Movies Till Dawn: A Month of Mayhem, Week 4 (Slight Return) – Pagoda Theater Martial Arts Marathon

12 a.m. – “Pedicab Driver” – Action/Comedy

61waAn8pxxL._SL1000_(1989, Warner Archives Collection) Crowd-pleasing mix of broad comedy and melodrama from Golden Harvest Studios and director/star Sammo Hung, best known in the States as a co-star in many Jackie Chan vehicles and for the CBS series “Martial Law.” Sammo and pals Siu Chung (Max) Mok, Lam-Ching Ying and Hoi Mang are pedicab, or cycle rickshaw drivers, in 1930s Macao, who run afoul of a local crime boss (John Shum) when Mok falls for a girl (Fennie Yuen) working in one of his brothels. Viewers who are unfamiliar with the tonal shifts that are prevalent in many Hong Kong films may find the abrupt leaps from cartoonish comedy to romance and dark drama jarring, but the fight sequences, choreographed by Hung, are breathtaking examples of the frenetic acrobatics that made Golden Harvest the go-to studio for martial arts films in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Hung is front and center in two of the best brawls: the first pits him against Shaw Brothers veteran Lau Kar-Leung (Chia-Liang Liu from “One-Armed Swordsman” and “Legendary Weapons of China”) in a staff fight that puts Hung’s formidable physical skills to the test, while the second finds Hung facing off against Canadian kickboxing champ Billy Chow in a vicious, no-punches-pulled fight. Hong Kong aficionados will note a slew of familiar faces in the supporting cast, including Corey Yuen, Dick Wei, Yueh Sun and Eric Tsang; Warner Archives’ DVD is the first legitimate Region 1 release of “Pedicab Driver,” and the widescreen, Cantonese-language transfer (with optional English subtitles) looks terrific.

1:30 a.m. – “The Eight Immortals” – Action/Fantasy

51bDbWAxE2L(1971, Fusian/Inspired Studios) In truth, this Taiwanese production is less of a martial arts film than a fantasy told in the style of a Chinese opera – complete with musical numbers – with an array of large-scale sword battles and special effects in its frantic final third. The mythological roots of the Eight Immortals, elemental Taoist figures that aid people in need, are evoked in a clever framing device that finds two comic street performers extolling the virtues of each Immortal in song; these are then expanded into individual vignettes which depict the mercurial, often impish ancients using magic to rescue people from a variety of perils (plague, slavery, starvation, unpleasant death). The second half of the picture pits the Immortals against Old Devil (or Red Demon, as he’s called in the burned-in English subtitles), a blood-drinking monster hailing from China (a nice bit of political commentary there) that preys on villagers. What follows is a string of violent clashes between the Immortals, who are tricked out with an array of eccentric weapons (an iron crutch, a bouquet of flowers, castanets), and the Red Demon’s army, highlighted by plentiful in-camera special effects; while these are often crudely executed, they also feature some striking images, most notably a king-sized Peach of Immortality that splits open to reveal a dart-spitting pig’s head, pink poison gas spurting from the navel of the Red Demon’s shrewish wife (Sally Chen, essaying a malevolent variation on her imperial screen character) and a passel of monsters, from a giant bird to a snapping serpent in a pool of blood. It’s all terrific fun for fans of Chinese fantasy and mythology; the DVD from Inspired Studio’s Fusian imprint is letterboxed and features trailers for several martial arts titles from their library.

3 a.m. – “Big Bullet” – Action

61nBkCxzwPL._SL1000_(1996, Warner Archives Collection) Action specialist Benny Chan (“New Police Story”) directed this fast-paced variation on the misfit cop brigade trope, with Lau Ching-wan as a Hong Kong police sergeant whose short-fused temper earns him a demotion to the Emergency Unit, a dead-end department where the force sends its problem officers. When his former superior (Francis Ng) is killed by gangsters, Lau rallies his fellow castoffs – computer expert Teresa Lee, Cheung Tat-ming as comic relief and Jordan Chan, playing against type (triad thugs and slackers) as Lau’s rules-minded foil – to pursue the thugs, who hijack a British transport plane to smuggle $9 million U.S. out of Hong Kong. Though the script for this Golden Harvest title should be familiar territory to fans of crime/cop movies on both sides of the Pacific, Chan invests the action set pieces (which include a running battle through the streets of Hong Kong’s Central district and a brawl in and on top of a plane) with tremendous energy and flashes of humor, which should please both casual viewers and Hong Kong cinema devotees; he also benefits hugely from the presence of character actor Lau, who brings a welcome level of humanity to his standard-issue tough cop role, and two top-notch screen bad guys (Anthony Wong from “Hard Boiled” and Rongguang Yu) as his psychotic villains. WAC’s letterboxed disc features the same quality HD image and optional English-language subtitles as “Pedicab Driver” and a slew other Golden Harvest titles it’s brought to MOD, including Teddy Chan’s “Downtown Torpedoes” and Sammo Hung’s “Blade of Fury.”

4:30 a.m. – “Stoner” – Action/Thriller

ShrineOfUltimateBliss(1974, Shout Factory) Lunatic genre mishmash from Golden Harvest with one-time James Bond George Lazenby as Joseph Stoner, a tough Australian cop searching for the thugs who gave his sister a drug called (I kid you not) “Happy Pill,” a sort of psychedelic aphrodisiac with lethal aftereffects. His two-fisted investigation leads him to Hong Kong, where he teams with a Taiwanese undercover agent (Angela Mao Ying) on the trail of the transport ships used to distribute the drug across the globe. Their joint effort leads them to the island stronghold of Mr. Chin (hapkido champion Hwang In-shik), who immediately captures the pair, but Mao’s kung fu and Lazenby’s fists (and atrocious fashion sense) prove a formidable challenge to his world domination plans. Initially planned as a vehicle for Bruce Lee and Sonny Chiba, who would be pitted against Lazenby’s Western villain, “Stoner” – or “The Shrine of Ultimate Bliss,” as it was originally titled – would have been one of Golden Harvest’s most expensive and widely seen features, thanks to a global distribution deal with Warner Bros. (based on the massive box office success of “Enter the Dragon”). Lee’s death in 1974 prompted Warner and Chiba to abandon the project, which in turn spurred Golden Harvest to cut the budget from $10 million to $850,000 and turn to its longtime rival in the martial arts movie business, Shaw Brothers, to foot the rest of the bill. These setbacks appear to have either had no impact on “Stoner” or drove co-writer/director Feng Huang to pull out the stops to insure that his film had blockbuster impact; his enthusiasm (or lack of restraint) results in a sort of exploitation/junkmovie fan’s dream, with martial arts crashing headlong into berserk psychedelic orgies, narcotic freakouts and nods to “Enter the Dragon” (like Mr. Chin’s compound), all heavily salted with plaid and bell bottom outfits, a wah-wah funk score, oddball casting (Betty Ting Pei, whose alleged affair with Bruce Lee product_images_modal_amycollcover72dpi__7B07add503-3fc7-e311-a08d-d4ae527c3b65_7Dwas the subject of the crass “Bruce Lee: The Man, The Myth”) and an overall sense of barely controlled mayhem. That being said, “Stoner” also delivers plenty of full-throttle fights, most notably between Hwang In-Shik and Mao, who catches on fire (for real) in the middle of their brawl; Lazenby is decidedly less gifted at screen fighting but certainly goes for broke in his face-off with Sammo Hung, and there are a host of talented Golden Harvest regulars among the supporting cast, including Yuen Biao, Wilson Tong, Han Ying Chieh and company producer Andre Morgan. The Shout Factory disc for “Stoner” includes both the U.S. version and the international cut, which features more extended fight sequences; it’s included in the three-disc “Angela Mao Ying” collection, which features six of the ‘70s martial arts superstar’s features, including “A Queen’s Ransom” with Lazenby, the excellent “When Taekwondo Strikes,” directed by Huang and featuring Sammo Hung, Carter Wong (“Big Trouble in Little China”) and Jhoon Rhee.

6 a.m. – “The Bloody Mask” – Action

5119EhVnOXL(1969, Fusian/Inspired Studios) Revolution in the court of the Ming Dynasty has come to call at the remote Yun Fortress, where delegates from the 4th and 14th prince – both contenders for the throne – wish to enlist the family to their cause. But the house of Yun remains loyal to the Ming, which they defend through vigorous and (fairly) bloody combat. This Taiwanese production from director Yang Chiang – writer of the legendary “King Boxer” (a.k.a. “Five Fingers of Death”) – is distinguished by complicated backroom politics between the various political parties and families (which is made further confusing by the burned-in English subtitles, which frequently give multiple versions of various character names), though its most remarkable feature is the title weapon, which appears to be a leather sack attached to a lengthy chain. When the sack is hurled onto an opponent’s head and the chain is retracted, blades inside the device neatly decapitate the surprised victim, resulting in a shower of gore and cutaways to shocked expressions. The device is more or less similar to the infamous (and apparently real) Flying Guillotine, which earned its most memorable showcase seven years later in “Master of the Flying Guillotine,” a grisly crowd pleaser on the grindhouse circuit in the mid-1970s and beyond. Fusian’s DVD is letterboxed, and though billed as digitally remastered, shows decidedly more wear and fading than “Eight Immortals.” For those who remember seeing films like this in Chinatown theaters (like Boston’s Pagoda, for which this edition of the column is named), the soft hiss of static on the audio track and occasional flurry of scratches on the print will be a comforting return to past pleasures.

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and The Fix, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for Amazon.com from 1998 to 2014. He has interviewed countless entertainment figures from both the A and Z lists, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury and George Newall, who created both Schoolhouse Rock and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson, and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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