Of all the Shaw Brothers films that I’ve watched over the last few years of my life, I just keep coming back to The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter. I loved the ultra-violent Five Element Ninjas, and I just recently viewed the dark and moody Ti Lung film, The Magic Blade, so the studio definitely knew what it was doing when it made this immense, yet diverse library of action films year after year. So in one sense, this movie shouldn’t have stood out that much. On the one hand, 8 Diagrams is a by-the-numbers tale involving personal and familial dishonor, but on the other hand, it’s an action-packed whirlwind of mayhem featuring some of the best fight choreography imaginable. Director and fight coordinator Lau Kar Leung has helmed many, many excellent films for the Shaws throughout his career, including the 36th Chamber of Shaolin, My Young Auntie, Heroes of the East and Martial Club, but what makes 8 Diagrams so powerful is its raw blend of savagery, angst, betrayal and retribution. There’s no doubt that this film has some flaws, but I guarantee you that it will be one of the most memorable Shaw Brothers offerings one can ever recommend to those who love kung-fu films.
The first thing that needs to be fleshed out about this film is the basis for the plot. 8 Diagrams is loosely based on a collection of mostly fictional folk tales, novels and plays about the Yangs, a Song Dynasty military family known for their strength, bravery and loyalty. Led by patriarch Yang Ye, the large family helped to defend China from both the Khitan-ruled Liao Dynasty and the Tangut Western Xia Dynasty. Most notably, Yang Ye had seven sons who he apparently rode into battle with and two battle-hardened daughters, all with his wife She Saihua, who was adept in both martial arts and archery. However, as some of the stories indicate, Yang Ye’s fellow generals had grown jealous over his exploits, including Pan Mei, who would be one of the main antagonists of the film. These rough details would eventually become the backbone of the 8 Diagram Pole Fighter.
The film basically begins with the jealous Pan Mei, as he, more or less, bullshits his daughter, a consort to the Song Emperor, into sending troops out to wreck the Yang family during their Northern campaign against Liao invaders. From here, we cut away into battle where Yang Ye and his seven sons are introduced, fighting against the Liao. They wreck the invaders with their immense spear-fighting, but out of nowhere, Pan Mei emerges . With a Liao General and the Liao Prince (portrayed by the amazing Wang Lung Wei) by his side, it’s revealed that Pan Mei has laid a trap for Yang Ye in order to not only get rid of his rival, but to help the Liao Dynasty take over. The Yangs are furious, but the Liao have a new weapon under their sleeve that’s basically a staff that ensnares the Yangs’ spears and makes their spear-fighting obsolete. With this new weapon, the Liao make short work of the Yang family as brother after brother is slaughtered. One is hung up by spears. Another is trampled to death. One is stabbed in the belly and so on, and so on. Amidst this chaos, only Yang Liulang (the 6th Son, played by the late Alexander Fu Sheng) and Yang Wulang (the 5th son, our main character, portrayed by Gordon Liu) are left, while Yang Ye, cornered by Pan Mei to surrender, commits suicide instead.
With Gordon Liu’s character lost in the wilderness after the battle, Fu Sheng’s 6th Son goes insane and straggles on home. It’s through him that much of the film’s angst and dishonor is exemplified once he encounters both his mother and sisters. This scene is particularly gripping given that the 6th Son details the deaths of all of his siblings under a spell of child-like madness while both his family and servants react in horror with each new grisly revelation. The scene ends in what would be one of the film’s penultimate scenes, where the 6th Son finally reveals the fate of his father to everyone. His Mother’s faints, the sisters kneel in mourning, and these actions ripple out as the surrounding servants all kneel in sadness as they take in the realization that the entire family is finished.
After this, the rest of 8 Diagrams’ running time is spent cutting back and forth between what happens in the Yang household and the fate of Yang Wulang. Much of what happens at home relates to how the family deals with the 6th Son’s madness while She Saihua, his mother, navigates new obstacles once Pan Mei names the family as traitors. As for Yang Wulang, I think it’s safe to say that it’s almost a retread of the 36th Chamber to some degree as he, after surviving a narrow escape from Liao pursuers, decides to leave worldly matters to become a monk at Wutai Mountain in Shaanxi Province (notice that this is NOT Shaolin Temple in Hebei). Before doing so however, he angrily says goodbye to his life as a soldier by chopping off the blade of his spear, turning it into a staff.
What follows is a riptide of self-reflection, anger and training as Yang Wulang does his utmost to earn his keep as a monk. The training sequences in particular are a highlight for their focus on staff-fighting with a wooden wolf dummy (a canny metaphor for the film’s antagonists). Another thing to note is the amount of time it takes Wulang to ‘mellow-out’ his war-like temperament. This is exemplified in an impressive training sequence where he uses his staff to untangle a bundle of tree vines. It’s all about self-cultivation here, and for some brief moments in the film, Wulang’s desire for vengeance slowly goes by the wayside.
However, things all go to hell once the great Kara Hui is involved. Through a series of situations that will probably spoil a great deal of the film, Kara’s 8th sister tries to get in contact with Yang Wulang, but unfortunately for her, Pan Mei gets a whiff of this and decides to intervene. Luckily for us, Wulang get wind of this himself, and feels compelled to save her. By this time in the film however, Wulang is already a high ranking monk who is, more or less, a shadow of his former self. The Grand Abbott, portrayed to amazing effect by the late, great Phillip Ko, senses this in his pupil and challenges him, giving us one of the most remarkable fights ever put into film. Seeing this one fight on YouTube alone was THE reason why I sought out this classic, especially since it features some very complex set pieces. If you don’t believe me, see it below.
However, a Shaw Brothers film isn’t complete without a final fight, and by all regards, it is MONUMENTAL. I refuse to spoil the details but all in all, it’s a whirlwind of mayhem, revenge, blood, screaming and a demolished inn. It’s one of the most satisfying brawls that I’ve ever laid eyes on and it continues to call out to me whenever I need my Shaw action fix. If anybody is STILL on the fence about this film, then definitely see it for this last fight alone.
Overall, 8 Diagram Pole Fighter is, to me, one of the best offerings I’ve ever experienced from the Shaw Brothers library. It not only illuminates a little-known piece of Chinese history to Western audiences, but it does so with drama, angst and god-tier fight choreography. Gordon Liu, Kara Hui and the rest of the Lau Kar Leung gang are at the peak of their powers here, and it’s a total shame that more couldn’t have been done with Fu Sheng’s character due to his death on set. If there was anything else I could say that were negatives about the film, it would probably have to do with the inaccurate subtitles from Dragon Dynasty, along with the film’s brief conclusion. Otherwise, 8 Diagram Pole Fighter is an amazing film that not only deserves repeated viewings, but it demands a spot on your DVD shelf, reminding us all how awesome Hong Kong action films used to be.
There are no words to describe how big of a loss this is to people all over the world. To think that Anthony Bourdain, of all people, would contemplate suicide is a reminder to us all just how prevalent mental health issues are, regardless of age, race and status. Like Kate Spade earlier this week, hearing about Anthony’s death was a total shock given that both were just so influential in their respective fields. In Tony’s case, he was, for me, the face of culinary exploration. He saw good in the world, and allowed food to be that bridge for all of us. From No Reservations to Parts Unknown, Tony Bourdain’s shows gave us the chance to savor the world while shedding light on cultures that seldom get the respect they deserve. He gave culinary credit where credit was due. He showed us the power of International Street Food. He “overhauled the Celebrity-Chef-Industrial Complex.” He actually gave a damn about the marginalized. He gave a damn about women. And lastly, he never, EVER made excuses for his past. Thank you Anthony, and Rest in Peace.
The first season of Justin Simien’s amazing Netflix show, “Dear White People,” was one of my personal favorites from Netflix last year, and after binge-watching Season 2 eariler this month, I can safely say that it not only continues the conversations that the first season started, but it expands on them with sadness, mirth, courage and even mystery. My expectations weren’t only met, but they were, frankly, blown away. In a lot of ways, Season 1 was kind of like an introduction to each of the key characters of the show, along with their major issues, trials, flaws and motivations. There’s the brave Samantha White, the creator and host of the Winchester University Radio program, “Dear White People,” the shy school journalist Lionel, the tough-guy comp-sci geek Reggie, Samantha’s smart-yet-second-fiddle pal Joelle, the savvy and ambitious Coco, Sam’s on-and-off white grad student filmmaker BF Gabe and lastly, uber-polished school president Troy Fairbanks. This is ensemble TV at its finest, and if you thought Season 1 did wonders with these characters, wait until you see Season 2.
However, the cast’s evolution couldn’t have happened without challenging circumstances, and that’s really the heart of what makes this season so special. Season 2 begins with the aftermath of the Hancock protests where Samantha is forced to confront both a relentless troll named AltIvyRight, and a new conservative student radio show sarcastically named “Dear Right People.” Little by little, our band of heroes are challenged left and right by trolls straight outta 2016, but the shadow that looms largest for this season is the legacy of Winchester. While the main episodes focus on each character like last season, each is tied with a lengthy introduction featuring how this Ivy League school historically supported the institution of slavery in America, with our narrator ending each intro with the two most important words in the show, “Watch Closely.” This not only gives the show a connective thread to each episode’s separate narratives, but makes our characters’ quest for truth against the burgeoning alt-right forces on campus much more global, with greater mystery and higher stakes. If anything, the show not only provides sharp social commentary, but a nuanced look at interracial family dynamics, loads of soul-searching, a mysterious hunt for an online racist and even the unraveling of a secret society on campus. Yes, this is ALL in Season 2.
But that’s not all. Justin Simien and his list of directors provide each episode with a surreal yet probing cinematic flair that slams us into the lives of everyone at Winchester. These touches range from the long, winding shots of Sam’s studio, to the lonely shots of Lionel trying to fit into a very white Pride Day mixer (loved his defense of Asian peoples BTW), along with Sam’s talk with Gabe in black and red lights and the gothic spookiness of the bell tower. And let’s not forget Troy’s Fear and Loathing in Winchester as he truly goes out-of-body all over campus, where the camera just creeps and swerves along his ‘shroom-induced joyride….complete with a talking dog! With all this in mind, I think it’s safe to say that Season 2 is not only food for thought, but it’s an absolute feast for the eyes. While we were watching, my wife said that each episode was like watching a movie, and you know what? She’s right. Every episode is LITERALLY a love letter to the cinematic tradition. Furthermore, these lovely visuals are punctuated by an amazing jazz score that’s very hard to miss, where each piece provides a quaint but purposeful drive to the events of each episode. With sounds and sights like this, who the hell needs network TV? Especially when it’s too afraid to cover subjects relevant to our generation?
In a world where being Black in America means being kicked out of a coffee shop, a shared dorm space or even your own fucking BBQ, shows like Dear White People couldn’t have come sooner. With astounding visuals, an amazing score, and a cast of characters who are all seeking to find their place in a world that has harmed, shackled and silenced their existence before they were even born, Season 2 of Dear White People is a triumph of what T.V. could be when diverse individuals are allowed to speak their truths both in front and behind the lens. The conversation has finally begun folks. Listen well, and watch closely.
So the search begins to find the next man to lead the Arsenal. As many now know, Arsene Wenger has sadly announced that he will bid the club farewell this summer. Players and fans alike have taken the news with either surprise, sadness or elation. I’m obviously upset that he’s opted to leave, but I don’t begrudge him. Results for the team have been poor throughout the season due to bad defense (Mustafi, Bellerin and an aging Cech), the professional lapses of some of our midfielders (Xhaka, Wilshere, Ramsey at times) and some dubious, dubious referees. I will admit that Wenger hasn’t had his best year in terms of tactics, but I don’t agree with the Wenger Out Brigade or the asshole pundits who call for his head day in, day out. Criticism, anger at his tactics and honest reflection are one thing, but the circle-jerk of vitriol and the normalization of Anti-Wenger bias both in and out of the pitch have been awful things to witness. This may be the only reprieve that I hope Wenger will get once he leaves the Emirates.
Many sports journos have speculated a great deal as to the reasons why Arsene has left before the end of his contract, but I’m of the opinion to not giving a damn until a book comes out. I’m mentioning this because for all the praise that’s coming in from Phil McNulty, the BBC or ESPNFC, these are the same asshats who would bay for his blood after every bad result. It pissed me off to see this last Friday, and I wonder how much more Wenger will be assessed in the near future, especially in relation to Arsenal if results sour in his absence.
Wenger is a manager that I’ve grown to respect beyond the confines of football. His thoughts on life are reminiscent of an old teacher guiding his pupils towards adulthood and I will truly miss the kind of thoughts he would share in interviews like this. I hope that wherever he goes, or whatever he does, he’ll be loved by all Gooners as time passes. Here’s to better results as the season comes to a close, and let’s all give the Boss a great send off when it finally comes time for a goodbye.