Movies Till Dawn: Action Packed 2021 (Pagoda Theater Edition)

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” (2021, Marvel Studios) After the swing and miss of “Black Widow,” the Marvel Cinematic Universe rights itself with this adaptation of its ’70s-era “Master of Kung Fu” series. “Kim’s Convenience” star Simu Liu underplays nicely as a rudderless Asian twenty-something whose past as the son of an immortal warlord (arthouse star Tony Leung) comes calling in spectacular fashion. It’s hard to find fault with the final product: director Destin Daniel Cretton (“Just Mercy”) adeptly handles both the action set pieces (the best of which is a brawl aboard a runaway bus), light comedy with Liu’s sidekick Awkwafina, and some weighty material about family and destiny, and scripter David Callaham’s script makes deft choices regarding Chinese culture and martial arts tradition (which he and Cretton both know is not just about fighting) while also neatly scrubbing away Shang-Chi’s troubling history as the son of Fu Manchu. Appointing the film with a solid cast of major Chinese players – Leung is joined by the formidable Michelle Yeoh and Tsai Chin, as well as Shaw Brothers vet Yuen Wah – also lends star power and credibility for Asian film and Asian action fans; best of all, it sets up Shang-Chi’s assimilation into a broader, and more broadly diverse MCU. Marvel’s Blu-ray commentary by Cretton and Callaham, in-depth making-of docs, a barrage of deleted scenes, and a gag reel.

The Chinese Boxer” (1970, 88 Films) Nice guy Jimmy Wang Yu learns to get mean in a hurry when a quartet of psychotic karate masters destroy his martial arts school and wipe out the student body. Jaw-dropping, blood-soaked kung fu from Shaw Brothers and writer-director-star Wang Yu, which helped to move Chinese martial arts films from the stately historical action-dramas known as wuxia (see “Raining in the Mountain” below) to marathons of no-holds-barred brawling. “Chinese Boxer” did not make Wang Yu an international star on par with Bruce Lee (whose “Big Boss” was released in ’71), but did cement many of the kung fu movie tropes on which his films, and countless others, were built: brutal Japanese villains (the quartet here, led by Lo Lieh of “Five Fingers of Death” fame, are portrayed as near-animals), grueling training sequences, and Leone-style showdown fights. Wang Yu (later the star of the masochistic “One Armed Swordsman” series) is a mild-mannered screen presence but presents some astonishing set pieces, including a ferocious take on the one-man-army scenario, soaked in geysers of gore; it’s crude but undeniably thrilling. The “Chinese Boxer” Blu-ray marks the UK company 88 Films’ first Region A release, and they’ve appointed it with terrific extras: a HD remastered print, commentary by historian Samm Deighan, interviews with cast member Wong Ching and writer David West, who frames the film’s importance in kung fu cinema history, Hong Kong and US trailers (under the title “Hammer of God), and extensive liner notes by Andrew Graves.

Raining in the Mountain” (1979, Film Movement) A tattered but priceless Buddhist scroll attracts a unique mix of personalities – businessman Sun Yueh, grasping soldier Tien Feng, a priest with an entourage of nuns, a pair of wily thieves (the great Hsu Feng and Ng Ming-Choi, who also doubles as the films fight choreographer), and a former convict (Tung Lin) – each with very different designs on that scroll. The twin poles around which the film’s plot entwines – the sacred and the earthly, the divine and the all-too-human – is reflected in the aesthetics behind this top-notch wuxia from King Hu (“Legend of the Mountain,” “The Fate of Lee Khan“), who delivers satisfying martial arts sequences (especially a face-off between Feng and those nuns), gorgeous scenery (the film was shot at a far-flung temple in South Korea) and a smart script that explores the grey areas in piety, honor, and redemption. His ability to craft complex setpieces from all points in a relatively ordinary location (see his remarkable “Dragon Inn”) is in effect here too: the Buddhist monastery that holds the scroll is a acrobatic playground as well as a symbol for the complicated relationships between the characters, who reveal and hide according to what the scenario dictates. Though less of a physical/visual spectacular than some of Hu’s other films, “Mountain” is in and of itself a thrilling experience. Film Movement’s Blu-ray features the 2018 restoration of the film as well as commentary by Asian film expert Tony Rayns and a video essay by author Stephen Teo.

Revenge of the Shogun Women” (1977, Kino Lorber) A tasteless premise undoes some of the goofy good will generated by a relentless barrage of 3-D visuals in this Taiwanese kung fu feature from director Mei-Chun Chiang, who also helmed Kino’s previous 3-D release “Dynasty.” The Shogun women are villagers assaulted by bandits, who then dispatch their victims, now rendered “unclean,” to convent; there, they learn the required martial arts to deliver eye-popping revenge. Some sniggering humor (a woman’s dizzy spells can only be cured by acupuncture needles to her breast) detracts from the 3-D brawls, which feature an inordinate amount of objects hurled at the camera or awkward placement of furniture, etc. in indoor locations to generate depth of field. It’s energetic grindhouse fare that gets maximum mileage from its gimmick; Kino’s Blu-ray includes two 3-D presentations (polarized and anaglyphic), which you can enjoy with the enclosed 3-D glasses. A trio of saucy 3-D shorts, including “College Capers” (1953), round out the set.

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 Merry Jane, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for from 1998 to 2014. He has also interviewed countless entertainment figures, 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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