "Supercop" is one hell of an experience worth undertaking.

Brother Fang says..."Chang Cheh, Wong Chung and Fu Sheng: three good reasons to check ths out!"

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.

P.S. - While you still can, purchase it at PlayAsia by clicking here.