Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Friends (1974), starring David Chiang, Fu Sheng, Lily Li and Frankie Wei. Directed by Chang Cheh.

(All images courtesy Celestial Pictures.)

IF you combine Rebel Without a Cause with The Bowery Boys, add a dash of Poor Little Rich Girl (in this story, a rich young man), and filter it through director Chang Cheh's "yang gang", the result wiil be Friends. It's the last Shaw Brothers movie Cheh would make in the "younger generation"-oriented vein, as his main focus shifted to the making of the "Shaolin" pictures. Though it was one of those very films (Heroes Two) that introduced HK moviegoers to new star Fu Sheng in early 1974, Friends was actually the first one (with him in a lead role) completed. Its release would be held up until the summer, and while it's only a good guess it did OK box office, what can be confirmed is the "Best Young Newcomer Award" the movie won at the '74 Asian Film Festival. The recipient: Fu Sheng.

After a prologue where we find the title characters have gathered for a reunion, their backstory (the rest of the film) is related as a flashback. Going back to ten years ago, there are just the nine of them (give or take), a bunch of twenty-somethings living a lower-class existence of doing menial jobs by day and raising hell at night; all of them desire to advance their standing in the world and live a better life. The bond of friendship manages to see them through bad times and good. The guys are also fortunate to find the spare time they can to keep their kung fu skills up to snuff, because they're necessary in a big city like HK.

Their unofficial leader is Hua Heng (David Chiang), an advertising sign painter who aspires to become a famous artist. His girlfriend is Gao Xin (Lily Li), a bargirl who might get forced into prostitution by the loan sharks she owes money to if she doesn't pay off her debt of $20,000 [HK].

Into their lives arrives Tu Jiaji (Fu Sheng), the only child of the wealthy Tu Dongtai (Lo Dik). Practicing martial arts only does so much for him; he's unhappy and bored living a sheltered life. One day, when he jumps in to help Heng fight off some street thugs, he's excited to meet someone closer to his age who's cool and can take care of himself. In turn, Jiaji (like a neglected puppy craving attention) trails after Heng to an abandoned warehouse, inadvertently introducing himself to Heng's other friends when he crashes through a sky window above their makeshift gymnasium in the basement.

It doesn't take long for Heng and the others to warm up to Jiaji; they think he's down on his luck like they are. Indeed, when he innocently asks why don't they work out at a "better gym," they think he's kidding around, and they nickname him "Young Master". With this new name, he doesn't bother bringing up his real one. He's also in no rush to go home, so he calls his dad, saying he's spending a few days with some "future" capitalists and not to worry. Concerned as Dontai is, he convinces himself Jiaji's all right and leaves him be.

Once Jiaji hears of Xin's money problems, he's resolved to get her out of trouble with help from another of his new friends, Lin Sibao (Lee Yung-git). While Jiaji pretends to sell some of Heng's paintings, he actually has Sibao get the money from his father (being sure not to mention he is Dongtai's son), using a ring of his (personally given to him by his father) as a means to getting the cash without a hassle. Of course, the instant Dongtai recognizes the ring, combined with the asking for money, he thinks Jiaji's been kidnapped, and he readily gives Sibao the full amount. For all the madness behind Jiaji's method (also driving his father mad), Xin's dilemna is resolved, and Heng comes off like a hero in the process.

Unfortunately, the recently unemployed Sibao is hurting for money, and in an act of weakness, he uses the ring again to extort more money from Dongtai. Worse, he's an acquaintance of the loan sharks, and when he flashes his new wealth in front of them, they can't help but wonder how he got rich all of a sudden. When Sibao tells them, showing them the ring, they realize the "Young Master" is the son of Dongtai, thanks to a newspaper ad he put out in hopes of communicating with the (then non-existent) kidnappers. Under orders from their boss (Frankie Wei), they kidnap Jiaji for real... with assistance from Sibao!

Once Sibao finds out Jiaji will be killed upon the collecting of the ransom (a triple dip into Dongtai's wallet), he finally sees the error of his ways, and he runs off to tell Heng what has occurred. Heng has since found out what Jiaji did for Xin, so once Sibao fills him in on the details of who Jiaji is and his current plight, he makes a frantic dash to rescue Jiaji from his captors, while Xin and Sibao round up the remaining friends for extra support in a race against time.

The most common complaint about Friends centers on how David Chiang and Fu Sheng interact as the leads. Some sense a lack of dynamics between them, which doesn't ring true with the assertion they are supposed to be friends. People forget that Jiaji and Heng get introduced to each other under tense circumstances, and Jiaji doesn't help matters when he ruins Heng's portrait of Xin by smashing it over his chauffeur's head! Further, Heng's trying to break out as an artist while juggling a girlfriend and a job at the same time. For all the friends he has now, the sudden surfacing of Jiaji (who appears to have no friends at the beginning of the film, except his sifu Wang, played by Tung Choi-bo) seems to be one friend too many for him to handle. Once Jiaji gets to meet Heng's other friends, any burden is lifted off his shoulders and distributed to everyone else; only then does he begin to see Jiaji's a nice guy. Significantly, what we are observing is the beginnning of a friendship over the few days' time covered in the film, and by having seen the prologue, we know it will still be thriving ten years later (and counting). As the start of friendships go, Chiang's performance rings true, and it compliments the one delivered by Sheng.

Allowing for the usual Shaw script deficien-cies, the screenplay by Cheh and Ni Kuang is pretty good, but more character development would've been beneficial to the story. (Among the precious few pearls we're given, Bruce Tong's vignette where he dreamily ogles women while working at a pool hall is very funny.) As this is a Cheh movie, we're lucky to have what characterization there is, and while there's more violence here than in Young People, also like that film, nobody dies, so we should appreciate any restraint Cheh decided to use. Even so, our "suspension of disbelief" is tested by how Jiaji gets the money to pay off the loan sharks and what leads to his being abducted. Most importantly, if this happened in the real world, Sibao would wind up in prison for being an accessory to kidnapping!

If you don't dig too deep into it, the movie works well within its low budget, from the photography by Miyaki Yukio (a.k.a. Kung Mu To) to the bone-crunching kung fu co-ordinated by action directors Lau Kar Leung and Tong Gaai. The casting works from the leading roles (though Lily Li is underused) to the supporting players. (As noted previously, the late Chen Wo-fu has a few moments here as Jin Bing-da, a mechanic; hindsight or not, his unique prescence is compelling enough you wish he had a bigger part.)

Out of all the pictures Cheh made, Friends qualifies as his top "sleeper". One look at it, and you'll understand why other Shaw fans pass this up in favor of his bloodiest classics. It's as close as he ever got to doing a "little" film, and at the same time, he conveys his recurring themes of brotherhood and "yang gang" in the most accessible way better than he ever did in his biggest epics. He takes his discovery Fu Sheng and gives him a modest showcase in which to display his bubbling talents. Sheng is up to this early challenge, bringing Jiaji to life as an engaging person. He's rough around the edges with respect to his acting and fighting skills, but any noticeable lapses are smoothed over with his winning personality and (especially for the ladies) sex appeal. Anybody who likes Chang Cheh, Fu Sheng or wanting a break from the "average" Shaw martial arts movie needs to buy (or rent) this.

Brother Fang says..."Fu Sheng fans: BUY this! Everyone else: Give it a test run (rent or borrow one) before investing in a copy!"

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.

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

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Shadow Boxer (1974), starring Chen Wo-fu, Shih Szu and Frankie Wei. Directed by Pao Hsueh-li.

ON January 1, 1974, Chen Wo-fu killed himself on his 24th birthday. Why he did is yet unknown thirty-seven years after the fact. Since what biography there is of him is limited in scope (for those fluent only in English), any speculation the reason he did it because he was unhappy with his personal life or with making motion pictures is pointless. It's safe to say his act was one of a desperate person crying out in pain, but if he was hoping to be saved, only a "higher authority" knows for sure.

 Cheng Tien-Hsuing, Tai chi co-ordinator for the
movie, does a demonstration with Chen Wo-fu.
He had joined Shaw Brothers a mere two years prior, and of the five films he had worked on before his passing, The Shadow Boxer would not only be the first one to get released, it would be the sole one where he had the starring role. It was also unique by virtue of its subject matter; coming out two months after the movie showcase of Hung Fist martial arts in Heroes Two (1974), TSB spotlighted the rarely seen form of Tai chi chuan (a.k.a. shadow boxing, which is from where the film gets its title). Wo-fu knew it inside and out (in addition to having won the title of SE Asian Chinese Boxing Champ in 1971), and it's possible TSB was written for him. Even if it wasn't, writer Ni Kuang, by adhering to many of the basics of Tai chi and the philosophy behind it, crafted a piece of "old school" HK action cinema like no other.

It's sometime in the 1930's, and when the laborers of a road construction crew are forced to roast in the hot summer sun while waiting to collect their lousy monthly wages, worker Wu Bing Lien (Chung Gam Gwai) raises a protest as their de facto representative. This is fine for crooked supervisor Tang Hoi Hay (Yeung Chak-Lam), who'll use any excuse to screw them out of their pay (after taking half for himself) for his employer, Master Jin (Cheng Miu); when he tries to punish Wu for striking him, Wu's friend Ku Ding (Chen Wo-fu) takes the beating for him as a way to keep the situation from becoming chaotic.

His rationale for doing this is because he's been a student of Tai chi for ten years under his sifu Yeung (Yeung Chi Hing); the general idea is for him to "practice martial arts for health and defence, not for bullying others", and he "has to be tolerant". As far as Yeung's daughter, Ah Jen (Shih Szu), is concerned, she's not sold on this and feels Ku is a sap for being smacked around without retaliating. She's content to use only the basic martial arts she's skilled in.

Times are so tough in the town where the workers live, people are desperate to get money anyway they can, so Ku's sweetheart, Ah Bao (Chan Mei Hua), seeks employment at the house of Jin's son, Dai Sing (Frankie Wei), as a servant for his girlfriend. He's a bastard who enjoys all the benefits of his father's dirty money and standing in society. One day, after another boring sparring session with some of his associates, one of them, the be-sotted Chan Tung (Wong Kuong Yue), tells him his kung fu would definitely be tested if he dealt with sifu Yeung's Tai chi. Dai's interested; he sends the four men off to bring Yeung back and challenge him. Yeung declines the invitation, so the spoiled brat orders them to kill the old man.

In the meantime, Wu is still championing his fellow worker's rights (as is Ku Ding, in a more mannered way), and Supervisor Tang feels he's stirred enough trouble that he must be gotten rid of; with Dai's blessing, he hires thugs to murder him.

As for Ah Bao, Dai's been ogling her from day one, and once the moment arrives she's alone and vulnerable, he wantonly ravishes her in the ugliest scene of the whole film. Traumatized, she commits suicide by drowning herself in a river.

As each ghastly death comes to light, the weight grows heavier on Ku's shoulders to exercise the option of revenge; initially, he keeps to his Tai chi training of tolerance as he needs to be sure of Dai's responsibility for all of it; an attempt to make Dai confess only gets Ku roughed up, but his training enables him to endure the blows Dai and his men bring upon him. Ah Jen is (justifiably) too full of anger to wait for help from Ku, so she plots to stab Dai one morning. The night before, as luck would have it, when Ku goes off to drown his sorrows over these three losses, he gains as a drinking buddy Chan Tung, who eventually helps to confirm for Ku the guilt of Dai. With this knowledge, Ku now is free to help Ah Jen to properly deal with the privileged scum Dai, Supervisor Tang, and the assorted henchmen.

With TSB, writer Kuang mirrors the Three Styles of Hung Fist featurette that got released before Heroes Two (also shown before the feature in early engagements) and begins the movie with a demonstration by Cheng Tien-Hsuing, who choreographed the Tai chi action; along with a sampling of the techniques, plus the aesthetics behind the training throughout the feature, we get a decent overview of Tai chi and what makes it stand out from other martial arts.

The expertise of Tien-Hsuing helps sell the proceedings notably with the time he spent with Shaw character actor Yeung Chi Hing; his effort on the physical aspect in conjunction with Chi Hing's impeccable acting makes the part of sifu Yeung fully realized. The elderly man with the pock-marked face who interacts with Wo-fu and Szu looks more like what we think a master of Tai chi should look like than the sweaty, stout man at the film's beginning!

As director Pao Hsueh-li once did cinematography for Chang Cheh, we're given an approximation of what TSB would be like if Cheh had directed it, but more than that, he adds his eye as a former cameraman to the visual experience. Yeung Teng Bong is behind the camera here, but Hsueh-li brings a lot of the style he brought to Cheh's movies. He keeps the somber thread running through the film with little relief, the roadworkers in the heat looking miserable, Dai's raping feeling like the dirty, despicable act it is, and the murderers killing in a relentless, callous fashion; only in the Tai chi training sequences is there some peace, dashes of slow motion used to catch some of the movements, all accompanied with appropiate music cues.

As the villainy goes, they are all of the "one note" variety, but the most sour note of them all is Frankie Wei. (Yeung Chak-Lam is a worthy second.) When he smiles, it's never for a nice reason, and it has the same impact on me fingernails being dragged across a chalkboard does. As Dai, he plays a even more repulsive type than his roles in some Shaw exploitation pictures, which makes this statement the highest of compliments to his craft! As leader of the bad guys, he pulls off the "regular" (non-Tai chi) fight choreography by Yeun Woo-ping very well for an actor, too. His last confrontation with Wo-fu makes for a suitably apt ending.

In keeping with a story where the combat is earthbound, Shih Szu doesn't come on like the upstoppable hurricane she was in The Thunderbolt Fist, but she manages to hold her own in what feels more like life-or-death situations than in the previous movie. She gets the one funny scene in the whole production where the lovely Ah Jen gets thrown like a sack of potatoes by her father when she shows skepticism over the practicality of Tai chi; only when Ku Ding rescues her from Dai Sing near the end does she finally begin to realize kung fu isn't the only game in town. As always, she's also agile in the dramatics department, and her reaction over her father's slaying grabs at your heart. Her naturalistic work on this picture can be all too easily overlooked by the flash and color of the wuxia films she did, and this movie needs to rediscovered by more of her fans.

As Ku Ding, Chen Wo-fu is likeable and has charisma to spare, which makes his abrupt exit from the world all the more saddening because TSB convincingly conveys the "spark" behind this gifted athlete and budding actor. (For all their brevity, his bit roles in posthumous releases like Friends and All Men are Brothers confirm his work in TSB was no fluke.) Knowing Tai chi certainly helped him get the job; he was fortunate nobody considered taking another Shaw player and teaching them some basics, because more than a few actors could've done this part. (What those results would've been, I cannot guess, which suits me fine.)

Going beyond the off-screen tragedy, TSB is a very watchable diversion in which the plot is the "ying" to Tai chi's "yang". The fact Tai chi never figured again in other Shaws makes it a special novelty worth looking at, whether you know anything about Tai chi or not. Most of all, watch out for the ending, one of the better surprises I've seen in a long time; regardless if you can predict what happens or not, you'll (at least) agree it's... different.

The Image DVD has adequate picture, audio and your choice of English or Spanish subtitles; there are no noteworthy "extras". (I haven't seen the IVL DVD, but I'll bet the picture on it is superior.)

In the end, let this reissue stand as the best Chen Wo-fu testimonial to what might have been. May he continue resting in peace.

Recommended by Brother Fang!

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple

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