Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Lady Hermit (1971), starring Cheng Pei-pei, Shih Szu, Lo Lieh and Wang Hsia. Directed by Ho Meng-hua.

(All images courtesy Celestial Pictures.)

FOR all the acting ability she showed in a variety of parts through the twenty-three pictures she did for Shaw Brothers, Cheng Pei-pei is best known for her wuxia movies, or, rather, one wuxia movie: Come Drink with Me. While opinions vary over King Hu's film (even its status as a classic), most agree her star turn as Golden Swallow is the model for the character of a strong swordswoman that Hong Kong screenwriters were inspired to copy (if not better) in future wuxias at Shaw and other studios. The way the Shaw experience went down, not one wuxia after CDwM could duplicate its success, including Golden Swallow, the sequel directed by Chang Cheh. Even the prescence of Pei-pei in these follow-ups didn't guarantee a good picture, demonstrating how much the arrangement of the young woman under the guidance of director Hu was one of those "blue moon" occurrences.

The Lady Hermit is among those select few Shaw wuxias that came close to the level of quality found in CDwM. While not as moody or "trippy", after energetic fighting scenes and a "love triangle" subplot, TLH is best remembered for Pei-pei working with the woman who'd try to replace her as Shaw's wuxia queen, Shih Szu.

Three years prior to the events depicted in TLH, the sword-wielding heroine known as Lady Hermit (Cheng Pei-pei) disappeared shortly after fighting the self-proclaimed Number One bad ass of the martial arts world, Black Demon (Wang Hsieh), who wounded her in the abdomen with his "Shadowless Claw" technique. As it turns out, Yeng Yushuang (her real name) has spent that time laying low in the town of Dungan, recovering from the injury while working at Da Am Security Service as a maid for Chief Wang (Fang Mien).

Arriving in town one day is Ciu Ping (Shih Szu), a young lady who knows how to handle a whip as well as she can a sword; she has come to visit her uncle Wang as she searches for LH in hopes of getting her as a sifu. When Ping mentions rumors that LH is in the nearby town of Baijiang, Wang arranges a ride there for her with a shipment driven by Chang-chung (Lo Lieh), a good-looking escort she develops a crush on. Once in Baijiang, she finds out LH is supposedly in Chung Kuei Temple, where the townspeople go to buy charms from her as protection from ghosts that are currently on a nightly murder spree. Ping is skeptical about the whole situation, and not long after she realizes the "ghosts" are flesh and blood, she and Chang-chung enter the temple, discovering this LH is a phony Black Demon is using to lure the real one into a trap. As LH eventually shows up to eliminate the imposter and rescue Ping and Chang-chung, the moment the two hear LH's voice, they realize the mystery woman is Yushuang.

With Yushuang's cover blown, she abruptly leaves the security service; Ping quickly finds her on the road and begs Yushuang to teach her kung fu. United by their common hatred of Black Demon, Yushuang agrees, and as they refurbish an abandoned house for shelter, Yushuang trains Ping, including showing her the "Flying Tiger" style, a countermove to the "Shadowless Claws" where (basically) landing on one's feet like a cat after after being thrown by an opponent may help one to gain the upper hand.

As several weeks pass by, Ping's attraction to Chang-chung has increased since she began teaching him the martial arts she's learned from Yushuang, but what Ping doesn't know is he's had feelings for Yushuang since she was working at the security service. In turn, Yushuang cares just as much for him, but she can't think about romance until she deals with Black Demon. However, when Chang-chung suddenly arrives at the hideout in a mutilated state after barely escaping from Black Demon's men at the security service (because of his ties to LH, they have slain Wang and burned the business to the ground), Yushuang helps him to recover while Ping is away collecting ingredients for some medicine, and in the process, she lets her guard down for him...a little.

When Ping comes back from a month's worth of gathering, she sees the two of them together, and jealousy clouds her mind in a hurry. Twenty-four hours later, her perceptions haven't changed, and on an impulse, she decides to handle the messy affair of killing Black Demon herself. Despite Yushuang's assertion she isn't ready, Ping rushes off to get him anyway. With Yushuang and Chang-chung trailing not too far behind, Ping defies the odds by overcoming all barriers along the way before finally arriving at Black Demon's head-quarters. Bottom line: if Ping can't stop him, can Lady Hermit (lingering injury and all) be there in time to save her and be able to deal with Black Demon on her own?

What immediately stands out about TLH is the superb cinematography by Lin Kuo Chiang, Li Yu Tang and Tsao Wei Chi. After King Hu's movies, such attention to the slightest of visual details is typical of director Meng-hua's best films, and TLH is no exception. Every last shot taken seems to have been given some significant thinking through, from the lighting to camera setups. In conjunction with Chang Hsing Lung's marvelous editing, every scene, whether a quiet one or full of swordplay and arterial spray, benefits from the craftsmanship of these talented guys. For the era, this is one of the best looking "old school" wuxias ever.

Yeh I-Fang's screenplay for TLH wisely reinforces the "less is more" argument with straightforward storytelling without a lot of psychology. (I imagine his version of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon would be called "Tiger and Dragon", for a start.) He keeps the action and Black Demon off at strategic intervals in order to focus more on the sisterly bond between Ping and Yushuang, which is only threatened when Chang-chung (innocently) enters the scenario. As sufficiently developed the low-key soap opera is, the looming prescence of Black Demon should've been emphasized more. As it is now, he comes off as just a big bully. Further, if anyone attempted to bring an end to his reign of terror in the past, no previous contenders are mentioned; this implies only LH (Ping comes later) has stood up to him, which is pushing the limits of all plausability. (Possibly, a more physically imposing actor other than Wang Hsieh could've been cast, but this would've solved only half the problem.)

The acting (aside from what Hsieh brings to the production) does not disappoint at any level. Cheng Pei-pei easily gives style and substance to LH, and the well-written part is in synch with her usual good performance, and this wasn't always the case with some of the wuxias she did after CDwM. Lo Lieh appropriately underplays Chang-chung, the "eye in the hurricane" for the film, whether quietly pining for Yushuang or charming the lovestruck Ping. Among the supporting players, more than a few familiar faces pop up as Black Demon's men; keep watch for Chuan Yuan (The Thunderbolt Fist), Cliff Lok, Yeung Chak-Lam (The Shadow Boxer), Kok Lee Yan and Sammo Hung.

Even though it's Pei-pei's movie, the other reason TLH exists is to showcase Shaw's rising star, Shih Szu, the designated heir apparent to Pei-pei. So it goes she does a lot more in TLH (her third Shaw picture) than Pei-pei, but to her credit, she doesn't upstage Pei-pei. She portrays Ping as a young woman who shows maturity with a sword and whip but is still immature to many ways of the world and life. The acting range she displays is as impressive as the kinetic fighting action (supervised by Leung Siu Chung) and two sequences of elaborate stuntwork (involving a bridge and a pagoda) she participates in. I also get a kick out of the light moments she shares with Lieh where Ping practically swoons over Chang-chung; whenever the lovely Szu acts bashful and flirty, no fan of hers is immune to her charms (especially Brother Fang).

Funimation's last Shaw DVD release (until we hear otherwise) is consistent with their previous reissues. It has a fine anamorphic picture (stemming from a proper transfer with no "combing" in the playback), and the two soundtrack choices (English and Mandarin audio in their original mono, the latter with optional English subtitles) both sound great. The only "extras" found on the disc are advertising.

Through the May '70 issue of Hong Kong Movie News (thanks to venoms5 over at Cool Ass Cinema for the info), we know Pei-pei left Shaw to get married, and move to the US to retire from moviemaking, after finishing work on Lo Wei's The Shadow Whip. Had TLH been her last film, it would've made her exit from Hong Kong that much sweeter; unfortunately, seven months after TLH's January '71 opening, Shaw let TSW drop, an uninspired piece of work in which Pei-pei's character brandished a whip much like Szu did in TLH. (Hindsight is 20/20, but Shaw would've been better off leaving TSW in the vault or putting it out before TLH.) As the business of cranking out motion pictures at Shaw went during the early 1970s, they were staying the course, right down to thoughtlessly giving their departed star one more raw deal.

(Two years later, Golden Harvest would coax Pei-pei out of retirement, but that is a story best saved for another time.)

Brother Fang says... "Fans of Cheng Pei-pei, Lo Lieh and Shih Szu are already sold on this, and all lovers of Shaw Brothers' wuxia films should follow suit. It's a good, affordable DOMESTIC copy of a hard-to-find import; need I say more?"

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Brother Fang's Second Special Note: Your eyes weren't deceiving you....

(Image courtesy GSN.)

BACK in late January, a third entry in the Get Ready to Forget the "Match Game" Stars! series was up, if ever so briefly. Though this posting was essentially completed when published, in the days that followed its publication, I decided to withdraw it to do some drastic revisions. For me, it wasn't so much the content that bothered me as it was the writing angle with which I approached it. Since the post in question (a profile of actor Joe Flynn) is a lighter piece, I'm in no hurry to repost it any time soon, but it will reappear sometime in the future. (Additional Match Game profiles are in the works; keep a watch for them in the weeks and months ahead.)

So, to anyone who recalls seeing this listed on the Dashboard weeks back, and wondered where it disappeared to, your eyes weren't deceiving you; it was out, and now, it's not. I'm sorry for any confusion that may have resulted from this deletion.

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.

The Delinquent (1973), starring Wong Chung, Lo Dik and Lily Li. Directed by Chang Cheh and Kuei Cheh-hung.

(All images courtesy Celestial Pictures.)

IF Friends can be categorized as a fairy tale (a little Grimm, by some measure), then The Delinquent is pure tragedy. This could be said about more than a few of director Chang Cheh's better-known Shaw Brothers movies (like The Assassin or The Heroic Ones), but The Delinquent towers over them all with its unique, increasingly morose tone. Out of all Cheh's attempts to emulate the angst of the "Reckless Youth" found in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), he succeeds here --exceeds, really-- the best. (James Dean's "Jimmy Stark" in RWaC wouldn't last five minutes in this bleak Hong Kong.) However, he wouldn't have created this triumph without the help of three key people: writer Ni Kuang, co-director Kuei Cheh-hung and actor Wong Chung (in his first leading role).

As the plot generally goes, the teenaged John (Wong Chung) convinces himself the easiest, quickest way he and his father (Lo Dik) can get out of living and working in the HK slums is if he helps Boss Lam (Tung Lin) and his gang of robbers get into Wing Kee Warehouse to clean it out, after which John will be given a generous portion of the profits for his assistance. What complicates matters is his father is the head night-watchman at the warehouse.

While we don't know all of John's backstory, we can guess things started getting tough when his mother (seen in a brief flashback) left home. Apparently, she tired of being a housewife at some point and started going out evenings; his father thought slapping her around would bring her back to reality. It did; she divorced him and married an understanding butcher (Shum Lo). Her subsequent attempts to communicate with John through messages delivered to him by his girlfriend, Elaine (Lily Li), only serve to anger him.

The script rationalizes the father's boorishness to his being head of the household and his reputation around the area for being rough on would-be crooks who've previously tried to break into the warehouse. He wants John to get ahead in the world through hard work and avoiding shortcuts to prosperity. Though John loves his father, he sees the results of all the old man's laboring as a big waste, because it seems he hasn't advanced any further than those who also find time to relax and raise hell once in a while. These days, John is taking after more like his mother, so his father can't help but worry.

Sometime after he's fired from his job at a restaurant for fighting on the streets too much (which always brought the cops to the establishment, to the detriment of their business), John gets word of how Boss Lam needs him so they can infiltrate the warehouse. Lam's underling, Big Sean (Fan Mei Sheng), oversees a brothel, and he offers a woman to John as a means to win him over. Even after a night with her, John can't commit to the deal; when Big Sean then demands immediate payment for sleeping with the lady, John only offers to pay him later. In short order, Big Sean and some of Lam's other men track him down at a beach and beat him up when he decides not to pay at all.

Shortly, John is picked up by the police, and when his father refuses to post bail for him this time, it's Boss Lam who sets him free. Lam now talks directly with John about the proposition, offering him (in addition to money) employment, new clothes, a sports car and time with his girlfriend, Fanny (Pei Ti). It appears Lam doesn't want to mess with John's dad when he suggests to John if he can make his father take time off from work, nothing would happen to him once the caper goes down. John finally agrees to the scheme, and after a reconciliation with him, he persuades his father to take a two-day vacation.

Come the night of the robbery, when John finds out his father is filling in for the now-sick substitute, he quickly finds Lam and his men at a sawmill, telling them to postpone the operation. Of course, he finds out all too soon the deal's off; he's beaten up (again) and is left to have a deadly encounter with a buzzsaw. While John is occupied with escaping from his predicament, Lam and his men rob the warehouse, and in spite of his heroic efforts to stop them, John's father is killed. Upon finding out what all has transpired, John rapidly becomes a revenge-fueled killing machine, taking down Lam's associates one by one before finally confronting Lam himself.

With The Delinquent (released in the US as Street Gangs of Hong Kong), Kuang soloed on the script, writing a sad character study with a strong dose of violence that is always to be expected from a Cheh movie. (Had he done this as a collaboration with Cheh, I'm certain the emphasis would've been more on action.) Limited characterization behind the three lead parts hampers our empathizing with them, to a degree; John is adequately defined, his father has hints of complexity, but Elaine serves no real purpose beyond being rescued by John a couple of times or being an intermediary for him and his mom. (Lily Li gives a good performance, anyway.) Going past these minor problems, Kuang has crafted a cautionary tale where the moral is delivered like a sledgehammer between the eyes.

The original HK trailer for TD (included on the IVL DVD) promised audiences a "NEW KIND OF PRODUCTION" about "THE WRATH OF YOUTH EXPLODING LIKE A VOLCANO" that "WILL MOVIE (sic) YOU......AND EXCITE YOU!" and co-directors Cheh and Cheh-hung gave the people what they wanted. As for their joint effort on TD, it's commonly assumed the directing duties were divided, with Cheh-hung overseeing the dramatic, documentary-like scenes and Cheh handling the ones heavy on action (and his trademark "zoom" shots, though they're actually well-placed here). However, if we know anything of their filmographies, we see both were capable of versatility; based on this, it's more likely Cheh did most of the latter while Cheh-hung did most of the former. It's also possible Cheh saw something particular in Cheh-hung's own films that made him the choice for co-directing TD, because if Cheh had the likes of Wu Ma or Pao Hsueh-li on duty for this, we would not have had the level of emotional drama the movie has. Further, I think the two fed off the creative energies of each other, which is why their styles combine favorably in the completed picture, and TD ranks up there with their most analyzed films.

One of the "regulars" in Cheh movies of the late '60s through the early '70s, Wong Chung practically stepped out of obscurity to his first starring part. Whether TD was written for him or not, and considering all he's given to do during the feature (he's onscreen most of the time), it's gratifying to see the confidence the filmmakers had in letting Chung carry the bulk of the movie. He excels as John, portraying a likeable teenager with a chip on his shoulder who wants the world, and he wants it now. He makes a habit of following the impulses of youth without considering the consequences, from fighting anybody who teases him to jumping at the chance to have sex with a woman (when his girlfriend is saving herself until marriage). Only when he lets himself get involved with Boss Lam, he gets in over his head, with his father caught in the middle. He redeems himself by avenging his father's death in a burst of (volcanic) fury.

It is that very violence (along with the sexual content) which earned TD its (HK) Category "2B" rating (an "R" in the US). All of the film's fight choreography by Lau Kar Leung and Tong Gaai is above average, but it's the 12-minute finale that always gets discussed. The nonstop barrage of brutality and death as distributed by John, culminating in one of the most darkest endings in any Shaw production, is stunning to behold. (It still chills me to the bone after multiple views.) This climax alone should've made Chung another big Shaw star, but he would eventually be overshadowed (in director Cheh's eyes) by his next co-star, Fu Sheng (in Police Force), leaving him to nearly fade into the background before he took up directing his own movies. (What his career would've been like if Fu Sheng never arrived on the scene, I can't guess.)

Seen today, The Delinquent isn't as slick as today's HK flicks, but it still works, though anyone who craves action over melodrama may squirm during the downbeat material as they wait for the next fight scene. With a look of impressive authenticity due to extensive location filming, the film's depiction of a life in the slums, where the people settle for just "getting ahead", says much about their living situation; not once are words like "college" or "job training" ever brought up in the entire 101 minutes. If John didn't know he had other options, or if he did, and he never found the incentive to break away from the cycle of poverty, then that's the greatest tragedy of all.

Brother Fang says..."A worthwhile buy for fans of Chang Cheh, the underrated Kuei Cheh-hung and the criminally-ignored Wong Chung! For the uncertain, try it out by borrowing or renting! Remember, with the volume of mature content in this, do NOT play it with children or overly sensitive people around!"

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.

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