Flag of Iron | Varied Celluloid

Flag of Iron

Posted by Josh Samford On September - 13 - 2008
Plot Outline: Brother Lo and Brother Yuen (please take note that I had to write the names down while watching and that imdb doesn’t have names that I am familiar with, so misspellings are to be expected) are part of a highly respected Chinese syndicate called The Iron Flag, a talented and elder martial artist leads the group and is well liked by all. After Lo and Yuen discover a slavery/prostitution ring set up by another arch gang, The Eagles, the two of them decide to put an end to the sordid ordeal. Afterwards though, the top members of The Iron Flag are then welcomed to a ‘friendship party’ held by the leader of The Eagles. The top Iron Flag members are already wary that they may be walking into a trap, so Brother Chow (Lu Feng), who seems to be acting a little funny here lately, hires the hitman known as The Man in White, alias, Spearman. Brother Lo and his gang show up at the friendship party with master in hand, not to a great surprise, the discover it was indeed a trap set up by The Eagles. A large fight then ensues, only to end with The Iron Flag’s master dead from a stab wound in the back. So, after a little discussion into the area of whom should fill the master’s shoes, Brother Chow is chosen to be the new leader because of his age among other reasons. Lo’s world has already been shook up enough it would seem, but after all of this, some local inspectors show up to talk about the massacre of The Eagles. Turns out the rival gang pressed charges and the group is wanted for murder. After some haggling with the inspectors, it is agreed upon that Brother Lo will take the heat for the murders and be set off into the world. Problems arise once Lo is actually set out into exile, Chow promised to send him money through a messenger, but Lo never hears anything from back home. Lo soon gets a job in a Teahouse in order to support himself, and before long he finally meets back with Brother Yuen who informs him that Chief Chow has taken over all of the illegal rackets and has joined forces with The Eagles. Not only that, but The Ten Killers just so happen to be in Lo’s neck of the woods, and they’re out to kill him! Now Lo and Yuen meet with The Spearman who joins them in their quest to find the original Chief’s master and bring order back to the Irong Flag clan.


  

The Review
Well, it’s December 2003. It’s chilly outside, Christmas is right upon us and I’m feeling the holiday spirit. So with that in mind, I could think of no better way to commemorate my favorite holiday than to throw a marathon of cinematic treats from my personal favorite cinematic style. The Kung Fu genre boys and girls. I’m going through seven randomly chosen Hong Kong classics, all coming straight out of the old school, and hopefully you the reader will join in on the festivities as well. So this is the fifth film reviewed for my little marathon, and once again I’m back with Chang Cheh and the Venom Clan. Now, this film doesn’t feature the whole gang (five members officially, six counting Chiang Sheng) but we do get three members as well as one of the most vibrant, original and underrated of the films the Clan and Cheh made together. The film takes a lot of what makes the Venoms Clan flicks great, and produces a new and vigorous film with a bite. It may not win any awards for breaking down barriers by any stretch of the imagination, but it takes an average formula and makes it work to a phenomenal degree. While sitting down to re-watch it today, I was just able to relax with it and let the film take me where it wanted. Something I’m finding hard to do these days. Chang Cheh took his usual wild characters, blood splattered fight scenes and tales of heroism and packed them into a nice Kung Fu mystery to rival the original Five Deadly Venoms. As of the moment I haven’t seen but maybe a small fraction of the films Chang Cheh and the various members of the Venom Clan made together, but I find that Flag of Iron seems to be the most comparable with the original Five Venoms. It’s more story oriented, and doesn’t just deliver us with a story that says “this has to happen, watch how it does” ala Kid With the Golden Arms, it delivers a story where things aren’t quite as vividly planned out and the mystery elements are more dragged out. Whether you find the mystery easily decipherable or not is another question, but I like the way the film moves and asks for audience participation to some degree. The ‘mystery’ elements work in every way for me, although I’ve read reviews that criticize the film for being bland in it’s delivery of a story. What can I say, to each his own. Albeit the plot for the film may not be earth shattering because of it’s originality, but I thought it was played well and with ease not usually seen. The film’s pace fits for the film perfectly, not quite speedy enough that it feels rushed but not too slow that it becomes monotonous. To shamelessly compare this film with the others reviewed this month, Flag of Iron is kind of in between Chinese Super Ninjas and Kid With the Golden Arms. It’s not as quickly over as Kid, creating a far too complex plot and set of characters for such a short and immediate film. Then it’s not as long with dispersed bits of fighting by characters who don’t really factor into the storyline for more than a minute or two. Take into account that I love both films and hold them dear to my heart, and out of these three films I don’t think I hold one of them to a higher degree than the other (although I’ll bet my reviews appear to look otherwise), it’s just that I tend to enjoy the flow and pace of Flag of Iron quite a bit more for what it’s worth.

The Venoms Clan is back in action, and wearing much cooler capes! I didn’t really mention the capes of our characters in my Chinese Super Ninjas review because I just didn’t feel the need to, but seeing the red capes of our characters in Flag of Iron, I guess my silence needs to be broken. I have no idea if capes were commonly worn back in the days of ancient China, but I have to say the addition of caped characters in these films is a definite plus. The white capes in Super Ninjas were a little bit on the sissy side though, no offense. They just appeared to look like gowns made of silk, but at least the costumes given to our Iron Flag members have much better coloring. The red and black costumes are both comedic at first, but still essentially cool. It takes a real man to actually dress up in a cape, and trust me I know (but that’s a story for my psychiatrist). This kind of leads me to my next point, but the wily characters you know and love of Chang Cheh’s work (or just read about from my reviews) are back in full force. Although there are some that are less interesting than others, there’s no denying how cool the idea behind the 10 Killers is. A series of assassins, all hiding their identity out to get Philip Kwok, it’s quality entertainment! There are at least three members of the group who make it high on any list of ‘cool Kung Fu characters’ out there, I’m particularly fond of The Book Keeper. For those unfamiliar with the film, you’ll know him when you see him. During the first half of the film with Kwok having his different run-ins with the 10 Killers creates some of the most riveting moments within the film. The combat between Philip Kwok and The Fortune Teller may be short, but to be honest it ranks in as one of my favorite fight scenes. Kwok bounces around on top of this beautiful Shaw Bros. set made to look like a series of small shops, he does this all while being attacked by a man with a spear. It’s not something to make your eyes boil with excitement, but the way the scene is pulled off and shot is a prime example of martial arts excellence. The scene then moves on to another fight scene with the fat kid from The Magnificent Butcher (not Sammo Hung, the guy who played his brother I THINK). Both fight scenes are brilliant in their own right, but added together it becomes one amazingly well thought out and choreographed fight sequence with one of my favorite Shaw sets ever. I really can’t get over that set, it was so rife for movement and watching the shingles break apart while Kwok dances around on top of one of the small shops added a small but needed detail. Not to take away from the fight scenes, because they are all amazing. Some of Philip Kwok’s best work in my opinion (although he was great in ‘Kid’ and everyone showed their absolute best in Crippled Avengers). Chiang Sheng and Lu Feng are just as on target as well, both putting in some very agile performances, but Kwok is really the star of the film. The ending showdown of the film with Kwok and Lu Feng going at each other is one for the ages. It could just be that I’m easily entertained, but I’m most impressed when I see the characters do some aerial acrobatics, and thankfully Flag of Iron gave just that. The climatic showdown is fast, high flying and full of bodily carnage. Although the violence in Flag of Iron is ‘relatively’ (and I stress the word relatively) tame in comparison with some of Cheh’s other work, it’s still quite full of blood. A personal favorite moment of the entire film is when a beaten and savaged Philip Kwok is tied to four posts and his body covered in roped netting. The robes having been soaked in water are supposed to start detracting as the sun comes out and dries them. Kwok at this point is just drenched with blood. He’s almost hard to look at, but the scene works to dizzying degrees. The sequence is wrought with tension, and the sheer sight of his gruesome body works to unnerve the audience, letting us believe he may just die for real.

Chang Cheh’s direction in the film is just another perfect score. He delivers style, elegance and a story easily told but with a feeling of importance and larger than life characters. His cinematography is great as usual, I particularly like the use of red throughout the film, it’s seemingly present in every scene even when the backgrounds might clash with the color, but it always works. The camera catches everything, and Cheh’s knowledge of how to shoot a action scene never flinches. It seems that the camera is always moving, delivering some new and epic shot within the confines of a film smaller than even it’s self. Of course, the film probably has even more ‘zoom’ shots than even your regular Shaw Bros/Chang Cheh film, but that’s hardly a bad thing. Chang Cheh’s vision is clear and precise, to tell a story, and that’s where all the focus generally tends to be. He also seems to slyly add an underlying sense of humor to a rather sober film, scenes like the ones that take place around ‘the kid’ in the teahouse and the hiding of dead bodies are subtle indications of the group just having a lot of fun while making their film. All of the actors put in great performances to match the mood though, Philip Kwok in particular, although he’s pretty much always good. His fight scenes here are just slightly better than his usual work I find, and he really gets to show off his acrobatic nature, not to mention his definitive on screen presence. I hope the best for Philip now that he’s making a name for himself as a fight choreographer, although I’ll never be a fan of Brotherhood of the Wolf. Tien Sheng Lung as The Spearman is a welcome member to join the cast. I don’t think I’ve seen anything else with him in it, but he’s very commanding once on screen. He’s the strong but silent type, but his character calls for a huge amount of admiration. He’s skilled and impressive with his spear, but he comes off charismatic, particularly when he’s showing off for his girlfriend. It’s really a shame that he didn’t appear to have a very large career, but Chang Cheh makes everyone look better. Chieng Sheng delivers his patented smart alek performance, proving once again why he deserves recognition right along side any of the ‘official’ members of the Venoms Clan. No matter how serious the role he plays may be, he brings a cheerfulness to it. It’s not that he’s incapable of playing a ‘heavy’, it’s just that he’s so jovial that it comes through in whatever performance he may have. Lu Feng as Master Chow is the bread and butter of the performances I find, he may not be as overly easy to get excited about as Philip Kwok or such, but he puts in one of the greatest Shaw villain performances that doesn’t involve elderly Kung Fu fighters. He is just evil in the film, about as nasty as it gets and the strange thing is that it suits him so well. After one point in the film I thought to myself “Wow, this guy is a jerk!”, and trust me he is befitting of that title and many more. The performances may be thought little of because of the seemingly worse English dubbing than usual. At this point in my Old School Kung Fu watching career, I pretty much have names for the different voice actors from hearing them from so many different films. The film seems to employ some of the lesser dubbing than even usual though, for what reasons I took notice this time, I have no clue, but I just couldn’t help but laugh at some of the rather inane dialogue spit out by our Kiwi voice actors. It’s not a negative for the film, but it’s just one of those things you take a notice to. I mean, how many times can you hear someone in agreement say ‘right!’ before bursting out in tears.

The Conclusion
It’s funny that my Kid With the Golden Arms review would seem so negative even though I love that film, but my Flag of Iron review seems far too overly positive. So far throughout this whole marathon I’ve only gave one film a Stubbing Award, and I’m sad to say I have to give out yet another four. Flag of Iron is a great film there’s no doubt about it, but for all the great and underrated aspects to it, there’s not really any breaking free of the mold or setting foot on new ground. For what it is, it’s a classic, but in the broader scheme of things it’s just another Chang Cheh/Venoms team up with just a few missing Venom members. Do I recommend it? Highly! If you’re looking to add to your collection, you can’t go wrong with Flag of Iron, but if you’re looking for films that break free from all stereotypes you may know, then I might recommend you visit something else. For all the Kung Fu heads out there though, if you haven’t got your grubby mitts on Flag of Iron you deserve to be scolded by your local retailer for not searching the film down.

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Varied Celluloid is a film website intent on delivering views on movies from all genres. Started in 2003, the website has been steadfast in its goal and features a database of over 500 lengthy reviews. If you would like to contact us about writing for the website or sending screeners, please visit the about page located here.

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