Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Proud Youth (1978), starring Wong Yu, Shih Szu, Stanley Fung Shui Fan, Ku Feng and Michael Chan Wai Man. Directed by Sun Chung.

(All images courtesy Celestial Pictures.)

IN 1978, Shaw Brothers director Sun Chung had four films released. Two of those were wuxia pictures. Of them, only The Avenging Eagle reached US theaters, eventually attaining a cult status with followers of HK action cinema. The Proud Youth (the first to be put out) never made it to American shores. With the recent DVD reissue of TAE still resonating among "old school" fans, I'll now examine the overlooked TPY and see how it holds up to the more analyzed classic.

The story centers around Nangong Song (Wong Yu), the top kung fu student of Luo Chaojun (Stanley Fung Shui Fan). The life Song has been living with Chaojun and the others in the Huashan Clan is about to get turned upside down.

Ling Yun
It starts when Chaojun's number two man, Shi Zhongying (Ling Yun), attempts to retire from the martial arts world. He's afraid the alliance of the Five Swords Clans (which the Huashan Clan is part of) will find out about his friendship with Gao Yun (Yue Wing). The man he plays music with is also a member of the evil Sun Clan, which the alliance plans to eradicate.

When the alliance chief gets word about the men's relationship, he stops Zhongying's retirement, ordering him to kill Yun. Zhongying refuses and pays a harsh price for it as his wife and children are slain. While Yun rescues Zhongying from the skirmish, he's not in time to prevent him from receiving a mortal wound. In seclusion, the two solemnly perform their composition, "Last Sound of the Empty Valley", knowing it will be their final time together to do so.

Wong Yu and Chan Wai Ying
Song misses the retirement ceremony. Encountering the rogue Hao Jeywing (Michael Chan Wai Man) along the way, he follows him and rescues a nun, Huizhi (Chan Wai Ying), from his clutches, getting injured in the process. Later, he happens to be recovering nearby where Zhongying and Yun are, and hearing them play, he and Huizhi go to investigate. After they tell him their story, he's sympathetic to their plight, and when they ask him to give their music to a musician so others may listen to it, he readily agrees. As Song and Huizhi leave, Yun and Zhongying die by a suicide pact.

Returning to the Huashan Clan, Song is punished for being with Huizhi by having to stare at the Cliff of Remorse for a year. Early into his sentence, he discovers an opening in the cliff that leads to a cave. Inside, the walls are covered with writings left by ten dead chiefs of the Sun Clan, who were lured in there by the Five Swords Clans many years prior, fearing the Sun Clan's "Chongyang Nine Swords Style" kung fu would dominate the martial arts world over the style of the Five Swords Clans. As Song ponders this revelation, he learns the "CNSS" (diagrammed on the walls) to pass the time.

Shih Szu
After enduring his penalty, Song searches for somebody to pass along Zhongying and Yun's music to. He finds Bai Yingying (Shih Szu), who he discovers is the daughter of Chief Bai (Ku Feng), the real ruler of the Sun Clan who was imprisoned ten years ago by the devious Sima Wuji (Tin Ching), usurper of his throne. She has recently gotten news that Shi (Wong Chung), a man loyal to Bai, broke out of the same prison and may know where he is. Song pledges to find Shi for her in hopes of freeing her father.

Once Chaojun finds out Song's been in the company of Yingying, he kicks him out of the clan. Song doesn't stop to dwell on it as he begins to look for Shi. Upon finding him, he and Shi then spring Bai from captivity. From there, Yingying joins the threesome in killing Sima Wuji and restoring her father as head of the Sun Clan. Song passes on a job offer from Chief Bai in hopes he can get back into the Huashan Clan.

left to right: Michael Chan Wai Man and Wong Yu
Meanwhile, Jeywing has resurfaced, and he's on a murder spree for a mystery benefactor, killing four of the Five Swords leaders and Chaojun's wife, Shouyi (Lau Wai Ling). Song finds the body of the woman he loved like a mother moments after he arrives home. Recognizing Jeywing's handiwork, Song swears to Chaojun he'll deal with him while his sifu attends a Five Swords conference. It's not long before Song, "CNSS" skills at the ready, locates Jeywing and is on the attack. What develops during the confrontation is the most unexpected thing Song will have to deal with out of all his adventures....

Stanley Fung Shui Fan

Like TAE, Ni Kuang's screenplay for TPY is adapted from a story by Chinese novelist Jin Yong; here, it's The Smiling, Proud Wanderer (serialized 1967-69). While I've yet to read anything of Yong's, I do know from research his writings are loaded with characters and plot twists; in addition, movies derived from his work are often said to come up short because a lot of stuff is left out. To read the plot summary of TSPW on Wikipedia and compare it to the finished movie, it's obvious things are missing from TPY. While the general structure of the script is okay, it's marred by a lack of some heart and unresolved plot points that make the final outcome not as satisfying as it should be (exacerbated by an abrupt ending).

Technically, Sun Chung and his production crew have made a pretty slick feature that make the story lapses tolerable. Key personnel who worked on TAE do their magic here. Cinematographer Nam Mai Choi's photography is never less than great; there's even use of the Steadicam, but it's not used extensively like it will be in later Chung films (like The Kung Fu Instructor). Film editors Chiang Hsing Lung and Chui Sui Lung keep the movie lively, especially making the marvelous fight choreography of Tong Gaai and Wong Pau Gei exciting, by 1978 standards.

Wong Yu
With the material uneven as it is, so it goes Wong Yu bears the most scrutiny by portraying the title character. For an actor who's remembered more for comedic roles (he was utilized most favorably in Lau Kar Leung's movies), he does all right as Song. When moments arise for levity or action, Yu's in his element, but he gets little chance to project himself dramatically, except when he finds Shouyi dead. To a point, he's upstaged by the subplot with Zhongying and Yun (easily the most compelling part of the narrative) due to the quality acting by Ling Yun and Yue Wing. Once the movie focuses on Song, it takes a while to warm up to him.

left to right: Ku Feng (with beard) Shih Szu,
Wong Chung and Wong Yu
The rest of the cast provides considerable support. Among them: Stanley Fung Shui Fan (also known for his work in comedies) is appropriately cold and authoritative as Chaojun. Michael Chan Wai Man gives another "heavy" part some nuances as Jeywing. Shih Szu is charming and elegant as Yingying, even getting to be physical in one of the action sequences. Ku Feng and Wong Chung aren't given much to do here, but their appearances are always more than welcome. (Chung also has the coolest weapon in the whole movie, which looks like a deadly, oversized pizza cutter.) Chong Lee gets the thankless role of Chaojun and Shouyi's daughter, whose pining for Song grows desperate once Yingying enters the scenario. (Why her picture's on the packaging of the IVL DVD is baffling since she's not a major player.) In addition, watch for Yau Chi Ling (Dirty Ho), Chan Shen (The Kiss of Death), Yeung Chi Hing (Disciples of the 36th Chamber) and Chin Yuet Sang (Lion Vs. Lion).

The IVL DVD has added-on music and sound effects, which are totally unnecessary, but most of what's tacked on is harmless except when a synthesizer is employed. Beyond this, it has the usual fine picture (anamorphic), decent sound and "extras" to be expected on IVL Shaws.


TPY is another good movie from Sun Chung, one of many waiting to be rediscovered by those who love TAE. As one of Chang Cheh's most talented disciples (after John Woo), Chung's directing on TPY still shows some of that influence, but his storytelling has evolved since the days of (for example) The Bloody Escape to favorable results. TPY is more ornate than TAE, like one of Chu Yuan's films based on a Gu Long novel, but it's not as confusing. Despite the flaws in Ni Kuang's script, Chung has made a watchable diversion that holds the viewer by great filmmaking, if not by substance.

Brother Fang cuts to the chase: "Not as emotionally involving or cohesive as The Avenging Eagle, The Proud Youth is still quality work from Sun Chung. The guy could direct. Seriously, pick this one up (and any other movies of his you can get your hands on) before it disappears. Three stars (out of four)."

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.

P.S.-- Buy The Proud Youth here. Read more about Sun Chung here.

2 comments:

  1. Great analysis as usual, Russ! I read this late last night and meant to comment then, but was very tired. Sadly, I have watched this one twice and outside of some gorgeous set design, I can't get into the story. Maybe it's the casting of Wong Yu? I like him in certain movies, but some, he just leaves me cold. I much prefer Chung's JUDGMENT OF AN ASSASSIN.

    Oh, and thanks for the link, my friend, but you might rather link to the Sun Chung article for convenience instead of the main page. The search function doesn't always work properly for whatever reason.

    http://www.coolasscinema.com/2011/05/neglected-directors-of-shaw-sun-chung.html

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  2. Just recently, I started to read the original story from which TPY was adapted, and it's quite elaborate and interesting, from what I've read of it so far. If only Ni Kuang's adaptation were a little more faithful to it.

    I've wondered if the flaw of the movie may be it was cut down from a longer version, but it's hard to gauge from the quality editing. Also, who else could've done better than Wong Yu as the lead? The easy answer might be Fu Sheng, but I'm not so sure. It would've been cool if Sun Chung could've borrowed Chiang Sheng from Chang Cheh for the task.

    I'll endeavor on changing the link to the Sun Chung article, which I had trouble with when I worked on the review. Thanks for providing this alternate link, Brian! :o)

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