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 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.