Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Revenge of 3-D: DYNASTY aka WARLORD (1977)

Waxing prosaic on the joys of classic Hong Kong cinema is like dating Pamela Anderson, it's been done to the point where nobody cares any more and it's been done by far better than you. Sci-Fi and horror tend to be the genres of choice for 3-D movies, but Hong Kong had their own little 3-D revival in the ‘70s with a handful (or more) martial arts films. I don't know why we American's didn't do it in the ‘80s too. We love our cheesy, wannabe white-boy chop-socky flicks. Can you imagine the total insanity if REVENGE OF THE NINJA (1983) had been released in 3-D? World powers would be crushed under the weight of our collective pop-culture ninja feeding frenzy! Hmmm... Perhaps that is why it wasn't made in 3-D. To keep the world safe!

Like a fair amount of Hong Kong period movies that are made without Western audiences in mind, the screenwriters assume you have some knowledge of the class system and government hierarchy in historical China as well as some of the general history and customs. I've done a little reading on the subject, but can't even pretend to be any sort of scholar, so I tend to find these films a little on the confusing side at least until I figure out who’s is kicking whose ass and which one is wearing the white hat (so to speak). Anyone who has had their head spun by the convoluted political machinations of THE SWORDSMAN III: THE EAST IS RED (1993) will understand where I'm coming from.

The stripped-down premise of DYNASTY is this; the Prince of the Emperor, in retaliation for trying to exclude eunuchs from Imperial court politics, has been falsely accused of treason by silver-haired schemer Eunuch Chow (Pai Ying). The corrupt Chow is on the warpath trying to find the Prince and kill him, squashing the “rebellion” once and for all. A master swordsman convinces Chow to let him take over as head general in his army in order to keep him safe, though he gets a little more than he bargains for when Chow puts the moves on him in the bedroom! In reality he is using his position, waiting for the right time to assassinate Chow. As they fend off waves of rebel attackers, they decide to attack a monastery where they think the prince may be hiding. This only serves to piss of Tan Sao Chin (Tan "Flashlegs" Tao-Liang), a tricked-out umbrella wielding badass who has just had it up to *here* with Chow’s villainy and proceeds to stalk him while shaking a bamboo cup filled with coins. From there it’s non-stop action as Tan tries to kill Chow and alternately fend off the assassins Chow sends after him.

Now if there is one thing this movie does right it is making use of the 3-D gimmick. Whether it’s simply shots of armies riding on horseback, thundering toward the camera, shots of conversations through beaded curtains, bell ringing, pot-throwing, kicking, punching or a wide variety of weapons, no opportunity is missed to thrust things in the audience’s faces with gleeful abandon. Cheap? Sure. Fun? Damn right! Chow and his generals fend off assassins firing arrows, assassins throwing bricks, assassins throwing shurikens, assassins throwing spears, assassins with swords and then there's Chow using his silver pinky claw to slice off the scalp an assassin and throw it at the audience! And that’s just in the first 15 minutes!

The film is decidedly low-budget and anyone expecting the technical precision of THE FIVE DEADLY VENOMS (1978) or the over-the-top spectacle of MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1975) is likely to be disappointed. However light in the wallet this movie is, it makes up for it with the sheer volume of action scenes, creative violence, and plenty of locations. Chow’s weapon of choice is a collection of Freddy Krueger-like silver claws that he has on each finger, perfect for slicing, dicing and thrusting straight through the torso of the monk of your choice! Speaking of the monks, after deciding that simple fisticuff isn’t going to cut it, one whips off his top robes and spins them into a fighting staff. At one point Tan is attacked by a group of sword-wielding wanderers by a river. After successfully fending all of them off, they quickly ditch the swords and swap them out for flying guillotines! The budget may look sparse, but without the aid of CGI, they managed to make the 3-D guillotine attacks seriously eye-popping, particularly when the monks arrive to help out Tan, providing plenty of fodder with heads flying off left and right. Not enough for you? There’s plenty more where that came from including a guy who so determined to kick Tan's ass that even after Tan slices off both of his hands, he keeps on fighting! Plus there is a spectacular two-on-one climactic duel on a mountain top with one of the most unique weapons I’ve ever seen in a martial arts film.

The film has it's share of memorable quotes as well, one of my favorites being the one where Chow's younger general is puffing himself up in front of the new guy, after being compared to the older general: “For kung fu, I’m a lot better and as for brains I have twice as many!” I wonder where he kept all of them?

Until recent years the HK film industry has had a total lack of respect for film history and many films have been lost through neglect or in some cases disasters such as fire. Most of the 3-D films are incredibly rare, if they are out there at all, but DYNASTY (aka WARLORD [1977]) can be found transferred from the ultra-rare, short-lived Japanese VHD format and it occasionally runs at festival screenings. While I can't assume that DYNASTY was the first HK martial arts film in 3-D, it was in fact the first HK martial arts film in 3-D and Sensurround, the 8-track analogue precursor to our modern multi-channel surround sound formats such as Dolby Digital and DTS. I imagine this was a pretty mind-blowing experience back in the day and helped overcome the production's budgetary shortcomings.

Although I haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy, director Mei Chung Chang released another rare-as-hell 3-D martial arts film also in 1977 with some of the same cast, titled REVENGE OF THE SHOGUN WOMEN. Apparently the plot concerns a monastery of women who've been raped by bandits and are trained to be lethal fighters, so they can take their revenge against the evil bastards. If DYNASTY is any indication, SHOGUN WOMEN should be quite the find.

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