Vengeance! (1970) Vengeance! / Kung Fu Vengeance / Vengeance of the Big Boss / Bo Sau (1970) ***

     Chang Chehís late-60ís wuxia films, The Magnificent Trio, The One-Armed Swordsman, and Have Sword, Will Travel, institutionalized the revolution in Hong Kong martial arts cinema begun by King Huís Come Drink with Me in 1966. Thatís a whole ínother story, which Iíll get around to one of these days, but the salient point is that subsequent Cantonese chopsocky flicks would be held to an altogether higher standard of production value and dramatic verisimilitude than had previously sufficed. Then, in 1970, Chang began applying the same approach to stories set outside the Martial World of classical Chinese romance (which is itself another topic for another time). The first of Changís non-Martial World kung fu movies was Vengeance!, a gritty, bloody, cynical tale of infidelity, gang warfare, family vendetta, and Chinese opera (no, really!) set during the tumultuous period between the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and Chiang Kai-Shekís rise to dictatorial power.

     The year is 1925; the place, a pointedly unnamed Chinese city. Significantly, wherever this burg is, it certainly isnít Hong Kongó which, as a British colony, was spared most of the civil strife that convulsed the nascent Republic of China until its governmentís final exile to Taiwan in 1949. Hong Kong is also, for much the same reason, the place to which the protagonist of Vengeance! will ultimately hope to flee after his revenge is complete. Iím getting ahead of myself, though; we wonít even be meeting that guy until the start of the second act. For now, our focus is on a perilous love triangle at the opera house managed by Mr. Wen (Wong Ching-Ho, from Corpse Mania and The Devil and the Ghostbuster). The stars of Wenís company are Guan Yu Lou (Ti Lung, of The Water Margin and All Men Are Brothers) and his lovely wife, Hua Zheng Fen (Alice Au Yin-Ching, from The One-Eyed Swordsman and The Golden Sword). Zheng Fen has been fucking around on Yu Lou with a gang leader by the name of Feng Kai Shan (Ku Feng, of The Mighty Peking Man and The Flying Guillotine). The adulterers have thus far been careful enough that only Wen himself realizes whatís going on, but theyíre bound to slip up sooner or later. And because the most popular subject matter for Chinese opera demands performers proficient in the martial arts, itíll be bad news for Feng when Guan finally gets wise. In an attention-getting display of badassery, the actor puts the gangster on notice by fighting his way into Fengís headquarters, laying out quite a few of his men without breaking a sweat before delivering his warning to stay away from Zheng Fen in the future. Guan should know, however, that gangsters donít fight fair. Feng does indeed make himself scarce at the opera following Yu Louís visit, but knowing his rivalís habits as any man in his position must, itís no trouble for him to send a small army of assassins to waylay Guan at his favorite restaurant. Yu Lou takes at least a third of the hired killers with him to the underworld, but heís too badly outnumbered ever to have stood a real chance.

     Guan Yu Lou had a brother, however, and if you thought he was tough, just wait ítil you see Guan Xiao Lou (David Chiang Da-Wei, of The Boxer from Shantung and The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires) in action! Some months after Yu Louís murder, Xiao Lou pays a visit to Zheng Fen at the whorehouse where sheís been residing ever since Feng Kai Shan grew bored with her. He leans on her to reveal the whereabouts of the man who ordered his brother killed, but Zheng Fen simply doesnít have the information he seeks. Feng has descended deep into paranoia since last we saw him, becoming a shadowy figure pulling the local ganglandís strings from a secret new base of operations known only to his closest associates. Zheng Fen can offer Xiao Lou one clue just the same: Feng has recently set his amorous sights on her sister, Hua Zheng Fang (Wang Ping, from Dragon, Tiger, and Phoenix and The 14 Amazons), whom Xiao Lou had loved himself in the days before he moved away to find his fortune. Evidently even that tenuous hint is too much for Fengís taste, however. One manifestation of the gang lordís paranoia is that he has set a watch over Zheng Fen, in the form of an assassin known as Dagger Guang (Cheng Lei, of The One-Armed Swordsman and Chinese Superior Kung Fu). Guang strikes as soon as he hears Zheng Fen dropping her insignificant little dime on his masteró but Guan sees to it that the hit man doesnít live to alert Feng to his presence in town.

     Xiao Lou tracks down Zheng Fang at his earliest opportunity, quickly rekindling the coupleís long-dormant romance. Alas, she no more knows where to find Feng Kai Shan than her sister did, but she has plenty of other intel that could aid Guan on his mission of vengeance. Thereís more afoot, you see, than one crooked asshole murdering anyone who stands in the way of his dick. Feng is an inveterate gambler, and his regular mahjong buddies include not only Mr. Wen, but also a pair of corrupt military officials called Gao Hong Tu (Chuan Yuan, from Ghost Rapist and Torrent of Desire) and Jin Zhi Quan (Yang Chi-Ching, of Sensual Pleasures and Revenge of the Zombies). The latter pair are subordinates of Generalissimo Hu Hu Cheng (Hoh Ban, from Chinese Godfather and The Silent Swordsman), the embattled local warlord. Huís forces are narrowly but seriously outmatched by those of the warlord next door, and Fengís ultimate aim is to curry favor with the generalissimo by furnishing him with enough fighters from the ranks of his gang to make up the difference. The Hua sisters, too, are a part of that plan, for Feng wanted them less for his own sake than for that of the high-grade hospitality they would enable him to offer the horny old soldier whenever he came to visit. So if Xiao Lou really wants to get back at his brotherís killers, itís going to mean taking on the cityís entire power structure. Even he might not be that formidable a fighter!

     On the other hand, Fengís convoluted conspiracy creates opportunities as well as posing hazards, for Jin Zhi Quan turns out to be dealing from both sides of the deck. He covets Huís command, and heís prepared to make an under-the-table alliance with Guan in order to eliminate both the generalissimo and Gao Hong Tu. If that means turning a blind eye while Xiao Lou settles accounts with Feng and Wen, then so be it. Thatís the good news. The bad news is that a man whoíll betray four allies surely wonít scruple to betray one more as soon as he has everything that last ally can give him. And the designated instrument of Guanís betrayal is one against which all his skill at hand-to-hand combat may avail him very littleó a hit man by the name of Li Qi (Chan Sing, from Kung Fu of Eight Drunkards and The Fatal Flying Guillotines), whose weapon of choice is a long-range sniper rifle.

     For those accustomed to the fully mature kung fu movies from Hong Kongís 1973-1993 glory years, Vengeance! is apt to be surprising on a number of levels. Most conspicuously, the fighting in this film is not at all what fans of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, or Jet Li are likely to expect. Instead of the balletic, stylized, and highly technical violence for which Hong Kongís kung fu cinema is now justly famous, action directors Tong Kai and Yuen Cheung-Yan serve up sheer chaos in every set piece not bounded by the stage at Mr. Wenís opera house. Itís also worth noting that Vengeance! features very little truly bare-handed fighting, and none at all with the traditional wuxia arsenal of swords and polearms (except, once again, for what takes place onstage at the opera). Vengeance!, rather, is one savage knife-and-cleaver brawl after another, with impressively gore-soaked results. Some viewers might find that disappointing, but the pace of the fighting is so fast, and the choreography so crudely kinetic, that I didnít much mind the lack of artistry on display in these martial arts.

     A much subtler, but ultimately much more interesting difference between Vengeance! and any later kung fu movie of my admittedly limited acquaintance concerns the apparent influences on both Chang Chehís direction and the script he co-wrote with the incredibly prolific and astonishingly wide-ranging Ni Kuang (who worked on everything from Infra-Man to Five Element Ninjas to The Seventh Curse, to say nothing of his multitudinous novels). If this movie were set in Los Angeles instead of ďa city in China,Ē and resolved its conflicts by means of brief shootouts instead of prolonged free-for-alls with flailing fists and meat cleavers, it would be difficult to distinguish from film noir. From the milieu of organized crime to the corruption of every authority figure we meet to the centrality of sexual misbehavior as a motivating force, Vengeance! checks just about all the expected noir boxes. Itís worth observing, though, one feature that I donít think Iíve ever seen in a true film noiró a femme fatale whose man-wrecking propensities are directed strictly against the bad guys, and who turns out to be just about the one character whom the protagonist can really trust and rely on. Meanwhile, Changís handling of the lead-up to practically every battle is straight out of a Spaghetti Western. He understands that the calm before the storm can be every bit as important as the storm itself, and so begins each set piece with plenty of tense, narrow-eyed, back-and-forth staring and glacially slow maneuvering for position. Even the music during these sequences of spring-tightening sounds almost like something that Sergio Leone or Sergio Corbucci might have used, although I lack the vocabulary to describe exactly how. We can be reasonably sure, too, that none of the foregoing is mere coincidence, because Chang was an outspoken fan of both crime films and Westerns from overseas. The two genres spoke to his lifelong attraction to rebels, outsiders, and troublemakers.

     Finally, Vengeance! is an instructive movie for anyone who ever noticed the importance of the Peking Opera as a training ground for chopsocky actors, and wondered how that might have worked in practice. As is so often the case when Western names are applied to Asian cultural phenomena that are only very roughly analogous, itís easy to be misled by the term ďoperaĒ in this context. The Chinese version involves a lot fewer singing fat ladies, and a lot more guys whaling on each other with guandaos. The first act of Vengeance! shows enough snippets of Guan Yu Lou and his fellow actors at work to give Western viewers a taste of this unfamiliar art formó enough, anyway, to begin to appreciate how deeply martial arts cinema remains rooted in it, even decades after movies like this one carried the genre permanently beyond the mere filming of traditional Chinese opera presentations.

 

 

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