HK and Cult Film News's Fan Box

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


(Brothers Five/ Holy Flame of the Martial World/ Journey of the Doomed/ Brave Archer and His Mate)

More lightning fists, flying feet, and clanging blades collide in SHAW BROTHERS COLLECTION II, a four-disc DVD set containing further fantastic adventures in the "Sword Masters" series. 

BROTHERS FIVE (1970), a raucous frenzy of clashing swords and impossible feats of derring-do, has just enough story to string together one blade brawl after another. We're back in ancient China again, where evil Long Zhen Feng (Feng Tien) and the villainous cutthroats of Flying Dragon villa keep the countryside in a state of terror.  Young swordsman Gao Wei (Yueh Hua) travels there to settle an old score with Long Zhen Feng, who murdered his father and took over the villa from him. 

On his way there, he meets beautiful Miss Yan (Cheng Pei Pei), who informs him that he has four brothers and that it was his father's dying wish that they someday reunite and avenge him.  Eventually the five brothers--Gao Wei, burly blacksmith Gao Hao, scholar Gao Zhi (Kao Yuan), dashing bandit Gao Xia (Lo Leih), and Security Bureau chief Gao Yong (Chang I)--join forces to take on the bad guys.

Once the exposition is taken care of, the story barely gets in the way of a succession of battle scenes that seem to crop up every few minutes or so.  Blacksmith Gao Hao settles an altercation in the street with the Flying Dragons by swinging his mighty hammer with deadly effect, while Shaolin-trained bookworm Gao Zhi has a nifty battle against two of them in a restaurant.  Gao Yong's Security Bureau men are ambushed and wiped out on an isolated road, and his assistant Chu, played by a very young Sammo Hung, is killed. 

Most of the fighting takes place in and around the Flying Dragon villa, with the brothers going up against impossible odds time after time.  The group choreography is excellent, with foreground fighters surrounded by several other fairly realistic battles going on all around them.  There's plenty of sword-clanging action and some pleasingly fake wirework, including one astounding shot in which kung fu mistress Miss Yan makes her escape by suddenly and inexplicably flying away like Superman.  The drawback here is that a monotonous sameness begins to set in after awhile, with one drawn-out clash beginning to pretty much resemble the next.  But it's all solidly directed by Wei Lo and expertly performed.

The topper comes after Miss Yan introduces the brothers to the special Five Tigers kung fu technique ("Five tigers, one heart") which requires five men with different skills to pull it off.  During their climactic free-for-all against a seemingly invincible Long Zhen Feng, they go into their rotating Five Tigers formation, which resembles one of those razzle-dazzle cheerleader formations and is pretty funny to look at.  The five brothers whirl around in this position for awhile, which seems to confuse Long Zhen Feng and leave him open to attack, so they start leaping at him.  I won't give away the exciting conclusion.

With nice period atmosphere, furious swordplay and martial arts mayhem, and likable characters (Miss Yan is particularly captivating and the brothers are a robust bunch), BROTHERS FIVE overcomes a tendency toward occasional monotony and is ultimately a pretty colorful and entertaining adventure. 

Making just about every other movie in the world seem slow-moving and mundane in comparison, HOLY FLAME OF THE MARTIAL WORLD (1983) is about as close to a total cinematic freak-out as you could imagine. 

Wan Ching Chung and his wife are killed by white-haired, bushy-eyebrowed Grand Master Jing Yin (Leanne Lau) and her associate Monster Yu (Jason Pai Piao) after they're forced to reveal the location of the Creed of the Holy Flame.  The Phantom (Philip Kwok) swoops in and rescues the dead couple's baby boy Wan Tien Sau, pledging that in 18 years the boy will return to get revenge.  Jing Yin takes their baby girl Dan Fung and raises her as a warrior in the all-female Er Mei clan, telling her that the Phantom killed her parents. 

Eighteen years later, Wan Tien Sau (Max Mok) is sent off to seek the Holy Flame.  Along the way, he rescues the beautiful Juan Er (Mary Jean Reimer) from the evil Blood Sucking Clan and she inadvertently gains great power in her index finger after touching an enchanted snake's bladder.  Meanwhile, Jing Yin, who possesses a Yin version of the Holy Flame, sends Dan Fung to avenge herself against the Phantom and retrieve the Holy Flame's Yang counterpart, which will give Jing Yin great power.  This sets the stage for a series of battles like you wouldn't believe between Wan Tien Sau, Dan Fung, Jing Yin and Monster Yu, Monster Yu's impetuous young apprentice Duan, Golden Snake Boy, the wacky Eight Righteous Clans, and Juan Er's Mighty Finger.

I just don't know what to think about this movie.  It's like taking an acid trip on a rollercoaster.  I'd call it cartoonish, but I doubt if even Tex Avery ever made a cartoon with such a breakneck pace and rapid-fire editing, nor such a dizzying, non-stop bombardment of bizarre images.  Director Tony Liu Jun-guk couldn't be less concerned with how realistic the wirework is, which doesn't matter anyway because characters continuously zip around all over the place in fast-motion like a bunch of flying speed freaks.  In addition to this is the precision fight choreography that is quite impressive, and lots of colorful FX animation.

The characters also display a wonderful variety of super-powers.  The Phantom's main weapon is his "Ghostly Laugh"--he sits crosslegged and convulses with broad, forced laughter, creating a deadly cyclone all around him which terrifies Jing Yin and Monster Yu until they learn how to make their ears close up by themselves.  In return, they attack with the horrific Bone Incineration By Fire and Merry-Go-Round techniques.  Wan Tien Sau is able to make his Devil Sword fly around as though he were operating it with an invisible remote control. 

Blaring music and an endless cacophony of sound effects bombard the viewer along with the freakish visuals.  One of the best sequences is when a 1,000-year-old corpse, which Lam May Heung brought home from a trip out West, comes to life spouting English phrases such as "I KILL YOU!" and, sure enough, decides to kill him.  Another is Wan Tien Sau's search for the Holy Flame inside the Moon Cavern, where he's attacked by cool cartoon ghosts and giant Chinese text that pops off the floor and flies around trying to do him in. 

From the moment this utterly kooky film bursts out of the gate it just doesn't stop, plunging headlong through a rapid-fire succession of breathtakingly off-the-wall scenes until the hilarious conclusion.  Possibly the downright nuttiest movie I've ever seen, ever, HOLY FLAME OF THE MARTIAL WORLD is funny, exciting, stupefying, and wonderfully endearing.

After HOLY FLAME, 1985's JOURNEY OF THE DOOMED seems positively sedate.  Despite some comedy here and there, it's mainly a tale of tragic romance with intermittent swordplay and some surprisingly adult elements.

The madame of a classy brothel, Big Sister, gets in hot water with an evil client named Mr. Duan after he cruelly breaks in a new girl whose best friend, Shui-erh, an orphan whom Big Sister has raised since childhood, throws a snake at him.  Shui-erh is actually the illegitimate daughter of a prince who's next in line to become Emperor, and Big Sister figures that this scandalous information will be valuable to the second-in-line prince so she reveals it to him in return for squaring things with Duan.  Second Prince sends the Three Knights--Fei-hsia, Xi Ma Cross, and Swallow 13--to capture Shui-erh so he can show her to Dad, while First Brother sends bad warrior Shan and two murderous Black Dragon Order swordswomen, Spicy Double Wind Eel and Monkey Lin, to kill everyone in the brothel.

Shui-erh escapes into the woods and is helped by a handsome young fisherman whom she calls "Knight."  It turns out that he is the younger brother of Spicy Double Wind Eel, which complicates things a bit.  Shui-erh and Knight fall in love while living in the secluded beach shack of a kindly mute girl, but Shui-erh becomes jealous of her and runs away, falling into the hands of the Three Knights.  Fei-hsia, who is in love with Shan and under his hypnotic spell, makes off with Shui-erh before she can be taken to the palace and delivers her to Shan at the Mysterious Fire Village, where a fierce battle between Shan and the Knights takes place over the fate of the future princess.

Director Chuen-Yee Cha's JOURNEY OF THE DOOMED has few major action setpieces compared to most Shaw Brothers films, and there isn't a lot of effort put into making the characters' fighting skills look all that convincing.  The main emphasis is on the love story, which is less than riveting.  Much of the middle part of the film resembles one of those BLUE LAGOON-type flicks about young lovers cavorting in the wild, with Shui-erh's spoiled brattiness getting a bit trying after awhile.  The lack of chemistry between the two actors is obvious when they kiss--she keeps her lips pressed firmly together as though being forced to eat spinach, while he practically tries to suck her entire face into his mouth.

Still, leather-clad babe Monkey Lin is entertaining whether taking on a bunch of inept guys just for fun or having it out with Spicy Double Wind Eel when she tries to kill her brother.  Most startling is the sequence in which Monkey and Spicy slaughter the prostitutes of Big Sister's brothel, and the final battle at Mysterious Fire Village is impressively staged.  There isn't much wirework here and fantasy elements are kept to such a minimum that when animated light beams eminate from Shan's eyes as he hypnotizes Fei-hsia, it seems almost out of place.

What sets this film apart is the nudity and softcore sex.  An early scene with Big Sister and her brothel partner gettin' it on is totally gratuitous, but the fact that she's so gorgeous makes it my favorite part of the movie.  Mr. Duan's session with the virgin Xio Cai is considerably less romantic, as he whips and even brands her while roughly availing himself of her supple body.  Later, things get sappy during Shui-erh and Knight's idyllic wilderness interlude, which even includes one of those cutesy montages set to the tune of a bad 80s power ballad.  This entire sequence slows the movie down and it doesn't pick up again until we get to the Mysterious Fire Village.

After recently watching several Shaw Brothers films which are loaded with wall-to-wall action and fantasy, JOURNEY OF THE DOOMED comes as a letdown.  It does have its charming moments and a certain amount of excitement, but it isn't a film I'll feel compelled to revisit any time soon.

Probably the most frustrating movie in the collection is Chang Cheh's BRAVE ARCHER AND HIS MATE (1982), because while it features a generous amount of impressive hand-to-hand combat, acrobatics, and swordplay, the story is a cluttered patchwork that makes little sense.

I won't even begin to try and unravel the knotty plot with all of its superflous and dead-end elements except to say that it begins with hero Kuo Tsing (Philip Kwok) and his beloved wife Huang Yung (Gigi Wong) becoming the guardians of an orphaned baby boy named Yang Guo after a deadly encounter with the evil Ouyang Fung (Wong Lik) in Iron Spear Temple.  The baby grows up to become a flakey slacker (Alexander Fu Sheng) who gets picked on by his foster parents' other kung fu pupils until he discovers Ouyang Fung still living in the abandoned temple.  The crazed old man, who has lost his memory, desires a son and offers to teach Yang Guo his invincible Frog Skill kung fu if he'll call him "father." 

Still a goofball but now armed with the power of the Frog technique, Yang Guo is tricked into thinking that his real father, Yang Kang, was a hero who was murdered by Kuo Tsing and Huang Yung.  His ill-fated alliance with Ouyang Fung seems to set up the rest of the plot until the movie takes a sudden left turn and ends up in a monastery where Kuo Tsing takes Yang Guo and fellow pupil Wu Sau Man (Chin Siu-Ho) to be mentored by his former teachers.  There's a whole other subplot about suitors coming to the monastery in order to duel for the hand of a mysterious woman who lives in a tomb (it's a long story).  Between the ardent suitors and the hostile apprentices of the monks, Kuo Tsing and his two charges find themselves in one furious battle after another until the movie simply screeches to a halt as though the DVD had gotten stuck.

I haven't seen any of the other "Brave Archer" films (this is the fourth) but I assume that they must have some archery in them since this one doesn't.  There is, however, a lot of carefully-staged action that is worth wading through the muddled plot for.  The melodramatic early scenes in the Iron Spear Temple are overly laden with exposition but feature some good fights, while the climactic sequence in and around the Quanzhen Sect's monastery is non-stop sword-clanging and kung fu fun.  In between, the business with crazy old Ouyang Fung returning to make trouble leads to some good clashes as well.  What weighs the film down, however, is the fact that all of this action is unsupported by a coherent story.

Philip Kwok is always a welcome presence in these films and Gigi Wong is beautiful and appealing as Huang Yung, while Wen Hsueh-erh is cute as a button as their daughter, Guo Fu.  Unfortunately, her character disappears halfway through the movie.  Wong Lik is a lot of fun as Ouyang Fung but he also drops out long before the extended end sequence. 

Worst of all is Alexander Fu Sheng's supposedly funny Yang Guo, who would be more at home in a "Bill and Ted" movie than in this one.  The relentlessly unamusing Yang Guo gets harder to take as the story progresses, ultimately becoming rather repellent.  The film ends with a freeze-frame closeup of him mugging like an idiot while the story remains frustratingly unresolved.

It would be nice if BRAVE ARCHER AND HIS MATE had been about Brave Archer and his mate, instead of devoting so much of its running time to the painfully uninteresting and pointless Yang Guo character.  As it is, the film fails to weave a compelling story out of its various plot threads and is watchable mainly for its furious action scenes. 

As with the first Shaw Brothers collection, 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 with English and Chinese subtitles.  The theatrical trailer for each film is included.  SHAW BROTHERS COLLECTION II is a mixed bag, containing two rousing and highly-entertaining adventures along with a couple of somewhat less successful efforts.  As with most SB films, all are worth watching, but you may not find them all worth re-watching.

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Erich Kuersten said...

No, the first three Brave Archer films don't have a single bow and arrow! It's one reason why it's so great

Porfle Popnecker said...

Thanks for clearing that up for me! :)