Sunday, April 19, 2009

Union Film Production Company

Ah, Songkran has come to a merciful end and none too soon. It was basically four days of ducking and dodging but eventually getting soaked. On the second day four good humored fellows set up two barrels of water right outside my apartment building and dumped or threw buckets of water on almost anyone leaving or entering the place. No one was shown mercy except the Muslim women in their burkas. One poor fellow rode up in a taxi and they patiently waited for him to get out. He thought he could out wait them but after about ten minutes and no doubt at the urging of the driver he made a dash for it like Jim Brown in the The Dirty Dozen. He didn’t make it either. I think by the third day and perhaps the fifth time I needed to change my wet clothes I decided that next year I will sit out Songkran in some foreign locale! But it did give me time to finally get around to watching some DVDs.

A number of films that were produced by the Taiwanese film company Union Film Productions back in the 1960’s and 70’s have made their way onto DVD and right before I left for Asia my small order from YesAsia showed up and I just took a look at three of them. YesAsia has seventeen of their films on DVD in their catalogue. At least from this small sampling I wish I had ordered a bunch more as all three were very solid period wuxia/action films that are fairly entertaining. Union Film Productions is best known as the home that King Hu joined in Taiwan after he jumped the Shaw Brothers ship upon completing Come Drink with Me and he put the company on the map with Dragon Inn (1967) and A Touch Of Zen (1971). The expense and lengthy shooting time of A Touch of Zen helped contribute to eventually bankrupting the company, but during this time they were also making a number of smaller budgeted martial arts films that are chock full of sword play and kung fu. Though they do not have the same high production values as the Shaw Brothers wuxia films during these same years, they are not far behind and what they may lack in gloss, glamour and intricate fight choreography, they make up for with imagination and a body count as far as the eye can see.

Some of the same actors show up in many of the films – Tien Peng, Pai Ying, Polly Shang-kwan and many character actors. Polly who had debuted in Hu’s Dragon Inn is clearly a favorite of the production company and shows up in many of these films and in all three of those I viewed. That is not a co-incidence as I mainly bought ones that she was in as she has always been one of my favorite female action actresses. I think she was as skilled as Angela Mao (both went through training since childhood), but never became the cult figure that Angela did primarily I think due to her petite somewhat shapeless stature and a lack of Angela’s fiery charisma. She is great to watch in these three films though – always out for revenge and a veritable killing machine often wielding her two short swords.

The quality of the DVDs ranges from terrific to only O.K. They are widescreen with good colors and the English subs are shown below and easy to read.

The Bravest Revenge
Director: Chien Lung
Year: 1970
Duration: 89 minutes

The Bravest Revenge begins with action and from that point on only pauses occasionally for some terse dialogue and minimal plot development before the next action set piece kicks in. Director Lung seems to go by the well-honed film theory that if the actors aren’t moving and someone isn’t being killed you are just wasting your audience’s time. It was certainly alright with me as I hadn’t seen a wuxia in a while and this felt pretty good. Lung is also a big proponent of the zoom, often for no particular purpose that can be discerned. In an interview, Eric Tsang said of his first directorial outings that using zoom shots back then was considered the sign of a knowledgeable director but admits it looks terrible now. Yes, they do. Yet this is only an amusing distraction in a field of death.

Chau Mutien (Yee Yuen) has escaped from prison and is up to his old tricks again of ravaging the countryside. Brother Hsih (Ma Kei) who captured Chau the first time is brought out of retirement to bring him down again, but Chau has been practicing for this moment and with his powerful sword he is able to slay Hsih in front of his four children – three sons and one daughter. He considers killing them as well but lets them live and tells them to come back in five years when they are ready to fight him. Big mistake. The four (Chan Bo-leung, Sit Hon, Man Chung-san and Polly Shang-kwan) each trains with a different master for the requisite period of time and they learn all the basics like walking on water and catching a knife between their teeth. In exactly five years, they gather in Blue Dragon Town to revenge their father.

They find the area very much changed though – Chau is a huge kingpin now with more minions working for him than Donald Trump. The four immediately get to work and begin whittling away at all the black attired followers of Chau (being dressed in black turns out to be a one-way ticket to an early departure from the film). The four are joined by a mysterious fellow named Tsai (Tien Peng) who seems pretty handy with a sword – but then he should be as he is the Sword King. But even though the minions fall like leaves in a wind storm, Chau shows that he is more than a match for all five of them – even at the same time! Tsai realizes that he needs the Sun Sword to defeat Chau and goes off on a mission to track it down – while the four siblings decide they can’t wait for him and need to give Chau one last challenge. They wade into his well protected fortress and the killing begins in earnest. The action choreography is pretty good in this one with an enormous amount of acrobatic jumps that appear to be very much influenced by the way King Hu shot his action scenes – using trampolines and quick edited shots. At times it is a bit absurd as a character jumps out of one frame and in the next is sitting in a tree a mile away – but over all it is impressive, fast moving and lots of fun.

My rating for this film: 7.5


The Ghost Hill
Director: Ding Sia-sa
Year: 1971
Duration: 91 minutes

The title Ghost Hill is quite misleading as it may give the impression that this will be a supernatural tale but it is a straightforward period sword fighting flick with close to non-stop action. The director is behind a few reasonably well-known films – Whiplash with Cheng Pei-pei, 800 Hundred Heroes with Brigitte Lin and the perhaps infamous A Queen’s Ransom starring Angela Mao and George Lazenby - but Ghost Hill is a more enjoyable jaunt then any of those. There isn’t much of a plot beyond revenge but Ding fills the screen with loads of thugs in bad haircuts, colorful costumes, eccentric weapons and imaginative action scenarios that make it a bit of a hoot.

It begins with a seeming dash of samurai influenced swordplay on the beach as two men duel for the privilege of being handed the Purple Light Magic Sword from an old master who is retiring from the business and looking for the right man to take on the title of Sword King. Even though Jun (David Tong-wai) wins the bloodless match, the old master gives the sword to Shadow Tsai (Tein Peng) and explains that Jun only won by using the secret Hidden Tiger Leaving Dragon sword move which is against the rules of good etiquette. This decision naturally doesn’t sit too well with Jun.

Back home Shadow leaves the sword with his master only to return soon to find that the master has been killed and the sword stolen – he immediately suspects Jun. At the same time across town so to speak the long term nemesis of his family (for never explained reasons) Yun (Chan Bo-leung) and his daughter Swallow (Polly Shang-kwan) are also being attacked by a group of masked villains and the father is slain – and Swallow thinks that Shadow must be behind this. She calls her pal Jun over to help her out. What none of them realize initially is that the very evil King (Sit Hon) is behind both attacks and is trying to set these potentially formidable opponents against one another so that he can then rule the world and perhaps even move out of his spacious cave to a nicer neighborhood. He has a hottie of a daughter – Gia (Han Hsiang Chin) who is equally adept at poison, seduction and swordplay.

Eventually the good guys figure out who is responsible for all this trouble and they team up to invade his multilevel multi-cavernous cave with more booby traps than an Indiana Jones movie and this is when the film really takes off. There are some ten gates opposing our heroes and each one has its own obstacles to overcome such as ice, fire, explosions, poison and so on. With the help of the Beggar Gang who talk in sing-song syncopated rhymes they storm Hell’s Castle and the body count makes D-Day look like a walk in the park. The action choreography is so-so – often looking too slow and on another occasion absurdly speeded up – but it’s the set pieces in which the action is placed that makes it all rather silly fun.

My rating for this film: 7.5

The Brave and the Evil
Director: Jimmy Wang Yu
Year: 1971
Duration: 102 minutes

“The Brave and the Evil can never exist together”

In his years with the Shaw Brothers Jimmy Wang Yu (director and action choreographer of this film) was largely responsible for popularizing and re-energizing the wuxia film and he is also credited in 1970 for starring in the first pure kung fu film with Chinese Boxer. Yet he never felt that he was being fairly compensated for his work and the box office that he brought in and so he broke his contract with the Shaw’s and began working with other production companies as well as setting up his own production house. The Brave and the Evil was one of the first films he worked on after leaving the Shaw Brothers and it is an interesting mix of both sword fighting and kung fu. It also has a certain Spaghetti Western influence weaving through it in particular in the musical motifs.

Hei’s Fortress is home to a large pack of cutthroat villains headed by Devil Whip Chao I-fu (another ex-Shaw leading man Paul Chang Chung). A premium is clearly placed on nasty sounding nicknames as his top henchmen are named Swift Sword Chieh-fei (Kenneth Tsang), Butcher Li-Erh-yu (Sit Hon) and Killer Liu Piao (Man Chung-san) and their perpetual snarls match their names. Word comes to them that a shipment of value is coming through their territory and is guarded by Hung Te-wei (Ma Chi), a well-known swordsman. They attack in full force and though loads of minions are killed they eventually murder Hung with the use of Chao’s tricky Devil Whip. Minions are clearly easily replaceable since no one ever seems too concerned with their demise. There must be a 1-800-minion line in which they can be ordered and by the end of this film they just about have to all be replaced.

The security man Hung had a daughter and not just any daughter but one with a temper as fast as her two-short-sword slices. Upon hearing about her father’s death and the culprits responsible, Tien Chao (Polly Shang-kwan) hops on a horse and rushes like a hellcat towards Hei’s Fortress for a little thing called vengeance. On the way she is seen by a lone wanderer, Iron Palm Pai (Jimmy Wang Yu) who is usually accompanied by a Marricone like theme wherever he goes. Not liking evil guys much, he decides to join her on her quest. After first killing much of a town of evildoers – one with a rather deadly sharp abacus – they set out for the main bad guys. The final 45 minutes of the film is made up of two large set pieces – one with Polly taking on zillions of them and then Wang Yu doing the same. Wang Yu’s final duel to the death with Chao is terrific – lasting as long as a slow kiss with Angelina Jolie it goes on to the point of exhaustion – one shot of the two in a waiting stationary position of attack with the sun coming up behind them is Kill Bill cool. The action choreography is an interesting mix – lots of swordplay involving Polly and the bad guys and then Wang Yu strictly using his deadly Iron Palm kung fu. Good stuff though fairly generic.

My rating for this film: 7.0

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Shinjuku and Songkran

I just got my first dousing. A couple shots to the stomach and a blast in the back. The Songkran festival began today in Bangkok. It was apparently once a somber religious festival in which water was poured over friends, family and elders to cleanse them of the past year’s bad luck so they can begin anew. That aspect of the festival is still around but for many others Bangkok turns into a giant water pistol shoot-em-up obstacle course in which foreigners are not only fair game but prized targets. It is pretty difficult even getting to the corner 7-11 without getting drenched to the great delight of any Thai around. Having fun (sanuk) is a big part of Thai culture and no more so than during Songkran with a farang in your gun sights. So I may be spending much of the next few days ensconced in my apartment or lying by the pool munching on Famous Amos cookies and sandwiches. It’s not that I mind getting soaking wet – time after time after time – but I am told that to increase the sanuk factor the Thai’s now sometimes add various components to the water like oil and cement. I think my pasting was pure water though. At any rate, this has given me time to write up a short review on Shinjuku Incident which is playing here in a bunch of theaters but only in one as far as I know that isn’t dubbed into Thai. So earlier in the week I found my way to the RCA Complex along with another Asian film fan who was passing through town.

Shinjuku Incident
2009
Director: Derek Yee

Jacky Chan has been threatening for years that at some point in the future he will move from action to drama films. In his mid-50’s now, that isn’t a bad game plan. Still it wasn’t something that his fans or anyone else was anxiously waiting for. Shinjuku Incident is to a large degree that film. In a way, it’s like going to watch a famous strip tease artist only to discover that on this night she has decided to stay fully clothed and will perform a tea ceremony. You keep waiting for the joke to end and for the clothes to come off. They never do and you are not sure if you just got gypped or have witnessed a new art form in the making. Either way you have to admit to yourself that you would have preferred seeing her disrobe even if doing a tea ceremony. In Shinjuku Incident violence swirls all around Jackie’s character for much of the film, but he stays true to his tractor driving character and refrains from any snazzy acrobatics or kung fu whacks. Not doing so would have made this a Jackie Chan film rather than a Derek Yee picture – but it sure would have felt good seeing him smack down some nasty Yakuza’s.

Going with Derek Yee for his first dramatic outing was probably a good choice for Jacky – over the years Yee has shown himself comfortable both with straight drama (Lost in Time) and with crime stories (One Nite in Mongkok). Still this is a tricky balancing act – how do you have Jackie in a drama without bringing lots of baggage and expectations with him – and without allowing Jackie to make this his movie. For the most part I think Yee succeeds admirably by adroitly pulling together numerous threads and characters and making Jackie’s part less than the whole. He also surrounds him with a terrific cast. But it has to be said that Jacky is really not all that great a dramatic actor and I think this hurts the film overall – he can play serious but he can’t do it with any lightness, charm, nuance or layers. In Shinjuku he is so constantly honorable and dour that even Fan Bing Bing making goo-goo eyes at him doesn’t bring a smile or a tumble in bed. This was a role made for Lau Ching-wan and if he had been cast I think this would have been one of Yee’s better films. It is still a very solid fast moving crime drama that builds tension slowly and inexorably to the crackling climax. Some others who have seen the film have given it thumbs down based to a large degree on Daniel’s Wu’s over the top nutty manic performance but this was only a mild distraction to me and really only effects the last 20-minutes of the movie.

Shinjuku throws a sharp dagger through the heart of the supposed brotherhood and code of criminal gangs. Steelhead (Jackie) is a small town tractor driver in the Mainland whose fiancée goes to Tokyo to make some money before they get married. She disappears . . . for years. He illegally immigrates to Japan to look for her and after arriving he meets up with fellow townsman Jie (Wu) who introduces him to the tough life of illegal Chinese immigrants in Japan where the work is hard, the pay is low and the cops are always after you. There are others in this merry band of Chinese (Chin Kar-lok, Lam Suet, Ken Lo) and they get by through work or small time swindles. Through a series of somewhat incredulous events Steelhead discovers that his fiancée is now married to a top Yakuza Lieutenant and decides to work his way up the criminal food chain. Jie at the same time only wants to be chestnut vendor but some very bad luck sets him on a path to Wu nuttiness and bad wigs and fashion statements. As internecine gang war breaks out among the Yakuza, Steelhead and his Chinese gang become involved and all bets are off as to who is coming out of this alive and who can be trusted. It is quite compelling and certainly a stern lesson to Mainland Chinese about trying to make their fortunes by sneaking into Japan (the film is set of course in the 1990’s before the Chinese Economic Miracle)! Good parts are also handed over to Jack Kao, Kenya Sawada, Yasuaki Kurata, and Paul Chun Pui.

My rating for this film: 7.5