8 Diagram Pole Fighter – Gordon Liu’s family, renowned for their excellent pole fighting skills, is challenged by a rival clan. But treachery abounds and all his brothers and father are killed (except for one brother who goes nuts). Liu escapes and makes his way to the local Shaolin Temple, where he learns some even better pole fighting moves before getting his revenge. It’s a darker than usual film from director Lau Kar-Leung, even if the setup is familiar. In The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, for example, Liu also escapes the bad guys, finds refuge in a Temple, learns kung fu and then gets his revenge. But in that film, the real emphasis is on the philosophy and spirituality and artistry of kung fu, whereas here, Liu makes no real attempt to adopt the Shaolin philosophy, he just works at mastering their pole fighting technique while always keeping his mind set on his totally unBuddhalike quest for revenge. However, the scene where he finally demonstrates that mastery, and actually achieves some kind of spiritual transcendence despite himself, is one of the great scenes in the genre’s history. That and the marvelously bloody final battle sequence (far more gruesome than anything I’ve seen from Lau before) are enough to make this a truly great film. The #5 film of 1984.
Crippled Avengers – If Lau Kar-Leung is the John Ford of kung fu films, with The 36th Chamber of Shaolin as his My Darling Clementine, then Chang Cheh is the Sam Peckinpah and this is his Wild Bunch. Lau’s films, when they aren’t being outright comic, emphasize the spiritual and communal side of martial arts more than any non-King Hu director I’ve seen. But Cheh’s are all about the brutality of the violence and how it eats up its practitioners, no matter which side of the good/evil divide they fall on. After his son is maimed in an attack, a Tiger Style expert makes him some metal hands and the two proceed to terrorize a town for decades. When they cripple three regular guys and a kung fu expert who tried to defend them (one loses his legs, another his eyesight, the third his hearing, the kung fu guy is turned into a crazy fool) they team up, learn kung fu and seek their revenge. This film has the reputation of having the best fight sequences in the entire genre and from what I’ve seen, that is entirely true. Chang reunited the team from his previous film, The Five Deadly Venoms (this group were so popular they appeared in several other films together as well), and while I found that film to be largely lame, a weak detective story salvaged by a brilliant final fight sequence, this film is non–stop beautifully choreographed hardcore action. I really can’t say enough about it, partially because I just don’t have the vocabulary, but also because despite all the kung fu films I’ve seen in my life, I’ve still never seen anything like the action in this film. The #3 film of 1978.
The Water Margin – The Water Margin is one of those massive classics of Chinese literature that get adapted again and again into films (like The Three Kingdoms, which last year brought us John Woo’s massive and masterful spectacle Red Cliff, as well as a wonderful video game series). This film, as the intro explains, is an adaption of five chapters in the middle of the saga. The story concerns a gang of outlaws fighting political corruption who attempt to free a kung fu master who’s been framed by his servant who’s been sleeping with the master’s wife so they can enlist the master in a fight against an evil government agent and his evil minions. There’s a dizzying amount of characters (familiar, I’m sure, to those who know the book) and the plot isn’t really as confusing as I made it sound, keeping in mind that it’s really one tiny section in the middle of a vast story. Anyway, the film’s a lot of fun, with a pronounced spaghetti Western influence (some parts of the score were direct ripoffs actually), an epic scale rare in the Shaw Brothers films I’ve seen and with some good performances, especially from David Chiang, an actor I wasn’t familiar with before, but will see a lot of in the future. Another film by Chang Cheh, it does have his trademark nihilist streak, especially in the final sequence, which features a pretty brutal bit of nonsensical dying for wrongheaded ideals (think Kagemusha without the guns). The #11 film of 1972.
Vengeance is a Golden Blade – A solid film from director Ho Meng Hua about a man who’s betrayed by his wife to the Vicious Long Brothers. Crippled, he flees to the mountains with his daughter to live with an herbalist and his son. After spending the next 15 years or so crafting a sword which will defeat his stolen Golden Blade, he inexplicably does everything he can to keep his daughter, who’s apparently been training for this her whole life, from taking revenge. Much of the plot of Josef von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture ensues, which makes for some interesting melodramatics for a kung fu film. Chin Ping is pretty good as the daughter, but there’s never really enough fighting here to keep things interesting, and the final sword fight is pretty anticlimactic, given the hype created by that killer title. The #16 film of 1969.
Have Sword Will Travel – The title’s a dead giveaway, of course, but this is another Western-influenced kung fu film. The director again is Chang Cheh and David Chiang plays the stranger who wanders into town, talking to his horse, who no one is sure they can trust but ends up saving the heroine and defeating the bad guys (spoiler!). Chiang is a great screen presence, slight and sardonic, he’s like a goofier, more athletic Tony Leung. He falls in with a couple who are trying to defend a money shipment from a gang of thieves (seems the famous master who usually escorts the annual shipments has gotten so old he’s lost his kung fu, but he daren’t admit it). The guy in the couple totally doesn’t trust Chiang, not least because his fiancee is obviously into him. It all culminates in a bloody extended fight sequence, equal parts Throne of Blood, Game of Death and, say, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia as Chiang’s determination to prove his honorability and save the day for all involved reaches gruesome proportions. The #13 film of 1969.
The Wandering Swordsman – A slightly lesser version of the same story, again teaming director Cheh with star Chiang. It’s the subtitles, I’m sure, but Chiang’s character here repeatedly gives his name as “Wandering Swordsman” which just isn’t silly enough to be cool. His character here is a lot dumber than in the previous film, as he gets duped into helping a gang steal a bunch of money from the good guys. When he finally realizes his mistake (which seems to take a painfully long time) he takes his revenge in a most satisfactory manner. While the melodramatics aren’t as bold as Have Sword, which is a bit of a plus, it seems more like that’s because everyone was more going through the motions rather than a conscious choice to pare things down. Still, I’ve yet to see a Chang Cheh film that doesn’t have at least a couple of fantastic fight sequences, and David Chiang is a charismatic enough performer that he almost manages to sell his character’s idiocy. The #13 film of 1970.