Because the screen is the only well-lit mirror in town

Friday, July 06, 2018

Wild Wild Wuxia: Amazon Prime Streams the Shaw Brothers



It's July --perfect time to cozy up in the AC with a seemingly limitless stream of cool Hong Kong fantasy cinema from the late 70s-early 80s streaming free on Amazon Prime. Thanks to the popularity of Star Wars and its HK vairants like Zu, Warriors of Magic Mountain, this period was rife with wild weird wuxia films dozens of steps more fantastic and unhinged than the usual kung fu plots and storylines (all those intergenerational wars between marital artists ever vying to be number one in the martial arts world). But these were a solid step away and/or above, with sweeping romance, monsters, myths, dangerous challenges, pursuits of ancient magical weapons and kung fu skills, etc. Way more fun. And above all - there are women in them. Not just accessories or damsels needing rescuing, fair princesses and dutiful moms, but warrior women - snake girls, expert in the handling and throwing of deadly serpents, or spiders, and even clans of martial arts nuns, the Er Mei, often led by a deadly ruthless leader with a strict 'no men' policy. These women are all granted respect, and the guys have no trouble fighting with them out of some misplaced chivalry.

from Bat Without Wings (Battle Wizard, top)
In general the classical wuxia output of this period, especially the work of director Chu Yuan, displays loads of atmosphere in vast ornate, gorgeous sets in which indoors and outdoors cease to be relative terms, as restaurants lead out to cliffs and small pond oases lie like ledges halfway down steep drop-offs. The films I mention here have a few things in common, recurring characters, directors, fight coordinators and above all atmosphere, strong female characters and roots in Chinese mythology. Chu Yuan's stress of atmospherics and focus on the novels of Gu Long, thus the Jungian resonance and horror atmospherics, the approach of Bava level-lighting on ornate mist-enshrouded sets to the point it's like Black Sabbath spilled over onto a Chinatown train set. Since the Shaws clearly reused, expanding and adjusting, their beautiful sets ceaselessly, each film is able to generate ornate vast sets of perfect beauty and just wiz through them as characters pursue clues and each other all around mystical landscapes.

To my eyes it makes a huge difference. In largely outdoor photography of many productions (as in King Hu film like Dragon Inn) the imagery often comes across as washed out and drab on DVD while the indoor studio bound world of the Shaws gives the impression of a vast perfectly modulated miniature world full of lush waterfalls, cliffs, mist, cherry and plum blossoms, and ever-setting suns, where huge beautiful restaurants stand ever ready to become scenes of crazy group fighting, or secret passages lead to huge beautiful caves filled with glistening skulls, coffins and spiderwebs and where the forests at night are dappled with cornflake snow amidst the cherry and plum blossoms. The effect is like an alternate reality dreamscape - a vast roofed ancient China-themed miniature golf course-style paradise. In other words, my kinda escape from summer heat. So blast the AC and move your chair so the vent is blowing right on your face, and get ready for weirdness, Hong Kong-style.


Special Note: People watching Prime through Sony Blu-ray players--at least the older models--won't be able to access closed captions on these for the English subtitles (they're in Cantonese); it's just a discordant note between Prime and Sony still unresolved. However, you should just invest in Apple TV or a stick or something, as it's worth the upgrade. I know I'm glad I did, especially since we moved to Crown Heights where the cable doesn't get El Rey - which is the great channel that used to show all these. A thousand curses on the inferior and out-of-touch Optimum! 

1. BAT WITHOUT WINGS 
(1980) Dir. Chu Yuan
*** 1/2 / Amazon Image - A+

Even if they have no familiarity with the wuxia genre, Fans of the colorful atmosphere-drenched 60s horror of Mario Bava, those classic horror fans like me who swoon over the beautiful the colors of his Black Sabbath and Kill Baby Kill, should seek out Bat Without Wings, for the patience and creativity with colored gel spots to create rich atmosphere is very similar, with vast caverns of cobwebs and (terrible) statues made by a crackpot mad artist--a former mad rapist-murderer--who's allegedly being held on a remote island full of elaborate traps after being apprehended or supposedly killed years ago by a barrage of martial arts masters in a wild, confusing prologue. If you don't mind occasionally losing the threads of the elaborate tapestry plot as it zips around from place to place, you can just soak up the atmosphere and bizarre horror touches like the ghost of one of the Bat's victims appearing at the gate of her homestead, all bathed in green and holding her severed head. Not only that, but the titular bad guy (Feng Ku), made up like an Asian Gene Simmons, storms in and out of ladies' chambers with the heavy lightness of a roadshow barnstorming evil villain come for his rent. He's delightful! A round little maniac who flies around slaughtering whole parties of trained security guards just because a girl in their party looks like another girl. Mwahahah. With Chen Shan as the leader of the easily slain Hell Gang. The inescapable Derek Yee is the master swordsman endlessly tested for skill and sent on wild missions to find out what the hell is going on -- is the Bat really dead or what? There's something far more complex and sinister, naturally involving a missing 'Bat' blade that can render its user ultra-powerful. Some want it found and destroyed, others have secret agendas for power. Mwah hahha!

 I kept trying to take some decent screenshots to show how gorgeous this all looks on the right size HD TV, but it doesn't translate as well to small screen snapshots - still you can get the idea.

 Special note for sensitive viewers: there's talk about the Bat being a serial rapist-murderer, but we never see him actually rape anyone. We do find his early victim sent home in parts and as a mysterious green ghost, but that's just wuxia, and the limbs look so fake you can all but see the mannequin serial numbers. The actual plot turns out to have a whole mess of Scooby Doo-style turns and tricks and all ends in a giant, beautifully-lit cavern, full of magic and the clanging of swords, no subjugation and misogyny. It's way cooler than that. In fact, in the right mood, in the right environment (like home in the AC during a sweltering heat wave) sheer gonzo heaven, just don't worry if the plot gets away from you. In a Chu Yuan production you can always just trip out on the swirling mist and gorgeous landscapes, eerie caverns and ghostly green figures in the distance...

2. THE BLACK LIZARD
(1981) Dir. Chu Yuan
**1/2 / Amazon Image - A+

It's pretty to look at, with some funny and strange characters and complex machinations so over-the-top they're like every old dark house mystery from the 30s pureed together with Wilkie Collins frosting, but the greens glow valiantly and Bava fans should rejoice - once again director Chu Yuan keeps the fog machines and colored gel lights on, enriching nearly every frame with mood, as a man in a dark red cloak and lizard skin keeps carting a coffin around with a talking wooden effigy of swordman Lung Fei's fiancee inside. The indefatigable Derek Yee is a detective swordsman swept up in an intergenerational mystery having to do with an ancient curse by a black lizard demon living in a misty lake -- has he emerged and possessed a young son (in a flashback he looks like a giant black lizard with green eyes but--- well, anything is possible). There's also another mysterious woman, this one all dressed in white, who disappears and appears with dire pronouncements. The lizard zips around, women become wooden statues and back and forth; people are buried alive in wooden effigies of themselves by a madman. A man wearing lipstick, sheathed in fog, warns our hero his fiancee is going to die; there are secret panels and an array of disguises and intrigue, and--jeeze--don't even worry about the byzantine inter-family paranoia that evidently underwrites the weirdness. Just do like Kim Newman tells you in his Mark of the Vampire DVD commentary, just soak in the ample atmosphere and savor the horror elements and don't let the Scooby Doo denouement sour it with a lot of twists and reveals. It may not all add up, but does it need to? If you said yes then I'd suggest an hour of deep meditation on the transience of all things. Even the web, in its full entirety, shall pass in time.... I think. 

3. FULL MOON SCIMITAR
(1979) Dir. Chu Yuan 
***  / Amazon Image - A

The love between a fox spirit and a martial artist, carrying a parallel to one gone on in the previous generation without either of their knowledge - the scenes taking place in the spectral world are so gorgeous and ethereal that you'll want to find your way there more than you would Shangri La (I love that it's always night and the ornate soundstage indoor/outdoor magic of it all. And the spooky comeuppance against earth's rival - this just makes it all the more heartbreaking when our hero becomes a dick obsessed with fame, but such is the way of men). Derek Yee stars as Ding Peng who gets hoodwinked on his way to a big duel for mastery of martial arts when his rival's wife seduces him and steals his martial arts manual in the middle of the night -thus informing the treacherous Ruo Song (Wong Yung) of how to counter the chumps' moves, and to imply then that the martial arts manual was his etc. It all sets poor egotistical Ding into a suicidal despair but--as so often in these things--he's prevented at the last minute by ghostly intervention, in this case, a green-lit fox spirit (in the Chu Yuan universe, the realms of the dead are always bathed in a haunting green light) named Qing Qing (Lisa Wong). She takes him to her mysterious land between the living and the dead, a kind of secret Shangri La paradise all shot on those marvelous expansive soundstage landscapes of cherry blossom and lantern lit night -- who would ever want to leave? Well, once he starts practicing with Qing Qing's magical scimitar, Ding Peng does wants to leave - he convinces his now-wife to come with him and help arrange revenge on Ruo Song, and for some reason she takes the upper hand, posing as her own treacherous sister (?) and betraying Song with supernatural trickery that ensures an easy victory. But naturally old Ding isn't satisfied. He wants to keep going and be the best in the martial arts world, little knowing how much damage he's doing to his home life in the pursuit of wealth and fame and just how truly treacherous Ruo Song really is. Naturally it all ends in a big grievance-airing international duel.

Love that setting sun spotlight
And though that's kind of inevitable for a Shaw Brothers movie, once again it's the mist-enshrouded magical ancient landscapes, like gorgeous life-size dioramas, that haunt the mind and make these so worth seeing on a big HD screen with deep blacks. On my 60" Sony Bravia they're impeccably haunting. And his dick moves to Qing Qing (he even remarries claiming he can't be with a fox forever) carry a rough sting but you know it will end happily. Alas, like all the Shaw Brothers films, the ending is--for my money--way too abrupt. They should have a groovy party afterwards, but Shaw Brothers movies tend to end within seconds of the final bad guy dying. Such is the way of the Tao.

A girl and her snakes

4. THE BATTLE WIZARD
(1977) Dir. Hsueh Li Pao
*** Amazon Image: A

It's so insane it has to be based on some old legend - Dan Lee plays a young scholar son of a respected general runs away to avoid learning kung fu (he'd rather read books). On the road, naive and even a trifle thick-headed, he meets a pretty young girl named Lin (Chen Che Lin) who uses snakes as weapons/couriers, and after some antagonistic bickering they team up, and then promptly run afoul of 'the poison gang.' There's much back and forth of poisonous attacks (she launches a venomous sneak into the leader's body) the scholar must find her ninja sister (Ni Tien) to rescue her and then well, he winds up gaining super powers through drinking the blood of a giant red snake while hiding out on one of those mysterious hidden cliffside oases. You got to respect a guy who--when a girl tells him to drink the blood of a giant red snake that's trying to suffocate him in the middle of a pond, he promptly bites down on its neck like a vampire, and then, later, when he tells him to swallow a  poisonous toad whole--he does too! No questions asked! Dude, drinking snake blood is one thing, shooting a live, venomous (glowing) toad like it it's a cold oyster, that's crazy courage. Other foes include a gorilla (a hilarious ape-costumed dude in a pit), the titular battlesome wizard (friends of Lo Pan from Big Trouble in Little China will recognize he's got a lot of the same skills, including fire breathing), a crazy rapist bald green fanged monster with a detachable claw arm who can outrun horses, and a complicated tale of brothers and sisters across two family dynasties that--through some uncool philandering 20 years earlier--led to the original confrontation and all the bad blood that must out in the children, etc. Based on a fantasy novel by Jin Yong.

5. BUDDHA'S PALM
(1982) Dir Taylor Wong
***1/2 / Amazon Image - B+

With a great 80s synth score, lots of animated fire and magic effects, this is a fine companion piece to THE BATTLE WIZARD. Like that film, our callow lead-Lung (Tung Shing Yee) starts out a churlish heartbroken brat but the dopey dragon that rescues him from a plunge off the cliff looks like a kind of mix of a parade Chinese dragon and a muppet, and on a mysterious outcropping halfway down a cliff (Asia must be full of these little magic oases you can only access by jumping off a cliff) he meets the fallen hero Flaming Cloud Devil (Alex Man) who wants to teach him the unbeatable Buddha's Palm precisely because he doesn't want to learn it (churlish brat that he is). Here's a film that's clearly got some Star Wars influence to it, but Lucas would never have so many strong female characters, nor an evil henchmen kid with a huge acid pus-spraying facial tumor, or a villain with a super extendable giant killer foot, of course I mean Heavenly Foot of the 10,000 Swords Clan (Shih Kien)! Other foes are named: Flying Bells (Chen Szu-chia), Flying Loops (Yum Yum Shaw), and The Thunderbolt Devil (as he uses sound wave combat). Now that he knows the Palm, and has partially restored Flaming Cloud Devil's sight (via a magic dragon egg), he must help bring them all down in spectacular laser, sound wave, and spinning kick-filled brawls.


Special shout out to the great Lieh Lo -- a joy as the mysterious, ever-clowning (but never obnoxious) martial artist who tends to arrive at just the right time, proclaiming "Bi Gu of East Island is here!" as in now the party can start. Far too much crazy stuff happens to tell, and there's even the old all-girl Er Mei school again, but a standout is the sight of Heavenly Foot using his percussion set up to drive his daughter crazy (turns out he controls her via a poisonous internal centipede). Just watching him in sped up motion playing with his foot and hands, dopey grin on his face, is a priceless privilege. He's so evil! And that crazy foot! Flaming Cloud Devil ends up converting a few of her cast-out girl students (they help Lung after he helps them steal a relic for their master to fix her acne). And eventually they all even patch up their differences without fighting - and have a big celebration - but there's still trouble a Foot!
---

6. HOLY FLAME OF THE MARTIAL WORLD
(1983) Dir. Chin-Ku Lu
*** / Amazon Image - A-

American critics of HK fantasy films often note that they seem to be on fast forward, and to make that argument here's exhibit A, a film that zips along like it's running a well-practiced relay race, making us all wonder what kind of coffee they serve at the Shaw Studios. (My viewing strategy: just presume your first guess on what's going on is correct--it usually is). At any rate, even those who can handle the dizzying narrative progression of Battle Wizard and Buddha's Palm might be in trouble for Holy Flame of the Martial World but if you catch it in just the right frame of mind it's a pretty wild time. The flame of the title is a weird looking weapon with a gem in the center so better believe it's got magical powers; naturally the hero is a pretty young orphan whose parents died protecting the secret of the flame's hiding place from a wittily-subtitled gang of greedy kung fu clan leaders. The secret is hidden somewhere in the mind of skin or something of the boy guarded by a hilarious old master named the Phantom (Phillip Kwok) with his devastating sound wave attack 'ghost laughter' - the sight of him making weird gestures and rolling around on his lotus position legs roaring with 'ghost laughter' is pretty edifying, right up there in hilarious oddness with Heavenly Foot's magic percussion attacks in Buddha's Palm. One of the nicest of all kung fu teachers, nothing fazes or annoys the Phantom. He never has a single negative thing to say, and his good-natured laughter is infectious.


Best of all, one of the main villains is a white-haired woman Tsing Yin (Leanne Lau), the master of the Er Mei school -- as seen in Heavenly Sword and Dragon Sabre --they're an all-woman kung fu school whose first rule is no congress with men. (Naturally that law gets broken a bit). One of the Er Mei students is helped out of a jam by our hero and soon it's clear she's being trained for a very special purpose; there's a similar student (Siu Chung Mok) with the other villain, a golden haired lion man  Monster Yu (Jaso Pal Piao). The big climactic battle is full of dizzying spins, lasers (by then the girl rescued from the Blood Sucking Clan has aquired a magic laser-shooting finger thanks to touching a magic snake bladder.) as young yin/yang brother sister duo square off against the pair of sorcerers who killed their parents, a kind of negative shadow parent set - Monster Yu and Tsing Yin, each using their magic yin/yang skills in an effort to destroy each other. There's nothing remotely like it in the US, except maybe the sorcerer duel in Corman's The Raven, but that was old man walking around the park feeding pigeon stuff next to this wild wild madness. Same goes for, well, almost everything. Western filmmakers, find out what kind of tea these cats were drinking and bring it to your feeble sets! Praise be to merciful Buddha, The Shaw Brothers may have been as ethical as some would like, but they've left us some beautiful, and truly weird, things just waiting for more of the wicked west to discover, for free on Prime. So long as they can read, and don't watch it through a Sony Blu-ray

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