Monday, January 26, 2009

THE LIZARD (Bi Hu, 1972)

In Marvel Comics, "the Lizard" is a reptilian villain, but in this Shaw Brothers period piece, the title character is a Chinese Robin Hood, robbing from the rich -- well, he robs from foreigners, mostly, but he does give to the poor. He gets his nom de crime from the little lizard figurine he leaves wherever he's been at work. The film is set in what looks like the 1920s, a somewhat unusual period for a kung fu movie, but that gives Bi hu a relatively unique look, especially in costume design. It's a lighthearted affair for the most part, and despite what I said about the Lizard's choice of target, the film is nowhere near as xenophobic as some Chinese films. The English characters aren't portrayed as wicked, and even the Japanese consul is used as a butt of mild jokes rather than as an object of hatred. He's cowardly and incontinent rather than vicious.
Here's a modern trailer for the Celestial Pictures DVD release of the movie:

Chinese viewers may think that an English couple is humiliated by the fact that the Lizard spies them in the act of love during his opening exploit, but they're none the wiser, and from an American perspective the naked lady is rather nice to look at. The local police are under increasing pressure to catch the masked thief, as old detective Yo learns when the police director berates the force and vows to catch the Lizard himself, since he happens to be a genius. Yo himself has a grudging admiration for the thief, as do his grandkids, particularly granddaughter Xiao Ju. More ambivalent is aspiring lawman Cheng Long, better known as "Brother Dumb" to his sensitive pals, due to his stutter. But something about the way people vow in his presence that they could recognize the Lizard on sight suggests that they haven't.

Indeed, Brother Dumb is not so dumb. We see him at a casino operated by the corrupt police chief, Chen Can (Lo Lieh of King Boxer fame). The chief also supplies the prostitution market on the side with the sisters and daughters of debtors. He sees how the dealer is cheating at one table, and he hears how the dice land inside a shaker. He uses his Zatoichi-like skills to break the bank, then offers to take over the table and extend credit to the poor suckers who got cleaned out earlier. He then contrives to lose so they all get their money back.

The plot thickens at a reception for the Japanese consul. The Lizard has publicly vowed to steal a necklace from the consul's wife, so Chief Chen has the place ringed with cops, including Brother Dumb. On the one hand, this gives him an opportunity to rig the place with pyrotechnics to create a cover so that, as the Lizard, he can carry out his threat. On the other, Xiao Ju sees him leave the main hall at a conspicuous moment. Fortunately, she's inspired to help him maintain his cover. Later, to show off her knowledge, she waylays Cheng Long while wearing her own Lizard outfit. He has to admit that she has him dead to rights, and she gently taunts him by imitating his (fake) stutter. A charming sequence follows that culminates with our hero taking Xiao Ju on a thieving expedition against a crooked shopkeeper (he sells Japanese imports). There's a genuinely funny moment when they think they've stumbled in on a woman giving birth, but her husband is actually helping her remove some hangnails, I think. Afterward, our couple spreads the wealth around to needy folk.

I should note here that Xiao Ju is no mere wannabe. She's part of that great tradition of literal kick-ass heroines in Chinese cinema, as she demonstrates against a mob of would-be molesters and by holding her own against Chief Chen in several fights. I don't know if this is a modern phenomenon or if women warriors go further back in Chinese culture, but they're to be commended for it anyway. Connie Chan is probably the best thing about this film, which proved to be her last before an early retirement after a short but very busy career.

Back to the story: Through a blind fluke the bad cops decide to frame Cheng Long for the Lizard's crimes. They honestly don't know that he is the Lizard, but they'll figure it out if the Lizard stops doing crimes while he's in jail. So old man Yo and his kids contrive a fake Lizard crime, stealing a ceremonial sword from the hapless Japanese consul and framing the subordinate bad guy, Interpreter King, for the deed. This springs Cheng Long, but Brother Not-so-Dumb worries that clever Chief Chen will wonder about the timing of the crime that exculpates our hero. Sure enough, the suspicious Chen disguises himself as the Lizard to get Xiao Ju to betray her secret. He arrests her, Yo and her brother and gives them the third degree in the official torture chamber. Yo and Xiao Fu get the whip, but Xiao Ju is promised the fate worse then death if no one reveals the Lizard's hideout. The Lizard's answer to this problem is to kidnap that poor perpetual victim, the Japanese consul, to force an exchange of hostages, knowing full well that the chief is not to be trusted....

Connie Chan squares off against a disguised Lo Lieh in THE LIZARD

(photo from

I usually avoid giving away an ending when I think that spoiling it will hurt your viewing experience, but I have to say something about The Lizard's wrap-up. It will not shock you to learn that it involves a big kung fu fight pitting Cheng Long and the Yo brood against Chief Chen and a small army of cops and/or gangsters. It ends with Yo and Xiao Fu most likely dead, Xiao Ju badly wounded but likely to live (and still with-it enough to pull the dagger from her chest and fling a death blow at Chief Chen), and Brother Dumb pretty much intact. As I mentioned in passing, Chief Chen ends up dead. Very nice; justice prevails. Wait a minute, though. We know what we know about Chen and his rackets. But what stops the authorities (including the "genius" director) and the general public from regarding the Lizard and/or Cheng Long as not just a cop killer, but possibly a mass cop killer? Nothing has been done, as far as I could tell, to expose Chen's racketeering activities or to make his demise acceptable to people. So apart from getting Xiao Ju to a hospital, Brother Dumb should be thinking about getting out of town. I was thinking about this as the final showdown was going on, and it led me to expect an "everybody dies" ending of the kind we sometimes get in kung fu films. It really seemed like the screenwriter had painted himself into a corner, but it looks like he didn't give a damn about that. Have our battered heroes embrace, put "The End" on the screen, and think no more about it. But however you think about it, the carnage at the end somewhat undercuts the movie's relatively lighthearted, almost swashbuckling attitude. It doesn't do so enough, however, to negate The Lizard's entertainment value as an often pleasant change of pace from the typical kung fu formulae.

The Albany Public Library doesn't have a tremendous selection of martial arts films, but this is a recent addition to their impressive foreign-film inventory, which also includes The Magic Blade from the same director, Yuen Chor. Fans of '70s Hong Kong cinema, though not necessarily kung fu purists, will find this film worth a rental, especially if there's a place near you where you can get hold of it for free.

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