The Anonymous Heroes

Reviewed by YTSL

David Chiang (AKA John Chiang).  Ti Lung.  Chang Cheh.  Lau Kar Leung (AKA Liu Chia-Liang).  These are individuals whose names are familiar to even those Hong Kong film fans, like myself, who are not particularly well versed with regards to Shaw Brothers movie details and lore.  And while it is true enough that this might partly be the result of one’s having viewed some of these folks’ post 1970s, non-Shaw Brothers output (which include, in the case of Ti Lung, the first two “A Better Tomorrow”s, “People’s Hero”, “Drunken Master II” and “The Kid”), it is on their earlier works -- most of which have not been legitimately plus widely accessible for decades -- that a great bulk of their exalted reputations rest.

David Chiang and Ti Lung
It thus was with a certain high level of anticipation that I decided to check out THE ANONYMOUS HEROES; and this not least since Celestial Pictures was hawking this Shaw Brothers re-release as a 1971 top ten box office hit as well as prime example of the work of not just one but, instead, all four of these HK movie legends.  At the same time though, on account of my not being unaware that that which had David Chiang (as “a red blooded man of action” named Meng Kang) and Ti Lung (as another fight loving individual who Meng Kang addressed as elder brother Tieh) as its lead actors, Chang Cheh as its director plus Lau Kar Leung as its co-action choreographer (along with Tang Chia) has been getting a negative as well as lukewarm reception from some quarters, I also tried to mentally brace myself for the possibility that there would be components of the offering that might not be to my liking.
Ku Feng and Cheng Li
This I think I was successful in doing for the most part.  Alternatively, I have to admit to feeling insufficiently prepared for this circa 1926-1927 “post-Chinese revolution adventure of rebels battling against warlords” turning out to be less of an intense kung fu flick than an often blithe-feeling (and, accordingly, not all that emotionally involving), brawl-style action effort.  On a positive note, this state of affairs made it so that David Chiang could be revealed to have a very winning cheeky smile and grin -- plus near irrepressibly carefree, cock-of-the-walk persona -- while Ti Lung struck me, plainly and simply, as having been a truly handsome hunk of a young man.  Indeed, these two actors’ combined charm offensive, along with a conveyed sense of being utterly comfortable as a star pair, went a long way towards making the extremely male-centric THE ANONYMOUS HEROES -- whose lively but still largely useless main female character’s role was described by Po Fung (a Hong Kong film critic whose interview is one of the DVD’s extras) as being “to helplessly love [that of] David Chiang” -- as watchable for me as it was.
If truth be told though, my preference would have been for THE ANONYMOUS HEROES -- whose titular characters are specifically pointed out at one stage of the movie as being Meng Kan, Tieh and Cheng Li’s Pepper -- to have been far less jocular acting.  In fact, this trio’s behavior was apt to come across as annoyingly childish as well as casual (rather than cute or even commendably gung ho), and thoroughly ill-befitting of the volunteer dissidents that they effectively became post meeting with a mature military man turned Kuomintang activist named Wan (portrayed by Ku Feng).  Especially in light of their assigned mission -- one that involved stealing 3000 new rifles and 280,000 rounds of ammunition from the 3rd Division forces that was under the command of Marshall Chin (who Ching Miao essayed) and transporting it all some miles south to Nanjing (which appears in the English subtitles as “South City”) and into the hands of Wan’s deputy (Chen Shang is played by Cheng Lui) and other comrades there -- being a formidable plus serious one, it all seemed rather ridiculous, inexplicable and inappropriate for there to frequently be such a playful air about them (and to the film as a whole).
Another aspect of THE ANONYMOUS HEROES that I found distractingly problematic was its being too easily obvious that quite a few sections of the work’s exterior scenes had actually been shot indoors.  Perhaps this thirty something year old movie’s technical weaknesses would have been less obvious to contemporary audiences as well as those down the years who could only view copies of it that were less clear and clean than that which has come about from Celestial’s digital restoration efforts.  Also in the interest of fairness, here’s stating that the costumes worn -- and many of the props utilized -- by the extra-filled film’s cast were generally far from shabby or cheap, and consequently pretty impressive, looking.
Lee Wan Chung, Cheng Miao, Fung Hark-on, Chen Sing
Additionally, although the scenes in THE ANONYMOUS HEROES that involved a train had not struck me as being well staged but not all that especially remarkable when I viewed them, I have since learnt -- via Po Kung’s comments re them -- that they might well have been among the first in a Hong Kong movie to feature such a vehicle together with a chase scene that had the pursuers of it doing so on horseback (in the style of Hollywood Westerns).  What with my having recently viewed similar scenes in the released-in-1992 “Shanghai Heroic Story” (plus being able to recall the presence of action scenes involving a train in other efforts like the partially Lau Kar Leung directed “Drunken Master II”), it appears that these original ones were very successful in having captured the imagination of other Hong Kong film makers as well as the audience of such works.

My rating for this film: 5.5

Reviewed by Yves Gendron

As part of Chang Cheh’s famed early seventies “Blood Brothers’ cycle that showcased the deadly duo of David Chiang and Ti Lung, this 1971 production ANONYMOUS HEROES is notably different from its fellow brethren in two crucial ways. First, it’s much lighter in tone with its two stars playing out their roles like two exuberant rascals.  Second, instead of being a swordplay drama or angst-filled k-f pot-boiler like the other blood brother movies, ANONYMOUS HEROES with it’s sporadic gun-fights, it’s war-like setting and it’s train wagon chase plays more as a romp by mishmashing film genres which were highly popular in the sixties and seventies; the American Western, the Italian Spaghetti Western as well as the WWII caper movie (like THE DIRTY DOZENS or GUNS FROM NAVARRO)

In the war-torn nineteen twenties China, ruthless warlord Chin (Ching Miao) has received a shipment of 3000 powerful rifles which will make his army an invincible force. This does not sit well with undercover revolutionary agent Wan (Ku Feng) who recruits local hot-tempered men of action Meng Kang (David Chiang) and Tieh (Ti Lung) to attempt a daring caper aimed at stealing the weapons. With the help of Meng and Tieh’s feisty female friend Pepper (Cheng Li) they manage to accomplish the deed but afterward they have to escape the clutches of Warlord Chin’s troops that are sent after them. So now the question is; will they manage to succeed in their mission and live to tell the tale afterwards?

Chang Cheh may have been a master at martial art filmmaking, but with this would be western/war movie inspired action caper he unfortunately delivered what could be best described as an under-achievement. The film’s first third is actually not so bad as it establishes both the characters and situation in a smooth, amusing light-hearted way. It’s afterward however that things get spoiled with first a tedious and dull twenty-minute long section in which disguised as officers Chiang and company manage to remove the rifles.  Then there is an extended train chase sequence in which the action bits look largely forced and clunky. In a way, the film feels as if Chang Cheh had been merely commissioned to direct this would-be caper movie and besides lacking the means and the expertise to deliver the goods he also lacked any real affinity with the material he was given to do it any justice and therefore delivered pretty much a lame duck.

At least, both David Chiang and Ti Lung look good in stolen army uniforms and their genial enthusiastic rogue characters as well as the brawls they engage in during the first and final third section save the film from been a complete dud. Quite evidently Chang Cheh knew where the strength of his movie was; not in any big stunt or convoluted plotting but in the charisma and action delivered  by his stars. Usually, of course in most of the Blood Brother movies Chiang played the cocky suave dude while Ti Lung was the tormented brooder. This time though, Ti too has some fun playing a rogue albeit a simpler one than Chiang, who once again as in the other Blood movies is the pivotal character.

Shaw Brother actress Cheng Li is the third billed star in the movie. Although she’s given a terrific introduction as a feisty girl who even Chiang, and Ti Lung are intimated by, but afterwards (except for bringing some needed car trucks) she hardly does anything and she is restricted to the typical flower vase role. This is of course hardly surprising considering that Cheng Cheh was well known to have little use for women characters even as a romantic interest, as the crucial relationships in his films were actually between his male leads. So if she is of so little actual use why have her as the third billed star? Well, although the glorious days of female dominance were coming to a close at the dawn of the seventies, the door wasn’t closed yet, so to add Cheng Li, who was a big young female star at the time, was probably thought a savvy commercial move. She was even probably cast in the movie by the Shaw bosses before Chang Cheh and Ni Kuang (his regular screen-writer), had written the script.  At least they gave her some character and at least one or two meaty moments.

If the wagon-train pursuit is reminiscent of a western and the heroes disguised as enemy military officers feels taken from a WWII caper movie, the easy going exuberant nature of the heroes and their relationship both between them and with the girl appears to be taken out from the western classic BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (69), or so say the two pundits speaking on the ANONYMOUS HEROES DVD commentary track, Stefan Hammond and Miles Wood. That both film heroes meet a similar blaze of glory fate reinforces this point. Despite what the commentators say however ANONYMOUS HEROES owed nothing to Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME THE REVOLUTION (also known as FISTFUL OF DOLLARS or GET DOWN YOU SUKA) as it was released in 1972 quite some time after Chang Cheh’s film.

There are some interesting miscellaneous tidbits about ANONYMOUS HEROES that may be of interest to regular H-K movie fans. Ku Feng who plays a heroic revolutionary in ANONYMOUS would fifteen years later play the ruthless ticketing chief officer fighting revolutionaries in Tsui Hark’s classic PEKING OPERA BLUES; a film which by the way did manage unlike ANONYMOUS HEROES to fully assimilate its many Western cinema influences. Cheng Li is the real life daughter of character actor Cheng Miao who plays the ruthless warlord in the film, but they have no scenes together. Cheng Miao had already played the warlord at least once in the very first patented Blood Brother movie VENGEANCE (70). In that same movie Yuen Woo Ping and his younger brother Cheung-yan appeared briefly as the warlord bodyguards. In ANONYMOUS they put on army uniforms once again appearing as two drunken officers who are beaten by Chiang early in the film. Besides the Yuen’s, Lau Kar-wing, Fung Hark-on and gangly stunt man Hon Gwok-choi are briefly glimpsed while the future Charles Bronson of Asia, Chan Sing, has a small part as he usually did in Blood Brother movies.

Despite being a rather clunky movie, ANONYMOUS wasn’t a dud at all at the box-office and ranked fifth on the local movie chart, as the viewing public was still under the magnetic spell of the Chiang/Ti Lung heroic pairing. This wasn’t to last long much longer though, as six months later the meteoric sensation Bruce Lee would appear and would change H-K martial art cinema forever and become the one adversary the deadly duo could not defeat.

On average, Chang Cheh made between 4 to 5 films a year. Under such a rapid production rate it’s perfectly understandable that he occasionally made some lesser movies and with its clunky action bits and sloppy superficial plotting ANONYMOUS HEROES is one of them. Still, it remains an overall decently crafted movie which has some moments, such as the friendly brawl between Chiang and Ti Lung in which they demolish their abode in the process, the couple of brawls done inside a gambling den and of course the final fight where our trio try to bayonet their way out of a desperate situation. A lame duck perhaps, but good enough as mild entertainment.

My rating for this film: 6.0