Thursday, May 7, 2015

April Quick Picks and Pans – Hong Kong Month

Return to the 36th Chamber (1980) The sequel to The 36th Chamber of Shaolin wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but in this case, it’s a good thing. Instead of continuing the story of San Te and his goal to bring the art of Shaolin Kung Fu to the common folk, the story follows Chao Jen-Cheh (Gordon Liu, who played the hero in the previous film), a con-man with a fake Shaolin monk routine. When the owners of a textile mill use strong-arm tactics to intimidate their workers, an uprising is staged and subsequently crushed. The workers encourage Chao Jen-Cheh to stop acting like Shaolin Kung Fu master and learn how to practice the real deal from the monks in the 36th Chamber.

Return to the 36th Chamber features some impressive set-pieces, and (of course) spectacular fight scenes. What sets this film apart from its predecessor, however, is how it subverts the audience’s expectations based on the original film. Instead of being a straightforward Kung Fu revenge flick, it self-consciously satirizes Kung Fu revenge flicks. Mr. Liu takes time to poke fun at his character from the previous film, with an elaborate parody of the arduous training scenes.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

Mr. Vampire (1985) This lively entry in the hopping vampire sub-genre combines equal measures of Kung Fu action, comedy and horror into an irresistible stew. Director/co-writer Ricky Lau does a great job balancing each genre element, while generating a genuinely creepy atmosphere. We follow a stern mortician (Ching-Ying Lam) and his two inept assistants (Ricky Hui and Siu-Ho Chin) as they attempt to keep the dead in their coffins. Mr. Vampire features some inspired comedic moments as the main characters attempt to evade the undead in various forms. In one scene, the protagonists hide their breath from a vampire by breathing into a tube. In another sequence, one of the assistants begins to turn into a vampire, and his pals attempt (with middling success) to reverse the process.

Rating: ***½.  Available on DVD

Winners & Sinners (1983) Director/co-writer/co-star Sammo Hung introduced Hong Kong audiences to the “Five Lucky Stars” series with this comedy about a group of small-time criminals who get mixed up with some big-time counterfeiters. Jackie Chan appears in a supporting role as a dedicated but bumbling cop. Since Chan is in it, be prepared for some spectacular stunts, including a car chase on roller skates, and an unbelievable sequence when he rolls directly under a tractor trailer. Outside of Chan’s antics, however, much of the plot meanders, providing a flimsy excuse for one hit and miss comic scene after another. It’s an uneven formula, but it’s tough to ignore Winners & Sinners’ good-natured spirit.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD

Black Magic (aka: Jiang Tou) (1975) An entertaining mixture of sorcery, revenge and sleaze from the prolific Shaw Brothers that lives up to its name. When a wealthy socialite catches her husband with another woman, she hires a witch doctor to kill the lovers. So begins a cycle of spells and counter-spells, as a ne’er do well employs a shaman to win the new widow’s affections (and fortune), and she in turn has designs on one of her young employees. The sorcery flies left and right, as we try to guess who will be left standing. Good, trashy fun.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD

Evil Cat (1987) A centuries-old cat spirit jumps from body to body, leaving a legacy of death and well... evil. Only a line of masters stand between the malevolent feline and world domination. The latest master is determined to stop the spirit’s reign before his death. Evil Cat suffers from uneasy horror elements and awkward attempts at humor, but the biggest offender is uneven pacing. It’s a fun premise, sloppily executed, resulting in a lackluster, forgettable effort.

Rating: **½. Available on DVD

Crippled Masters (1979) This tasteless exercise in Kung Fu-sploitation showcases two individuals with real disabilities (Jackie Conn and Frankie Shum) – one man is missing arms, while the other has under-developed legs. Together, they form an unstoppable fighting force against a tyrannical kingpin. It would be easy to write off the movie because of a poor-quality DVD with a pan-and-scan image and atrocious dubbing, but even if it had been presented on a pristine Blu-ray with a director-approved transfer, nothing would have improved the reprehensible premise or contrived, sub-par fight scenes. Watch it if you must, but I accept no responsibility.

Rating: * ½. Available on DVD

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