Friday, May 01, 2009

Two More from Union Films

Last night I dreamed of Brigitte Lin. Odd. I have a friend who dreams of her from time to time. Was it in Chungking Express in which one of the characters ponders whether you can catch someone’s dreams? I wish I could remember this one better. I did when I first woke up but then I fell back to sleep for a few hours and there were only wisps of it remaining when I woke up again. I recall that Brigitte was a Goddess who came to visit me and tell me something important but I don’t recall what it was. Perhaps an apology for The Three Swordsman?

Here are quick reviews of the two other DVD’s I picked up of films from Union Film Productions. Wish I had ordered a bunch more as these two were quite enjoyable as well. Maybe I was just in the mood for period action films.

A Girl Fighter
Director: Yeung Sai-hing
Year: 1972
Country: Taiwan
Duration: 86 minutes

This is the fourth of these Union Film productions that I have watched starring Polly Shang-kwan but while she is at best a co-star in the others, in A Girl Fighter she is clearly the main focus and her often lead co-star Tien Peng is only around to support her. Like the others, the film has loads of action (choreographed by Poon Yiu-kwan, co-credited for action in A Touch of Zen) but it also has a clear dramatic narrative that may have been mildly influenced by a classic Western (Rio Bravo).

It looks like a relaxing night for the Lio family of needlework and reading when a local bully breaks in with the intention of raping the wife. When the husband and family elders try to intervene they are killed and so is the wife. So much for a quiet evening at home. The killer is Kim Teng-jiao (Law Bun), a nasty brute whose father Zhang-peng is the big shot in the county with vast hoards of men at his bidding. And no one messes with his boy if he wants to stay healthy. When the authorities advertise for someone to help them capture Teng-jiao they get no takers until a diminutive figure shows up to offer assistance. The authorities look askance at one another because Sima Mu-rong is not only small but also of the female gender. But she soon shows them her fighting skills by taking on four guards and embarrassing them. She gets the job. No resume required.

Like most spoiled bullies, Teng-jiao is taking up space at the local brothel, The Spring Whorehouse. After killing a few of his drinking buddies and smacking him up more than a little, Sima takes her man to the local jail to await transportation for trial. This is the real meat of the story as Sima and six guards attempt to take Teng-jiao across hostile territory with dangers everywhere as the father has every intention of getting his son back. Sima gets some surprising assistance from Geng (Tien Peng) who is related to the Lio’s and also from Captain Dong (played by Miao Tien with his usual stern authoritative presence). Numerous fights occur and the small band of brave men and one woman who refuse to give in slowly dwindle one by one.

It is always enjoyable coming upon actors like Miao Tien (a.k.a. Miu Tin) in these old films. He had quite the lengthy career and filmography stretching from King Hu's Dragon Gate Inn and A Touch of Zen until he became a favorite of Taiwanese new wave director Tsai Ming-liang who used him in a bunch of his films - Rebels of the Neon God, The River, The Hole, What Time is it There and Goodbye, Dragon Inn (in which he watched himself on screen as a much younger man). He died in 2005 at the age of 80.

My rating for this film: 7.5

A City Called Dragon
Director: Tu Chong-hsun
Year: 1969
Country: Taiwan
Duration: 90 minutes

Director Tu Chong-hsun’s A City Called Dragon is an intriguing link between King Hu’s Dragon Gate Inn (1967) and A Touch of Zen (1971). Tu was Hu’s assistant director on both of those films and Hu’s influence in this film is apparent everywhere – from the main theme of the film (rebellion against authority), the slow drawn out tension of certain scenes, the tracking shots, the percussive soundtrack, the action style and most primarily in his iconic use of actress Hsu Feng. Hsu Feng debuted while a teenager in Dragon Gate Inn as the young girl, but it was in A Touch of Zen that she earned her legendary status as the chivalrous very deadly female warrior fighting for freedom against immense odds. Clearly her character in A City Called Dragon is modeled on Miss Yang from Zen and could almost be the same character at an earlier stage in her life.

A Touch of Zen notoriously took three years to be made and nearly bankrupted Union Film when it tanked at the box office. Hu constructed a small town for the setting and then let it sit in order to give it an aged look. His patience in waiting for the correct shot became legendary as in one such instance when he waited months until some flowers bloomed. It was likely during one of these breaks in which this film was made and though I would have to go back and see it again, the sets in this film looked very much like the ones in Zen and the old mansion is used very much in the same moody haunting manner. But all that said, this is no A Touch of Zen. It is missing Hu’s elegance and poetic rhythm as well as his insights into character, religion, politics and gender. Still I quite enjoyed the film though I admit much of that came from my appreciation of Hsu Feng who the director poses beautifully with sword in hand time after time in a near beatific light.

The film takes place during the Sung dynasty (960-1279 A.D.) with Emperor Hsiao Hsia in power and rebels, who are based in the Tai-hun Mountains, fighting for their freedom. Miss Shang is on her way to Dragon City to make contact with rebel Chen Young who has secret plans to hand over to her to take to the rebel stronghold. Before reaching the town, Miss Shang learns that Chen was captured and killed along with 80 members of his family by the Mayor (Shih Jun – the scholar in A Touch of Zen). Her mission now changes to finding the secret plans and killing the Mayor. Everyone in Dragon City is under suspicion and as soon as she enters she is followed by a coterie of peddlers sending rhythmic signals to one another. She has to kill one of them in order to escape their watching eyes but this alerts the authorities to her presence and the entire security apparatus begins to search for her. Just to be safe, the Mayor requests the assistance of Wuo, a vicious killer with a wicked laugh who works for the Emperor. But all is not as it seems. The film is perhaps too deliberately paced but it creates a tense claustrophobic atmosphere and a mood of solitary heroic desperation. The main fault is that the final fight takes place at night and much of it is lost in the darkness – whether due to the transfer or the original is hard to say.

My rating for this film: 7.5


YTSL said...

Teeheehee re your having had a Brigitte as goddess dream! Was this after you retired to bed post viewing a period action movie (that didn't necessarily feature her in it)??

BTW, are the Union period action movies predominantly ones where fighting femmes prominently figure or is it more a case of your going for exceptions to the majority male rule?

Steve said...

Thanks for reviewing these -- I picked up as many as I could.

Brian said...

YTSL - no - not at all sure where this dream came from - I wish I had focused on it when I first woke up because my sense is that it was quite a long dream and kind of cool. I think those were the ones I focused on but not really sure about the others - Polly is certainly in a bunch of others as well though.

Steve - Terry B. reviewed a number of these at Mobius as well - a couple that he didn't think much of and a few that he liked - Girl Fighter was one I recall he liked. Hope you enjoy them. Or at least don't hate them!

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