Sunday, December 23, 2007

02/03/07: Good Kung Fu, Bad Kung Fu double #1!

The Street Fighter

Japan 1974 colour

aka Gekitotsu! Satsujin Ken/“Sudden Attack: The Killing Fist”

Director Shigehiro Ozawa Writers Kôji Takada, Motohiro Torii

Cast Sonny Chiba (Terry Tsurugy), Waichi Yamada (Ratnose), Tony Cetera (Jadot), Yutaka Nakajima (Sarai)

Tarantino’s obsession with the king of Japanese pulp cinema knows no bounds - from having Christian Slater’s character in True Romance attend a Street Fighter triple bill to casting him as swordmaker supreme Hattori Hanzo in Kill Bill Volume 1 (2003). But still the name Sonny Chiba is not a household name like Bruce Lee, and like Chiba’s character in The Street Fighter, tonight we intend to right that wrong, even if it means cracking more than a few skulls.

With The Street Fighter from 1974, Japanese pulp cinema comes full circle. The samurai films of Kurosawa, with their innate nihilism, extreme notions of honour and stark contrasts of beauty and violence, influenced Sergio Leone, who, by reworking Kurosawa’s Yojimbo into A Fistful Of Dollars, defined the spaghetti western genre. The Seventies Japanese martial arts explosion is a logical extension of both the spaghetti western and the yakuza film, a genuinely Japanese artform updating film noir conventions and filled with murky morality and complex characterizations, through which Sonny Chiba worked his way through the ranks from supporting player to leading man.

In contrast, most Hong Kong’s simplistic kung fu scenarios are like the old fashioned cowboy B-pictures of Roy Rogers: the good guys are motivated by quaint notions of justice to defeat the cartoonish bad guys in black hats, who have done the good guy wrong. The Street Fighter’s anti-hero Terry Tsurugy played by Chiba is entirely in black, even down to his Brillo sideburns and almost mono-brow framing a mask of pure hatred. He’s a modern Ronin, a masterless half-Chinese brutarian for hire, who’s paid by the yakuza and mafia to track down an oil heiress, then turns on his employers when they refuse to pay him. All the while, the voice of his father reminds him: "Listen my son, TRUST NO ONE! You can count on no one but YOURSELF. Improve your skills, son, harden your body, become the NUMBER ONE MAN! Do not ever let ANYONE beat you!"

The film was a smash hit, not just in Japan but in the States, where its slick camerawork and funkadelic soundtrack - and its jet-black gallows humour - would have appealed to the same ghetto audiences and white thrillseekers the Bruce Lee and blaxploitation films catered for. One of the first films rated X by the MPAA for violence, audiences were blown away by the balls-ripping, fingers in eye sockets, the signature X-ray punch to the skull, and the violent death throes of Chiba’s victims in bright, almost fluorescent red pools of their own blood.

Chiba proves to be an unstoppable killing machine, even down to final frame of the film which proclaims “The End...For Now”, and promises The Return Of The Streetfighter. In fact there were three sequels, and countless retitlings of Sonny Chiba films to cash in on the popularity of the series. To this day he is a godhead of Japanese genre cinema - his steel-eyed glare is iconic as is his downturned mouth, a mixture of contempt and unbridled anger hinting at a man entirely possessed by a host of inner demons. Tonight we unleash the first of a series of Sonny Chiba films here at Schlock Treatment - the 1974 karate yakuza bloodbath of The Street Fighter.

Champ Against Champ

Hong Kong 1983 colour

aka Champ Vs Champ

Director Godfrey Ho

Cast Dragon Lee [aka Bruce Lei], Charlie Han, Doris Tsui, Mark Wong, Antonio Sieou

We use a lot of adjectives here at Schlock Treatment - blaxploitation, sexploitation, drusploitation, DWARFsploitation... but there is also the term “Brucesploitation” describing any film cashing in on the Bruce Lee legend. In the wake of Bruce Lee’s death in 1973 came scores of films claiming to be the REAL story of Bruce’s death, each one starring the next Bruce Lee. The most ludicrous of all is the 1977 Clones Of Bruce Lee, in which a scientist makes carbon copies from Lee’s DNA. One of the Clones, along with Bruce Le, Bruce Lai and Bruce Thai, is perhaps the daggiest of all Bruce imersonators, Dragon Lee.

If you remember Ninja The Protector from a few weeks back, we told you the story of Godfrey Ho, the Ed Wood of kung fu cinema. Before his disastrous and seemingly limitless “Ninja” series, Ho and producer Joseph Lai had jumped on the Brucesploitation bandwagon with a string of chop sockeys starring their protoge Dragon Lee. Champ Against Champ from 1983 is a classic example of Ho and Lai’s mad, BAD kung fu with Dragon as Lee Wong, an innocent who runs foul of baddie Master Kai. Kai is obsessed with a list of traitors plotting against him, and targets old man Tai, whose daughter Sing is promised to Dragon Lee, as the ringleader.

Tai is captured and tortured by Kai, and Dragon Lee cops a poisoned arrow through the thigh, forcing him to get his leg amputated. This causes him great unhappiness and sexual insecurity, and he hooks up with Master Wai (not to be confused with Master Kai or Tai). The old man with flowing white robe and mustache inspires him with the story of “Steel Leg, the Great Master of the 18 Kicks” - a man who just happens to be Sing’s grandfather! Incredibly, she still has the key to his one-legged training room and fake limb instruction manual. At one point during a disco-driven montage, Dragon pulls his new metal leg out of a bucket of water and asks Sing her opinion. “Ooooh. It’s really good,” she replies in a schoolgirl voice.

One of the Ten Commandments of Bad Kung Fu requires insane dubbing to go with the insane plot machinations. For Champ Against Champ, it seems cheapskates Ho and Lai used a dubbing studio in Hong Kong with local British non-talent, so that the results are almost Pythonesque. Tai is given a Mr Gumby voice, a thug says Master Wai, “You long-haired son of a she-goat!”, and classical music plays during a fight scene in a deliberate or otherwise nod to A Clockwork Orange. Intentional comedy relief comes in the form of a henpecked innkeeper with a red nose, and unintentional comedy each time the rest of the cast opens their mouths. “You stinking turd! Rot in hell!” Like the list of Bruce Lee clones, the quotable quotes are without end.

As the plot spirals out of control, Dragon fights a guy who breathes fire, teams up with a guy who’s the spitting image of Garry Glitter, and faces a squad of ninja she-bitches with voices like backpackers from Peckham, who can turn invisible or shape-shift into evil looking clowns. In the Battle of the Sexies, featuring sped up footage that makes the girls look like bikini bimbots from the Benny Hill Show, Dragon wins by tying their apron strings together. In the final confrontation with Kai, Dragon appears to have gained magical powers as well as his own sound effect - the metal leg’s kick sounds like someone hitting a shopping trolley with a rolling pin. In the “amputee revenge” subgenre, only the Shaw Brothers’ Crippled Avengers, in which a guy gets BOTH legs replaced with tin loafers, comes close to the dizzying heights of watching Dragon Lee clanging his way through Champ Against Champ.

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