Simon Hsu: Unsung Shaw Bros. Action Director

19 Nov

Shaw Bros. martial arts films of the 1960s and ‘70s boasted numerous great action choreographers. The celebrated team of Lau Kar Leung and Tang Chia worked on most of Chang Cheh’s masterpieces before going on to separate directing careers themselves, most notably Lau, who directed some of the genre’s greatest films from 1976 to 1984, including THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN, SHAOLIN MANTIS, HEROES OF THE EAST, DIRTY HO and 8 DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER, among others. Lau did more than any other director to focus on individual fighting techniques and weapons styles, emphasizing training and practice in the narratives of the films he worked on.

Lau Kar Leung makes a cameo appearance in HEROES OF THE EAST (1979)

For this piece, I’d like to single out the work of a lesser-known fight director who was most active at Shaw from 1969 to 1975, Hsu Er Niu, pictured below, who is also known as Simon Chui Yee-Ang and Simon Hsu, which is how I’ll refer to him from now on.

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The 100 Greatest Movie Stars Who Would Never Make a List of the 100 Greatest Movie Stars

20 Oct

I recently discovered an old post I contributed to the on-line Mobius Home Video Forum back on March 21, 2005 called, “Fifty All-time Top Movie Stars Who Would Never Make a List of Premiere, EW or AFI Top Movie Stars.” Premiere was a top movie magazine of the time; EW refers to Entertainment Weekly; and AFI is the American Film Institute; these institutions used to make lists of this type all the time. I don’t recall what prompted me to make such a list at that time, but I imagine it was seeing just such a list in either of those publications and not seeing any of the names that I came up with in response.

AFI's 100 Years, 100 Stars: American Film Institute (CBS Television Special) [DVD] : Mia Farrow, Liza Minnelli: Movies & TV -

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Hong Kong Fandom in the ’90s: Chinatown Theaters

29 Sep

Thirty years ago, on September 30, 1992, I made my first trip to a Chinatown theater in Manhattan to see Hong Kong movies. It was the old Sun Sing Theater, on East Broadway under the Manhattan Bridge, and the double feature was DRAGON INN and TWIN DRAGONS, one a historical wuxia martial arts adventure starring Brigitte Lin and the other a modern kung fu comedy thriller with Jackie Chan playing twins.

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The Many Faces of Sonny Chiba

13 Sep

Japanese martial arts star Sonny Chiba died last year at the age of 82 and I finally got around to a pile of Chiba discs in my collection and re-evaluating his career. He may well be the greatest action star in movie history, transferring his own extensive martial arts training in Kyokushin Karate to a large number of movies in a range of genres, creating some of the most compelling fight scenes I’ve ever seen and giving a set of intense performances that stand out from any other action star I can think of. Bruce Lee might have given him a run for his money had he lived and made more films and it seems to me that Lee’s three starring roles offered a model for Chiba on how to develop his own karate persona onscreen as seen the year after Lee’s death in his groundbreaking THE STREET FIGHTER which made Chiba an international star and certainly the biggest martial arts star in the 1970s after Lee. When Chiba adopts certain stances, stares intensely at his opponent, and emits varied cries, grunts and groans, he’s closer in spirit and style to Lee than any previous martial arts star of the screen. Certainly no Japanese fighter on screen had ever behaved like this, not even Toshiro Mifune (although his wild portrayal of young Kikuchiyo in SEVEN SAMURAI gives us some foreshadowing).

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THE LOYAL 47 RONIN (1958) – A Samurai Masterpiece

28 Aug

I’ve seen five Japanese films about the story of the 47 Ronin, made from 1941 to 1994. There were dozens more films about this famous incident from the early 1700s, as well as several TV series. I’ve chosen to highlight THE LOYAL 47 RONIN, a 2-hour-and-forty-four-minute version produced by the Daiei Studio in 1958 and directed by prolific veteran filmmaker Kunio Watanabe. As much as I like the other versions, I notice a tendency in them to elide certain aspects of the story or withhold key information since Japanese audiences were expected to know all the details. This 1958 film, however, stands out from them because of how it lays out the conflicts of character and protocol in a way that makes these issues clear to non-Japanese viewers, particularly those who may only have a casual familiarity with the story. We see what happens each step of the way and how that informs what happens next and the various reactions among the affected characters, but also among the hierarchy of the Shogunate in power at the time and the general Japanese public. We know why everything happens the way it does and what the inevitable outcome will be. It is my contention that the best crash course in understanding Japan is to study the story of the 47 Ronin as closely as one can in all its iterations. It’s the key to so much else about the country and its hierarchical structure and interlocking relationships between different groups and classes, as well as crucial themes of honor, obligation, and sacrifice.

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40 Years Ago: Gojira and Space Firebird Come to New York

21 Aug


In the summer of 1982, the Public Theater in Manhattan ran a film series called “Summer in Japan,” which programmed a number of Japanese films that hadn’t previously been screened in the U.S. While that memorable summer also saw the highly touted premieres of five Hollywood sci-fi films now considered classics, E.T., BLADE RUNNER, THE THING, STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN and TRON, the biggest impact on me was wielded by the two sci-fi films I saw at the Public as part of that series: GOJIRA (1954) and SPACE FIREBIRD 2772 (1980). Both films were shown in Japanese with English subtitles.

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40 Years Ago: The TWILIGHT ZONE Tragedy–In Memory of Renee Chen, Myca Dinh Le, and Vic Morrow

23 Jul

Forty years ago, in the early hours of July 23, 1982, a horrible, preventable tragedy occurred on the outdoor set of TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, a Warner Bros. production being filmed at Indian Dunes, California. Actor Vic Morrow was playing a soldier who has to cross a river carrying two Vietnamese orphans in his arms while a helicopter is shooting at him and explosions are going off around him. Instead of using a stunt double and two dummies, the director insisted that Morrow film the scene with the two children actually in his arms in a shot that would include the helicopter and the explosions. At 2:20AM, “Action!” was called, the explosions went off and shook the copter so badly that it crashed into the river killing Morrow and the children, a six-year-old girl, Renee Chen, born in Taiwan, and a seven-year-old boy, Myca Dinh Le, the son of parents born in Vietnam. Neither child was an actor. I want you to remember those names. Whenever this tragedy is recalled, usually only Vic Morrow is mentioned, sometimes accompanied by the phrase, “and two children.” The children had names and they had parents who have names also.  Two of them were on the set that night and watched the horror unfold in front of their eyes. Those parents were Dr. Daniel Le, father of Myca, and Shyan-Huei Chen, mother of Renee. The other parents, Kim-Hoa Le, mother of Myca, and Mark Chen, father of Renee, had attended the filming the night before and had to work a full day afterwards, so they opted not to join them the second night when the tragedy occurred.

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Three Toho Classics and the Work of Sci-Fi Illustrator Shigeru Komatsuzaki

22 Jun


I’d heard of Japanese science fiction illustrator Shigeru Komatsuzaki before, since he’s mentioned in Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa (Wesleyan University Press, 2017), by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski, as well as in the audio commentary the two authors did for the Sony DVD release of Honda’s BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE (1959). He’s also mentioned in the subtitled translations provided for the audio commentary done in Japanese by noted special effects supervisors and film directors Koichi Kawakita and Shinji Higuchi on the Tokyo Shock DVD release of Honda’s THE MYSTERIANS (1957).

However, it wasn’t until I read some passages on him in a new book by J.L. Carrozza that I was actively compelled to look up the work of Komatsuzaki and find remarkable examples of his stunning illustrations of futuristic scenes of spacecraft, high-tech transports, military hardware, giant robots, and alien invasion. The book is Japanese Special Effects Cinema: Godfathers of Tokusatsu, Vol. 1 (Orochi Books, 2022) and it credits Komatsuzaki with production designs used in THE MYSTERIANS, BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE and ATRAGON (1963), also from Tokyo Shock.

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Hibari Misora and the Last “Sannin Musume” Musical

29 May

Japanese actress and recording star Hibari Misora made a series of four musicals with two other singing stars, Chiemi Eri and Izumi Yukimura, who were known collectively as “Sannin Musume” (girl trio). I have previously written blog posts on the first three of these films, JANKEN MUSUME (1955), ROMANCE MUSUME (1956) and, their first in Tohoscope, ON WINGS OF LOVE (1957). To honor Misora on what would have been her 85th birthday, May 29, 2022, I’d like to finally cover the fourth musical they made together, HIBARI CHIEMI IZUMI SANNIN YOREBA, 1964. (Misora died in 1989). For the occasion, I’ve taken a review I wrote for IMDB and revised it with additional notes based on a new screening of it.

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National Classic Movie Day: In Celebration of National Screen Service

16 May

May 16 is National Classic Movie Day. I thought I’d pay a little tribute to an organization called National Screen Service that used to supply movie posters, still photos and trailers to movie theaters across the country. I got enormous thrills as a youth passing movie theaters and gazing at all the images on display. Sometimes I even got to see the movies inside. The images didn’t always match what I’d just seen on screen so I quickly learned that many of these shots were staged and taken apart from the actual filming.

From THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING. Notice the dummy hanging from the church tower in the background even though the boy hadn’t yet fallen when the action in this staged shot took place.

All the posters and photos had a caption on them in small print declaring that they were “Property of National Screen Service Corp.” In high school, I even visited the offices of National Screen Service at 1600 Broadway to see if I could get free stills from them. (I couldn’t.) Theoretically, all such material was supposed to be returned to the offices of National Screen Service, but quite a lot of them got into private collections. I have a number of such stills in my collection, so I’m celebrating this day by posting some of them here. Most are black-and-white, but a few are in color. (As I recall, it was extremely rare for a theater to post color stills.)

First, some films I actually saw in theaters at the time, so I might have seen some of these images on display:

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