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Thursday, May 6, 2010

SHAW BROTHERS COLLECTION -- DVD review by porfle


(THE HEROIC ONES/ THE BATTLE WIZARD/ THE DUEL OF THE CENTURY/ TWO CHAMPIONS OF SHAOLIN)

Here's something Hong Kong action fans will want to check out--the four-disc SHAW BROTHERS COLLECTION, which contains four furious fight films from their "Sword Masters" series.

THE HEROIC ONES (1970) is a rousing tale of ancient China that's a feast for fans of sword and spear action done on a grand scale. As the Tang Dynasty wanes, warlords Li Ke Yong and Zhu Wen become allies in the fight against bandit leader Wang Chao, who has taken over the capital city of Changon. Li Ke Yong's thirteen generals, whom he has adopted and regards as sons, are fierce super-warriors who love a good battle as much as they love getting drunk and making whoopee. He chooses nine of them to be led by thirteenth son Chun Xiao in a mission to retake Changon and kill Wang. But fourth son Li Cun Xin is jealous of the young general and wants more glory for himself, which will lead to him and another son joining Zhu Wen in a bloody betrayal of Li Ke Yong and the other generals.

Cheh Chang's direction is old-style with lots of restless hand-held camera and whiplash zooms. But with a big budget to work with, he offers up an opulent display of elaborate sets and costumes with hundreds of extras. His battle scenes are often spectacular, featuring some impressive choreography involving numerous actors performing long, complicated bits of business. Swords and spears clash furiously as the generals take on waves of opponents and rack up body counts well into the hundreds. There's some less than convincing wirework as Chun Xiao and his brothers execute a few super-human moves here and there, but it's all part of the fun.

The battle for Changon is an early highlight which is surpassed later on when Li Ke Yong is kidnapped by Zhu Weng and is rescued by courageous general Ju Li, who must fight his way through dozens of soldiers on a bridge as the enemy stronghold goes up in flames. Throughout the film, the action is eye-filling and intense.

A lighthearted mood fills the early part of the story as we get to know the comically self-confident and cocky Heroic Ones, who revel in the fact that they can defeat just about anyone and have fun celebrating their invincibility with plenty of wine and women. As thirteenth son Chun Xiao, David Chiang does a good job taking his character from brash insouciance to wounded disillusionment as the story takes on tragic proportions. What happens in the latter half of the film is pretty heavy stuff, with the final confrontation between brothers carrying quite a lot of emotional weight along with the action.


I wasn't expecting an epic when I started watching THE HEROIC ONES, but it certainly does its best to resemble one. In addition to being an opulent historical piece, it also has elements of the Italian western and war films such as THE DIRTY DOZEN. And there's a gripping story to go along with all of that beautifully-staged carnage.


If you ever wondered what Hong Kong action flicks look like to crazy people, THE BATTLE WIZARD (1977) should give you a good idea. This is one seriously nutty flick that left me doubting my own sanity even more than usual.

As the film opens, the Emperor's brother Tuan Zhengchun is caught messing around with Hongmian, the wife of Yellow Robe Man, and when her husband attacks, Zhengchun defends himself by using "Yi Yang Finger", which he performs by making pretend shooting motions with his index fingers and firing destructor beams that sever Yellow Robe Man's legs. Yellow Robe Man swears revenge, and twenty years later we see him in his chintzy-looking cave lair with a new pair of telescoping robot bird legs, ordering his cackling monster henchman Canglong to kidnap Zhengchun's son, prince Tuan Yu.

This is just the set up. We then find that Tuan Yu has left the palace because he's a pacifist scholar who doesn't want to learn martial arts ("One could get hurt, and very sweaty," he fears) and wants to see if he can survive in the outside world without them. Needless to say, everyone within fifty miles starts attacking him and he is aided by an enchanted snake-handling girl named Ling-erh, who throws glowing green snakes at the leader of the Poisonous Moths Clan which burrow under his skin. Tuan Yu escapes and seeks help from the dreaded witch-woman Xiang Yaocha, who has sworn that if any man sees her veiled face she will either marry him or kill him. Tuan Yu sees her face, of course, and after they're betrothed he discovers that she is his half-sister, Wanqing, by his father and Hongmian.

All of this brings us to the film's free-for-all finale in which Yellow Robe Man conspires with another warlord to capture Tuan Yu and Wanqing so that Tuan Zhengchun and his wife will be lured to their doom. The young protagonists are hurled into a pit where they are attacked by a "giant gorilla", which is a man hopping around in one of the worst gorilla suits in film history. Tuan Yu, who now has super powers after drinking the blood of the Red Python and eating a glowing green frog (don't ask), takes on the various bad guys and their minions amidst a flurry of hyperkinetic editing, colorful animated special effects, and visuals that seem to have been conceived by a committee of schizophrenics. My favorite part of the whole thing is the sight of a wildly-emoting Yellow Robe Man stalking around on his metallic bird-leg stilts.


Hsueh Li Pao's direction and editing are all over the place in some scenes but that only contributes to the disorienting strangeness of this wacky cartoonish adventure. There are several fun setpieces including the fight with the Poisonous Moths Clan, Wanquing's frenetic battle with a group of bandits (in which she displays her great skill with the "bone-cutting sword" technique), and Tuan Yu and Wanquing's flight from a Tasmanian Devil-like Canglong. I don't know if John Carpenter ever saw this, but it's certainly the kind of movie that served as the inspiration for his BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA.

With its comically exaggerated acting and characters, hilariously melodramatic action, and "anything goes" special effects, THE BATTLE WIZARD is pure Shaw Brothers fun. It isn't often you'll see a movie that is this deliriously bizarre. I just had to sit there for a few minutes wondering what the heck I'd just watched.


Director Chu Yuan's THE DUEL OF THE CENTURY (1981) is much less fanciful than a cartoony romp like THE BATTLE WIZARD--no sorcery, no animated death rays shooting out of anybody's fingers, no diabolical creatures. While the impossible feats of skill performed by the characters still place it well into the fantasy realm, this is basically a mystery story with elements of "The Three Musketeers" and those old Westerns in which evenly-matched gunfighters faced each other in a final showdown.

The mystery begins when the two greatest martial arts champions in all of ancient China, Ye Gucheng and Shimen Chueishiue, challenge each other to a duel on the rooftops of the Forbidden City. Since the two fighters aren't enemies, a puzzled Lu Xiaofeng (Tony Liu) turns detective and tries to get to the bottom of things. Drawn into an ever-widening web of deception and intrigue which includes ninjas, monks, lamas, and flamboyantly gay eunuchs, Lu finally uncovers a dastardly plot that leads all the way to the throne. (This, along with the swashbuckling swordplay, is what reminded me of Dumas.)

The story is so dense and talky that I eventually gave up trying to follow it after awhile and just enjoyed the fight scenes which crop up every five minutes or so. Lu is one of those warriors who is so infallible that he can afford to be relaxed and funny (some find him extremely annoying but I like him) while fighting off hordes of foes. One running gag I enjoyed is the way everyone recognizes him when he uses his famous finger technique, which consists of grabbing whatever blade is jabbed at him in a vise grip between his thumb and forefinger. "You're Lu Xiaofeng!" they shout as he feigns modesty.

Lu encounters a variety of hostile opponents with different techniques during several lively but somewhat repetitive sequences, cracking jokes like Spiderman while defeating them all. There are a few bursts of hand-to-hand combat here and there but mostly the fighting is done with clanging swords and various other blades. The fight in an elegant three-level restaurant is an early highlight, which begins with an army of geishas filling the air with rose petals and ends with Ye Gucheng applying his deadly "flying goddess" move to an unlucky opponent. Great sets and lots of atmosphere augment the action, along with an effective score composed of some recognizable library tracks.

Lu uncovers the real reason behind the duel but, lucky for us, is unable to keep it from taking place. While it would be hard for any fight to live up to all the build-up this one gets, it still delivers a fair amount of action and unbelievable displays of superhuman skill (although I didn't quite get why they were leaping through big circles of paper). Again, this is just the kind of stuff that inspired both BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA and "The Powerpuff Girls", with warriors soaring through the air at each other as though flying or jumping straight up and fighting in midair for several seconds before coming back down. After watching all the tedious plot threads entwine around each other for an hour and a half, it's fun when these guys finally cut loose and get down to business.


Cheh Chang returns with his familiar directorial style in TWO CHAMPIONS OF SHAOLIN (1978), moving the camera in a dizzying series of lightning-fast zooms and pans that give his action scenes their own unique vitality. And finally--some good old-fashioned fists 'n' feet kung fu!

You may want to take notes, because the first scene is loaded with exposition as "courageous but reckless" young Tong Qianjin (Lo Mang) graduates from training in the Shaolin temple (I guess he snatched the pebble) and is told by Master Zhishan that he must locate fellow student and master boxer Hu Huigan (Chiang Sheng) and wait until the time is right for them to move against the rival Wudang Clan. (The Wudangs are loyal to the Qing Court, which the Shaolins wish to overthrow in order to restore the Ming Dynasty.) All of this is just to get us to the point where the fighting between the Shaolins and the Wudangs begins, which is when the movie takes off.

Tong hasn't been in town for long before Wudang brother Dezong shows up and starts flinging boomerang knives at him, which are pretty cool. The wounded Tong seeks refuge with a sympathetic brother and sister, Jin Tailai and Jin Bier, who teach him how to fend off the dreaded Bloody Knife. The next time Tong and Dezong meet it's a quick and dirty hand-to-hand clash that breathes some life into the movie.

The Wudangs then challenge Tong and Hu to a public one-on-one fight that becomes the most sustained and exciting action setpiece yet, with excellent choreography and lots of quick and skillful moves. Hu fails to endear himself to the Wudangs when he rips the junk right off one of their best guys during a slow-motion leap. Not surprisingly, this ticks off the Wudangs to the point where they invade the wedding banquet of Tong and Bier and turn it into a massacre in another lively fight sequence.

Things get more complicated as we go along, with a young Wudang named Wei switching allegiance to the Shaolins just as a fearsome badass named Gao Jinzhong shows up with the Yuan brothers, experts in monkey boxing and monkey rod, to take up the Wudang banner against the Shaolins. Also adding to the unpredictability of the plot is the appearance of Dezong's daughter, Li Erhuna, who's out for revenge. All of this leads to a climax that's a bloody free-for-all in which nobody is safe--you never know who's going to buy the farm next in this movie. Despite its many comedic touches, TWO CHAMPIONS OF SHAOLIN is filled with somber and downbeat moments that keep the viewer off-guard.


The only downside to this movie is the effort it takes to keep up with all of that exposition, plus a second half that tends to drag until the thrilling finale. At that point, however, the screen is filled with an extended flurry of bloody kung fu action in which you never know who's going to drop dead next. TWO CHAMPIONS OF SHAOLIN is a rousing example of old-school martial arts mayhem, rounding out the collection in suitable style.

Each of the four DVDs in this set from Well Go USA, Inc. and Celestial Pictures is widescreen with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. Soundtrack is in Mandarin and dubbed English, with English and Chinese subtitles. The theatrical trailer for each film is included. Whether you're a longtime Shaw Brothers fan or just getting into them, SHAW BROTHERS COLLECTION should provide plenty of fun-filled entertainment.

Buy it at Amazon.com
Buy it at HKFlix

Read our review of The Shaw Brothers Collection II.
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