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.
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.