Next up is a Hong Kong chopsocky kung-fu movie. I haven't done anything yet from this little island with big dreams, but I have a stack of DVDs waiting. Let us see how this goes.
This movie explores one of the oldest themes in cinema, that of a child avenging his murdered parents. For as long as movies have been made, young boys have spend their lives training and preparing for the day when they can seek revenge on the men who killed their families, or die trying.
A note: The DVD box cover has the title The Dragon's Infernal Showdown, but the title card in the actual movie just says The Dragon's Showdown. Since I only paid a dollar for this public domain movie at Wal-Mart, I shouldn't complain, but you'd think they could at least get the name of the movie to match.
And now on to our show...
It's rural China, it's around 200 years ago, and it's not a pleasant place to live. The serfs in this area are being forced off their lands by an evil landowner, lands that the have farmed for generations and generations. The landowner wants the land for himself, but he also needs the serfs to work the land, so he can't just ride in and kill them all. So he uses intimidation and threats to get the serfs to farm for him, or else face the sword. And unarmed peasants usually have no recourse but to meekly obey.
Except for one man, a young farmer, husband and father of two little kids. This man stands up to the evil landowner and refuses to bow, to give up his lands and become subservient to him. And what happens to these sorts of agitators? They almost always end up dead, killed by the powerful as examples to the less-powerful to toe the line.
The landowner and his thugs go to the agitator's house and a fight ensues. Everyone here knows kung-fu (of course) so the fight is brisk and frantic, with flailing fists and a slicing sword. The peasant fights hard, but he's outnumbered and destined to fall. And he does so, dying on the land he loved enough to give his life for.
The bad guys then take the sword and kill his wife! They then scoop up the infant girl and take her away to raise as their own. However, off in the bushes is a young boy, a boy who just watched his family killed off before his eyes. So, the now-orphaned boy grows up with his aunt. He grows up strong and honorable, and above all, he grows up driven by the memories of his murdered parents and the men who killed them.
Some 20 years pass, and the boy is now a man. Shen Tai is his name and soon evildoers will quake at the sound of it. Shen Tai is played by 46-year old Dragon Lee. Born in Russia of Korean extraction, Dragon became one of the innumerable Bruce Lee imitators working in the 1980s kung-fu movie explosion. He was one of the better ones, however, and made 27 films in 20 years before retiring from the genre and moving back to Korea.
In this time, Shen Tai has fallen in love with a young girl named Shirley, who is his equal in kung-fu as well as romance. She's your typical Asian chick with a killer high kick and silk Chinese pajamas, though she's not really that attractive to look at up close. Shirley is played by Cheryl Meng, in her only credited screen role. The actress is so unknown, in fact, that she defies my attempts to track down a picture of her online.
So the time comes for Shen Tai to avenge his parents. The impetus comes when his aged aunt, who raised him as her own, dies of natural causes in his arms. Now he can begin his quest, and off he goes.
Shen Tai doesn't get far before he's accosted by a woman who throws a knife at his back! They fight a bit, but then he realizes that it's Shirley! She's mad he left her without saying goodbye, but he says he didn't want her to come along and get hurt. She then insists on coming along, since she's in love and all that. Seriously, she just threw a knife at you! I had this girlfriend that threw the remote at my head, and I'll tell you, our relationship wasn't the same afterwards. I can only image if she tried to stick a knife in my back.
So Shen Tai and Shirley decide to go on the vengeance quest together, a nice couple thing that will bring them closer. Kind of like that first road trip with your girl, where you either come away deeper in love or you end up fighting like savages everyday and the relationship dies. Either way, you learn a lot about someone on a long trip.
Learning that the landowner has moved on from this area years ago (from an old farmer who looks like Karl Marx and speaks with a thick British accent, the first of many lines dubbed with quirky English phrases like "he pushed off" and "bloody hell") Shen Tai and Shirley head for a village a hundred miles away where the landowner was said to have moved to.
Along the way we learn a bit about these two as a couple. Namely, that they are doomed. She is head-over-heels gaga over him and wants to marry him, but he's just not that into her. In fact, she annoys him to no end, and he just seems to want a friendly, platonic relationship and nothing more. He's not even using her for sex, as we learn that she won't even let him see her change clothes (such Christian modesty!). Yep, these two need to reevaluate their relationship and date other people.
The closest you're going to get to nekkidness in this movie.
Oh, yeah, the movie. During their travels to the faraway village and once there as they search for the landowner, a lot of people seem to want to beat them up. Local punks, robbers, annoyed citizens, hired thugs of the landowner, all sorts of people take turns engaging in kung-fu scraps with them. Shen Tai and Shirley kick all their asses, of course, but it still keeps them on their toes.
These fight scenes are filled with numerous Jackie Chan-ish comedic moments, as well as some intricate choreography and impressive moves. Hot chicken legs are used, guys are tickled before being smacked, pants catch on fire, gravity is defied, and the range of Three Stooges nuk-nuks and eye pokes are employed. No one really seems to get hurt much and our two heroes are having a good time of it. And, oh, the sound effects! All the standard whooshes! and pwangs! and swaps! and Steffi Graf-grunts and squeals that make late night kung-fu movies so much joy to watch.
Shen Tai and Shirley!
Meanwhile, the landowner they seek is indeed in the area, he just changed his name a decade ago. He's still the local strongman, running the village with an iron fist, taking bribes and protection money and generally fleecing the local peasants while gathering riches and power for himself. We never learn why he moved, probably to greener pastures.
The landowner is a bit concerned that some young man is in the area looking for him under his old name, suggesting that he's from the old territory that he used to rule. He sends out his minions to find out who this is and what they want. The last thing he wants is trouble, but if trouble has come, then he wants his men to handle it before he has to.
The landowner, who even locals know as a former bandit leader, is a tallish middle-aged man with a hearty dubbed laugh and the willingness to crush all those oppose him with an iron fist. He also looks almost exactly like Tom Skerritt, except Chinese, and with martial arts skills.
Tom Skerritt has a daughter, about 20 years old and smoking cute, who is a budding kung-fu master. The girl is also a petulant, spoiled, pouting, self-important brat, a rich Hamptons kid strutting about with her blue blood nose in the air. I guess that's what growing up the only kid of a mafia kingpin will do for your ego.
The unnamed daughter!
The girl eventually meets Shen Tai in the village marketplace and it doesn't go well. He's pretty sick of Shirley by now and he snaps at the kid, "I've had enough of little bitches like you, if I see another one I'll vomit!". This brings forth her bodyguards who do some fu on Shen Tai. Keep in mind that Shen Tai doesn't yet know that this girl is his sister (he hasn't seen her even in his life, they were both infants when they were separated).
Ok, most confusingly, we now learn that Shen Tai also has a long lost older brother! What the hell! And this brother has also been gone for 20 years (since their parents died), presumably wandering the countryside practicing ninja stuff, but has now reappeared in the same village and on the same vengeance quest! Imagine the odds! Lets just call him "Bob", he's given no name here. Bob is a master kung-fu fighter (of course) and his schtick is this six-inch long metal tube that he uses for a variety of thwacks and thunks on bad guys. It also shoots out this little grappling hook from one end, which is just cool.
Sadly, when Shen Tai first meets Bob, the man is lying near-dead beneath a pine tree, his chest pierced by a sword. That sword was held by Tom Skerritt's brother, who has all this time been the second-in-command. Bob went to the brother's house first and a wicked fight ensued.
Things were going well for Bob, holding his own against a half dozen thugs and the brother quite well, when the brother whipped out this sword. Not just any sword (Bob can fu against normal blades) but one that's magnetic! I know, what the hell! Taken by surprise, Bob gets his metal tube stuck to the blade, and then a metal necklace he's wearing, and looses his advantage. Slashed and stabbed, Bob stumbles out of the house and off to the woods where he collapses, to be found now by Shen Tai.
First Shen Tai takes care of Tom Skerritt's brother, the one who stabbed Bob. To counter that magnetic sword, Shen Tai straps these hockey puck-sized magnets to his hands, which defy all known laws of magnetic force by allowing him to deflect the sword strokes, despite the great force behind the swings. Thus tricked out, Shen Tai thumps the brother and his thugs easily, and kills the brother at the end.
Tom Skerritt's brother!
So, and now we have our final battle, between Shen Tai and Tom Skerritt, set in the grounds of Tom Skerritt's palace. About ten thugs take their shot at Shen Tai at first, but all are bested in amusing ways.
Then Tom Skerritt himself appears and the fight is on. Shirley shows up near the end to give some good support to her man, but this is all about Shen Tai and his chiseled pectorals. To his credit, Tom Skerritt has wicked fu, and really gives Shen Tai a workout with his punches, kicks and tight pants. Tom Skerritt has this belt with this light bulb on the front, and when he turns on this light, he has the ability to bend metal like Superman. I know, seriously, what the hell. Shen Tai defeats this by pouring oil on himself so Tom Skerritt can't get a good enough grip on him to bend him in half. I laughed.
This is an awesome battle, one of the classics, and has a lot of funky touches you don't see in every kung-fu movie. There are high-wire vertical jumps, film-run-backwards flips off balconies, pants being pulled down, tables used as props, swords, nunchucks, staves, knives, penny loafers, guys being tickled, guys having goatee hair pulled, guys being kicked in the nads, and Dragon Lee channeling his hero Bruce Lee with his comically apish facial expressions and Curly Marx-esque slapstick. Awesome, just friggin' awesome.
Ah, but it has to end sometime, and it does, with Tom Skerritt dead in the dirt and our heroes still on their feet. Shirley's help in this fight has finally convinced Shen Tai that maybe she is marriage material, despite the risk of having children born with bruises, and they walk off together arm in arm.
Don't worry, Shen Tai wins in the end.
The stinger shows the daughter burying her father (Tom Skerritt). She's crying with sorrow as she stands before his grave. Shen Tai is here, and he tells her that now their family is avenged and they can be happy now. He then takes the daughter (his sister, remember) by the hand and they leave to go back home. Ok, wait. Sure, the girl is Shen Tai's biological sister, but she was raised from about three months old by Tom Skerritt (and by all accounts raised well and loved greatly by him), so to her he is her father. Shen Tai just murdered her father (and her uncle) and now he expects her to just go back with him to some dirt poor farming village a hundred miles away and be happy about it? What the hell!