Dec 10, 2010

Vengeance (1970)
Director: Chang Cheh
Writers: Ni Kuang, Chang Cheh
Starring: David Chiang, Lung Ti and Ping Wang.

The Plot: Kuan Yu-Lou (Ti Lung) is a popular actor who doesn’t just play a tough guy on the stage, he truly lives up to his characters as he is also a fantastic martial artist. When a local thug named Hua Ching-fen (Ping Wang) starts openly flirting with Yu-Lou’s wife, he takes offense and roughs up several of Ching-fen’s boys. Cheng-fen isn’t the type to take something like this sitting down, so he sets up Yu-Lou and has his gang ambush the young actor. Yu-Lou fights dramatically and takes several men with him, but eventually has his eyes gouged out and his stomach pierced open. He dies, but he hasn’t been forgotten as his brother Kuan Hsiao Lou (David Chiang) comes back to town and immediately sets out on a path of vengeance. Hsiao Lou is brutal in his quest for blood and as he finds that there were others involved in the conspiracy to have his brother assassinated, the number of bodies begin to mount up as he carves his way through this underworld.

The Review
Vengeance is a film from director Chang Cheh that I have been trying to track down for a considerable amount of time now. Although it isn’t as well known as some of his work, it does have it select number of fans who do a good job in giving the film a considerable amount of attention. Vengeance is noteworthy for nabbing Chang Cheh best director and David Chiang best actor at the Asia-Pacific Film Festival, as well as the influences that the film would have on John Woo and his film The Killer. In fact, you can watch a video online that shows many of these comparisons and although I don’t think John Woo directly ripped off any of these ideas, knowing that he was Chang Cheh’s assistant director for many years and is a beloved fan of the man’s work; I am sure he was paying homage to his former master with his work. The video shows that many of Chang Cheh’s ideas and visual cues were able to transcend time and are still relevant in contemporary society as well, and that means something.
Vengeance is less of a light hearted martial arts film than you might expect. In fact, I dare say there is nothing light hearted about this movie period. Set closer to contemporary times than most martial arts films of this era were, the movie seems almost directly influenced by older American cinema. The entire production carries with it the presence of the Film-Noir and many notable crime tales from the forties and fifties. There are most assuredly fight sequences spread out within the movie, but by and large this is a martial arts film where the story takes the driver’s seat instead of riding passenger. An air of mystery and anger resonates throughout Chang Cheh’s film, making it more than just a simple piece of revenge themed martial arts cinema. All of the regular themes are present and accounted for from Chang Cheh’s work, including honor, brotherhood and sacrifice in the name of righteousness. Painted in blood and delivered with ferocity, Vengeance is an original and interesting piece of work from his varied career.

Throughout the movie, Chang Cheh uses flashbacks, slow motion and overly sentimental values in order to express these ideas on the bonds of brotherhood. In fact, for a film that sees David Chiang committing murder in the name of a friend who he is supposed to have been so attached to, its interesting that we never see the two together in a scene that involves audible dialogue. Chang Cheh does a good job in crafting out this strong and sincere relationship between Ti Lung and David Chiang, without the two ever having to even spend a scene together. When David Chiang enters into the situation, after Ti Lung’s death, it is like a time bomb stepping into a scene. You don’t know when it is going to happen, but at some point an explosion of violence is going to erupt. Chiang’s lust for revenge is only substantiated through refresher scenes that show us slow motion shots of Chiang and Ti Lung laughing and enjoying their camaraderie. Although it seems like it should come across as silly, that this man would commit these atrocious acts in the name of a relationship we never even get to see, but Chiang is so deadly serious in his role that it is impossibly to question his loyalty.

David Chiang, who was always one of the smaller Shaw Bros. stars, puts in a performance that far exceeds his own physical nature. Although he doesn’t have the law on his side, the character resembles a Dirty Harry style figure who beats and pulverizes anyone who steps in his way all in the name of justice. Chiang may not have the most intimidating look, but he demonstrates an imposing charisma with this film that no doubt helped him nab up that best actor award. Chiang’s brutality at times exceeds the nature of what we expect from the good guy. The ridiculous levels of violence that he demonstrates throughout the movie begins to waver away from anything that we might consider to be noble. From our perspective as an audience, there is no question that his “heroic” actions are ambiguous at best but in the mind of his character he is doing what is right, without question.

While normally, I absolutely enjoy the English dubbing for old school Kung Fu films, this is one instance where I wish that I had the original audio track with subtitles. I realize that often times those audio tracks are dubbed themselves, but they couldn’t possibly be more distracting than the English audio is for this particular film. Although I can generally tell that David Chiang is supposed to be brooding and menacing in his role, the voice that he is stapled with simply does not match his body. The voice sounds like a man on the verge of being elderly, which just does match with the youthful and angst ridden David Chiang. Aside from that, other technical accomplishments include awesome photography that makes good use of on-location shooting and epic Shaw Bros. sets that seem like a vast labyrinth of tightly enclosed areas. The music is also worth noting, as it seems inspired by the somber jazz tunes of American film noir. Although Hong Kong has a history of crime films, this one seems patently American in its texture but helplessly Hong Kong in so many other ways.

The Conclusion
I am a little mixed on Vengeance, to be honest. While I do love certain aspects of it, I couldn’t help but be rather underwhelmed by it. I think the second half seems to falter at times and the pacing seems a bit off for a movie of this short length. I think that if I were to watch the film with its original audio track, it might jump up a full point on my rating system, but for now I have to give it a three out of five. I promise I will re-review for the film if my opinion changes!

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