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Swords
of
Death:

. .
Kung Fu: Cinema of Vengeance
162k
. .

David Chiang
&
Ti Lung




Swords of Death: David Chiang & Ti Lung
[Chapter 11 (pp. 109, 111-113, 115, 116, 119, 121, 124) of]
Kung Fu: Cinema of Vengeance
by Verina Glaessner (Bounty Books, 1974)

The bulk of action films produced by Shaws since 1968 have been traditional sword-wielding costume dramas. The most reliable money-spinners among them have been produced by a single unit working virtually as a repertory company within the studio, a nucleus of actors and technicians that collected around director Chang Cheh. One of Chang Cheh's early action films was the original One-armed Swordsman. He directed the sequel as well as Golden Swallow (Girl with the Thunderbolt Kick). After Wang Yu left Shaws, Chang Cheh brought into the studio on contract two eighteen-year-old stuntmen he had been working with for several years and to whom he had already given small parts in his films. They were David Chiang and Ti Lung and they provided the acting nucleus of a unit that, with script writer I Kuang and cameraman Kung Mu-to, fed the action hungry market for six years. The films virtually annexed the world of dynastic strife and knightly heroism in Shaw Brothers' rather pessimistic mode, turning aside from time to time to dispense fist-to-fist style action in the more contemporary world of singer-killers and gang warfare.

Stylistically the films are often uneven: moments of ornate pomp alternate with inexplicable jumps in the storyline, or, the last resort, the narra-voiceover is used to patch together unrelated incidents which may or may not be exciting in themselves. None of that matters too much alongside the ingenuousness with which David Chiang and Ti Lung walk through their respective parts as betrayed and betrayer, friend and foe, ally, henchman, hanger-on or brothers-in-arms.

Bruce Lee criticised Chinese films for their 'unreality' and the climactic fight scenes in the Shaw action movies rely not only on their leading actors' skill in martial arts but also on trick photography, hoists and pulleys, and the ever-present trampoline for those impossible leaps . . . in fact every aid to super explicitness and artificiality is deliberately embraced.

If the films are reminiscent of anything in Western film-making, it is probably either those Italian costume dramas in which Hercules confronted various exotic evil-doers, or the vein of Hollywood swashbucklers that enjoyed vast popularity during the 'forties and 'fifties. Shaws epics, in fact, are individual films only nominally: they function like serials -- the names may change but the characters are recognizable from film to film (as are the costumes and sets). Our heroes (or, more rarely, heroines) set out in reel I to confront yet another conundrum in one or other distant dynasty, pursue their goal through an environment fraught with various hazards only to leave their heroic mark on events at the penultimate moment. The extraordinary thing to those brought up on the adventures of invincible comic book heroes is that, as often as not, they die plunging off on suicide missions, giving the films a curiously pessimistic undertone.

The first film the duo found themselves involved in was a contemporary social drama called Dead End (1968). Ti Lung plays an office worker who is fired for bringing a girl back to the office at night; David Chiang plays his friend. They find themselves in conflict with the girl's minor gangster brother, a situation that escalates to murder and death at the hands of the police. In Have Sword Will Travel (1969), Ti Lung plays a swordsman hired to escort a load of treasure to a neighbouring town and David Chiang, the mystery knight they take for a spy, but who in fact dies trying to save them. In The Heroic Ones (1970), David Chiang's paranoid intensity was played off against the rest in a tale of double-cross between brothers (Ti Lung is one) manipulated by rival warlords. By the time of White Water Strand, one of a trilogy of tales in a film called Trilogy of Swordsmanship (1971), each was given the opportunity to rescue the other in an environment of ambush, mistaken motives and knightly nobility.

A burst of popularity for the 'twenties gangster movie resulted in The Duel (1969), in which David Chiang again plays the part of a man mistaken for a killer, only to prove his loyalties in the nick of time, and, more interestingly, Vengeance (1970). Set in the period when China was painfully and disastrously torn apart by warring rival warlords, the film contained, within its highly fraught plot and stifling sets, in which the effect of the action was anything but cathartic, a series of graphic maimings and slayings. It opens in a theatre. Ti Lung as the actor Yu-lan is caught in the middle of performing a ritualistic stage killing. He is precipitated into a real life situation in which he seeks to avenge himself on the leader of a faction that has its base in a martial arts school. He is killed. Cue for entrance of the avenging brother -- and David Chiang gives the part of the self-righteous avenger a rare pathological obsessiveness -- whether summarily executing both his brother's wife and the man he discovers in her bed, or turning the supposed site of his own death into a scene of unrelieved carnage. Finally, the avenger himself is mortally wounded in a shot which Chang Cheh turns into a whole choreography of death as he leaps down the staircase, blood cascading from a wound, to fight on, before himself dying, while we cut to a bland shot of a woman waiting at the cross-roads under the apple blossom. The sheer accumulation of graphically portrayed death and disaster and its meticulous charting of a world of corruption take the film to the level of Jacobean tragedy . . . closing cliches and all. Vengeance won David Chiang the Best Actor award at the Asian Film Festival but, unfortunately, has had no exposure abroad. The higly effective motif of violence as an explosion of frustration in deliberately and claustrophobically rectilinear confines returns again later in The Boxer From Shantung (1971), in which the would-be champion's dreams of a quick fortune to be made at Shantung collapse.

By 1970, with Wang Yu hard at work at Golden Harvest on his various one-armed sequels, it was obviously time for Shaws to see what they could make of the handicapped hero. Chang Cheh cast David Chiang as the once over bold swordsman Lei Li, who cuts off his own arm after suffering defeat at the hands of a false martial arts master. Ti Lung plays the flawless swordsman who discovers him in self-imposed banishment working as a waiter in a run-down country inn and lures him back into the world again. 'Ordinary people are happier than swordsmen,' he asserts at one point, but no one believes it for a moment.

The film hinges on two enormous one-against-the-multitude set-pieces. The first occurs when Ti Lung as Feng invades Tiger Fort, penetrating its innermost fastnesses only to find himself the object of an elaborate hoax from which there is only one way out -- a fight to the death in a hall full of armed guards, that only ends when his body is strung up from the roof and hacked in two. The second occurs when Lei Li invades the same fort and turns himself into a cross between a sleight-of-hand artist and death machine, finally breaking through the martial artist's iron solid defence. The film repeats the earlier version's preoccupation with Lei Li's juggling stunts at the inn, and Chang Cheh animates the fights with a vigorous use of zoom shots. There are some excellent transitions -- the shot of the severed arm pinned to a tree which is followed by a slow pan to take in changing seasons, before the camera moves back to reveal that now only whitened bones hang from the trunk. Chang Cheh, too, is obviously fascinated with the central relationship between the two swordsmen, the sleek and smiling Feng on one hand, the tense withdrawn Lei Li on the other, and he gives it unexpectedly subtle overtones. Where Wang Yu's one-armed fighter resolves his position of being at a touchingly noticeable disadvantage in a contentious world through hard training, an acceptance of a fair degree of masochism, and down-to-earth bloody-mindedness, David Chiang's one-armed swordsman finds himself faced with a puzzle of almost mythic dimensions -- how to defeat a man whose supremely skilful use of a certain weapon make him all-but-invincible in man-to-man combat, even when the man he fights isn't crippled.

Sometimes the raison d'etre of Deadly Duo (1971) seems to be the opportunity it gives Ti Lung to strip to the waist and athletically wield a double-headed axe against all comers, but it also repeats the situation in which David Chiang plays the fraught alter ego to Ti Lung's straightman. Primitive heroism has a field day, lacing the film with such supernatural elements as characters labelled Fire, Earth and Tree men, and feats of derring-do, in which characters pluck handfuls of arrows from the air before they reach their target. The changes are wrought on the scenes of swordplay and hatchet work, too, by equipping David Chiang witha sophisticated harpoon-like weapon of deadly propensities. It all ends with Chiang, already smitted with a fatal wound, holding the bridge against all comers, while Ti Lung helps his rescued Prince to safety. More of the same turned up in The Pirate (1972), in which good use was made of Shaws' studio beach. In it, Ti Lung has an opportunity to be misunderstood as the Robin Hood-like pirate who attempts to fee local villagers from the oppressive rule of a tyrant. (David Chiang plays the distrustful minor official who is only gradually won round.)

Blood Brothers (Chinese Vengeance, 1972) is more ambitious in its deliberate playing off of the characters of three very different men -- introducing Chen Kuan Tai as a kind of dissolute young innocent into the double act. Briefly, a drop-out from the imperial promotional system is held up by two highwaymen and ends by joining them, but not before he has converted them to his idealistic credo of positive action. They band together and build themselves a private army, but the tensions between the men begin to show, exacerbated by thge presence of Huang's (Chen Kuan Tai) wife. Years later, Ma (Ti Lung), now a famous general in a precariously lofty position, invites his blood brothers to join him. They do, with their private army, and a collage of battle scenes follows. However, love once more intervenes and Ma is tempted to use his power to eliminate the weakest and more innocent of the band -- which he does. Chang (David Chiang) discovers what has happened and puts into action a bold assassination plan which involves precipitating himself into the midst of the General's court and duelling to the death. The film comes unstuck, predictably, in its coy handling of the romance.

By 1973 it takes less than a sixth sense to divine a creeping impatience with the sheer weight of Shaws' studio sets and lavish period costumes. In All Men Are Brothers (1973), any attempt to make a coherent narrative out of the handful of essentially separate heroic confrontations is jettisoned, leaving Chang Cheh attempting to the lift the seemingly unshiftable weight upon through vigorous use of zoom shots, rapid cuts and lightning pans. What remains is a series of fantastic and heroically primitive battle scenes that inevitably culminate in sharp and visually effective images of death and defeat, regardless of the wrap-up script, One hero, for instance, anchored half in and half out of the water by the grid of a castle gate that descends and pins him there, is pincushioned with arrows. Chang Cheh films it directly from above in a persuasive image of futility. Or there is Cheh Kuan-tai at the end of an extended battle on a hill in which he is seriously outnumbered, pausing to wipe the patently imitation 'house' blood from his tattooed torso with the words, 'Take a good look at who you have killed . . . I am the Tattooed Dragon!' before falling down dead. Again, to take a different aspect of the film, the superb opening sequence in which the Emperor's courtesan offers him a gift: a musician playing, head-bowed, behind a carefully draped curtain, a musician who is a renegade, and also, as we have gathered from the first scene, the courtesan's lover. Very ambiguous, very subtle.

The motif of small-time gangland struggles that characterized David Chiang's and Ti Lung's first film with Shaws was carried over into The Singing Killers (1970), in which David Chiang played a nightclub singer forced back into his former life of crime. The all-pervasive world of organized crime appeared too in an invigorating diversion called Duel of Fists (Chinese Connection, 1971). A camp effort, it involves a Pimpernel-type search in the gang-controlled world of Thai boxing for a long-lost brother identifiable only by a strange tattoo he has on one arm. For all its outrageously zappy clothes and riotously cliched plotlines, the film is able to establish and hold interest through a series of neatly caught incidental details: the aide in the boxing ring with a skull and cross bones embroidered on his jacket, the ordinary warehouses that form the background to a key confrontation, complete with a truck loaded with goods going about its business unconcerned, the plump European relaxing on the balcony of a hotel during another scene, the absurd rituals of the Thai Water Festival that just happens to be in full swing during the search, and, best of all, the absolutely convincing character of the alcoholic ex-fighter who haunts the arena and delivers only slightly premature obituaries on each Thai boxer billed opposite 'The Killer.'

Duel of Fists, made the same year as Lee's The Big Boss, offers a series of all-out hand-to-hand fights that are choreographed with notable enthusiasm all the way from boxing ring to luxury mansion and back. The fights are lithe and powerful and shot, for once, with a keen eye for the mock heroics of the situation as well as for the latent grim realities behind it all. Ti Lung plays the fighting brother driven to go for the highest stakes by having to find sufficient money to pay for his mother's operation.

A sequel was shot in the same year. Called The Angry Guest, it settles the brothers from the earlier film back in Hong Kong, where one keeps an eye on the martial arts school, while the other bustles round a building site as an engineer. The film does not manage to add much to the earlier effort, apart from giving Chang Cheh the opportunity to play a crime king of Bondian proportions who demands the ultimate price for failed missions. It does, however, finally get round to setting up that all-stops-out fight on the building site which also puts in a brief appearance in Duel of Fists: the workers strip off workshirts to reveal martial arts tee-shirts underneath before moving into the attack.

The bulk of the other present-day dramas the group made at Shaws were a strange mixture of gangster films and generation-gap melodramas. There is a film actually called The Generation Gap (1972), in which youthful growing pains end in gangsterism and death. Another is Friends (1973-4), which David Chiang made as one of his last films for the Shaws. He appears as an artist who rescues a friend from a gang kidnap only to earn parental disproval. In Young People (1971), we are treated to kung fu in the novel context of student life with the head of the music group confronting both the basketball hero and the leader of 'The Dagger Team.'

Earlier in 1973 Chang Cheh, Ti Lung and David Chiang left Shaws to set up their own independent company. They immediately put into action a twelve-film production programme in which both actors would get an opportunity to script, act and direct their own films, casting actors and actresses of their choice, while Chang Cheh directed his own films and acted as producer of the others. David Chiang came back to the Shaws on a one-film basis to make The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1973-4) in which Peter Cushing's Van Helsing travels to China to trace a suspected link between Dracula and the legend of the seven golden vampires. In this he is aided by Hsi Ching (David Chiang), his sister (Shih Szu), and his six brothers -- all dedicated martial artists. The film is directed by Roy Ward Baker, and is the most promising of the co-production films that have been set up to date.

Chang Cheh wrapped up his Shaw contract with a film that eased Chen Kuan Tai into the Ti Lung role as a bandit who changes his ways. Ti Lung was cast in the other half of the Hammer double Shatter, a thriller originally to be directed by Monte Hellman, but finally shot by Michael Carreras.

It is notable that once independent Chang Cheh in fact stayed with historical subjects. Heroes Two, made with two actors borrowed from Shaws, continued his interest in the visual romanticism of period adventures. His second, Na Cha, delved even further back into China's legendary past to come up with a fresh version of the often filmed adventures of the mythical hero of the title who was able to fly with the aid of fire wheels. In this episode he kills the son of a sea god who has been using his supernatural powers to inflict suffering.

David Chiang and Ti Lung, however, went into immediate reaction against their studio heroics of the last half-dozen years and set about a series of films with decidedly social leanings, although not without action. David Chiang directed Ti Lung in The Drug Addict; Ti Lung directed David Chiang in The Apprentice and himself in Motorcycle. By mid-1974 Chang Cheh's was one of the few film companies in Hong Kong; it only remained to be seen how the newly straitened circumstances would affect the films they were to make.




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