Within the last two years, some of the best Hong Kong movies starring Angela Mao Ying have come out on DVD from Shout Factory, remastered, with cleaned-up soundtracks and new subtitles. My earlier VHS and DVD copies had all sorts of problems, so I’ve been wanting to sit down and watch these new editions and thought I’d use the occasion of her 66th birthday today, September 20th, to offer a write-up on them. I watched what I consider her four best films for this piece: HAPKIDO (1972), WHEN TAEKWONDO STRIKES (1973), THE TOURNAMENT (1974), and BROKEN OATH (1977). I didn’t have time for the fifth of her top five, LADY WHIRLWIND (1972)
Once upon a time, B-movies regularly ran in movie theaters on double bills with studio releases that were bigger-budgeted and better-publicized. I saw quite a few of them in theaters when I was a kid. Some of them were more fun than the main feature (Mario Bava’s HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD, anyone?), but often they were cheap, indifferent potboilers turned out on low budgets. They were often black-and-white and, in those days, often from other countries. PAYROLL, seen on a double bill with DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, and THE MURDER GAME, seen on a double bill with OUR MAN FLINT, were both English-produced crime dramas that I remember very little about other than that they were short on stars or thrills. The Rat Pack vehicle, ROBIN AND THE SEVEN HOODS, played on a double bill with RAIDERS FROM BENEATH THE SEA, a weak thriller about a team of bank robbers who wear scuba diving outfits to rob a bank on Catalina Island (hence the title) and make their getaway underwater(!).
Back in 1998 to 2003, my revived interest in “Old School” kung fu films from Hong Kong and Taiwan happened to coincide with a phenomenal outpouring of these films in low-cost VHS editions, usually bootleg or “gray market,” with many available in mainstream video stores (e.g. Suncoast, Virgin, Tower and FYE), but more often found at discount dealers like Record Explosion and Entertainment Outlet. A company called Xenon (with various subsidiaries) released quite a number of these films as part of the “Wu Tang Collection,” often given new titles designed to appeal to hiphop fans and fans of the rap group, the Wu-Tang Clan, which took its name and a significant amount of its content from kung fu films its members had seen on 42nd Street back in the day. One of its members, Ghostface Killah, even took his name from the villain of a 42nd Street hit called THE MYSTERY OF CHESS BOXING (aka NINJA CHECKMATE). Ol’ Dirty Bastard was the name applied to another member of the Clan.
MAKE YOUR MOVE opened in New York theaters yesterday (April 18, 2014), after circulating in other countries around the world last year. It’s an American-South Korean co-production (shot mostly in Canada) starring Derek Hough, from the TV show “Dancing with the Stars,” and BoA, a Korean pop star who’s had her most significant success in Japan over the past ten years or so. The film is a musical centering on dance (making it a “dancical,” to use a term my daughter introduced to me), and is set primarily in Brooklyn among a subculture of underground dance clubs and assorted acts employing a wide range of dance styles. It was written and directed by Duane Adler, who’s credited with the screenplays for two notable teen dance movies, SAVE THE LAST DANCE (2001) and STEP UP (2006) and two additional dance-themed movies, THE WAY SHE MOVES (2001, TV) and MAKE IT HAPPEN (2008). I went to see this (at a 42nd Street multiplex) without having seen much in the way of this genre (other than the Disney Channel HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL and CHEETAH GIRLS franchises), so I don’t know how closely it hews to the teen dance formula. I came to this film as a onetime fan of BoA and happen to have a couple of her albums containing song CDs and music video DVDs in my collection. I’ve dabbled a little bit in K-pop (Korean pop music), although my main interest is in J-pop (Japanese pop music). (The BoA albums I have are sung in Japanese.) In any event, MAKE YOUR MOVE is the first American movie with an Asian female pop star in the lead. (NINJA ASSASSIN, 2009, had a male Korean pop star, Rain, in the lead but it wasn’t a musical.)
My first exposure to English-dubbed Italian genre films was when I saw TV commercials for “sword ‘n’ sandal” movies when I was a child, including HERCULES, HERCULES UNCHAINED, THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII and THE COLOSSUS OF RHODES. I didn’t get to see any of these in theaters at the time but would eventually see all of them on TV. The first film of this type I would see on the big screen was GOLIATH AND THE BARBARIANS, starring “Hercules” himself, Steve Reeves, and it played on a double bill with JET OVER THE ATLANTIC, a low-budget black-and-white American thriller set on an airplane, in January 1960, when I was six years old. Two years later, I saw several more Italian mini-spectacles when I began patronizing the Tremont Theater, which offered triple features of movies that had already played every other theater. Among the films I saw there were THE TROJAN HORSE, also starring Reeves; THE MONGOLS, starring Jack Palance and Anita Ekberg; LAST OF THE VIKINGS, starring Cameron Mitchell; and THE MINOTAUR, starring American Olympic athlete Bob Mathias. On March 10, 1963, I saw my first all-Italian double feature, SAMSON AND THE SEVEN MIRACLES OF THE WORLD and WARRIORS FIVE, chronicled here on March 10, 2013 in my blog entry entitled, “March 10, 1963: The Making of a Film Buff.”
(Steve Reeves as Aeneas in THE TROJAN HORSE)
Run Run Shaw, Chinese movie mogul, in a picture from the early 1970s
This past Tuesday, January 7, 2014, Sir Run Run Shaw died in Hong Kong at the age of 106. Shaw was a mogul who built a movie empire in Asia, with the Shaw Bros. movie production and distribution company, based in Hong Kong, as its centerpiece. The company was Hong Kong’s biggest movie studio from the late 1950s to the mid-1980s, when it shifted its focus from movies to television, creating numerous popular series under the company name, TVB, the dominant television network in Hong Kong, with distribution throughout Asia. Shaw patterned his movie studio in the style of the old Hollywood studios like Warner Bros. and MGM. His counterparts in Hollywood were men like Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer, Adolph Zukor and Harry Cohn. He had numerous stars and production personnel under contract, an array of soundstages with lavish sets for interior scenes, and sprawling backlots filled with standing sets for the numerous historical dramas and adventures the studio made. Many of the top directors of Hong Kong cinema in the 1960s and ’70s worked at Shaw Bros., including Chang Cheh, King Hu, Chor Yuen, Li Han-hsiang and Lau Kar Leung.
Today, August 30, 2013, is the 42nd anniversary of my first trip to a 42nd Street movie theater (on August 30, 1971). I’ve amassed quite a bit of material related to that trip, so it seemed like a good opportunity to commemorate it. I’ve managed to re-watch both films seen on that trip and I’ve been in touch with both friends who accompanied me that day. The film that drew us was SHAFT, directed by Gordon Parks and starring Richard Roundtree as a black private eye with an office in Times Square, an apartment in Greenwich Village, and a client in Harlem, locations that marked three of the major centers of street life in New York in the early 1970s. The second feature chosen to play with it was, oddly enough, a low-budget black-and-white science fiction film made in 1956 called IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, a title that had already played on television regularly by this point. The film was directed by Roger Corman and the stars were Peter Graves, Beverly Garland and Lee Van Cleef. I suspect it was Van Cleef’s presence in the cast that gave it some cachet, since Van Cleef had become popular among 42nd Street audiences thanks to the steady stream of Italian westerns he’d made after reviving his career with appearances in two of the movies making up Sergio Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy: FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE and THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY. Van Cleef’s name was prominently displayed on the theater marquee as this shot from the time shows:
The theater was the Lyric, situated in the middle of a row of six theaters on the north side of 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues, the famous “Deuce” of New York legend. SHAFT had opened in New York on July 2 at the DeMille Theater on Broadway and 47th Street, but I don’t know at what point in its run it started playing at the Lyric. The marquee in that picture says “Held Over 4th Big Week,” but I couldn’t say whether that was in July, August or September.