Friday, April 13, 2012

Bao chou / Vengeance (Hong Kong, 1970)

Vengeance is yet another relatively unknown Shaw Brothers film from production company's Golden Age directed by one of their most prolific directors, Cheh Chang, the man responsible for some of the firm's most popular wuxia and kung-fu films, including Crippled Avengers (1978 / trailer), Five Deadly Venoms (1978 / trailer), The One-Armed Swordsman (1967 / trailer) and Five Element Ninjas (1982 / trailer / film).
Chang, who has more than a hundred films under his belt, can list both the great John Woo and Quentin Tarantino as fans—and, indeed, visual and/or plot references to Vengeance can be found in both Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol I (2003 / trailer) and John Woo's The Killer (1989 / trailer), if not in other films of theirs as well. Tarantino's knowledge of the filmmaker naturally comes from his encyclopedic familiarity with obscure films and filmmakers, but Woo's connection is much closer: in his early years, he worked as assistant director on many of Chang's films, including Boxer From Shantung (1972 / trailer / full film), The Water Margin (1972 / trailer) and The Blood Brothers (1973 / trailer / full film).
Vengeance is rather something different from what one normally expects to see when popping in a DVD of prime Shaw Brothers. This is already obvious from the opening credits which, underscored by a soundtrack that could well be the theme song to some hardboiled US crime film from the 50s, consist of high-raster, B&W photos reminiscent of newspaper crime photos like those of Weegee or cheap true detective magazines. Set in an unnamed Chinese town in 1926—in other words, well within "modern" times—Vengeance features absolutely no braided ponytails or long, stringy white beards but, for that, still features such common themes as loyalty, honor and revenge. Added to the mixture are some top-class great fight scenes, copious amounts of blood, and (in the digitally re-mastered version we saw, at least) wonderfully chromatic colors occasionally interspersed with—a rarity for Hong Kong films of the time—darker, shadowy and high-contrast scenes that are never muddy. That the film owes much of its overall aesthetic sense and story to the classic film noir of the US is obvious within the first five minutes, despite the obvious (and for westerners, exotic) setting in a Chinese theater.
Vengeance is one of those films that opens with one tale and that suddenly flips to another. A good 20 minutes is spent on stage actor and master fighter Kuan Yu-Lou (Ti Lung of A Better Tomorrow [1986 / trailer] and A Better Tomorrow II [1987 / trailer]), a proud and jealous man, who's married to the beautiful but two-faced Hua Cheng-fen (Ping Wang of The Chinese Boxer [1970 / trailer] and Five Fingers of Death [1972 / trailer]). Among others who vie for Cheng-fen's affections is the local crime boss Feng Kai-shan (Feng Ku of The Flying Guillotine [1975 / trailer] and The Web of Death [1976 / trailer]) who, following a violent confrontation with Kuan Yu-Lou, has the actor violently and bloodily killed—something that hardly bothers Hua Cheng-fen, a hardened and heartless fem fatale well befitting a classic film noir film.
It is at this point that the true story of the film begins, for Kuan Yu-Lou's murder does not sit well with his brother, Kuan Hsiao Lou (David Chiang of The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974 / trailer) and Return of the Deadly Blade (1981 / scenes), who returns to town to avenge the death of his brother. Driven with an intense need for Vengeance—hence the title—he lets nothing distract him from his goal, not even his rekindled relationship with Hua's sister (Yen-ching Ou of The Golden Sword [1969 / trailer]).
Vengeance—like Kuan Hsiao Lou—barrels along like a bulldozer towards its unavoidable Hemingwayesque ending, only pausing occasionally for the necessary scenes of romance needed to convey the depth of feelings that the star-crossed lovers have for one another and, more often, for Kuan Hsiao Lou to smoke a cigarette. The rest of the time, it is pretty much non-stop slicing, dicing and breaking bones as one well-choreographed fight scene follows the next and the bad guys—and all their minions—die one by one.
Imagine, if you can, a Shaw Brothers film scripted by, say, Donald E. Westlake or Jim Thompson or any given excellent but forgotten and unknown writer of hardboiled crime. Indeed, one film that immediately comes to mind is one of Mel Gibson's more entertaining films, Payback (1999 / trailer), which is based on a Westlake novel. But unlike in Payback, in which the main character's desire for revenge has nothing to do with honor or loyalty and everything with money, the main character of Vengeance seeks only to make those who killed his brother pay for their deed—with their lives. In the end, despite his "noble" intention, the single-mindedness with which he pursues his goal makes him as morally questionable as all those he kills—and like them, he too pays for his deeds. Vengeance leaves the viewer wondering whether the price Kuan Hsiao Lou's pays is worth it, but one never doubts that Kuan Hsiao Lou himself believes that it is.
Vengeance, an unknown and unique Shaw Brothers film that is well worth watching—look for it.
The whole film in Chinese without subtitles:

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