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Happy Birthday, Lisa Lu: The Veteran Actress Turns 95!

19 Jan

Actress Lisa Lu turns 95 today, January 19, 2022. I’ve written about her four previous times, the last one being a celebration on her 90th birthday five years ago. It’s great to celebrate someone’s career while they’re happily still with us. Since that last post, she had a major supporting role in CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018), marking her 60th year in the film/TV industry. In the film she played the mother of Michelle Yeoh’s character and the grandmother of the male lead played by Henry Golding, who struggles to get their approval of his marriage to a Chinese-American woman (Constance Wu) who is considered by his wealthy family to be beneath their station. Here’s what I wrote about her and Yeoh after I’d seen the film: “It’s great to see Michelle Yeoh and Lisa Lu onscreen together, but they’re so antagonistic to the poor heroine that I found it jarring. I’ve never seen them in roles like that before.”

Lisa Lu, Henry Golding in CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018)

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Gamera, Frankenstein, Sabata and Zatoichi: The Genre Films of 1970

30 Dec

50 years ago, in 1970, neighborhood theaters offered quite a varied landscape of cinematic fare, although it took me some time to find it all. I managed to see lots of 1970 releases in theaters in the years 1970-72. (Films sometimes took months or years to reach my local theaters.) Most of these were Hollywood films of varied genres or American independents. I would see everything from PATTON to M*A*S*H, KELLY’S HEROES to ZABRISKIE POINT, FIVE EASY PIECES to LOVE STORY and RIO LOBO to WATERMELON MAN, sometimes on double features! It would take years of TV watching, visits to revival theaters and, much later, cable TV and home video, before I caught up with all the great foreign genre films released in 1970, including England’s Hammer horror, Hong Kong’s Shaw Bros. martial arts adventures, French crime thrillers, Japanese samurai, Japanese kaiju, and Italian westerns. One of my favorites from the year is one I first saw in 2018. So there are always new ones to be discovered or rediscovered after decades.

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Pan Jinlian: The Notorious Femme Fatale of Chinese Literature

24 Jul

While binge-watching Hong Kong movies during the coronavirus lockdown, I reached onto my shelf of Cathay releases and pulled out the two-part movie, THE STORY OF THREE LOVES (1964), starring Grace Chang as a street singer-turned-student who is forced into marriage with a brutal warlord in 1920s Beijing. Early in the film, she is seen performing in a tavern and is called upon to sing a song about Pan Jinlian.

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SHAOLIN MANTIS: A Masterpiece of Acting, Design, and Choreography

11 May

I recently re-watched SHAOLIN MANTIS (1978), one of the greatest kung fu movies ever made, for the first time in seven years and I wanted to highlight three elements of the Shaw Bros. production that really strike me now as key to its success. (The film’s English-dubbed edition was known as DEADLY MANTIS when it played theaters in the U.S. and ran on American television in the 1980s. For the record, I watched the Dragon Dynasty Region 1 DVD edition, in Mandarin with English subtitles, for this review.)

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Chinese New Year: Celebrating the Year of the Pig

5 Feb

The Chinese New Year begins on February 5, marking the start of the Year of the Pig. I decided to look at some of my favorite pig characters from popular culture, most notably Porky Pig of Looney Tunes fame and the trickster pig character, Pigsy, from the classic Chinese text “Journey to the West.” In that story, Pigsy, a pig demon who lusts after human women, starts out as an antagonist of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, but is defeated by him and agrees to join Wukong and the Tang monk on their journey to India to acquire sacred Buddhist texts to bring back to China.

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Godzilla, Zatoichi and the Monkey King: The Best Foreign Genre Films of 1968

30 Dec

I’ve already written about my Hollywood favorites from 1968 in an earlier piece, so I wanted to focus on my favorite foreign genre films from 1968 before the 50th anniversary year was over, a group that has, in my opinion, held up much better critically over the years than their Hollywood counterparts. A lot was happening on the genre front back then, especially in Japan, Hong Kong, Italy and England. In Japan, there were numerous samurai, yakuza, giant monster and blind swordsman movies. Hong Kong’s Shaw Bros. studio gave us a host of swordplay mini-epics, several starring that swordswoman extraordinaire, Cheng Pei-Pei, as well as musicals, crime films and melodramas. Italy was turning out western after western, with all three major Sergios–Leone, Sollima and Corbucci–shining that year. England’s Hammer studio gave us exemplary horror films and France gave us BARBARELLA and THE BRIDE WORE BLACK.

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Kung Fu on 42nd Street

28 Sep

I recently came across files of ads for kung fu movies that played New York theaters back in the 1970s, material I’d accumulated while researching a proposed book in the early 2000s on Manhattan’s 42nd Street and its movie culture. I had planned to include a chapter on kung fu movies and even questioned several friends who’d regularly attended these movies on 42nd street. Add these files to a couple of original newspaper ads I’d saved myself from 1973 and I see that 42nd Street theaters are listed in 95% of them. In fact, all eleven theaters on both sides of the legendary Deuce (between Seventh and Eighth Avenues) are represented in the ads. What struck me as I researched the titles listed was how many I was unfamiliar with. No matter how much I think I know about kung fu movies of the 1970s and ’80s, there are always more to discover. And I never fail to be impressed by the sheer number of these movies that played in Deuce theaters in those years.

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Aliens, Gunslingers, Samurai and One-Armed Swordsmen: The Genre Films of 1967

15 Nov

The 50th anniversaries of various landmark films from 1967 have been celebrated widely, including in a couple of previous entries here, but this time I want to look back at the unprecedented variety of genre films that came out that year, particularly from other countries, all part of the global cinematic landscape that only gradually came into view to a budding film buff in his formative years and still expanding the more I discover.

I’ve seen more films from 1967 than from any other individual year, 162 at last count, with 71 from the U.S. and 91 from other countries, chiefly Japan, Hong Kong, England and Italy, but also from France, Germany, Mexico and the Soviet Union. My 14th birthday was in 1967 and I saw a total of twenty 1967 releases in theaters in 1967 and early 1968 when lots of 1967 releases finally turned up in the Bronx, nearly all of them Hollywood releases. I saw others in theaters in the following years, including some of my favorites of 1967–EL DORADO, THE DIRTY DOZEN, and Sergio Leone’s “Man with No Name” trilogy–and then quite a few more on TV broadcasts and in revival theaters in the 1970s. I would add more favorites from that year in the home video era as I discovered previously unseen titles on video and DVD, particularly from Japan and Hong Kong. For instance, it wasn’t until 1997 that I finally saw the Jimmy Wang Yu Shaw Bros. classic, ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN.

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From Hong Kong and Japan: THE MERMAID (1965) and THE LITTLE MERMAID (1975)

23 Feb

Two of the loveliest films I’ve seen in a long time are THE MERMAID (1965, Hong Kong) and THE LITTLE MERMAID (1975, Japan), which I watched a day apart. It was my very first viewing of THE MERMAID, a Shaw Bros. Huangmei Opera, while I’d previously seen THE LITTLE MERMAID, a Japanese animated film, only in a poor-quality, severely cropped English dub on VHS. Seeing the widescreen version on DVD, in Japanese with English subtitles, was like seeing it for the first time. The two films have some elements in common, although I’m not sure if the Hong Kong film was inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen tale or by a much older Chinese folk tale. I’m guessing that the screenwriter drew on elements of both. The title mermaid in the Hong Kong film is not, technically, a mermaid as we’ve come to know this creature. Instead, she’s the spirit of a golden carp, a fish living in the pond adjacent to a garden in a Prime Minister’s villa in Old China. The carp takes on full human form, while retaining her magical powers, in order to console a poor scholar who’s been shunned by the family of the maiden to whom he was betrothed. The animated Japanese film is a direct adaptation of Andersen’s tale about a mermaid who trades in her fish tail for a pair of legs in order to live on land and try to win the favor of a prince and was made in 1975 to commemorate the centennial of Andersen’s death. Unlike the later Disney adaptation of the same title (1989), the anime version retains the tragic ending of the original story.

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The Lion Dance in Film

4 Feb

The Lunar New Year has begun and it’s the Year of the Rooster, but since I don’t know many films featuring roosters (other than Warner Bros. cartoons starring Foghorn Leghorn), I took my inspiration from a New York Times piece on a Lion Dance troupe preparing for this weekend’s New Year Parade in Chinatown and decided to look at films featuring Lion Dance sequences. There have been quite a few over the decades, but I decided to focus on kung fu films that are easily accessible in my collection. Lion dances are usually performed by two people in a lion costume, one to operate the head and the lion’s forelegs, the other to carry the rear and be the lion’s hind legs. The head has moveable parts, including a mouth and eyes. It’s a form of puppetry with humans inside the puppets. In kung fu films, the Lion Dance sequence is often used to act out an ongoing rivalry between martial arts schools without resorting to bone-crunching blows, although they can be just as challenging as a kung fu battle. Some of these sequences are more elaborate than others; some are shot on location, some on studio soundstages or backlots.

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