Return of the One-Armed Swordsman (1969)

aka Du bei dao wang

2016 #101
Chang Cheh | 101 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong / Mandarin

Return of the One-Armed SwordsmanIn this lesser sequel to the exceptional original, the titular warrior’s life of peace is disrupted when a gang called the Eight Kings capture all the sword masters and order their students to chop off their sword arms.

With ten varied adversaries to defeat — the Eight Kings plus their enforcers, the Black and White Knights — Return puts greater emphasis on action than did its more dramatic forebear. The fighting is solid, with the enemies’ different skills adding some occasional freshness, but the plot underneath is thin. It makes for a decent but largely unremarkable, kind of run-of-the-mill, martial arts adventure.

3 out of 5

The Boxer from Shantung (1972)

aka Mǎ Yǒng Zhēn

2016 #56
Chang Cheh & Hsueh Li Pao | 125 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong / Mandarin | 18

The problem with watching so many Shaw Brothers movies so close together, as I have this year, is they begin to blur into one. There’s definitely a house style to the stories, the photography, the sets — everything, really. Even the particularly good ones can fail to lodge in the memory as discrete units.

That said, The Boxer from Shantung is a particularly good one. It tells the based-(loosely)-on-a-true-story tale of Ma Yongzhen (Chen Kuan-tai), a small-town guy labouring in Shanghai. After an encounter with gangster Tan Si (David Chiang), Ma decides that’s the life for him, and sets out to climb the crime ladder.

The Boxer from Shantung displays a greater focus on plot and character than is perhaps typical for a Shaw Bros movie, but doesn’t exactly stint on action either — the sequences are a little more spread out than usual, and it results in a just-over-two-hours runtime that isn’t typical for these films. Fortunately, it’s an engrossing enough story that this isn’t a problem, even if the narrative has a rise-and-fall kind of shape that is fairly familiar in the gangster genre.

Nonetheless, where the film really comes to life is in its stonking climax — a massive brawl in which Ma kicks everyone’s ass for quarter of an hour, even with an axe embedded in his stomach. At the end of the day, tightly choreographed and expertly performed action sequences such as this are why we come to these movies; and, at the end of the day, The Boxer from Shantung doesn’t disappoint.

4 out of 5

The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1984)

aka Wu Lang ba gua gun / The Invincible Pole Fighters

2016 #75
Liu Chia-liang | 95 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong / Cantonese & Mandarin | 18

When a warrior family are betrayed and killed, the surviving siblings seek vengeance.

Although the story features a lot of back-and-forth-ing to little avail, there are parts to commend it — the sequence where one son brutally inducts himself into a Buddhist temple is fantastic. Less clever: proving he isn’t too war-obsessed to become a monk by… fighting the other monks.

(Said monks are pacifists, refusing to kill wolves because that’s cruel. Instead, they defang them… presumably ensuring a slow death when they can’t feed. Well done, monks.)

Anyway, it’s rear-loaded with exceptional fight choreography, so providentially ends on a high.

3 out of 5

For more quick reviews like this, look here.

King Boxer (1972)

aka Five Fingers of Death / Tian xia di yi quan

2016 #12
Cheng Chang Ho | 98 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong / Mandarin | 15 / R

Released in the US as Five Fingers of Death, this popularised kung fu Stateside… before Enter the Dragon came along just a few months later and completely overshadowed it.

Viewed today, it’s a bit cheesy (which is par for the course, really), and does occasionally drag with the back and forth machinations of the rival schools. But there’s a good level of action (the primary reason to watch any kung fu movie worth its salt, surely), and a particularly stunning, casually inventive, multi-fight climax.

Also look out for “the Kill Bill sound effect” (actually from Ironside) and Evil Michael McIntyre.

4 out of 5

Film4’s Revenge of Martial Arts Gold season concludes tonight at 1:35am with The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter.

One-Armed Swordsman (1967)

aka Du bei dao

2016 #58
Chang Cheh | 116 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong / Mandarin

After martial arts student Fang Cheng is killed protecting his master, the latter takes in Cheng’s infant son, Fang Kang, as his student. Years later, Fang Kang is bullied by his aristocratic classmates and treated as a servant by the master’s daughter, Pei, though he’s a better student than any of them. Eventually goaded into leaving, his fellows corner him, challenge him, accidentally lop off his sword arm, and leave him for dead. Kids, eh? Fortunately, Kang is found by orphan Xiao Man, who nurses him back to health. With the help of an old textbook, he learns to fight left-handed, which is handy because there’s a conspiracy underway to kill all of his master’s former pupils…

One-Armed Swordsman is a relatively early and defining entry in the martial arts genre — it inspired countless “one-armed” imitators, not to mention numerous sequels and remakes starring the titular hero (he even crossed over into the Zatoichi series, which obviously I’ll get to one day). Being so early and formative, it apparently plays as quite rote and clichéd to anyone very familiar with the genre, though of course it was establishing those clichés rather than succumbing to them. As a relative kung fu neophyte, however, such elements are much less troubling. Sure, there are plot points that are recognisable from other movies, but that’s genre — any genre — for you.

Besides, as is the case with most works that inspired many imitators, there’s a reason they provoked copycats, and that’s because they’re darned good in themselves. One-Armed Swordsman is not a fight-a-minute actioner like some of its genre stablemates, but it doesn’t need to be. When action does explode onto the screen, it’s fantastically done, with a fair few smaller tussles along the way before it reaches an almighty climax. Nothing innovative in that kind of structure, of course, but the bouts are all well choreographed and performed, and the villain’s “sword lock” weapon is a neat touch.

However, for me the film also worked very well as a drama, and even sometimes as a romantic drama. Fang Kang is an interesting protagonist. His lifestyle is torn from him, and rather than simplistically train to regain it or give up entirely, he battles with that decision. He returns to that way of life only to defend himself and his rescuer, and then out of a sense of loyalty to the master who raised him, but he’s also prepared to abandon the martial life to be a farmer… when the job is done, naturally. Jimmy Wang Yu, in a star-making turn, sells this character arc as well as anyone in a kung fu picture ever has. He’s also (somewhat) torn between two women, the kindly and supportive Xiao Man, and brat-with-a-heart Pei. While no one could truthfully call this a romantic picture, the love-triangle aspect also functions surprisingly well.

Another joy is the dialogue — though that may be accidental, because who can say how much of it was in the original script and how much in the particular set of subtitles I watched. And naturally I can only speak of the copy I watched, which was riddled with spelling and grammar errors, so I can’t guarantee you’ll find the same enjoyment from a more (shall we say) legal edition. Nonetheless, I submitted a handful of my favourite moments to IMDb’s quote section, so you too can revel in the offhand way everyone keeps referring to the minor infraction of cutting someone’s bloomin’ arm off.

In my previous reviews of Shaw Brothers movies (like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin) I’ve mentioned their positions on “greatest kung fu movies”-type lists (and that’ll come up again next week when I review Five Deadly Venoms). One-Armed Swordsman doesn’t seem to feature on those as often, nor chart as highly when it does. I disagree with that. Perhaps those lists are based on the abundance of action in these films, by which metric this probably has too much drama — though, as I said, it’s not devoid of fisticuffs and swordplay. Combine that with a solid story, engaging characters, and a brisk pace (even with its near-two-hour running time), and you have one of my favourite Shaw Brothers movies I’ve yet seen.

4 out of 5

The One-Armed Swordsman returns in Return of the One-Armed Swordsman, part of Film4’s Revenge of Martial Arts Gold season tonight at 1:40am.

Come Drink with Me (1966)

aka Dà Zuì Xiá

2015 #178
King Chuan (aka King Hu) | 91 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong / Mandarin

The first wuxia film directed by King Hu (King Chuan, that’s Hu! #MildlyRacistHomophoneJoke), the success of which allowed him to make his next even-more-significant movies in the genre, Come Drink with Me sees a gang kidnap the governor’s son to use him as leverage to release their leader. Instead, the governor sends his daughter, Golden Swallow (Cheng Pei-pei), to rescue her brother. She receives some help from local drunkard Fan Da-Pei (Yueh Hua), who may be more than he’s letting on…

The film features good swordplay action, for the era — i.e. it’s not as tightly choreographed as you’d expect today. There’s a mix of huge free-for-all clashes, and Leone-esque long pauses followed by short bursts of violence. It also establishes Hu’s tendency to feature a strong female protagonist. Okay, she has to be saved by a man in the middle of the film, but at the climax she’s back kicking ass. To cement the point, it’s the female guards who fare best in the climactic battle, surviving long after most of the men have been slaughtered.

For all the fun, the story gets derailed a bit halfway through. Revealing that Fan Da-Pei is not just a drunk but actually an awesome fighter is okay — the groundwork is laid — but shifting the focus on to him and his old rivalry, which springs up out of nowhere two-thirds of the way through, isn’t good. Even the final duel is based on this last-minute subplot. It feels like a late-in-the-day addition designed to add a one-on-one aspect to a climax that would otherwise be about two ‘armies’ duking it out.

But this is a structural niggle, really. There’s so much else to enjoy — not just the action, but some amusing scenes, engaging characters, strikingly brutal villains (they not only kill a child (you wouldn’t get that in most movies) but they do it for no particular reason), and beautiful widescreen Technicolor cinematography — that it doesn’t grate too much.

Two points to be aware of when viewing. Firstly, when Golden Swallow arrives she’s pretending to be a man. This isn’t obvious to the viewer because she’s rather pretty, but all the characters behave as if she’s a fella nonetheless. Secondly, the version available on Netflix doesn’t bother to subtitle a couple of songs, which is frustrating because it’s clear from dialogue that they convey plot points. You get the gist, but it’s not as thorough as it should be. (Hopefully Film4’s screening will be more complete.)

I confess, I primarily watched Come Drink with Me because last year Masters of Cinema released Hu’s next film, Dragon Inn, and this week released the one he made after that, A Touch of Zen — I do like to watch things in order. Those follow-ups are regarded as seminal classics of the genre, a conversation Come Drink with Me doesn’t often come into. Whether that’s right or not, I’m glad to have been led to it, because it’s a very good swordplay movie in its own right. If Dragon Inn and A Touch of Zen are indeed even better, they’re a very exciting prospect.

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Come Drink with Me is on Film4 tonight at 11:15pm.

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)

aka Shao Lin san shi liu fang / Master Killer

2016 #6
Liu Chia-liang | 111 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong / Mandarin | 15 / R

Widely regard as one of (if not the) greatest kung fu movies ever made, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin introduces us to San Te (Gordon Liu), a student whose hometown is oppressed by forces of the ruling Qing dynasty. He and his classmates join the underground resistance run by his teacher, only to wind up witnessing his friends and mentors be hunted, tortured, and killed. Faced with a similar fate, San Te escapes to the Shaolin Temple, widely known for being home to the best kung fu around. The temple’s monks refuse to teach martial arts to normal folk, nor help by joining the fight — they’re Buddhists, after all. Nonetheless, San Te manages to inveigle his way in to their company, and years of training begin.

Said training — where San Te must progress through the Shaolin Temple’s 35 (not 36) chambers one by one — makes up the bulk of the film, though there are lengthy bookends dealing with the reason he goes there in the first place and what he later does with that training. If the notion of watching chamber after chamber after chamber (times 35) sounds dull, don’t worry, we only actually see ten of them, and several of those via an extended montage. The chambers take the form of challenges, which San Te must overcome by either puzzling them out or developing some kind of physical or mental acuity. Their content is varied and innovative, which makes them engrossing to watch even as they make the film episodic, but the nature of the challenges makes the movie different from the usual fight-after-fight-after-fight structure of kung fu flicks.

If it’s combat you want, though, never fear: everybody is kung fu fighting at regular intervals. Displays of physical skill and speed are de rigueur for these kind of films, but the combat here is as impressive as any. While the initial training takes the form of tangentially-related skills tests, San Te is eventually learning how to use weapons, and when he finally graduates from the 35th chamber he has to prove himself in combat, first against the temple’s justice, then when he returns to the outside world and seeks vengeance. Fights both with and without weapons are imaginatively choreographed and executed with the customary speed and precision.

Much as you won’t enjoy many a musical if you can’t accept people just bursting into song, you won’t enjoy many a kung fu movie if you can’t accept a story told primarily through back-to-back action sequences. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is more-or-less that kind of movie, though the differing styles of the chambers’ challenges bring pleasing variety. Is it the greatest kung fu film of all time? I’m no expert, but it’s certainly inventive, masterfully performed, and suitably different from any such movie I’ve yet seen.

4 out of 5

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is on Film4 tonight at 10:55pm. It kicks off a short season of martial arts movies — more details here.