Vengeance!



Reviewed by Yves Gendron

The theme of vengeance lies at the very heart of Hong Kong kung fu cinema. Heck, it was even dubbed "Cinema of Vengeance". It is so completely prevalent in fact and so crudely applied at times that it is usually taken as something of a derisive cliché even by the genre regulars. It's your usual  "You killed my father/brother/master NOW YOU DIE". With this 1970 Shaw Brother pot boiler production titled well...  VENGEANCE, less levity would be in order however - as not only the theme of vengeance is being displayed at its strongest and purest here but also as the very first of the "Blood Brothers" movies by martial art cinema masterful director Chang Cheh that paired David Chiang and Ti Lung. It's a major watershed movie of the then nascent kung fu genre and remains a damn good movie to this day.

Ti Lung and David Chiang
In Shanghai during the days of the early Republic (1911-48), hot tempered Peking Opera actor Kuan Yu-lou (Ti Lung) is infuriated by the sight of gang boss Feng Kai-sheng (Ku Feng) flirting with his beautiful but flighty actress wife and Kuan lets him know of his displeasure by ransacking the martial art school Feng owns and beating-up his boys. In retaliation Feng plots Kuan’s murder which is encouraged and sanctioned by all the local bigwigs - rich man Chin Chieh-kuan, corrupt police captain Kao and the powerful local warlord who has his own sights on Kuan's wife. Kuan is ambushed in a teahouse and dies after a savage bloody battle. Shortly afterwards Kuan's brother Kuan- Hou-yu (David Chiang) also a Peking Opera actor comes back from the south with the steely resolve to avenge his brother’s death and he has the fighting skills as well as the canniness to back-up his plans, with the help of his love the beautiful Hua Chang-Feng  (Wang Ping).
Ti Lung and Ku Feng
VENGEANCE could be rightfully considered as one of Chang Cheh’s sharpest directorial efforts ever as he used the settings, cinematography, music and sound effects to create a heavily claustrophobic, tension-filled, moody atmosphere of gloom, menace and tragedy which regularly explodes into action scenes of raw, furious mayhem, performed for the most part as whirlwind like bloody operatic brawls. Occasionally however a sad melancholic mood sets in with sweet jazz tunes for quiet, tender scenes between David Chiang and his sweetheart. Chang makes ample use of graceful, lingering camerawork such as pan and travelling, running across the scenery making an organic whole of the entire space, which further increases both the tension and the atmosphere. Chang however also used further stylistic tricks for the same purpose. There are plenty of slow motions in the action scenes for example. Halfway through Ti Lung’s ambush, the scene switches from colour to black and white. Also during the ambush, there are impromptu flashbacks of Ti Lung performing an opera fight where his character is grievously hurt yet continued to fight on as he does in the teahouse ambush. All this contributes to making the scene even more dramatically haunting.
Of course, the film’s appeal does not just lie in its cinematic gracefulness; the intense charisma of its top performers is just as crucial. Furious, majestic, Ti Lung first, then David Chiang and lets not forget Wang Ping who plays the sweet yet determined Hua Cheng Feng, who flirts superbly in order to get close to one of the killers. Both Ti Lung and Chang were sensibly different heroes from their martial predecessor Wang Yu - much less stoic and far more expressive. Chiang is especially - intense and grim certainly but with his peculiar, slightly scholarly look and a floating mane of hair. Something of an effete, romantic leading man, one however who unlike all other traditionally wimpy characters of this sort could kick major ass, slit a throat or pierce a heart without blinking. Yet for all his single-mindedness of purpose and ruthlessness, he still was a tender, melancholic lover. In a way he was a precursor to the likes of Tony Leung Chiu-wai as well as Leslie Cheung in their action parts, except of course that unlike them his action skills were real.  Needless to say this was a new, fantastic novelty for the audience at the time. Chiang won an acting award for his part in a regional film festival, and it made him a top martial star during the first half of the seventies.
The movie may actually suffer from one drawback though - the plot is perhaps a bit too convenient for the avenging hero, almost to the point of being too obviously contrived. For example, after killing one of his targets in a hotel David Chiang uses the elevator and the front entrance to get out of the premise without much trouble even though his victim’s men swarmed around all over the place. Also, a couple of characters are bluntly dispatched once their narrative usefulness is ended so as to close a plot thread. The film is also quite slowly paced at times with many moments of silences and dramatic stops. Some may say that it makes the film a bit dull in places but it does serve the purpose of increasing the dramatic tension and atmosphere.

At the time Chang Cheh made VENGEANCE, he already had nearly a dozen swordplay films under his belt as well as a couple of gangster movies like DEAD END. He then somehow mixed up the two together and thus created a new breed of martial art movie the likes of which had never been seen before. It was not quite a kung fu movie however (a term that would not get coined for two more two years in the USA when the Bruce Lee movies were all the rage), more like a prototypical version of it, with swords, daggers and hatchets instead of fists and no emphasis on the fighting art in itself. It had many of those characteristics however like a Republican era setting, an emphasis on raw physical combats and the prominence of the vengeance theme. While vengeance was indeed a major plot point in earlier martial movies, these tended to be more like empowering fantasy where the stoic heroes stood-up and fought back against oppressors.

Wang Ping, Chiang and Ku Feng
With VENGEANCE however, perhaps for the first time, an angst-filled enraged hero was aggressively going after an adversary who was the object of his anger. Who these targets were in VENGEANCE was most significant: a gang boss, a rich landowner, a corrupt police officer and a warlord. These types in the good old Republican day tramped over the common people as if they were only ants to be crushed and there is a crucial cathartic scene when the David Chiang character has his foot on the neck of his top level enemy, and asks him who he is. There can be no greater vindication/gratification for an avenging hero then to force an oppressor to acknowledge him. And while the movie was set in Republican times, it had a most contemporary ring to it with the notable exception of the warlord. The sorts of villains VENGEANCE’ s hero had to deal with - thugs, corrupt cops, rich people, were still alive and well within modern Chinese society, making the need and catharsis for revenge quite intimately felt by the viewing public.
VENGEANCE’ s tale prominently features Peking opera which is quite fitting considering that with it’s mixture of operatic-like action and intense drama, the film pretty much works as a sort of cinematic derivative of Peking opera itself. That the Kuan brothers were opera actors was equally significant as they went, in their actions, against the established tradition that actors passively accepted oppression (tradition seen in such films as Chen Kaige’s FARWELL MY CONCUBINE) and it created a link between the VENGEANCE protagonists and the legendary sword heroes of the past featured in Chinese operas - a point further emphasised of course by the flashbacks done during Ti Lung’s ambush as well as David Chiang’s introductory scene.
Chen Kuan Tai, Chiang and Fung Hark-onn
At the beginning of this review VENGEANCE was actually called the first “blood brothers” movie, which were a series of angst-filled, bloody martial dramas by Chang Cheh pairing David Chiang and Ti Lung together, but actually that's half the truth. Yes, Chiang and Ti Lung are in the same movie and do play brothers but Ti Lung is dispatched 20 minutes into the movie and except for a still photo and a brief flashback they have no scenes together. Regardless, the film most definitively cemented Chang Cheh’s cinematic style and themes with which he would continue for nearly a decade - well after his "blood brothers" period was over - until the later part of the seventies with his "Venom” films when his work would get more gimmicky than tragic heroic. But because Ti Lung and Chiang were not together, instead of Chang Cheh’s usual male bonding theme, Chiang’s crucial on screen relationship was with his sweetheart.  Contemporary western viewers may find these scenes where the two are together quite slow and dull but they do anchor Chiang’s character as a caring lover instead of a mere killing machine, and it enhance the drama as the audience figures out that of course they are not destined to live happily ever after.
VENGEANCE’s fight choreography is being credited partially to Chang Cheh regular choreographer Tang Chia but instead of his usual partner Lau Kar-leung, some fellow credited as Yuan Xiangen has taken his place. Where was Lau at the time, who is this Yuan fellow (who doesn't seem to be credited anywhere else) and if had any relationship with the famed Yuen clan is not know. Many of the Yuen brothers can be actually glimpsed in the movie however including Yuen Shun-Yi (a gambling henchman in the hotel hall), Yuen Woo Ping and Yuen Cheung-yan (as uniformed guards), as well as a couple of unknown Yuens who this reviewer did not recognise.  Tang Chia and the Yuen brothers had a special relationship as Tang was their fathers (famed Peking Opera performer and future DRUNKEN MASTER titular character Simon Yuen Siu Tien) favourite student and thus their own "elder brother". At least some of them, including Yuen Woo-Ping, worked as his top assistant. Other recognisable faces are the future "Charles Bronson of Asia" Chang Sing as a sniper, future kung fu star Chen Kuan Tai seen sporting a moustache and guarding a door before being killed, and future bad guy Fung Ark-onn as a henchmen at the very end of the film.

In conclusion, it should be well remembered that VENGEANCE is most definitively not like the balletic kung fu extravaganzas created by Jackie, Sammo and the Venoms but feels more like the heroic bloodshed movies that John Woo would do in the late eighties. Unfortunately, seventies kung fu movies are not as well appreciated or remembered as heroic gun plays and are to this day widely seen just as somewhat silly chopsockies by many. A sole viewing of VENGEANCE however would be enough to convince nearly anyone of the utter fancifulness of such presumptions. For no matter the age, the poor preservation or the horrid dubbing that one may come across, the films pure tragically dramatic heart as well as it's burning hot action are both still so massively powerful to this day that even the most jaded contemporary viewer ought to be quite engrossed by this movie as it truly deserves to be.

 Rating: 8.0

Trailer