Sunday, May 03, 2020

Made in Hong Kong: Shatter & Call of Heroes

This week's entry in "don't even let the new arrivals make it to the new arrivals shelf" is Shatter, which I didn't even know existed until I was writing up Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires a couple weeks ago and saw that not only did Hammer & Shaw Brothers make a second film together, but Shout! Factory would be releasing it on Blu-ray in a couple weeks. Had to pre-order it at that point.

Maybe not quite worth the money, but how else am I seeing that oddity?

It's blessedly short, so I had time for another one off the shelf, and picked up Call of Heroes, which has been waiting to be watched for a couple of years, one of several discs I've ordered over that time trying to both grab bargains to pad out an order from Hong Kong and get 3D stuff before it went out of print. It's a freaking delight, and I really wish I'd had a chance to see it in a theater. It looks like it came out like a month too late to play Fantasia, didn't get US bookings because a couple other Chinese films were coming out at the time, and then wound up on the festival circuit before a home video release. I kind of get it - Wu Jing was just starting to break out as a superstar and Eddie Peng was in something like the same position if at a lower wattage, Lau Ching-Wan is a Hong Kong guy, and the mainland movies do better than Hong Kong ones.

Maybe not my favorite find during lockdown, but it goes on my list of things I'd like to program a 3D film festival with. Sure, a 3D martial-arts spaghetti western with Lau, Wu, Peng, and action direction by Sammo Hung is very specifically my thing, but I'm kind of suspicious of folks for whom it is not their thing.

Shatter (aka Call Him Mr. Shatter)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 April 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

The second and final film in the brief collaboration between the Hammer and Shaw Brothers studios is easily overlooked; it doesn't quite so immediately announce itself as the fusion of their two styles as The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. The behind-the-scenes turmoil had Hammer eventually dumping the film, while Shaw seems to have provided production support without much attempt to put their stamp on it. It's not a bad bit of grindhouse fare, as such things go; although still most noteworthy for the odd place it occupies in genre film history.

It opens with American freelance assassin Shatter (Stuart Whitman) knocking off an African dictator and making off with the contents of his aide's suitcase. He arrives in Hong Kong to pick up the money he's owed, only to have banker Hans Leber (Antron Diffring) refuse to pay, British spy Paul Rattwood (Peter Cushing) informs him that his mission was not, as he believed, sanctioned by the CIA. Leber (or someone) tries to have him killed and Rattwood tells him to leave on the next flight, having some goons deliver a beatdown just to drive the point home. Fortunately, it's behind a bar and massage parlor that employs Tai Pah (Ti Lung) and Mai Mee (Lily Li Li-Li); not only are they willing to give Shatter a place to lie low, but Tai Pah has tremendous kung fu skills

It's worth noting that where 7 Golden Vampires was produced by both studios, Shaw Brothers apparently took a much less active role in Shatter, and one way this manifests is in nobody being credited as action director or fight choreographer. It's not crippling - between original director Monte Hellman and producer Michael Carreras (who took over about two-thirds of the way through), they are generally smart enough to stand back and watch Ti Lung go when it's time for that, and while the results aren't as strong as a real Shaw Brothers movie, there's never any doubt about why Ti was one of the studio's biggest stars. There's some quality martial arts, and while it's choppier than it could be, Ti's still a blast to watch.

The rest of the movie is kind of a mess, though, with a script that is not necessarily terribly convoluted but still on the dumb side far more often than necessary, all too frequently taking the laziest route from one plot development or fight to the next, with plenty of moment-to-moment sloppiness and people who maybe wouldn't be great actors even if they were working in their first language. The last act is kind of egregiously sloppy, and on the other end, there's something genuinely bizarre about how casually the people of Hong Kong shrug off violence, a bit of black comedy that's entertaining in moments but undercuts the ones where the audience is supposed to take Shatter's PTSD seriously.

Stuart Whitman may not have a lot of time to really play with that as Shatter, or anything else, but he's got the right sort of run-down energy for the part; the audience can see every questionable moral choice etched into him. He's a good hitman who is tired of this life but doesn't know how to do anything other than keep going, a useful contrast with Tia Pah's cocky clarity. Peter Cushing, in his last role for Hammer, gets billed as a guest star and adds just the right amount of sneering officiousness to every scene he's in.

This would be Cushing's last film for Hammer, and the studio itself would not last long afterward. In some ways, it's not surprising that Shatter sank; it's the result of a British studio trying to make an American B-movie in Hong Kong style, and only fitfully puts it all together. When it does get all of these personalities working together, it's kind of fun, and it happens often enough that the spots where the influences don't gel and start working against each other aren't the problems they could be.

Also on EFilmCritic

Ngai sing (Call of Heroes)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 30 April 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong 3D Blu-ray)

It took me a shamefully long time to recognize what filmmaker Benny Chan Muk-Sing was up to with Call of Heroes, because while samurai movies and westerns tend to cross-pollinate in one way, kung fu usually mixes with westerns by having Chinese people show up in the American West. A movie like this - more or less a spaghetti western that has been picked up and dropped straight into Guangdong - is something else and a whole ton of fun.

It's 1914, and China is the scene of fighting between warlords, with Cao Ying the worst of them. Teacher Bai Ling (Maggie Jiang Shu-Ying) is leading a half-dozen orphans away to the capital of Guangzhou, but after being caught in a robbery at a roadside restaurant, they arrive at Pucheng, where Sheriff Yang Kenan (Sean Lau Ching-Wan) prevails on the villagers to let the refugees stay. Also arriving: Wang Meihu (Xing Yu) and his team of mercenaries hired by Boss Liu (Xie Ning), as well as wanderer Ma Feng (Eddie Peng Yu-Yen), who foiled the robbery - and, later, the warlord's sociopathic son, Cao Shaolun (Louis Koo Tin-Lok). Yang and the rest of his guardians arrest Shaolun for murder, but are delivered an ultimatum to release Shaolun or have Colonel Zhang Yi (Wu Jing) attack.

So you've got your sheriff, taunted by a lunatic languishing in a jail as the more competent member of his gang lays siege, the wandering fighter who rides in to serve as a wildcard, the pretty schoolteacher, a bar fight, something that can reasonably pass as a stagecoach, all that good stuff. It's the Chinese equivalent, by and large - nobody's wearing cowboy hats and only Shaolun favors the gun rather than martial arts - but there are no Shaolin monks wearing long queues or hidden martial arts schools. Director of photography Pakie Chan Chor-Keung (apparently working in native 3D) frequently goes to widescreen shots of Pucheng nestled in a green valley, and the score by Wong Kin-Wai shows more and more like Morricone influence as the film goes on.

The roles fit the all-star cast very well indeed. Louis Koo, for instance, is often at his best when he gets to be a bit nasty rather than an upright leading man, and he goes full psycho here, not just nuts but aware enough of his cruelty to twist the knife. He matches up well with Lau Ching-Wan, who gives Yang an unforced rectitude and handles the self-deprecating humor well. Eddie Peng is more there for martial-arts, but he's got an enjoyable, laid-back charm, and Wu Jing brings a great combination of menace and honor to Zhang. The film is also filled with fun work by actors in smaller roles - the film implies enough backstory for Yang's wife Zhou Susu (Yolanda Yuan Quan) for another movie, for instance, and gives everybody just enough individuality that the audience isn't waiting for things to get to the obvious groups to square off.

They will, of course, with action choreographed by Sammo Hung and his stunt team filling out the bigger battle scenes. Chan and Hung do a great job of making the fights creative and occasionally off-the-wall without quite leaving the bounds of reality - the immediate lead-in to a fight on a bridge savors the moment the audience spends asking why someone would ever build this thing that way before just jumping into it. It's fast-paced and clear in a way that really pops when watching this after a lesser action movie, striking a sweet-spot between larger-than-life and crazy wire-fu shenanigans. The movie gets mean on occasion, just enough to shock, but it seldom stops being fun.

And it's a lot of fun, the best parts of both freewheeling westerns and martial-arts action movies, with a pretty great cast and slick production. For some reason, it didn't get the sort of simultaneous North American release many big Chinese movies have received in recent years, and that's really too bad - it's a fun mash-up that feels like it would have been a real kick on the big screen.

Also on EFilmCritic

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