Wednesday, November 26, 2008

CHINESE HERCULES; Or, Whatever Happened to Working-Class Kung Fu?

The movie more correctly known by its officially translated title as "Freedom Strikes A Blow" is the story of a fighter overcoming his guilt at having killed an enemy by accident by learning that it's worthwhile to fight for a good cause or, more specifically, for the common people. You would be forgiven for thinking that the famous trailer for the American rendition of the film is advertising an entirely different movie.

You can split the difference if you think of CHINESE HERCULES as a monster movie. Like many a good monster film, it makes you wait for the title beast to appear. Until he does, we follow the sad career of Lee Hsi, an ardent martial arts student ("I never sleep. I practice every night.") who has issues with his girlfriend's brother. The brother provokes a fight ("It's no fun just hitting you.") and gets the worst of it. As his cronies cry out that he's dead, our horrified hero flees into the night. He heads out to a rocky beach and smashes his best fighting hand on the rocks, swearing that he'll never fight again.

He changes his name and begins a new life in a crappy village, apparently not far from the earlier beach, where the people depend on ships arriving at the pier for their livelihood. He goes to work under the name of Chung San (that's my best guess), but some astute co-workers figure that he's hiding something about himself. The anamorphic widescreen edition from BCI that I saw gives the location a picturesque squalor, but the business practices are even more squalid. The paymaster takes an instant dislike to our hero and dumps his first roll of bills on the ground to humiliate him. Our man then gets on the wrong side of the boss by intervening when the boss's goons set about beating two petty thieves to death. Since the hero will not fight, he offers to pay for what they stole. The boss says he'll pay for everything the urchins stole in the past, too, and if he can't, then he can take their beating. He's got two friends to stand up for them, only one of whom can fight (the other being a pudgy comic-relief type), so it's up to old Uncle Lo, the foreman, to save Chung San's skin by begging for mercy.

Later, Lo lectures his men. "Our boss is a real bastard, and don't forget that," he says, as if this were the Dilbert of martial-arts films.

In any event, our hero's ordeal has endeared him to more of his co-workers as well as the poor thieves. He chides the pair for doing stuff that could get people killed, remembering his own indiscretion. Meanwhile, the boss is fawning over a wealthy visitor who represents The Syndicate. The Syndicate wants exclusive use of the pier for their traffic in "special girls." No other ships must be allowed to dock there, and the current work crew must all be fired. The boss has a moment of conscience, telling his guest that the people of the village have no other means of support. The Syndicate guy opens a suitcase full of gold ingots. End of discussion.

The situation deteriorates as the workers fight back against the downsizing effort. One of our hero's friends storms the boss's compound while he's fondling and kissing the ingots and ignoring his mistress. As she watches dispassionately, the boss's goons eventually beat the malcontent to death and bring his body to the beach where the workers have gathered, apparently for the funeral of the fat guy's dead bird. The boss's taunting is more than Chung San can bear, but then again, it isn't. Still unwilling to fight, he faces another beating until Uncle Lo steps up and says he's had enough. It just so happens that he once killed someone in combat, also, and also vowed never to fight again, but this is more than he can stand, he can't stand no more. The boss "needs a lesson" and gets it. Uncle Lo is the "old" in the trailer, but easily outclasses and cripples the boss.

The boss licks his wounds at the Syndicate guy's compound, where Chiang Tai, aka Chinese Hercules, is lounging at a table in an open shirt. We saw him briefly when the Syndicate visited the pier, but now, more than halfway through the story, he begins to take a more active role. After the pier boss explains his failures, CH gets up and strolls over to him with a cup of tea, only to swat him to the ground. CH whips his shirt off so the director can study the massive back of Yang Sze, the artist latterly known as Bolo Yeung. Then he sets to work crushing the boss's skull with his bare hands. When the Syndicate guy asks who the second-in-command was, the boss's underlings take that as a threat and say nothing, but the mistress appoints herself to the post, promising the Syndicate that "I'm very cooperative."

Yang Sze, who eventually acquired the name of his character
"Bolo" from Robert Clouse's Enter the Dragon (1973)

At approximately 56 minutes into the picture, it's time for Chinese Hercules and his handler to visit Uncle Lo. The handler explains to Herc that Uncle Lo is a fool, then quizzes the big guy on his catechism in a motif to be repeated later.

Syndicate Guy: What do we do with fools?

Chinese Hercules: We kill 'em and dump 'em.

It's a surprisingly even fight, and old Lo is actually getting the upper hand when the Syndicate guy flicks a lit cigarette into his face. That gives Chinese Hercules the opening he needs to, as the trailer will put it, put a crush on Uncle Lo. Herc is a poor winner, however, turning on his minder and throwing a childish tantrum. "I DON'T NEED HELP!" he screams, but the Syndicate guy mollifies him by explaining that he just compulsively throws lit cigarettes around. It must be a nervous habit.

Meanwhile, a lone ship appears to break the ban on docking at the pier. Alas, the only cargo unloaded is our hero's girlfriend from the start of the film, searching for her lost love. Describing him as a great fighter, she gets little help from the workers, since the only recent arrival, Chung San, "has no idea how to fight." At the same time, the two thieves have literally stumbled across their dying Uncle Lo, who tells them to fetch Chung San. On their way back with him, they cross the girlfriend's path. He denies his identity and runs away from everyone. The delirious Lo doesn't know the difference and tells the absent hero that "I know you're a fighter....You're one of us, now. You've got to help them." The object of his concern has slunk back to hear the last of this from outside. He flees again.

Now everyone is very sad, and it is time to bury Uncle Lo. Our hero watches from a distance, but the girlfriend sees him. He may be a coward, she thinks, but she's not. She promises the workers to lead their resistance to the Syndicate, in combat if necessary. The two thieves still believe in our hero, but he's sinking deeper into self-pitying madness. "Can't you see it?" he insists, "My hands, they're full of blood!"

We get some front and back views of Chinese Hercules as he practices for his handicap match against the pier workers. A stroll on the beach with the Syndicate boss brings him face to face with an angry proletariat. The boss is dismissive.

Syndicate Guy: Chiang Tai, there are a lot of people here. What are they waiting for?

Chinese Hercules: For death.

Let's give the workers credit for taking the battle to Chinese Hercules. This melee is where most of the footage in the trailer comes from. It's pretty one-sided. By the way, if you pay close attention to the trailer you might notice that Chinese Hercules doesn't actually fight the hero's girlfriend. That honor goes to the Syndicate guy. Syndicate kung fu is actually pretty good, as he gets the better of the fight and invites her to surrender and go to bed with him. Fortunately, a surviving elder solicits a truce before Chinese Hercules kills everyone or the girl suffers the fate worse than death. The defeated workers will now have to pack up and leave.

Our hero watches sulkily as the peons move out. The fat guy spits on him. The girlfriend goads him; "if you really think you're guilty, why haven't you killed yourself?" she asks, "If you're trying to live, at least try to redeem yourself." At this he walks away. She takes this to mean he's now going to fight the bad guys. That realization inspires second thoughts, since "he hasn't practiced in three months." She also explains to our hero's erstwhile pal the fat guy that, her last statement notwithstanding, her brother isn't actually dead. He only got knocked out on that fateful day. She saw fit not to tell her boyfriend about this important detail because maybe he needs to fight Chinese Hercules, or die trying, to be a man again. "Perhaps I'm wrong," she allows, and through this the fat guy looks like he's thinking what I'm thinking.

So now our poor doomed man faces the enemy on the beach. The boss is surprised to see even one holdout.

Syndicate Guy: He must be a dead man. What do we do with dead men?

Chinese Hercules: Pick 'em up and dump 'em in the sea.

This proves more easily said than done, despite another timely flick of the cigarette from the gangster and another tantrum from Herc. You can guess the outcome but I'll leave you to see how the hero does it for yourselves. Before moving on to a more general topic, let me add that Chinese Hercules is part of a Grindhouse double feature disc, accompanied by Black Dragon, which boasts a commentary track from star Ron Van Clief. You can watch the films individually or opt for the "grindhouse experience" including trailers and snackbar ads. I don't know if better copies of Chinese Hercules are available, but I'm pretty sure that worse can be had quite cheaply. You may as well opt for the pictorially sound copy, since the action is reasonably well staged (though sometimes the dubbing is badly timed) and widescreen really does justice to the location work. It's an entertaining film and the real star really sells his character arc to hold the story together. It also has that quality I find lacking in many more recent martial arts films....

* * *

"So when, three decades ago, kung fu films became popular, was it
not obvious that we were dealing with a genuine working-class ideology of
youngsters whose only means of success was the disciplinary training of their
bodies, their only possession?"

I don't know if they make movies like "Freedom Strikes A Blow" anymore in the Chinese-speaking world. If they do, they're not getting exported to the U.S. like they once were. My memory's first impression of "Kung Fu Theater" is of a poor people's cinema, just as kung fu and other (usually) weaponless disciplines are poor people's martial arts. The grungy milieu of Chinese Hercules reminded me of The Big Boss and countless other films that seemed to root the genre in the working class experience, or a working-class fantasy of power. There were always period pieces as well, and I know now that the more fantastical wuxia (swordplay) films were being made all through this period, but now it seems like wuxia products like House of Flying Daggers are China's primary cinematic export, while no one seems to have filled Jackie Chan's shoes by making more mundane martial-arts films. The nearest I see anywhere to old school "Kung Fu Theater" are the Thai action films of Tony Jaa and his peers. But I bet that when Thailand gets richer we'll see more FX-laden legendary stories and less does-his-own-stunts meat & potatoes martial arts. Maybe the way the Chinese see it, the old-school kung fu movie was their equivalent of the American B-western and nobody wants to make those kind of movies anymore. But maybe it's a sign of cultural confidence and affirmation that they can make these state-of-the-art epics instead of movies about working-class fighters.

This isn't meant to reflect on the Chinese, either. You can see what you might call a bourgeois-ification of genres elsewhere in the world. American comedy is a great example. The silent slapstick classics were mostly set in a working-class milieu; a lot of the comedy derived from workplace props and seemed rooted in workplace experience or mass anxieties about workplace performance. But I don't know if there's been sustained working-class comedy since the Three Stooges. Would Cheech and Chong count? The prevailing comedians today all seem to be firmly middle-class, and I don't know how often you might find blue-collar workplace humor in American movies today.

I'm not saying working-class genres are superior to all others, because the bad heavily outweighs the good in Chinese martial arts movies and American slapstick. But something does seem to be missing, or at least I'm missing it, when the movies can't find material in the experiences of the majority of their viewers.

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