Big Boss of Shanghai (1979)
Director: Chen Kuan Tai
Writers: Ni Kuang
Starring: Chen Kuan Tai and Jimmy Lung (credited as Jimmy Lee)

The Plot: Wong (Chen Kuan Tai) and Cheung (Jimmy Lung) play two down and out friends who are having a lot of trouble with some local thugs. When one of their friends is kidnapped and is being ritually beaten, the two decide to make a daring rescue. When they do, during the ensuing fight, they kill one of these thugs, which causes the gangster to threaten to inform the police of this grievous action. Wong and Cheung decide to run away at this point and head off to Shanghai, which is a dream come true for Wong. When they reach Shanghai, they run into the bureaucracy of the labor leaders, who are nothing more than organized gangsters themselves. Never ones to turn down a fight, Wong and Cheung proceed to fight through the entire criminal underworld with the intentions of finding fair wages for a fair day’s work, and soon enough they are in high positions and leading the people. Jimmy Lee begins to dream of more, however. He came to Shanghai with the intention of making a lot of money, but Wong only wants to do good and won’t let Opium come in through the ports that they protect. With no opium, there’s no money for kickbacks. Will these two have a stake driven between them or will Cheung do what is right?


The Review

The Brucesploitation genre is so divisive in its very nature. The entire reason for the genre to exist is obviously to capitalize on one of the most popular martial artists to ever exist in film, so it should come as no surprise that those who renamed these titles in order to make money off of the dead would have no bones with retitling films that weren’t Brucesploitation at all in order to give more selling power to a title. Such seems to be the case with The Big Boss of Shanghai, a film that despite having “Big Boss” within the title, has nothing to do with Bruce Lee nor true Brucesploitation. In retrospect, I’m not sure if anyone has ever tried to market the film as a piece of Brucesploitation, but I was unfortunately left with that impression. Instead of a disrespectful tribute to Bruce Lee, Big Boss of Shanghai is a very simple Kung Fu film that focuses on the plight of the poverty stricken Chinese at the start of the industrial age. More specifically, it is a good reason for Chen Kuan Tai to run around shirtless and get in a random series of fights. Thankfully he manages to do this while looking as svelte as humanly possible, as he strokes that sleek moustache he is known to have… and now my readers are left puzzled and wondering what I’m going with this. Right. Working outside of the Shaw studios, Chen Kuan Tai was still able to create films that had an aura of class surrounding them and although Big Boss of Shanghai doesn’t exactly change the rules of the game, there is a decent amount of heart to be found here.

This film was a part of the Lo Wei Motion Picture Company which came into life during the late seventies and lasted for the first half of the eighties. The company was apparently a subsidiary of Golden Harvest and would most notably give life to Jackie Chan’s career by producing films such as Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin as well as Spiritual Kung Fu. Lo Wei would produce several intriguing pieces of Kung Fu cinema during this time period, with the film we are discussing today being listed amongst these. The Big Boss of Shanghai doesn’t exactly prove to be a successor of other big titles in the Lo Wei catalog. Chen Kuan Tai was already a rather successful star at this period, and his stock never quite rose to the heights that Jackie Chan’s did, but he has his fans and unfortunately this is a title that has been left in the past somewhat. This is rather unfair, not because Big Boss… is an overtly amazing film, but it is a very interesting piece of slightly more modern Kung Fu fair. It is a film that seems slightly more Western in its approach, dealing with a very rags-to-riches tale that seems influenced by various genres of film that are not directly from a martial arts stock.

The life blood of this film is truly the dynamic between Chen Kuan Tai and his co-star Jimmy Lung. Their rise and fall, starting the film off as country hooligans who move to the big city of Shanghai, tells the entire story of the film and packs with it the melodrama that defined the heroic bloodshed genre. Where Chen Kuan Tai’s character Wong tries his best to remain loyal to the indigenous and idealistic viewpoint of Chinese society, his partner Cheung (played by Jimmy Lung) is sucked into the lifestyle and ideals of the Western invaders who are currently sucking the blood out of his country via the Opium trade. While this one character is so busy emulating those who are trying to expand upon his territory, the film itself also shows influences from Western culture. This could be a flaw in the picture, as it seems somewhat hypocritical for the film to be influenced by Western cinematic ideals and also denounce Western influence on Chinese culture. I doubt it was anything that happened intentionally, and maybe there is a rich history of fables withing China that pronounce the rags-to-riches motif. Not having the history, all I can say is that I find that this adds the one element necessary to bring an otherwise ordinary piece of Hong Kong action up above monotony. This period in Chinese history, our film seems to take place in the late 1800’s or early 1900s, was a dramatic and different clashing of cultures for the land of China. The Ching dynasty was breathing its dying breath and Western countries were using the Chinese government in order to get great deals on various products that they needed, primarily opium. Big Boss of Shanghai doesn’t get overtly political, but this period of Chinese culture is definitely explored.

The Shaw Bros. studio may have been the big dogs on the block, but while in the director’s chair Chen Kuan Tai managed to craft films that looked like more than just cheap Kung Fu films that were shot on a non-existent budget in Taiwan. The mix of lavish sets and location shooting gives The Big Boss of Shanghai an epic feel, despite the fact that the film was likely shot on such a restrictive budget. It also doesn’t hurt that our movie has a relatively wide scope, as we see these two characters from the gutter lift themselves up in order to lead many others and become so rich and powerful. The costumes change throughout the movie in a subtle way, as we see Chen Kuan Tai move from his open-shirt peasant fashion to a more respectable buttoned-up traditional Chinese garb. It becomes easy to believe that these men have become the success stories that they purport to be. However, the budgetary limitations do become a factor at times. When we hear Chen Kuan Tai order one of his men to send one thousand workers to another location, you realize that you haven’t seen any groups that dare ever come close to numbers that large. It could have been a poor choice to set standards that high with such budgetary limitations, but hey, its only a movie right?

The action and the cast are the man reason to see this. Chen Kuan Tai continues his trend of surprising me. His choices in the roles that he took, as well as the films that he would direct, were vast and almost always different. It could be argued that his role here is relatively bland in comparison to some of the more entertaining roles that we have seen from him in the past, but he plays the level-headed and selfless hero in a way that doesn’t feel oldhat. When Chen Kuan Tai wants to be respectable, there’s never any questioning him. Veteran actor Jimmy Lung plays the best friend and mortal enemy to our hero and his role is definitely the one that stands out amongst the two. Beginning the film as the more passionate, we watch as his lust for material excess slowly leads him down a path that he won’t soon return from. These two play off of one another very well and their fight scenes together are both harrowing and magnificent at the same time. The concluding fight sequence is absolutely brutal and is interesting in the fact that the hero is never in true control of the action. The fight is a back and forth event, with the audience hoping with all their heart that good will ultimately prevail. Does it? You’ll have to watch to find out!

The Conclusion

While I may have talked the movie up quite a bit at this point, I want to stress that this movie suffers from a bad case of generic-itis. There are few standout sequences here that really blow your mind as a viewer. The action is great and any excuse to see Chen Kuan Tai do his thing is worth your time and hard earned money, but overall you can’t go out too far on a limb and recommend this to every fan of Kung Fu cinema. I give the movie a three out of five, which places it right above the “slightly above average” section of the scale. Chen Kuan Tai has far greater films within his catalog, but if you’re just dying to see more of the mustache in action then I doubt you’ll be terribly disappointed in this.