Naika Reviews “The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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A Touch of Sammo

Sammo Hung is one hell of a legend when it comes to Hong Kong Cinema.  How he fights so fast with his frame defies imagination, so I try my best to find what I can from him here in the States.  So let’s get a few of my favorite fights together from Mr. Hung and check out the master at work.  Don’t forget to pick up your jaw from the floor.

I’ll definitely post more fights in the future, but for now, these’ll do.

Naika Reviews “Five Element Ninjas”

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Thanks to Netflix I’ve been indulging in a slew of Shaw Brothers films, including Chang Cheh’s legendary 1982 film Five Element Ninjas. Full of blood, guts and kung-fu shapes glory, this Venoms mob classic has it all. Many a Shaw Brothers fan can attest that this may be the best from the gang that dominated fight choreography in the famed studio’s heyday, and honest to God, it might be the truth.

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Weekend Roundup (11/23/2013 to 11/24/2013)

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Quiet weekends are usually good weekends and in this case, it was damn good!  Saturday morning started out well with a good win from Arsenal at home against in-form Southampton and my, was it a cracker!  The Saints played very well in the first half, but some luck from Artur Boruc’s horrible work in front of goal saw Arsenal’s Giroud steal the ball from him to score on the spot (muhaha!).  Despite what the BBC’s written, luck wasn’t the only thing that helped us will that day.  With solid defending, great build-up play and a penalty for us due to Per getting his jersey yanked, we convincingly closed out the kind of game that we would usually falter with years ago.  How’s that for a good start to the weekend?

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Naika Reviews “The One-Armed Swordsman”

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For me to even think of reviewing this Chang Cheh classic when there are so many others on the net who’ve talked on and ON about it feels redundant in so many ways, but on the flipside, The One-Armed Swordsman is a film that has garnered so much awe and emotion that for me to NOT talk about the film would be a crime to myself as a fan of Hong Kong action cinema.  I’ve heard my father speak of this film as something he had watched as a child from a broken home in Thailand, and I couldn’t begin to imagine how raw the viewing experience must have been as he connected with the film’s tragic hero, Fang Gang.  Initially lambasted by the West as an exercise in exploitation and gore, The One-Armed Swordsman has now enjoyed fame and respect from both sides of the ocean as a genre-defining film filled with angst, tragedy and sacrifice.  Simply put, The One-Armed Swordsman is one of the most significant films in Hong Kong action cinema.

The story begins as the Golden Sword school is attacked by enemies from a rival sword faction who are seeking to defeat Qi Rufeng, the school’s famed master.  After incapacitating Qi, our would be evildoers move in for the kill, but his faithful servant Fang Chang intervenes and begins to fight.  Although he is able to ward off the intruders, Fang Chang is mortally wounded, and the sword he employed throughout the fight has been broken in half.  Cradled in the arms of his crying son Fang Gang, our protagonist, Fang Chang implores the reawakened Qi Rufeng to look after his son.  Moved by Fang Chang’s sacrifice, Qi Rufeng pledges to him that he will look after Fang Gang and train him as one of his own students.  With relief and gratitude washing over his visage, Fang Chang bids his son farewell and succumbs to his fate.  Fang Gang, saddened by his father’s passing, can do nothing more that to take hold of what will become the only memento of that night, his father’s broken sword.

As Fang Gang grows into a young man, he continues to peer into the broken sword privately as he remembers the events that draped his youth in darkness.  Although he is seen as the most skilled of Qi Rufeng’s up-and-coming students, Fang Gang makes the decision to be a humble man, even going so far as to do chores like chopping firewood.  However, even that is not without its consequences as some of the other more wealthy students mock not only his status in life (he was the son of a servant after all) but his assumed ability to curry favor with Qi Rufeng.  No one of this lot is more jealous of our hero than Qi Rufeng’s own daughter, Qi Pei-er.  Spoiled and pretentious, it’s insinuated that Pei-er’s disdain of Fang Gang is a mixture of confusion, jealousy and physical attraction, making her all the more of a brat whenever the two collide.  With things coming to a boil between Fang Gang and Pei-er, it takes our would be master to cool things down as he delivers a humble speech about the role of expectations.  However, despite Qi Rufeng’s best attempts to make Fang Gang feel more welcome in the Golden Sword school, the insults and disdain surrounding our hero prove to be too much for him to handle.  With a gracious and somber note left on his bed, Fang Gang departs, much to his master’s dismay.

onearmedswordsmanHowever, as Fang Gang leaves in a frigid forest backdrop which screams iconic Shaw Brothers style, he is confronted by Pei-er and her two male miscreants from the previous caste-bitchfest to settle the score.  Fang Gang, being the smug badass that he is, dispatches Pei-er’s two flunkies easily and overpowers Pei-er with minimal effort, leaving the latter in teary-eyed defeat.  As Fang Gang tries to comfort the pouting Pei-er, she lashes out thoughtlessly with her sword and severs his right arm.  With Fang Gang in utter disbelief, he limps away towards the river’s overpass and collapses onto the passing boat of Xiaoman, a woman who will help shape, nurture and challenge our hero in the near future.

Despite Fang Gang’s quick recovery under the care and hospitality of the affectionate Xiaoman, the physical loss of his arm becomes too much for him to bare.  As a result, Xiaoman hands over to Fang Gang the only heirloom she has of her own blood-soaked youth, her father’s long sought-after sword-fighting manual.  Although half of it was burned off years ago, what remains of the manual is the left-handed portion, which intrigues Fang Gang and inspires him to hone himself anew.  As time passes, Fang Gang’s self-training bears fruit, providing him with a new-found sense of strength and self-confidence.  However, Xiaoman sees it differently, fearing that she may have to bear another tragedy under the veil of Jiang Hu.  Although Fang Gang initially dismisses his woman’s worries, the nefarious plots surrounding the Golden Sword school, conjured up by the Long-Armed Devil, soon being to weave a tangled web around him, forcing our hero to choose his future between the master who raised him, and the woman who loves him.

Some may say that the film is outdated compared to more contemporary wuxia films, but despite its age, The One-Armed Swordsman remains a classic that continues to enthrall genre fans and filmmakers to this day.  On the surface, Chang Cheh’s film portrays the simple tale of a young man who overcomes personal tragedy to help his loved ones and redeem his father’s honor, but the layers of depth beneath can only be seen by looking at the bigger picture of the film’s world and the implications surrounding it.  It’s clear early into the film that Fang Gang wants to make his mark in the world of Jiang Hu and wants to do good deeds as tribute to his father, but as Xiaoman points out to him during their relationship, the world of Jiang Hu is the same exact world that took both their fathers away and branded them with the burden of living on.  In addition, despite Xiaoman’s pleas for Fang Gang to fish, farm and enjoy a simple life, Fang Gang’s life at the Golden Sword school has already defined what his sense of self-worth is, and unfortunately, it is in the mastery of the sword.  This is obvious given his sense of self loathing when he finds himself unable to protect Xiaoman when she is harassed by swordsmen, along with the despair he feels when he is ridiculed for being “a cripple.”  This leads us to the pivotal moment when Xiaoman hands over her father’s fighting manual to Fang Gang, gambling to see if the object that led her father to death will somehow spark her would-be lover to life.  Taken together, these instances from Chang Cheh’s film illustrate to us that despite all of the grandiose and heroic musings that Jiang Hu seems to possess, it is nothing more than a gray world littered in a never-ending cycle of blood and fire.  In the end however, this dark portrait of the wuxia world not only serves to raise the stakes for our troubled hero, but it also paints for us a timeless tale where a man can not only overcome his own turmoil to become a legend, he can do so with a woman by his side, a single arm, and ultimately, a broken sword.

FAREWELL, LAU KAR LEUNG!!!!!

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The first time that I saw Lau Kar Leung in action was during the late 90s as I was watching a Tai Seng copy of “Drunken Master 2” in my home.  The beginning fight scene featured Jackie Chan going toe-to-toe with an older chap under a train who was, to put it bluntly, damn good at kung fu.  The old man’s death near the film’s end was sobering to say the least, but had I known that the individual had such a rich and colorful history in the world of asian action cinema, I may have given him more of the respect he truly deserved.  It wouldn’t be until years later, thanks in no small part to YouTube, that I had finally cultivated a new appreciation for Hong Kong style fight choreography, and, more importantly, Lau Kar Leung.  Words such as “a contemporary,” or “a legend” can only say so much of this little man’s reputation.  With his passing today, the only words that come to my mind when I think about Lau Kar Leung and what he’s given to asian action cinema are words like “pillar,” “trend setter,” “visionary,” and even “pinnacle.”

From his collaborations with Chang Cheh during his heydays at Shaw Brothers to his varied cameos in films such as Tsui Hark’s “Seven Swords,” Lau Kar Leung was revered for both his skills in Hung Kuen and his dynamic approach in filming fight scenes.  His early work with Chang Cheh in “One-Armed Swordsman” was, in my opinion, preliminary at best, but he evolved in such a way that only the fashion in which my jaw dropped at the sight of his final fight scene in “8 Diagram Pole Fighter” could justify it.  Lau Kar Leung’s fights had a stepwise intensity that featured form, force and fury and if that wasn’t evident to those uninitiated in kung-fu film lore, then wait until you see him actually performing in a fight scene.  Lau’s cameo in Sammo Hung’s classic “Pedicab Driver” would probably be my favorite fight scene featuring him thusfar (but thankfully, I’ve got more to watch from him).

It’s sad to see an individual with such a rich legacy in asian action cinema go like this, especially when it happens during an age where it seems like we need him now more than ever.  With less and less action film stars emerging from China, our eyes turn to those outside of it to feed us our daily dosage of film fighting.  However, with that comes the possibility that maybe a new star can rise and fill in the large shoes that someone of Lau Kar Leung’s stature have left behind.  We can muse about Lau Kar Leung’s legacy day in and day out, but for me, the best way I can remember him is by watching his films, finding amazement in them, sharing them with others and thinking to myself that in one point in our history as asians involved in action cinema, there was but one man in the modern day who we could call our reference, our gold standard, and our zenith.  Lau Kar Leung, that was you.  That will always be you.

Hungry for action? Naika Reviews “Wheels on Meals”

(From L to R) Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao are ready to whip some Catalan ass in “Wheels on Meals” (1984).

By all accounts, the immigrant experience for anyone anywhere will always be a tough one.  From learning a new language to shifting towards new customs and eating habits, the road to both assimilation and success is a long and confounding one with few tangible rewards hanging at the end.  Countless stories have been told to illustrate these perils, but since this article is a film review, I am obviously obliged to say that all of these stories suck until it’s put on a reel.  With all this in mind, I think it’s safe to say that film has always been a veritable medium for expressing these harrowing journeys of migrants seeking fresh opportunities elsewhere, but none have ever seemed as entertaining as one particular venture involving three “dirty Chinamen” rampaging the streets of Barcelona in what would be one of the greatest fucking films the 80’s had ever seen, and that film is Wheels on Meals.

Set amidst a multicultural Barcelona in the early 80’s, the film draws on the ordinary exploits of two migrant cousins who run a Chinese fast food van, Thomas (played by the awesome Jackie Chan) and David (played coyly by the acrobatic Yuen Biao).  The opening scene depicts their daily routine of stretching and sparring before getting the van going for some lunch time goodness, for which the people of Barcelona seem to enjoy rather well.  However, the business is always beset by colorful delinquents, for which the two cousins are more than capable of dispatching in grand style.  It seems rather odd to find two of Hong Kong’s most well known action stars (count in director / writer / God Sammo Hung in the mix and you have three) making ends meet in Spain, but the welcome change in scenery makes the film an adventurous ride from the get go.  Sure it’s not the familiar sites of Asia, but seeing these guys wow the crowds with their stuntwork throughout Barcelona must’ve been something else.

Things start to become complicated with the inclusion of Silvia (played by the stiffy-riffic Lola Forner), a troubled pickpocket who David goes head over heels for.  She’s obviously the proverbial trouble woman for these two, even going so far as to play hooker to snatch some cash; and if that’s not all, we’ve got a bumbling private eye named Moby (played by Sammo Hung, who it seems, is make an ode to Yusaku Matsuda’s role in Tantei Monogatari) thrown into the mix too.  And with some shady noblemen and quickfooted characters in suits, the movie quickly become one memorable action romp throughout the streets of Spain.

Lola Forner is hankering for some asian dong in “Wheels on Meals” (1984).

Sammo Hung’s eye for action is really what made this film great, and if the fight sequences don’t grip you in some way, then chances are you’re a fucking asshole.  I don’t care if you’re Mother Theresa or St. Peter, but if I don’t hear a “Holy Shit” or a “How the fuck did Benny kick out those candles” from your lips then you must be some asshat that hides under a rock and watches shallow shit like “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” or something.  Even the little piddly fights out on the street are so hard hitting that you could swear you heard your grandfather shake in his coffin when Yuen Biao spin kicked some dirty Spaniard onto the pavement face first.  And let’s not get started with Jackie Chan here.  My boy had the BEST fight in the film, if not, one of the best fights EVER filmed (with Benny “The Jet” Urquidez of course).  I mean look, LOOK at this fight!!

See?  What the hell did I tell ya?

There’s so much that has been said about this film over the course of its life, so to be perfectly honest, there’s not much I can add that others haven’t already highlighted.  On the surface, Wheels on Meals is a tale of two guys trying to make a unique living in a place that doesn’t entirely seem like home to them, but in its heart, it’s an action movie made for action fans by action gurus.  It’s clear that I love this movie a lot, but the love has to spread.  From the setting, to the goofy characters and finally the fights, Wheels on Meals is a window to what Hong Kong action cinema offered in the 80s.  For some of you out there, this may not be your cup of tea, but if you’re looking for something that will spark that legendary love for asian action cinema that some of us film geeks have, then look no further.  Wheels on Meals is a gem, and yes, it’s streaming on Netflix too, so watch it, A.S.A.P.!!!

Jackie Chan (L) & Yuen Biao (R) are trying to make a living in Barcelona in Sammo Hung’s “Wheels on Meals” (1984).