J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Chang Cheh at the Quad: Vengeance


Who is more dangerous to cross, a Guoju Opera star or a Kabuki actor? Judging from the cinematic evidence, neither is a high percentage play. Kon Ichikawa’s Revenge of a Kabuki Actor is like steak tartar, cold, elegant, and rich, whereas Chang Cheh’s early Republican revenge drama is like a seared but still bloody T-bone, yet they are both nourishing and satisfying. In this case, David Chiang is rather peeved over the gruesome murder of his older brother in Chang’s Vengeance, which screens as part of the Quad’s current retrospective, Vengeance is His: Chang Cheh’s Martial Lore, co-presented by the New York Asian Film Festival.

Frustrated by his wife’s ill-concealed dalliance with local martial arts power broker Feng Kaishan, Guan Yulou crashes his school, humiliating the master in front of his students. Feng maybe had it coming, but he still rounds up fifty or sixty students and gangsters to ambush Guan in his favorite tea-house. They cut him to shreds, but Guan still manages to take out two dozen or so attackers, before getting his eyes gauged out, which gets us about fifteen minutes into the film.

Soon thereafter, Guan Xiaolu shows up, looking to avenge his brother, because that’s the name of the film. First, he pays a call on his sister-in-law Hua Zhengfen to express his slight disappointment in her behavior. Then he pops by to visit her estranged sister, Hua Zhengfang, an old flame, who is definitely down with Team Guan. With the help of her information and candlelit suppers, the younger Guan will track down the mobbed-up Feng and his co-conspirators in the local government.

This film means business, just like Guan Xiaolu. There is a heck of a lot of that infamous bright crimson Shaw Brothers stage-blood getting splashed around here. It is definitely a martial arts movie, but the action falls into two extremes: gritty back-alley knife fighting and the refined acrobatic stage performances of Guan Yulou—the ratio is about one hundred to one, in favor of the former. However, Chang rather stylishly intersperses flashbacks to Yulou’s performances amid the carnage of Xiaolu’s throw-downs. In fact, it is sufficiently artistic to make Vengeance a worthy double-feature pairing with Ichikawa’s Kabuki Actor.

Frankly, Vengeance is right up there with Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires as one of Chiang’s coolest movies. He is terrific as the driven, no-screwing-around Guan Xiaolu. Ku Feng chews the scenery with sinister élan while getting his butt kicked sideways as the lecherous Feng. Ti Lung also shows some tremendous physicality as the short-lived Guan brother, whereas Alice Au Yin-ching makes quite the deliciously catty femme fatale as Zhengfen.

There is no bait-and-switch or tiresome attempts at subtlety here. It is all payback, all the time, yet it happens to be one of the more visually stylish films of the Chang retrospective. What more can you ask for? Very highly recommended, Vengeance screens tomorrow (5/26) and Monday (5/28), as part of Chang Cheh’s Martial Lore at the Quad.

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