Running Out of Karma: Chang Cheh’s Ten Tigers of Kwangtung

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index.

Well, there’s actually 15, if you count the five descendants of the Ten Tigers. Which could make this a bit confusing, but Chang Cheh gives us some friendly faces and nicely spaced exposition to emphasize that this is actually a very simple story. In the present, a guy and his uncle kill a man in a gambling hall out of revenge for the guy’s dead father. The dead guy’s four friends gather together to try to figure out why. This triggers a series of flashbacks as first one friend then another recount the story of the Ten Tigers of Kwangtung (or Guangdong, or Canton). During a rebellion against the Qing, various martial artists, descendants of the survivors of the destruction of the Shaolin Temple, come together to protect an anti-Qing activist from the authorities. We meet each of the men in turn, and patiently wait for them to join together (four of them are tricked, for awhile, into supporting the Manchu side. These more foolish heroes include Beggar So, better known as Wong fei-hung’s instructor in Drunken Master. Wong’s father, Wong Kei-ying is one of the Tigers, but he doesn’t have much to do here. You can see more of his adventures in Yuen Woo-ping’s Iron Monkey. So is played by Philip Kwok, best known today for his performance as Mad Dog in John Woo’s Hard-Boiled.

The final third of the flashback is recounted by one of the villains, in a neat little narrative shift that unfortunately doesn’t follow through with a change in perspective (how cool would it be for this section to depict the heroes as villains, the way the Manchus would have seen them? Alas, such experimentation seems beyond the purview of the classy Shaw Brothers period-epic.). Then we come back to the present for some gruesome fighting, led by a guy I thought looked a lot like, but was pretty sure couldn’t be, Yuen Biao. Turns out he is Chin Siu-ho, who played Jet Li’s brother/enemy in The Tai Chi Master.

This is one of the later (1980) films in Chang Cheh’s Shaolin Temple saga, chronicling the resistance against the Manchurians by various pro-Ming martial arts sects (Shaolin Temple, Five Shaolin Masters, Heroes Two, Shaolin Avengers etc). They’re all kind of the same: stoic warriors being tricked by craftier opponents, dying glorious deaths but ultimately losing the war, with flat Shaw studio lighting, percussive and lengthy hand to hand combat, and many repeated actors and sets. This one distinguishes itself with the breadth of its cast, which includes Ti Lung, Alexander Fu Sheng and perennial Chang villain Wang Lung-wei along with the Venom Mob and its various associates. But that’s about it. There are too many characters for any of them to really stand out, and the scenario’s too rote and simplistic to be of much interest. A minor piece of the panoply that is Chang’s vast reconstruction of Chinese history through the lens of its warrior-heroes. But it is the only movie in which I’ve seen a big golden mermaid statue/figurehead used as a weapon, so it’s got that going for it.

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