15 September 2012

TIGRESS OF SHAOLIN (Ma Fung Gwai Kuen)/1979/SHAW BROTHERS

TIGRESS OF SHAOLIN (Ma Fung Gwai Kuen)

1979/Director: Chi Lo/Writer: Chi Lo

Cast: Kara Hui, Chia Yung Liu, Jui-yi Liu

I enjoy most anything by the Shaw Brothers from the late 60’s to the late 70’s. In particular I love the set designs and rich colors of the films. But the films were also noted for fairly decent story lines and good acting as well as top notch kung fu action sequences. 1979’s Tigress of Shaolin really does not possess enough of these qualities to make it even a mediocre Shaw Brothers movie, and in fact I might say it is the worst Shaw Brothers film I have ever seen, but that does not make it a movie not worth a single viewing however. The main issue with the film is the very weak story line and absence of a real plot. It may be safe to assume that the film was being put together as it went along, a practice common with many kung films of  the time but not a common practice with Shaw Brothers’ productions. Before going in to the film a bit more I will say that for me the rewarding part of watching this film was watching here in Kunming China with my Tibetan monk friend and Buddhist teacher who I will simply call Shifu (a term for a teacher).  He is a really cool monk and is still staying with us here in Kunming at the time I write this. He came down to Kunming from his home in northwest Yunnan province near the border of Tibet for serious dental work, which can be hard to get in those remote areas. We has watched a couple run of the mill Asian ghost movies (The Ring, The Eye) at his request and the other night I tried a Shaw Brothers flick. I had not seen this one and was going to show one of the Journey West films (The Monkey King) but could not locate the one I wanted to see in this mess of burned DVD discs, and so tried out Tigress of Shaolin. My wife was have having none of this one and she went on to bed early and he and I stayed up and watched it to its end and had a good time doing it. He does not speak English and can speak some Mandarin. I can only speak really low level mandarin and can read a few characters, but it all worked out to a fun experience. I probably would not have enjoyed the film had I watched it alone, and most likely would not have finished it. I am posting a rare personal picture of me with Shifu and my dog Woody while we hiked to a local Buddhist temple in Kunming. Okay, enough of my personal experience with the film –something I like sharing in my little reviews if readers have not noticed yet- and on to the film itself.

Some people online have said that is a film by a one time director named Chi Lo (or Lo Chi, as Asian names as typically reversed for American reviews), but he has over a dozen films listed on IMDB to his credit, though this the only film be wrote and directed for Shaw Brothers studio. It is also the only film for Shaw Brothers that charismatic lead man Jui Yi Liu (or Liu Jui-Yi, or Liu Chia-Yung) did as well. The actor certainly had a good screen appearance and good martial arts moves. Seemed like he could have been a big kung fu star but he only acted in a mere thirteen films total, the last being made in 1994. Tigress of Shaolin was, however, was the acting debut film for Kara Hui who went on to have a very successful acting career that has continued up to the present. I suspect the film’s title may have been altered later to capitalize on Hui’s success, since in this film she really has a supporting role with little time on screen. Unless the tigress in the films title refers to the old leper woman in the film, and that may well be the case as well.

Woody, me and Shifu resting on a hike.
Ah San, or Tieh, (Liu) is a young man who only wants to improve his kung fu skills. After his father gives him a letter before he dies, which he takes to a nearby town and secures a menial job in a medicine clinic. He draws the ire of local Tibetan charlatans who run a medicine show. The guys do not look anything like Tibetans, and look rather like the Guangzhou/Hong Kong type characters that color most Shaw Brothers’ productions. One guy in particular –called Blind Man, though he is not portrayed as actually blind in the film- looks more like a hippie from about 1968 with his round sunglasses and Haight-Ashbury attire than a Chinese person, much less a  Tibetan. Ah San is soon the target of the Tibetans who have no scruples. He runs into the character of Drunken Shrimp and is soon entangled with him, his leprous wife –who has mastered the super secret technique of “leper fist” kung fu- and their lovely goddaughter Tsai (Hui). He later befriends Little Rat after a misunderstanding and then dispute in a restaurant about throwing dished away into a pond. The pair are soon going up against the evil “Tibetans” and the leaders of the evil kung fu temple.


The film soon runs the standard kung fu movie course with the good kung fu student going up against the bad school. There is the typical acts of persistence on the part of the good student to learn kung fu secrets (in this case the secret of leper fist) and the resistance of the teachers to share them, but eventually they give in of course. There is no romantic connection between Ah San and Tsai and in truth Hui, as I have already said, spends little time at all on the screen. The film looks like a standard Shaw Brother’s kung fu film (sometimes in China know as wu xia pian, a type traveling hero/warrior film, like the Samurai films of Japan or maybe even the gunfighter films from the US) but there a few problems with it that knock it down a few notches. I did not like the film score. Some of it sounded like those Moog synthesizer albums from the late 60’s. The Moog and all those instruments are standard soundtrack tools and I am not saying they can’t be used, but here some of the sounds just do not match up to the film. The characters too are just not worked out very well, and the film has the feel of being improvised at times. I mean the scenes and dialog and everything. That may work when John Cassavetes is directing the movie but it does not work here at all. Many lower budget HK kung fu movies were written as they went along and typically what set most of the Shaw Brother’s movies apart was the extra time spent on the stories and energy that went into their lush set designs.

The film also seems to confused as to whether it wants to be a comedy or a violent action drama. There are scenes of bloody death and violence that seem to be out of step with the more lighthearted scenes they are sandwiched in between. The kung fu fight sequences are not very good either. The fight scene in the restaurant between Ah San and Little Rat is about the best one and it relies on the use of comedy to move it along. The ending was more than a little whacky but I have to admit I had a decent time watching it for the most part. Watching with a Tibetan lama maybe added to the experience for me and probably most people won’t be able to go that route. If you like only the best from Shaw Brothers then maybe pass on this one unless you’re a completest type. A not so great Shaw Brother’s film but still better than a lot of kung films of the time.











2 comments:

Arion said...

I must admit I haven't seen many Asian films from the 70s.

By the way, don't worry about dry spells. I barely have enough time to keep my blog going, and you have a lot of blogs. Keep up the good work!

Bill D. Courtney said...

Some 70's Asian films are great, but maybe not as great as what was coming out of Japan and HK in the 60's. But also things began to shift in the mid 70's and things began to get legitimately cheezy and corny in a bad way.

And yes, more to life than blogging anyway. More stuff coming up soon. I think Caltiki is next.

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