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.


  1. Nicely written and concise review as always, Fang! If I remember right, this one was one of the least profitable of Cheh's juvenile delinquent movies including the ones he only oversaw production on. I've only watched it once, myself and I thought the story was interesting depicting two fellows from opposite ends of the social spectrum becoming friends. I do think Cheh's 'young people' flicks are a bit underrated.

  2. Thank you, venoms5!

    Anything this movie got in terms of HK box office had to be on the drawing power Fu Sheng was beginning to develop. The way he looks onscreen ('70s fashion and all, especially that cool jacket), he looks like a teen idol, so I'll guess (as I hinted in the review) a lot of young ladies bought tickets for this!

    The Bowery Boys reference is a little obscure, but David Chiang and the rest of guys who are friends aren't a gang, as a few reviews have said. When I saw all of them in the gym setup in that basement, I was reminded of Angels with Dirty Faces! (That one had the Dead End Kids, actually, but they did evolve into the boys from the Bowery!)

  3. I referred to them as a 'low level street gang' in my Cinema of Excess Chang Cheh piece part 4. I haven't seen the movie in a while, but I remember them all being outcasts who were familiar with the big time gangsters that kidnap Fu Sheng's rich boy character. Being a gang doesn't necessarily denote them being involved with robbery, or violence.

    I remember next to nothing of the BOWERY BOYS aside from one movie where they ran into what was possibly George Barrows decked out in one of his gorilla suits.

  4. TCM has been airing reruns of the Bowery Boys movies Saturday mornings at 10:30am (EST). If you get your DVR set right, you may catch two of them before the channel gives way to their February "30 Days of Oscar" programming! (I figure the movies will resume airing in March at the same time slot.)

    To date, Warner Archives (at least) haven't put these out on DVD-r, but I think it's inevitable they will.

    My favorite one is Blues Busters (1950), where Huntz Hall acquires a voice like Frank Sinatra!

  5. Yes, TCM has gotten much more open about what movies they show now. I'll look out for those. They got BADLANDS (1973) on this evening, by the way.

  6. Badlands is a great one; early Martin Sheen movies are always worth my viewing time! He could be be intense, back in the day! I'll set my DVR for that. Thanks for the tip!

    I'm watching TCM now as I type; they're showing some Hal Roach comedies. Next Tuesday night through part of Wednesday, I think they'll be showing Harold Lloyd shorts and features!

  7. I haven't seen all of Chang Cheh's "younger generation" movies yet. I guess I've always been putting them off in favor of period kung fu flicks because some of them are a little depressing. Reading this was just the kick in the ass I needed to go watch the rest.

  8. Hello, Amber!

    Chang Cheh always managed to bring something of note to his Shaw pictures, so in the long run, any of his "misfires" and "sleepers" are worth (at least) a rental, if possible.

    Some "other genre" Shaw pictures are also good for a look, if only to see some of your favorite martial arts/wuxia performers in non-fighting roles. For example, if you like Cheng Pei-pei, you'll be amazed by her appearances (pre-Come Drink with Me) in dramas like Lovers' Rock or Song of Orchid Island; both are nice proof she's not lacking in acting range!

    Just watch out for availability; little by little, the IVL DVDs are going "out of print", so you may have to look harder for some titles more than others.

    Thank you for your comment! I look forward to hearing more from you in the future; don't be a stranger! :o)

  9. I love Cheng Pei-pei! I'll be sure to keep an eye out for any non-fighting flicks of hers I haven't seen. I've heard she's a killer dancer!

  10. She definitely is, Amber!

    There's a video of Pei-pei posted on YouTube dancing in a scene from Blue Skies (1967) with co-star Peter Chen Ho; typing her name and the movie's title (in your search) will lead you to that very sampling!

    Let me know what you think of it!

  11. IVL is already out of print, so buy up whatever you can now. There may be more Shaw flicks from Image Entertainment later but I don't know whether it's a sure thing.

    Nice, thoughtful writeup as usual, Fang Go!

  12. You're saying this in regards to Friends, achillesgirl? I thought it may yet be available (to a point) from YesAsia and DDDHouse (where I decided to put my link 'cuz it's not at my favorite place, PlayAsia).

    If this isn't the case, then I'm lucky to buy mine (from Five Star Laser) when I did!

    It does bear emphasis to remind Shaw fans that unless they get access to one of those wonderful 668-movie "box sets", people should hunt down any IVL Shaw DVDs that interest them now before they're gone! Once they are, prices for scarce, original copies (or bootlegs) of select movies will get pricey!

    I thought Image was done with reissues after Disciples of Shaolin; are there recent developments/rumors I've haven't read about?

    As always, Fang Go thanks you for your kind comments! :o)

  13. I mean IVL isn't printing anything anymore so whatever is still in stock at whatever store, be decisive and get it now! The 668 boxes have more problems than just having to fly to Singapore to get one, so the West should wait a while on that contraption.

    There's something up with Image because Thomas asked me to contact them regarding their 2011 Shaw releases. It may be tentative??? IDK. As you have probably deduced by now, I don't keep up with this stuff. Only when I'm forced to...

  14. That's what I thought you meant, achillesgirl! Fortunately, I've been working toward buying titles I want (or interest me) once I got my all-region player...allowing for "cost of living", of course!

    Oh, yes, I've heard about some of the "688 Box" problems! Even if I (somehow) got one for free, I'd wonder about the longevity of the product; if the thing endures no longer than what the best DVD players do, it wouldn't be worth it!

    Interesting (potential) development that Image MIGHT resume Shaws! If it becomes reality, I hope the DVDs are remastered better than the previous ones they did!

    I only keep up so far with up-coming reissues; Amazon and keeping a few import sites in my "favorites" list are as far as I can manage. Otherwise, I think I find out about new stuff through online word-of-mouth as much as you do! :o)

  15. I apologize because when I reread your previous comment, I see that I merely repeated what you already said.

    My problem with the 668 box is that I would drop it on the floor or something dumb like that. I won't be getting one unless I get a substantial discount.

    If I hear anything about new Shaw stuff, I'll definitely let you know. :)

  16. No problem! I sometimes "parrot" what others say/write to me; it's nothing two cans of Diet Coke Lime can't fix (to wake me up)!

    All said, the general idea of the "668 Box" (NOT "688", as I previously wrote) is cool; it'd be great to have some unit hold all my DVDs and have them accessible at the touch of a few buttons! We know the technology's out there, but we've yet to get anything better than a DVR!

  17. This is a great overview of "Friends". I am very fond of this film, I feel that Chang Cheh achieved a beautiful intimacy blending the story with the characters, and it manages to have some great kung fu sequences as well. I completely agree with your assessment of how David Chiang and Fu Sheng's characters meet and eventually become friends. I think they both do great work in this under rated film. And Lily Li, despite not having a lot to do, does a super job.
    Another well written piece from Brother Fang!

  18. Thank you, Marla! I'm pleased to see you had no problems getting your comment through!

    If Friends had a smashing performance at the box office, we know Cheh would've done more of these "little" pictures, so it's a shame circumstances turned out as they did! Still, revisionism has begun to bring people around to recognize this film as a classic on its own terms.

    (I gotta give a "shout out" to the sequence where Chiang paints Li's portrait while that original song plays over the soundtrack; it's all quite poetic, though the English translation of the lyrics feels rough.)

    With Shaw Brothers titles starting to come out from HK on Blu-ray, there's a sporting chance some (if not all) of Fu Sheng's other movies (after the release of Heroes Two in the US) will get the treatment, and I'm keeping my fingers crossed Friends is one of them!